The Third Sunday in Lent March 15, 2009
148, 457, 151, 49
“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21 NIV).
Dear Fellow Christians:
The sound of breaking glass finds its way into your sleep-deadened consciousness and you suddenly realize that an intruder has broken into your house in the middle of the night. You are instantly awake and terrified. What do you do? Obviously, that depends somewhat on who you are. I might reach first for something a bit more substantial than a telephone receiver, but certainly one of the first thoughts that bursts through the panic is: Call the police. The police—no matter what you thought of them before, suddenly, in a moment, they become your best friends—guys with guns who are on your side.
But suppose no one answers when you dial 911? Or suppose you get through, only to be asked who you are and why anyone at the police department should risk his or her life to protect you? Or you get through only to be told, “Not interested, but thanks for calling” followed by a dial tone. You would be outraged, right? For as a taxpaying citizen, you are entitled to protection from the police!
Or suppose you waken to a room filled with smoke, but when you call your heroic firefighters, they tell you simply, “We’re pretty busy right now, but maybe later.” Silly, right? Because, again, you are entitled.
Well at least you can always appeal to a much higher, much more powerful source of protection and rescue. God is always there, right? God is always on call, isn't He—always hears and answers every prayer? Not necessarily. Effective prayer is not a universal privilege. The opening verses of our text let us in on a divine secret: Access to God Is Not an Entitlement. The words of our text will clarify for us. Those words are found recorded in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the fifth chapter:
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
So far the very words of God. May that same God who gave us these words fill us with proper reverence for them, so that each time we hear them we may gain the gifts He desires to give us. To this end also we pray, “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord, Your Word is truth!” Amen.
Historians may well come to refer to the times in which we are now living as “The Age of Entitlement.” Americans have, by-and-large, come to believe that we are entitled to just about whatever we desire. Even worse than that, we have come to imagine that we somehow deserve whatever we desire. If, for example, a rich person has more money than I do, it is good, right, and fitting that our government should confiscate their money through taxes and then dole it out to those of us who have less. We are also entitled to universal free health care, home ownership, and free food and clothing, whether I want to work for them or not. I am entitled.
I’m not sure when this change occurred, and it is a change. My ancestors did not harbor any sort of entitlement philosophy. They worked hard and received with thanksgiving whatever the Lord’s blessing provided. I strongly suspect that most or all of you could say the same about your ancestors. But that is changing, or has already changed, and like most such things it has spilled over also into the spiritual realm.
Our society now also regards a wide variety of spiritual benefits—including access to God, forgiveness of sins, even access to heaven itself—as entitlements. God owes us His ear, His forgiveness, and His heaven unless we just absolutely blow it with some sort of prolonged, extra-evil behavior. We are also now entitled to use God’s name in vain a couple dozen times each day, but then have Him stand to attention and give us what we ask when finally we do use His name in some sort of prayer.
But what if God takes the phone off the hook? What if God just isn’t accessible any and every time a human being thinks he ought to be? That is a rather disturbing thought, isn’t it—that “God is no longer taking your calls.” God’s Word is not ambiguous about such things. In fact, unless we come to terms with God’s truth in this area, we will never fully understand the Gospel and the dramatic, miraculous rescue of every single sinner.
The fact is God’s ear is closed to the utterances of the godless. 1 Peter 3:12 tells us clearly that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers; but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” Again in Isaiah 59:2, “But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear.”
Human beings need to come to terms with the true consequences of sin. Sin utterly separated us from our God—profoundly so. Sin created a rift that simply could not be mended without some sort of divine intervention. Stop for just a moment here and consider the ramifications of that simple fact. If sin created a barrier between us and our God, and if that God on account of our sins no longer hears the words—the prayers—that we nonetheless imagine are being spoken directly to Him, then our problems are much, much greater than we could ever have imagined. Our dilemma is then truly hopeless, from a human perspective, since there is simply nothing at all that we can do to mend that rift between God and man. Having lost the ability even to communicate with our God, what could we possibly do to save ourselves? The answer is, “Nothing at all.”
You can neither persuade nor appease a God who blocks you from His sight; a God who refuses all communication; a God who simply refuses to hear you. That is why work-righteousness is such a ridiculous, damning myth. Even if a human being could do something that the world regards as “good,” God does not regard it as such. Again we hear from Holy Scripture that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). Good works in the eyes of the world are not good works in God’s eyes, for it is only faith that makes any work truly God-pleasing. Yet even if we were to pretend for a moment that an unbeliever could perform a truly good work apart from faith, God would still take no notice of it, since he has no regard for the godless. That is exactly why the only solution to our sin and lack-of-access problem is a Savior, a source of rescue that lies outside of ourselves with the power provided by another. Since no human being could provide such a rescue—for all human beings “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)—that source has to be divine. It has to come from God Himself.
This is exactly what the Holy Spirit is conveying to us in the opening verses of today’s text: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” [vv.1-2] Understand well what our God is telling us here. Our access to God was and is not an entitlement, it was earned for us by the suffering and death of our Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the one who provided what mankind could not provide. In fact he did so in a number of different ways.
First and foremost, we needed a mediator. We needed someone who was on good terms with God the Father and who could offer some sort of a payment to appease His holy, righteous anger against sin. Since we could not provide any such thing, Jesus did it for us. He did so by living a sinless life and then by offering that sinless life as the blood-sacrifice for sins. Our text assures us that it was this very thing that opened the lines of communication between God and man. In fact this was the message demonstrated on Good Friday when the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. No longer was access to God the Father denied to sinful mankind. The death of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, served to reconcile God and man. How? Why? Because that which had separated us from our God—our sin—was now gone. The wrath of God against every one of those sins was poured out on God’s Son in our stead. The result, for you and me, is total and complete pardon.
That is what our text means when it says, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” [v.1] This declaration of “not guilty” (justification) becomes our own personal possession the moment the Holy Spirit creates saving faith in our hearts. The instant the Holy Spirit worked in you the trust and confidence that Jesus Christ is the provider of the full payment for all of your countless sins, at that moment the hostility that once existed between you and your God came to an end. You then have, in the words of our text “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Because you have this peace, the lines of communication are wide open, as our text also promises: “through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” [v.2]
Access to our God is not an entitlement. It is not something we have earned or deserved simply by virtue of our humanity. This access had to be earned for us by our Savior. It is a gift and a privilege extended to us along with saving faith. Even if we had yearned with every fiber of our being and above all other things to have and enjoy a relationship with our God, we would continue to be excluded apart from Jesus Christ. Our text makes this unmistakably clear when it says: “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” And again, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” [vv.6,8] How utterly foolish to regard our forgiveness and salvation as anything other than an underserved gift from our God pronounced to mankind in view of what his Son has done for us as our substitute.
We have, of course, other notions of entitlement. That is, after all, the nature of entitlement—we tend to believe that we are entitled to whatever we feel like we are entitled to. So also, even as Christians, we somehow manage to develop the notion that the Christian faith is some sort of an economic, medical, and social guarantee. On the contrary, Jesus told us to expect just the opposite. Since the world hated Jesus, we should expect that it will also hate those who love and follow after him. Our text also speaks of things like tribulation, perseverance, and character. Clearly the message is that there are no shortcuts to things like character. Character is not something that we suddenly receive at conversion (another entitlement). Rather, it is painstakingly constructed through perseverance in the face of ongoing tribulation. Clearly the depth of insight offered here could be a sermon in and of itself. The point that we take from these truths today is that our God would have us view our conversion, our faith, our access to God the Father in prayer, even our day to day lives and all that fills them as precious gifts that we have in no way deserved.
God grant to each of us hearts that recognize just how blessed we truly are and to view all of the undeserved gifts of our God with thanksgiving and gratitude. Our God, who owes us nothing has, in truth, given us everything. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.