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Rescued From God's Righteous Wrath

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | October 23, 2011

Selected highlights from this sermon

God is the final reality in the universe. And one day we will either face His wrath or His mercy.

Leading us through six of the most important and powerful verses in all of history, Pastor Lutzer gets to the innermost meaning of the cross.

All of us have sinned, and God’s wrath against sin is enormous and should never be underestimated. But God’s love is just as enormous and so He provided a sacrifice—His own Son—to pay for our sins.

There is no other religion in the world where God becomes the sole redeemer of man. Our salvation is through faith alone, because of Christ alone, by God’s grace alone.

Today it is my privilege to preach the most important message that you will ever hear me preach. It’s going to happen today. There are times when I may be much more eloquent than I will be today. Maybe at some point I’ll preach a message that is even more interesting, but never will I preach a message as important as the one that I am going to give you today.

Today and also next time I’m spending two messages on this passage of Scripture and in the next message I am going to tell you about the life of a man about whom more books have been written than any other man who has ever lived except Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul, and I may even allow you to see his apartment where he lived in Germany. But that’s next time.

Today I have the privilege of expounding what I believe to be the most important paragraph that has ever been written in the history of the world. Now, of course, it competes with other wonderful paragraphs that are necessary, but probably no passage in all the Bible packs so much truth in so many few verses that we must understand.

If you are listening to this and you are investigating Christianity, please listen carefully because by the time the message is over you will understand that Christianity is a religion like no other. Don’t you dare put it on the same shelf with all the other religions of the world. There is none like it.

If you are already a Christian, I want you to listen carefully, because at the end you are going to worship and you are going to worship with a new sense of gratitude to a sovereign God who provided a way for sinners.

A man by the name of C.D. Canfield said that there are times when we have to get to the innermost meaning of the cross, and today as best I know how we’re going to get to the innermost meaning of the cross, and it has some very good news for us sinners–the innermost meaning.

The passage is Romans 3. The Apostle Paul has proven that everyone is a sinner. If you’ve been listening to these messages you know that he proves that there is none that does righteous, no not even one, and in verse 20 he imagines that we are in the presence of God and there is a court scene, and in the presence of the living God every mouth is stopped and the whole world becomes accountable or guilty before God. And then he begins to expound on God’s answer to our dilemma.

Horace was a playwright who lived in Rome. He was actually in Rome during the time of Augustus, and he wrote many different poems and plays, and he was also a critic of Roman plays, and he said one of the problems with the playwrights in Rome was that they would have a scene on stage that was tangled and then they brought in a god-one of the Roman gods to resolve it. And he thought that they brought a god onto the stage too soon. He said that no god should ever be brought onto the stage unless the plot is so entirely hopelessly tangled that only a god can solve it.

By the time you get to this place in the book of Romans you discover that the plot is so hopelessly tangled (because we are in darkness and we are sinners) that only God is able to solve it, and so God comes on the stage to solve it.

I’ve given you three aspects of God that I want you to contemplate as we look at this passage, and I’m going to plunge in actually at verse 23, though we will be looking at other phrases within this marvelous passage. I’ll begin with verse 21: “But now the righteousness of God has been
manifested apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it. The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe, for there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

We need to be reminded that God is the final reality in the universe–God and not man–and that all sin is actually falling short of God’s glory. We minimize sin today by saying, “You know, I’m actually a good person but I’ve just made some bad choices.” Or we say that in comparison to somebody else, “I’m as good as those hypocrites at the church.” And so we justify ourselves, when actually what the Apostle Paul is saying is that all come short. The imagery is that of an archer. You have a bow and arrow and you take and you pull it back as far as you can and you shoot it as high as you can, and you never hit God’s glory and God’s high standard. We all fall short of the glory of God.

But contemporary man is very content as to where he shoots his arrow. There’s a story that I’ve told you in times past but it fits so well here, I have to tell it again. There was a man who was going through the country yard and he saw this barn and on the side of the barn there were a number of targets and right smack in the middle of each of the targets was an arrow. And so he stopped to congratulate the farmer and say, “You must be a good marksman,” and the farmer said, “No, there’s a man in our community who is feeble-minded and he goes around and he takes his bow and arrow and shoots arrows into my barn and then he paints the targets around them.” (laughter)

That’s what we do as human beings. We think to ourselves we shoot at our target and we hit our target and God exists to come around it and to confirm it and to say, “Oh, you’re okay, and so-and-so is okay and you’re all okay. God’s glory, if you visualize a wall, goes up to the clouds and maybe my bow and arrow hits within 20 feet or a 100 feet, but yours is 150 feet…but nobody can attain the glory and the holiness and the purity of God. Therefore, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Let’s take David as an example in the Old Testament. David committed murder and adultery. And then later on when the prophet Nathan confronts him with it, what happens is God recognizes that David needs some prodding to admit his sin, so he sends him the prophet. David confesses and Nathan says, “You have insulted God.” He says, “You have indeed despised the Almighty. Your sin was against God, David.” Now I can imagine David arguing with God and saying, “What do you mean my sin was against God? I wasn’t even thinking about God. I saw this woman and she put me into a trance, and all that I cared about was a relationship with her, and why did I kill Uriah? I was scared that I was going to be found out and humiliated and ruin my kingdom. I wasn’t thinking about you.” And God would come along and say, “David, I’m the one who created you and you are accountable to me. I’m the one who instituted marriage and said that there should be faithfulness within the marriage bond. I’m the one, David, who gave you the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ and even though you weren’t thinking about me, your sin was directly focused on me, and you belittled my glory. And furthermore you weren’t even thinking about it when you did it, which really made it worse.”

Let me ask you something. What adulterer stays awake at night thinking to himself, “You know what I’ve done? I’ve traded the glory of God for this sinful relationship, and how God must be hurt because I’ve done it.” Most wouldn’t think of that. What they are doing is thinking of the same thing David was thinking of. Either A (number one), how can I live with my guilt and how can I manage? How many pills can I take so that I can sleep at night, and secondly, how I can keep it under wraps so nobody finds out?

So you see, all have sinned, and whether it is lying, whether it is the other sins that we’ve heard about such as pornography (the testimony that was given here), the fact is that all of us fall short in one way or another of God’s standard which is His glory. Now do you understand why we need to bring God on the stage to be able to figure this out and to reconcile us?

So first of all you have the glory of God that is part of the Gospel. We’ve sinned and we’ve come short of the glory of God. Now let’s look at the justice of God. Now I’m going to read this paragraph. I’m going to read a few verses and then I’m going to expound it to you. Could I just look you in the eye this morning and think that I am the most fortunate person in this whole world? That’s the way I feel today because I can stand here and I can open God’s Word to this paragraph, and by His grace and power I can explain it to you. Could there be a bigger privilege than expounding the Word of God? I don’t think so. If there is, I haven’t heard of it.

Well, here’s what I want to do now. Notice in verse 24 it says, “We are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith.” Now listen. Everybody awake at this juncture. I hope your Bible is open, and if you are using the one that is in the seat ahead of you it is on page 941, but don’t go for it now because everybody will know you didn’t bring your Bible to church as you should.

You’ll notice it says, “This was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time so that he might be just and the justifier of all who believed on Jesus.” What is going on in this text?

In order to understand the purpose of the cross we must realize this: what’s this business of “in former times God, because of his patience, overlooked sin?” And how does that relate to the cross? Well, let’s go back to David. That’s the best way to illustrate it. Here David comes short of the glory of God. It’s a deliberate sin. It’s going to ruin his family and destroy his kingdom and all, but he confesses his sin, and what happens through the prophet Nathan, God says, “David, you’re forgiven.” We look at that and say, “Oh, you mean it’s that simple? David, your sin has been put away.” Maybe coming short of the glory of God is really not that serious. I mean here is God saying, “Hey, David, you really messed up but you are forgiven.”

Is it serious or isn’t it to violate God’s glory? There was a problem in the Old Testament. God appeared to be dishing out forgiveness so quickly without any permanent sacrifice. He was just giving it out. Look at David.

John Piper who has helped me inform my own thinking about these matters gives this illustration. Let us suppose that there were some assassins who tried to assassinate the President and they were able to blow up the White House and several of his staff are killed, but he himself escapes rather miraculously and lives. And they are arrested and they are brought to court and the judge says, “Are you sorry?” And they say, “Yeah, we’re sorry.” “Well then fine. You just go. We forgive you. You’re out of here.”

What would that say about how valuable the President of the United States is? It would say we don’t value it very highly. And in the Old Testament, the way in which God was forgiving people, it appeared as if marginalizing His glory, belittling it, coming short was not that big a deal.

Years ago there were some atheists who wrote a tract and they said, “You know, a person should be judged by the company he keeps.” So what they did was they looked at the Old Testament and they asked themselves the question, “Who does God hang out with?” That was the question. Abraham! Abraham lied. In fact, from Egypt he brought a slave girl and eventually had a relationship with her and fathered a child. I mean, what kind of a husband was that? And then he ends up of all things in Abraham’s bosom, which is kind of synonymous with Paradise and we say to ourselves, “Wait a moment. How in the world did he get there? How did he get from point A to point B? And then they said, “What about Noah?” Of course Noah got drunk as you know, and we could go through the whole list, couldn’t we? Moses had a very hot temper. That’s why he killed an Egyptian and hid him in the sand–manslaughter, the whole works–and then at the end of his life blows it again because of anger.

So there’s David then, a murderer and an adulterer, and he’s called a friend of God.

Look at whom God associates with. And so you see there was a scandal that needed to be addressed, namely how is God’s name cleared when He is associating with sinners for whom there was no permanent sacrifice, because please remember that the blood of bulls and goats didn’t permanently take away sin. And so what Paul is saying here is that the first purpose of the cross is to vindicate God.

What God was saying in Old Testament times is this: “I’m withholding my wrath. I’m withholding my wrath. My wrath against sin is huge and it is (what shall we say?) impeccable and it is continuing to be great, but I am withholding my wrath. I’m forgiving David. I’m the friend of Abraham. I am going to bless Noah. I’m withholding my wrath until Jesus comes, and Jesus will absorb the wrath of all those whom I have forgiven in the past whose debt was never really paid, and when Jesus dies on the cross, on Him I will lay the iniquity of David, of Noah, of Moses, and all the other Old Testament believers who trusted me. It’s all going to be there at Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. (applause)

The best way to understand the Old Testament believers is they were saved on credit. Now if you are listening here as an American you understand very well what that means. You go to a store and you can’t afford it but you put it on credit and then you pay for it sometime later. God says, “I’m going to take the sin and I’m not going to acknowledge it. I’m going to overlook it until Jesus dies, and Jesus Christ’s death has to vindicate Me and clear My name because these sins that these people committed were huge sins. They were violating my glory.”

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, what would have happened if Jesus had not died? What if he had not come and died and you have all these people already in Paradise?” Paradise would have had to be emptied and the people in Paradise– the Noahs, and the Jonahs and the Abrahams and the Davids–Paradise would have to be emptied and they would eventually have to be thrown into hell because God is eminently just and there’s no way He can let bygones be bygones.

Now notice what the text says. We have our Bibles open. “We are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood. This was to show God’s righteousness because of his divine forbearance (his divine patience) he passed over former sins.”

The first purpose of the cross is to vindicate God. And how does Jesus do it? Notice the word propitiation. You know, today there are people who say, “Hey, you know we can’t read a Bible with those big words. Propitiation! What does that mean?” So modern translations say an atonement, and that is right, but propitiation is really a good word. It means God turning away His wrath. The God who is very angry about sin in Romans 1-The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness that God is now saying that My wrath against sin is going to be appeased and it is going to be appeased by Christ’s blood and sacrifice as My anger against sin is borne by the sin bearer.

I can imagine somebody sitting there and saying this. You know sometimes I know exactly what you are thinking. I’m glad I don’t always know what you are thinking. You are saying, “Oh, it sounds very pagan to me. You know those pagan deities. They needed blood sacrifices in order to be appeased. People killed animals for them. It sounds as if the God of the Bible is a rather pagan god.” My friend, today, rather than trying to see any similarity between this God and the pagan gods, rather bathe yourself in the glory of the huge difference.

First of all, let’s remember that it was God Himself who initiated the salvation because of His love for us. Would you remember that? John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” God loved the world, and we should not think that Jesus was doing something that He didn’t want to do. The whole Trinity was involved in redemption and so please keep in mind that it is because of God’s love that He provided a way by which His anger against sin and His justice would be satisfied and it is all motivated by love. That’s one difference.

But the other difference leaves us breathless. It is this: Jesus as the second person of the Trinity actually is the one who provides the sacrifice. That means that God Himself does the redemption for us as sinners. He doesn’t ask us to bring a sacrifice. He doesn’t ask us to contribute to what He is doing, but to simply receive it. And so it pleased the Lord to bruise Jesus and it pleased Him to do that. Why? So that God Himself would be totally satisfied with what God Himself did in Jesus.

Phil Donohue, talk show host of another era, said on one occasion something like this, and I’m paraphrasing: “You know, if God is in heaven, and if he cares about the world, why didn’t he come and redeem mankind rather than send his son, Jesus, to do it?” The answer is, “Phil, in Jesus, God did do it. He did redeem us.” (applause)

Do you understand what this means now? God can demand an infinite sacrifice because all of our sins against Him are infinite, but God also supplies the sacrifice that He needs. There is no other religion in all the world where God becomes the sole redeemer of man and his sin. There is none other out there. That’s why you’ve heard me say many times that there’s nobody else out there like Jesus. Don’t tell me about the other prophets. Don’t tell me about the other gurus that tell you this is the path–do this, do this, do this. No, what I need is a sacrifice for my sin that a Holy Father accepts in such a way that I can be redeemed, because it is a gift, and that leads to a third aspect of salvation, and that is grace.

You’ll notice I read it a moment ago. It says that we are justified (verse 24) by His grace as a gift, and it has to be a gift, because the kind of righteousness that God wants (as I’ll point out next time in the next message) is the kind of which you and I have none. If it isn’t a gift, we’re damned, I’m sorry to say. It is a gift.

And what else is in that text is when it says it is a gift. In Greek it is doron that is actually used there. Did you know that it’s used in the fifteenth chapter of John where Jesus said, “They hated me without a cause”? What it really means is this. God is saying, “I loved you without a cause.” Oh, you say, “I always thought that God loved us because we are so valuable. We are just so valuable.” We are valuable in this sense. Our value is conferred unto us by God because of His desire for a relationship with us, but apart from that we’re not very valuable at all, and the Bible would say that we really do deserve hell.

I like what Luther said. Luther said, “God doesn’t love us because we are valuable.” Now think about this. God doesn’t love us because we are valuable but because He loves us we are now valuable. Our value is derived from God who sent a redeemer to redeem us from our sins. That’s where our value comes from, and do you know what? He did it without a cause. He looked at you and said, “There’s no reason for Me to do it except that I’m a God of grace and I’m going to save that sinner. I’m going to save that person who is a slave to pornography or other sexual sins. And sexual sins aren’t the only ones. I am going to save that person who is subject to lying, and I’m doing to do it all, and all that they need to receive is the divine gift and bring nothing to the table except their great need.

So as we kind of wind this down and understand this passage, a couple of observations are in order. The first observation is this: that God is the one who initiates salvation. Salvation is of the Lord. And not only did God initiate salvation, but God actually brought it about. God paid for the salvation that He demanded in Jesus, and that’s why, by the way, the Trinity is so critical. The only way that God could be a redeeming God is that if the Trinity is there and one member of the Trinity satisfies the entire Godhead when it comes to the matter of justice, and so God not only planned the salvation; God executed the salvation. God made salvation available for whom? As I quoted the last time, “The vilest of sinners who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives. He made it available for you, and he made it available for me and so we must keep in mind that we are indeed saved by the initiative of God.

But salvation also reveals God. That’s why it is the big crux of all of history. If you were to say what is the most important event that has ever taken place on Planet Earth ever, ever, ever, it is the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus because it represents God’s farthest reach. God came our way. The chasm that exists between us and God, the inability for us to be able to attain His glory, all of that was done thankfully by God, and God says, “I am not just descending to mankind with a ladder and then asking them to crawl on the ladder toward Me. No, they are dead in trespasses and sins. I’m going to go and I’m going to scoop them up. I’m going to pick them up and grant them the ability to believe so that salvation is entirely of God.” But nowhere in all of history do we see the attributes of God as clearly as we do at the cross.

Oh yes, nature represents the power of God and the heavens declare His glory and His great strength and omnipotence. That’s true. But you see it is at the cross that the dissidence (if I can use that word) between love and justice was resolved. God’s love wanted to redeem humanity. His love wanted to do that because He loves the world, but justice wouldn’t allow it, and God has both attributes in equilibrium and in right proportions. So you see, until the issue of justice was satisfied, yes, in the Old Testament God overlooked their sin knowing that Jesus was going to die and the Old Testament saints looked forward to the coming of Jesus, and we look back at the coming of Jesus, but nobody ever gets to heaven without Jesus. Nobody ever gets to heaven without Jesus, and the sacrifice that was made. So there you have the love of Jesus at the cross, the love of God at the cross. You have the justice of God at the cross. You have the grace of God at the cross, redeeming us without a cause. There was nothing good in us. You have the love of God, as I’ve already mentioned, at the cross. And that’s why the work that Jesus did on the cross is absolutely central to the Christian faith and is His great redeeming work.

I like to think of the death of the two people that were crucified with Jesus, and to use them as an example of how the cross of Jesus Christ divides the world really. The world is not divided racially. It is not divided economically in all the ways that we divide it. From God’s standpoint the entire human race is divided into two categories, and the categories are represented by the one thief over here, and this thief said, “If you are the Christ, come down from the cross.” By the way, if Jesus had come down from the cross, you and I would still be in our sins and would have been left unredeemed. Aren’t you glad that Jesus didn’t come down from the cross? (applause)

So the one thief says, “Come down from the cross.” The other thief, perhaps being able to turn his head to see the words over the cross, “Jesus, the King of the Jews,” thinks to himself, “If He’s a king, He must have a kingdom.” So all that he does is first of all he talks to his companion, both of them bad to the bone, thieves with a long rap sheet, and he talks to his companion and he says, “Why are you ridiculing Him? You know, we’re going to die here in a moment.” And then the other thief looks at Jesus and says, “Remember me.” Wow! He doesn’t have the nerve to say, “Bring me into the kingdom.” Why would this thief, who maybe never even heard of Jesus before that day, even think for a moment that he of all people, sinner that he was, would enter the kingdom? He doesn’t even ask for that. He simply says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and Jesus, still king on the cross, the only one qualified to open Paradise and heaven, says to him, “Today you are going to be with me in Paradise.” Breakfast on earth; supping with Christ in heaven later that very day. The last companion on earth, the first companion in heaven is this thief. Why? Because the death of Jesus Christ on the cross was also purchasing for thieves the redemption that all of us need, because all of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and there is no other way except through Jesus our Savior.

Let me read the words of Horatio Bonar. He wrote these beautiful lines that I want you to grasp.

Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul.
Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God.
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.
Thy grace alone, oh God, can meek and pardon speak.
Thy power alone, oh son of God, can this sore bondage break.
No other work except thine.
No other blood will do.
No strength except that which is divine can bear me safely through.
Salvation through faith alone because of Christ alone.
By grace alone.

A rescue program for sinners that actually works, and aren’t we all proof of that, that it actually does work? (applause)

I have to ask you if you have trusted Christ as Savior. Maybe you are here today with your arms folded saying, “Well, we’re listening to this guy.” Maybe somebody brought you and you didn’t want to be here. Maybe you are listening on the radio and you are trying to find a different station and you ended up on this one. Right now, you can look to Christ and be saved. “He who believes in me shall have eternal life.” He bore it all. What love! Let’s pray.

Father, we ask in Jesus’ name that You’ll take these words, and we pray that the words may be powerful and abiding, especially in the lives of those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, though they may think they have. We ask, oh Father, that graciously You will work in their hearts, and help them to see that they must come to Christ. There is no other name given among men whereby we must be saved. We thank You for our Savior who did it all for us so that we can believe.

Now before I close this prayer, if you are sitting in the balcony, you are in the lower floor, wherever you are, or listening by way of Internet or radio, whatever other way, would you pause a moment and just reflect and ask yourself whether you have trusted Christ as Savior? And if not, would you reach out in faith to Him and say, “Today I believe. I trust my eternity to Him.”

Father, we love You because You first loved us. We wish that we loved You better, but we do love You and we thank You immensely for Jesus our Savior. In His name we pray. Amen.

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