The book of Romans is basically an exploration of two fundamental questions: what is the nature of God? and what is the nature of humanity? The passage before us is holy ground before which we should tremble, for the depth and breadth of Paul’s genius is here on full display. Paul explains in wondrous fashion the character of God and describes the human condition in all its complexity. In so doing he answers the question, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ by means of seven paradoxical truths.
These seven truths are: First: We appear to be alive, but we are not. Second: We appear to love God, but we cannot. Third: God appears to condemn us, but God does not. Fourth: We appear to be human, but we are not. Fifth: We appear to be sinful, but God does not regard us as so. Sixth: When we are at our weakest, we are most ready to receive God’s strength. And seventh: a redemptive relationship with God requires a leap of faith without benefit of conclusive proof.
Let us start with the first: We appear to be alive, but we are not. In other words, from the moment we were born we began the act of physically dying. We may think of ourselves as vibrant, vital and alive, but even as we are gathered together we are about the process of dying. Every Sunday I arrive early at the church and look out my window at the joggers who stride by my window. I often wonder, do any of them ever think of the fact that they are dying, even as they mightily endeavor to keep themselves alive? We think of ourselves as energetic and more or less healthy, but physically and spiritually, we are all terminal cases. Spiritually and physically, by our own power, we are doomed. That is why Paul cites passages from Isaiah and Psalms, saying, “No one is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, all have gone wrong . . . their throat is an open grave.” We appear to be alive, but physically and spiritually we are doomed and dying. Every breath we take draws us closer to our demise.
Of course, we think we understand what Paul is saying: ‘Yeah, everybody has done some bad things, and some people have done some really bad things, but God loves us anyway and all we have to do is love God back and everything will be okay.’ If that was what Paul was saying, then Christianity would then be just one more feeble attempt at self-salvation. The Christian faith begins with asserting the inadequacy of human self-sufficiency. Human impurity cannot bridge the chasm to divine holiness. Only God can do it. If there is to be communion between God and humanity, God must take the initiative. The Christian faith frankly acknowledges the inadequacy of human self-sufficiency. In other words, We appear to be capable of loving God, but we cannot. Of our own accord we lack the ability to worship God truly without God reaching out to us first. We either accept Christianity’s repudiation of human self-sufficiency, or as Soren Kierkegaard noted years ago, we turn our Gospel into “a tiny, superficial thing capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.” We appear to be alive, but in fact we are dying. We appear to love God, but we really cannot unless God takes the initiative to empower us to receive God’s love and reflect it back.
The Christian Gospel intends to wound us deeply. But it also intends to heal us deeply. That is why Paul declares, “The righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law . . . the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” Do we grasp the penetrating meaning of these words?
Even if Christ had never lived, we would still know something of God. The imprint of God’s reality has been left on every human being. From the most sophisticated urban dweller to the most primitive aborigine, everyone has some sense of the divine. Everyone recognizes that certain taboos and certain values must be observed if human society is going to function. Moreover, through a series of signposts and prohibitions, the Mosaic Law taught humanity how to live in harmony with the divine love: do not murder, do not steal, do not lie, do not covert, do not commit adultery, honor those who nurture you, respect the holy rest, etc.. Yet though these signposts and prohibitions convey to us a sense of God’s goodness, they have the real effect of increasing our estrangement from God. There is a perversity in the human character that inspires within us an impulse to do that which we have been told not to do. The Laws of God were meant to make us more humane, less selfish, more tolerant, yet the Law is also a source of guilt; the Law creates estrangement between God and humanity. Knowing this, God endeavored to reveal the depth and complexity of the divine character through the embodiment of his nature in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Through the ministry of Christ God reveals that the Creator of the universe is by nature a Redeemer. The Creator of the universe, the One who brought our vast universe into existence, is by nature a Redeemer God of love whose fundamental instinct is to draw all of creation unto the divine self and to liberate all creation from the powers of darkness. God reveals through Christ that the Creator of the universe fundamentally loves creation and is actively involved in that creation, actively drawing all creation unto the divine self. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us! Thus, God may appear to condemn us, but God does not. There is no condemnation for those who are being engrafted into the life of Christ. Rather God works in the world to create a way for us to come into fellowship with the divine. Yes, God judges us, but God judges us only to impress upon us the vanity of our trying to save ourselves, and once we abandon our attempts at self-salvation, we are freed to accept God’s salvation as a divine gift and enjoy eternal fellowship with the divine. God appears to condemn us, but in fact God works primarily to redeem us.
So! We appear to be human – but we are not! In other words, none of us is an example of what God intended humanity to be. We do not live as God intended us to live. There has only been one true example of human nature, and that was Jesus Christ. We are not what we are meant to be. We think we are human, but that is a misconception. There has been only one true human being, and that is the person of Jesus. Only Jesus Christ fulfilled what God had in mind when God created humanity. Even as God has allowed evil as the price of creaturely liberty and admitted the possibility of sin as the cost of freedom, even as God continues to allow humanity to define its existence by choices that run contrary to the divine intention, God has nevertheless refused to allow humanity’s rejection of its divine destiny as the final word on what a human being is supposed to be. God put forth Christ as the embodiment of what human beings are supposed be. As the great preacher and theologian James Smart once noted, “No word better describes the life of Jesus than human. The presence of God with man in Jesus does not make him some kind of special person – it simply makes him human, truly human – with no speck or iota of inhumanity in him.” We say that to err is human, but that’s not true. In truth, to sin is to act inhumanely and reject our true nature. To commit evil is to become inhumane and fall short of our humanity and deny our true destiny. Christ comes into the world not only to reveal the redemptive nature of God, but to pattern for us what it means to be truly human. We think we are human, but we are not. And yet, as we are engrafted into the living body of Christ, as we come to pattern our lives around the values of Christ, as we conform our behavior to the divine image in which we were made, the more human we become, the more we become the creature that God intended us to be.
Fifth, We appear to be sinful, but we are not. Here Paul’s thought reaches its most extraordinary heights! It is not that we are not sinful, but God has chosen not to regard us as sinful. God exercises, to use Paul’s pregnant phrase, “divine forbearance.” God chooses not to regard us as arrogant rebels but as divine children. Sure we rebel against God’s good counsel; sure we make destructive choices, but God is ultimately and fundamentally redemptive and gracious and ultimately triumphant. God will not let our temporary rebellion against God thwart the divine victory or usurp the divine purpose. God does what every great parent has to do: God does not regard us as what we are; God regards us as what we will become. God does not see us for what we are, but looks upon us in divine creativity, working through the Holy Spirit to summon us to become the person we can be, should be, must be, as we yield our lives to the invitation and opportunity to become part of the living body of Christ. Sure, we fall short of God’s glorious call. But God does not regard us as we are in our fallenness. Rather, God regards us as what we will be in our blessedness. That is the glory and the heart of the Gospel message. God already imputes to us the righteousness of Christ. God regards us not as the sinners we are, but as the obedient servant children we will become. We appear to be sinful, but we are not, not in God’s eyes!
And when we are weakest before God is the moment when we are most ripe to receive God’s strength. Paul cites as his evidence for this assertion the example of Abraham, the patriarch of us all, that crazy man of faith who left all he knew in pursuit of the divine promise of a Promised Land; that crazy man of faith who believed that he would be the father of great nations even though he and his wife endured a hundred years of barrenness; that crazy man of faith who when he finally received his blessed Isaac, laid him on the altar as a living sacrifice. How was God to fulfill God’s promises if Abraham gave his promise up? Abraham didn’t know. But Abraham had this wonderful capacity for rendering himself empty before God so that he might receive God’s unexpected strength. When we are empty before God, we are most ripe to receive God’s power. That may sound strange to you, but any counselor, any chaplain, any therapist, any pastor can confirm what I am saying. Anyone who has beaten or is beating a chemical, alcohol, or drug dependency knows what I am saying. As long as somebody says, ‘I don’t have a problem,’ as long as one says, ‘I can beat this myself, I have all the answers,’ that person has no chance of beating his/her addiction. It is only when people hit rock bottom and admit, ‘I am empty and weak. This problem is far greater than I am and I need outside help,’ only then have they taken the first step toward wholeness. When we are at our emptiest is when we are most ready to receive God’s power.
Faith then becomes a relationship of trust and commitment, a leap of faith that must be undertaken without conclusive proof. Years ago, as odd as it might seem, I was invited to be the camp pastor at a GA camp in South Carolina – the only guy among hundreds of females. One night I was talking to a group of older girls about the nature of faith, and they asked a very mature question: “Dr. Kremer, “How can we commit our lives to God when there is no conclusive proof of God. How can we risk our lives and trust God when there is no certain proof that God is real?” I responded, “Imagine yourselves atop a tall burning building. Escape is impossible; to leap is to die. But just as the flames become most intense, imagine that a fire truck arrives bringing a team of folks who are the world champions at catching people who jump from tall buildings. From the moment that crew arrived, you were rescued. From the moment they showed up on the scene, your deliverance had come. But the only way you can claim your rescue is to jump. The only way you will know that your deliverance has arrived is to jump.” I remember talking to a dear saint of God the day after he had celebrated his seventieth wedding anniversary with his wife. He said to me, “Dr. Kremer, we were so young when we married. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We had no real idea of the meaning of the vows they we took so long ago. But day by day, over the course of seventy years, we have proved our trustworthiness to each other.” That is the nature of faith. When we commit our lives to this Redeeming and Reconciling God, over time, every day, God will prove God’s trustworthiness to us – and that will be our proof.
We appear to be alive, but we are not. We appear to love God, but we cannot. God appears to condemn us, but God does not. We appear to be human, but we are not — only in Christ do we become so. We appear to be sinners, but God does not regard us as such. At our weakest, we are most open to receiving God’s strength. And to enter into a redemptive relationship of trust with God requires a leap of faith. This is what it means to be human.