Our Great Weakness (5:6)
After giving us a brief lesson about perspective we move into a short discussion about the condition of the lost soul. He describes humanity as being weak and ungodly. These are not very flattering references, but we have to see ourselves as God does in order to understand why we need Him. The hardest part of salvation is coming to terms with why we need to be saved. Until this becomes a reality for us we never come to the moment where we truly understand the depth of our need for God.
Separated from God we are weak. Weak here is talking about our ability to climb up to God. We do not have what it takes to get to God. King David asks in Psalm 15 who is able to live on the mountain of God? David responds that only the one who is blameless and righteous can. Even David understood the inability of any man to meet the standards set by God. Paul reminds us that there is no one who is righteous. What are we to do with these two realities? We have to do what Paul does and accept the remedy that God provides. Any other solution to the problem is to miss what God has offered in sending Jesus. At the heart of what Paul is saying is the reason why God Himself had to come down.
It is interesting what Paul says in verse six. He says that “at the right time Jesus died.” The simplest explanation is that God is in control. I think that this is the best way of understanding this. There may be others, but this basic understanding continues to show us that God has us on His mind. He is thinking about us. God knows that we are unable to rise and so He comes down in Jesus Christ.
While We Were Yet Sinners (5:7-8)
Paul then moves to a statement that contrasts the difference between the way that God and men evaluate who will be helped. Craig Keener in the IVP Background Commentary makes this statement with regard to Paul’s reference to a “good person.”
“Well-educated Greco-Roman readers were aware of the Greek tradition in which “the good man” was extremely rare. Greeks considered laying down one’s life for someone else heroic, but such sacrifice was not common; among Jewish people it was not particularly praised” [Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Romans 5:6-9.]
Marvin Vincent in his Word Studies in the New Testament helps us to understand the nuance of what Paul is saying about these two kinds of men. Paul wants to make it perfectly clear that the criteria that men use to decide whom the will help or praise, is not the reason that Jesus came to save.
Righteous — good (δικαίου — ἀγαθοῦ). The distinction is: δίκαιος [dikaios] is simply right or just; doing all that law or justice requires; ἀγαθός [agathos] is benevolent, kind, generous. The righteous man does what he ought, and gives to every one his due. The good man “does as much as ever he can, and proves his moral quality by promoting the well-being of him with whom he has to do.” Ἀγαθός [agathos] always includes a corresponding beneficent relation of the subject of it to another subject; an establishment of a communion and exchange of life; while δίκαιος only expresses a relation to the purely objective δίκη right. Bengel says: “δίκαιος [dikaios], indefinitely, implies an innocent man; ὁ ἀγαθός [agathos] one perfect in all that piety demands; excellent, honorable, princely, blessed; for example, the father of his country.”
Therefore, according to Paul, though one would hardly die for the merely upright or strictly just man who commands respect, he might possibly die for the noble, beneficent man, who calls out affection. The article is omitted with righteous, and supplied with good — the good man, pointing to such a case as a rare and special exception. [Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2002), Romans 5:7.]
There are two features here that have to be noticed. The first is another expression of salvation through grace. “While we were still sinners” tells us that we are unable to make right the broken relationship with God. The second feature to notice in the text is that of love. John in his first letter helps us understand something about the nature of love in relation to our sin.
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent His One and Only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [hilasmos] for our sins. [1 John 4:9-10, HCSB]
This is probably the best biblical definition that we have about the nature of love in general, and of the love of God specifically. Love is given before it can be reciprocated, or given back. Love is seen through its initiation not in its response. The one who acts first is showing love.
John tells us of a particular aspect of this love when he uses the word propitiation. The propitiatory nature of Christ’s love reveals to us that because of Christ the wrath of God is deflected away from us and is absorbed by the Son of God. If ever there was a word to understand and believe it is this one. Lawrence Richard unpacks this word for us.
Propitiation: love’s atoning sacrifice (4:10). Divine love by its nature is unselfish. It is even more: It is self–sacrificing. John proves this by pointing to Christ’s sacrifice as a hilasmos. This word in Gk. thought described an act which in some way averted the destructive powers of the gods and, ideally, won their favor. It is used in the Septuagint to translate kippur, the word for “atonement.” In the O.T. the concept emphasizes the covering of sins by the offering of the life of a substitute in place of the life of the sinner. Jesus’ death for us averted the punishment our sins deserve and enables God to shower blessings on us. [Lawrence O. Richards, The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed. (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996), 895. (Emphasis added)]
J. I. Packer also provides some helpful insights to what propitiation does for us.
The cross of Christ has many facets of meaning. As our sacrifice for sins, it was propitiation (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10; cf. Hebrews 2:17); that is, a means of quenching God’s personal penal wrath against us by blotting out our sins from his sight. (“Expiation” in the RSV rendering of these texts signifies only “a means of blotting out sins,” which is an inadequate translation.) As our propitiation, it was reconciliation, the making of peace for us with our offended, estranged, angry Creator (Romans 5:9–11). We are not wise to play down God’s hostility against us sinners; what we should do is magnify our Savior’s achievement for us in displacing wrath by peace. [J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ, (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1996, c1994), 53.]
We have to keep in mind that while propitiation is “a means of quenching God’s personal penal wrath against us by blotting out our sins from his sight,” this act of appeasing God’s wrath can not be done by any work that we perform.We, as long as we are in sin, are unable to satisfy God.
We should also keep in mind that God does not interact with the world according to His hatred of sin. If that were the case then judgment would have immediately followed the fall. What we see is that God does love His creation in spite of its rebellion. It is because He loved the world that He sent His Son to redeem it (John 3:16). In light of this we have to see that the nature of propitiation in this context is to satisfy the requirement for holiness that God has set, and that sin has made impossible. Due to the inability of humanity to overcome sin God must rightly and judiciously bring His wrath to bear on sin.
His wrath against sin cannot be placated by good works. Only the infliction of the penalty of sin, death, will satisfy the just demands of His holy law which the human race violated, maintain His government, and provide the proper basis for His bestowal of mercy, namely, divine justice satisfied. This is the hilasmos (íλασμος), that sacrifice which fully satisfies the demands of the broken law. It was our Lord’s death on Calvary’s Cross. [Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament : For the English Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997, c1984), 1 John 4:10, emphasis added]
It was our Lord’s death on Calvary’s Cross that made salvation not only possible, but sure. God’s wrath against the repentant sinner has been fully extinguished upon Jesus.