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The Greatest Thing In The World

The Greatest Thing In The World

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The Greatest Thing In The World

James L. Thornton

A Lesson From Romans 3:19-31

How would you finish this sentence: “The greatest thing in the world is to be ___________?” How would you fill in the blank? Would you say the greatest thing in the world is to be rich: to have the security of knowing your every material need will be met, to never again have to worry about being able to pay a bill on time, to be able to afford your every whim and wish.

Or would you say the greatest thing in the world is to be famous: to have your picture on the front page of every newspaper, to hear everyone praising your goodness, your genius, your greatness, to see people lining up to claim you as a friend and acquaintance.

Or would you say the greatest thing in the world is to be powerful: to be a person of influence, to be a mover and a shaker in the world, to be entrusted with major decisions which will affect the destinies of multitudes.

What would you say? How would you finish that sentence: “The greatest thing in the world is to be ... ?”

Well, here is how you should finish that sentence:
The greatest thing in the world is to be saved:
To be forgiven of your sins,
To be delivered from sinful living,
To be made right with God.

The greatest thing in the world is not to be rich. Jesus said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26).

The greatest thing in the world is not to be famous. Jesus said, “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?” (John 5:44).

The greatest thing in the world is not to be powerful. Jesus said, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20).

The greatest thing in the world is not to be rich or famous or powerful. The greatest thing in the world is to be saved. But what does it mean to be saved? To be saved means to be rescued from a perilous situation:

The little boy who has gotten his fingers stuck in the drain at the bottom of the swimming pool is saved.

The unconscious woman who is pinned in a wrecked car that is about to burst into flames is saved.

The elderly man with a cancer that threatens to devour his body is operated upon and saved.

Salvation implies a seriously dangerous situation from which one needs to be rescued. The apostle Paul spends most of the first three chapters of Romans arguing that all of humanity is in just such a situation. Paul climaxes his argument by painting a verbal montage of quotations from the Old Testament:

 There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none who understands;
There is none who seeks after God;
There is none who does good, no, not one (Romans 3:9-12).

These are sweeping universal statements that touch all humanity, both Jew and Gentile.

Paul states in Romans 3:19 that the purpose of these sweeping statements found in the inspired text of the Old Testament is “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.”  

The typical person says, I'm basically a good person and better than most. In fact, I'm a better person than many people I know who attend church. My good certainly outweighs the bad.

The law of God says, Silence! Let every mouth be stopped. All the world is guilty before God.

In other words, we are all in a very precarious situation, and we all need to recognize it. Paul's point is that the sword of God's judgment is hanging over every head, suspended by the fragile thread of human life. We need to be rescued from this most precarious of all situations where the consequences are eternal and the danger is that of torment designed for the devil and his angels. We need to be saved!

Paul is going to tell us how we can be saved. He'll get to that in a minute, but first he gives us a warning about a dead end street. We need to be saved, but no man is going to be saved by the deeds of the law:

“Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

Notice the "therefore" at the beginning of verse 20. Here is the flow of thought: You are guilty; therefore, the law cannot save you.

Now the law is good, and it has its purpose. The law is God's good guide as to how life should be lived. But once you have broken the law and are guilty, the law has no power to remove that guilt. All it can do is tell you that you have sinned. For by the law is the knowledge of sin.” Once you have sinned, the law can condemn you, but it has no power to save you. 

The law is like that little mirror on a stick which the dentist uses. The dentist can use that little mirror to reveal that you have a cavity, but the dentist can't use that little mirror to drill out the cavity and to fill the tooth. The mirror can let you know you have a cavity, but the mirror can't fix the problem. 

And that is what Paul is saying about the law. By the law is the knowledge of sin, but no one is justified in God's sight by the deeds of the law.

Let's now go from the problem to the solution. The key transition is found in Romans 3:21 where Paul says: “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.”

As Paul says in Romans 8:3, "For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful  flesh ..."

Jesus is the solution, and in verses 24 and 25, Paul uses three major words to describe how Jesus saves us: “being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood ...”

There are three major concepts here used to explain the saving work of Jesus Christ: Justification, a word from the courtroom; Redemption, a word from the slave market; and Propitiation, a word meaning winning God’s favor.

Let's this morning look closely at each of these words so that we can better understand the salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus.

Justification: The first word used in this passage to describe our salvation in Christ is justification, a word from the legal context of the courthouse. When an accused person goes before a judge, the judge is going to do one of two things. He is either going to justify the man or condemn him. To condemn means to declare guilty and thus liable to punishment. To justify means to declare not guilty, and thus not subject to punishment.

Now we have all broken the law of God. We are all guilty. And the book of Proverbs says that a good judge does not justify the guilty (Proverbs 17:15). A good judge does not declare the guilty to be righteous. If that is the case, then how is God going to justify the ungodly, which is what we are, and still be a good judge? To use the wording of Romans 3:26, how is God going to be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus?

The answer is found in 1 John 2:1: “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

Jesus is our Advocate, our lawyer, our legal help. As our legal Advocate, Jesus is not going to argue that we are innocent. He is not going to look for some technical loophole in the law. He is not going to argue that we should not be held accountable due to insanity. He is not going to ask God to lower His high standards for us. Jesus acknowledges that we are guilty sinners deserving condemnation. He argues for our justification based on the principle of double jeopardy.”

A judge cannot justly punish the same crime twice. And our crimes have already been punished. Jesus paid for our sins by His suffering in our place. The reason God can justify the ungodly (Romans 4:5) is because Jesus died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6).

Two duck hunters were in a wide-open field in southeastern Georgia when they noticed a cloud of smoke in the distance. The wind shifted, and before long they could hear the crackling of an approaching fire. They soon realized that a dangerous brushfire was advancing toward them so fast that they could not outrun it. One of the hunters took out a book of matches and lit a circle of fire.

Soon there was a blackened area near them, and they positioned themselves in its center to await the fire. When the fire rushed toward them, they covered their mouths with their handkerchiefs and stood their ground. The fire came and swept past them. They were unhurt, even untouched except for the smell of smoke on their clothes. The fire could not burn in the burned over place where they had been standing.

Calvary is our burned over place. If we will by faith stand at the cross of Jesus, we are safe from the fire of God's judgment. The fire of God's judgment has already burned at Calvary, and fire will not burn again in a burned over place.

Jesus was baptized with the baptism of God's outpoured wrath that we might instead be baptized with the outpoured Holy Spirit. Jesus drank to the full the cup of God's wrath that we might instead drink the cup of blessing.

Jesus accepted our guilt and paid its punishment, but that is not all He did for us who believe in Him. He also reckoned to our account before God His own perfect righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus lived a perfect life and thus has a record of perfect obedience. He has imputed this perfect record to us who believe in Him (Romans 4:24).

Thus we have a righteousness that is a gift from God (Romans 5:17) legally imputed to us not through works (Romans 4:6) and not through our keeping God's law (Romans 3:21) but instead through the faith that has put us into covenant union with Christ (Romans 3:22; Philippians 3:9). We are not only washed with His blood but also clothed in His righteousness.

Thus Paul says in Romans 3:21, “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets;
22. Even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe.”

If we are in Christ, God will not condemn us. Christ has already suffered for our sins, and justice will not allow those sins to be punished twice. God will instead pronounce us fully righteous in His sight. Christ has given us a legal standing of absolute righteousness before God by reckoning to us His own legal record of impeccable obedience. That is what is meant by justification.

Redemption: The next word in this passage used to describe salvation in Christ is redemption. Redemption is the buying and freeing of a slave, or the freeing of a kidnap victim through the paying of a ransom.

The devil has taken all sinners captive to do his will (2 Timothy 2:26). Satan argues that all sinners belong to him because sinners are law breakers and thus outlaws. As such, they are citizens of the kingdom of darkness under Satan's rule.

They are his hostages, his captives, his slaves. The only remedy to this plight is redemption, the payment of a ransom to purchase freedom. We have no means to pay this price, but Jesus came to make this payment for us:

Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Jesus paid the ransom price for those He came to save by His suffering upon the cross. His suffering in our place satisfied the demands of God's law against us and thus freed us from the claims of Satan.

But how is this possible? Jesus is only one Person. He suffered on the cross for only a few hours. How could that suffering by One for a limited period of time redeem a multitude without number from an eternity of punishment? Jesus may be but one Person, but one gold coin is worth more than a barrel of pennies.

In Jesus Christ, the image of humanity was stamped upon the gold of divinity. Through His humanity, Jesus was able to experience human suffering and thus experience a human punishment in our place. Through His divinity, His suffering had an infinite worth. His atoning sacrifice is a sufficient ransom to redeem all of God's people, even though they are a multitude beyond numbering (Revelation 7:9).

His suffering is a sufficient ransom to redeem God's people from all their punishment, even though they could suffer for an eternity in a lake of fire and not complete the payment. Through His saving work, Jesus earned the riches of saving merit which He freely gives to His people. The riches of His grace are exceeding riches, immeasurable riches, incomparable riches (Ephesians 2:8).

Indeed, the riches of Christ are unsearchable (Ephesians 3:8). They are an unfathomable ocean of merit whose depths cannot be plumbed and whose shores cannot be seen. The gold coin of Jesus’ Person and work is of more than sufficient value to redeem all of God's people from their spiritual captivity and to satisfy all of the devil’s legal claims against them.

Propitiation: The last word is this passage used to describe salvation in Christ is propitiation. This is a word taken from the worship in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple. Propitiation is the satisfaction of God's righteous wrath against our sins. This concept is rooted in the imagery of the yearly Day of Atonement in the liturgy of the old covenant. 

In the Holy of Holies of the Old Testament temple, the Shekinah glory of God sat enthroned on the Ark of the Covenant, seated between the two cherubim. Inside the ark were the two stone tablets of the law, the written record of our covenant obligation to our Sovereign Lord. The Holy of Holies was isolated from the rest of the temple by a veil woven with an artistic design of cherubim (Exodus 36:35).

This was the imagery of Adam's expulsion from the presence of God in the garden of Eden. When Adam had sinned, God drove him out and placed cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24).

The cherubim are the guardians of God's holiness. Their embroidered presence on the veil represented our isolation from God due to our sin. The law of God on the stone tablets in the ark testified to our sinful transgression of the covenant.

Under the old covenant, no one could enter the Holy of Holies at any time, except for one man on one day of the year. On the Day of Atonement, the high priest of Israel entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood of a sacrificed animal on the mercy seat atop the Ark of the Covenant.

This sprinkled blood, the symbol of the violent death of an innocent victim, came between God and the stone tablets of the law which testified to His people's sins. Because of this bloody covering, God saw their sins no longer. The death of a substitute victim satisfied God's righteous anger. His just wrath was appeased. 

Jesus is the fulfillment of the old covenant Day of Atonement. He is both Sacrifice (Isaiah 53:5,6; John 1:29) and Priest (Hebrews 9:12-14). The blood of bulls and goats never truly took away sin, or there would have been no need to repeat the sacrifices year after year (Hebrews 10:1-4).

But the sacrifice of Jesus was effectual. It did indeed appease God's wrath against the sins of God's people. After Jesus cried out upon the cross, “It is finished!” and after He yielded up His spirit in death, the separating veil in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. Jesus opened the way for His people to come near to holy God.

Therefore, as the writer of Hebrews says, we have boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:19). Because of the priestly work of Jesus, we who believe in Him are now at peace with holy God. 

In our natural state, we are sinners guilty before God, and that is a very precarious situation. Jesus is able to save us from this precarious situation because He is,
our justification,
our redemption, and
our propitiation.

At least, that is the case if we are believers, if we have received Him and are resting upon Him alone for our salvation as He is offered to us in the gospel. We need to make sure that we are looking to Jesus in faith for our salvation because,
We can't rescue ourselves.
We can't justify ourselves because God's legal standard is perfect righteousness.
We can't redeem ourselves because the ransom price is beyond our ability to pay.
We can't ourselves propitiate (appease) God's wrath against us because we cannot remove the sinful guilt which angers Him.
We cannot save ourselves, and Jesus is the only one who can. No one comes to the Father but through Him.

He alone has a righteousness adequate to justify us.
He alone has the riches of grace sufficient to redeem us.
He alone has sacrificial blood that will cover our sin and appease God's wrath.

The greatest thing in the world is to be saved.
Throw yourself upon Jesus' mercy. He will save you, and you will be forever grateful.

Come to him now, repent of your sins, seek out someone to baptize you in the wonderful name of Jesus Christ, and ask God to fill you with the Holy Ghost.

By, James L. Thornton



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