Awesome Mercy [Part 4]

Christ is the end of the law… to everyone who believes. —Romans 10:4

How does Romans 9 change us? God’s mercy takes us into a new place – but where? Once we see that we are nothing without God’s mercy, once we see that God’s mercy is selective rather than automatic, free rather than deserved, mysterious rather than explainable, once we see God as he really is in his fullness and ourselves as we really are in our emptiness, what changes? We lose our own righteousness forever, and we gain Christ forever. “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4). We change from our own pay-as-you-go plans to receiving God’s mercy with the empty hands of faith. Your hands may be dirty and diseased. That does not disqualify you. God requires of you only this – that your hands be empty. That isn’t easy for us. The change from God-owes-me to God-have-mercy-on-me is hard to accept. There is nothing more painful than to lose the buying power with God we thought we were building up. It is hard to lose leverage with God. It is hard to be reduced to nothing but our own need and his own mercy. We lose our pride. But it is so freeing. That low place of the loss of Self is where God comes down in blessing. It is so freeing when all we can do is fall into the arms of our Savior, and he catches us and holds us and loves us and never lets us go. Let’s step down to that low place together right now. If we will, the mercy of God will be more than a concept; it will be our experience.

How do we go there? Paul draws a map for us here in our final passage in Romans 9 that spills a little over into Romans 10. But Paul maps out for us the surprising route we take to go deeper into the mercy of God.

Let me introduce it this way, since I am an unrepentant child of the goofy, hippie 1960s. A friend of mine back then came up with The Fourfold Path to Spiritual Enlightenment. The first step in The Fourfold Path to Spiritual Enlightenment is moral indifference. That’s where we all start. Life is basically a playground, and we make our own rules. God doesn’t matter. Right and wrong don’t matter. Other people don’t matter. They are toys for us to play with in the game, and winning is all that matters. That’s moral indifference. Some people who treat life that way undergo a change. They move on to the second step in The Fourfold Path: moral concern. These people start caring about God and duty and right-versus-wrong. They start living upright lives. They look back at the people of moral indifference, and they don’t like what they see. These people of moral concern might be conservative or they might be liberal. Their moral concern might focus on prayer in schools or global warming or something else. But what they all have in common is a moral rallying point that defines who they are and how other people rank beneath them and their moral crusade. And in their minds, they disdain other people for not being concerned like them. That’s the second step in The Fourfold Path. Some of these morally concerned people undergo a further change. They move into the third step: moral despair. These concerned people are so sincere, and so indignant, and so upright – until they crash. But at some point they do fail. They fail to live up to their ideals, what we really are will inevitably come out. They fail horribly, inexcusably, embarrassingly, and they see it. They discover they’re not the moral people they thought they were. Their habits and passions and background and temptations and surroundings prove too strong. Sooner or later, they find out that virtue isn’t as simple as a choice or a cause. They are shattered by forces within themselves they didn’t choose. And the final defeat is this realization: “I will never change. Try as I might, I will never ever change. I’m stuck with what I am.” That is moral despair, the third step in The Fourfold Path. Fourthly, some moral failures hear the gospel and finally look beyond themselves. They stop being self-indulgent or self-admiring or self-hating. Something changes when they hear God’s good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross. These moral failures look to Christ, and they discover hope. That’s the fourth step in the Fourfold Path. God loves failures. And all moral failures who look to Christ find themselves saying, “Oh, so now my life begins! Everything up to this point was preliminary.”

Where are you along that path? Whether you’re in moral indifference, moral concern or moral despair – wherever you are, you need to know what a Friend we have in Jesus. We’re not coming to church today to excuse our indifference or to polish our success or to wallow in our despair. This is why we’re here: Christ lived the perfect life for us we’ve never lived, he died the guilty death for us we don’t want to die, we enter into his mercies as we hold out the empty hands of faith, and everything starts getting better. But here’s the price we pay to have Christ: we lose ourselves – both our flippant indifference and our arrogant correctness and our raging despair. We must lose ourselves, to gain Christ. And to spur us forward on The Fourfold Path, all the way into hope in Christ, we have this advantage helping us along: our own emptiness and disappointment and sadness. There is only one mercy in all the universe. It is not in us but in Christ alone, and he is awesome.

Let’s take the passage one step at a time and try to face it honestly. It will be both disturbing and freeing. First, in verses 30-31, we see the irony of the Jews and the Gentiles:

What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law.

Here’s how we can crawl inside these verses. In your imagination get into a time machine – think “Back to the Future” and Doc Brown’s Delorean – and go back to the Roman world in the first century B.C. and take a poll of everyone’s beliefs and behavior. What do you find? You find two broad patterns or trends, the Jews on one side and the Gentiles on the other, two observable cultures. The Jews are devoting themselves to God’s law and keeping their distance from Gentile culture, which they see as unclean. The Gentiles have cooties. Not that every Jew feels that way, but it’s a pattern – pursuing a law that leads to righteousness. The Jews are serious about that. The Bible is the rule-book, and they’re following the rules, to be righteous and ready for the Messiah. But the Gentiles, over in their culture, aren’t pursuing righteousness. They’re like many people today, focused on other things, trying to get by, not minding some cheap thrills along the way. So, as a pollster, you observe these two trends in the first century B.C. Now fast-forward to the first century A.D., in the decades after Jesus, and you see the irony. Who are the strongest opponents of Jesus the Jewish Messiah and his righteous kingdom? The Jews. And where is he eagerly embraced? Among the Gentiles. Paul looks around him in his world and sees this: “Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it. . . . Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed.” The obvious question is, Why? Verse 32:

Why? Because they [the Jews] did not pursue it [righteousness] by faith, but as if it were based on works.

When Israel pursued righteousness, they weren’t chasing the wrong thing. Righteousness is the only thing worth pursuing. Righteousness is how you come under the smile of God. Righteousness is God’s seal of approval. We all want approval. Here in Music City USA, we all want applause. And righteousness is the voice of God himself saying, “Encore! Encore!” Righteousness is what everyone wants, though we rarely call it that. But “righteousness” is biblical language for the okayness we all long for. If we’re righteous, everything else in life opens up. If we aren’t righteous, we’re incomplete, something is missing. What acceptance into the finest university is worth to your future career, righteousness is God putting you on the fast-track to a dream life forever with him. What romance with Mr. or Miss Perfect is worth to your heart, righteousness is God in love with you forever. But here’s the irony. The Jews were pursuing God, and they missed him. The Gentiles were partying in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and they found God. Why? Works versus faith, Paul says. We must understand the difference between works and faith. I warn you up front, it’s hard for us to accept, but turning from works to faith is the hinge on which our lives turn one way or the other.

Here’s the difference between works and faith. People who know they have failed – all they have left is the empty hands of faith. But people who still think in terms of what they’re entitled to – they’re imprisoned within themselves, their pride, their self-assurance. They don’t need mercy. They think God owes them. Here’s the difference. Works says, “My life proves that I count.” Faith says, “Christ is the only reason why I count.” Works says, “I deserve everything that makes my life worth living.” Faith says, “Mercy gives me everything that makes my life worth living.” If your heart is bound up with yourself and your own worthiness, that’s why God seems remote and uncaring and why you’re tense and angry and insecure. God himself is blocking your path into blessing. Verse 32 again:

They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion [not out in the world but in among the people of God] a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

Paul is quoting from the Old Testament. The “I” speaking is God. And the metaphor is God laying pavement down the main street of Zion, the city of God. It’s called Righteousness Way. And it’s crowded with diligent people striding confidently forward. But God has built into the pavement a stumbling-stone. It isn’t a mistake. God put it there on purpose. People trip on it. They fall flat. Today we’d say they hit a wall. And Jesus is the brick wall that morally successful people crash into. Jesus is not a stepping-stone to a higher plane of self-achievement; he is the stumbling-stone to the low place of self-discovery. And God is the one who set it up that way. God has put all his richest blessings down in the low place where we come to the end of ourselves and trust in Christ alone. In the Bible God says, “My righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back my soul has no pleasure in him” (Hebrews 10:39). It’s better to stumble forward with Christ in defeat than to shrink back from Christ in pride. Which way are you going? Are you believing today that Christ is enough for you, whatever you’re facing? Are you believing today that Christ can handle your sin, your past, your weakness, your future? God says, Christ is dependable. And when your thoughts tell you he isn’t and you are tempted to shrink back, remind your thoughts of what’s real outside your head. Christ is merciful to sinners with endless needs, and since the dawn of time he has never failed any sinner who stumbled into trusting him.

We are better off having Jesus than having a good track record. The verse says, “Whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” If you live by your own works, you must always fear being exposed and shamed. But when you shift your confidence over to Christ, you can admit the truth about yourself. You don’t have to live in denial. Repentance isn’t threatening. Your self-image is based on what Christ has done for you. You are free to live with joyful expectancy of more and more blessing, sinner that you are. You can declare war today on your gloom and non-expectancy and unbelief, because Christ is for you. Will you let God love you for no reason at all other than the obedience of Christ? God is so willing. But he blesses only sinners who hold out the empty hands of faith.

Everyone who tastes the sweetness of that liberation wants it for others too. Verses 1-3:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.

Do you realize what the Bible is saying? Having a zeal, a passion, to obey God can go wrong. It’s not just passion for idols that goes wrong. Zeal for God can go wrong too. How? It can be zeal without knowledge. What is that? Zeal and passion and drive and loyalty and devotion and fervor, but it’s misguided. It’s motivated by a false faith, a faith that we can establish our own righteousness. It’s works disguised as faith. But God is saying, “Let’s change the subject from you. I am offering my righteousness freely through Christ alone. Will you let go of your righteousness and receive mercy you don’t deserve and cannot claim?” Here in the Bible Belt, very few people will come out and say they have to earn their salvation. They know better. But their knowledge is like an obvious answer on a test. That kind of knowledge isn’t down in the heart. The reality in our hearts is, we are all tempted daily to establish our own righteousness, because then we feel better about ourselves. But that kind of morality – it’s biblical on the surface, but it isn’t Christ-display, it’s self-display. There is a kind of obedience that is not of the Holy Spirit. Remember, it was the moral stalwarts who hated Jesus, and it was the forgiven sinners who loved him. This false obedience shows up in anxiety about the future, because we can never do enough. It shows up especially in feeling superior to other sinners and thinking, “I may be bad but I’d never do that.” That pride feels good. It feels righteous. It doesn’t feel evil. So when Paul says, “They have a zeal for God but not according to knowledge,” he means they lack the heart-awareness, the gospel-awareness, that God gives us sinners all the approval we need up-front, before we obey God at all, through the finished work of Christ on the cross – if we’ll have him on terms of mercy alone. God wants us to obey not for his approval but out of his approval through Christ. He wants us to obey not so that we’ll be accepted but because in Christ we are accepted. And you can be a conscientious person and obey the Bible, but if your obedience means more to your heart than Jesus, then God considers your obedience disobedient and rebellious: “Seeking to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” Your problem might not be law-breaking; your problem might be law-keeping. Your zeal for God might be offending God. Zeal and passion for God can conceal faith in ourselves. We need to be as suspicious of our religious selves as we are of our irreligious selves. And it’s so hard to accept that. It is so hard to bring our sacrifices and hard work and self-denial under the judgment of the cross, but we need a Savior everywhere in our existence. As I heard Ed Stetzer say earlier this year, “Bible Belt people need to be saved from their salvation and come to Jesus.” We must lose ourselves, in order to gain Christ. But what happens, what wonderfully liberating thing happens to us, when we come to the end of ourselves and reach out to Christ with nothing but need? Verse 4:

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

In other words, Christ is the perfect realization of everything God was teaching us in the Old Testament law. And Christ is the final termination of works-based or performance-based acceptance with God. The massive reality of Christ changes everything. True righteousness is ours now through a heartfelt embracing of Christ. Come to the end of your glib moral shallowness, your arrogant moral rightness, your angry moral despair, and come to Christ as your total Savior. You will not be put to shame. You will receive mercy. Here’s how Martin Luther put it, using the metaphor of marriage:

Faith unites the soul with Christ, as a bride is united with her bridegroom. From such a marriage, Christ and the soul become one, so that they hold all things in common, for better or worse. This means that what Christ possesses belongs to the believing soul, and what the soul possesses belongs to Christ. Thus Christ possesses all good things and holiness; these now belong to the soul. The soul possesses lots of vices and sin; these now belong to Christ. Here we have a happy exchange! Christ makes the sin of the believing soul his own through the wedding ring of faith, and he acts as if he had done the sin himself, so that sin is swallowed up in him. Is this not a happy business? Christ, the rich, noble and holy bridegroom, takes in marriage this poor, contemptible and sinful little prostitute, takes away all her evil and bestows all his goodness upon her! It is no longer possible for sin to overwhelm her, for she is now found in Christ.

Will you come to the end of yourself, including all the good you thought you had coming to you? And will you come to Christ for an awesome mercy you know you don’t deserve but desperately need? If you will, he will meet you today.