This piece from Todd Pruitt sums up the thrust of my teaching here in Rwanda.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for 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. 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 3:21-26
Martin Luther refered to Romans 3:21-26 as, ““the chief point, and the very central place of the epistle, and of the whole Bible.” There are three words in this text that ought to be a part of every Christian’s personal lexicon.
We are “justified by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v.24).
Redemption applies to our bondage to sin. It carries with it the notion of being purchased. In this case we have been bought back from slavery to sin. We are told in 1 Corinthians 6 that we have been “bought with a price.” The purchase price of our redemption was the death of God’s beloved Son. In 1 Corinthians 1 we’re told that Christ has “become our redemption.” In Titus 2:14 Paul tells us that Jesus, “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
“…Whom God put forward as a propitiation, by his blood, to be received by faith” (v.25).
Propitiation applies to God’s wrath toward us as sinners and rebels. To propitiate is to turn away wrath. John Murray writes, “To propitiate means to placate, pacify, appease, conciliate.” Propitiation, the satisfaction of God’s wrath, is an idea that is attacked quite often. But it is essential to our understanding of ourselves, our understanding of God, and our understanding of what God has done to save us.
We will never understand the cross apart from a proper appreciation for God’s wrath. Graham Cole writes, “Wrath seems unworthy of God only if our own sense of sin has become so atrophied that we think that it is God’s business to forgive it” (74). James Denney in his classicThe Death of Christ wrote:
“Christ’s death, we may paraphrase (Romans 3:25), is an act in which God does justice to himself…He would not do justice to himself if he displayed his compassion for sinners in a way which made light of sin, which ignored its tragic reality, or took it for less than it is. In this case he would again be doing himself an injustice.”
Christ’s atoning work on the cross fundamentally changed God’s attitude toward us. We moved from being “children of wrath” (Eph 2) to being children of mercy. This is why we sing, “In my place condemned he stood. Hallelujuah! What a Saviour!”
Justification applies to the reality of our guilt and the alienation that comes from that. Justification presupposes two realities: 1) God is our Judge and 2) our problem is that we are guilty. And just as people resist propitiation because it necessitates belief in God’s wrath, people resist justification because it necessitates belief that God is Judge.
Theologian Miraslav Volf, a Croation who experienced first hand the bloody war in the former Yugoslavia and was himself tortured helps us understand the importance of God as Judge:
To the person inclined to dismiss [divine judgment], I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone. Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: A Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: We should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent it will invariably die (Cole, 76).
We all need to be justified. We need to be made right. We need to be fit in such a way that we will not be obliterated the moment we appear before a God who is holy. To be justified means that we have received the pronouncement of “not guilty” from our Righteous Judge. And this extraordinary change from guilty sinner to justified saint all comes about by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
Justification is both acquittal and acceptance. That is to say, it involves both the forgiveness of sins and the receiving of the righteousness of Christ. God not only declares us “Not guilty!”, he also declares us “Righteous!” Pardon alone would leave us spiritually naked with no righteousness. Pardon might save us from hell but it alone is not enough to bring us into the presence of God. For this we need the fullness of Justification.
Paul is amazed by God’s grace. He is not surprised that the God of the Scriptures is gracious. He is well acquainted with God’s grace throughout human history. What amazes Paul is that the God of grace shows His grace and bestows His grace in such a way that His justice is not compromised.
In Proverbs 17 God Himself had said, “Cursed is the judge who condemns the innocent and who acquits the guilty.” But we are being told here that God, the Judge, does indeed acquit the guilty. And this is the thrilling reality of the gospel. Because in the gospel, God’s justice and His righteousness and His grace and His mercy are all displayed side by side, never warring against or contradicting one another. The cross is where the holy justice and tender mercy of God meet in a beautiful expression of God’s perfections.