Text: Romans 3:21-26
We’ve been discussing justification by faith these last few weeks, with a special emphasis on Romans chapter 3. Last week we set up the “problem” with a discussion of sin and the role of the law in revealing sin. This week we move to the next component, which is really the central component, the justice of God. As we will see, the righteousness of God which is revealed in justification is both His righteousness and the righteousness by which we are declared righteous. The two are the same in Christ so that God may be righteous in declaring His people righteous, the just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Our justification is also God’s justification, as in it He demonstrates His righteousness.
This word righteousness is very important in the book of Romans, and right in the first chapter we read that “in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17). But as obviously important and central as this word “righteousness” is, its meaning has been the source of considerable controversy. To begin, you should know that the English words “righteous” and “justice” are the same word in both Hebrew and Greek. Furthermore, the term “justification” shares this same root, and so “justification” can also be translated “vindication” or “rectification.” While each of these terms has slightly different connotations and emphases, they all come together in the biblical word for righteousness.
But beyond the definition of the word, there have been two interpretations of the expression “the righteousness of God.” Some readers have taken it to refer to God’s own attribute of righteousness, which would mean that “the righteousness of God” in justification is the way in which God acts and judges. He does so fairly and rightly. Others, however, have read the expression as “the righteousness from God” and understood it to mean a righteousness which God gives to His people. It would be this righteousness “from” God that is then the basis of justification for the Christian. They are given something from God which then secures their justification.
Martin Luther felt precisely this tension as he worked through the doctrine of justification, and he explains what the two interpretations meant to him:
I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God,” which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as referring to formal or active justice, as they call it, i.e., that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.
… I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which he makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. (Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Works ((1545)))
Luther took that second option, understanding “the righteousness of God” to be a righteousness which comes from God and is given to believers. This righteousness of God, then, is the miraculous way by which sinful humans can be declared just in the sight of God. It is a free gift of grace and the miracle of our salvation. For Luther, taking the expression this way made all the difference.
The Two Are One
Now I love Luther and believe that his role in the Reformation was a monumental and essential one. I believe that he was a man chosen by God to change the world and rescue the church. I am not at all interested in marginalizing Luther in some sophisticated “progress of history” sort of way. And yet, for all that, I don’t think Luther quite got it right here. He rightly noted the tension between the two interpretations, but I think he stopped too soon. As I have argued and as I will attempt to explain in more detail, these two interpretations really come together as one. While the justice of God is certainly “given” to believers, thus making them “just,” it remains the case that God’s own character is being explained and defended by the Apostle Paul. God’s own righteousness must be demonstrated for our salvation to be complete.
This becomes clear in Romans 3, especially verses 22 and 26. Let’s review that passage:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe…
Notice that this “righteousness of God” is revealed, and it is revealed “to all and on all” who believe.” Consider that. It is revealed to all who believe. They see it. And it is revealed on them. It appears in and through their salvation. It is said to do this “apart from the law.” “The Law and the Prophets” gave witness to this righteousness, but they did not reveal it. This all would support the position that the “righteousness of God” is something that God gives to His people through the work of Jesus. While the Old Covenant had surely revealed God’s character, it had not provided the justice required for human salvation. It had proclaimed it, but it had not made it manifest in the lives of God’s people.
But then keep reading:
God set forth [Christ Jesus] as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Clearly God’s own character is being described here, as Paul says that God had “passed over the sins that were previously committed” until this present time. This doesn’t mean that God never made any judgments in the Old Covenant, but it clearly means that He waited to pour out the fullness of His wrath, the entirety of divine justice. He waited for the incarnation of Christ and the death on the cross at Calvary to fully “demonstrate His righteousness.” And he did this for a reason: “that He might be just and the justifier.” God chose to work this way so that He could maintain His own righteousness. There could be no unjustness, no failing to punish evil, and no favoritism. But God also did it this way so that he could be “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God had to punish evil, but He also desired to save His people.
So we see that Luther was indeed right to read “the righteousness of God” as the special gift of the New Covenant, the grace of the work of Christ. And yet this gracious gift, given to us, is nonetheless still united to God’s own righteousness, His just treatment of sin and His upholding the equity of all creation. God could not deny Himself, and yet He swore to save His people. This meant that He would have to do something dramatic. He would have to take matters into His own hands.
Justice And Justification At The Cross
This idea of uniting God’s justice with His salvation goes back to the Old Covenant. In fact, it goes back to the idea of “covenant” itself. Once God swore to take a people unto Himself, their salvation became part and parcel to God’s faithfulness to that promise. In other words, their salvation became a matter of justice.
David writes in Psalm 31:1, “In You, O Lord, I put my trust; let me never be ashamed; deliver me in Your righteousness.” Notice that God’s righteousness is the vehicle of salvation, and it does so because David put his trust in God. Again, Psalm 143 he says, “Hear my prayer, O Lord, give ear to my supplications! In Your faithfulness answer me, and in Your righteousness. David goes on to plead for mercy, “Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no one living is righteous” (Psalm 143:2), and so there can be no thought that God delivers David because David is righteous. No, God delivers David because God is righteous. He had chosen David and promised to make him king and preserve his life. Psalm 85, a song which Israel’s past forgiveness but current state of oppression says this, “Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him… mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed” (Psalm 85:9-10). In other words, the psalm is saying, we know how God works. He is always both merciful and just at the same time. Fear Him.
This is ultimately fulfilled in the cross of Christ where Jesus is “set forth” by God “as a propitiation by His blood.” The word propitiation means the satisfaction of wrath, and we must remember that “wrath” is here a legal term and not merely an emotional one. Curiously, the text says that God “passed over the sins that were previously committed”? What could this mean? We know that it doesn’t mean that God never punished sinners in the Old Covenant. He did so often. What it means is that He provided a temporary “postponement” of justice in order to prepare the way for true salvation. He did not require the true wages of sin immediately. God allowed sinners to live and to experience the benefits of forgiveness apart from the satisfaction from justice.
But what about those all those animal sacrifices and the temple? Didn’t those bring forgiveness? No. Hebrews 10 says, “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). Those sacrifices were “a shadow of good things to come” (Heb. 10:1). They always and only symbolized the work which God would do in the future, and that future became now at the cross. “The present time” is the 1st century, immediately after Christ’s death, and it continues throughout the New Covenant wherever the gospel goes. God’s righteousness continues to be demonstrated as we preach this message. God demonstrated His justice in the death of Christ, when “He who knew no sin became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). And in this one divine act, God was shown to be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
All of salvation history, from the Garden of Eden onward, was working together in a consistent way to bring us to Calvary. We have to understood this if we are to rightly understand the Bible, and if we are to rightly understand the work of Christ on our behalf. In fact, even the punishments and judgments of history were consistent parts of God’s plan to bring us all right where He wanted us. He shut us up under judgment so that He might show us His righteousness and His mercy, all at once.
And so what does this mean for us today? The first is that God is indeed righteous. He always acts justly. He always does what is right. And while it is true that God Himself defines what is right, it is also true that He has revealed that standard to us and promised to hold Himself to it. Thus it is not a tautology to speak of God being just, and His actions in history were therefore necessary to demonstrate His righteousness. Our God is not a liar. He is not inconsistent. And He is not unfair. Not even when He saves us.
Secondly, we see the solution to our guilt. What can you do when, in your search for justice, you discover that you are yourself unjust? What recourse do you have if you are the bad guy? A sinner in the hand of an angry God can only be saved by one thing—that same God. And that’s what happened at the cross. God gave Himself on our behalf. Jesus is God, you know. And while He is also the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, Trinitarian theology explains that God the Father beget His entire nature in birthing the Son and so, mysteriously, the two are both fully and wholly God. Jesus is God in a unique mode of existence, but He is, as Colossians 2:9 says, the fullness of the Godhead. Thus God took the punishment we deserved in order to satisfy His own justice.
Thirdly, this is the solution to the world’s guilt and the universal cry for justice. God settled all accounts at the cross, and the fact that Jesus took on divine wrath is in fact the reason that we can give up our personal wrath. It is the reason that we do not get to take vengeance. It is the reason that we are to love our enemies. While we should respect law and order and are allowed to seek political and civil remuneration, we must never confuse these things with final and ultimate justice. This is true because earthly justice is, by definition, limited and imperfect. It isn’t useless, but can only do so much, and so we must guard our hearts to never confuse earthly courts with divine judgment. There is coming a day when all deeds will be brought to light and everyone will get what they deserve. You can find comfort in that. And of course, the way to avoid bearing the brunt of ultimate justice then is to place your faith in Christ now.
This satisfaction made by Christ continues to be effective on our behalf, even when we do our very best to mess it all up. Justification by faith does not mean that you are justified because you were good enough to believe. “Faith” is not some sort of really easy work. No, even if your faith is weak and wavering. Even if you stumble time and time again. Even if you don’t understand it all and you don’t know exactly how you feel on the inside. Even if all of these imperfections are in your life, believing in Jesus means believing that God took care of things. The Cross is where the work was done, and this should bring you an invincible assurance. You are not putting faith in your faith but rather in the cross. And as we have said before, this means faith in God, that He is Who He says He is and that He can do what He has promised.
This is the exclusive way for guilt to be taken care of. There are no other options. Nothing can be added. There aren’t even any mechanisms or other systems which are attached to this or by which the atonement is mediated to you. No, it’s just God. Believe. You see, if we add anything to this story, we are not only attempting to put “works” on our side that need to be done, but we are also saying that the work which God did was insufficient. In doing this, we fail to justify God. We rob Him of His righteousness. And what sort of righteousness can a person ever hope to have if they are denying the righteousness of God? None. Works righteousness is a non-starter. It fails before it ever begins.
So people of God, put your trust in Christ and only in Christ. He is the site of God’s justice and of your justification. Believe. Believe and fear. God is just. Believe and rest. God is the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Believe.