The same attribute of God capable of provoking mortal fear in us, can stimulate our greatest comfort.
A Velvet Glove for Special People
When justice collides with celebrity, it always feels awkward. We recall Wynona Ryder’s $5,500 Saks shoplifting spree, Charlie Sheen’s domestic abuse charges, billionaire Martha Stewart’s insider trading, NFL star Michael Vick’s animal cruelty, legendary record producer Phil Specter’s crime of murder, the drunken rage of Mel Gibson, and the long misbehavior of Lindsay Lohan, or Justin Bieber. We cringe when our favorite royalty must pay the debt of justice as though they were mere commoners. They are after all, beautiful, talented, rich, and powerful. Their images adorn magazine covers, and millions love them.
Perhaps justice should tread lightly upon them because so many people like these famous folks. Before the merits of OJ Simpson’s case were fully known, supporters already lined thoroughfares with signs reading, “Loose the Juice!” The rationale was simple: He is loved, and therefore deserves release. If we feel such about the stars, then they must surely feel it about themselves.
Such entitlement also bedevils the religious. As the only true theocracy to exist in the history of this world, Israel was the star quarterback of ancient redemptive history. The Jewish people had the Law of God and a long history with Him. Surely, they reasoned, judgments levied against the gentiles were beneath them.
Religious people often slide into this mindset, assuming their track record ought to merit exemptions. As the operative attitude goes, God will not care about the spotty obedience of “special” folks.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
When we get involved with God, we have gotten involved with Someone who is always faithful, whether we feel good about it or bad about it.
Wait a Minute, I Thought You Said…
First, God does not play favorites. This comes as a shocking revelation to people who have been promised repeatedly they are special, even if clarifying that “special” does not mean they are above the law. Just as the gentile must answer to God in doing what he knows to be right, so must the Jew. Paul anticipates the emotions this idea creates at the start of Romans 3, and so asks the question himself:
1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision?
Because of the leveling logic he used in chapter 2, it sounds as though there is no advantage in being counted among the people of God, that being an atheist or a believer, an infidel or a sincere religious person are basically the same.
So, what are the advantages?
2 Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.
“Oracles” means the words of God, in this case codified in God’s Law. The Jews got them in a document spelling out the person and nature and desire of God. It was a gift to them. God furnished them with something much more than a vague sense of intuition about who He was. They got the playbook. This put them at the front of the line, giving them a privileged position to lead the entire world into the knowledge of God.
3 What if some were unfaithful?
So what if some didn’t take the book seriously? Suppose they didn’t use their advantage? Some Americans find themselves in the same quandary. They don’t know what the American dream is, don’t much care how to get it, and end up like the rest of the world who had no such advantages to start with. Yet they expect to be rich, nonetheless. This isn’t realistic. It’s just another case of delusional entitlement.
Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God?
This seems an odd question, yet it is one those who are special secretly harbor. The very folks who have the Scriptures in their hands expect God to look the other direction when they act unfaithfully toward Him. After all, they reason, We’re not like the heathen who hate God. For sure we should get preferential treatment for being more religious.
We expect God to turn into a sly, hometown referee when His team starts breaking the rules. Perhaps He will suspend His commitment to His own holiness and righteousness, His justice, His glory, and His promises. Paul responds,
4 By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written,
“That you may be justified in your words,
and prevail when you are judged.”
Even if an enormous coalition formed that demanded God shift His righteous standard for the sake of public appeal, or religious opinion, He will not. Instead, in the face of overwhelming expectation, He will choose to be the odd man out, the lone figure of righteousness. If He was to capitulate, to yield to a popular vote and diminish His righteousness for the sake of preferential treatment, He would be acting unfaithfully to His own self.
Faithful to the Universe, to Us, and to Himself
God is incredibly faithful, even to the physical laws He has set up. Consider the conditions on earth necessary for the present order of life:
“Take away the Earth’s axial slant, and the place might become a lot less inviting. With an obliquity of less than five degrees or so, an Earth-like planet’s broader equatorial regions bear the full brunt of a sun’s radiance. The polar regions also receive far less sunlight than they do with seasonal ebbs and flows. The result: extreme temperature gradients based on latitude. “Your equator is heated enormously while the poles freeze,” said Heller.1
And to the universe’s gravitational constant:
How finely is the force of gravity tuned? As we have seen, Collins argues that any kind of intelligent life would not be possible in a universe where gravity was more than 3000 times as powerful as it is in our universe.
Increasing the strength of gravity by 3000 sounds like a huge change. It certainly doesn’t sound like fine-tuning. However, with the electrostatic force being 1036 times stronger than gravity, (and the strong nuclear force 1040 times more powerful), even a 3000-fold increase in the strength of gravity is still only 1 in 1036 of the total range of forces. So this is actually very precise fine-tuning.2
If God is faithful in the disposition of impersonal physical laws, we must expect Him to place the highest priority on being faithful to His own character. God finds coherence and consistency within His own Person consistent with His highest delight.
He does not behave as sinners who are capricious and fickle, righteous in this area, but not that one, or righteous when they are in the mood or not, or at this time, or the other. Nor does the Almighty waver and relax His steely righteousness when His chosen people are the ones misbehaving.
God remains the same, even as the unfaithful and unrighteous human race surrounds Him. In fact, far from intimidating Him into compromise, their presence only serves to make Him stand out as the sole truth in a world of lies.
Were the entire world to assemble into a mob of hollering, ranting picketers who chanted slogans against His divine law, their perversity would only serve to highlight God’s own perfection. He would never implode under the pressure of popular demand nor ever back down, cowering in the face of rebellious demands from His own creatures.
Consider the old world chameleon. It can assume shades of color from red, pink, green, yellow, or blue, all based on environmental factors. Because of its faculty for blending into natural backgrounds, the animal has come to represent a metaphor of changeability.
In principle, this happens every day in the office when an otherwise godly man or woman changes to match the moral hues of the workplace. It happens when the faithful alter their stand for truth because a beloved relative or best friend might be offended.
This is the world we live in, but this is not God. Even against a considerable backdrop of corruption, He remains faithful to His “color” of righteousness.
A commitment of this kind is unnerving, even confusing to sinners, as evidenced in their muddled responses to it:
5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) 6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world? 7 But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.
Though the logic that Paul battles here seems strangely convoluted, it may well be that he had on many occasions heard it and anticipated hearing it again—that evil was actually a good thing if it had a good outcome. That God somehow owed the sinner a debt of gratitude for making Him look good. That divine wrath was unnecessary.
Arguments of this ilk abound in a world devoted to chameleonesque righteousness. Backed with the artillery of hedonism, antinomianism, and frustrated legalism, accusations against God’s righteousness surface daily, even by those who claim to belong to Him. Paul labels all such reasoning worthy of condemnation.
Regardless of who we think we are, or what arguments we marshal, God cannot be intimidated into a position of embarrassment and surrender concerning His just counsel.
This is divine faithfulness, and it is terrifying to sinners.
When Divine Faithfulness is Your Best Friend
But this attribute of rock solid faithfulness is a joy and comfort to those same sinners who turn to the gospel of God. Remember that before Paul began calling everyone out for their unrighteous condition, he did so from the springboard verses of 1:16-17.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
The righteousness we cannot find in ourselves is there, in the gospel, waiting to be received. It is not some sentimentality that upends or sidesteps God’s righteousness, but something that upholds and corresponds to it—the cross of Christ—the place where sin has been thoroughly penalized once and for all.
The cross is God’s greatest statement about His commitment to His own righteousness, His last word about the seriousness of sin, His just cancellation of sin’s debt, and where He must count as righteous the one who by faith lays hold on His crucified and resurrected Son.
The same righteousness that was faithfully compelled to rage and storm upon the heads of sinners, must respond with cloudless satisfaction when repentant sinners stand in the righteousness of Christ.
We are now the rich beneficiaries of God’s faithfulness. He will not require us to pay a debt His Son has already paid, as the hymn says,
Why should I worry, doubt and fear?
Has God not caused His Son to bear
My sins upon the tree?
The debt that Christ for me has paid,
Would God another mind have made
To claim again from me?3
My mother is an Italian woman whose emotions overwhelmed me when I was younger. I’m probably qualified for some kind of record in the area of boy most kissed, scolded, and hugged, inside one hours’ time. Because of her hugely demonstrative habits, I found it hard to believe when she gushed on and on about how smart I was. I suspected a mother’s love was behind that claim more than any hard scientific criteria. Bias has the power to transform the lackluster into superstar material.
This same suspicion made it hard for me to believe that the God of the universe could look at me, a typical sinner, and pronounce me righteous while at the same time being truthful and faithful to His own self.
For a while I thought maybe He fudged a little bit, and let this little sinner scamper under the wire, while He looked the other way. But that would mean God had been unfaithful to Himself, grading on the curve, showing partiality.
It took some time, but I eventually came to more fully realize that God hadn’t graciously flattered me by declaring me righteous. He hadn’t winked at my shortcomings because I was mostly a nice fellow and meant well.
I didn’t need that kind of unfaithful partiality, because my ragged righteousness was not up for scrutiny anyway. The righteousness He saw and commended was His own, in Christ. He is faithful to affirm that fact on a twenty-four hour, seven-day-a-week basis.
I sleep well every night.
If you dive into the gospel, you will, too.
1Adam Hadhazy, “Loss of Planetary Tilt Could Doom Alien Life”, January 12, 2012
2David Couchman, July 2010, http://www.focus.org.uk/gravity.php
3 Augustus Montague Toplady