Just and Justifier

April 6, 2018

God forgives sins, right? The answer is, of course, yes. But I fear that many people have mistaken notions about forgiveness. One faulty idea is akin to balancing scales. If I have more good deeds than bad deeds, then the scales are in my favor, and God should forgive me. I’m a pretty good person after all. If my bad deeds outweigh my good deeds, then I’m in trouble and subject to judgment. But in this faulty idea, only really bad people have to worry about this.

The problem is that this is not the biblical view. Sin separates me from God. If I imagine my sin as a debt, then I must also imagine all of my good deeds as something I already owe. My good deeds are not extra credit that a teacher assigns to help students get a passing grade. My good deeds are not extra funds which I can place in an account that is overdrawn.

But the problem goes deeper. We must ponder how a just God can forgive sins. Is it as easy as we might first think? Imagine someone accused of a crime who opts to have the trial by judge rather than a jury. All of the evidence is presented, and it is quite overwhelming that the accused is guilty. But when the judge comes to sentencing, he declares the accused as not guilty. How would we respond to such a thing? Wouldn’t there be an outcry that justice had not been done? Wouldn’t the judge be accused of being unjust, and maybe the newspapers would investigate whether a bribe had taken place. The public would question the character of the judge.

In Romans 3:21-26, Paul uses three terms to explain the death of Christ. Justified comes from the realm of the law court. To be justified is to receive a favorable verdict, to be in right standing. Redemption is a marketplace word. It is to purchase something or in the case of the ancient world, someone out of slavery. The redemption in Christ is like a new Exodus from slavery — in this case slavery from sin. The third term is propitiation. It comes from the realm of the temple. It was a sacrifice that averts the wrath of God. Paul’s point is that Christ has done something in dying on the cross to make it possible for God to forgive sins.

This leads to Paul’s statement in 3:26: “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 3:26, ESV). In other words, without the death of Christ God could not be the just judge and forgive sins. The penalty had to be dealt with. The redemption price had to be paid. The sacrifice had to be offered. But in doing this in Christ, God could maintain his justice and yet be the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus. God could forgive. He could render the favorable verdict without it compromising his character as in my story of the unjust judge.

Popular understandings of forgiveness are faulty. We must learn the biblical view and help others to see this view. Forgiveness is not possible without the death of Christ, and receiving forgiveness is not possible without faith in Jesus and all that it entails (ponder “obedience of faith,” Romans 1:5, 16:26).


Bruises, Sores, and Raw Wounds

September 2, 2016

As Isaiah looked around at the people of his day, he saw a generation that was trusting in self not God. They were rebellious, abandoning God, and even despising him. While outwardly religious, they continued in an evil lifestyle. The result was a mass of hurting people. He addresses them as “a people laden with iniquity” (Isaiah 1:4).

Why will you still be struck down?
Why will you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.

From the sole of the foot even to the head,
there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
and raw wounds;
they are not pressed out or bound up
or softened with oil. (Isaiah 1:5–6, ESV)

Isaiah experienced the distress of trying to warn people who were going the wrong way. Immorality has a way of leading to pain and brokenness. How often his pleas seemingly fell on deaf ears!

Isaiah described the people of his day as “people who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). That has a very modern ring to it. While people declare that they decide what is right and wrong, violations of God’s moral will continue to result in brokenness.

But Isaiah also had hope. Though we may mess up our lives until we are like a wounded person there is still hope for us with God.

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool. (Isaiah 1:18, ESV)

The message rings out loud and clear: without God there is brokenness, with him there is healing. When we find ourselves wounded and bruised by our own willfulness — sitting in the mess we have created, let us run to the Father just as the prodigal son did. May we find that in him there is forgiveness and healing.


To Have a Second Chance!

August 15, 2016

She felt herself being carried along by the mob, like driftwood bobbing on the waves. The most intimate of human moments—and one that she definitely had hoped would always be a secret—had now become glaringly public. She had barely grabbed her clothes. She felt and looked disheveled.

And where was he? Her friend. Her lover. Her downfall. Why did it suddenly look like he was a co-conspirator in destroying her life? The forbidden fruit that had looked so alluring was beginning to taste bitter. She cried. But tears to a mob are but one more thing to taunt.

She feared for her life. No legal court would have executed her. The Romans had reserved that power for themselves. But would the mob that had burst into her life play by those rules. Anyway she thought, she might as well be dead. Her life was ruined.

She overheard them, “If he sides with Moses, we’ll condemn him to the Romans. And if he sides with the Romans, we’ll condemn him to the people.” They looked so pompous—they had their large, scripture-box phylacteries and long blue tassels on their garments. They, the powerful, had trapped her to be the bait in a bigger trap. So the kangaroo-court of a mob made its way to Jesus.

“Teacher,” the spokesman began, “this woman was caught in the very act of adultery.” You could hear the sneer in his voice and see the look of contempt. He continued, “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such a one. What do you have to say concerning her?”

The air was charged with tension, but Jesus stooping down wrote on the ground. They continued to prod with their question. Jesus stood and said, “Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone at her.”

She flinched thinking it was all over. She had wasted her life. She waited for the first stone. A stone that didn’t come as they all left from the oldest to the youngest.

Jesus looking up said, “Women, where are they? Does no one condemn you?”

Having acknowledged his question, she could hardly believe his reply, “Neither do I condemn you. Go—from now on—sin no more!”

To have a second chance! Forgiveness! Good news!

Postscript: I’ve used my imagination to picture the scene — to think about what it might have been like. But let me encourage you to read John 8:3-11. What does it feel like to have a second chance?


The Death of Christ

December 6, 2013

“For the wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23) Physical death is the consequence of sin entering the world. Because of sin we are spiritually “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) outside of Christ. And if left uncorrected, this leads to eternal separation from God, what Revelation calls “the second death” (Revelation 21:8).

Someone may ask, “Why can’t God just forgive us? Why should anyone die on account of sin, including Jesus?”

In explaining the meaning of the death of Christ, Paul states: “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 3:26, ESV). God’s own character is at stake in this business of forgiveness.

Suppose a defendant has a trial before a judge. All the evidence points to the defendant being a criminal worthy of punishment, but the judge lets him off. We would not consider such a judge to be just. We would question his character.

In the same way, God’s own justice demanded a substitute, a sacrifice. Paul uses three key terms in his explanation of the death of Christ (Romans 3:21-26): justified, redemption, and propitiation (the NIV’s “sacrifice of atonement”).

Propitiation is a sacrifice that averts wrath. Such a sacrifice satisfies the laws demands. It also involves substitution. The substitute takes our place and receives the wages of sin in our behalf.

Redemption is the payment of a price to set someone free. The debt owed is the wages of sin, which would lead to our eternal punishment. In the death of Christ, he paid our debt.

Justified is a law court term, the rendering of a favorable verdict. The charges are dropped against us in Christ, not because we are innocent, but because the demands of the law have been satisfied by our substitute. The debt we owe has been paid.

Humanity has a sin problem. If uncorrected, it leads to eternal separation from God. It even posed a problem for God: how to remain just and yet forgive. These problems find their solution in the death of Christ.


What Jesus Means to Me

April 22, 2011

Jesus is the wisdom of God. I probably would not have called it wisdom as I was first coming to know Jesus. The more common phrase would be moral teaching. But it may very well be that Jesus attracts us at this beginning point, and we begin to connect with him.

The moral teachings are accessible. Even a child can understand the basics. The greatest command is to love God with all of our being. The second greatest command is to love our neighbor as ourself. We need to control our anger. We shouldn’t lie. Jesus teaches us a simple beginner’s prayer. We need to trust God as our heavenly Father. We must build our house on the rock, and not be like the foolish man who builds his house on the sand.

As we mature, it may hit us how challenging some of these teachings are. To love our enemies is not an easy task. To go the second mile may chafe us like an ill-fitting suit. We may also grasp that Jesus is the wisdom of God because he has come from the Father. Jesus is the one who has come down from heaven to reveal God. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus is Immanuel — God with us.

Jesus is the gift of God. At a young age I learned “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.” Jesus died for my sins.

To understand those words, we must come to accept that God is holy. The basic human problem is sin — moral failure. My moral failings estrange me from God. They lead to my spiritual death if not forgiven. Forgiveness is possible because of a life sacrificed in my place. Jesus is that sacrifice, that offering.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Seen by witnesses and predicted by prophecy, the resurrection is also God’s great affirmation of Jesus. Sin and death are conquered. New creation has begun. In Christ, I am a new creation having been born again of the Holy Spirit. With God’s help, a moral transformation is at work in my life. The same Spirit will raise me from the dead giving me a resurrection body or transform me in the blinking of an eye if I’m alive at Jesus’ coming. Because of Jesus we experience new life now, and we look forward to resurrection and life with God for eternity.

Jesus is wisdom, a gift, and life. And Jesus is so much more. Jesus means much to me. What does Jesus mean to you?


The Payment

March 15, 2011

Have you ever borrowed money? It is almost silly question in our culture. My son and daughter started receiving credit card applications (which I promptly shredded) before they had even graduated high school. We understand what it means to receive a good or service and yet have the payment for that good or service delayed.

Most of the time the payments start the very next month. On a few occasions, the delay may even be longer. I’ve seen furniture stores advertising no payments until the next year. You use your furniture and maybe even spill things on your furniture for the first time before the initial payment comes due.

That analogy helps me understand forgiveness in the Old Testament. Clearly, sinners felt great relief in forgiveness. Observe Psalm 32.

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. ” (Psalm 32:1, ESV)

“For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. ” (Psalm 32:3, ESV)

“Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! ” (Psalm 32:11, ESV)

David could exult in the joy of forgiveness even if he didn’t completely understand what it would cost God to grant forgiveness. Paul explains the situation further in Romans 3.

“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 3:24–26, ESV)

God had passed over former sins. Passed over means “deliberate disregard, passing over, letting go unpunished” (BDAG, p. 776). If God had not dealt with the debt of sin in Jesus, it would have called into question His own justice and holiness as Paul makes clear in verse 26. God showed his righteousness “at the present time,” that is at the time of Jesus’ death. Jesus paid the debt, so that God could be both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Whether they are sins committed before the cross or after the cross, the death of Jesus is the payment for the debt of sin.