Here is this weekend’s sermon from Romans 3.21-31 for our series, Justified. As a visual, I had boulders form a wall with a chasm between ‘us’ and God to demo how the ‘plan of salvation’ is often illustrated.
You can listen to the sermon here
1. Vitamix Jesus
Or you can download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’
A couple of years ago my wife and I made the decision to get rid of our cable; so that, now we get zero channels on our television. You can imagine how popular that decision was with our children (not).
Even though our boys still claim to hate us and curse the day I sealed our cable receiver in its box and shipped it back to Verizon, Ali and I think it was a good and even necessary decision.
For one, we thought it was ridiculous to keep paying the mortgage payment that is the Verizon cable bill.
For another, we didn’t want out kids exposed to a constant stream of advertisements that train them to want and want and want and want and want.
Of course, if you asked my wife why we got rid of our cable, she wouldn’t mention any of those reasons. No, she’d tell you it was because her husband- me- is a complete sucker for informercials.
A pushover, she’d say. An easy mark.
And it’s true.
If I was surfing the channels and I heard the words ‘set it and forget it’ fuggedaboutit, I was hooked, convinced I absolutely needed to be able to rotisserie 6 chickens and a side of ribs at one time.
If I was flipping channels and came across the informercial for the Forearm Max, I’d spend the next 2 hours shamefully amazed that I’ve made it this far in my life with forearms as pathetic and emasculating as mine.
If I saw the commercial for the Shake Weight, my first thought was never ‘that seems to simulate something that violates the Book of Leviticus, something my grandmother said would make me go blind.’
No, my first thought was always ‘that looks like something I need.’
So we got rid of our cable, but that hardly solves my condition.
There are advertisements everywhere.
A few months ago, near Valentine’s Day, Gabriel and I went to Whole Foods to get some fish.
At that point, I’d been on the infomercial wagon for 18 months, 2 weeks and 3 days. But guess what I discovered they were doing back by the seafood section?
Uh huh, a product demonstration.
The person doing the demonstration was a woman in her 20’s or 30’s.
For some inexplicable, yet very effective, reason she was wearing a black evening dress that reminded me of the one worn by Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith, which then reminded me of the dress worn by Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith.
Whether the woman doing the demo did in fact look like Angelina Jolie or just had the same effect on me- my memory cannot be trusted.
‘Hey, let’s stick around and watch this’ I said to Gabriel, who smacked his forehead with here-we-go-again embarrassment.
In addition to the slinky dress, the demonstrator was wearing a Madonna mic which pumped her bedroom voice through speakers, which beckoned all the men in the store to obey her siren call.
The product she was demonstrating that day was the Vitamix.
Have you seen one? Do you own one?
If you haven’t or don’t: the Vitamix is like the Bentley of blenders.
Angelina pulled the Vitamix out of its box like a jeweler at Tiffany’s. And then in her sleepy, kitten voice she went into her schtick:
‘The Vitamix is a high-powered blending machine for your home or your office. It’s redefining what a blender can do. The Vitamix will solve all your blending problems.
With this 1 product, you won’t need any of those other tools and appliances taking up so much space in your kitchen.’
And as she spoke, I wasn’t thinking: ‘Who needs a high-powered blender for their office? Why does a blender need redefining? It’s just a blender.’
No, I was thinking…
‘This could solve all my blending problems. If I have this, I won’t need anything else.’
I looked down at my side, Gabriel was transfixed too.
The first part of her demo she showed off the Vitamix’s many juicing and blending capabilities. But then to display the diversity of the product’s features, she asked the crowd: ‘Who enjoys pesto?’
And like a brown-nosing boy, desperate to impress the teacher, the teacher he has a crush on, I raised my hand and spoke up: ‘I do. I am Italian after all.’
And she smiled at me- only at at me- and said: ‘I’ve always had a thing for Italians.’
‘Can you cook?’ she asked me. And I nodded my head. Like Fonzi, too cool for words.
‘Even better’ she purred.
And then she pretended to be speaking to the entire crowd even though I knew she only cared about me.
‘Have you ever noticed how the pesto you buy in the store never looks fresh? It’s dark and its oily.’
And we all of us, we nodded like Stepford Husbands.
‘But when you try to make pesto at home (and she held up her hands like this was a problem on par with AIDS or world hunger) food processors and traditional blenders just won’t do will they they?’
And then she looked my way, like I was a plant in the audience.
Hypnotized, I said: ‘No, they won’t do’ even though I’ve been making pesto since I was 10 years old and I can’t say I’ve ever had a problem.
She licked some of the pesto off her spoon as though it were a lollypop or a popsicle or… and and then she said in her come-hither voice:
‘I’m not married (sigh) but if I was…this is what I’d want…for Valentine’s Day.’
I drove my new Vitamix home that afternoon.
I showed it to my wife, presenting it to her like a hunter/gatherer laying his bounty at the foot of his woman’s cave.
And then I got back in my car and drove it back to the store in order to return it because as my wife pointed out I already had a blender and a food processor and who could convince me to buy this ridiculous thing and what am I, an idiot?
Sure, I’m an easy mark, but how could I not be?
Take it from someone who knows what he’s talking about: Commercials and product pitches- they’re more powerful and persuasive than any preacher.
Just think, you’re exposed to 3 thousand advertisements a day. A day. And every last single one of them operates on the same, simple, seductive formula:
They identify a problem– maybe a problem you didn’t even know you had until they told you that you had the problem- a pesto problem say.
And then they make you a promise: this product can solve your problem (and maybe all your problems).
And best of all, it’s easy. All you have to do is make a decision, say ‘yes’ to this product.
There’s nothing else you have to do.
3 thousand times a day we’re told we have a problem and we’re offered a solution and we’re promised there’s nothing more we need to do.
3 thousand times a day.
And so it shouldn’t surprise us that many Christians pitch Jesus according to this same marketing formula.
‘Faith in Jesus’ gets treated like a product in a sales pitch. In some churches, this sales pitch is called ‘the plan of salvation.’
The ‘plan of salvation’ makes for great advertising.
It’s cheap. It hardly costs the customers anything.
And like any good infomercial, it’s lends itself to a visual demonstration.
First, it identifies a problem: You’re separated from God.
The emptiness in your life, the sense of something missing, the guilt and shame you feel underneath- it’s because you’re separated from God.
It’s called sin and because of sin there’s a great chasm between you and God.
You’re here and God’s over there.
And there’s nothing you can do, no good deed, no matter how hard you try, there’s nothing you can do to get from where you are to where God is.
The plan of salvation sales pitch offers you a solution to the problem: Jesus Christ died on the cross so that you might no longer be separated from God.
If you have faith in Jesus Christ, then your problem? Gone. Shazam.
Your sin? Dealt with. You will be right with God.
You will be “justified” by your faith in Jesus Christ.
The plan of salvation- like all sales pitches- ends with a promise too good to be true.
It’s free. It doesn’t cost anything. There aren’t 3 Easy Payments of $19.95.
None of the cost is passed on to you.
Better yet, if you choose this product while there’s still time, if you have faith in Jesus Christ, there’s nothing else you have to do, there’s no further obligation required.
It says it right here on the packaging: “You are justified not by your works but by your faith in Christ
For most of you, even if it wasn’t hawked to you in an infomercial kind of way, this is the product you were sold.
The problem is your sin, your separation from God.
If you have faith, if you have faith in Jesus Christ, if you have faith…
Then you’re justified, you’re made right with God.
And there’s nothing else you need to do because you’re justified by your faith not by your works.
For most of you, even it didn’t come packaged in a slick sales pitch, this is the product you were sold.
And maybe you’ve never given it a second thought.
But some of you have. I know.
Some of you were sold this ‘faith in Christ product’ and then one day you took out the instructions.
You took out the instructions, and what did you read there?
Something more than the salesman promised you.
You read Jesus saying that you should be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect, and you read Jesus laying down a whole lot of ‘woes’ if you’re not working to be perfect.
You read Jesus saying I am the vine and you are the branches and if you do not bear fruit with your faith, then you will be pruned away.
You read Jesus warning that ‘when I come back, I will separate the sheep from the goats according to whether or not you gave water to the thirsty or clothing to the naked or food to the hungry.’
Because if you didn’t, Jesus Christ will treat it like you didn’t do it for him.
We’ve all been sold this ‘faith in Christ no more work necessary’ product.
But when you actually open up the instructions to this product, you read Jesus’ brother warning that ‘faith without works is… no good.’
Or you read Paul- Paul!- saying that one day we will be judged by our character, by our work, by our deeds, by the fruit the Holy Spirit has harvested from our faith.
The promise that was sold to us doesn’t match how the instructions say this product is meant to work in our lives.
But to discover that, you’ve got to dig into the fine print.
The truth is always in the fine print.
The fine print is always where you realize what the actual cost is going to be.
And when it comes to fine print, there is no better example than today’s passage from Romans 3.
If you open your pew bibles, you’ll see that today’s text actually comes with fine print- footnotes that imply something far scarier than the fine print in your credit card bill.
The fine print in the case of today’s text- it comes down to just two words: Pistis and Christou.
The word ‘pistis’ is the Greek word that gets translated as ‘faith.’
But the word ‘pistis’ doesn’t mean ‘rational assent’ or ‘belief’’ and certainly not ‘a feeling in your heart.’
It means something closer to ‘trusting obedience,’ and so the better way to translate the word ‘pistis’ isn’t with the word ‘faith’ but with the word ‘faithfulness.’
And the word ‘Christou.’
Obviously that’s the word for Christ or Messiah. Christou is in the Genitive Case.
And the best way to translate it is not ‘in Christ’
The best way to translate it ‘of Christ.’
When you read the fine print in Romans 3, you realize Paul is saying something different than what you were sold.
He’s not saying we are justified by our faith in Christ.
He’s saying it is the faithfulness of Christ that justifies you.
Now, I know you’re probably thinking ‘Jason just likes to be a smarty pants and this doesn’t make any difference.’
To the smarty-pants charge: guilty, I say.
But to the other charge: I say it makes all the difference because Paul wants you to see something that is both better news and far more demanding than the ‘faith in Christ’ product that was hawked to you.
For Paul, it’s the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah that justifies us.
It’s Christ’s faithfulness that makes us right with God.
It’s Jesus’ trusting obedience, not just on the cross but all the way up to it, from Galilee to Golgotha, that zeroes out the sin in our ledgers.
For Paul, Christ’s faithfulness isn’t just an example of something. It’s effective for something. It changes something between God and us, perfectly and permanently. Just like Jesus said it did when he said: ‘It is accomplished.’
That’s why, for Paul, any of our attempts to justify ourselves are absurd. Of course they are- because he’s already justified us.
Dig in to the fine print and you see that, for Paul, the good news of our justification is not a conditional if/then statement: If you have faith in Christ then you will be justified, then your sins will be forgiven.
That’s not good news; it’s a marketing lure.
It suggests that Christ’s Cross doesn’t actually change anything until we first invite Jesus to change our hearts.
But Jesus didn’t hang on the cross and with his dying breath say ‘It is accomplished
dot, dot, dot
if and when you have faith in me…’
This is why the fine print’s such a big deal!
Because it’s such better news than the sales pitch.
Think about what Paul’s saying:
your believing, your saying the sinner’s prayer, your inviting Jesus in to your heart, your making a decision for Christ- all of it is good.
But none of it is necessary.
None of it is the precondition for having your sins erased.
None of it is necessary for you being justified.
Because you already are justified- because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
That’s it. That’s the good news.
You can have a mountain’s worth of doubts and you can have faith as small as a fraction of a mustard seed- no worries.
Because your justification does not depend on you or your faith or lack thereof.
But on Jesus Christ and his faithfulness.
When you think about it, there’s a reason Paul’s message gets pushed to the fine print. It makes for terrible marketing.
There’s no problem to get your attention.
There’s no bad news to spark your worrying.
There’s no scary threat to provoke your fear.
Paul’s fine print message could never be an informercial because there’s no visual to demonstrate. The chasm that once separated you from God- it’s gone.
It’s already been repaired. By Christ.
Your justification. Already taken care of.
Paul’s message doesn’t follow the sales pitch formula.
There’s no problem; there’s just good news.
There’s no way that’ll sell.
But there’s another reason why Paul’s message gets pushed to the fine print.
Because when you realize that it’s the faithfulness of Jesus Christ that has set you right with God, his faithful life of sacrifice and selfless love, his faithful life of compassion and forgiveness and generosity and boundary-breaking, enemy-embracing love- then you realize…
You can’t just respond to that with “faith,” with “belief,” with “a feeling inside you.”
You can only respond by attempting a life like his- a life that once led to a cross.
You see it’s not there is anything you are required to do. Rather there is now so much you are summoned to do.
When you realize and trust it’s the faithfulness of Christ that justifies you, his faithful life all the way to the cross, you realize…
That what’s been given to you for free- it could end up costing you EVERYTHING.
And that’s terrible advertising. That’s an awful sales pitch.
No one would ever buy into that.
No wonder it’s easier to count ‘decisions for Christ’ than to count people carrying bearing crosses for him.