Cast your mind back into the depths of the allegedly-festive season. For many, it would be a time for the giving of gifts. Typically, with the person in mind for whom you desire a gift, you set out to find something that fits the template. Indeed, sitting in the Christmas carnage and tracing back from the gift to the perceived needs, desires or expectations of the intended recipient can be a little disconcerting. The socks and chutney imply a frozen-toed cheese eater; the DIY [home improvement] manual and the alarm clock hint at someone both incompetent and lazy; the sweater and make up suggest someone cold and ugly to boot. There is a lot to get wrong in such mind games: our foolishness, sensitivity (or utter lack of it) and ignorance might leave us muddled and misguided. Furthermore, if there is no appropriate and appreciated match between what is given and the one to whom it is given, those gifts lie quickly forgotten and largely neglected, unworn, uneaten, unused.
But what if a gifted, wise and insightful physician who knew us accurately and intimately sent to us a box of pills with instructions to begin a life-saving course of medication immediately? Might you not be entitled to presume that he had correctly diagnosed a deadly condition and has kindly provided the cure? In such an instance, you might accurately match the recipient and the gift, connecting the condition and circumstances of the former with the nature of the latter. And would you not be relying on it still? Would not that gift remain unspeakably precious to you?
So it is with God’s gospel gift: an unbreakable, inexhaustible, unforgettable, incalculably precious saving gift. The eternal God was neither ignorant nor whimsical, was not foolish or misguided, in sending his Son to save men. Here we have a gift precisely fitted and perfectly suited to the character, circumstances and condition of fallen mankind, calling forth perpetual reliance and overwhelming thankfulness. In Romans 5.6-11 the apostle Paul makes some of the connections between the recipients and the gift, describing sinful men in the light of the saving Christ:
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
Firstly, Paul says that we are powerless. We are utterly without strength (Rom 5.6). The word Paul employs here is used in Matthew 25.31-46, Luke 10.9 and Acts 5.15-16 of those helplessly sick; in Acts 4.9 it describes the impotence of a man who was lame; in 1 Corinthians 12.22 it speaks of weakness and feebleness. It is a word describing comprehensive helplessness, and in Romans 5.6 it is used of our natural state, having no power in ourselves to do good, able neither to resist sin nor to pursue righteousness. We had no strength to restore our relationship with God nor to maintain one if it could be restored. Paul pictures a man utterly lacking in spiritual vitality, without any of the functions of life: it is a sketch of entire, ongoing, sinful incapacity, of a man beyond human help.
It was to men in such a state as this that Christ was given. We need someone who is truly strong, able not only to act on his own behalf but on behalf of others also, not only to secure good for himself but for others too. According to Isaiah, Jesus is just such a mighty Deliverer: “He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might he increases strength” (Is 40.29).
Secondly, we are by nature ungodly. Paul uses the same word in Romans 4.5. He means one who is thoroughly lost, wicked, having nothing to offer God. To be such a person means that we can never take God’s favour for granted because we positively fail to deserve any good; we have no entitlement to blessing. Romans 5.6 tells us that ungodly people needed someone to die for them: we required a ransom to be paid, someone to come at the proper time, the appointed hour, to take our place. The seventh verse makes plain that this is, by any account, the rarest of gifts. How much more when it is to men considered not as good and righteous but as ungodly that God sent the Son of his love? It was to men lost entirely and wicked throughout that Jesus came to do nothing less than die: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk 10.45).
Again, we are sinners. We are those who miss the mark at which we aim, who fall short of our target. It is the tragedy of fallen men that we not only fall short of the target which we truly desire and earnestly pursue – our own happiness – but that we also fall short of that at which we should aim: the glory and honour of God, which we rarely consider and usually despise. In short, we are both personally wretched and morally polluted. As such, there is nothing in us to evoke blessing but much to demand cursing. It is a condition that leaves us entirely exposed to the divine displeasure and righteous judgment.
Paul would have us understand that to secure the life of sinners by any gift would be unspeakable love, the very pinnacle of grace, and such love and grace are displayed in a God who gives nothing less than his beloved Son for us, and in a Christ who willingly lays down his life to secure blessing for such men.
Fourthly, we are guilty. This is the clear implication of the language of sin and of justification (Rom 5.8-9). We need to be justified, to be declared righteous in the sight of a holy God. As sinners, we have deserved nothing but condemnation, and we abide under wrath. We have no righteousness of our own to plead, no goodness to parade. Justice demands vengeance, and what can provide satisfaction apart from fearful and just judgments falling upon the head of the guilty sinner? Where can such a sinner find a putting away of sin and a grant of righteousness, so propitiating the wrath of an offended God? How can we come to have that happy testimony, “You have forgiven the iniquity of your people; you have covered all their sin. You have taken away all your wrath; you have turned from the fierceness of your anger” (Ps 85.2-3)?
It requires blood. We are justified by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, who gave his life, so paying the debt, removing the guilt, providing a credit that was acceptable in saving transaction with a holy God.
Furthermore, we are enemies. Sin becomes habitual, habitual rebellion produces a deepening aversion to the Righteous One, that aversion develops into a settled enmity, and enmity breaks out into open hostility. Every sinner is on that way of rooted adversity to God in some form and degree, and is therefore subject to his wrath. We were rebelliously opposed to God and God was fearfully opposed to us. We were both antagonistic toward him and alienated from him, being without God and without hope in the world. Our relationship to God by nature is not one of neutrality, but of war. Men rage impotently against God and God sets himself implacably against all iniquity. Where, then, can a man find peace with God? Where is God reconciled, enmity removed, harmony established, justice vindicated, and holiness honoured?
God himself supplies the means. The offended God is himself the one who addresses the grounds of separation and provides for reconciliation. It is and must be a fruit of astonishing love, profound pity, and incalculable grace to design and execute such a plan, but what again almost beggars belief is that this reconciliation required nothing less than the giving of God’s own beloved Son. It was not accomplished at any lesser price.
But there is more still. For supposing that all this is carried out on our behalf – the powerless find a champion, the ungodly find a sacrifice, sinners find a saving life, the guilty find a righteousness, enemies find a reconciliation. It leaves us still and always utterly dependent. Saved men need saving. This does not for one instant mean that there is something lacking in the life and death of Jesus that yet remains to be made up, but rather speaks of our continual need for his grace and strength, our perpetual reliance upon him, finding all our security for the present and future in him alone. Paul speaks of our being saved from wrath through him, by his life (Rom 5.9-10). Our abiding union with our crucified but risen Redeemer ensures that we remain protected to the end and into eternity. We are reconciled by his death and saved by his life, having nothing to fear in the day of wrath, for he both secures our standing by his acceptance with God and is living to intercede for us. He is our Good Shepherd, guiding his sheep safely to the eternal fold; our Great Priest who stands before God on our behalf; he is securing and will secure our final happiness.
Thus we have in these verses two portraits, intimately connected to each other, reflective of each other in the way that a negative reflects the original. Here is the light of Christ and the corresponding distorted shadow cast by sinful man. The portrait of ourselves is unflatteringly honest, depicting us ruined and lost. The portrait of the Lord Jesus shows him as the gift of God, piercingly beautiful, precisely fitted and perfectly suited to the character, condition and circumstances of those he came to save. He is displayed as One mighty to deliver, by his life, death and resurrection supplying the reconciling righteousness and the cleansing blood that we could never obtain for ourselves, and this he provided by taking our place and dying on our behalf.
Do we accept the testimony of the gospel gift of Jesus Christ about our character, condition and circumstances? It may not be flattering, but it is painfully accurate. Look at the portrait: do you not see your own face staring back at you? Do you find your own wretchedness and neediness written in these things? God was not ignorant or whimsical, not foolish or mistaken when he sent his Son for sinners. The gift was given because the state of the intended recipients demanded nothing less.
Do you accept the gift? It is one thing to acknowledge the need, but another to accept the gift? Salvation is entirely from without. Martin Luther used to speak of the natural man as turned in upon himself. Grace shows the emptiness within, and makes us lift our eyes outward and upward to where we find our only help. Let us be honest: if the portrait of sinful man is a portrait of my own soul, where will I find salvation in myself? If I am powerless, ungodly, sinning, guilty and opposed to God, what will I offer to secure my salvation? There is nothing else left but to look elsewhere. Helpless sinners need a mighty Helper if they are to be delivered from sin and death and hell. God offers the priceless gift of his incarnate Son, and nothing more is required than to cast one’s soul for time and for eternity upon him, to accept the gospel gift as the one and sole answer to the damnable misery of separation from God.
Let us note here – especially those of us who preach – that any message that offers hope but fails to take account of these particular needs and the gift given to address them is a false gospel. To paint the soul of sinners in brighter colours than these does not shut people up to the only remedy, but gives man a falsely elevated view of his own capacity and a correspondingly low view of the saving excellence of the Lord Christ. To offer any alternative remedy is to offer a placebo that, at best, will float men gently and peacefully into the Pit. However, God’s gospel gift of his gracious and glorious Son delivers men from sin and death and hell when it is received with repentant faith.
Should we not, then, humbly receive, gratefully remember and ardently rejoice in such a gift? Only love and mercy would offer such an unparallelable kindness to people such as us; only a fool would reject him; only a gross ingrate could possibly forget the greatest of all possible gifts; only a hard heart would fail to rejoice in the Giver and his glorious Gift. This is where Paul brings us and leaves us: “we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Rom 5.11). The focus is not on ourselves, not even so much on what we receive in Christ, but on the Christ whom we receive by faith, and the God who sent him to be received. Paul leaves us exulting in God in Christ. We boast not in ourselves, but in the saving God through whom the utterly unworthy receive reconciliation, made secure for life and in death and through eternity by his Son – Jesus the Ransomer, God’s gospel gift.
This article first appeared at Reformation21.