You are all familiar with “contrasts.” A contrast is a tool used to compare, to highlight differences. Dictionary.com defines contrast as:
1. to compare in order to show unlikeness or differences; note the opposite natures, purposes, etc. 2. a person or thing that is strikingly unlike in comparison: “The weather down here is a welcome contrast to what we’re having back home.” 3. opposition or juxtaposition of different forms, lines, or colors in a work of art to intensify each element’s properties and produce a more dynamic expressiveness.
Contrast is a very useful tool that we run into all the time. You may have seen contrast used in the field of photography and art. I’ve seen pictures that demonstrate contrast by having the tallest man in the world standing next to the shortest man in the world. Or maybe you’ve heard one of our weather people talk about the hottest and coldest temperatures that we’ve experienced on any given day. Preachers have used contrast to demonstrate the wide gulf between goodness and depravity or love and hate.
Today, we will take a look at Romans 5:6-8. In our study we will see a great example of the use of contrast. Like a brilliant diamond set against a black velvet cloth, the love of God, in all of its radiance, jumps off the page for us when it is set against the sinful condition of humanity—the very people He has chosen to be the recipients of His glorious love. Let’s get started. Read along with me.
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8 NIV)
In our scripture for today, Paul uses three very descriptive words to help us understand humanity’s plight. There is an additional description, used by Paul, in verse 10 that we will include in our study. Standing in stark contrast to Paul’s description of our nature and actions, Paul describes God’s love, and His action on our part.
The first word that Paul uses to describe us is “powerless.” The Greek word, “asthenes” means, “weak, infirm, or feeble.” The word is used 25 times in the New Testament. Let’s take a look at a few examples. In Matthew 25:41, Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane praying with Peter, James, and John when He found them asleep. Jesus said,
41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” (Matthew 26:41 NIV)
In 1 Corinthians, Paul is teaching the brothers and sisters in Christ about their freedom in Christ when he warns them not to allow their freedom to be used to cause “weak” folks to stumble in their relationship with God. Paul writes,
9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (1 Corinthians 8:9 NIV)
The last example I want to show you is found in Galatians 4:9. In this example Paul uses the descriptive word to point out “weak” teachings instead of weak or feeble people.
9 But now that you know God– or rather are known by God– how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (Galatians 4:9 NIV)
If you will go back with me to our Scripture for today found in Romans 5:6. Paul says, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6 NIV) What kind of powerlessness or weakness is Paul trying to describe for us? Well, if you will remember the first four chapters of Romans, it is quite evident what he is talking about. We were, and still are, powerless to save ourselves. We were, and still are, powerless to break the stranglehold that sin has over our lives. James Montgomery Boice writes,
What specifically were we unable to do? We were unable to understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). We were unable to see the kingdom of God or enter it (John 3:3,5) We were unable to seek God (Rom. 3:11) Paul elsewhere describes this inability vividly when he says that before God saved us we were ‘dead in (our) transgressions and sins’ (Eph. 2:1) That is, we were no more able to respond to or seek God than a corpse is able to respond to stimuli of any kind. (James Montgomery Boice, Romans: Vol. 2, Baker Books: Grand Rapids, MI. 1992. pg. 537)
Let’s move on. Paul goes on, in verse 6, to say that Christ died for the “ungodly.” The Greek word that is used here is the word, “asebes” which means, “destitute of reverential awe towards God, condemning God, or impious.” This is strong language. It doesn’t so much mean that we are not like God as much as it means that we are against God. God is Sovereign and we do not like the fact that God is in control, we want to be in control. God has said that we are to be holy in our thoughts, attitudes, and actions, like He is holy, but we don’t want to be like God. We want to write our own rules and live however we want to live. We want to be like the people described in the book of Judges– “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” (Judges 17:6 NIV) The same verse is quoted in Judges 21:25. We don’t want God telling us what to do.
Just as we are opposed to God, God is opposed to the ungodly. Back in Romans 1 we read that the wrath of God is being revealed, present tense, upon the ungodly. Take a look at Romans 1:18-19 with me.
18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Romans 1:18-19 NIV)
The wrath of God is not without purpose, it is purposeful in disciplining or judging those who are opposed to God. In 2 Peter 2:4-6 we can see that the wrath of God that we read about in Romans 1 has been poured out throughout history on the ungodly. Read along with me.
4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; 6 if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; (2 Peter 2:4-6 NIV)
Let’s move on. The next description Paul gives of humanity is found in Romans 5:8. Paul writes,
8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8 NIV)
Paul says that we “were still sinners,” the Greek word is “hamartolos,” which means, “devoted to sin, a sinner, pre-eminently sinful, or especially wicked.” David Darnell translates the phrase, “missers of the mark.” That phrase paints a vivid picture for us of this word. God calls all of humanity to be holy, to be like Him in our character and actions. If we were to do as God said then we would hit the bull’s eye, but we’ve missed the mark.
I was reading an article in Newsweek about a very popular preacher in New York. The author of the article attributed the preacher’s success to his ability to expound upon the Word of God in an orthodox, intellectually stimulating way, while not being a “fire and brimstone” preacher. Now, I don’t know the preacher who was described in the article, but when I read the phrase “fire and brimstone” it caught my attention. Do you know what most people mean when they use that phrase? People don’t like to hear the things that we’ve been talking about for the past several minutes. We don’t like to hear that we are sinners. We don’t like to hear about the “wrath of God.” We don’t like to hear that we are weak and powerless and opposed to God and His ways. And we don’t like to hear that apart from Christ we are enemies of God. That is Paul’s next description of us.
What we like to hear is that we are basically good people, sometimes misguided, but basically good. We want to believe that God is on our side regardless of whether or not we are on God’s side. We like to talk about the forgiveness of God while totally dismissing the call of God to a life of holiness. This would all be good and fine if we could find this line of thinking in God’s Word, but it just isn’t there. God’s Word makes clear for us that we are all sinners. Paul said in Romans, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23 NIV)
God will not lower His standard of holiness. He will not wink at our sin. What God has done for sinners is this: He has acted on our behalf. The same word that is used for “sinners” in Romans 5 is also used in 1 Timothy 1:15.
15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners– of whom I am the worst. (1 Timothy 1:15 NIV)
God does not hate sinners. God is not sitting on His throne in Heaven looking for ways to crush sinners. He is not enjoying our suffering and troubles. God’s great desire is that sinners like you and me will turn around and fall into His arms of grace and mercy. The same word that is used for “sinners” in Romans 5 is used in Luke 15, when Jesus tells a parable about a woman who lost a coin and then found it. When she found it she was beside herself with joy. Jesus said,
10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10 NIV)
All of Heaven rejoices when one single sinner’s eyes are opened and he or she turns back to the Arms of grace by faith! What a glorious picture!
There is one final descriptive word that Paul uses to convey to us our dire circumstances. The word is found in Romans 5:10, where Paul writes,
10 For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:10 NIV)
We will explore this verse more next week, but this week I wanted us to see how Paul describes another facet of our character before we come to Christ. Paul says we were “God’s enemies.” The word that he uses is the Greek word, “echthros” and it means “hated, odious, hateful, hostile, hating, and opposing another.” Those are strong words aren’t they? I have to admit to you that they make me uncomfortable. Before I came to know Christ I would not have described myself as an enemy of God. I had not declared war on God. I wasn’t trying to consciously undermine God. I was simply going about my business on my terms, in my own way. I rarely gave God a thought. As uncomfortable as it may make me, I need to know the truth, and you need to know the truth. If we are not “children” of God (John 1:12), then we are “God’s enemies.” We are either an ally or an adversary in God’s book. Paul wrote to the folks in Colosse and said,
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. (Colossians 1:21 NIV)
Once we were alienated from God. At one time we were enemies of God because of our behavior, behavior which is not godly, but ungodly. We were enemies of God because of our sin. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote,
4 You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4 NIV)
God has drawn a line in the sand hasn’t He? You can either be a friend of God and seek to follow Him in your daily life or you can be a friend of the world and live however the world determines you should live, but you can’t be both. This is one of the biggest problems we are facing in our own nation today. In my estimation, the biggest problems that we face as American Christians is not the price of gas or abortion or pornography or crime. The biggest problem that we are facing is the problem of cultural Christianity. What I mean by that phrase is that we have many of the followers of Jesus who are seeking to be relevant and accepted by our culture while at the same time following Jesus. I just don’t see how that is possible.
If you look at the life of Jesus you will find that Jesus wasn’t accepted by the status quo of society. He was rejected, mocked, and eventually hung on a cross. He was accepted by the outcasts, by the marginalized and misfits, and by the suffering. Jesus could have never pulled off a talk show in Jerusalem. He could never have run for office. He was never invited to the parties and social functions of the cultural elite. Would you agree? If you agree with me then why in the world do we, the modern-day followers of Jesus, seek these things for ourselves? Friendship with the world places us at odds with God.
There you have it. We have taken a look at each of the four words Paul used to describe the human condition in relation to God. We were, or possibly are, powerless, ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God. If I were an artist and I was going to paint a portrait of the scene Paul describes for us in Romans 5:6-8 then I would cover my canvas first of all in the darkest black known to man. I would paint the most dreary backdrop possible to illustrate the condition of my heart and your heart. If that were the completed work then it would portray for us absolute hopelessness and despair would it not? This is not the conclusion of Paul and therefore I still have my brush in hand. Let’s continue on by going back to the beginning. In verse 6, Paul writes,
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6 NIV)
For whom did Jesus die? Was it for good people? Was it for those who were singing His praises? That’s not what God’s Word tells us. We are told that while we were utterly powerless to do anything about our condition, “Christ died for the ungodly.” When we were opposed to God, when we were willing to kill God to escape His claim upon our lives, God handed His Son over to the executioners on our behalf. Stop and think about the irony, the contrast, of that picture. We read in Ezekiel where God says,
4 For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son– both alike belong to me. The soul who sins is the one who will die. (Ezekiel 18:4 NIV)
We are the sinners and yet through the death of the One who never sinned, we have life—abundant, eternal life! In Romans 5:7-8, Paul writes,
7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:7-8 NIV)
Paul states the facts. Rarely will someone die on the behalf of righteous person, but it is possible. I love the story of the brother and his great love for his sister. The story is recorded in Robert Coleman’s book, “Written In Blood.” There was a little girl who had a very rare blood type, which she shared with her little brother, and she was in need of a blood transfusion. The little boy had suffered from the same disease that his sister had, but he had recovered two years earlier. The fact that he had overcome the disease made his blood even more valuable to his sister in the eyes of her doctor.
The doctor carefully explained all this to the little boy, pointing out that without the transfusion his sister would die. “Would you be brave and give your blood to your sister?” the doctor asked. Johnny hesitated. His lower lip began to tremble. Then he smiled and said, “Sure, for my sister.” The two children were wheeled into the hospital room – Mary, pale and thin; Johnny, robust and healthy. The little boy looked over at his sister and smiled as he watched the blood move out of his body down the clear plastic tube. Johnny began to grow weak and he lost his smile. He looked up at the doctor and asked, “Doctor, when will I die?” Johnny thought that giving his blood to his sister meant giving up his life. He wasn’t going to die, but he was willing because of the great love he had for his sister.
Paul makes it very clear to us that we were neither good nor righteous and yet God demonstrated His love for us. God didn’t stop with telling us that He loved us, He showed His love for us by giving His Son’s life for us, by allowing He who was sinless to die in the place of those who are sinners. Charles Hodge has written,
If [God] loved us because we loved him, he would love us only so long as we love him, and on that condition; and then our salvation would depend on the constancy of our treacherous hearts. But as God loved us as sinners, as Christ died for us as ungodly, our salvation depends, as the apostle argues, not on our loveliness, but on the constancy of the love of God. (Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974 reprint], pp. 136-37).
There was absolutely nothing in us that caught God’s attention. There was no nobility that caused God to stop and reach out to us. There was no hint of possibilities for our future that moved God to intervene in our predicament. There was nothing that persuaded God to bring the remedy that alone could alter our existence. It was love. God’s love for us, in spite of our antagonistic attitudes toward Him, moved God to demonstrate His love by giving His Son. That is something that I wish we had an hour to sit and contemplate.
If I were to finish my painting of this sobering Scripture this morning I would pick up my brush and with a palette full of the most vibrant colors I would cover the blackness, the darkness of our condition with the brightness of God’s love. That is just what God has done for you and me. Before we leave here this morning I want to share the words of my favorite pastor, Charles Haddon Spurgeon with you.
Consider the circumstances which attended his death. It was no common death he died; it was a death of ignominy, for he was put to death by a legal slaughter; it was a death of unutterable pain, for he was crucified; and what more painful fate than to die nailed to a cross? It was a long protracted death, for he hung for hours, with only his hands and his feet pierced—parts which are far away from the seat of life, but in which are situated the most tender nerves, full of sensibility. He suffered a death which for its circumstances still remain unparalleled. It was no speedy blow which crushed the life out of the body, and ended it; but it was a lingering, long, and doleful death, attended with no comforts and no sympathy, but surrounded with scorn and contempt. Picture him! They have hurled him on his back; they have driven nails through his hands and his feet; they have lifted him up. See! They have dashed the cross into its place. It is fixed. And now behold him! Mark his eyes, all full of tears; behold his head, hanging on his breast. Ah! Mark him, he seems all silently to say, “I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; I am brought into the dust of death.” Hear him, when he groans, “I thirst.” Above all, listen to him, whilst he cries, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” My words cannot picture him; my thoughts fail to express it. No painter ever accomplished it, nor shall any speaker be able to perform it. Yet I beseech you regard the Royal Sufferer. See him, with the eye of your faith, hanging on the bloody tree. Hear him cry, before he dies, “It is finished!”
…if you are saved, then this is something to you, for the blood which trickles from his hands, distils for you. That frame which writhes in torture writhes for you; those knees, so weak with pain, are weak for you; those eyes, dripping with showers of tears, do drop for you. Ah! think of him, then, you who have faith in him; look to him, and as many of you as have not yet believed, I will pray for you, that you may now behold him as the expiation of your guilt; as the key which opens heaven to all believers. Though you have insulted him—thy Saviour, though you have trampled on him—thy Saviour. Though you have spoken evil of his people, his day, his Word, and his gospel—he is thy Saviour. (Charles Haddon Spurgeon)
I want to invite you today to consider our Savior, the One who took upon Himself all of the penalty of death which we so deserved so that we might live. Won’t you invite Him into your heart this very day?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
September 24, 2013