How perfect do you have to become to be welcomed into Heaven?
“I hope not too perfect!!” a friend of mine answered. “If I have to be perfect, I just won’t make it!” He was hoping that God would be lenient—very lenient!
I surprised my friend by saying that he does indeed have to be perfect—as perfect as God. As he thought about it, he realized that it makes sense that God, who by nature is holy, cannot accept us into His presence unless we, too, are holy.
So the question before us, the question that goes to the heart of what we call the Gospel, is: How do we become as perfect as God?
The great reformer Martin Luther grappled with the same question: How can a sinner receive the favor of a holy God who is just and hates sin? In preparing a Bible lesson, Luther came to these words from Romans 1:16-17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” These verses stand as the theme of the entire Book of Romans.
The Apostle Paul, writing to the early church in Rome, was explaining the Gospel, the Good News that would eventually spread throughout the whole Roman Empire. This message was so radical, so counter-cultural that Christians lost their lives for it. Under the Emperor Nero, the public execution of Christians became “sports” events in which the early believers were torched, fastened to crosses and torn to pieces by lions.
What was the message that gave Christians the courage to die for their faith? It was the Gospel. To understand the Gospel, let’s begin by considering the phrase the righteousness of God, which troubled Luther greatly. If God were not so righteous, we would have a better chance to win His favor, but it is His righteousness that stands as a barrier between us and Him.
We can all identify with Luther’s dilemma. If God were not so holy—if He were more like us—then we might be able to meet His requirements. But the Bible, and even our own conscience, tells us that we are sinners, and we can’t reach the high standard of God’s righteousness by our own efforts.
But Luther learned, as we must, that righteousness is not just an attribute of God, but there is also a “righteousness from God,” which is a gift given to those who believe on Christ. To put it plainly, in Christ God meets His own requirements for us.
We have no righteousness of our own, so God gives us His own righteousness as a free gift. In other words, God demands righteousness, and through the death and resurrection of Christ, God supplies the righteousness that He demands! The blood of Christ covers our sins so that we can come into the presence of God. And when it is time for us to die, we are welcomed into Heaven as if we were Jesus because we are saved solely on the perfections of His merit and grace.
No wonder Paul wrote that the Gospel is “the power of God.” This is a reference not just to the physical power of creation but to the spiritual power that declares us righteous and changes our inner disposition. When we trust Christ as Savior, there is something new created within us that wasn’t there before. Jesus referred to this process as being “born again” (John 3:3). The ancient prophet Ezekiel spoke of it as God creating a “new heart” within us, a heart with new desires and affections (Ezekiel 36:26).
Paul makes it clear that “everyone who believes” is given this free gift. It is not a matter of one’s ethnicity or previous religious upbringing that determines one’s destiny; this message is “first for the Jew then for the Gentile” (that is, Jews and non-Jews).
Paul says that this message is received “by faith from first to last.” To believe means that we acknowledge our own sinfulness and inability to save ourselves and then transfer our faith to Christ. No longer do we look to our own goodness to save us, but rather we accept the goodness of Christ, believing that He will do for us what we can’t.
Sometime ago, I received a letter from a prisoner who heard our radio broadcast. He said, “I have raped four women. Can I also be forgiven?” I couldn’t help but think of the terrible crime he’d committed. Probably these four women were in some ways scarred for the rest of their lives. But I wrote back and said, “Visualize two trails. One of them is well traveled, the other is a mess with deep ruts in the ditch. But when a heavy snowfall comes, one cannot tell one trail from the other because both are equally covered with snow.”
Yes, if this man repents, God will forgive him no matter the nature of his sin. God says, in effect, “I can forgive the worst of sinners who repents, but I cannot forgive a so-called good man if he refuses to repent!”
No wonder David wrote, “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Psalm 32:1). No matter how great our sin, the righteousness of Christ is greater. As Paul put it later in Romans 5:20, “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”
Perhaps now we are better able to understand why Paul began this section by saying, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” Not only could the Gospel have cost him his life, but it was so obviously opposed to human nature. Just imagine: This message says that our own good works cannot save us; indeed our good works might actually be a stumbling block because we might be tempted to think that we can stand before God based on our own achievements. This message humbles us; it tells us that human nature is corrupt and unable to please God. Also, what is more, this message is based on faith in a Christ who died on a cross, which in Paul’s day, as in ours, was seen as a sign of weakness and not strength.
But, and let’s not miss this, it is in this message of a crucified Redeemer that we see most clearly “the power of God unto salvation.” God’s ability to shower us with such favor is truly a wonder of both His power and mercy. Yes, creation shows the power of God, but the Gospel goes beyond this and shows us God’s power combined with His grace and love.
Once we have received the benefits of the Gospel, we will spend the rest of our lives loving and serving God. Imagine, if you will, a servant who works in a king’s estate but consistently criticizes the king, steals, tells lies and refuses to obey the king’s orders. Now this king has an obedient son whom he dearly loves. Then imagine that the king were to say to his beloved son: “I have chosen to love that wicked servant as much as I love you. But in order for him to be reconciled to me, you will have to die on his behalf and pay the demands of justice for his sin.” Once the servant understands and accepts what the king has done for him, obviously he would love and serve that king to the best of his ability for the rest of his life. And this is exactly what God the Father did for us in sending His Son, Jesus, to die on the cross.
Based on Romans 1:16-17, Luther discovered that his works couldn’t satisfy God, but God’s Son could and did. And so the Good News is that the perfection God requires is given as a gift to all those who put their trust in the Perfect One.