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A Righteousness by Faith #28: Becoming Fit

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. Romans 5:1-5

I was thinking this week about Shia Labeouf and Justin Bieber as brothers in Christ. They have both professed faith in Jesus in the last several years. It is no stretch to say that they are not the poster children that we wish they were for the coming generation of believers. Why can’t they be more like Steph Curry or Tim Tebow?

And there, in a nutshell, is the situation that Paul is addressing in his letter to the Roman church. It’s the Kiss Me Kate song sung by many a frustrated believer to the immature—“Why can’t you behave? Oh, why can’t you behave? After all the things you told me and the promises that you gave—oh, why can’t you behave?”

Their names popped into my head as I processed what Paul means by ‘this grace in which we now stand.’ Grace, he says, is what we have gained access to when we put our faith in Jesus. But what is it exactly? John Barclay whose extensive work, Paul and the Gift, researched how this word was used by various people using this word in Paul’s time. Grace, he noted, comes from a root word meaning gift. If we think of God as the giver, then grace is God’s gift to us—revealed in the passion of Jesus, who triumphed over sin and death.

Gift giving in the first century had serious cultural implications. For most of the Roman world, giving gifts was a way of bestowing favor and gaining allegiance from those who could come to your aid in times of trouble, whether you needed a militia or a loan. If you were smart and adept, you gave to people who could give back. Gifts like these were called ‘congruent’—given to people that were in harmony with your beliefs and worthy of receiving your gift.

Here is the difference between the various cultures Paul lived in—Roman and Jewish—and his understanding of God’s gift. God gave grace to people who had no claim on Him, could not pay Him back and could barely hold themselves together behaviorally. Think of the woman at the well. Think of Zacchaeus. Think of Peter, John, and James. Think about yourself! God giving us grace was incongruent—a gift to the ridiculous and unworthy.

This reality was so different from the Jewish believers’ thinking about God’s gift. God who had made a covenant with them through Moses. For them, God’s blessings went to the obedient and curses went to the unfaithful. It was all right there in the Law. It was clear to them that God intended the Gentiles to live under this kind of righteousness. Otherwise, they just could not be part of the covenant people.

But incongruent grace is the reality of the new covenant. This covenant revealed that the believing Gentiles had the same righteousness by faith as the believing Jews had, even if they were still behavioral problems in the eyes of their siblings.

What does this mean for the Shias and Justins? Grace is the reason for hope. Why? Because grace is more than an incongruent gift. Grace accomplishes all that God gave it for. His design in saving anyone was not to allow them to languish in their mess, but to conform them to the likeness of Jesus. Grace is Paul’s shorthand for the empowering work of God by the Spirit in His people to do for them what they cannot do for themselves.

Grace is what Shia and Justin—and we—now stand in. None of us are finished products yet. By grace, God is at work stripping away the effects of the Fall on us. Paul sees this as a lifelong journey—“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” For Paul, suffering is God’s pruning process. It produces perseverance—trust in God’s faithfulness to His promises even when we cannot foresee the outcome. As we persevere, the Spirit shapes our character so that it aligns with the righteousness of God. And so we come full circle back to hope. God does all this in us because of His glory.

If you ever wonder how anyone is ever going to become fit to live the faith life, this is it. This is the journey everyone is on. Its beginning and end have already been finished by God because He is committed to His own glory. You, Shia, Justin, along with everyone who has put their faith in Jesus will become righteous because it is His will to make you righteous and His grace makes it happen.

-Steve Smith