“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So begins Charles Dickens' story, A Tale of Two Cities, a historical fiction that takes its characters into and through the French Revolution of the late 18th century.
The two main characters are Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. Darnay is a French aristocrat, a target of the revolutionaries. Carton, once an orphan, is a barrister from England, a foreigner on French soil. The two men have little in common save this: they have an uncanny resemblance in their faces and physical features.
By the end of the novel, Darnay, the aristocrat, is locked in the belly of a French prison, waiting to be executed by guillotine. The day he is to die Darnay receives a visit from Carton. There in the cell Carton offers to trade places with Darnay. Darnay is unwilling. He protests the idea. But Carton was prepared for this and finds a way to knock Darnay out.
After exchanging clothes with him, Carton has friends he brought along take Darnay out to a waiting carriage. Off he goes to be among the living while the innocent Carton finds his home among the condemned. Later that day the guillotine falls on the neck of Sydney Carton as he whispers the Lord's words, "I am the Resurrection and the life...."
What has Dickens portrayed so poignantly? The disruption of grace. Grace breaking in from the outside bringing love, suffering justice, and granting life. It is shocking and scandalous: a condemned man released into life at the expense of another man's costly charity. Shocking indeed, but only by such a disruption of grace can any of us be eternally restored to God.
Looking upon us God finds us worthy only of condemnation and, like Darnay, He finds us protesting against our need, protesting against charity. Yet, God disrupts. God steps in to a place where only we belong. He steps under a penalty that only we deserve. He brings a solution that we could never design to a problem that is not His. It is a solution so radical, so costly, so foreign with its deep charity, that when we wake up and find ourselves alive having been previously condemned a new spirit drives us into a long life of humble worship and adoration for God.
God's disruption of grace upon the condemned is vividly announced by Paul in Romans 3:21-26.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
For the 63 verses prior to these the reader of Romans is under the scorching heat of divine scrutiny. From chapter 1:18 to chapter 3:21 the apostle chastises all for the ways we strive to justify ourselves. Every human being, Paul says, latches on to a false hope to convince themselves they will survive God’s judgment. Some hope religion will justify them before God—possessing its creeds or practicing its rituals. Some hope moral enlightenment will justify them before God—not being like those other people. Some hope ignorance will justify them before God—hoping that thoughtful indecision will excuse them.
The apostle Paul says, “No,” to all of these. All these false hopes are just subversive and aggressive efforts at avoiding our inevitable confrontation with God. They are the smoke and mirrors of men who have fallen short of God’s glory and possess nothing by which to raise themselves.
So since Romans 1 Paul has been lifting the shades, letting the light in to show us where we are before God, in a sweltering cell of condemnation. A cell where we have nothing to bargain with—no charm, no excuses, no errors in the prosecution, no evidence overlooked or misplaced—nothing. Paul demonstrates that our only hope is the wild hope that the high and divine moral economy that put us in this cell in the first place could be satisfied some other way. Our only hope is a disruption of grace.
In Romans 3:21-26 Christ’s apostle announces it. Five verses of scripture that one scholar said may ‘possibly be the most important single paragraph every written.’ (Leon Morris).
The disruption of grace, Paul says in these verses, is the breaking in of a righteousness from God (v. 21), a righteousness that is apart from the law, a righteousness from God that comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe (v. 22). God's disruption of grace gets done what we could never get done—it justifies us before God (v. 24). That is it declares us right with God's court and puts us out of reach of all future prosecution and recognizes us as being in the righteousness of Christ himself. Herein is the basis, the foundation, for all other expressions of divine grace to us who believe.
Yet this is a justification that is resolved by a costly sacrifice of atonement (v. 25), blood has been spilled. Why? Because justice must be done. Wrath must be propitiated. The guillotine must fall on sin. So God satisfies the demands of His own justice in the death of His own Son so he might justify sinners who have fallen short of His own glory.
All praise, glory and honor belong to Jesus, our Lord and Savior, for "in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ" (Ephesians 1:7-9).