By Dr. Mickey Anders
Several years ago when I was a pastor in Arkansas, the statewide newspapers covered in great detail the suicide of a prominent Little Rock businessman named Bob. He had a very prestigious job, lots of money, a huge house, a fine family… all the things most people yearn for in life. But Bob wasn’t satisfied. Something ate at him and finally drove him to desperate measures for more and more. He turned to stealing, and then, on the verge of getting caught, he committed suicide.
The newspapers carried long stories not only about his business misdealings, but also about his difficult family life, especially his relationship with his mother. One issue carried the suicide note he wrote to his mother just before he died. It was filled with bitterness because he had never felt accepted by his mother. It concluded, “Are you happy now?”
I have remembered that tragic story over these years because it reminds me that having all the things of life can never take the place of simply being accepted. Paul Tillich once preached a famous sermon in which he insisted that we have to accept the fact that we are accepted. Perhaps the deepest need that every one of us has is that of being accepted.
We are supposed to get that need for unconditional acceptance met in our families. Home is supposed to be the place where people accept us not because of who we are, but in spite of who we are. But too many people, like Bob, don’t find that crucial acceptance at home and are driven to spend their lives searching for it.
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The search for acceptance can be seen in all kinds of behavior. When teenagers buy $150 Michael Jordan tennis shoes, they are not buying them because the air pump makes any difference in their basketball game. They buy them so that they can be accepted by their friends. In the same way, adults often determine their purchases of cars, houses and clothes so they can be accepted by the right people.
All of us have feelings of insecurity. All of us cry out, “Accept me! Accept me for what I am.”
If we have so much trouble getting to the place where we can feel accepted by other people, it’s no wonder that we often have even more difficulty getting to the place where we can feel accepted by God. DOES God accept us? How can God accept us in spite of what we have done? At some level, all of us struggle with that question. I’m afraid there’s bad news and good news here.
The bad news is that we are not acceptable!
I don’t intend to try to make all of you feel guilty. Some people think you haven’t been to church unless the preacher makes you feel really badly about yourself. Other churches harp long and hard on the “total depravity of humankind” emphasizing that there is nothing good in us. I don’t intend to take either of those routes to make you feel guilty because I don’t think I have to. Most of us carry around more than enough guilt already.
We know that we are like rebellious children whose parents repeatedly say, “What you are doing is unacceptable!” Except in this case, we are not dealing with a human parent. We are not even dealing with some authority figure like the chief of police or a Supreme Court Justice. We find ourselves guilty before the only true and perfectly just God.
God requires perfection. Before God’s judgment, there are only two kinds of people: the sinners and the sinless. And none of us qualify for the later.
One of the most misunderstood ideas about the Bible is the assumption that if we are just good enough, then we can be right with God. Ask some people why God should let them into heaven, and they will reply, “Well, I’ve not been too bad. I’m not as bad as some people I know.” Make no mistake about it, there is only one way to be good enough and that is to be sinless. We are either a sinner or sinless. There is no gray area here. We are either one or the other.
Now which of us wants to stand up and say that we are sinless? Who among us would dare to stand before God and claim that we had perfectly observed God’s law? The bad news is that nobody can claim that. Only Jesus was sinless. For the rest of Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We all face the prospect of universal condemnation.
The Bible goes to great pains to describe God as a just God, which simply means that God does not and cannot condone our sinful and rebellious actions. No good parent could. The Old and New Testaments are filled with words and images about the wrath of God and about the coming judgment day. The Bible makes clear that one day the world will end, and there will be a day of judgment before God almighty. The standard will be God’s law which is unbending, inflexible, unavoidable. These images are simply ways of saying that God cannot and does not consider our sinful behavior as acceptable. We cannot expect God to approve of anything but justice and righteousness.
So the bad news is that we are not acceptable to God. And we know it. In our hearts, we know it. But there is good news.
The good news come in the Biblical word that Paul uses to describe our acceptance by God— “justification.” It’s not a word that we use very often today.
The Biblical word is a forensic term drawn from the Roman court of law. Justification literally means “making just,” namely, making right with God again. It is the act by which God brings humans back into proper relationship with him. Paul Tillich said that justification brings the element of “in spite of” into the process of salvation.
This good news can be pictured in a court scene in which the word “justification” becomes real to us. We can picture the scene in a courtroom where we have been called for the final judgment. God is dressed in legal robes as author, creator and judge. The prosecution lawyer has just presented the truth about our guilt. We are sinners! We can imagine that he has shown videotapes that caught us red handed in every sordid deed we ever committed, and worst of all it showed every sinful thought we ever had. Our worst actions and our worst motives have been shown for all to see. And it was not a pretty picture.
We have long known the truth about our deep, dark inner secrets, but now everybody else knows them too. We cannot help but be embarrassed. We feel guilty, not out of some psychological mental illness, but because we know we are guilty.
Now we are awaiting the final proclamation of judgment. The only question in our mind is, “How bad will it be?” The jury returns with the Apostle Paul himself as the jury foreman. He stands and makes a startling announcement, “Acquitted!” People in the audience gasp and shriek. We breathe a huge sigh of relief. We wonder how this can be. We know that we are guilty. We’ve been caught red handed. The facts are obvious. But for now we are afraid to even ask questions; we are just glad to be free.
And the law states that we are truly free. We can never be tried again once we have been acquitted in this court. The sentence is irrevocable. The wrath of God will never touch us. We are justified, freely forever. We know that we have passed the last judgment, and this means a permanent re-instatement to favor with God.
As Paul put it, “Being therefore justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; through whom we also have our access by faith into this grace in which we stand. We rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2).
But then we begin to wonder how we got off. Just why was it that we were accepted? We know that God is just. We also know that we were wrong, that we were and are sinners.
Suddenly, our pardon seems to contradict the view of the Bible that God is a just judge. The Old Testament insists that God is “righteous in all his ways” (Psalm 145:17). Psalm 7:11 says, “God is a righteous judge, yes, a God who has indignation every day.” It is clear that God hates sin, and we deserve nothing but the punishment of God.
But then we hear the good news of Paul that what appears to be a violation of his justice is really a revelation of his character. Paul’s thesis is that God justifies sinners on a just ground, namely, that the claims of God’s law have been fully satisfied by Jesus Christ, acting in our name. The law has not been altered, or suspended or flouted for our justification. On the ground of Christ’s obedience, God does not charge our sin against us.
I have two kinds of money cards in my pocket. One is a credit card with which I charge items and pay for them later. Sometimes I may run up quite a debt on this kind of card, and it may take a long time to pay off that debt. The other card is a debit card with which I can make purchases by drawing from the money I already have in the bank.
I want to suggest this as an image to understand our relationship with Christ’s righteousness and our lack of it. It is as if our credit card with God has “maxed” out to the limit. In fact we are way over the limit. We have an insurmountable debt on our credit card. But suddenly, God has swapped our over-charged credit card for Christ’s debit card, which draws on the unlimited bank account of Christ’s righteousness.
In the same way, God assigns Christ’s righteousness to sinners who believe in him. We are declared righteous for no other reason than that Christ was righteous, and we are one with him.
Another understanding of the word “justification” comes from word processing. After I have entered text on my computer, I can click on the “justification” button and the program automatically adds enough spaces between the words so that the text aligns perfectly on the right margin and the left margin. The text that previously had a jagged right edge is now made to perfectly align.
In justification, we too are made to align with the expectations of God. God adds the spaces necessary from God’s righteousness so that we can meet the expectations of God. That’s the meaning of justification.
And the wonder of it all is that this was God’s plan from the beginning. God loves us so much, God wants to be in relationship with us so much, that God sent His Son to make a way so that we could be back in right relationship with God.
Galatians 4:4-5 says, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent out his Son, born to a woman, born under the law, 4:5 that he might redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of children.”
2 Corinthians 5:19 says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses.”
Romans 5:8 says, “But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
The good news is because of Christ, we can be accepted by God.
But there is a catch, an explanation. There is a condition required before we could be set free. We had to have faith. Faith is the means of our justification. This is the condition that must be fulfilled.
Romans 5:1 says, “Being therefore justified BY FAITH, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast.”
Knowing ourselves to be sinners, we find our peace in spite of guilt, not by evasion or by frantically doing good works, but by repentance and faith.
Finally, we realize that we did not and could not earn our release from the judgment of God. Our verdict did not depend upon us, but wholly upon Christ. And we are only required to accept it. We are required to accept our acceptance by God.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.