Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Peace and Hope
1Therefore, since we have been declared innocent through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
9 Since we have now been declared innocent by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
After thinking about a reading from the Gospel of Matthew yesterday, today we go back to Paul’s Letter to the Romans. And as we do, we should probably remind ourselves of a few things we’ve said about Romans in earlier Reflections.
First of all, we’ve said that Romans is considered one of the cornerstones of Protestant theology, because a major theme of Romans is that we’re saved by God’s grace through faith, rather than by performing religious rituals or being more righteous than others. The Protestant Reformation actually began because Martin Luther was in despair, knowing full well that he couldn’t be good enough to pass God’s judgment. But then he discovered in Romans the apostle Paul’s assurance that our salvation is a gift out of God’s gracious love, rather than something we earn by “being good.”
Second, although most translations of Romans say that we’ve been “justified” by Jesus’ death on the cross, we’re substituting the phrase “declared innocent” for “justified.” That’s because the scholars say that’s the real point of what Paul is saying here. As followers of Jesus, God treats us as though we’re innocent, even though we are bound to continue to sin, no matter how hard we try not to.
And we’ve also pointed to another translation issue: Romans is usually translated to say we are saved by faith in Jesus, but some leading scholars say a better translation is that our salvation comes from the faithfulness of Jesus. We’re saved by what he has done, not by anything we do. We don’t even get any credit for believing. God has caused faith to rise in our hearts as a part of ‘declaring us innocent’ – we’re not declared innocent because we believe.
Now in the passage we’re thinking about today, the apostle Paul makes several important points. It would be pretty easy to write a Reflection an hour long on this passage. But two of Paul’s points seem especially worth thinking about.
First of all, Paul writes that “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character, hope.” And this hope, Paul says, is bolstered by the love God sends into our lives through the Holy Spirit.
This might remind you of the places in his letters where Paul uses sports metaphors to describe the life of a disciple of Jesus. He talks about living the life of faith being like running a race. He talks about the importance of focusing on the prize we might win in running our race well. He also talks about the importance of training for our life of faith the way a boxer shadow-boxes in his training.
It might be helpful to remember Paul’s interest in sports when we think about today’s passage from Romans. It seems to me that the point he’s making is that hardships in following Jesus are opportunities to be strengthened in our faith. There’s an old saying about sports training: “No pain, no gain.” I think Paul’s making the point here that the struggles of discipleship can make us stronger disciples – people who are better prepared for God’s service. When we have come through troubles, we have a better grip on how much we’re able to do in God’s service. We can have a stronger “Christian character,” as we might say.
(Our elder Jack Howell actually touched on this idea when he filled in for me as the guest preacher a couple of Sundays ago.)
The other really important point Paul makes in this passage is that Jesus died on the cross for us “while we were still sinners.” Our salvation – God’s verdict of ‘innocent’ – comes to us all while we are still guilty of sin, before we’re done anything to try to become better people as followers of Jesus. So anyone who believes they are going to heaven because they’re living “a good life” – or who says that somebody else is going to hell because they’re not – anyone who thinks that way just doesn’t understand what Paul is saying here about what God did in Jesus.
We’re saved, Paul says, by God’s grace – God’s un-earned favor – not because of any great virtue or righteousness on our part. In fact, we’re saved before we even know enough to try to live according to the life and teachings of Jesus.
Let’s pray. Lord, help us to keep in mind that the faith in our hearts, and the new life we have in Jesus, are gifts from your grace, not achievements on our part. And strengthen us to face with courage the troubles that may come to us during our life of discipleship, knowing that each one is an opportunity to be strengthened for your service as we face it. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 56 and 92; Numbers 17:1-11; and Matthew 20:17-28.)