The Gospel of Godís Grace #7

When Grace and Justice Met

October 19, 1997 / Romans 3:21-26

There have been some monumental meetings in history. But the single most important day in history was when justice and grace met at the cross of Jesus Christ.

Against the death we were due to die, God presented Jesus as the ultimate and final sacrifice of atonement. The innocent Son of God was offered as a lamb for othersí sins; through faith, Christians accept that sacrifice and have our fellowship with God restored. "He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed" (Isa. 53:5).

This is the meeting Paul refers to in the following text:

[Sinners] are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished ó 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 (Rom. 3:24-26).

Just / Justice / Justifier / Justification

There is a family of words related to justice that Paul explores in this section of Romans. His theme here is central to all that follows. It is the essence of the story of redemption.

Justification is the legal word I explained to you last week. It names the end result in a first-century Roman court when an accused person was acquitted of all charges and set free. This declaration of innocence is Godís free gift to Christians, but it was purchased at the highest possible price to heaven.

Divine holiness (i.e., justice) demanded that sin be punished with wrath; God is too holy to wink at sin, to pretend it hasnít happened, to pretend I am not guilty of breaking both his law and his heart. Divine mercy (i.e., grace), on the other hand, had no desire to see any of us receive the just penalty our sins deserved; this is why Jesus was allowed to step between the death-blow and the human race due to receive it.

All this is best understood against the Old Testament system of sacrifice. The "sacrifice of atonement" (propitiation, ASV) had the power to turn aside the judgment of divine wrath by the offering of a gift to God. One who had sinned under the Law of Moses was under the death penalty. "The soul who sins is the one who will die" says Ezekiel 18:20. The poor soul who deserved to die was given the option of bringing an animal, offering its life on the altar as a substitute for his own, and walking away with his life ó and fellowship with God ó renewed. There are some grisly, gory versions of this process documentable in pagan history. In the biblical narrative, however, it is always a story of redemptive grace. What the sinner brings as his gift is the life-blood of an animal that was originally given him by God. So his gift to God is something already gifted to him! Here is the key verse in all the Old Testament on this process: "For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for oneís life" (Lev. 17:11).

Now watch the play on words in the text. According to verse 26, this divine arrangement of executing wrath against sin means that justice has been served. Godís inherent goodness would have been compromised if he had not dealt with sin. By virtue of Calvary, he is able to remain personally righteous (i.e., free from sin) even while declaring righteous those who have put their faith in Jesus. Thus he is both just and the justifier of those who come to him through Christ.

Praise God for his gracious gift above all other gifts! He has given us right-standing with himself apart from our ability ó or, more correctly, inability ó as law-keepers. He has justified us freely by his grace through our faith in Jesus.

Clarifying the Complex

I will be the first to admit that the language I have just used is a bit intimidating. It presumes at least some understanding of an Old Testament system of sacrifice that most people know nothing about. It also presumes some appreciation for the principle of substitution. But Iím not sure how many people have this background ó especially people who werenít "raised in church" where these concepts were given explanation and meaning over time.

The story goes that an elderly, uneducated woman was approached by a skeptic. The man was rather sarcastic and contemptuous. "Well, Betty," he said, "I hear you claim to be one of the Ďsaints.í Tell me what thatís supposed to mean. Does it mean youíre a Bible scholar and well-versed in theology?"

"No, sir!" she replied. "Iím no Bible scholar. Iím simply positive that God loves me enough that he has saved me by his grace. Thatís enough to make me happy in this life and to take me safely to heaven."

"Is that all you know about it?" he insisted. "Canít you at least explain what being Ďsaved by graceí means?"

Betty was thoughtful ó and probably prayerful ó for a time. Then she looked the man full in the face and answered, "The best way I know to explain it is to say it means that, because the Lord stood in my shoes at Calvary, Iím now standing in his."

What a profoundly simple answer. It is true to the scholarly theologianís insights and probably communicates to more people than scholarsí language ever will! A happy believer put the great theological doctrine of substitutionary atonement in simple, accurate, everyday words.

Salvation: Godís Work Alone

Remember the story of the judge whose son appeared before him on a drunk-driving charge? Because he was sworn to uphold justice, the man behind the bench had to find him guilty; then he imposed the heaviest fine allowed under the law. But he immediately stepped down from his chair and paid the fine from his own pocket.

That is a tiny glimpse of what God has done for us. Unable to declare us innocent under law and knowing we could not set right the wrongs we had done, he pronounced us "Guilty!" and imposed the law's full penalty ó death. Then Jesus Christ went to the cross and paid the penalty for us.

So what is left for us to do to establish the basis for righteousness before God? Nothing. Absolutely nothing! If there were anything for us to add, salvation would not be God's work. If we contributed anything at all to our justification as sinners, the glory for salvation would not be God's alone. Salvation arises from the grace of God, not at the end of our attainments or on the basis of our ability to obey law, accumulate "brownie points," or otherwise prove ourselves "worthy" of salvation. To teach that redemption is grounded in human wisdom or performance is false doctrine of the most unworthy sort.

Yet there are requirements we must meet in order to accept the free, undeserved, and unmerited gift offered in Christ. Our "access . . . into this grace in which we now stand" is "by faith" (Rom. 5:2a). This access-faith is more than the mental assent that demons ó on some points, at least ó give to certain tenets of Christian theology (Jas. 2:19). Access to grace is by a faith that is submissive and obedient, for "faith without deeds is dead" (Jas. 2:26). This faith that I have just characterized as "submissive and obedient" is not, however, an element of legalistic theology that holds the cross to be "God's part" of redemption and obedience to divine commandments "man's part." It is instead a biblical theology that proclaims God's work at the cross as the sum total of meritorious activity associated with salvation and that our obedient faith is nothing more than open-handed acceptance of the free gift purchased by the blood of Christ. The grace of God will not be forced on unwilling recipients. Thus the entailments of faith are not "options" to our salvation; they are essentials.

First, we must see ourselves as we really are. That is, we must accept the judgment of God against humankind that we are guilty of sin, justly condemned under divine law, and unable to set right our broken relationship with God. Remember the parable of the two men praying at the temple? (Luke 18:9-14). Only one of them went home justified that day.

Second, we must be willing to abandon the deeds ó and their underlying attitudes ó that have set us against God. We must turn away from sin, for it is absurd to expect God to forgive things we intend to keep doing. The biblical term for this requirement is "repentance." Since old habits die hard, repentance is best thought of as a willingness to abandon sin rather than a one-time spiritual occurrence. Anyone following Jesus must "deny himself and take up his cross daily" (Luke 9:23).

Third, having given up on self-justification and self-righteousness, we turn for salvation to the "righteousness from God [that] comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe." That we have died to self so as to live in Christ is symbolized in baptism ó the reenactment of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Though a symbol of a greater reality, baptism is no mere symbol. It is essential to the objective reality of a sinner's turn from darkness to light, from death to life, from judgment to redemption (Rom. 6:3-4).

The God of grace makes sinners righteous in Christ Jesus. With nothing in our hands to bring, we are saved on condition of trust in him (i.e., faith) that shows itself in genuine repentance and Christ-affirming baptism (Acts 2:36-38). Thus has our God been both just in honoring the condemnation of sinners under the stipulations of law and the Justifier of all who would trust his method of paying the penalty sin required. For a work so great that only God could achieve it, we must praise him as Savior and give him all the glory. We must abandon our pretenses, swallow our pride, and trust him for the right-standing we want but cannot attain by our flawed obedience to law.

People Before Christ

In this marvelous passage at hand, Paul even raises the issue of the status of people who lived before Christís atoning death. If Jesusí blood is the only remedy for the sin problem of Jews and Gentiles, what is to become of all those who lived and died prior to Calvary? Paulís answer has him affirming that the death of Christ relates not only to sins committed after that event but to the ones committed prior to it as well. The issue for the apostle that has him raise the subject is still justice.

God was not acting unjustly by ignoring the sins of Abraham and Moses while holding Paul and me responsible for ours. His perfect righteousness is demonstrated in the fact that he has showed mercy to them on the same basis as to us. He acted as he did "to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished" (3:25b). Instead of punishing the sins of those people as they deserved to be punished, heaven showed them mercy in view of the full demonstration of his righteousness that was still ahead of their time in history in the work of Christ on Calvary.

In other words, God had been forgiving sins before the time of Jesus. The Old Testament is full of affirmations to that effect (cf. Num. 14:20; Psa. 78:38; 85:2; 103:3, et al.). Indeed, Jesus himself forgave the sins of people during his earthly ministry and prior to his death (cf. Mark 2:5-10; Luke 7:47; 23:43). Forgiveness in all these instances looked forward to the cross, and the offering of Jesus to die for sins demonstrated Godís justice in what he had been doing in forgiving sin across the centuries.

Perhaps another analogy will help here. Suppose a farmer goes to the bank in the springtime to make a loan for his crop year. He gets money that is not his own to spend for equipment, seed, and fertilizer. In the fall, he harvests his crop and carries in the money that actually pays for what he has been using as his own. The bank has "carried" him through the year.

God forgave the sins of people who trusted him under various covenants he made with humankind before the death of Christ. By their faith in those covenants, their sins were actually forgiven. They would offer a lamb or goat or bull, and its shed blood would point the great heart of God forward to the sacrifice of Jesus that lay ahead in time. On the basis of the cross rather than the animal, God forgave the worshiper. He "carried" those sinners in the knowledge that the blood of Christ would be offered in the fulness of time.

In a fuller sense, however, it is not correct to speak of God "looking forward" or "anticipating the future." In the divine perspective on history, things are not views in the time sequence of past, present, and future we experience. Things that happened "a long time ago" and others "way out yonder in the future" are every one eternally present before the mind of God.

To the eye of God, the cross has always been the central focus. The sins committed two thousand years before Christ or two thousand years after him have always been dealt with in relation to it.

"Werenít sins merely Ďrolled forwardí rather than actually forgiven under the Law of Moses?" asks someone. Although some have interpreted Hebrews 10:1-4 to say this, neither the expression nor the idea appears in Scripture. The "annual reminder of sins" in connection with the Day of Atonement was not for God but for the people. The men and women of Israel were reminded on that annual day of fasting and mourning that they were sinners for whom atonement had to be made before a holy God.

Justification by law-keeping demands perfect compliance, and no one will be justified by it (3:20; cf. Acts 13:39). Justification by grace through faith, however, allows for mistakes and sins. Thus the people who were saved under the Law of Moses were not saved by that law but by the grace of Yahweh which they accessed through faith. Neither can we be saved by keeping the laws of Christ but only by Godís grace accessed through our faith in Christ. The death of Jesus is the single meritorious ground of salvation for everyone from Adam to the end of history. Various divine covenants serve only to state the conditions upon which believers receive heavenís free gift.

Let us purge all notions of justification through law or good works from our minds. Right-standing with God is predicated upon grace (i.e., the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus) and received through faith (i.e., oneís trust in Godís promises).


Someone wanted to know the other day if I believed in "salvation by faith alone." It seemed to puzzle him that I replied, "It all depends!"

If my curious friend meant "Do you think someone can be saved just by his or her mental agreement to what the Bible teaches about Godís grace, Jesusí death, and our hope?" then my answer must be "No, I donít believe that." If he meant "Do you believe that we can be saved by trusting what God has done through Christ and that alone as the ground of our salvation?" then my answer is "Yes, that is exactly what I believe."

The conversation that followed between us revealed that his real question was this: "Donít you believe that Christís death is Godís part in our salvation and that our baptism is our part in salvation?" Bless his confused, legalistic heart! It isnít his fault that his thinking is so messed up. It is the fault of preachers who have taught Godís scheme of redemption from such an anthropomorphic perspective that they have practically eliminated the need for Christ.

Salvation is not the correct sequencing of five neat steps to God. It is the story of Godís grace and justice meeting at the cross ó and his gracious willingness to allow us to share in that saving event through faith. The evidence that you have faith enough to be saved is witnessed in your baptism in Jesusí name. It is testified to by your daily transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is seen in your eager desire to tell others the gospel story. It moves you to help the weak, love the rejected, and lift the fallen. Not one of these evidences of faith is your ground of hope for eternity. Your hope is in Christ and Christ alone.

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