“You can do it. We can help.”
Home Depot’s former slogan makes a lot of sense when you’re standing in the hardware aisle or comparing shades of paint. It makes no sense if we seek to apply it to our spiritual lives.
I suspect that many of Christ’s followers treat the gospel as a point of entry rather than a lifestyle. The gospel provides us a “get-out-of-Hell-free” card, but after that we’re on our own. In so doing, we downgrade the gospel from “good news” to good advice. Our spiritual lives become a series of religious projects and social causes that punctuate lives otherwise dominated by youth sports and the drone of the workweek. For many Christians, having secured our heavenly destiny, our earthly goals could best be summarized as being “nice” to people and looking to God from time to time. We favor sermons and Christian books that affirm our own “inner wonderfulness” and seem to promise that God is here to help you realize your dreams of being nice to people and living a life as free of trouble as possible. In so doing we’ve come to embrace a gospel built on Home-Depot-theology: “You can do it; He can help.”
“WHILE WE WERE SINNERS…”
New Testament Christianity will have nothing of this. This is, in fact, one of the most prominent themes that Paul emphasizes in his writings—particularly in his letter to the Romans. In Romans 5, he summarizes the gospel this way:
5:6 – For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Our English text does little to expose the true severity of our situation. The word “weak” here could better be translated as “powerless,” meaning that on our own we have no ability, no hope within ourselves.
So even for Paul, this seems utterly backwards. Sure, he admits, people might risk their life for someone who really, really deserves it. But you and I are far from a “good” or “righteous” person. Paul describes us as not only “weak” but also “ungodly” and a group of “sinners.”
That’s what makes the gospel all the more shocking. Jesus chose to give His life in the place of people like you and me. This is a far cry from saying that “you can do it,” and it’s not enough to say that “He can help.” Jesus did more than help. He took our place. He bore our sins. He bore our shame.
Because of this, Paul uses this section of his letter to highlight a series of benefits of knowing Christ.
I often hear from people who tell me that they struggle to find any real benefit in following Jesus in the here and now. In some ways, this is a valid point; the greatest joy comes later when we see Jesus face to face, a point that Paul makes elsewhere in his letters. But this is not to say that the gospel has no immediate implications. On the contrary, we’re tempted to treat the gospel as elementary when we should be treating it as elemental. Pastor and author Tim Keller puts it this way: The gospel is not just the ABC’s of the Christian faith, but the A through Z of the Christian life.
If we pick apart Romans 5:1-11 just a bit, we’ll find that Paul emphasizes at least five benefits of being justified—that is, being “declared righteous:”
(1) FORGIVENESS (5:1A)
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith…” (Romans 5:1a)
In every real sense, justification is its own benefit. Our first and primary experience of knowing Jesus is also to know that our sins have been forgiven.
(2) A NEW RELATIONSHIP (5:1B-2, 11)
“…we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. .. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:1b-2, 11)
The language here sounds almost like the “peace” after a great war, and that’s not at all far from the truth. In verse 10 Paul declares us “enemies” prior to being brought near to God in a new relationship. Because we are justified and declared righteous, we can have a new relationship with God.
(3) HOPE AMIDST DESPAIR (5:3-5A)
“3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame…” (Romans 5:3-5a)
Paul was well aware that Christ’s followers would continually find themselves at odds with the world. But, he says, we have reason to rejoice. If Christ has defeated sin and death, if we have received God’s approval through the justifying work of the Son, then what have we left to fear? For the Christian, hope replaces fear and despair, and hope will also produce a steadfast character even amidst life’s storms.
(4) THE INDWELLING HOLY SPIRIT (5:5B)
“because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5b)
The greatest benefit of all is God Himself—namely, the Spirit who is with us always. What greater benefit could there be than to have God with us at all times?
(5) FREEDOM FROM CONDEMNATION (5:9-10)
“9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For 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.” (Romans 5:9-10)
Finally, because we have been forgiven and declared righteous, we can be confident that we are totally free of God’s anger toward our sin. It has already been dealt with through the cross. And if God forgives us, if God declares us righteous, then we have no reason to continually beat ourselves up about falling short. Now, Paul will have more to say in regard to growing in Christian character, to be sure, but too often we flee from God fearing we disappoint Him with our habitual sins. Paul tells us that we are saved from His wrath, we are reconciled, we are saved. We don’t need to run from His condemnation; we are privileged to run toward His forgiveness.
ANGELS NEVER GET BORED
In the first of his letters, Peter tells his readers that the prophecies about Jesus and His future glory are “things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:12). Peter, of course, had personally witnessed the fulfillment of the prophecies concerning Christ’s suffering, but Christ’s future glory had yet to take place. The full unfolding of God’s plan was something that captivated the hearts of the angels themselves. So, too, might you and I find ourselves captivated by the good news brought forth through Jesus.
Angels never get bored with the gospel. And neither should we.