Romans 3:21-31

October 7, 2001


Terry L. Brensinger, Ph.D., Pastor, The Grantham Church

Just a few days ago, I went to the Giant to purchase our groceries for the week. My wife typically carries out that responsibility, but it suited my schedule best on this occasion. Just before leaving the house, Deb handed to me an assortment of coupons. My task involved “redeeming” them. You know how it works. You select the appropriate items, proceed to the cash register, and hand the clerk the corresponding coupons. In return, she reduces the amount of money that you are required to pay. You give the coupons in exchange for money. Redeeming coupons is a simple and painless process.

The Bible speaks often of redemption. Paul refers to it here in Romans 3:24. Redemption in the Bible, however, involves far more than the casual transfer of a few coupons. What Paul has in mind is firmly rooted in the customs of his ancestors. In the Old Testament, both property and people could be redeemed. In the case of property, redemption rests on the assumption that land is in reality a gift from God. You and I live in such a mobile society. Most of us could pick up and move elsewhere without a significant sense of loss. Not in the Middle East, let alone ancient Israel. Property is cherished–there is a special attachment to it. If an Israelite found himself in debt and faced the prospect of needing to sell his land in order to pay off that debt, it became the responsibility of his nearest male relative to pay the price and “redeem” the land. Keep it in the family.

My great uncle Charles was for years the only person of even moderate wealth in my extended family. When he turned ninety, he gave to each of his nieces and nephews one valuable item of their choosing. Then, upon his death, all of his belongings were to be sold at public auction and the proceeds divided evenly between all of his close relatives. I remember the auction. It took place in the mid-seventies. Among Uncles Charles’ valuables were three beautiful oak book shelves with multiple sections and glass doors. I wanted one badly, so I counted the few pennies that remained in my college-student budget. Unfortunately, the auctioneer decided that the book shelves would bring in more money if he sold all three of them together, and my hopes immediately died. Without hesitation, an unknown woman from the area bought the set.

A short time later that afternoon, while I was helping with the auction, that same woman came up to me. I still don’t know for sure how she knew about me–I hadn’t said anything. Anyway, she said, “I heard that you were interested in your great uncle’s bookshelves. It doesn’t seem right to me that all of them should leave the family. You can buy any of the three that you want for whatever price you can afford.” With great excitement, I redeemed that oak book case

I bought it back. It’s still in the family, standing in my living room here in Grantham. Stop by and see it sometime.
In addition to property, people could also be redeemed. For example, if I found myself in debt and had no means with which to repay what I owed, I faced the prospect of becoming a slave to my creditor. In such a situation, my closest male relative–in this case, my brother–could pay off my debt and “redeem” me from slavery. Through his efforts, I would go free

In an even worse-case scenario, I might face execution rather than slavery. Say, for example, that I owned a notoriously vicious bull. If that bull somehow managed to gore another person to death, I myself would be put to death unless a sizeable amount of money was paid to redeem me.

This notion of redemption, then, involves multiple participants. An impoverished person, consumed by insurmountable debt, who faces the loss of his property or freedom, or even his life. A creditor, who now holds unyielding authority over his helpless debtor. And a redeemer who steps in, pays the debt, reclaims the property, and frees the debtor. This is the imagery that Paul and other writers of the New Testament draw upon in describing what it is that Jesus Christ has done for us

In Paul’s mind, the world and all of its inhabitants are deeply in debt, held hostage by the Devil and his henchmen. Though created by and for God, this world is now marred and impoverished. People are “slaves to sin,” to use Paul’s terminology (Rom. 6:20), and the sum total of creation feels sin’s lasting effects, longing to be set free from its bondage to decay (Rom. 8:21). Both property and people are in desperate straights, and the anticipated outcome is dismal. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul reminds us in Romans 6:20, echoing sentiments that appear throughout Scripture. “ the day that you eat of it you shall die,” Adam and Eve are instructed (Gen. 2:17). And with unashamed bluntness, Ezekiel reminds the people in exile: “The soul that sins shall surely die” (18:4).

Creation is in a predicament. But then, so is God. After all, the world that he formed and declared “Good” now falls under the domination of someone else. God is losing his property–it’s passing out of the family, so to speak. Satan put a bid on it, and we who were to guard creation accepted it. We went for it. Now, according to 1 John 5:19, “The whole world lies under the power of the evil one.” Further, God is losing his people. Those in whom he implanted his very image, those whom he declared “very good,” his special possession, now are languishing under the control of an enemy ruler. All are evil. No one is righteous. Infected and defenseless, and no combination of good works and sheer grit will do. Their very lives are on the line. Yet, “... no human being will be justified in God’s sight by keeping the law,” Paul reminds us (Rom. 3:20). Then what are we to do? What will be our fate?

I cannot think of a simple contrasting conjunction that I am more thankful for than the one positioned here at the beginning of Romans 3:21. “But now.” “But now.” Imagine these scenarios. An inmate on death row, awaiting execution, when the warden of the prison steps into the cell and says, “You were to be put to death, but now...” A child, snatched from her parents and tribe, waiting to take her spot on a ship, when the leader of an unexpected group of visitors breaks up the crowd and says, “You were headed for slavery in a distant land, but now....” A patient lying in a hospital bed, desperately needing an organ transplant, when the surgeon walks into the room and says, “We just could not find a suitable donor, but now...” “But now.” Every human being, according to Paul, is an inmate on death row, a child in the clutches of slavery, a terminally ill patient in need of a transplant. Nothing could be done. “But now...” “But now they are justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus...” (Rom. 3:24). Jesus Christ has freely given himself to redeem–to buy back–God’s inestimably valuable creation.

But what, exactly, has Christ redeemed us from? To begin with, we are redeemed from “the curse of the law” (Gal. 3:13). “All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse,” Paul wrote to the Galatians (3:10). And what a curse that is.

We human beings often have this incessant drive to earn and achieve. We like having things under control, we like calling the shots, we like taking the credit, and it is intensely frustrating to us when something lies beyond our grasp. Just a few years ago, the wife of one of my dear friends was dying of cancer. He and I journeyed through the ordeal, and I remember so clearly one afternoon that we spent together. His wife was at home–there was nothing more that the doctors could do for her–and she had just taken a noticeable turn for the worst. Looking at each other across the table, John said to me, “I keep praying. I want so much to help. The person I love the most is dying, and there isn’t a solitary thing that I can to change that.” His feelings were thick and heavy, the desperation so evident.

That’s what living under the curse of the law feels like. You always have to do better. For everything you do right, you are painfully aware that there is something else you do wrong. You’ve heard for years that God is holy and good, and you keep trying to earn his favor. You come to church religiously, maybe even serve on a commission. But you never quite feel his acceptance, and you can’t remember the last time, if ever, that you were aware of his favor. You are cursed by the law. You know what is right. You just can’t do it. Yet you keep trying and trying, hoping that one day you succeed. What a vicious, vicious cycle, a cycle that leads eventually to discouraged, broken people. And there is nothing that you can do about it!

“But now..., Christ has redeemed me from the curse of the law.” The price demanded by the law is perfect obedience, and he paid it! He did not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He did not clench his fist in God’s face and demand his own way. On the contrary, during the most desperate moments of his entire life, he surrendered his own will and followed his father. He met the requirements of the law–jot and tittle–and now offers his grace to those of us who cannot. We can stop gritting our teeth, once and for all. We’ve been redeemed from the curse of the law, from that overbearing obligation to perform. God loves us and receives us as we are. And the next time I feel compelled to earn God’s favor through my own good works, the Lord Jesus stops me and gently says, “Let me show him the holes in my wrists instead.”

Further, Jesus Christ has redeemed us from the penalty and power of sin (Heb. 9:12). “The soul that sins,” once again, “shall surely die.” All too often, we understand such statements solely in terms of divine retribution. God is just, and when we sin, he judges us. He sentences us to the punishment that our sins deserve–death. I have come to look at it a bit differently. To be sure, the Bible at times portrays an angry God who punishes disobedience, and I have no intention to remove that depiction of God altogether. Yet, the overwhelming view of God in Scripture is one of a loving parent who draws no enjoyment from death and instead does everything imaginable to save us from our fate.

Rather than simply announcing a divine decree, then, the statement “The soul that sins shall surely die” clarifies the way things work in the spiritual world. In the physical world, apart from intervention, the body that contracts cancer shall surely die. The body that is infected with bacterial meningitis shall surely die. That is simply the way things work. So too in the spiritual world. The soul that sins shall die. Life in the biblical sense involves more than just breathing. To live is to love, obey and worship God. Anything less is a counterfeit–its not life at all! It only stands to reason, then, that life and sin are mutually exclusive. When a soul sins, it simply dies. That’s the way it works. Apart from intervention.

But intervene is exactly what Jesus Christ has done. With respect to God’s judgment, he pleads our case. With respect to the our terminal condition, he takes our place. He donates the organ that our souls so desperately need. Even more, he takes upon himself our sins and our sicknesses. When Jesus Christ freely took on human flesh and conquered death, he won the right to save and to heal this sinful world. Sin, an otherwise deadly disease, has met its match in the cross of Christ.

Finally, we who are in Christ have been redeemed from the very clutches of the evil one. Our sinful condition brought with it the mastery of a wicked overlord, an overlord who always seeks the harm, not the good, of his subjects. Repeatedly in the New Testament, various writers refer to “the ruler of this world,” “the god of this world,” “the ruler of the power of the air,” and “principalities and powers.” At times such references strike against the sensibilities of the modern mind, particularly those of us in the Western world who are famous for elevating the physical world over the spiritual world. For many around us, things are real only if they can be seen and touched.
We must be careful here. While avoiding the paranoia that might come through seeing a demon behind every tree, the opposite extreme, I suppose, is even more dangerous. Nothing would please this evil master more than for us to deny to all that he even exists. He exists. He and his henchmen seek only to destroy. They know they are ultimately going down, but they’d like to take as many people with them as possible. They might even be whispering to some at this very moment. “Don’t listen to the preacher. He doesn’t know what he is talking about. And neither does God. We’ll help you find the true meaning of life. We can show all of you, including you teenagers, how to have a really good time.” And they cling and control and ultimately destroy. Human beings have become slaves to sin, Paul laments. Slaves to a vicious master.

“But now...” “But now...” “You were...following the ruler of the air, ...following the desires of flesh and senses.... But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ... (Eph. 2:1-5). I have good, no, great news for everyone this morning. Jesus Christ has redeemed us, bought us back, from the clutches of the devil himself. You’ve been rescued from that horrible slave plantation with its despicable master. “Greater is he that is in you,” according to 1 John 4:4, “than he that is in the world.”

“We are now justified ...through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” Paul wrote to the Romans. A simple transfer of coupons? Much, much more. Redeemed from the curse of the law. Redeemed from the penalty and power of sin. Redeemed from the very clutches of the evil one.

One day during my sabbatical in Jerusalem in 1992-93, my youngest son and I hiked all over Palestine exploring caves. My oldest son chose to stay home, saying that he did not feel well. When I returned to our apartment later that day, I found my wife in hysterics and my oldest son lying in a fetal position on the bed, screaming at the top of his lungs. After rushing him to a hospital in East Jerusalem and waiting while he underwent surgery, I learned that my son had come within eight or nine hours of dying. I’ll never forget how I felt watching him writhing in pain that day. I so much wanted to get on the bed and take his place, no matter what the cost to me. In deep frustration, I knew that I could not do that.

When God looked down and saw humanity twisting and turning in pain, he too longed to intervene. Unencumbered by my limitations, however, God said “I can and I will take their place!” At the very cost of his life, Jesus Christ came to redeem, to buy back, his priceless but infected creation.