If you listened carefully to this morning’s New Testament reading, you may have noticed that there was one word that came up with amazing frequency: six times, in fact, in the first two verses, and then three more times in the last two. It was the word “law”. It is one of the key concepts in this letter to the Romans: key because the Roman church was made up of a mixture of Jews and non-Jews, and for Jews the law was something that was central to their identity as a nation. It marked them off as God’s people. And so the law, and its place within the Christian faith, became a crucial topic. Is it still in effect or do we disregard it altogether? What are we say about Jews who disobey the law, or about Gentiles who keep it?
Lest you think this interest in the law was a bit excessive, let me read you this excerpt from an article in the Wall Street Journal three years ago.
For decades, the task of counting the total number of federal criminal laws has bedeviled lawyers, academics and government officials. “You will have died and [been] resurrected three times,” and still be trying to figure out the answer, said Ronald Gainer, a retired Justice Department official. In 1982, while at the Justice Department, Mr Gainer oversaw what still stands as the most comprehensive attempt to tote up a number. The effort came as part of a long and ultimately failed campaign to persuade Congress to revise the criminal code, which by the 1980s was scattered among 50 titles and 23,000 pages of federal law. The project stretched two years. In the end, it produced only an educated estimate: about 3,000 criminal offenses. Since then, no one has tried anything nearly as extensive.
None of these studies broached the separate—and equally complex—question of crimes that stem from federal regulations, such as, for example, the rules written by a federal agency to enforce a given act of Congress. These rules can carry the force of federal criminal law. Estimates of the number of regulations range from 10,000 to 300,000. None of the legal groups who have studied the code have a firm number. “There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime,” said John Baker, a retired Louisiana State University law professor who has also tried counting the number of new federal crimes created in recent years. “That is not an exaggeration.”
By contrast, the number of laws that Paul was referring to in the Old Testament can be counted. According to the rabbis there were 613 in all—365 negative ones and 248 positive. And all of them flowed from just ten commandments, which in turn Jesus summarized in two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. It seems simple by comparison.
A Silence: The law makes us conscious of our sin (19-20)
Paul’s aim, as this morning’s passage opens, is to help his readers understand the basic purpose of the law itself. Sadly, there were those who saw the law as a kind of stick with which to beat those who lived outside its provisions. They took great pride in their possession of the law and in their knowledge of the law, but they were not necessarily all that careful about keeping the law. Or at best they were selective about it. While they were fastidious about circumcision, they may not have been entirely honest in their financial dealings. While they scrupulously obeyed the dietary laws, their sexual mores may have been questionable.
In this regard they were really no different from anyone else. We are quick to see others’ flaws and foibles. Yet we are blind to our own—or at best we try to minimize them or make excuses for them. Jesus brought that out when he asked, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).
And so, Paul declares, God did not devise the law so that we could point an accusing finger at others. Rather (in the words of the New Living translation), “Its purpose is to keep people from having excuses… The law simply shows us how sinful we are.” The version of this passage in The Message puts it even more clearly:
Whatever is written in these Scriptures is not what God says about others but to us to whom these Scriptures were addressed in the first place! And it’s clear enough, isn’t it, that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else? Our involvement with God’s revelation doesn’t put us right with God. What it does is force us to face our complicity in everyone else’s sin.
I try to get into the gym a few times each week, and there are a number of us who kvetch from time to time about people who don’t re-rack the weights, who don’t bother to aim when they throw away their paper towels, who don’t flush the toilets … and the list could go on and on. Yet I need to ask myself, what about the times when someone has tried to share something important with me and I haven’t bothered to listen? What about the times when I have promised to do something and promptly forgotten about it? What about the times when I have failed to control my tongue? Suddenly the paper towels seem trivial by comparison.
Paul’s whole purpose up to this point in the letter is to demonstrate beyond any doubt that no one stands outside the condemnation of the law. The law teaches us that we are all without excuse. We have no defense. We can only stand in silence before the Judge of all.
The principal point of the law [wrote Martin Luther] is to make men not better but worse; that is to say, it showeth unto them their sin, that by the knowledge thereof they may be humbled, terrified, bruised and broken, and by this means may be driven to seek comfort and so come to … Christ.”
A Sacrifice: The cost of reconciliation (21-26)
And this brings us to Paul’s next point. For here we come to one of the most important words in all of Scripture. It is the little word “but”. That little word is the fulcrum on which the whole of the gospel swings. It introduces us to what New Testament scholar C.K. Barrett has described as “perhaps the richest and most important paragraph in the whole letter”.
The law condemns us all. It’s like one of those action-adventure flicks. Our hero is being chased by a band of murderous hooligans. He scrambles over a chain-link fence and into an alleyway. The he realizes that it is a dead end. There is no way out. The thugs move towards him, rolling up their sleeves, drooling at the thought that in a moment they will be beating him to a pulp. Then suddenly you hear the whirring of a helicopter overhead. A rope dangles in front of our hero and he is whisked off into safety as his attackers reach up in a last vain effort to grab him by his boots.
That is the effect of that one word “but”. In the words of the New Living Translation, “The more we know God’s law, the clearer it becomes that we aren’t obeying it. But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law…”
How has he done this? In three words in verses 24 and 25 Paul gives us three vivid images. The first is “justification” and here Paul brings us into the courtroom. We stand before the judge, guilty as charged. Yet instead of imposing upon us the full force of the law and giving us the sentence we justly deserve, he grants us a pardon.
Paul’s second picture is of the slave market. It comes to us in the word “redemption”. In the ancient world captives of war were often paraded into the marketplace and auctioned off to the highest bidder to become slaves for the rest of their lives. The law teaches us (and rightly so) that we are captivated and enslaved by sin. Yet God has graciously released us and given us a new freedom. “If the Son sets you free,” Jesus promises us, “you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).
The third place to which Paul brings us is the altar. Paul tells us of Jesus as being put forward as a “sacrifice of atonement”. In the Old Testament atonement always involves sacrifice. This was to underline the fact that reconciliation—true reconciliation, that is—never comes without a cost. It is not a question of just pretending that nothing is wrong. It is not as though we can just leave our sins behind as though nothing ever happened. “The righteous, loving, faithful God,” writes C.E.B. Cranfield, “does not mock or insult his creature man by pretending that his sin does not matter, but rather himself bears the full cost of forgiving it righteously—lovingly.”
A Standing: Made right with God through faith (27-28)
Whether it is as Protestants or as products of the twenty-first century or a combination of both, we tend to shrink from the often gory depictions of past centuries of Jesus on the cross. We prefer our simple, sanitized versions, that work well as a decoration on a living room wall or on the covers of our prayer books. Someone has observed that Jesus died not on a silver cross between two candlesticks, but on a wooden cross between two thieves. Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ may be criticized at points but it does bring across the sheer brutality of the cross. There Jesus has taken the full brunt of our sin in all its ugliness upon himself.
Yet the point of all this is not to overwhelm us with guilt, but to draw us to faith. For on the cross we are confronted not only with the horror of our sin but even more with the wonder of God’s grace. There is a prayer in our Book of Common Prayer that begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…” The cross stands as the symbol of God’s condemnation of human sin. Yet it also stands as an invitation, in the words that we heard from Jesus in this morning’s Gospel: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Here is how Eugene Petersen puts the final verses of this morning’s passage in The Message: “What we’ve learned is this: God does not respond to what we do; we respond to what God does… Our lives get in step with God and all others by letting him set the pace, not by proudly or anxiously trying to run the parade.” In the cross of Christ God has taken the initiative to deal with sin, yours and mine, once and for all. All that is left for you and for me to do is to trust him.
 “Many Failed Efforts to Count Nation’s Federal Criminal Laws”, Wall Street Journal, 23 Jul 2011
 Quoted by John Stott in Romans: God’s Good News for the World, 104
 Reading Through Romans, 15
 Romans, A Shorter Commentary, 68