By Dr. Mark Scott
How did the facts of Jesus’ death on the cross and his empty tomb set things right between God and humanity? How to articulate the atonement is of great debate among scholars today. Twelve different New Testament words and at least six different models have to be examined. Many of those are in Romans. Romans is a multifaceted epistle. It is a theological treatise, a unity document, and a missionary letter. It touches on themes of alienation (chapters 1–3), justification (4–5), sanctification (6–8), election (9–11), and implementation (12–16). But regardless of which section we are in, we never lose the reconciling love of God.
Reconciling Love Demands a Death
God’s demands are high. Humanity’s ability to achieve those demands is impossible. Something had to happen to remove the alienation created between God’s demands and humanity’s ability. Enter the death of Christ.
Humanity’s needs are underlined by three phrases in our text. First, humans are powerless. This word means “weak” and was often used in the New Testament to speak of physical weakness. Paul had already argued this point from a spiritual weakness standpoint (Romans 1:18-3:20). Christ died for powerless people. Second, humans are sinners. This is the normal word for “missing the mark.” Christ died for sinful people. Third, humans are enemies. This word means “haters of God.” Christ died for people who had hostility toward the lover of their souls.
But humanity’s inability to live up to God’s righteousness is met by divine reconciling love. Four phrases underline God’s desire to get back what rightfully belongs to him. First, Christ died for the ungodly (“impious or wicked”). Second, Christ died for us. There is power in certain prepositions. The word for could be translated “on behalf of.” An atonement theory in a preposition? Third, we are saved from God’s wrath through him. The cross averts our biggest obstacle in getting to God, namely God himself. Finally, we are reconciled to him through the death of his Son. Reconciliation means to remove the alienation and enmity. It is a term in the ancient world (as well as the modern) from the realm of marriage. A married couple separates, but then they reconcile (are made friends again).
Justification (the penalty paid) has to take place before reconciliation (relationship restored) can happen. The stunning thing is that God’s love is not just for the righteous or the good but for the ungodly, sinners, and enemies.
Reconciling Love Assures a Victory
The “second Adam from above” died for those of Adam’s race (Romans 5:12-21). But sometimes even those redeemed by grace (Romans 3:24) compromise their holiness and do not live out their victory in Christ. That is why Paul wrote Romans 6–8. He basically gave three answers to this dilemma. First, we must remember our death to ourselves in baptism (chapter 6). Since we died to the old way we should live in newness. Next, we must remember that we are still in the flesh, and we are a walking civil war (chapter 7). We will make some mistakes along the way. Finally, we walk by the Spirit even while we still groan for our glorious future (chapter 8).
By the time Paul wrote the last two paragraphs of Romans 8, he was on top of the world. God’s reconciling love will have the last word. He wrote using questions as his method, he quoted from the Old Testament to undergird his authority, and he made a list to challenge anything in the universe to separate him from the love of Christ. Paul asked seven questions. Most all of them can be answered with the negative response of “No” or “No one” (verse 32 is the exception—it gets a rousing “Yes!”). We learn that God is for us, he gave up Jesus for us, he gave us all things, he defends us, he justifies us, and he intercedes for us. Even though we face the prospect of death, we live out the theology of the lamb (Psalm 44:22).
It is as if Paul challenged the universe with a list of 17 things to try and separate him from the love of Christ. No way. The victory of reconciling love makes us overcomers.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.