Pictured above: It's grim down South. Romford in the 1970s.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:1-8)
I was brought up in Romford, Essex and it is fair to say that the town centre in the 1970s was unrelentingly grim. In 1968 the Liberty Centre was designed by an architect who only owned a set square, and loved concrete. There were (concrete) canopies in front of the (square) shops, but most of it was outside. I can only assume that the architect had done this so that when it rained, we could admire the different colours of grey as water streaked down the concrete. After a few years, though, the bare grey was relieved by streaks of brown rust.
Dotted around the centre was ‘art’, which was intended to soothe the troubled Essex soul. This ‘art’ was made up of squares of concrete piled up high, and as you looked up at the ‘art’ your eyes were then drawn to the (square) multi-story car-parks which sat above the (square) shops. After a while the concrete ‘art’ was painted blue, but before then the only decoration was the streaks of rain, rust, and other streaks left by pigeons.
Better to get inside, and go to Debenhams with its escalator-linked floors. As a boy Debenhams was a place of adventure. You could race your friends to the top floor, and see whether it was quickest by lift, stairs or escalator. What I particularly remember, though, was the dare. Could I run up the down escalator? Two lung busting minutes later, I was greeted by a huddle of frowning shoppers as I proved that yes, you could indeed run up the down escalator. Although, to be honest, it is easiest to go up the up escalator.
Why this excursion into the Life of an Essex Lad? These memories of mine amply demonstrate that it is better to go with the grain, than go against it. Compare a squared off, concrete Romford with the rolling green of Checkley and you can see which comes off best. There are two ways to tackle an escalator, but it is much better to go in the way it was designed to go.
This passage deals with peace with God, and how that peace is obtained. We might like to come up with all sorts of ways in which think that peace might be found, but in the end God has determined his way. If we try and go other ways, the outcome is worse than just being out of breath at the top of an escalator in Debenhams. We don’t get there at all.
When you look at how the passage starts, I wonder if you notice how little there is that we have to do in order to find this peace. We obtain it by faith - that is our part - but it is achieved by Christ. Go to the second paragraph. Christ dies for the ungodly (not the godly). He dies for sinners (not for the perfect). Going back once more to Debenhams, all I need to do is exercise my faith and step on to the up elevator and it will do the rest.
Ah, you might say. Hmm, you might hum as the brow furrows. That doesn’t sound very fair. I’m not sure I would categorise myself as ungodly or a sinner. Surely God rewards the good people. “God helps those who help themselves”.
Yet that quote is nowhere found in either Testament, since the point the Bible consistently makes is that we are simply not in a position to help ourselves. Yes, we might be “better” than our neighbours, but who would wish to claim that they are as holy as the God who says: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:16)? Your sins might cause less harm to others than those of the population of HMP Pentonville, but have you really acted perfectly your whole life? Can you hear these words of Jesus without wincing: “you therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect”(Matthew 5:48)?
No. Christ died for us, warts and all. He knew the recesses of our hearts, and still he went to the cross. There is no point in trying to kid God, better to simply stand amazed at the gift he gave us even though it was undeserved.
I’ve laboured this point, because I honestly think it is a liberating thought. We are loved by God because of who we are, not because of what we do. All we need to do is accept the gift that God gives us, and to stop trying to earn our own way into heaven. As the Apostle makes abundantly clear, our position with God is entirely due to what Jesus has done. It is out of our hands, and in his.
This is why Paul can go on to talk in such positive ways about suffering. Rather than bumbling through this life wondering what might become of you, you now know where you are headed. You have a hope of the future. A hope of what is yet to come. You know that this life is but a stepping stone into the next. You know that the failing body you have now will be resurrected and perfected. You know that God is with you. You know that God is working for your good. You know that you are standing on the firm foundation of the gracious love of God. You know God is for you and sustaining you and supporting you. You know all of this because you are not relying on your future deeds, but on what Christ has already done.
Oh what a thing it is to cast yourself on to the loving mercy of God. What it is to gratefully accept all that Christ has done for you. What a relief to know that you are forgiven. What a joy it is to live in peace with God, to go along with his pattern for living. To go with his grain.
Don’t try and build your own life yourself.
How much better to look over the woods of Checkley than the rain streaked concrete of Romford.