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In the shadow of death

A sermon for Good Friday by Rod Benson

Romans 5:6-8

Many Australians today identify Good Friday with nothing more than fish pie, or a long weekend, or beer, barbecues and beaches. But if you were to walk along Main Street and take a straw poll, and ask, “What is Good Friday about?” you might get a majority of respondents saying something like, “It’s about the death of Jesus.”

They would be right: Good Friday is all about Christ’s death. Paul said in Romans 5:8, “Christ died for us.” He was referring to the crucifixion, the cross, the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God on our behalf.

The world knows, somewhat vaguely or mythically, that the first two words are true: “Christ died.” It is only the Christians who know, both objectively and within our own souls, that “Christ died for us.”

Those four words are the simplest way of conveying the good news of Jesus Christ. It takes the whole of Scripture, and a whole lifetime – in fact it will take all of eternity – to fully understand the love of God for sinners like you and me, but there it is in four words: Christ died for us.

If you know who Christ is, and that he died, and why he died, and that it was for you, then you are among the saved, and you have passed from spiritual death to life, and you are bound for glory.

Sixteenth-century theologian and hero of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, said of Romans chapter 5: “In the whole Bible there is hardly another chapter which can equal this triumphant text.”[1] If Luther experienced the ecstasy of feeling himself “reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise” upon discovering the righteousness whereby God, through sheer grace and mercy, justifies us by faith, then Romans 5 is the open doors.

It is not the unusual birth, nor the astonishing teaching, nor the exemplary life of Jesus that forms the heart of the good news, but his death.

[We believe] Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3b-4).

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us (1 Jn 3:16a). This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn 4:10).

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21).

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:6-8).

“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Pet 2:24-25).

Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Heb 9:28).

In Romans 5, Paul writes about the love of God, showing that it really is possible to know and experience God’s love because God has poured out his love in our hearts through his Holy Spirit, who has been given to everyone who accepts his love (v. 5). And in verse 8, Paul explains how we discover and experience God’s love for the very first time: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

We apprehend the significance of the historical event of Jesus’ death as it relates to our personal experience and deep need. On this text British author and pastor John Stott says:

One of the most satisfying aspects of the gospel is the way in which it combines the objective and the subjective, the historical and the experimental, the work of God’s Son and the work of God’s Spirit. We may know that God loves us, Paul says, both because he has proved his love in history through the death of his Son, and because he continually pours it into our hearts through the indwelling of his Spirit.[2]

How does God demonstrate his love to us? What is God’s answer to the anguished question of his Son on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Paul answers these questions in Romans 5 with three truths, each one building on the preceding statement.

First, God gave his Son for us. As John Stott eloquently expresses it:

If God had sent a man to us, as he had sent the prophets to Israel, we would have been grateful. If he had sent an angel, as he did to Mary at the annunciation, we would have counted it a great privilege. Yet in either case he would have sent us a third party, since men and angels are creatures of his making. But in sending his own Son, eternally begotten from his own Being, he was not sending a creature, a third party, but giving himself.[3]

There can be no greater expression of love than the self-giving and self-sacrificing love of the all-powerful and all-knowing God, who surrenders his precious Son to become one of his creatures, and to suffer a horrible and shameful physical death, and the unimaginably more terrible experience of feeling the existential weight of the sins of the world’s people as he bears them in his own body on the cross, to set us free. God gave his Son, his very best, his most precious gift, for us. Here is divine love, demonstrated in the most extraordinary manner.

Second, God gave his Son to die for us. The Christian gospel is more than an inspirational story of innocent suffering that provides a noble example for us to follow as we suffer. It is more than a set of principles for good moral living and polite conversation. The Christian gospel is about Jesus Christ,

who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Php 2:6-8).

God released his Son to experience need, hunger, thirst, grief, shame, mocking, hatred, scorn, torture, humiliation, defeat and finally death. As Ernst C. Homburg put it in a beautiful hymn, “Not the pains of death too bitter / Our redemption to procure.”

Here too is divine love, costly love, without limits, clearly demonstrated.

Third, God gave his Son to die for us. Notice the words Paul uses in Romans 5 to describe us. He says we are powerless (v. 6). We have no capacity to save ourselves, or even to recognise the true awfulness of our condition.

He says we are ungodly (v. 6) – we are rebels. We fail to give God the glory due to him, we do not honour him as we should, we raise our fist (either physically or metaphorically) against heaven, and stop our ears, and go our own way (see Rom 3:18; Isa 53:6).

He says we are sinners (v. 8; cf 3:23) – people who transgress God’s holy laws, who wilfully act in accordance with our corrupted human nature, who miss the mark set by God, who fail to conform to God’s will for our lives, often deliberately and obstinately.

Not only is the cross a powerful demonstration of the magnitude of God’s love for us; it is also a terrifying reminder of the fact and seriousness of the problem of our own sins – of the utter blackness, the utter darkness, the putrid offense, the profound evil of our sin.

Finally, and most terrifying of all, Paul says we are God’s enemies (v. 10). What does it mean to be the enemy of your Creator, your King, your ultimate Judge? What does it mean to be the enemy of the Lord God Almighty? What does it mean to be the enemy of Jesus Christ? It means many things, but among them is the beautiful assurance that you are therefore the object of God’s love, and your eternal welfare is the reason why Jesus suffered and died.

Jesus died for you, to rescue you when you had no power to rescue yourself; and no ability to turn from your godless arrogance and autonomy; and no possibility of arranging your own atonement, let alone changing the very essence of your sinful human nature and becoming a new kind of being.

Here too is God’s love demonstrated clearly and awesomely. God in Christ on the cross calls his enemies his friends; calls those who have drifted far off to come near; calls those seeking real love in all the wrong places to find in him the best of all loves, vast as an ocean, all other loves excelling. This is what it means to say that Christ died for us. This is God’s answer to Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross.

As God reflects on the finished, perfect work of Jesus, and as he does his work within us, we come to love God, and to reflect his love. Our deepest longings are satisfied, our sins forgiven, our hope assured, our hearts and minds at rest. In his autobiographical Confessions written in the fourth century BCE, Augustine perfectly expressed a right response to the demonstration of God’s love:

But what do I love when I love you? Not the beauty of any body or the rhythm of time in its movement; not the radiance of light, so dear to our eyes; not the sweet melodies in the world of manifold sounds; not the perfume of flowers, ointments and spices; not manna and not honey; not the limbs so delightful to the body’s embrace: it is none of these things that I love when I love my God.

And yet when I love my God I do indeed love a light and a sound and a perfume and a food and an embrace – a light and sound and perfume and food and embrace in my inward self. There my soul is flooded with a radiance which no space can contain; there a music sounds which time never bears away; there I smell a perfume which no wind disperses; there I taste a food that no surfeit embitters; there is an embrace which no satiety severs. It is this that I love when I love my God.[4]

Christ died for us. Do you believe this? Have you accepted the truth for yourself?


Sermon 662 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Good Friday 25 March  2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (trans. J. Mueller; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), p. 72.

[2] John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove: IVP, 1986), p. 213.

[3] Ibid., p. 214.

[4] Augustine, The Confessions, X.6.8.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

1 reply

  1. Thanx Rod. Really appreciate the opportunity to read your sermons when I can’t get to church.

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