The Problem and the Solution
"I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ,
for it is the power of God unto salvation . . . .
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith,
as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.'"
Good Remedies that Don't Work
One of things I love to hate is "remedies" that don't work. It happens even in the practice of modern medicine. My wife suffered from a constant headache for seventeen years because doctors treated symptoms rather than causes. Gladly, there are doctors who do better than this, but it is a fact of everyday life that even professionals can prescribe useless remedies. Sometimes the remedies merely address symptoms; sometimes they even aggravate the problem. But remedies that don't work are no remedies at all.
The same often happens in the social realm. We have social problems growing by the day, and along with them are social workers offering remedies – remedies which, judged by the track record and the increasing decline of society, don't work.
Worst of all are the false remedies given to address man's spiritual problem – his sin and alienation from God. The apostle Paul talks about this throughout his writings often in reference to the law of God. The law of God may seem to be a good remedy for our problem, but it doesn't work. As the apostle tells us in Romans 7, it can even make the problem worse. God through the prophet Isaiah speaks of this in relation to hunger. "Why do you pay good money for that which is not bread? Come here and eat for free that which will give you complete satisfaction," he says in so many words (Isaiah 55:1-3). This is precisely what explains the confusion of the religious scene today. All kinds of remedies are offered – keeping the ten commandments, living by Jesus' sermon on the mount or the golden rule, sincerity, trying your best, religious ceremony, church membership, and so on.
The objective observer has every right to wonder, "Who is right? Which remedy really works?" We can understand why men would disagree on the interpretation of details in the Scriptures, but on this most important of all matters we have a right – a pressing demand – for certainty and for clarity. This is the most urgent question we will ever face. We want the solution to this problem to be a real solution.
What is the Problem?
There is a sense in which we must say that both the problem and the solution are one & same: God. We have become accustomed to thinking of God as the solution, but is He really the problem also?
Well, to be sure, the problem is ours. We are the sinners! We are the ones who have rebelled against God and violated God's law. In fact it is Paul's purpose in this portion of Romans (1:18 - 3:20) to expound this very point and that at some length. His point throughout is that everyone knows much better than he does. Whether an outright heathen living in some benighted corner of the earth or a religious man who knows his Bible well – we all know much better than we do. Our problem is not that we do not know enough. Our problem is that what we do know of God and His righteous demands we have refused. Put bluntly, our problem is not ignorance; our problem is rebellion. We all have at many various points refused to do what we know to be good and right and have done that which we know is wrong and sinful. We know much better than we do.
So, yes, the problem is most definitely our problem. But it is so precisely because of who God is, and it is of this that we are not accustomed to think. Why is sin such a big deal after all? What makes it all that significant? Why do I need rescue just because I happen to have done a few things wrong? Why, nobody's perfect!
This is how the world thinks today, and it is how much of modern religion thinks also. But we can think like this only because we understand virtually nothing about who God is. We do not want to think of Him as the Creator, the one to whom we are responsible. We do not want to think of Him as the Lawgiver one who has the right to impose laws on us, who can tell us what we should do and not do. Moreover, we do not want to think of Him as the one who will be our Judge, that He has already decreed that the sinner must be and will be condemned. Nor do we want to consider that He is a Righteous Judge, one who cannot and will not compromise in the judgment of sin and the punishment of the sinner – one who will not in the end just let bygones be bygones. No, we do not want to consider that our sin is a big deal, because we do not want to think of it as sin against God.
But unless we would make pretend as a little child in a dream world, we must understand that this is the God with whom we have to do. It will do us no good to make up another god who is more lenient if that god is only make believe.
In Romans 1:18ff the apostle describes the fact of human rebellion and points out that already "the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (v. 18). The "bad" things that happen, storms and upheavals of nature and all, are but small tokens of a greater judgment to come. Like road signs they point of danger ahead and warn us to take heed. God, the creator and lawgiver, is also the righteous judge who demands that the sinner be punished.
And we must recall what, precisely, He demands of us. He demands perfection. "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (Levitcus 11:44). "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do all that is written in the law" (Deuteronomy 27:26; Galatians 3:10). That is to say, "Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point he is guilty of all" (James 2:10). If we have violated God's law, we by that violation deserve condemnation. The important thing now is that we have violated God's law. It does not matter that we have kept that law at many other points. The fact remains that we are guilty. We have sinned. Unless and until we can show that we have kept all of God's righteous demands continually for all our entire lifetime, without any exception, we are guilty.
Now this is precisely what people and virtually all religions today want to ignore. We want to ignore this problem of sin, and ignoring this problem of sin, just about any remedy will do.
But let's not make believe. Let's be wise and take the hard question seriously. What about this problem of your sin and its required penalty? What about this debt you have incurred? What will you do about it? Get religion? Go to church? Participate in religious rituals and ceremonies? Become a better citizen? Stop swearing? Get sincere? Become more generous? What can you do to address this problem of sin?
I often marvel at the impossible things in which people are willing to trust on this most important question. One will say, "I think that if I just keep the ten commandments, I'll be fine." Oh, is that all, I wonder. "Just keep the ten commandments." Think about that. Have you kept the ten commandments? "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Did you ever place anything ahead of God? Or perhaps I could ask, all this past week, was there anything that was not ahead of Him?" "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." Did you ever speak His name in a way that was irreverent? "Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy." "Honor thy father and mother." "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." "Thou shalt not covet." How are you doing? Have you kept all these? "Just keeping the ten commandments" is a difficult thing! Would you really want to be judged on this basis?
Another will say, "Well, I think that if we just live according to Jesus' sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7), we will be fine." "Just live according to the sermon on the mount?" Is that all? In His sermon on the mount Jesus demands that in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven our righteousness must exceed that of the most recognized pious men living. Indeed, we must not only refrain from murder; we must refrain from hatred and even calling our brother a fool. Not only must we never commit adultery, we must never lust! To summarize, Jesus says, "Be therefore perfect as your father in Heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Do you really want to be judged on this score?
"Well," another man says, "I believe that if we just do our best, then we will get to heaven without any trouble." Well, this is a significantly lower standard. But who has done his best? Have you? Have you really done your best in living before God? Or have you rather lived for yourself? Do you really want to be judged on this score?
And so another remedy is offered: "I think that if I am sincere, then God will take me into heaven." Fine, now here's something attainable! Or is it? Have you been sincere? This past week, were you sincere in your attempt to live for God? Really? And if you were, were you sincere enough? How do you know? How can you know? Is this really sure enough ground for judgment? I don't think so.
"Well," another says, "I think that in the end God will count up our good deeds and our sins, and if we have been good enough, then we'll be fine." That's a big "if"! Do your good deeds really out number your sins? How about this past week? Did you spend the week loving God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength? Did you love your neighbor as yourself? Did you live for God's glory? Did you do, or did you forget to do, all that God requires of you? Do your good deeds really outweigh your bad? Would you really want to be judged on this score? No, I don't think so. This remedy won't work either.
You see, all these "solutions" ignore the problem. What about your sin? Have you forgotten God? Have you forgotten that He is our creator, lawgiver, and righteous judge who has already said that every violation of His law demands condemnation? What can you do to solve this problem?
This is where we begin to ask about the effectiveness of religious rituals also – baptism, church membership, the Eucharist, lighting candles. How do any of these solve this problem? Answer: they don't. They don't even address the problem. They ignore it.
What's the Problem Again?
In other words, we have a very serious two-fold problem: We have failed to live up to God's requirements, and we must be judged accordingly. We are guilty. We have nothing to offer God by way of merit, and we have much to pay for it.
Moreover, our problem is God. In a very real sense, He is our enemy. His righteousness demands that we be condemned.
Did you ever realize that? Did you know that this is what you deserve? "The wages of sin is death" (Rom.3:23). Did you ever stop and think about that? What must it be to be under the Divine curse? To bear the wrath of the omnipotent, righteous judge against whom you have sinned? Did you ever think what it must be to get what you deserve?
What is the Solution?
Well then, did you ever stop to think how you could get out of such a mess? How?
At this point our text may seem somewhat puzzling. The gospel, the apostle tells us, is a revelation of the righteousness of God. Does that sound strange? We would expect, perhaps, that the gospel – the good news of rescue – is a revelation of the pity or mercy of God. We would not expect that it is a revelation of His righteousness – that is precisely our problem! It is God's righteousness that we have offended, and it is God's righteousness that demands our condemnation! How can the good news of rescue be a revelation of God's righteousness?
This is where we learn that God is both the problem and the solution to our problem. You see, if you are ever to be rescued from this God, it will never be by a sidestepping of His justice. He cannot allow that – He is perfectly just! Don't even dream that somehow in the end this God will ever just let bygones be bygones and pretend that you have not sinned. That would be to deny His righteous demands. He cannot do that.
So, this righteousness which would condemn you is your only hope. If you can find a way to satisfy His righteous demands, then you will not be condemned.
Now again, how can you satisfy the demands of perfect righteousness? Well, when we ask the question that way the first thing that comes to mind is that you must do something! You must somehow do sufficiently good works that you now merit His pleasure. But what works are good enough? Is religious ceremony good enough? Is religious zeal? Sincerity?
It is here that we begin to see what endless, fruitless search, what a fools errand all this is! None of these works, no matter how good or how many, can ever touch the problem. God's righteousness demands more! After you are done with all these things, you are still a sinner who deserves by that sin to be condemned. You have still not lived up to the demand, and for that failure God's righteousness demands punishment.
This is why Isaiah could say, "All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6). Whatever you do, no matter how good it is or how often you have done it, it falls shamefully short of the perfect requirement of God's law. Your very best efforts are "filthy rags."
This is why the whole idea that one could merit his own salvation by good works is so ironically absurd. It seems so to be respectful of the law of God. It sounds so noble, so reverent! We must be good enough! But at the end of it all we all know that we were notgood enough to satisfy the demands of God's law, and so we must begin pretending again – making as though we were good enough when we know we weren't, or make believing that God will somehow relax His demands. What began as such a noble attempt ends in perfect sham! We say that we will and must be good enough, but when we fail we look for a loop hole – a loop hole in which God must lower the standard and lower it considerably.
But if the perfect, righteous requirements of God's law are not satisfied, how will you ever be saved? Answer: you won't. It can never happen unless and until God's demands are met. He will not, He cannot dumb down the standard.
So then, where does this leave us? Answer: we are lost. Completely, helplessly, absolutely lost.
Well, there is still one option only – only one. We could possibly find a substitute, someone who would meet God's demand for us. Now keep in mind, this substitute must be another man. No angel will do. It must be one who can be your true representative.
But what makes this man so difficult to find is that he must be perfect. Without exception He must have kept the law of God perfectly and met all of His righteous demands. He must himself be without any sin. Not only has He been perfectly faithful in all that sincerity and law-keeping which you have attempted and failed, he must never once have ever violated the law of God at any point at all. He must be perfect and that without exception; otherwise, he himself would need a substitute!
But what makes this man even more difficult to find is that he must be willing to be condemned unjustly. If he is to be your substitute, then he, though deserving only God's praise, must be perfect and yet be willing to be condemned for you. He must be innocent yet willing to be condemned as guilty in your place. Only then will you have satisfied all the requirements of divine justice.
Of course, this is the very heart of the gospel, the good news of our rescue. The gospel is a revelation of God's righteousness! It is the good news that His demands have been met! It is the announcement that there is a savior! Someone has done for us what we could not do ourselves! We may be saved, not by sidestepping divine justice, but on the ground of a full satisfaction of His justice! We can make a great exchange – we can go to this savior and give Him our sin, and He will take it, and He will take all the consequences for it! And in exchange, He will give us all the righteousness that God demands. He is the perfect substitute. His name is Jesus Christ. He is God the Son, the Lord from Heaven, who in mercy came to be and do for us all that God required of us. And in Him, we can be saved.
This was the whole purpose of His incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas. He came as the sinner's substitute! He came to take every responsibility and assume every obligation God had laid upon His people. He came to do for them precisely everything that is required in order to be saved. And when we see Him in the Bible saying things like, "Which of you convinces me of sin?" we need to remember that this sinless, perfect man was sinless and perfect for the sake of and in the place of others. And when we hear Him on the cross cry, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" we must recall that He there bore the wrath of God unjustly, yet justly in that He was the sinner's substitute. The whole point of it all is that He is our legal & willing representative. We ride piggy back on His great shoulders, as it were. All that He did, He did for us. He is our savior, the one who satisfied all the righteous requirements of God's law. We are saved not by sidestepping divine justice but on ground of a full satisfaction of His justice!
In other words, the righteousness of God is both the problem and the solution.
This is why "substitution" is such an important word to Biblical Christianity. We have a substitute righteousness. A real righteousness, but a substitute righteousness, one that is given to us from someone else. We do not play games. We do not pretend. "We uphold the law" (Romans 3:31); it has been perfectly satisfied by the work of our substitute, our savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
This is why Christian theology makes so much of the idea of penal substitution. He not only took our place in life; He took our place in death. His death on the cross was payment of the penalty of our sin. He bore the judgment of God against our sin.
I hear the accuser roar,
Of ills that I have done.
I know them well, and thousands more.
Jehovah findeth none!
Though the restless foe accuses,
Sins recounting like a flood,
Every charge our God refuses –
Christ has answered with His blood!
This is why the Biblical writers make so much of that little phrase, "in Christ." We are "complete in Him" (Colossians 2:10). "In Him" we have "every spiritual blessing" (Ephesians 1:3). He has done it all, and as we are "in Him," we have all that God requires of us.
And this is why "grace" is such a big word in the Bible. It reminds us that all that God has required of us He has provided for us freely. We are saved not by our own efforts but by His! "Christ is all I need" is our glad confession. He is enough. He is a completely sufficient savior. In Him, all the demands of divine righteousness have been fully met.
How Can I Have this Solution?
Finally, the big question: How can all this become mine? How can I have this righteousness of Christ? How can it be credited to me? Listen to our text again: In the gospel of Christ the righteousness of God is revealed "from faith to faith" (Romans 1:17). There are no doubt many implications to that little phrase, but its basic meaning is clear enough. If God's righteousness is revealed "from faith to faith," then we receive it by faith and nothing but faith. We do not earn it. We cannot work for it. It comes only as we go to God confessing that we do not deserve it but that we are trusting Christ for it.
This is what the apostle has in mind as he cites that verse from the prophet Habakkuk: "He who through faith is righteous shall live" (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17). Notice that – The one who is righteous by faith shall live." Not the one who is righteous by works, no. That is not righteous enough. The one who is righteous by faith. The one who receives freely a substitute righteousness, the righteousness of Christ. We must trust Him to save us all by Himself. We are depending on Him and Him alone.
Now you might think that God would require something else of you. But if He had, we would all perish. Free grace is our only hope.
Let us be plain. Do not ever think in your heart that you are a Christian because you did something to earn it. And don't ever hope that when you come to die God will look at your good days and not your bad! Your best days are not good enough – "All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6). Your only hope is that instead of looking at you God will look at His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, because it is to Him that you are looking, and to Him alone.
If someone ever asks us, "If you should die today and stand before God and He were to ask you why He should let you into His heaven, what would you say?" Or answer is simple: The Lord Jesus Christ is my Savior. I am trusting Him to save me. He is my one and only plea. I am not trusting my faith; my faith is not good enough. I am trusting Him; He is good enough.
And if they should ask further, "But what was your part?" we say very plainly, "He did my part for me." "You mean you didn't. . . ." "No, I didn't anything. He did it. He did it all."
"He who through faith is righteous shall live."