The Just and the Justifier

Sermon preached on Romans 3:20-26 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 6/17/2012 in Novato, CA.

*** Note, due to technical difficulties, the audio for the start of the sermon was somewhat truncated for the first few minutes of the sermon.

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Romans 3:21-26

“The Just and the Justifier”

So far in the book of Romans we’ve seen Paul presenting the problem of sin. In last week’s message, we saw him bring that concept to a climax. It’s what we see here in verse 23. All have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. That’s where Paul has brought us to – all have sinned. There is no one who is righteous, no not one. The ramification is what is in verse 20 – no one can be justified before God by their deeds of the law. No one, by their own works, can be justified before God. No one, by their works can be declared righteous according to the law. And yet what we saw last week, and what we see again this week is that there is a righteousness apart from the law, verse 21. That we can be declared righteous, apart from the works of the law. That we can be justified by God, even though our works compared against the law would say otherwise. This is a justification not by works, but by faith. Faith in Christ.

Well, this is surely good news for us, but it begs a question. It’s a question anticipated and addressed in these verses. It’s the question of how can God be just in this? How can this be a right judgment of God? How can God’s judgment be in accordance with truth? If I hold up a green piece of paper and say that it’s red, then my declaration is not true. It would be a false declaration. In the same way, how can God be true when he declares a sinner righteous? That’s a question dealt with in this passage. How can God get away with justifying us when we are sinners? In other words, how can God be both just and the justifier of sinners? That’s the concern raised here in light of this gospel that says sinners can be declared as right before God, justified apart from the law.

A related issue is subtly mentioned in verse 25. There it’s talking about past history. It mentions divine forbearance. In divine forbearance he passed over former sins. In past history, God has had a measure of forbearance in how he’s dealt with people’s sins. He’s not immediately given them the degree of punishment they deserved. Sure, there were moments he did. The flood. Destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. Those are examples where he showed limits to his divine forbearance. But the fact that such judgment was not a daily occurrence in the past is a testimony to divine forbearance. All are sinners, yet he had not visited everyone with the full display of his wrath. The question that again comes up, is how? How can an all-righteous God get away with such forbearance? Well, in part it’s answered by the final judgment. For many, his forbearance is only a staying of judgment. That judgment will still be executed at the end. God’s passing over of former sins in divine forbearance doesn’t mean that he’s justified the wicked. For many, it is simply a stay of execution. The final Day of Judgment will come and then they will taste of God’s wrath toward their sin. And yet we know many in the past were saved. We’ll see in chapter 4 that there were people even in the Old Testament who were justified. Justified apart from the works of the law. The example given in chapter 4 is Abraham. Again, the question comes up – how is this just of God? Abraham would be part of that group called humans that Paul says none is righteous. How can God’s forbearance pass over the sins of people like Abraham, and never bring final judgment upon them? How can God justify a sinner like Abraham? Or the same could be asked of people like Enoch and Elijah. They didn’t even taste of physical death! Again, it comes back to the same question: How can God be both just and the justifier of sinners?

Well, that’s the conclusion of this passage. That God is in fact both just and the justifier of those sinners who have faith in Jesus. That’s verse 26. But this passage explains how this is the case. It’s all about the propitiation mentioned in verse 25. And so we’ll look at this propitiation to see how it answers this question. We’ll consider first the nature of this propitiation. Second, we’ll consider how it relates to our justification. Third, we’ll see how it relates to God’s justice and righteousness in all of this.

So, let’s begin then by talking about this propitiation. Begin in verse 24. Talking of us it says, “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness.” Here’s the basic point. There’s something about Christ’s death on the cross, that makes all this right. God is righteous to justify sinners who believe in Jesus, because of what Christ accomplished on that cross. Simply put, Christ atoned for our sins. This is described here with the language of propitiation.

If you look up the word propitiation in a dictionary you can see some related definitions which can make it a difficult concept to get our mind wrapped around. But it’s an important concept to figure out. The word propitiation in its broadest use is about appeasement of wrath. Appeasement of divine wrath through a sacrifice. Now in the pagan world, this concept was used in a way you might expect pagans to use it. They feared angry gods, and so they thought if they offered enough sacrifices as gifts to their gods, that their god’s anger would be turned away. That was the pagan thinking, propitiate their gods’ wrath through enough gifts, i.e. sacrifices. This was the typical way this Greek word was used in the Greek language.

However, the Jewish and Christian usage of this term was more nuanced than that. In the Old Testament translation into Greek, this word and related words were used to describe the atonement for sin offered in the sacrifices. Atonement that covered for sin. Atonement is when you make some kind of reparations for a wrong or an injury, or you when satisfy a debt or punishment. It’s about satisfying the terms of justice with regards to the infraction or crime. However, this specific word in verse 25 is even more specific. It was the word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe the Mercy Seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant. It’s likely this is what Paul has in mind in verse 25. This Mercy Seat in the Old Testament was the lid of the Ark, which had two cherubim on top. Even the word Mercy Seat is not the best translation of the Hebrew. It would be better translated something like the Atonement Cover. And so, for example, if you read Leviticus 16, you see the detailed description of the Day of Atonement sacrifices. The high priest would make sacrifices for sin that day. He would take the blood of those sacrifices and sprinkle it on this Atonement Cover on the Ark. This was called a sin offering. The Mercy Seat on the Ark was the place that the blood of the sacrifices met the presence of God. The sacrifices and God connected at the Mercy Seat. That was the place where atonement was made.

And so the more nuanced usage of this word by the Old Testament and by Paul is that it is about atonement. It carries with it the concept of an atonement for sin. And this specific word, in light of its Old Testament usage, arguably would be even better translated as something like Mercy Seat. Or maybe simply, the place of atonement. Something like, “that God set forth [Jesus Christ] as a place of atonement by his blood.” And so this verse is not simply a reference to a sacrifice to appease a wrathful God. Certainly that’s part of its effect here. Paul has talked about God’s wrath. Certainly Jesus’ sacrifice has that effect, to turn away God’s wrath. But the reason why it turns away God’s wrath is because it’s an atonement. It’s a covering for sin. In the Old Testament, the bulls and the goats were offered in place of the people. Their blood was shed to cover their sins. To be killed in their place. And yet, as the author of Hebrews notes in Hebrews 10:4, that the blood of bulls and goats couldn’t really take away sin. But in Hebrews 9:14 he says that the blood of Christ is far better than the blood of bulls and goats. Christ’s blood can cleanse. Christ’s blood can atone. And that is what Paul is getting at here. That’s why Paul mentions Christ’s blood in verse 25. For “without the shedding of blood there is no remission” of sins.

So the point here is that Jesus’ sacrifice is an atonement. It propitiates God’s wrath by standing in our place. Like the bulls and goats in the Old Testament stood in the place of the people for their sins, so does Jesus. But a bull or a goat doesn’t adequately represent all the people. It’s not a sufficient substitute. But that’s the opposite with Jesus. Jesus is the only human perfectly righteous. But he’s also the eternal Son of God come in the flesh. Not only is he a perfect sacrifice without blemish, he’s also deity! If bulls and goats fall so short of adequately representing humans, how much more does Christ greatly exceed all that is needed to substitute for fallen humans. As a simplistic example – if I break your Chevy Malibu – a basic sedan, and give you a bike as a substitute, that’s not a very good substitute. But if I give you say a Chevy Corvette in its place, that would be a substitute that exceeds what was owed. Of course, that’s probably not going far enough in the analogy. Imagine if I broke your Chevy Malibu and I replaced it by buying the entire Chevy Corporation and giving that to you. That might start to get closer. The point is that Christ’s sacrifice is more than sufficient in terms of its value for meeting our debt; and bulls and goats are vastly inferior.

This concept of propitiation and atonement is further explained by the reference to redemption here in verse 24. Christ’s propitiation results in a redemption. This further highlights what all takes place with Christ’s sacrifice. You see, the concept of redemption is about a buying back of someone from some kind of slavery or debt. For example, human slaves could be redeemed at that time by money given to the master, and that slave would then become a freeman. They would be said to have been redeemed. Well, Christians have been redeemed by Christ. He purchased our freedom. Freedom from the debt of sin. That debt of sin of course was the legal condemnation of the law. The law said that when you sin, you deserved death. The law said that sin results in God’s wrath and curse. And yet Christians, through their faith in Christ, don’t receive these things. That’s what we’ve earned, but we don’t get it. That’s because Jesus paid the price. He redeemed us from the curse of the law. He did that, by this sacrifice. This propitiation was the payment. We call this substitutionary atonement. He was our penal substitute. He paid the debt we couldn’t pay. The result is that we are redeemed.

And so we’ve discussed the nature of this propitiation. It’s a sacrifice by Christ’s shed blood that turns away God’s wrath. It covers our sins by paying their price, resulting in our redemption. So then, let’s turn now to consider how all this relates to our justification. We’ve said that we can be justified apart from the works of the law. We’ve said that justification means to be declared righteous. It means that we are declared as being in a right standing before God in terms of his law. But this justification is said to be by faith. Not by works of the law, but by faith. The focus here is that it’s a justification that’s freely given, verse 24. It’s justification that’s by grace, in other words, a merciful gift, verse 24. But this can only happen because of the propitiation. Because Christ has turned away the punishment of the law for us. We can be declared right because the law’s condemnation has been dealt with.

It may be helpful to note a fine distinction here. When we talk about our justification there are two components to being declared right before God. First, our sins must be pardoned. Second, our life must reflect righteous living. Both are a problem for us. This passage addresses primarily the first part. The guilt of sins is dealt with by Christ’s propitiation. That’s how that part of our justification is achieved. The second part – that our life must reflect righteous living – that will be especially addressed when we get to Romans chapter 5. There it will describe how Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. His record of godly living becomes our record of godly living. But the imputation of Christ’s righteousness isn’t the focus so much here. Now, the focus is more on how to deal with the guilt of our sin. That’s done by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. That is how a sinner can be justified, because his sin is dealt with at the cross.

And yet, as we see here and throughout, this is appropriated by faith. Faith in this sacrifice is what applies it to our account. Verse 22, this is for all who believe. Verse 25, the propitiation is received by faith. Verse 26, God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. Just like in the Old Testament the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement weren’t offered for the whole world, it was offered for the people of Israel. Well, the sacrifice of Jesus is essentially offered for all those who put their faith in Christ. When you turn and believe on him, that’s when his propitiation has meaning to you. That’s when you are justified.

But then don’t misunderstand this. It’s not that your faith has earned you something. It’s not that your faith is the grounds for your justification. Faith is not a work that merits your justification. That’s the whole point here. The reason why a sinner can be justified by faith, is because of the propitiation. The sacrifice of Jesus, his obedience to go to the cross and die in your place – that’s the grounds of your forgiveness. That’s what can remove your guilt. Not faith in itself. But faith looking to that which does remove guilt. The propitiation of Christ’s death on the cross. That’s why we say we are saved in Christ, by grace, through faith.

So then, this leads us to our third point. God’s justice and righteousness is demonstrated in all of this. In how he justifies sinners. This is the repeated point of this passage. That’s why we are focusing on it today. Verses 21, 22, 25, and 26 all make this point in one way or another. We see here several references to the righteousness of God, or how just God is. Recall that in English these are different words, but in the Greek, the words righteousness, just, and justification are all the same root word. There are various forms of these words in use in this passage. The point is that our justification demonstrates God’s righteousness. It shows how just he is.

And so notice the word “demonstrate” in verses 25 and 26. It’s there in both verses. God’s righteousness is demonstrated in this. In how he has justified sinners. It contrasts this with his past forbearance. In the past, he passed over sins. But now, his righteousness is demonstrated in how he justifies sinners. He doesn’t just ignore sin. He doesn’t allow sin to go unpunished.

Some false religions out there believe in a God who might forgive you of your sins, but without dealing with the guilt. The Muslim faith believes, for example, that Allah might weigh your good deeds versus the bad ones and might forgive you in light of your overall record. But where is the justice of that? Think about a worldy example. If someone crashes into you parked car, and the police man comes over and tells you that he has forgiven the person because he drives pretty good most of the time, how would you feel? You’d feel like there was an injustice. That person might drive pretty good most of the time, but they just busted up your car! He needs to pay the cost to fix your car. It would be unjust to let him off otherwise. And yet that’s what some religions teach. It shows the breakdown of their faith. Such a so-called god doesn’t show himself to be truly just. Such a god shows himself to be partially merciful and partially just, but not completely either.

But the true God of the Bible shows himself to be fully just and fully merciful. How he has chosen to justify sinners has demonstrated this. He has made sure justice has been served. He has made sure guilt has been addressed. Our judgment has been satisfied in Jesus Christ. By his propitiation. And I love how verse 25 gives God the credit for this. It says that God set forth Jesus as this propitiation. People sometimes make the false contrast between the God of the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament. Sometimes people try to say that the God of the Old Testament was so harsh and unforgiving. And that Jesus in the New Testament is so loving and gracious. Yet, this passage says otherwise. It actually talks about how patient and forgiving God was in the Old Testament. And how he then satisfies justice in light of that in the New Testament. By he himself setting forth Christ as this sacrifice. This is not to downplay Jesus’ role here. Jesus obeyed God the Father and went to the cross. But don’t miss how Scripture credits the plan overall to God. God set him as this atoning sacrifice. That’s why God is shown to be righteous here. The same God of justice is also this God of mercy. And so the conclusion is so wonderful. Verse 26 affirms what we raised at the start today. God is both just and the justifier of sinners. But this is only the case because of what happened at the cross. The cross is what makes sense of all of this. The cross is why God’s justice is maintained. The cross is why God can justify sinners – because the sin and guilt has been addressed! The reckoning of justice has happened. It is finished now, as Jesus says!

And so then the call again today is for faith. Some people today want to redefine what justification is. But it’s right here. It’s about being declared right before God. It’s about your guilt being dealt with through the cross. It’s received by faith. And it’s central to the Christian message. It’s central to the gospel. It’s what’s so good about the good news! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. Trust in his sacrifice offered for you, and you will be forgiven. Put your faith in his work, and you will be justified.

Brothers and sisters, let us then as people of faith, bear witness to this gospel. We see here in verse 21, that the Old Testament bore witness to it, in advance. Paul and the New Testament here bears witness to it. And you too are witnesses to the gospel. You stand in this generation to explain the righteousness of God in light of the gospel. To herald the biblical teachings of guilt, grace, and gratitude. To give God the glory in how he’s saved you!

You see, this does glorify God. Grace glorifies him. And this answers some of those so-called tough questions people will ask about God. People will ask things like, how come there is evil in this world, if God is so good and just. This answers that. God will judge the world one day, and even those who’ve been forgiven, justice has still been served in Christ. Or people will often downplay their own sin – how can God punish me if I’m a basically good person? This shows that no one is good, no not one. All are in need of this justification apart from the works of the law. And yet there is hope for such with the offer of the gospel! Many people have wrestled with these concepts in their own false religions and been left worn and weary. Martin Luther struggled with that until it finally hit him from Scripture – that we are justified by faith and not by works!

And so in all of this, God is glorified. Bear witness to the world of the beauty of this gospel and the glory of our God. This magnifies the wisdom of God and the greatness of him. He is so just, so righteous, and yet also so very merciful. He paid the price. He took on the cost. So that justice would be served. So he could be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Praise be to God. Amen.

Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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