At a certain level that almost seems perverse.
Members of the jury, I am not asking for mercy or pardon. I want justice. I am demanding full acquittal. Yes, I committed the murder of which I am accused, but I am not guilty. Members of the jury, you must consider all my good deeds, not only mitigating circumstances, as reason for exonerating me. The goodness of my other deeds outweighs the crime I committed. My good deeds require a not guilty verdict. If justice is to be done, you must find me innocent.
So writes Todd Wilken. Now suddenly you see that an approach that depends finally on our balancing of good deeds and bad deeds begins to look ridiculous. We don’t even do that in a secular world, do we? So how should we think that God looks at things, this God who is himself spectacularly holy and does not see our deeds as things that are weighed in a balance against other deeds but sees our lives in mortal defiance against him? That’s the way the Bible’s storyline is unpacked.
In a few moments we are going to look at Romans 3:21–26. Martin Luther called this paragraph the center of the book of Romans and indeed of the whole Bible. But before we actually look at these verses, we should remind ourselves where they fall within Paul’s letter to the Romans.
Romans 3:21–26 in Light of Romans 1:18–3:20
This falls in the New Testament, which begins with the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) followed by the Acts of the Apostles (which follows on from Christ’s resurrection through the first three decades or so of the church) and then a sheaf of letters written by the apostle Paul. The first of Paul’s letters in the New Testament is written to the Romans. But before we get to chapter 3, from 1:18 to 3:20 Paul’s entire argument is designed to show how we are guilty. What these two-and-a-half chapters do is unpack in theological terms the Bible’s storyline up to this point from Genesis 3 on. So we read,
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. (Romans 1:18–19)
The remaining two-and-a-half chapters set out to show that if you come from the line of Abraham through the covenant with Moses and have received a whole lot of revelation from God or alternatively you come from outside that line from any other sort of heritage, nevertheless, both lines—Jews and Gentiles alike—without exception end up guilty before God. Supposing you know about what God wants, then what you discover is that you still don’t meet those standards. And in some ways those very standards can compound the rebellion and make you more guilty because you know more. Alternatively, if you come from a heritage where you have been exposed to very little to what God has said, you don’t even come up to that standard. On every front we are a guilty people.
This is so out of line with contemporary self-perception that when you read some of what Paul says without developing a feel for the whole storyline to this point it just seems over-the-top. He finishes the section in 3:9–20 with a raft of biblical quotations, quoting the Old Testament.
What shall we conclude then? Do we [i.e., Jews] have any advantage? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are [i.e., the whole human race] all under the power of sin. As it is written [and now you get these quotations, all snippets from the Old Testament Scriptures]:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:9–18)
Now if you have walked in here for the first time and you have come from an utterly secular background and you hear some joker at the front of the room quoting lines like this, you think, “Has he taken leave of his senses? Oh, I know that there are some bad people out there—Stalin, maybe, and Pol Pot, I suppose, and Hitler, of course—but what about “Doctors without Borders? Aren’t there a lot of people doing good things out there?” At a certain level, Paul would agree with that. Historically, Christians have often called such good things the work of common grace, that is, grace that God gives commonly to all kinds of people. But Paul’s probing is deeper than that. It’s not whether there are many good things are done (e.g., pieces of art, a wonderful symphony, self-sacrificing doctors on the frontier of a horrible disease, and much much more). We have already seen that the Bible presents human beings to be horrible contradictions with so much potential reflecting something of the goodness of creation and the glory of God and on the other hand corrupt, abusive, twisted, and, above all, self-focused. And that is, according to the entire storyline of the Bible to this place, the heart of all the evil. The heart of all evil is not Auschwitz, as unimaginably evil as it is. The heart of all evil is first of all human beings, you and me, wanting to go our own way and disowning the God who has made us.
When you probe these texts line by line and see that that is what God has in mind, all the lines make sense. “There is no one righteous, not even one.” It makes sense if you remember the quotation from Todd Wilken with which we began. It’s not a question of balancing good deeds and bad deeds. We’ve all got so much wickedness in us even by our own self-assessment if we’re honest enough.
“All have turned away, they have together become worthless,” worthless in the sense of being right before this God, being thoroughly God-centered. What is the first commandment that Jesus gives (the first in importance)? “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ . . . And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37, 39). I don’t love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength. If Jesus said that this is the commandment of first important, then I’m guilty of breaking the primal command. Aren’t you? In fact, loving God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength might be thought in our culture to be a bit fanatical, right-wing. But God says, “Listen, don’t you understand? That’s the way I made the created order in the first place. If you don’t see it, that’s already a mark of how fallen this order is.” No wonder, then, these quotations say, “All have turned away, they have together become worthless.”
“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
Oh, I know many of us come from fairly civilized backgrounds where there is not all that much cursing and bitterness unless we bang our thumbs with a hammer or get sacked from work when we think it’s unjust. For any of us with all of our civilized behavior, put us under enough pressure and deep down in the back of our minds—even if we are disciplined enough not to let it actually escape from our mouths—are busy swearing away in our minds.
The truth of the matter is “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” So we are still in line with the whole drama of the Bible. How do such people get restored to God? There are a lot of different ways of thinking through this ugliness. Let me read you briefly part of the testimony of a philosophy named Budziszewski. He writes,
I have already noted in passing that everything goes wrong without God. This is true even of the good things he has given us, such as our minds. One of the good things I’ve been given is a stronger than average mind. I don’t make the observation to boast; human beings are given diverse gifts to serve him in diverse ways. The problem is that a strong mind that refuses the call to serve God has its own way of going wrong. When some people flee from God they rob and kill. When others flee from God they do a lot of drugs and have a lot of sex. When I fled from God I didn’t do any of those things; my way of fleeing was to get stupid. Though it always comes as a surprise to intellectuals, there are some forms of stupidity that one must be highly intelligent and educated to achieve. God keeps them in his arsenal to pull down mulish pride, and I discovered them all. That is how I ended up doing a doctoral dissertation to prove that we make up the difference between good and evil and that we aren’t responsible for what we do. I remember now that I even taught these things to students. Now that’s sin.
It was also agony. You cannot imagine what a person has to do to himself—well, if you are like I was, maybe you can—what a person has to do to himself to go on believing such nonsense. St. Paul said that the knowledge of God’s law is “written on our hearts, our consciences also bearing witness” [that’s a quotation of Romans 2:15]. The way natural law thinkers put this is to say that they constitute the deep structure of our minds. That means that so long as we have minds, we can’t not know them. Well, I was unusually determined not to know them; therefore I had to destroy my mind. I resisted the temptation to believe in good with as much energy as some saints resist the temptation to neglect good. For instance, I loved my wife and children, but I was determined to regard this love as merely a subjective preference with no real and objective value. Think what this did to my very capacity to love them. After all, love is a commitment of the will to the true good of another person, and how can one’s will be committed to the true good of another person if he denies the reality of good, denies the reality of persons, and denies that his commitments are in his control?
Visualize a man opening up the access panels of his mind and pulling out all the components that have God’s image stamped on them. The problem is that they all have God’s image stamped on them, so the man can never stop. No matter how many he pulls out, there are still more to pull. I was that man. Because I pulled out more and more, there was less and less that I could think about. [That is what he means by saying that he became stupid. Christians have so much to think about. People who write God off and all of his truth have much less to think about. They become stupid.] But because there was less and less that I could think about, I thought I was becoming more and more focused. Because I believed things that filled me with dread, I thought I was smarter and braver than the people who didn’t believe them. I thought I saw an emptiness at the heart of the universe that was hidden from their foolish eyes. But I was the fool.
Now all of that is the background simply presupposes before he gets to this spectacular paragraph that Martin Luther calls the center of the entire Bible: Romans 3:21–26.
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement [propitiation], through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the “law” that requires faith. For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law. (Romans 3:21–31)
Now let me tell you frankly that this paragraph is so condensed that even if you have been a Christian for quite a while, when you hear it read, after a while you start hearing strings of God-words going by you without being able quite to follow the flow. It is so condensed. So although Martin Luther is right that this is an astonishingly important passage, the only way to understand it is to go slowly enough through it that you unpack its logic, that you hear how the whole thing is put together. And I know no passage clearer on what the cross achieves in all of the Bible than this one, provided you take it slowly enough to unpack the flow of the argument. We are standing here—from a biblical perspective—on very holy ground. This is what Jesus did on the cross.
So let me follow the argument, first of all, of verses 21–26, and then, secondly, the argument of verses 27–31. They are related, and we will see what these arguments have to do with us.
1. Paul sets forth the revelation of God’s righteousness in its relationship to the Old Testament (Romans 3:21).
Now remember, he just spent two-and-a-half chapters showing how much guilt, rebellion, idolatry, and sin there is—and this being in the face of God being a righteous God. So how will we be righteous in his eyes? How will we live under him?
“But now” (Romans 3:21) means at this point in the Bible’s storyline, at this point in redemptive history: now that Jesus has come.
“Apart from the law” refers to the law given by Moses, the law-covenant under which the Hebrews, the Israelites, lived for a millennium-and-a-half.
“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known.” That is to say, the righteousness of God that transcends the ages, the very character of God, his perfect righteousness, has now been disclosed or made known not in the framework of that old law-covenant with its sacrificial and its structures and so on. It has been made known apart from that. Now you fit this into the broader argument of Paul, and what he is really saying is “We have now arrived at the new covenant. There was this old covenant, and now there is this new frame of reference, a new covenant that has arrived.” He has not yet explained how it is grounded. He is merely stating the truth, the fact, of what Christ has done. At this point in history, now that Jesus is here, the righteousness of God has been disclosed apart from that law-covenant. But that doesn’t mean that it is cut off entirely from that law-covenant as if you had God doing it this way and the0n—bang—it stops and now we’ll start something entirely different.
He adds an interesting clause at the end of verse 21: “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” That is, if you read the Old Testament carefully and reverently and listen well, you will see that that law-covenant that Moses gave was actually anticipating what is coming now. After all, you had that sacrifice and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with the blood of bull and goat borne by the high priest into the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle. It pointed forward to the fact that there has to be a kind of sacrifice, a death that pays for sin in some sense before this holy God. It has pointed forward and is now here. Those laws that we call moral laws (“You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery”)—don’t you understand that those point forward, too?
For example, imagine if you will, a final state of things, a new heaven and a new earth, perfect righteousness, resurrection existence, absolutely sin or death or decay anywhere. Do you think there are going to be little signs posted here or there saying, “You shall not murder” or “You shall not commit adultery”? Well, it is probably pretty hard to commit murder and adultery in resurrection bodies anyway, but quite apart from that, do you really think that those sorts of laws will be needed? If you say Yes, then you have not conceived yet of perfection. If you say No, then you might ask, “Does that mean that God’s law has changed?” Oh no, that misses the point entirely because ultimately the law that says “You shall not murder” and “You shall not commit adultery” is anticipating a time when murder and adultery, hatred and sheer selfish lust, will all be gone. It is pointing to the perfect righteousness where people love one another, and murder is not simply forbidden; you don’t need to forbid it. To forbid it is simply unthinkable.
So the law-covenant, which set out its do’s and don’ts and its sacrificial system and its structures for the nation and its covenant with the people, the Israelites—in many ways these things pointed forward to what is now being introduced by Christ. Now that is not explained in Romans how this has come about, but that is what Paul is saying. “But now apart from the law,” in the light of all this sin and idolatry he has described in the previous two-and-a-half chapters, “the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”
2. Paul sets forth the availability of God’s righteousness to all human beings without racial distinction but on condition of faith (Romans 3:22–23).
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness [which has now been made known in a fresh way] is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:21–23)
In other words, it is this sets of all’s that connects this paragraph with the previous two-and-a-half chapters. The previous two-and-a-half chapters have argued at great length and in immaculate detail that all need this righteousness. We’re all guilty before God, some with more or less social disapproval or approval, some passing for good in our world. But by God’s standards, God’s holiness, he sees our rebellion, and we are all guilty before him. But now there is a righteousness from God that meets our needs. It can be our righteousness. And it’s open to Jew and Gentile alike on condition of faith. That’s the whole argument.
The old covenant was structured for the Israelites. Now God presents himself as sovereign over all the nations in the Old Testament in any case. God still says, “For any nation anywhere at any time and place, righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to any people.” That’s why the God of Israel in the Old Testament can nevertheless hold Babylon to account. He can hold the Assyrians to account. In the New Testament he can call Rome to account. Today he holds America and China to account. He is still the sovereign Lord who holds all to account. But nevertheless the focus to that agreement he wrote, that special agreement with Abraham when he wrote his own agreement and when there was a special agreement with Moses and the people as a nation, it was still focused this on this subset of humanity that today we call the Jews, the ancient Hebrews, the Israelites.
But now, we’re told, this righteousness from God that is in some ways detached from that old covenant, that is now come in the terms of a new covenant, this righteousness from God is given through faith in Jesus Christ. It is not given on the old covenant grounds where you were supposed to be born into the nation or adopted into the nation in some sense. Then you had to sign on to observe the terms of that old covenant. No, it is “given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In other words, the grace is extended as far as the need, and the need is everywhere: Jew and Gentile alike.
One of the wonderful things about the final revelation of the Bible is that it pictures around the throne of God on the last day men and women from every language and ethnicity and nation. Millions of them. Not just Jews and Gentiles. On that last day around the throne, there will be lots of Chinese, Hutus, Tutsis, Serbs, Russians. Oh, they are all Jews and Gentiles in some sense. Yes, I understand that. But now you can nail them down: different colors, different senses of humor, different languages, different ethnicities. God draws out his people from all of those nations. And Christians who travel discover that wherever they go, they will find Christians in amazing places. I’ve been in Papua New Guinea. Brothers and sisters in Christ who a generation-and-a-half ago would have been cannibals in little mud huts in the jungle. Or in Hong Kong: what a spectacular city with such a mix of Gucci and Sax Fifth Avenue; two blocks over an open meat market; such a colorful array of people. Christians from that lot, too. And on and on and on all around the world: Africans, Asians, Europeans, even some Americans. All around the throne on that day because under the terms of this new covenant God has made this righteousness that we need available to all who believe because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Now he still has not explained how he does that. But that is the entire thrust of the paragraph.
3. Paul sets forth the source of God’s righteousness in the gracious provision of Christ Jesus as the propitiation for our sins (Romans 3:24–25a).
Now we are getting into some God-talk theological words that have to be unpacked.
There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement [propitiation], through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. (Romans 3:22a–25a)
What does redemption mean? For us today redemption is another God-talk term. We don’t used redemption very much in ordinary parlance anymore. A generation or two ago in English we still used redemption. If you went to a pawn shop and you hawked your grandfather’s watch to have a little money and then you got some money a few weeks later, you would go back and redeem the watch. You bought it back and freed it from where it was. Likewise people would speak in economic terms of redeeming their mortgage, finally paying it off.
But in the ancient world, redemption language was used pretty commonly. It was not restrictively God-talk vocabulary. For example, in the ancient world you could become a slave because there were no Western-style bankruptcy laws (like chapter 11 or 13 here in America). Supposing you borrow some money, you start a business, the economy flounders, your business goes belly-up. What do you do? In the ancient world what you have to do is sell yourself and/or your family into slavery. That’s what you do. There was no chapter 11.
But suppose you have a rich cousin twenty miles away (don’t forget that twenty miles away in those days was just about a day’s journey) who hears about the fact that that two or three months back you had to sell yourself into slavery. And he cares for you and decides that he is going to do something about it. What he might well do is come along and buy you back. Now there was a whole process for doing that through pagan temples that we won’t go into, but what he was doing was redeeming you. He is buying you back and thus freeing you from your slavery.
So now Paul is saying, “We’ve received a redemption, too, from our slavery to sin. We’ve been bought back, and as a result we have been freed from what would otherwise enslave us.” Now still that has not been explained. He is using the language of the day. We are all justified—declared just before God, declared righteous before God—how when we are not?! We’ve just had two-and-a-half chapters to say that we are not. And now we are told that this righteousness from God has declared us righteous. We are justified free by his grace through this redemption, this buying us back, by our freedom now secured by Christ Jesus, through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
How? How has this happened? “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement [propitiation], through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.” Or the ESV rightly has it, God present Christ “as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Now what does that mean? We need to pause for a moment and work through this word “propitiation” or “expiation” (some have) or “sacrifice of atonement.” “Sacrifice of atonement” isn’t bad; it’s just not quite focused enough. Let me unpack the terms.
Propitiation is that sacrificial act by which God becomes propitious, which doesn’t tell you very much, does it? Propitious simply means favorable, that is, to say that propitiation is an act by which God becomes propitious is to say it is an act by which God becomes favorable to us. He is set over against in some sense in wrath, but now by his sacrificial act he becomes favorable to us. It is propitiation.
Expiation is the act by which sin is cancelled, wiped out, taken off the board. So the object of expiation is sin. The object of propitiation is God. God becomes favorable.
In the pagan world of the first century, when pagans offered sacrifices to their gods, very often it was in a desire to make them propitious, favorable. So if you want to make a sea voyage, you make a propitiating sacrifice to Neptune, the god of the sea, in the hope that he won’t be bad-tempered or angry with you, and then you’ll have a safe sea voyage. It was a sacrifice to Neptune to make him propitious. It was a propitiating sacrifice.
But this text says something rather astonishing. In that old pagan way of looking at things, I the worshipper offer a propitiating sacrifice to the gods. But this text says that God presented Christ as a propitiating sacrifice. So does that mean that God, presenting Christ as a propitiating sacrifice, propitiates God? How can God offer a sacrifice that propitiates himself?
Partly because of that, there have been all kinds of thinkers who have rejected this interpretation entirely. They think it is silly and doesn’t make any sense. How can God propitiate himself? Besides, some of them just don’t like the notion of blood sacrifice or God being wrathful. It was a influential professor in the United Kingdom in the 1930s by the name of C. H. Dodd who argued very strongly that this doesn’t make any sense. God can’t propitiate himself, therefore, this must be expiation. This is not God propitiating God, turning away God’s wrath. How can God propitiate God? After all, Dodd argued, God so loved the world that he gave his Son. If he is already so favorable to the world that he gave his Son, how you can imagine that the Son is then propitiating God? He’s already favorable. So he must not be propitiating himself. He must be coming along to offer his Son to expiate, to cancel, sin.
There were a number of responses by people in this country and Australia and Britain. What they pointed out was that in the Old Testament when propitiation is mentioned, it is regularly in the context of the wrath of God. The word rendered “propitiation” here is two-thirds of the time actually the word used for the top of the ark of the covenant where on the Day of Atonement the blood of the bull and goat was shed precisely to turn away God’s wrath. God ordained that this sacrifice be offered to turn away God’s wrath. That’s the context in which it is mostly used in the Old Testament.
And in this passage itself we just had two-and-a-half chapters that begin “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness” that we human beings have deployed in suppressing the truth (Romans 1:18). So the wrath of God is there. It is personal. It is deep. It is unavoidable. There is a sense in which that wrath must be set aside. But how can God propitiate himself? The answer, of course, is that God stands over against us in wrath because of his holiness. He does. If he does not stand over against us in wrath, then he is immoral: “Oh, I don’t care, they can blaspheme and kill and rape and steal and lie. No sweat. I don’t care. No skin off my nose.”
God is righteous and he does stand over against us in wrath, especially because we have marginalized him. We have de-godded him. God knows that it is for our good that he be at the center of absolutely everything. It’s not simply that he wants to have a certain kind of preference among peers. When you and I want to be especially praised by our peers, we want to be stronger than they are, to have a leg up, to be discerned as superior. But God is superior. He is not just us. He is God. We’re the image of God. More than that, God knows in love that we must see him at the center of everything or we are lost and undone. It is for our good. It is out of love that God insists that it is so. So he is angry when by our actions and thoughts and deeds we declare, “It will not be so.”
God does stand over against us in wrath because of his holiness, but he stands over against us in love because that is the kind of God he is. This text says that God presented Christ to be the propitiation for our sins. Now in fact you cannot have propitiation (i.e., the turning aside of the wrath of God) without expiation (i.e., the cancelling of sin). The two hang together in the Bible. Even in the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement that was so, which is why some people have preferred the more embracing “sacrifice of atonement”: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement” for our sins, cancelling our sin and turning aside the wrath of God. What you must not lose from it in the context of Romans is the wrath of God. The word propitiation is the more focused.
We need to think about this just a little bit more. How is it possible to think of God loving us by sending his Son to get killed? “I love you so much he’s going to get beaten up.” That is the way some people today laugh at the cross. They say, “This is some sort of child abuse. I love you so much that I give you my Son, Jesus, to get killed.” But don’t you see that what is being denied here is the very nature of God. Two chapters on in Romans 5, we read, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). When Christ dies, it is God’s love, both because Jesus is God and because the Father himself is sacrificing his own dear Son on our behalf. It is God’s love that is demonstrated. It is not as if the Father stands over against us in wrath, really angry, and dear Jesus comes along and stands over against us in love. That would be a barbaric notion. The whole one God (Father, Son, and Spirit), this God stands over against us in wrath, and he stands over against us in love. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
I think that one of the reasons that we find it hard in the West to visualize this is because of our judicial system. In virtually every Western country, the judiciary is independent, and the judge is someone who must not be a victim of the criminal who is under review. Suppose, for example, some person charged with mugging is brought before a judge, and it turns out that the judge is the one who was mugged. In our system the judge must therefore recuse himself or herself because the judge is not to stand in judgment of any person where the judge himself or herself is the victim of the crime. That is because the judge is seen in our system as an administrator of a bigger judicial system. That’s all a judge is. The judge is supposed to be administering the larger system. The criminal has not in any sense sinned against the judge. And if the judge starts talking that way, he will be thrown off the bench. You sin against the state, the law, the constitution, the people. If you are in a monarchy as in Great Britain, then you sin against the crown. But you don’t sin against the judge. The judge is supposed to be an independent arbiter who is using the structure of the judicial system to apply the law fairly and evenhandedly to the person who is under review.
But that’s not the way it is with God. God, as we have seen again and again, is always the most offended party. He is the one we have mugged, and he is our judge. Yet his justice is not for that reason unfair. He is immaculately fair. He is himself the very embodiment of justice. He is perfectly righteous. He knows everything. Nothing can be hidden from him, even our thoughts. His justice is immaculate. But he is also the most offended party. Always. Thus, in wrath he demands that justice be done. Then in the person of his own dear Son, he pays the penalty.
In our system of courts, that is just so stupid it is unbelievable. I am sure that you have heard these illustrations where you picture somebody who is brought before a judge and the judge finds the person guilty and in some sort of administrative procedure assigns a fine of $5,000 or conversely the person is confined to five years in jail, and then the judge comes down off the bench and takes out his checkbook and writes the check for $5,000 or alternatively takes of his robe and goes to jail for five years in his place. And we call that substitution. It does get across the notion of substitution, but in our system it would be incredibly corrupt. You can’t do that. The judge is supposed to be an independent arbiter whose fare is the administration of the law, the majesty of the law. He doesn’t have the right to do that. That would be a corruption of justice.
But God sets up the system. He is the just one, and he is the offended party. And in the person of his own dear Son he absorbs the penalty on behalf of the people who put their faith in him.
This last point is searingly important. God is just, but . . .
4. Paul sets forth the demonstration of God’s righteousness through the cross of Jesus Christ (Romans 3:25b–26).
He did this [i.e., God set forth Jesus to be the propitiation for our sins] to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25b–26)
God “did this to demonstrate his justice,” not simply to love, forgive, or redeem us because if no one had paid for our sins then how could God say, “I forgive you”? That would not be just. The sin had not been paid for.
“In his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” This refers to all the sins of God’s own covenant people in the past. They had received temporal punishments of some sort or another. After all, the people of Israel did go into exile. They face pressures and temporal punishments of one sort or another. But now it has to be said that they did not face the full weight of God’s condemnation. That was coming in Christ himself. They had been spared this condemnation. In some deep way, God had left their sins still unpunished. God now demonstrates his justice in sending Christ to the cross “because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” Now he does this “to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” In other words, not only by this means does God declare guilty people like you and me just (i.e., he justifies us because someone has paid for our sin), but he demonstrates his own justice while he is doing it.
Do you want to know where God’s justice is most powerfully demonstrated? It’s on the cross. There Jesus, the God-man, bore hell itself, and God did this both to be just and the one who declares just those who have faith in him. There is thus a sense in which God views me, Don Carson, through the lens of Jesus. That is to say, my sin is now viewed as his, and he has paid for it. And his justice, his righteousness, is now viewed as mine. And God looks at me and declares me just, not because I am (I am guilty!) but because he has set forth his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Now all along here the emphasis has been on receiving this by faith. In the last few verses, Romans 3:27–31, Paul makes three emphases on faith. Let me just tell you what they are briefly.
1. Faith excludes boasting (3:27; cf. 4:1–2).
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the “law” that requires faith. (Romans 3:27)
That is to say, I cannot come before you and say, “I am a superior person. That is why I am accepted by God.” At the end of the day I am declared just before God not because I try harder but because I have received God’s gift by faith. The very nature of faith excludes boasting.
2. Faith is necessary to preserve grace (3:28; cf. 4:3–8).
For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (Romans 3:28)
Is this the law that requires works? No, this is the law that requires faith. That is to say, if somehow I can get pardon from God (i.e., God can look on me with favor) because somehow I earn it, then grace is no more grace. We’ve already seen that when you’re dealing with a God with whom you cannot barter the only way that we are going to be forgiven is by his sovereign grace that is worked out in the cross. That grace is demonstrated in the cross, and we receive it by faith. Faith preserves God’s sovereign grace.
Not only does faith exclude boasting, not only is it necessary to preserve grace, but . . .
3. Faith is necessary if Jews and Gentiles alike are to be saved (3:29–30; cf. 4:9–17).
Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised [i.e., Jews] by faith and the uncircumcised [i.e., Gentiles] through that same faith. (Romans 3:29–30)
One of the entailments of monotheism, belief in one God, is that in some sense he is the God of all, acknowledged or otherwise. He is the God of Jews and Gentiles alike.
The way that you and I receive this bold declaration that we are jus before God is by faith.
Let me conclude with one word on this matter.
Today in the Western world the word “faith” itself has one of two meanings.
- Faith is in some contexts the equivalent of religion. So you have your faith, and I have my faith. You have your religion; I have my religion. America is a land of many faiths, of many religions. It is simply a synonym of religion.
- But when it is not used in that way, in our culture it means something like personal, subjective, religious choice. That is, it is not tied in any sense to truth or to fact. It is a personal, subjective, religious choice. So if you say to some people today, “You must have faith in Jesus,” it sound like simply a blind leap: some opt for Jesus, others opt for Allah and Mohammed, and others opt for Buddhism (which does not have the same structures of religion at all; there there is not a personal transcendent God; but nevertheless you opt for Buddhism—that’s your faith). But although the word faith is used in a variety of ways in the Bible, not once is it ever used that way. Not once.
In the Bible it is always immaculately important to establish faith’s object. For example, in another of Paul’s letters when he is writing to the Christians in Corinth, Paul insists that Christians believe that he rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15). Supposing, he argues, that Jesus did not rise from the dead, supposing that is historical nonsense, then what happens to your faith? If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then (1) the first witnesses are all deceived or liars; you can’t trust any of them, five hundred of them, different sites, different times, different circumstances. They are all liars. (2) It means that you are still lost because the whole predication of the Bible is that it was Christ’s dying and rising again that brought our redemption. That’s how we are reconciled to God. (3) Your faith is useless. In other words, if you believe that Jesus rose from the dead when in fact Jesus did not rise from the dead, your faith is worthless because faith’s validation depends in part on the truthfulness of faith’s object. That’s why the Bible never encourages you to believe something that is not true or something that it is not prepared to declare to be true. That is why in the Bible faith is strengthened by articulating and defending the truth. The Bible does come along and say, “Just believe, believe, believe, believe, believe, believe—it doesn’t matter if it’s true, just believe. So long as you are sincere, that is good.” Paul goes one step farther and says that if you believe something that is not true (like the resurrection of Jesus), you are in fact of all people most to be pitied. You life is a joke. You are believing something that is nonsense.
So as long as you are convinced that Christ did not rise from the dead, I am the last person who is going to urge you to sort of tighten up your stomach muscles and pretend to believe it. That’s not faith. It might be a stomach ulcer, but it is not faith.
Thus when the apostle here in Romans 3 commends faith, what he is wanting from us is a God-given ability to perceive what Christ has done on the cross, what God has done by placarding Jesus on the cross, reconciling us to God, setting aside his own just wrath, demonstrating his love, declaring us just even though we are not because the righteousness of Christ Jesus is now counted as ours, and our sin is now counted as his.
Now that is a kind of Jesus you can trust. It is a kind of God in whom you can place your faith.
Let us pray.
Dilemma wretched: how shall holiness
Of brilliant life unshaded, tolerate
Rebellion’s fetid slime, and not abate
In its own glory, compromised at best?
Dilemma wretched: how can truth attest
That God is love, and not be shamed by hate
And wills enslaved and bitter death—the freight
Of curse deserved, the human rebels’ mess?
The Cross! The Cross! The sacred meeting-place
Where, knowing neither compromise nor loss,
God’s love and holiness in shattering grace
The great dilemma slays! The Cross! The Cross!
This holy, loving God whose dear Son dies
By this is just—and one who justifies.
Open our eyes, heavenly Father, that we may see and in seeing the truth believe.
For Jesus’ sake, Amen.
 D. A. Carson, Holy Sonnets of the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 101.