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.


The Reverse of the Curse

January 17, 2014

In many ways, Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22 serve as the bookends to the Bible. The new Jerusalem of Revelation has Garden of Eden imagery. The earthly paradise of the Garden of Eden is found in Genesis 2-3. In both places the Tree of Life is found. The curse because of sin (Genesis 3) finds its reverse in the making of all things new in Revelation 21. I used the phrase, the reverse of the curse, in a recent lesson, and someone asked me what I meant by the curse.

When sin entered the world, God’s punishment involved a curse. The pain of woman’s childbearing was increased. Men too would experience pain laboring by the sweat of their brow and finding thistles and thorns (see Genesis 3:16-19). The greatest curse, of course, is death: “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19 ESV).

Paul reflects on the problems sin has caused.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18–23, ESV)

Creation is personified in this passage, which is also common in the Old Testament. The important thing to note is the creation was subjected to futility, and this subjection to futility has led to a lot of groaning.

Humanity was intended to have dominion over the earth (Genesis 1:26), and there is still a sense in which we do. We are stewards of God’s creation. Yet, the point of these passages seems to be this: because humanity rebelled against God, God made the creation “rebel” against humanity. We experience thistles, thorns, and weeds. We experience droughts, storms, and calamities. We can only ponder how different life in the Garden of Eden would have been. But the frustrations, calamities, and the decay of death are our present experiences of this curse.
Because of the death of Christ, God will some day make all things new: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 ESV) In hope, we look forward to the reverse of the curse.


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.