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The Blessed Ungodly

June 12, 2017

At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” Romans 5:6

Sunday is Father’s Day—a day set aside to honor the fathers among us, as well as to remember fathers who are no longer with us. I once spoke to a father who was distressed over the fact that his adult child had abandoned the faith. It is an ache that will be in the hearts of many fathers this Sunday. I told him something that a wise pastor told me over 15 years ago: “Sometimes they have to leave before they come back.”

The Scripture lessons for Sunday[1] remind us how God came through for his people through the ages, and in his great mercy rescued even unbelievers and complainers repeatedly. The Old Testament reading reminds us how God rescued the Israelites in Egypt: “ You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” (Exodus 19: 4). We are to praise and thank God for his faithfulness to mankind through the centuries: “For the Lord is good and his love endures for ever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” (Psalm 100:5).

Matthew quotes Jesus’ assurance to his disciples in sending them out: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10: 19-20). Jesus assured his disciples that the Spirit would be with them as they journeyed throughout the world spreading the gospel. Fathers would do well to remember this. When it is time to speak a few well-chosen words to a non-believer, the Spirit will be there to help you. Ask the Spirit to give you the words you need, and ask him to choose the time. He will not disappoint you.

In fact, it was a non-believer—Saul—who God tapped to become the primary spokesperson for the fledgling faith.  After his conversion, Paul, the scholar that he was– brought his knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures and Greek literature together with the revealed Word of God, to write a brilliant but succinct summary of faith. His epistle[2] to the church in Rome was written during his ministry in Corinth. The letter is a powerful explanation of the Christian faith. Though Paul was a Roman citizen by birth,[3] he had not been to Rome at the time that he wrote Romans, in about 57 A. D. It is likely that others, such as Priscilla and Aquila, heard the Gospel elsewhere and brought it to Rome, where they started the Roman church. These early Christians did not have the benefit of pew Bibles. Paul’s epistle to them was probably the first piece of Christian literature that the church in Rome had seen. It explained to them the key elements of faith and the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross and his Resurrection.

The book of Romans is as timely to us today as it was to the new Christians. Paul’s point is that we are all helpless and godless—and yet Jesus died for us. But what does that mean? We know what helpless means, and most of us will probably agree that we cannot save ourselves, and in that respect, are helpless. We are powerless. But godless? It seems to be a popular thing for folks to say, in our post-Christian society, that they are atheists or at least agnostic. Being an atheist means not believing in God—or godless.   So we can tell those atheists that, according to Scripture, they are the very folks who Christ died for: “At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6). Christ died for the godless. This means that Christ loves the godless. He loves those who do not know him as well as those of us who know him and call him Lord. But we are all sinners, and in that respect, we are all godless and powerless to save ourselves.

In preaching on this text, Charles Spurgeon said: “To be ungodly, or godless, is to be in a dreadful state, but as use has softened the expression, perhaps you will see the sense more clearly if I read it, ‘Christ died for the impious,’ for those who have no reverence for God. Christ died for the godless, who, having cast off God, cast off with him all love for that which is right. I do not know a word that could more fitly describe the most irreligious of mankind than the original word in this place, and I believe it is used on purpose by the Spirit of God to convey to us the truth, which we are always slow to receive, that Christ did not die because men were good, or would be good, but died for them as ungodly—or, in other words, ‘he came to seek and to save that which was lost.’”

So the next time that someone tells you that he or she is an atheist, you can truthfully respond: “We are all godless. We are all lost.   We have all fallen short and are powerless to help ourselves. But God loves the godless, the lost, the powerless.  Jesus died for the godless, the lost, and the weak. That means he loves both you and me. Confess your lostness to him, and ask him to rescue you.”  And remember that it is not your place to judge another’s faith.   Your job is to share your faith. And pray that the Spirit will tap your loved one on the shoulder as only he can do with his comforting, healing, and loving touch.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Second Sunday of Pentecost are Exodus 19: 2-8; Psalm 100; Romans 5: 6-15; Matthew 9:35-10:8.

[2] Paul wrote 13 epistles and letters. An epistle was a letter intended to be read to a group of people; a letter was a personal correspondence to one person.

[3] Acts 22:27-28: “The commander went to Paul and asked, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?’ ‘Yes I am,’ he answered. Then the commander said, ‘I had to pay a big price for my citizenship.’ ‘But I was born a citizen,’ Paul replied.” Scholars surmise that since Tarsus, where Paul was born, was designated a “free city” by Rome, Paul was a Roman citizen at birth, despite the fact that he was Jewish. The commander, by contrast, purchased his citizenship, which was inferior to Paul’s birthright.

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