For about 30 years or so I’ve had an interest in, and have worked (off and on), on my family history. Genealogy is an endless study because it takes a long time to get back to Adam and Eve. Nevertheless, the journey offers fascinating discoveries. Sometimes we stumble over the famous or heroic ancestor but mostly we just find ordinary people. However, in the pursuit of history, whether personal or national, we also find the skeletons; the dark corners, the sad and ugly stories of sin and suffering; sometimes unimaginable sorrow and suffering. It turns out that sin is just as bad as God said it was and our trails are strewn with heartache and destruction. We discover that our ancestors were a lot like us and that the “good o’l days” were not always so good.
Sometimes people say we should just leave well-enough alone, but I’ve found that a story without conflict is boring. Darkness and light; evil and good; death and resurrection stand in stark contrast to one another. Victory is always the sweetest when snatched from the jaws of defeat. I am, perhaps, disappointed but never surprised to learn that I come from a long line of sinners who have often made a mess of things. The “wages of sin is death,” and so far, most of my ancestors have died. Even the “good ones” were not sinless. Perhaps they were good compared to some other sinners, but every last one of them fell short of the glory of God, and I’m certainly keeping up the family tradition.
One of the things I enjoy the most about researching my family history is to see where the grace of God and the gospel broke into the stories and changed everything for the better. The interruption of the cross was sometimes subtle, sometimes abrupt, and sometimes surprising, but if you follow it all the way out, it’s always dramatic in its impact. And before we lament the difficulties, we should remember that it was often those hard parts of the story that led to the redemptive twist in the plot. Its good news was made all the more glorious by the darkness of the backdrop. Right when you thought, “this is a tragedy,” God intervened and turned the tragedy into a comedy. When all seemed hopeless; when we were “without strength,” at just the right time, Christ came to the rescue. The course of the river was turned and generations were saved.
This story has been played out thousands and thousands of times over the last 2,000 years, and even longer. In the book of Genesis, we remember the long and sordid tale of Joseph and how his brothers betrayed him and he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife, and how he wound up in prison, and was even forgotten in prison, but God was attending to Joseph along the way, and when we come to the end of the story, Joseph delivers the lesson to his brothers: Joseph said to them:
Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? 20 But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. 21 Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
God’s plan for the world, and God’s plan for you and me, is being executed in the right way and at the right time.
It would be hard to think of a better verse in the Bible than Romans 3:6: “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” This is the very picture of love, which is another angle or exposition of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” This is not about our love for Him, but about His love for us, which is the foundation of our assurance. If it depends on us, then there can be no assurance. Our salvation is grounded 100% on the unchanging love of God. While it was the Son who did the work, nevertheless, it was the Father who sent the Son to do it.
So, as we think about the sins of our ancestors (all the way back to Adam), and when we think about our own sins, we should be reminded that “the wrath of God is against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” But Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that the same God sent forth His Son as a propitiation for our sins. God has a holy hatred of sin but also an everlasting and eternal love to the sinner. There’s no inconsistency between these two things. In fact, we can’t really begin to comprehend the love of God until we begin to see what sin is in the sight of this holy God. As the reality of our sinfulness sets in, we’re overwhelmed and left without strength; hopeless and helpless. And then we read: “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.”
Here we are on “Good Friday.” We call it “good” because by His death, Jesus became the final and complete sacrifice for our sins. We can’t erase our guilt, nor can we overcome our sins by our good deeds, but Christ did what we could never do for ourselves, by dying for us on that first Good Friday. So let’s think a bit more about what this supreme act of love means. God purposed, before the foundations of the world, that at Calvary, His only begotten Son would voluntarily sacrifice Himself; and “being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross (Phil. 2:8). He did it because He loved you, and it was completely gratuitous, flowing out of His mercy, grace, and compassion. He didn’t do this for good and loving people. Notice that the Apostle Paul says three things about us: we were without strength, we were ungodly and we were sinners.
In C.S. Lewis’ book, Miracles, he has a chapter in the book entitled “The Grand Miracle,” and in that chapter he draws some rich analogies for us by which we can view what it meant for Christ to come for us:
In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down, down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity, down further still, down to the very roots and sea bed of the nature He had created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift. He must also disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders. Or one may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness then glancing in midair, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay. Then up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping precious thing that he went down to recover. He and it are both colored now that they have come up into the light. Down below where it lay colorless in the dark, he lost his color, too.
This overwhelming demonstration and proof of the love of God provides the most profound assurance of salvation that we could ever have. If God did all that He did for us while we were without strength, ungodly sinners, how much more will He do for us now that we have been reconciled to Him, adopted by Him, and have become His friends? N.T. Wright observes:
If God has done the difficult thing, how much more is he likely to complete the job by doing the easy bit. If someone has struggled up a sheer rock face, against all the odds, to get to the top of the mountain, they are not likely to give up when, at the top of the vertical wall, they are faced with an easy stroll on a grassy path to get to the summit itself. If someone has driven to the other end of the country, through rain and snow and freezing fog, to see a friend in need, they are not going to abandon their quest when they arrive at the house, the skies clear, the sun comes out, and all they have to do is walk up the garden path and ring the doorbell.
The solution to our family tree problem is to become part of another tree; to leave the first Adam’s tree and be grafted or adopted into the second Adam’s tree. It turns out that the water of baptism is thicker than blood. God’s rescuing, adopting love came by way of the cross of Christ.
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. —Romans 5:6-8