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Worship Guide

Colloquially, religion is often synonymous with morality. When people reference major world religions, regardless of how much they know about the ins and outs of the faith, there is an awareness that each aims for morality in its own way. But the foundation of the Christian faith is one person — Jesus — bearing wrongs he did not commit. It’s God justifying the ungodly. Isn’t that wrong? Isn’t that immoral? Watch this sermon as we consider the morality of the gospel.

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    Over the last several months, we have been engaged in a sermon series in which we have been exploring some of the contemporary challenges to the Christian faith in order to determine if Christianity is good for you and good for the world. Today, as we bring this series to the conclusion, I'd like to ask a question that at first might strike you as a little strange. And yet, it's an essential question if we want to determine whether or not Christianity is, in fact, good. Here's the question: Is Christianity immoral? That's probably not the question that you were expecting. Let me explain what I mean by this.

    The Episcopal priest and author Fleming Rutledge has written that Christianity is unique. The world religions have many traits in common. But until the gospel of Jesus Christ broke out into the Mediterranean world, no one in the history of human imagination had ever conceived of the idea of worshiping a crucified man. We tend to think that the purpose of religion is to provide a little inspiration or spiritual uplift or practical guidance in order to address our needs or to satisfy our longings or to calm our fears. But if you stop and think about it, nothing could be more irreligious than a man who has been put to death on a cross. Rutledge writes,

    “The peculiarity of this beginning for a world-transforming faith is not sufficiently acknowledged. Too often, today’s Christians are lulled into thinking of their own faith as one of the religions, without realizing that the central claim of Christianity is oddly irreligious at its core.”

    There's more to it than that. The basic Christian message is not only that Jesus died but that somehow, mysteriously, Jesus died in our place, as our substitute, for our sins. That's why people object and say, “That's immoral. It's wrong for someone else to bear the blame for something that I did. I'm responsible for my own actions. It would be wrong for someone else to have to pay for my sins.” Do you see the question? Is Christianity immoral? In order to answer that question, I'd like us to turn to Romans 5, and as we do, I'd like us to explore 1) the symptoms of the human condition, 2) the cause of the human condition, and 3) the remedy for the human condition.

    6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

    The Symptoms Of The Human Condition

    First, let's consider the symptoms of the human condition, and specifically one symptom in particular. What's a common symptom of the human condition? I could illustrate it like this. “Brideshead Revisited” is a novel about a self-proclaimed atheist named Charles Ryder and his rather tumultuous relationship with the affluent Flyte family, who happen to be devout Christians. I'd like to read the opening lines of the film adaptation of this book. This isn't actually from the novel — it's from the film adaptation — but it captures the spirit of it. This is how the film opens.

    “If you asked me now who I am, the only answer I could give with any certainty would be my name: Charles Ryder. For the rest: my loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires, I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those I once so desperately wished to be. On second thought, one emotion remains my own. Alone among the borrowed and the second-hand, as pure as that faith from which I am still in flight: Guilt.”

    It's interesting, isn't it? We live in a modern world in which we assume, “God is dead,” they say. In the modern world where God is dead, then so should Christian morals be, right? If God is dead, there are no moral absolutes, and therefore we shouldn't feel guilty about anything. And yet, we do. We're told that guilt is unhealthy and a destructive result of hyperactive religiosity. But if there is no God, then there's no reason for guilt. And yet despite what people say, a sense of guilt seems to be an ever-present aspect of our experience, even within a postmodern world.

    Wilfred McClay is a historian who teaches at the University of Oklahoma, and years ago he wrote an essay titled "The Strange Persistence of Guilt." He observes that guilt has not just remained in our modern world, but in some senses it has grown — even metastasized. And yet, at the same time, we've lost the categories to be able to make sense of guilt and the means to escape it.

    Interestingly, this is also the central theme of another popular novel, “The Kite Runner.” “The Kite Runner” is a gripping story about an Afghani man named Amir who is a nominal Muslim. At the age of 12, he witnesses an assault upon a boyhood friend, but he does nothing to stop it. The image of that event is burned into his memory, even 26 years later. At one point, the character says this,

    “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.”

    As a result of his haunting memory, he questions if there is a way to be good again. This leads him to wonder if there is perhaps a God after all. The strange persistence of guilt.

    Of course, it's true that sometimes we feel guilty even though we haven't done anything wrong. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between feelings of guilt and true moral guilt. You might be among those people who tends to apologize for everything, even though you haven't done anything wrong. Part of what you need to learn to do is simply stop saying, “I'm sorry.” But on the other hand, sometimes we feel guilty because we should, but we're told not to worry because we aren't really guilty. Some attempt to discredit this feeling of guilt as a repressive emotion that should be downplayed or perhaps ignored. And yet we still feel guilty, even if we don't know why or to whom we are accountable.

    One of the unique features of modern life is the interconnectedness of all things, which makes us ever more aware of the needs of people around us and ever more aware of the things that we could do to help. We're aware that there's more and more that we could do to feed the hungry or to house the homeless, and yet no matter how much we might try to do, it will never actually be enough. McClay puts it like this:

    “Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless.

    Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation — there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap. To be found blameless is a pipe dream, for the demands on an active conscience are literally as endless as an active imagination’s ability to conjure them…

    Indeed, when any one of us reflects on the brute fact of our being alive and taking up space on this planet, consuming resources that could have met some other, more worthy need, we may be led to feel guilt about the very fact of our existence."

    The strange persistence of guilt.

    The Cause Of The Human Condition

    Let me turn from the symptom to the cause. If guilt is a quintessential aspect of our human condition, what's the underlying problem? Many people today would say that we should dismiss any and all feelings of guilt because our core problem is simply low self-esteem. We don't love ourselves unconditionally enough. We don't see ourselves as the unique and special beings that we are, and to a certain extent, that may be true. But Christianity suggests that our biggest problem is not our self-esteem but our sin.

    The reason why we feel guilt is because we are guilty. We're culpable. We're blameworthy. We're responsible for our actions. The theologian Cornelius "Neal" Plantinga, defines sin like this. He says,

    “All sin has first and finally a Godward force. Let us say that a sin is any act — any thought, desire, emotion, word, or deed – or its particular absence, that displeases God and deserves blame … In the Bible, to sin is to miss the target, to wander from the path, to stray from the fold … To sin is to overstep a line or else to fail to reach it; that is, sin is either transgression or shortcoming [rebellion or failure]. These and other images tell us that, in a biblical view of the world, sin is a familiar, even predictable, part of life, but it is not normal. And the fact that ‘everybody does it’ doesn’t make it normal.”

    If that is too technical of a definition for sin, you could try this one. This is a British author named Francis Spufford, who simply defines sin as the human potential to mess things up — although he uses a little more colorful language than that. But no matter how we define it, we have to see that there is a Godward force to sin. Any and all sin is ultimately an offense against God. Why is that? If there is a God who made us, who knows us, who loves us, then he knows how life works best. When we violate his design, we not only break his law, but worse, we break his heart.

    Tim Keller once borrowed this illustration from a speaker in Australia. Imagine a woman who loses her husband and is left with nothing, and she has to raise her son all on her own. She teaches him to tell the truth, to work hard, to give back to the community. And even though they don't have much money, she works two jobs and scrapes by to be able to save enough in order to send him off to college. When he graduates, he lands a dream job. He does everything that his mother had ever hoped he would. He's honest, he's hardworking, and he's generous. There's just one problem: He never speaks with his mother. He might send her a card on her birthday, but other than that he never calls, he never writes, he never visits. He is a good person. He's not breaking any laws. And yet everything within us cries out saying that that's wrong. It's wrong that he never speaks with his mom, because he owes everything he has and everything he is to her.

    We are that son. We've racked up an insurmountable debt against God that we could never pay back because everything we are, everything we have is a gift from his hand. And therefore when we fail to love him, when we fail to give him the respect and the honor that he deserves, we wrong him. And therefore a debt is owed. And yet the wonder of wonders is that God cancels the debt that is held against us by absorbing it into himself.

    This brings us to the very heart of the gospel. Here in the fifth chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans, Paul puts the gospel in its most radical form. If we were to ask, “For whom did Jesus die?” you might answer by saying, “Jesus died for the good, for the descent, for the worthy, for the deserving, for the grateful.” But no. That would be the religious answer. That's not what Paul says. In verse 6, Paul tells us, “Christ died for the ungodly.”

    Christianity is nothing like the other religions. Religion in general is about becoming more godly, more religious, more spiritual, more pious. It's one thing for God to willingly subject himself to death; it’s another to die for the ungodly. Who are these ungodly people? There are only ungodly people in this room this morning. The ungodly includes us all. It includes both you and me. Notice Paul writes, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Jesus didn't just die for those who don't think they need forgiveness, but rather he died for those who know that they do.

    Think about how forgiveness works for a moment. C.S. Lewis once suggested that we often mistake forgiving with excusing when it comes to our relationships with others or our relationship with God. We often ask people to excuse us rather than forgive us. When we do that, what we're really doing is offering explanations or laying out extenuating circumstances in order to show that we didn't mean it or that we couldn't help it, and therefore whatever we did should be excused. But if there’s nothing to blame, then there's nothing to forgive. Forgiveness comes into play when there's a little bit left over that can't be excused, that can't be explained away by the extenuating circumstances. That little bit left over is the blameworthy bit that causes us to feel guilt. It's that little bit leftover that must be forgiven precisely because it can't be excused.

    The Remedy For The Human Condition

    If one of the primary symptoms of the human condition is guilt, and the cause is ultimately sin, what's the remedy? What exactly did Jesus' death accomplish? Forgiveness is actually too weak of a word. Forgiveness is too weak. Justification is the word. That's what his death has accomplished, and that is Paul's favorite word. He goes on to say in verse 9, “We have been justified by His blood.”

    It's important to note that justification and righteousness are the same word. They mean the same thing. To be declared righteous means to be declared in the right. It means that you are now in right relationship. There's nothing standing between you now. The relationship has been restored.

    It may be helpful to know that the word justification is a legal term borrowed from the world of the courts. It's the opposite of to condemn. To condemn means to declare guilty; to justify means to declare innocent, to acquit. That's why in the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy 25, for example, God instructs judges to uphold justice by declaring the guilty “guilty,” and declaring the innocent “innocent.” They're called to justify the righteous and to condemn the guilty, and to do anything less than that would represent a serious miscarriage of justice. That's why Proverbs 17 tells us that to declare the guilty “innocent” or the innocent “guilty” would both be reprehensible in God's eyes. And yet this is precisely what God himself does. Romans 4:5 says that God justifies the ungodly, and that's why people object and say, “Christianity is immoral. How can God justify the ungodly? How can he declare the guilty innocent? And is God therefore immoral for justifying the ungodly?”

    The answer is no, and let me explain why. Let's say Joe punches me in the face. (No offense to anyone actually named Joe.) But let's say someone named Joe punches me in the face. Now they have wronged me. That has created an offense. Let's say I receive that offense and I make Jack pay for it. (No offense to anyone named Jack.) Joe punches me in the face. A wrong has been committed, but now I take it out and make Jack pay for what Joe did. That would be wrong. That would be immoral because we're responsible for our own actions. No one else can bear the blame for something that somebody else did.

    Let's say on the other hand, Joe punches me in the face, and rather than retaliating against him, I absorb the offense by forgiving. That's not wrong. That's not immoral. I'm not making somebody else pay for something that Joe did. No, I'm absorbing the offense in order to forgive. That is what God has done for us in Christ. God is not punishing someone else for our offenses against him, but rather God absorbs those offenses in himself in order to forgive. That's why 2 Corinthians 5:19 tells us that in Christ God was reconciling the whole world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.

    How can God justify the ungodly? The way in which it's often described is in terms of a divine exchange, and Paul sums it up in 2 Corinthians 5:21. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Jesus becomes what we are, so that we might become what he is. Jesus, the truly innocent one, becomes guilty with our guilt so that we might become innocent with his innocence. The moment that you put your faith in Christ, two things happen: 1) God declares you to be not guilty, not because of who you are or what you've done, but because of who Jesus is and what he has done for you by his grace. He lived the life we should have lived. He died the death that we deserve to die. 2) But not only that. God not only declares you to be innocent, righteous, not guilty, but he also begins the process of actually transforming you to make you progressively more and more like Jesus himself, the truly innocent one.

    If you're not yet a Christian, this is what you need to know. It doesn't matter who you are. It doesn't matter where you're from. It doesn't matter what you've ever done. God justifies the ungodly. Through simple faith in Jesus we’re united to him so that what is true of him becomes true of us. God takes our guilt and gives us his innocence. He declares us not guilty in his sight. That is what removes the guilt, so that we might become our truest, freest, fullest versions of ourselves.

    If you are already a Christian, what you need to understand is that this passage provides us with assurance — assurance of God's love for us. Perhaps the greatest sin of every human heart is a failure to believe that God actually loves us despite who we are. That was the lie that first passed into the heart of our original parents in the garden. It's the lie that continues to pass down from generation to generation. We simply find it impossible to believe that God could actually love us. Look at the end of this passage, and the assurance that it provides. It tells us that at one time we were enemies of God because of our spiritual rebellion and failure, and yet through the death of Christ on the cross for us, he's transformed enemies into friends. We were once considered ungodly, but now, through the work of Christ, he declares us to be innocent. Do you see the logic of Paul's argument? If Jesus was willing to lay down his life and die for you, when you were an ungodly enemy, how much more now will he shower his love upon you now that he has transformed you into a righteous friend. That is who you are in Christ. And therefore we need to take courage from the assurance that God loves us because he loves us, because he loves us — deeper than anything we could have ever imagined or hoped.

    Let me pray for us.

    Father, we pray that you would help us to consider the symptoms of the human condition and this strange persistence of guilt, which leads us to wonder if perhaps there is someone to whom we are accountable, and if there is some way to escape this feeling. Help us therefore to consider not only the symptom but also the cause — that our deepest problem is our sin, and that there’s always a Godward force to our sin. We thank you for the remedy that you provide through the gospel — that when we were still weak, at just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly, meaning that Christ died for us. Help us to lay hold of that truth and allow it to sink deep into our hearts until we are transformed by it. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.