While We Were Enemies
Nineteen years ago this past Fourth of July, Veronica and I were in Friday Harbor, down on San Juan Island. We visited the little church there on Sunday morning and the Epistle was taken from Romans. In it, Paul had a lot to say about sin and judgement and wrath. The priest began his sermon with an apology. “We don’t like Paul,” he said. (This was the first time it occurred to me that I was probably going to have to leave the Episcopal Church eventually.) “We don’t like Paul, because he didn’t really understand the Gospel,” the priest told us. “Paul was always fixed on sin and judgement and the wrath of God. He was a very confused man.” He went on, thankfully, for only another ten minutes or so, explaining to us where Paul got it wrong and he got it right. This man’s gospel basically boiled down to “God’s nice. You’re nice. Be nice.” He talked about the love of God, but he had no real grasp of God’s love. And a big reason for that was that this priest had stripped God of his righteousness—his faithfulness to deal with sin and with death and to set his creation to rights. There was no room in his thinking for wrath or judgement, because this man was blind to sin and death. Brothers and Sisters, without recognising our own sinfulness and our own part in Creation’s corruption, we can never grasp even the tiniest fraction of the great height and depth and width of God’s love. Without recognising our own sinfulness, God’s love is reduced to a shallow “niceness”. I think of an old friend of mine who described his relationship with God by saying, “I’m okay with God and God’s okay with me”—like two men walking down the street and tipping their hats as they pass.
No, Paul talks about unpleasant things like sin and wrath precisely because he understood the Gospel. And it was because he understood the place of sin and wrath in the scheme of things, he not only appreciated the love of God all the more, but he found in it a means of enduring or preserving through suffering and persecution—even martyrdom—because he had faith-filled hope that what God lovingly started he would, without a doubt, one day complete.
That was the theme of Romans 5:1-5 as we saw last week. We rejoice in the midst of suffering, we endure and, as a result, our faith is tried and true. We live in hope, knowing that the God who gave his own Son as a sacrifice for our sins will not drop the ball and leave us without hope. Just the contrary. He will restore us to the glory for which he created us. And as Paul wrote in verse 5, we’ve been given the Holy Spirit as a sort of down payment on the fulfilment of God’s promise. Already, the Spirit has begun the work of turning our hearts to God, giving us a love for him and helping us to fulfil God’s plan for us.
Now, the reality is that we don’t always live with this kind of hope or this kind of assurance. The reality is that a lot of Christians don’t really have a grasp of just how truly wide and deep the love of God is. Unlike the priest who thought Paul had it all wrong, we’ve got our theology right. We acknowledge that we are sinners and we understand that God judges sin. But we’ve never really thought this through. We’ve never meditated on it. Maybe we’ve never personalised it and really applied it to ourselves. And the result is that we have a shallow understanding of the love of God. The result is that we fail to truly live in faith, giving our full allegiance to Jesus. We come to Church on Sunday, we say our prayers, but ultimately we find our hope and our assurance in things like our jobs, our bank accounts, and our retirement plans. We sing songs on Sunday of our love for God, but our hearts are far from those words.
So let’s look some more at Paul this morning in Romans 5. Paul has something to say about sin and wrath and judgement, but the reason why he writes about these things is because they reveal all the more clearly to us just how great God’s love is. Look at Romans 5:6-8.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Paul begins with that little word “for”. That ties this to verses 1-5. The first five verses tell us “what” and now, here, Paul explains the “how” and, most importantly, the “why”. And he starts out with five things. These are all in verse 6 and I’ll put them in the order that Paul puts them in Greek. First, Paul points us to “Christ”—remember that’s the Greek word for the Messiah. He was the one promised by God who would come and set Creation to rights. So, first, Paul stresses, God has accomplished all of this, he’s fulfilled his promises through Jesus the Messiah—through the King. The second thing he says is that the Messiah did this while we were still weak. Paul’s word for “weak” has the sense of being morally helpless. In ordinary Greek usage it often has the sense of having a debilitating illness. His point is that Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the King came to us. We didn’t come to him. We were helpless. Paul will get to why were helpless in a moment. But first, the third thing he stresses here is that Jesus came to us in our weakness at the right time. Paul doesn’t mean this so much in a chronological sense, but in the sense that Jesus came in God’s timing and in fulfilment of his promises. Fourth, Paul writes that Jesus took this action for the ungodly. Paul’s already stressed this. In Chapter 4 Paul pointed out how the Jews boasted because God had given them the law and separated them from the nations and he explained that the law was no reason to boast—at least not in that sense. God doesn’t seek people out to restore them to himself because they’re Jews. No, God seeks out the ungodly to restore to himself—just as he did with Abraham. He stressed that this is God’s business: seeking out the ungodly—seeking out those who are in rebellion against him, who worship false gods and idols, who sin. He’s in the business of restoring ungodly people to his presence and to their vocation as his image bearers. So, Jesus the Messiah came when we were helpless and weak, when the time was right in fulfilment of God’s promises, and specifically to the ungodly—to the people who were in open rebellion against him. And finally, five, what did Jesus do for these helplessly ungodly people? Paul writes that Jesus died for them—for us.
Brothers and Sisters, God loves the people he has created, even when we are ungodly, worshipping false gods and idols, robbing him of the glory he is due, and committing cosmic treason against him with our sin. Despite how ugly we are, despite our offense against him, he loves us. Because he is righteous and because his desire is to set his creation to rights, he has to deal with our rebellion. He has to put it down or get rid of it one way or another. He can destroy sinners and remove them permanently from his creation or he can redeem sinners and welcome them into his project of making all things new. Judgement and redemption both reveal God’s righteousness, his faithfulness, and his goodness. But he would rather redeem. And so knowing that we are helpless to defeat sin and death ourselves, he sent his Messiah, as Jesus says in St. John’s Gospel, not to condemn, but to redeem. We all already stand condemned. Jesus can add nothing more to that before he comes in final judgement. And so he stepped into the middle of history to redeem. And he did that through is own death. People expected him to come with violence to knock the heads of the unrighteous together, but instead he offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins.
If you’ve been raised with the Gospel you may not give this much thought, but the rest of the world has trouble with this. The Jews had trouble with this. Paul had once struggled with this. This wasn’t what the Messiah was supposed to do—at least not in their thinking. Messiah’s aren’t supposed to die—and they especially aren’t supposed to die for God’s enemies. And yet this is the key. In verse 7 Paul’s saying, “Yes, I understand how hard this is grasp. Almost no one will sacrifice himself for a righteous person. It happens, but it’s rare. Some people might be willing to die for a good person—but even that’s a rare occurrence.” It’s hard to say what Paul means by a “good person”, but the reading that seems to make the most sense is that it’s a reference to a benefactor. Someone might die for a benefactor to whom they owed a debt. Whatever the case, Paul’s point is strong and clear: Whereas it’s a rare thing for a man to deliberately and in cold blood lay down is life for a righteous man, and not much less rare for a man to do so for the sake of someone who is actually his benefactor, Jesus the Messiah died for the sake of the ungodly.
This is what shows us so dramatically God’s love for us: “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. For Jews like Paul, that word “sinner” was something of a technical term. It was the word they used to describe people who were outside the law. “Sinner” basically meant a pagan who, not having the law, was hopelessly lost in sin. And yet here, Paul includes himself. Jew and Gentile alike are “sinners” and enemies of God. Jesus came to you and to me when we were still sinners. Here is the love of God. Jesus the Messiah died for us, not when we were God’s friends, but when we were his enemies. Think of the person you would most consider an enemy. Think of the person in your life who has done you the most harm. And then consider that there is nothing that person can do or ever has done to you that can compare to the offense that our sins are to God. We are cosmic traitors. And yet, God showed his love for us in the cross of Jesus. His Messiah came, not with a sword to smite sinners, but to die for them—for us.
This is why one of the most profound ways we can live and demonstrate the Gospel is, as Jesus tells us to do, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. As we love our enemies, the love of God for sinners revealed in Jesus shows through us.
What Paul tells us here also says something powerful about who Jesus is. Jesus is God’s love in action and none of this makes any sense if Jesus himself is not the incarnation—the enfleshment—of the living God. Think about it. It wouldn’t say much, if anything, about the love of God if he said, “I see you’re helplessly enslaved to sin, let me help you out by sending someone else to die on your behalf.” That might say something about the love of Jesus, but not much about the love of God.
But, in fact, the death of Jesus does reveal in a dramatic and powerful way the love of God and it does so because Jesus is the human being in whom the living and loving God is incarnate. Paul believed, as we affirm in the Creed, that Jesus, a man born of the Virgin Mary is, nevertheless, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. The Incarnation, the divinity of Jesus isn’t some doctrine that was later hammered out and added on to the faith by the Church Fathers. It’s right here in Paul and it’s critical to what he’s saying. If Jesus was anything or anyone less than the God himself, his death would not display the love of God for sinners. It displays that love because he is that same God incarnate as one of us.
But the importance of the Incarnation for what Paul’s saying doesn’t stop here. That Jesus is God himself in human flesh becomes our reason for hope and the root of our assurance that all those who belong to him through faith in Jesus will see God’s salvation. Look at verses 9-10:
Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 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.
We have been justified by his blood. Remember what justification means for Paul. Paul is always looking at God’s redeeming work in terms of past, present, and future. There’s a story here. We have a strong tendency to forget the story. We think of justification or salvation in abstract theological terms and we mash it all together. We miss what Paul’s getting at here. Paul told us about the future—where everything is eventually headed, back in Chapter 2. God will come one day at the end of history to judge every human being. He will judge our deeds and reveal our hearts and his judgement will be perfectly just and impartial. This is the bit about God that bothers so many people. That priest I heard preach all those years ago couldn’t reconcile God’s judgement and his wrath against sin with his shallow understanding of God’s love. That’s the future. Paul then went on in Chapters 3 and 4 to explain that when we believe in the good news about the death and resurrection of Jesus, by that faith we are assured in the present—today—that we are sons and daughters of Abraham and that we belong to his covenant family. It’s the members of that family whose sins have been forgiven and who have already received the divine verdict of being in the right.
And this is where the need for assurance enters. How can we really know, how can we have assurance that the future verdict is already known? After all, we know that we’ve got the rest of our lives to live and that we’ll sin and mess things up along the way. How can we be sure that we are in the right? How can we be sure that we will be vindicated by God on the day of judgement?
Brothers and Sisters, our hope and our assurance are based on what God has already done for us in the death of Jesus. Jesus’ death for us when we were weak, ungodly, rebellious traitors reveals the great, great love of God for us. And if God loves us that much—if God loves us so much that he was willing to humble himself and become incarnate as one of us and then offer his own life as a sacrifice for our sins, we can be sure that we will be saved from his wrath when he returns in judgement. We can be sure that as he wipes away from his Creation everything that has spoiled it and everyone who insists on continuing in their rebellion against his goodness, that we instead will be swept up in his love and be part of his new creation. We were his enemies. God has given himself to make us his friends. He will not abandon us.
This is the point of verse 10. God’s reconciling us to himself by the death of his Son was the hard part. How much more will we be saved from God’s wrath by the life—the resurrection of Jesus? It’s a Jewish way of making a point. If the hard thing has been accomplished, why would we doubt that the easy thing will happen—especially when it’s the easy thing that brings the pay-off?
When I was a kid we lived at the bottom of a very steep hill about three or four blocks long. We used to ride our little one-speed bikes up to the top—well, at least the first time, after that we were too tired and we walked them up—and then we’d blast down the hill as fast as we could. One time a friend was visiting and I took him to the hill. We stopped at the bottom and he asked, “Are you really going to ride down that?” And I told that of course I was. I wasn’t going to exhaust myself riding up the hill—the hard part—to not ride back down—the easy, fun part. Dear Friends, the cross was the hard part, but Jesus did it. We can live in faith-filled hope now that God will do the easy part and see us through to the life of the age to come.
And because we have assurance, we can rejoice. Look, finally, at verse 11:
More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
The word translated “rejoice”—that’s that word “boast” that Paul’s used several times. In fact, it ties together this string of thought that Paul’s been building. The Jews “rejoiced” or “boasted” that God was their God and that he’d given them the law to guarantee them a special status. Paul has explained why that was an empty boast. It was a boasting in the flesh. The Gospel has reduced all human boasting to nothing. But what was impossible under the law, is now possible in the Gospel. We boast in, we rejoice in, we celebrate Jesus and his death and resurrection. We were weak, but he has shown us his strength—and not least the amazingly great strength of his love.
Think on this, Brothers and Sisters, as you come to the Lord’s Table this morning. Here in the bread and wine we meet Jesus, God Incarnate, who gave his body and blood to reconcile us to himself. Think on this as you sing songs about God’s love for us and our love for him. Be overwhelmed by the depth of his love and let it strengthen your faith and give you hope and assurance. Think on this as you go through life and as you deal with suffering and with trials and learn to lean on Jesus more and more each day, knowing that in him God reveals a love for us so deep we can barely plumb its depth. Think of this as you struggle with temptation and sin, remembering the love that moved God to give himself as a sacrifice to deliver us from our bondage to sin. And, Brothers and Sisters, think on this and remember your enemies. God’s love encompasses them too—just as much as it encompasses us. He seeks to reconcile the ungodly with himself. He’s done that with us and now calls us to witness his great love to our own enemies that they might also know the depths of his redeeming love.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, in you and particularly Jesus and his death we see the nature of true love. We are surrounded by so many false and shallow ideas about love. Bring us back again to Jesus and to his cross. Teach us the meaning of true love and show us the depths of your love as we remember that while we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us. Give us assurance and hope and grow our faith that we might, each day, learn to trust you more and more and the false gods of this world less and less. Cause your love to shine through us for all to see as we walk in faith and as we share your love. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.