For the past year or so—thanks to the influence of a friend—my daughter has become very interested in professional baseball—specifically the Philadelphia Phillies. As a true fan, she has a Phillies banner on her bulletin board; she has a Phillies hat and two or three Phillies T-shirts; she’s been to at least three Phillies games; she has a poster of her favorite player on the wall of her room. She has even learned to sign on to a special website where Phillies fans can literally watch the statistics on their favorite players change as the season progresses: batting average, errors, RBI’s…things like that.
Now—I don’t know if you’re a Phillies fan or a Nationals fan or an Orioles fan—but you ARE an American—and since baseball is supposed to be our national past time—lets “think baseball” for a few minutes. Let’s borrow an idea from Bill Hybels—and use baseball as an illustration of the main point in the next section of Paul’s letter to the Romans.
I want you to imagine that some wealthy eccentric baseball fanatics get together and they decide that too many mediocre ball players have been winding up in the baseball Hall of Fame up in Cooperstown, New York. Here’s a picture of that “hallowed ground of baseball.” These fans feel the exhibits in this building where past baseball greats are honored…they feel they have lost their value and prestige because too many no-names wind up getting admitted for political reasons or whatever. So this group of extreme baseball fans meets to formulate a NEW honor society of professional baseball players. They decide to call it the ALL-UNIVERSE BASEBALL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION. And in their mind it’s going to be a lot better than the hall of fame up in Cooperstown. I mean, the All-Universe Players Association is going to be a really BIG deal. There’s going to be unprecedented media coverage for any player who actually PERFORMS his way into its hallowed halls—but that’s not all. No—upon induction a player will receive a check for twenty-five million dollars, a luxurious home in Palm Springs, a life-time supply of gas for their cars—because at the rate gas prices are going up—25 million won’t be enough to keep their tanks full…so they’ll get that…and tons of other gifts and awards.
However—these eccentric, wealthy baseball fanatics have two very stiff entrance requirements for their ALL-UNIVERSE BASEBALL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION:
- First, the player must play ball his entire career—from little league on up—without committing a single error. Not even one.. No throwing errors, no hitting errors, no fielding errors no wild pitches no getting caught stealing bases. To get in the ALL-UNIVERSE ASSOCIATION you have to play absolutely ERROR-FREE ball.
- And second, the player must bat 1000. For you basketball or football fans out there, this means he must get a hit that gets him on base—every single time he is up to bat. Not one fly out…not one strike out…not even one fielders choice…or it’s all over.
Wouldn’t you agree that those are tough requirements for induction into the ALL-UNIVERSE ASSOCIATION? Sure! But think of the benefits!
- You’re the instant hero of every baseball loving kid in America.
- You get twenty-five million bucks!
- You never again have to worry about the rising cost of gas!
- And think of all the hundreds of millions you would get in endorsements! I mean every company from Wheaties to Nike will be waving checks in your face!
But then again—what are the odds of a baseball player actually fulfilling those two very stiff requirements? I mean, only a few baseball players have gone even ONE season without making an error. I’m thinking of Steve Garvey and Yogi Berra. I’m told both of these players from yesteryear had an error-free season. But on the other hand, during that amazing season where Steve Garvey went error free…he only batted .284. And—to my knowledge no pro baseball player has ever gone two consecutive seasons without at least one error.
But—what about that OTHER requirement—batting a thousand. Is that possible? I don’t think so because the batting average RECORD for one season is only .438. This record was set way back in 1894 by a guy named Hugh Duffy. They called him “Stone Hands” — even though after looking at his picture, I think they should call him “Stone FACE!” And he was a good hitter—but that same .438 season Hugh Duffy committed 27 errors!
I share this baseball trivia to point out that even the super stars of all time have fallen short of the standards of the All-universe association. To help us get our minds around this fact, let’s kick our imaginations up a notch. My daughter’s favorite player is Chase Utley, 2nd baseman for the Phillies. Imagine that Utley is interviewed by Greg Gumbel for CBS Sports. Gumbel says, “Chase, what would you like to have happen in the rest of your career?” Chase says, “I’m glad you asked Greg, because I’ve been thinking. The thing I most want to happen is this. I want to get in to the ALL-UNIVERSE BASEBALL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION.” Gumbel says, “Are you aware that you have to play error free ball and bat 1000 to get in? Chase says, “Yes! And I’m determined to do exactly that.” Gumbel says, “But Chase, according to my stats you committed 4 errors this season and a lot more in other seasons. I don’t even want to talk about the errors you made in little league. I mean, there’s no way to erase errors from your past record—so, come on! You’re not even close to being error free! Sure, you batted .359 this season and that’s not bad…but Chase you gotta realize that even if you hit the ball out of the park every time up to bat at every game for the rest of your career…it is mathematically impossible to bring your batting average up to 1000!?” Chase says, “Don’t confuse me with the facts, Greg! I know what my goals are. I eventually achieve whatever I set out to do. I’m going to make it into the ALL-UNIVERSE BASEBALL PLAYERS ASSOCIATION!” And Chase walks off with his head held high. [next pic…only Gumbel] Gumbel turns to the camera and says, “There you have it friends from Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.” Chase heads for the dug-out and as Gumbel walks toward the exit he says to his cameraman, “Chase must have been beaned in the head by a few too many fast balls! He is dreaming a mathematically impossible dream. I hope he comes to his senses soon.”
Now just hold onto these baseball thoughts. We’ll come back to them in a moment—and when we do you’ll understand why—but for now I want to say something that is sure to get your attention. Here it is. Did you know the Bible infers that there are TWO ways to get to Heaven—two ways to bridge the gap caused by our sin…the gap that separates us from our Holy God? Did you know that? Now…hold on—before you think I’VE been beaned by too many fast balls and have slipped into heresy — listen .. .because technically the Bible teaches there are two ways. The FIRST way is through PERFORMANCE. If we can somehow BE perfectly holy and with the way we PERFORM in life in thought word and deed, STAY that way—well then we could theoretically work our way to Heaven. The SECOND way is to abandon all hope of the first way…and instead of trusting in what YOU do—put your trust in what Jesus Christ did on the cross.
Now—if you’re interested in the first way—if like Chase Utley, PERSONAL PERFORMANCE appeals to you, then the Bible says you really only have to do two things.
A. First, you have to have a sin free life. To refer to our baseball analogy you have to have had an absolutely ERROR-free life from conception to the grave. You have to be absolutely PERFECT.
B. And not only do you have to have lived an absolutely error free life but, you also have to “hit the ball” every time you come up to bat. That is to say you have to have a continuous display of perfect righteousness all life long. You must demonstrate an unblemished flow of perfect love for God…and you have to constantly put others first. Every thought you think—every attitude you embrace—every second of every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year of your life must be full of absolutely PERFECT righteousness…righteous love…righteous counsel…righteous actions…righteous feelings…righteous thoughts—you have to be ALL-RIGHTEOUS ALL THE TIME.
If you have lived your entire life error free—AND if you can continue to be perfectly righteous all the time, well then you could conceivably get to Heaven this FIRST way. But if you mess up—just ONCE—well then the “umpire” of mathematics will jerk his thumb in the air and say, “You are OUT of here!” And remember—to think you can achieve a perfect record AFTER you’ve messed up is pure folly. Even basic math tells us this. You can’t be 100% righteous if you’ve ever sinned…even once. No matter how good you are from then on, your PERFORMANCE average will never reach perfection.
Well, of course the Bible teaches we DO all mess up—because we are all born in sin. UNRIGHTEOUSNESS is our nature. We are bent toward sinning. Scripture says we are BORN sinful…we are born bad, and because we are, we start making errors from day one. This is what the prophet Jeremiah was getting at when he wrote,“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9) In other words, making errors is in our programming from our heart’s first beat! And this programming does indeed show up from the beginning. Ask any parent and they’ll tell you they don’t have to TEACH their kids to sin. Or—get a pass from Jennifer and go peek through the windows into the classrooms in our preschool wing…look at all those cute “innocent” little kids who have come to Sunday School, peek in long enough and you’ll see a precious little toddler shove another kid and take his toy. You’ll hear a pre-schooler tell her teacher “NO” when the teacher asks him to do something. Well, who taught these cute little kids to do that? No-one! It’s their nature. It’s in every beat of their heart. It’s been in their “wiring” from the moment of their conception! They are doing what babies have been doing since the Garden of Eden…they are sinning. Before they can even “throw a baseball,” they are committing ERRORS!
So—since we are all born in a state of sin—it’s beyond ludicrous to buy into this first “way” to Heaven. It’s silly to think you can PERFORM your way into God’s holy presence. You’re not perfect which means you can never BE perfect on your own—even if you could be error free from here on out—which you can’t. Well, this is what Paul has been trying to convince Roman church members on both sides of the aisle. In these first few chapters he’s been saying that no Jew and no Gentile in that church has ever led an error free life…not even one…and none of them has expressed perfect righteousness every single time they came up to bat. Remember? In Romans 3:10-12 Paul says,“There is none righteous…not even ONE. Everyone has turned away….there is none who does good…not even one.” Now, look at verse 20. He says, and this is my paraphrase, “Look guys, according to the law NO ONE will be declared righteous. Personal performance is a dead end street. So give it up!” In verse 19 he literally says, “Let EVERY mouth be closed. Shut up! Quit your bragging to the 1st century equivalent of Greg Gumbel!” All of you who are saying, “I don’t have that many errors and I’m batting about .389! Get off your high horse! Go back to first grade math class and you’ll it is mathematically impossible to be perfect enough to earn your way into Heaven. So, don’t brag about your record. Put down the clip boards! Throw away your baseball cards because there’s nothing to brag about! In fact, your records are condemning you…not justifying you. So take my advice and shut up! Abandon that foolish way of thinking once and for all. The first way—the PERFORMANCE way to Heaven is no way at all!”
Then in verse 21 we find one of the biggest and most precious three letter words in the Bible. Paul says, “BUT…BUT…there is a SECOND way to God.” There’s not a third, and because of our sinful nature the first way NEVER works…BUT…there is a second—which means that actually it’s the ONLY way to God. And Paul goes on to talk about THE only way to God in this next chapter and a half, and as he does he describes the precious beauty of our grace-based faith.
To make sure you see the BEAUTY of this—I would remind you that up until this point, Paul has been painting a very bleak picture. Remember? He’s pointed out the sin of the Gentile believers—and the hypocritical attitudes and actions of the Jewish believers. He’s said very forcefully that we are ALL sinners who are hopelessly lost…so things are gloomy and then in verse 21 on the other side of this big three letter word, the light breaks through! Paul says that all sinners—all error makers—all righteousness-challenged people are eligible for this second way—God’s way. He says that it is not based on man’s righteousness but rather on God’s. All you have to do is acknowledge your sinfulness and admit your need for Jesus…your dependence on the AMAZING GRACE God made possible on the cross.
Look at verse 21 where Paul says,“A righteousness from God, APART FROM THE LAW, has been made known.” Look at verse 27, “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! …We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” I’m reminded of another letter from Paul—the one he wrote to the church at Ephesus where he said, “For it is by GRACE you have been saved through faith—and this is not from yourselves. It is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”(Ephesians 2:8-9)
It seems to me that there are basically 3 groups of people when it comes to the understanding of how sinful human beings like you and me get to Heaven. THE FIRST GROUP says the person has got to do all the good works he can possibly do. This is the biggest group and it’s made up mainly of NON-CHURCHED PEOPLE. THE SECOND GROUP says, “Well, you gotta pray and relate to God and worship Jesus…BUT you also have to do the best you can at being religious and doing good things.” This is mainly RELIGIOUS PEOPLE and we talked about them a couple weeks back. The other day I got an e-mail from a guy in this group—a “religious” guy who had read one of my sermons on the website that focuses on God’s amazing grace and he said, “Mark, I believe in what Jesus did for me on the cross but I also believe God’s grace is seen in that He accepts our good works as payment for our sin.” Well, grace PLUS works is not grace is it?! If you have to perform your way even an inch or two toward Heaven it’s no longer grace because grace is something that is ABSOLUTELY undeserved….completely unmerited. The THIRD GROUP—the smallest—says that getting to Heaven is not a matter of works at all. They understand that salvation—being made right before a holy God—is accomplished by God through Jesus Christ. People in this group understand what Paul is getting at in Romans 4:5 where he says, “To the man who does not [try to] work [his way to Heaven] but [rather] trusts God Who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.” and in Romans 3:23 when he says,“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” They understand that since we are sinful people born in a state of sin, our records are condemning us…not justifying us…so our only hope is to drop the records and trust in Jesus’ death on our behalf.
In 1861 Horatio Bonar wrote a hymn entitled, Not What My Hands Have Done. I don’t know the song but I love his lyrics because express this great truth. They go like this:
Not what my hands have done can save my guilty soul;
Not what my toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.
Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load.
Your voice alone, O Lord, can speak to me of grace;
Your power alone, O Son of God, can all my sin erase.
No other work but Yours, no other blood will do;
No strength but that which is divine can bear me safely through.
Now—to make sure you understand this vital Christian doctrine I want to talk quickly about two big theological phrases and to illustrate them I’m going to call on a typical, error-prone sinner randomly selected from our congregation. Now—just so you know, Bobby freely acknowledges the errors of his life. Right Bobby? Years ago Bobby admitted his sin and need for God’s forgiveness…and I want to show you what happens when someone does that. With all these signs taped all over his body Bobby is showing us what a person looks like before he admits that he or she CAN’T perform his way to Heaven. This is what we look like BEFORE we ask Jesus to forgive us. We’re covered with errors…covered with SIN. When a person decides that he wants to embrace God’s way to Heaven—the ONLY way—well at this point a sinner confesses that he can’t cleanse himself. He admits that his only hope of salvation is APART FROM THE LAW. He prays and asks for God’s help and God DOES help. He IS faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness…but He can’t just drop Bobby’s sins on the ground. No—God is HOLY and JUST so Bobby’s sin has to be punished. So what God did is, He took Bobby’s sin and put them on Jesus. This is the first phrase—something known of in theological circles as “substitutionary atonement” because God put our sins on Jesus as He hung on that cross. That’s how our sins were ATONED for. Jesus was our substitute. When He hung there Jesus was taking our place. He was taking the punishment for our sins. This is what the prophet Isaiah meant when he said that God “…laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6)
This is what Paul is talking about in 2nd Corinthians 5:21 when he says,“God made Him Who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” On that GOOD Friday God took all the BAD of every human ever born—or to ever BE born and made a cataclysmic transfer as all of the sins of all sinners for all time were transferred to Jesus In Colossians 2:14 Paul says that on the cross Jesus took the death certificate that our sin gives us all and nailed to the cross. With His sinless blood Jesus paid the price for our sin.
Now a sinner like Bobby may be cleansed of his sin—his errors—but he’s still not righteous because he never comes close to batting 1000 even if he were to stop sinning, which he doesn’t. Right Bobby? I point this out because thanks to the cross not only was there a sin transfer—there was also a righteousness transfer. This is the second theological phrase: IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS. You see Jesus Christ batted a thousand! He was perfectly righteous! And when we ask Him to forgive us of our sin and to come into our hearts and lives…well, His righteousness is then IMPUTED to us. [PUT WHITE ROBE ON BOBBY] This is what Paul is talking about in Galatians 5:27 when he says that believers have “clothed themselves with Christ.” This is what he’s referring to in Philippians 3:9 when he says he does not have a righteousness of his own, “…that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
So what God does when we accept His grace is put our sin on Jesus and His righteousness on us.
Through Jesus’ SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT, we are cleansed of sin…and because of His IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS we are clothed in righteousness. In short we are error free batting a thousand but not on our merits but rather on the merits of Jesus Christ. God views this cleansed and clothed person and says “I declare you acceptable in My sight.” We come now to partake in the memorial meal that reminds us of God’s grace—the grace we depend on as believers. And as we do, let me invite all Christians present to partake with us because after all, even if you are not a member of this church….If you are a Christian…if you are His, this is Yours.
THE ORDINANCE OF COMMUNION
Let me ask you a question. When you stand before our holy God, how are you going to look? Well, to answer my own question you’ll look one of two ways. You’ll either stand before God with two clip boards in your hands and say, “Well, God, I don’t have that many errors! You can see by looking at my record that I have lived a pretty good life. I’ve batted about 388. That’s not bad! What do you think?” If you to this you’ll hear God say, “DEPART FROM ME…for by the works of the law no flesh will be justified.” Or you’ll stand before God cleansed because of the sin transfer and clothed in the righteousness of JESUS and you’ll hear Him say, “Welcome home! Welcome to the place that has been prepared for you!”
Which WAY sounds best to you? This morning we’ve made the AMAZING GRACE of God visible—we’ve made the WAY, THE TRUTH, and THE LIFE, plain to see. And if you’re not a Christian, surely you can see your need to become one. So—pray—admit your sin and your need for Jesus’ forgiveness. Decide today to become His follower. Then come share that decision with me. Leave your seat and come forward as we sing. If you have other decisions to make such as to JOIN this church, come forward. Come as God leads.