Saturday 29 January 2011

God justifying God (Romans 3:25-26)

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.
Romans 3:23-26

Justification is the key word in these verses. Indeed, it is main theme running through the entire book of Romans. You justify someone by proving that he or she is innocent. You justify an action by showing that its means, motive and ends are right and noble.

Yet when Christians are justified it does not mean that they are innocent. Their motives are not pure and their actions are not right. Rather, God justifies sinners. We are all guilty of rebelling against God. We all deserve God’s anger. Yet on the cross, God pours out our punishment upon Jesus. He takes our sin and we receive his righteousness – or if you like, his “right”-ness. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Martin Luther calls this the Great Exchange. He takes our sin; we receive his righteousness.

Still, the focus of justification in the early chapters of Romans is not simply – or even primarily – upon us. Instead, the focus is on God. True: God justifies sinners through the cross of Jesus Christ. But these verses in Romans 3:25-26 are there to show us that God is justifying God through the cross.

The words “justify” and “righteous” are one and the same, though in our English bibles, they look nothing alike. Both English words translate the Greek “dikaios” which means to be in the right, to be fair, or to be just (We get our English words “justify” and “justice” from the Latin “iustus”). But otherwise, “righteousness” means “justification”; and to justify someone is to prove that he is righteous or innocent.

In these verses before us, twice it says that God “shows his righteousness”. That is to say: God is proving that he is right. Now, that is a remarkable thing for the bible to say. God is proving that what he is doing on the cross is right – and not wrong – for him to do. You wouldn’t think that God needs to prove anything to anyone. Yet here in verse 25, and once more in verse 26, God is proving that he is innocent, that he is right, that he is fair – in doing something quite spectacular on the cross.

What has he done – that is so outrageous and unexpected – that God would need to prove himself? God has forgiven sinners.

God is justified in judgement

To understand this point, we need to step back and take a birds-eye view of the opening chapters of Romans. The argument for God’s justification began all the way back in Chapter 1. There Paul declares that God reveals his righteousness through the gospel. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel … for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” (Romans 1:16-17).

But in the very next verse, we immediately read of something else that is revealed – God’s anger over our unrighteousness. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Romans 1:18) Our unrighteousness is seen in the suppression of truth – through the denial of the knowledge of God.

What follows is a long list of sinfulness and wickedness that Christians and non-Christians alike find troubling. Lust and the dishonouring of bodies (1:24), homosexual practices amongst men and women alike (1:26-27), covetousness, malice, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossiping, slandering, hating God, insolence, haughtiness and boastfulness, inventing new ways to do evil, disobeying parents, foolishness, heartlessness and ruthlessness (1:29-31).

Yet many misunderstand these verses. This is not a long list of sins for which God will judge the world. We are not meant to identify individuals who fit into these categories and then say to them you will therefore be condemn for practicing these sins.

No, this list is but a reflection of the one sin of verse 18 – the suppression of the knowledge of God. And these sinful acts are not so much the reasons why God will judge the world, but the very indication that God has judged the world. He has done this by “giving us over” to our sinfulness.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.
Romans 1:24

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.
Romans 1:26

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
Romans 1:28

The purpose of Romans Chapter 1 is therefore to demonstrate how God is justified in pouring out judgement over a creation which has chosen to deny him as God and humanity which willfully rebels against him as their Creator. The reason we do not know God is that we have chosen not to know God. Agnosticism is the claim that God is unknowable. But the truth is, as Philip Jensen the Dean of Sydney puts it, we are “ignostics”. We ignore God. It is not that we cannot know God. Rather we choose to deny his rightful place in our lives as God. We are all “ignostics” who suppress the knowledge of God.

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Romans 1:20

The message of Romans Chapter 1 is this: God is justified in judging the world in their denial of their knowledge of God.

We are unjustified in our judgement

But then see in Romans Chapter 2 that God is justified in judging us who claim to know God through the law. It is talking about the Jew who has the revelation of God in the law of Moses, the Torah. And yet, the application is rightly applied on all Christians who have the bible, know what it says about God, and yet live in such a way that is contrary to the bible.

We do this when we judge the world – in its wickedness and sin – yet ignore our own. Paul says that Christians who do this “presume on the riches of (God’s) kindness and forbearance and patience” (Romans 2:4).

The judgement spoken of in Chapter 2 is therefore the judgement of the believer who claims to have the knowledge of God. Unlike Chapter 1, where the world is described as willfully ignorant of the revelation of God in creation, here the Christian is willfully disobedient and foolishly ignorant of the revelation of God in the law. He condemns the world for its sin of turning away from God, but is blind to his own hypocrisy of doing the same.

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
Romans 2:5

So, God is right is judging the world over sin. But God is also right and justified in judging the Jew. Both Jew and Gentile (the term Gentile simply means everyone who isn’t a Jew – all the rest of the nations, if you like. In other words, that’s me as a Chinese Malaysian; you as an Englishman, Japanese, Indian, African, German – everyone in every nation) – all of us stand under God’s judgement. God is justified in judgement.

That’s not hard to understand. Many religions speak of God as a Judge, who condemns injustice and wickedness and moreover, is justified in pouring out judgement and fairness. God’s judgement over sin is not a problem for Islam and Judaism.

Even atheists who are keen to debate the “problem of evil” – questioning the right for God to judge this world and doubting his ability to do so fairly – have at the back of their minds the premise that such a God – should he exist – ought to be transparently and accountably fair.

The problem of justification

So, Romans Chapters 1 and 2 establish God’s prerogative as Judge over creation for their ignorance of him, as well as their disobedience even in the face of the knowledge of his will. But when we come to Chapter 3, Paul expounds the fullness of God’s justification not in terms of his righteous judgement over the sin of the world, but in terms of his gracious forgiveness lavished on guilty sinners. Therein lies the problem of justification. Not with judgement over sin, but in the pardon of sinners.

For fall 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.
Romans 3:23-24

All have sinned. Yet all are justified. And that’s a very big problem. How can God be just and yet justify guilty sinners? The answer is the cross.

Of course, the word “cross” isn’t used in these verses. Neither do we find the words “death” nor “sacrifice”. Instead the powerful work of Christ is described with the word “propitiation” in the English Standard Version, or if you are using the New International Version, by the phrase, “sacrifice of atonement”. It is this propitiation that Paul says “shows God’s righteousness” (Verse 25 and again in verse 26).

So it is very important to understand what he means here. For in establishing God’s righteousness in judgement of sin in Chapters 1 and 2, what Paul has essentially done, is establish God’s problem in saving these very sinners whom he ought to punish. Salvation is a big problem for God! For it would be unrighteous for a holy God to ignore sin. God would be guilty of the very same offence condemned in Chapter 1 – to know that there is sin, to see its seriousness, and yet ignore it as if it were not sin. Salvation is actually an affront to God’s holiness and righteousness, if it means that God forgoes the punishment of sin.

This is where the word “propitiation” helps us understand God’s justice but also his love. It is an old English word (well, I’m not sure whether it is old, but we certainly don’t use it much in everyday speech) that means to make someone pleased, happy or favourable towards you. It’s something you do to make them like you – which is a weird thing to say about God, and certainly an odd way to describe Jesus dying on the cross.

It is common in Chinese households back in Hong Kong, China, Singapore or Malaysia to have altars to idols. Worshippers will burn incense but also place plates of food on these altars as offerings to their ancestors or to various deities. There is one domestic idol called the Kitchen God – or Zao Jun, who reports back to Heaven every year just before the Lunar New Year. According to Chinese mythology, households will be blessed or punished based on his report. Chinese families therefore offer up a dessert called Nian Gao made with glutinous rice flour and brown sugar at this time of the year, in an effort to placate the Kitchen God.

The word “propitiation” (Greek: hilasterion) appears numerous times in the Old Testament, almost always (21 out of 27 times in the Septuagint, according to Douglas Moo) referring to the cover of the ark of the covenant. It is called the “mercy seat”, which for all intents and purposes, was an altar of sacrifice. This is where the Jewish High Priest would pour the blood from the animal sacrifice offered up to God. According to Leviticus 16, this was to provide atonement for the people of God for their sins.

It is a powerful picture of God’s anger over sin. Only death – symbolized by the blood of the sacrifice – can turn away God’s anger and fulfil the punishment for sin. It is saying that God is personally offended by our sin and rebellion. He is angered, he is hurt, and he is deeply and profoundly affected when we sin. So when we look at the law of God describing penalties for sin – these are not abstract rules about proper conduct and moral codes. The law is an extension of God’s character in holiness. A holy God cannot tolerate sin and wickedness.

The cross of Jesus Christ is described in verse 25 as the “propitiation by his blood”. Through his bloody death, Jesus takes the full weight of God’s punishment for our sin, but also the full measure of God’s anger over our sin. Jesus bore God’s wrath. His Father’s hatred over all our rebellion and wickedness and wilful disobedience, Jesus took upon himself for our sakes, as he cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) echoing the words of Psalm 22. In that moment, God the Son who had up to that point been in eternal relationship with God the Father was rejected from his Father’s presence as he bore the punishment and the shame of a sinful world in rebellion against God.

People think of hellfire and brimstone when they hear the word “judgement”. But here in Romans, as Paul outlines God’s prerogative to judge as its Creator; as Paul unpacks God’s righteous response of judgement as a Holy God standing over a sinful, rebellious creation – the fullness of God’s judgement is seen not in hell, but on the cross. The shameful and bloody death of Jesus Christ is the ultimate symbol of God’s anger over our sin.

But that is also why the cross is the ultimate display of God’s grace and love. Because God has “put forward” the cross, or as the NIV puts it, “presented” the cross – meaning the death of Jesus is like a display for the entire universe to behold – It is saying that: God has done this, sin has been punished; his righteous judgements have been fully met. Because the cross displays God’s full righteousness in judgement and holiness, it becomes the basis of God’s grace in forgiving sinners whether under the Old Covenant (the temple and priests, the sacrifices of bulls and goats) but now even more supremely through the New.

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.
Romans 3:25-26

God is just in justifying sinners

Now look at the last verse again. Verse 26 is talking about salvation. If you are a Christian, that’s you. You are saved from God’s wrath through the cross. And Paul describes the Christian as “one who has faith in Jesus”. You didn’t do anything to deserve or obtain your salvation. You are “justified by grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). God provided the sacrifice of his Son on the cross. God offers you forgiveness and the full righteousness of his Son through the cross.

And the way we receive this “gift”, this “grace” and this “righteousness” is by faith alone. You trust that Jesus has taken your sin and punishment. You hold on to the promises of the bible – God has said he has forgiven you in Christ, and you take him at his word. To have faith is to trust, to rely and to depend on a God who is trustworthy, reliable and dependable in keeping his promise to save us through the cross. To have faith is to trust in the gospel – the power of God to save everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).

But look again at verse 26. The object of justification is us – the one who has faith. But the subject of that sentence; the subject of justification is God. Paul is still talking about God. And there he describes God in two ways – God is just; and God justifies.

God is just in saving sinners. You know, my Muslim friends have a big problem with this, and I fully understand why. God can’t forgive sin willy-nilly. You Christians don’t have a true, reverent understanding of a transcendent and awesome God if you claim that he can just overlook evil.

Well, he doesn’t. God has judged the sin of the Christian in Jesus Christ. There is no more condemnation for those who are in Christ. God is just in forgiving me of my sin, not because I have earned it or because God has overlooked it, but because he has dealt with it fully on the cross. The cross satisfies the holiness and justice of God. The cross means God is just.

But secondly, God is the justifier of his people. God personally forgives sin. He sent Jesus to cross that we might be pardoned of our sin. That is to say: he wanted this; He wants us to be forgiven. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. He did this for us because he loved us. God’s righteousness is not an impersonal trait in his character, it is the basis of his love. He is the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

The justice of God and the love God is supremely displayed on the cross, where both wrath and mercy meet. There we see the glory of God revealed in the saving work of Jesus Christ – the God who is just and the God who justifies all who place their trust in the Lamb who was slain.

Come and weep, come and mourn
For your sin that pierced him there
So much deeper than the wounds of thorn and nail
All our pride, all our greed
All our fallenness and shame
And the Lord has laid the punishment on him

We worship at your feet
Where wrath and mercy meet
And a guilty world is washed
By love's pure stream
For us he was made sin
Oh, help me take it in
Deep wounds of love cry out 'Father, forgive'
I worship, I worship
The Lamb who was slain.

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