God’s Justice in Justifying Sinners
Topic: Expository Passage: Romans 3:24–26
Some of the best stories are stories of how people got saved. There are so many ways people come to Christ and so many ways that God brings them to that point. We often get especially excited about dramatic stories where someone lived in radical rebellion against God, and he dramatically changed their course. Some of you have a story like that.
But every conversion is a miracle of grace, and they are all awesome. For example, I was so blessed during VBS this summer to speak with a boy who has heard the gospel his whole life and had just received Christ. I loved his story. He said, “I had been waiting to receive Christ until I was good enough, but this week I realized I will never be good enough, so I trusted in Christ.” Praise God! What a wonderful story of grace.
I hope all of you have a conversion story. It may not be dramatic or highly emotional—this boy’s conversion wasn’t—but God in his mercy brought you to the end of yourself, he showed you the beauty of Christ, and you received him and rested in him.
If you have done that, our text will be a precious reminder of what God provided for you in Christ. It will encourage your heart and cause you to glorify God. But if you have never received Christ, I pray that God will use his Word to radically transform your life (read vv. 21–26).
Last week, I emphasized 3 key truths about how God saves from vv. 21–23. First, because we are sinners who fall short of the glory of God, our only hope of salvation is that God credits his own righteousness to us. We often call this alien righteousness because it’s not mine. It’s God’s righteousness which is credited to me. Second, this righteousness is applied through faith, not by my works. Third, this gift of salvation is equally available to all people. It’s great news!
This morning, we will study vv. 24–26. Paul continues what many believe to be the central passage of the NT because of how it carefully but beautifully articulates what Christ did on the cross and what it means for us. The passage is built around four key concepts.
I. Justification (v. 24a)
In the flow of Romans, this statement is huge. Look at what Paul just said in v. 20. God is abundantly clear that when we all stand before God at the last judgment, no one will be “justified,” or declared “not guilty” by their own works. We have no hope of justifying ourselves.
But vv. 21–22 say there is hope for salvation because God credits his righteousness to sinners by faith. And v. 24 calls this gift justification. So, there is no hope of justification in myself, but there is justification in Christ. But what does that mean? Wayne Grudem defines justification as, “An instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.”
First, it is “instantaneous.” It’s not as if I believe on Christ and then slowly work toward becoming not guilty. No, the moment I receive Christ, I am declared righteous (4:3). Abraham was justified the moment he believed.
As well, it is “legal” as opposed to practical. This is important because on a practical level, I’m still a sinner. 4:5 says God, “justifies the ungodly.” So, even while I am a sinner, my debt is paid, and I legally stand in Christ’s righteousness. Thus, I am legitimately declared righteous.
This doesn’t mean that God is apathetic about my sin or that I should be either. Romans 6 teaches that genuine conversion delivers me from sin’s enslaving power. If I have been truly born again, I must become practically righteous. But practical righteousness does not justify, only the legal declaration of God.
Then notice there is a negative and positive side to justification. God forgives and removes my sins so that they no longer stand between me and God. Positively, he credits me with Christ’s righteousness. I’m not just declared innocent; I am declared righteous and thereby qualified to enter heaven. It really is the best news we could ever hear.
Finally notice in v. 24 that all these blessings are simply a “gift by his grace.” The Greek word translated gift is dorean. It’s a financial term, and it simply means that something is free. There is no cost.
Justification is a gift. God doesn’t take payments, and I could never pay it off if he did. Instead, God simply gives it to me the same way you give a gift to a small child—knowing you won’t get anything in return.
Why does God do this? It is because God is full of grace. God is certainly more than grace, but notice how God described himself to Moses, “Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the LordGod, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Ex 34:6–7).
God gets to justice. You can’t know God without appreciating his justice. But he wants to be known first as full of grace. I hope you see God as a loving, compassionate Father who is full of grace. This grace is the foundation of the gospel and of your relationship to him.
Praise God for free justification. If you are saved, you didn’t do anything to achieve justification; God simply gave it to you. Give thanks. And if you can’t shake the idea that surely there is something you must do to achieve God’s favor, please see that salvation is gift that is applied only by faith. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8–9). Please receive this gift today. So, v. 24 begins by emphasizing the fact that justification costs me nothing. God gives it freely. But notice that it wasn’t free for God. It cost him an infinite price. The 2nd major concept is…
II. Redemption (v. 24b)
McCune states, “Atonement in terms of redemption/ransom means that Christ bought sinners out of the slavery and servitude that sin creates by the payment of an infinite ransom price, the shedding of his own blood…It is the satisfaction of God’s justice.”
So, redemption is built around the image of slavery. Israel’s national history began in slavery to Egypt. And somewhere between 20 and 40% of Roman subjects were slaves. So, slavery was a familiar image for both Jews and Gentiles in Paul’s day.
And the concept of redemption originated as the price that must be paid to buy a slave his freedom. It’s an appropriate image of the gospel because we all have a massive sin debt. I like how Colossians 2:14 pictures it as financial ledger. Every time I sin, another line is added, and my debt continues to grow. It’s overwhelming to imagine how long my ledger would be if it were written out. I could never hope to pay it off.
But Jesus accepted my debt when he went to the cross. “(He) canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col 2:14). In other words, the charges for which Jesus died were ultimately mine. He suffered my punishment. He paid my debt.
That’s why he came. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus suffered unimaginable torment to purchase my freedom. I hope we never grow calloused to how amazing it is.
And praise the Lord that Jesus was effective in doing so. He satisfied God’s justice. He fully paid my debt. I don’t have to worry about getting a surprise bill or being told at the judgment that I something is left to be paid. No, Jesus declared on the cross, “It is finished.”
Maybe you are feeling weighed down by your sin debt. You’ve always assumed it is your responsibility to pay it off, and you hope you can do enough good things to outweigh your sin. Please see that you cannot possibly pay your debt, but Jesus already did on the cross. You can be redeemed and freed from slavery to sin by if you will simply receive Christ and his free gift of salvation.
If you are redeemed, never forget that God redeemed you with the intent of changing everything about you. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19–20). Jesus bought my life, and I must be wholly dedicated to pleasing him.
III. Propitiation (v. 25a)
Propitiation is not a familiar word, so let’s begin with a definition. “A sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes God’s wrath toward us into favor” (Wayne Grudem). Last summer we watched a documentary on 3 Sunday nights that talked about how many even professing Christians are highly offended by propitiation. They refuse to believe our sin deserves wrath, and they believe that wrath is below God. They prefer a warmer, cuddlier God.
But the OT mentions God’s wrath 580 times. Jesus talked about hell more than he did heaven, and Paul has already affirmed God’s wrath against sin 4x in Romans (1:18, 2:5, 8–9, 3:5). Of course, God’s wrath is not blind, uncontrolled rage like ours often is. Rather, it is God’s perfectly just and rational response to human sin. God’s wrath is righteous and holy.
But it still has severe consequences for sinners. So, God introduced the concept of propitiation in the OT sacrificial system to teach Israel about their sin and their need for atonement. Specifically, the language of propitiation originates with the Day of Atonement and more specifically with the mercy seat which was on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant.
This seat represented God’s gracious presence among his people but also the place of his wrath against sin. Therefore, on the DoA, the high priest sprinkled blood on the mercy seat to cover or atone for Israel’s sin. The ritual represented the removal Israel’s sin, the satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin, and the restoration of fellowship between Israel and God.
However, the blood of a goat and this ritual could not truly atone for sin. But our text says that God determined to provide a true atonement. I do want to emphasize the Father’s initiative. We sometimes imagine the Father as throwing an eternal temper tantrum, and Jesus as stepping forward to calm him down. That’s heresy, and it’s not true.
No God the Father loved us and determined to satisfy his own wrath. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
And Jesus obeyed. He was “displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood.” Jesus was publicly beaten, and then he was executed by one of the cruelest methods that has ever been devised. He suffered unimaginable pain and humiliation.
But the worst part was, as 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that Jesus who had never sinned, became sin for us. Christ took our sin on himself. And utter darkness fell over the land at high noon as God poured out his holy and infinite wrath on Christ. After 3 hours of darkness, Jesus cried, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me” (Matt 27:46). It was the darkest day.
But after 3 hours, Jesus cried, “It is finished,” and he surrendered his life to death. And God affirmed Christ’s finished work by tearing the veil in the temple in two. For 1400 years that veil separated God’s presence on the mercy seat from sinful men.
But Jesus satisfied God’s wrath once and for all. He eliminated the barrier between God and men, and he made it possible for us to go from standing under God’s wrath and condemnation to becoming his children who will live with him in heaven for all eternity. Jesus’ propitiatory sacrifice is simply amazing.
And once again, v. 25 says that this propitiation can become ours simply “through faith.” We don’t pay for it, and we don’t work for it; we simply receive Christ and rest in him.
Christian, never forget that you were once a “child of wrath” (Eph 2:3), and you were headed to eternal condemnation. But Jesus took your place. He bore the wrath you deserve so that you could know God’s grace. Give thanks every day and continue resting in the finished work of Jesus. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
And if you are not in Christ, please understand that the wrath of God remains on you. Repent of your sin and trust in Christ as your only hope of salvation from God’s wrath. Please be saved today through Christ.
So, vv. 24–25 mention 3 wonderful salvation terms—justification, redemption, and propitiation. All 3 are full of precious significance for us. But then in vv. 25b–26 Paul shifts to God’s ultimate reason for providing this great salvation. He tells us that for as much as God truly loves us, we were not the ultimate motive behind the cross. Instead, the 4th major concept in our text is…
IV. Glorification (vv. 25b–26)
The next statement may be a bit jarring. We like to think that the gospel is all about us, how wonderful we are, and why we must be really special for God to do something like this for us. But v. 25 says that Jesus died first and foremost to demonstrate God’s righteousness.
Notice that God’s righteous in vv. 25, 26 describe a different righteousness from vv. 21–22. There Paul mean the righteousness God credits to us. But the flow of the argument clearly indicates that vv. 25, 26 are simply talking about God’s attribute of righteousness. God is declaring something about himself, not gifting us something by faith.
So, vv. 25–26 are saying that God declared his righteousness in the cross. God’s ultimate purpose was to glorify himself.
But how did God do this, and why was it necessary? Verse 25 raises an important issue that was certainly on the minds of Paul’s Jewish readers. Namely, if Christ alone saves, what does that mean for all the people who lived before Jesus died? Are they all in hell? Did their sacrifices and good works save them?
Or did God arbitrarily choose to forgive them without demanding anything in return? We saw in the video last summer that many people think God should be able to that. “He’s God. He can do whatever he wants. He doesn’t need to make Jesus die. He should just choose to forgive.” Some go so far as to accuse God of divine child abuse for sending Jesus to the cross.
But they have missed some very important truths about God. Namely, God’s attributes are not playdoh that can be molded into whatever is convenient for the moment. No, God does not change, and he is bound by his attributes.
And one of God’s most important is his justice. I’m thankful that God is just. I’m glad that he judges sin and that someday he will eliminate it because sin is horrible, and it has horrible consequences. But God’s justice also means that he cannot arbitrarily hand out grace.
So, how in the world can God be truly just and truly gracious at the same time? Have you ever thought about that one? How can God perfectly account for every sin but also show any grace to sinners like us? Did God just ignore justice when he saved Abraham, Moses, and David? Can he just choose to forgive us, as Bart Campolo claimed in that video? If not, what is the answer?
God tells us that the cross is the answer. Verse 26 says “in the present time,” speaking of this moment in salvation history, which is dominated by the cross, God demonstrated or loudly declared his righteousness or justice.
Folks, the greatest demonstration of God’s justice is not that he condemns sinners to hell. No, the greatest demonstration of God’s justice is that he is so committed to his righteousness that he poured out his wrath on his only begotten Son. God declared that he is just.
But 5:8 will say that in the cross God also declared his marvelous love for sinners, and he opened the way for him to remain just and also to display grace. Because Christ paid for our sins, God can forgive them, and we can be justified. Verse 26 says God is “just AND the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
So, v. 25 says this is how God saved people before Christ. When Abraham believed God, God justified him based on the coming sacrifice of Christ. Based on what Christ would do, God “passed over” Abraham’s sins. And he does the same for us; it’s just that he looks back instead of forward. When I received Christ as Savior as a little boy, God looked back on what Christ had done, and he justified me based on his work and his alone.
It’s amazing. And vv. 25–26 say that in it all God marvelously glorified himself. The cross is not fundamentally about me; it’s about God (v. 27a).
In the cross we see most clearly the righteousness, holiness, and justice of God through the judgment of Jesus. We also see most clearly God’s amazing love, compassion, mercy, and grace. You also see his incredible power in that God defeated sin and death. And whole story is a marvelous testimony to God’s wisdom. Only God could author such a beautiful story of judgment and grace.
So, when you look at the cross, see God first and foremost. Worship him for his glorious, justice, grace, power, and wisdom. Then, be humbled before him. There is no room for boasting at the foot of the cross. But then rest in the perfect love and acceptance which Christ provided that day. God really does love me in Christ. He has adopted me into his family, and I am forever secure in Christ. “Jesus, keep me near the cross.”
And if you have never put your faith in Christ for salvation, please do so today. If you still hope that you can earn the favor of God, look at the cross and see that it is impossible. If God is so committed to his justice that he killed his Son, what makes you think you can escape his justice by your good works? You need to be saved and there is salvation in Jesus.
Maybe there is something you love more than Christ that is keeping you from receiving Christ as Lord. Please look at the cross and see that Jesus is better. He is full of grace and mercy, and his eternal reward is far better than whatever you are holding onto.
Maybe you are afraid to make the decision. Maybe you are afraid of God. Please see that he is a loving Savior. Come to him and rest.