READ : Romans 5:6-8
While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
Romans 5:6-8, RSV
Letters keep coming to us at Words of Hope from suffering, struggling people. Some are heart-wrenching to read. I’m thinking of one from a woman whose husband has left her after many years of marriage. She’s feeling the agony of loss, of rejection, of betrayal. Battling with a storm of emotion, she’s been frustrated in her efforts to find anyone who would listen, or understand. Toward the end of her story, she writes this: “If you can show me in any way that someone cares about me – maybe it will make a difference in where I go from here.”
Did you hear that? “If you can show me … that someone cares about me – maybe it will make a difference …” Oh, it will make a difference, won’t it? It always does. It makes more of a difference than anything else to know that we are loved.
KNOWING WE’RE LOVED
Think of the difference it makes to a tiny child. We’ve been dwelling on that a good bit lately because of several young grandchildren that have come into our family. A baby learns very early, they say, whether or not someone cares. When he feels hunger pains, is there anyone to feed him? When he’s frightened, is there anyone to speak a reassuring word? Is he largely alone in this vast, strange world, or is someone near who hears his cry, who understands his need? Is there someone to hold him, play with him, smile down at him, talk softly to him? If there is, he gets to know in the early months of his life that he is loved. For all the rest of his days, he’ll enjoy an inner security, a sense of trust, a wholeness he would never have known without that early assurance. Pity the child who must go through the first months of life without demonstrated love! He or she may not know why, but she’ll suffer from that deprivation for years to come.
There may be young people around you, self-conscious, lacking in confidence, bewildered at the changes going on in them, groping for their place in the world. If there’s a caring adult on the scene, a steady source of encouragement, a dependable haven in the midst of the tempest, they’ll find the going much easier. And, oh, if there’s a special person of the opposite sex, someone who – wonder of wonders – seems to like them and wants to be with them, then a bleak and forbidding world becomes suddenly bright and full of hope.
And that’s not only true for the young. I know a man who for decades endured an almost hermit-like existence. He lived by himself, ate by himself, came home quickly from work to carry out his little projects alone. He seemed to shrink from human contact, to fear relatedness.
One summer a warm, outgoing family took an interest in this man. They went out of their way to talk to him. They coaxed him out of his shell with a little job offer, an experience to share, an informal meal together. He began to blossom. He got his hair cut, bought a new suit, even found a lady friend. What a difference it made when someone, in this case a warm-hearted family, really cared about him, and he knew it!
LOVED BY GOD
Now, if it can mean that much when significant others show interest in us, what effect would it have if we could know that God loves us, that we’re important to, even dear to, the Lord of the universe? The best of our friends and loved ones are sometimes absent, but He’s always there. They may change with the years but He is forever the same. These we must some day lose in death, but He lives on.
But how, we wonder, could a person ever be sure that God cares? True, there is much about the universe He has made that has a friendly “feel” to it: the sun warm on our faces, the rain that refreshes a parched earth and makes living things grow, the song of a skylark, the taste of a ripe peach, the glory of the western sky as the sun dips under the horizon. Doesn’t all that speak of kindness and fatherly care? Yes, but what we call nature has a frightful side to it, too – destructive forces that seem indifferent to our welfare. We have to reckon with volcanoes and earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, the terrors of fire and disease, famine and drought. We look around us in vain for a certain word that our individual lives matter to the Creator.
And surely the experiences we pass through don’t always bring us that assurance, do they? Some things that happen in my life fit in with the conviction that God cares for me, but a good deal of evidence seems to point at times the other way. When my health fails, when I lose my job, when my spouse runs out on me, when the one I love most is snatched away in an automobile accident, when the work I gave my life to is ruined by someone’s malice or negligence – that doesn’t fit the theory, does it? When I judge by my circumstances, I’m like the teenage girl who plucks the petals of a daisy down to the last one, hoping for a sure sign: “He loves me; he loves me not….” I’m never sure.
But there are people in the world today who are sure about that, who are convinced that God cares for them. The apostle Paul speaks for a host of them when he says in his letter to the Romans, chapter 5, verse 5:
Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
He’s saying that the assurance of God’s love has filled his heart as the fragrance of poured-out perfume permeates a room. Paul and his friends affirm: “God loves us; we can feel it. We know it’s so.”
But maybe that doesn’t satisfy you. You’re skeptical about such feelings, such inner impressions of God’s love. People can be mistaken, you point out. Our emotions can deceive us. What if we wake up one morning and the feeling is gone?
WHAT MAKES US SURE
Here is Paul’s answer:
While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man – though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die [that is, for someone who has done us good]. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
According to Paul, God shows His love in the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ. He shows it especially in Christ dying for us and supremely in His dying for us when we didn’t deserve it.
Think about that with me. We can see God’s love in the coming of Jesus into the world. His name was called “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” Here was God coming to visit us, to share our life, to make Himself known. In Jesus, He took on human life, wore a human face, lived out His love before our eyes.
But Paul mainly sees the love of God in the climax of Jesus’ ministry. He sees it, strange to say, in the crucifixion. “God shows his love for us,” he writes, “in that Christ died for us.”
What a wealth of theology, what a depth of meaning lies in those words, “Christ died for us.” What happened on Golgotha, the shame and agony of Jesus’ crucifixion, was somehow for us. It was for our benefit, with our good in mind. It was on our behalf, as someone representing us. More, it was in our place, to bear what we deserve.
A Civil War gravestone spoke eloquently of one soldier’s sacrificial heroism. The epitaph read: “Sacred to the memory of Billy Lee. He took my place; he died for me.” On some dusty, smoke-filled battlefield, Billy Lee threw himself between this nameless writer and certain death. He took the mortal blow that would otherwise have destroyed his friend. In that way, His life, His death, was a pointer to the One who stepped between us and judgment, who took our debt, our doom, upon Himself.
The full depth and wonder of that appears when we remember who the people were for whom He did this. Four words describe them here: “helpless,” “ungodly,” “sinners,” and “enemies.”
Christ died for us when we were helpless. That’s quite different from the oft-quoted maxim found in Poor Richard’s Almanac: “God helps those who help themselves.” You may have thought that was a Biblical quotation, but it isn’t. Thank God it isn’t! He didn’t wait for us to start helping ourselves but gave Himself for us when we were without strength.
Christ died for us also when we were ungodly. All of us have failed to love God with our whole hearts, to keep Him in our thoughts. As ungodly people, we live a good deal of our lives without any reference to Him, any awareness of His presence, as though He did not exist.
Christ died for us when we were yet sinners. Sinner means “one who misses the mark,” who falls short of the standard. We had a shot at the target, as it were, but our arrows went astray. It’s so characteristic of us to deviate from God’s norm, to walk a crooked path instead of a straight one, that the name sinner describes us comprehensively.
Christ died for us, further, when we were His enemies. Here’s the full miracle of the cross: Jesus dies for the very people who condemn and crucify Him. He dies for us when we were estranged from Him, still full of hostility and resentment, showing our opposition to Him in one offense after another.
That’s quite a catalogue of descriptive words, isn’t it: helpless, ungodly, sinners, enemies. Together they underline the truth that Christ died for the totally undeserving.
Though there are hints of this in human life, pointers to it in the devotion and bravery of men like Billy Lee, it actually has no parallels in our experience. The apostle Paul comments on that: “Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man.” It’s a bit more likely that you would do that for a “good man,” that is, one who had done you good. That’s about as far as human love would ever go.
But God, says Paul, shows His love for us in that Christ died for us when we were anything but righteous, and when we had done Him not good but evil. He suffered for those who had no claim at all upon His love. He was the “Billy Lee” who was willing to die not for his buddies but for those firing at him from the other side. So great God’s love!
The woman who wrote that poignant letter was wondering about the difference it might make if she knew that someone cared for her. Well, here’s something of the difference it makes for people who see God’s love in the cross. For one thing, they are filled with hope for the future. Listen to Paul:
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
Since God has already done the really difficult thing, that is, reconcile rebels to Himself through the cross, how much more, once they have been reconciled, will He grant them a full salvation in the future? It’s as though Paul were saying, If God did this for us when we were His enemies, what will He do for us now that we are His friends? To know that we’re loved by God fills us with undying hope.
And what is more, it makes us triumphantly glad. We “rejoice in our hope,” writes Paul. The assurance of God’s love opens the springs of gladness for us. We can’t be down very far or for very long if we know that God is altogether for us, that He’s working in every circumstance for our best interests, that He will always be our portion.
I wish I could give to each of you today this assurance of God’s love. It’s hard to imagine a more wonderful gift to bestow. Obviously I can’t do that, nor can anyone else. But there’s something I can do. Don Francisco, in one of his songs, writes, “I can tell you where to look.” I’m speaking to you today, to tell you “where to look.” Look at Jesus Christ crucified for you. See there the wonder of God’s love for undeserving people. Gaze at the Savior dying for you.
But then, as the song goes on, “you’ve gotta seek to find.” You have to “step across the line.” You need to realize that you are one of those helpless ones, the ungodly, the sinners, the enemies, and that Jesus truly died for you as the supreme proof of God’s love. You need to call on Him as your Savior, to commit yourself to His lordship. And when you do, the Holy Spirit will surely enter your life and begin to give you “convincing proof” – the assurance of God’s love!
PRAYER: Thank You, God, for showing us in the Cross of Jesus how far Your love is willing to go for us. May every person who shares the broadcast today have a deep sense of Your love for them as they put their trust in the crucified Jesus. In His name. Amen.