Pastor Jeremy Husby delivers a sermon entitled “Ransom for Debt” based on Romans 5:1-11 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered: Sunday, February 25, 2017
There stands the Apostle Paul in the courtroom. It is not Felix or Festus, the Roman governors, who are presiding at this trial. The Sanhedrin of Pharisees and Sadducees have no authority here either. Instead, Almighty God, with his long flowing robes that fill the building, is seated with his gavel that will, with one swift swing, state the eternal fate of the Apostle.
The trial has been long and difficult to endure. The prosecuting attorney, that ancient and slithering serpent named Satan, has built up a pretty strong case against Paul. Stacks of facts have been entered into heaven’s evidence. Exhibit A was pretty powerful; a DNA test proving that Paul was born of sinful parents and, therefore, was sinful, himself. The case was open and shut right there, but he kept piling on.
Exhibit B was a record of Paul’s words and actions, back when he went by the name of Saul, all done in service to work righteousness, as though he could have earned heaven by his own merit. Under those false pretenses, everything he tried to put on the positive side of the eternal judgment scale ended up, instead, shifting the balance far beyond the point of no return.
Written affidavits, witness testimony, and even appealing to the omniscience of the all-knowing Judge, himself, the Devil was able to rest his case. He didn’t even have to work with his typical tools of lies and deception. Openly and honestly, he made it clear that Paul had incurred quite a debt. Not to society, but to his God. And, instead of going to jail, his debt deserved death as punishment; eternal death in the fires of hell.
If you were Paul’s lawyer, what defense would you try to put up? With even just a small sampling from the book of Acts, you could come up with a few factors that would seem to work in your favor. You could play the blame game. Paul was tricked by the prosecutor, himself, into much of his sin. With every weapon in his arsenal, the Devil convinced Paul that he was doing either what was right or, according to his human rights, what he deserved to do.
Or, maybe, you could try to make the end justify the means. Yes, Paul did some subjectively sinful things, but that is also what led him to accomplish so much for the good of the Christian Church at large. He was the greatest missionary who ever lived. He started a number of churches across the ancient world, in Asia Minor, Achaia, Italy, and Macedonia.
Paul was a good guy. He changed his life. He became a completely different person. Free him because of the man he’s become, not the man that he was.
Would that be the defense you’d argue for yourself as well? If it was you in the hot seat, with your own sin history heaped in a pile in front of you, would you try to pass the buck or balance the scales with your own record book of good works?
Friends, unfortunately, this is not simply some training exercise for the worst-case scenario. While it is an illustration, the meat of the matter is all too real. Your God has a class action suit against all of humanity for its sin and guilt. And, carried to its logical conclusion, the verdict you would deserve would be death. There would be no defense you could come up with on your own to free your soul from that eternal fate. As Jesus himself said in the Gospel reading for today, What can a man give in exchange for his soul?
The implied answer to his rhetorical question is that mankind has nothing worthy enough to compensate for the crimes that they have committed; nothing valuable enough to pay the debt they owe to their God because of their guilt and sin.
You don’t have an answer to Christ’s question or a defense for your misdeeds. You are, as Paul declares in these words from Romans 5, powerless. You are not simply weak. It is not as though, now that you know your situation, you can beef up your resume or your record book of good works. You have nothing. You are impotent before the omnipotent.
And yet, like the infamous children’s song says so simply, because Jesus loves you, you belong to him and, though you are worse than weak, he is strong.
No, he doesn’t give you a not guilty verdict based on any changes you have made in your life or the good deeds that came in tow. Instead, in keeping with the courtroom terms, he pounds his gavel with the verdict of justified. He declares you not guilty, not because of a change in you, but because of an exchange made for you. Your debt has been paid. Listen to Paul explain what he knew would acquit him of the case held against him. Listen to God’s Great Exchange again:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly…
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!
Jesus paid the debt you owe with the ransom price of his own precious blood. He didn’t simply bribe him to forget about the evidence and ignore the consequences he set down in eternity for breaking his Law. Instead, God fully poured out his wrath on sin. It just so happens that his wrath ended up being poured out on the man that Jesus had become, not the man that he was.
Your God saw all sinners of all time in a line, and that line led nowhere but to hell, the place that they deserved to go because of sin. But as he saw you there, primed and ready to receive the wrath that you so righteously deserved, something happened. He rearranged things. He exchanged Jesus’ perfect life and precious ransoming blood in place of your imperfect life and debt that you owed. He put all his attention, all his focus, all his wrath on Jesus in place of you.
That is Jesus’ answer to his own rhetorical question and his defense for your courtroom case. Your sin cannot condemn you. The prosecutor has lost the open and shut case against you. With one swift swing of his eternal gavel, God hammered nails into the hands and feet of his Son and, in return, received the ransom payment that covered your debt and the debt of the whole world.
When your day in court finally comes, have no fear. In that Great Exchange, God has declared you justified. You are not guilty, now and forever. Amen.