It is one thing to believe that God has put away and forgiven all our old failures that occurred before new birth. That is a wonder of mercy, unspeakably rich; but those were, after all, sins committed while we were still in the dark. We had not been made new creatures, freshly empowered to walk in the light and honor the Lord with our lives.
It’s another thing to believe that God continues, just as freely, to put away all our present failures that occur after new birth.
Perhaps, as believers today, we know God loves us. We really believe that. But if we were to more closely examine how we actually relate to the Father moment by moment — which reveals our actual theology, whatever we say we believe on paper — many of us tend to believe it is a love infected with disappointment. He loves us; but it’s a flustered love. We see Him looking down on us with paternal affection but slightly raised eyebrows: “How are they still falling short so much after all I have done for them?” we picture Him wondering.
We are now sinning “against light,” the Puritans would say; we know the truth, and our hearts have been fundamentally transformed, and still we fall. And the shoulders of our soul remain drooped in the presence of God. Once again, it is a result of projecting our own capacities to love onto God. We do not know His truest heart.
And that is why Romans 5:6–11 is in the Bible:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
A Christian conscience is a sensitized conscience. Now that we know God as Father, now that our eyes have been opened to our treasonous rebellion against our Creator, we feel more deeply than ever the ugliness of sin. Failure makes the soul cringe like never before. And so, following a paragraph rejoicing in the blessings of God’s gracious redemption of sinners (Rom. 5:1–5), Paul pauses to convince us of how we can be assured of God’s presence and favor going forward (5:6–11).
No less than three times in this second paragraph in Romans 5, Paul says roughly the same thing:
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (5:6)
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (5:8)
If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son . . . (5:10)
To say the same truth backward: Jesus didn’t die for us once we became strong (5:6); He didn’t die for us once we started to overcome our sinfulness (5:8); God did not reconcile us to Himself once we became friendly toward Him (5:10).
God didn’t meet us halfway. He refused to hold back, cautious, assessing our worth. That is not His heart. He and his Son took the initiative. On terms of grace and grace alone. In defiance of what we deserved. When we, despite our smiles and civility, were running from God as fast as we could, building our own kingdoms and loving our own glory, lapping up the fraudulent pleasures of the world, repulsed by the beauty of God and shutting up our ears at His calls to come home — it was then, in the hollowed-out horror of that revolting existence, that the prince of heaven bade His adoring angels farewell.
It was then that He put Himself into the murderous hands of these very rebels in a divine strategy planned from eternity past to rinse muddy sinners clean and hug them into His own heart despite their squirmy attempt to get free and scrub themselves clean on their own. Christ went down into death — “voluntary endurance of unutterable anguish,” Warfield calls it — while we applauded. We couldn’t have cared less. We were weak. Sinners. Enemies.
It was only after the fact, only once the Holy Spirit came flooding into our hearts, that the realization swept over us: He walked through my death. And He didn’t simply die. He was condemned. He didn’t simply leave heaven for me; He endured hell for me. He, not deserving to be condemned, absorbed it in my place — I, who alone deserved it. That is His heart. And into our empty souls, like a glass of cold water to a thirsty mouth, God poured his Holy Spirit to internalize the actual experience of God’s love (v. 5).
What was the purpose of this heavenly rescue mission? “God shows his love for us . . .” (v. 8). The Greek word for “shows” here means to commend demonstrably, to hold forth, to bring into clear view, to put beyond questioning. In Christ’s death, God is confronting our dark thoughts of Him and our chronic insistence that divine love must have an endpoint, a limit, a point at which it finally runs dry.
Christ died to confound our intuitive assumptions that divine love has an expiration date. He died to prove that God’s love is, as Jonathan Edwards put it, “an ocean without shores or bottom.” God’s love is as boundless as God himself. This is why the apostle Paul speaks of divine love as a reality that stretches to an immeasurable “breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph. 3:18) — the only thing in the universe as immeasurable as that is God himself. God’s love is as expansive as God himself.
For God to cease to love His own, God would need to cease to exist, because God does not simply have love; He is love (1 John 4:16). In the death of Christ for us sinners, God intends to put His love for us beyond question.