April 23 lesson: God’s Reconciling Love
Click here for a print-friendly version
God’s Reconciling Love
Spring Quarter: God Loves Us
Unit 2: God’s Caring, Saving, and Upholding Love
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 23, 2017
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Romans 5:6-11; 8:31-39
Background Scripture: Romans 5:1-11 8:31-39
Paul says, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Romans 5:1). Our salvation features justification, peace, and hope. All these are ours by the grace of God. And we access that grace through faith in Christ.
In the background scripture (Romans 5:1-5), Paul introduces a word that he will use twice more in our passage. The NRSV translates it as “boast.” While for us, boasting is almost entirely negative as we don’t particularly care for boastful people. For Paul, however, the meaning of the word is altogether positive. This can be seen in the NKJV, in that the same word is translated “rejoice.”
Paul says in verses 2, “We boast in our hope…” But lest we think that Paul is promising believers a “trouble-free” existence now that they belong to God, he quickly adds in verse 3, “we also boast in our sufferings.” The key here is understanding that God uses our sufferings to build into our lives “perseverance” which in turn leads to “character.” And, of course, character is the quality that comes from having been “proved” (see example 2 Cor. 2:9). At this point, we can truly “rejoice” in the midst of suffering knowing that God is at work even in evil things to bring us blessing. And Paul adds at the end of verse 4 that suffering can actually lead to hope. Scholars point out that just as resistance to a muscle strengthens it, so challenges to our hope can strengthen it.
We are reminded that the proof of God’s love is in its timing. Twice Paul uses the phrase “While we were still” (5:6, 8). The idea is that God’s favorable actions toward us would be better understood if our lives had been more favorable. Yet, the mother hugs the child while his face is still dirty and messy. The buyer purchases the house while it is broken down and in need of repair. And Christ died for us while we were ungodly, powerless, helpless sinners.
Scholars note, however, that Paul’s use of the “while we were still” phrase implies that our condition is different now. While we may have been weak before, the implication is that now we are strong. We are no longer the ungodly or sinners. For sure, our condition has changed, but not by anything we’ve done. Rather, it is precisely because God loves us and Christ died for us “while we were still” that we can be different now.
It is here that Paul adds an even more dramatic word to describe our former state: “enemies.”
He concludes that God’s favor toward us “while we were enemies” gives us even more reason for confidence now that we have been “reconciled to God.” The use of “enemies” makes “reconciled” more compelling. The picture here is of an unmerited love that reaches out to save and embrace an adversary.
Finally, Paul boasts one more time. As we are reminded initially, it was “in our hope,” and then it was “in our sufferings.” Now, in verse 11, the boasting reaches its pinnacle as we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. And Christ is identified as the agent of our reconciliation, just as he was the agent of God’s grace above.
Making Things Right
The hallmark of the creation story, scholars inform us, is the recurring assessment that “it was good” (for example, Genesis 1:10). Whatever the Lord does, the Lord does well (Mark 7:37). And that is not merely a statement of skill, as it could be when applied to human beings. Rather, we affirm a moral quality when we say that what God makes is good and right.
Scholars continue on by saying that the truth of that moral element may best be revealed when things go wrong. When sin and unrighteousness prevail in a life or a land, the Lord is unwilling to chalk it up as ruined goodness. Instead, we see the recurring pattern of a God who sets out to make things right again. We are advised that Creator became Redeemer, seeking to heal what has been broken and to restore what has been lost.
Less we misunderstand, even God’s acts of judgment are part of this praiseworthy pattern. Sometimes we mistakenly assume that these acts or even the warning of judgment are products of a God who is “fed up.” Yet the Lord is “slow to anger” (Exodus 34:6), reluctant to destroy (Ezekiel 33:11), and ready to relent from punishment (Jonah 4:2). Thus, even the judgment of God is an instrument of the larger divine purpose to make things right.
From the world of medicine, sometimes the doctor’s surgical procedure or curative treatment seems severe. Yet, the doctors are not being cruel in these situations, but kind. You simply do what has to be done in order to set the body free from whatever is wrong with it.
And that’s the way it is with God’s judgment. The very one who made everything good and right to begin with seeks to make things right, even when they are wrong.
Understanding Making Things Right
The Greek word for “justification” is built on the same family root words for “right” or “righteous” or “righteousness.” So there is a close and natural connection between justification and righteousness. To justify is to make right. When someone is justified, he or she is made right.
The late William Barclay said that “justification means that God treats the sinner as if he/she had not been a sinner at all. Instead of treating the sinner as a criminal to be obliterated, God treats him/her as a child to be loved.”
And Bishop Will Willimon stated that at Aldersgate John Wesley experienced God’s justifying grace. Jesus had justified (made right) humanity to God nearly 2000 years before. But that night Wesley “knew” that God “had taken away my sins, even mine.”
In addition, I like the way John R.W. Stott treated the reality of “justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.” In his book “The Cross of Christ,” he made these four statements:
- The source of our justification is the grace of God.
- The ground of our justification is the work of Christ.
- The means of our justification is faith.
- The effect of our justification is union with Christ.
The Apostle Paul makes clear “that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). And Isaiah the prophet makes plain that our righteousness, such as it is, is completely inadequate (Isaiah 64:6), yet it is always God’s desire to make things right. So God offers to make us right by means of what we call justifying grace.
Now, Paul proclaims that the righteousness that is available to us is a justification by faith. As scholars observe, this idea gets at the great difference between God make me right and me trying to make myself right. If it is my doing, then righteousness is accessed by works. But if it is God’s doing, righteousness is accessed by faith.
Regarding the false notion of “works-righteousness,” we humans tend toward two futile instincts. One is to pretend that we are already righteous and, consequently, no work needs to be done on anyone’s part. However, as the writer of First John writes in his letter: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:8). No, we are not already right.
The other futile instinct of “works-righteousness” is the trap of trying to make ourselves right. The suggestion is that perhaps Paul’s image in our scripture lesson of “while we were still weak” (Romans 5:6) is a helpful reminder in this respect. We do not have it in ourselves to do what needs to be done. So, because we cannot save ourselves, we need a Savior.
As scholars attest, therefore, God offers to do for us what we need but cannot do for ourselves. God makes us right – “justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9). It is a righteousness that flows from Christ’s work rather than our own. And that righteousness flows to us when we believe God’s promise and trust Christ’s work. There we are justified by faith.
The one remaining question is this: Why God would do all of this for us? What causes Him to embrace an “enemy?” Why should you and I be justified at Christ’s expense?
The only possible answer is love, and Paul paints a majestic picture of God’s love.
We notice in that picture that Paul asks what can separate us from God’s love and not what could make God stop loving us. This latter is a common fear among people, that God doesn’t or won’t love them anymore. It is a fear born out of our experience of inconsistent human love. Yet for God to stay loving us is never a question of Paul’s mind. Love is God’s nature (1 John 4:8).
So the real issue is not whether God stops loving, but whether anything can separate us from that love. And in response to that Paul shares perhaps the most beautiful promise in all scripture. “No,” Paul says, “in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).
Sadly, many things can separate us from human love, but joyfully nothing can separate us from the love of God.
E. Stanley Jones expressed it like this: “Grace is love favoring us when we are not favorable, loving us when we are not lovable, accepting us when we are not acceptable and redeeming us when we are not redeemable.” Thanks be to God!
- Have class members discuss what it means to be “justified?”
- What do the words “while we were still” (5:6) suggest to class members about the timing of God’s love?
- What words come to mind when you think of yourself as a “conqueror” in Christ?