So it was slightly mad- and at various points I felt like I was mad. 16 sessions on Romans for the Oak Hall Alpine Bible School in Northern Italy followed by speaking at Caleb and Jana’s wedding on the next day before Psalm 62 at Woody Road and four talks on 2 Corinthians at a student houseparty. It ended up being 22 sessions in eleven days. It did bring on times of mild hysteria- I do seem to recall leading a group rendition of Yellow Submarine in an Italian cafe for reasons passing understanding.

I know that a number around the church were praying for me (and presumably for those who had to listen to all this stuff). I am very grateful indeed for this. I felt well sustained by the Lord and the Oak Hall trip in particular was one of the most encouraging, enjoyable and fruitful that I’ve ever done. A few people have asked me to write up some reflections on the various trips. I had intended to do it in one post- but it was getting rather long. So I’m just going to write up the main lesson for me in this post and then add three shorter comments next week.

The Power of Righteousness Received

Speaking on Romans to the OakHall guys and 2 Corinthians 3 to the students gave me the opportunity to reflect on the fact that God’s righteousness comes to us simply as a gift that is received. What struck me again was simply how daring Romans is- especially in chapter 4 where God is described as the one who justifies (declares righteous) the wicked. Of course that is possible because of the astonishing wisdom and love of God as the Son absorbs the penalty for sin at the cross so that God astonishingly can be righteous and declare righteous those who look to Christ. And, in this light, it was nice to be able to touch again on union with Christ- for it is as we are in Christ (see 2 Cor 5:21 for this) that His righteousness becomes ours and our sin becomes His.

With the students (and I should have done this with the OakHall guys) it was good to be able to reflect on the transformation this doctrine has brought to those mired in morbid introspection. Here is Martin Luther- “Then I began to understand the righteousness of God…is a gift of God by faith. Here I felt that I was altogether a new man and had entered Paradise itself through open gates.” Are here is John Bunyan- “’Thy righteousness is in heaven.’ Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I saw my gold was in my trunk at home. In Christ, my Lord and Saviour. Now Christ was all, all my wisdom, all my righteousness…”

Undoubtedly it was this received righteousness that seemed to strike people most powerfully. One lady spoke to me of feeling clean for the first time ever. As it happens, I don’t think people were hearing the doctrine for the first time. However, my impression both with the students and the OakHall guys (and probably with me as well) was that it was not something at the forefront of our minds. We were all living with an underlying sense of guilt rather than a deep sense of being “perfect for ever” as Hebrews puts it.

Why is that the case? I think there are two main reasons. The first is that received righteousness is so counter-intuitive. The way of the world is that we work for wages. But Romans 4:5 insists that God is a very strange accountant- he credits righteousness as a gift. The problem, though, is that our minds keep defaulting back to a worldly setting and, when we see ourselves fall short, we struggle to hold on to the fact that God has given us this gift. It is why this glorious truth needs preaching constantly so that it is rammed into our hearts and minds.

The second reason is to do with preaching. A couple of times recently I’ve come across the advice that a good sermon always gives people something to do at the end of it. I wonder whether that advice has been taken on board quite widely. Frankly, I think it is appalling, anti-Gospel, bordering on heretical advice that will only leave people feeling guilty instead of righteous and, in so doing, cut off the power supply for fruitful Christian living. Those criticisms can only be avoided if the one thing people are to do is “receive from God.” That was the only application I made from Romans 3-5 and 2 Corinthians 3. Probably the most helpful bit of sermon feedback I have ever received was when I spoke on Mark 2 as a young UCCF staff worker. The message was about Christ’s power to forgive sins and then I tagged on an application along the lines of “Do evangelism!” A dear friend pointed out to me that I had achieved the opposite of what the passage intended. People should have left the room feeling forgiven. I had sent them out feeling guilty about their evangelistic efforts. He was exactly right- and I’ve tried to learn the lesson since. If you are preaching about what God has done for us- never ever turn that into something we have to do. That’s the only way for people to preserve the fact that we are first and foremost recipients of God’s righteousness.

And it is worth preserving! Granted I had a pretty tiring couple of weeks. But to be able to declare that we are made righteous freely by His grace (Romans 3:24) is one of the greatest privileges in the world.