How Is It Right to Justify the Ungodly?
At the heart of our gospel there is a truth which at first glance offends the judicial sense of perceptive people. That judicial sense is expressed by the Old Testament wise man in Proverbs 17:15, which says, "He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike—an abomination to the Lord" (cf. Proverbs 24:24). We unseat judges with indignation who acquit the guilty. Our moral sensibility is outraged when wrong and guilt are given legal sanction. Yet at the heart of our gospel stands the sentence: God justifies the ungodly who trust in him. God acquits the guilty. That is the gospel! But how can it be right for God to do that?
Why Should We Ponder This Question?
Someone might say, "Don't concern yourself with why God is right to do what he does. If he says he does it, just trust that it is right. Don't doubt your maker." Now I admire such strong confidence in God's righteousness. And it is true that God is vastly wiser and higher and deeper than we are, so that what looks wrong to us at first glance may be right, when all that God knows is taken into account. But the desire to know how it can be right for God to acquit the guilty does not necessarily flow from doubt. There are at least two other motives that move us to ask this question.
One is the hunger to admire the depth of God's wisdom. When you admire a physiologist's insight into the mysteries of the human body, your questions, "How can this be? How can that be?" don't necessarily come from doubt. They may come from the sheer delight we get from seeing the amazing intricacy of the way our bodies work. I consider it a very important sign that a person loves God, if he desires to know God better, to see ever more deeply into his heart so as to admire and worship and enjoy God more intensely.
The other motive for wanting to know how it is right for God to justify the ungodly is the desire to remove as many unnecessary stumbling blocks as possible that hinder our reasonable approval of God's way of acting. The desire to exonerate God is not bad, so long as we don't distort his truth just to make him palatable to worldly minded people. If God has revealed the whys and wherefores of his action, then we should not hesitate to spell these out to help people see and heartily and reasonably approve of God's wisdom and righteousness.
It is obvious from Romans 3:21–26 that God has revealed an answer to our question and, therefore, must want us to consider it. That's what I want us to do now in preparation for our communion service. Let's follow Paul's thought here in these several verses.
The Problem of God's Righteousness
Up to verse 21 of Romans 3, Paul has shown that all men are under sin and accountable before God. (That has also been the point of our last two Sunday morning messages.) Now Paul turns his attention to the remedy of their universal disease of sin and judgment. "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." This is the best news in all the world for us who feel our guilt before God and know that our righteousness is wholly inadequate to win God's favor.
The good news is that God, in his great love, has made a righteousness available to all who find their confidence for life in Jesus Christ. We cannot work for this gift so as to earn it, merit it, or deserve it; but it is there for everyone who hopes in Christ. Romans 4:4, 5 make this plain: "To the one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work (i.e., does not try to earn, merit, or deserve God's gift) but instead trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness." The good news is that there is free acquittal for the guilty who stop trying to impress God and men but instead rest in Jesus. There is no human drug or salve that can ease the guilty conscience like this truth can. O how I hope you take it for yourself and set out from this place with Christ clean today.
But now this tremendously good news created a problem for the apostle Paul, which, with God's help, he deals with in verses 24–26. Verse 24 says, "They are justified by his grace as a gift," but it doesn't stop there. It goes deeper and gives the basis or foundation of justification. The acquittal of the guilty takes place on the basis of a divine transaction that happens in the experience of Jesus Christ. This transaction is called a "redemption" in verse 24, that is, a purchase or a ransom. Something happened in the death of Jesus that is so stupendous that it now serves as the basis for the acquittal of millions and millions of sinners who trust Christ. What was it that happened?
Paul gives the answer in verses 25 and 26: "God put Christ forward as an expiation (or 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."
Here we see the problem that the justification of the ungodly caused for Paul. God's righteousness is called into question by his passing over of sins. God is now passing over the sins of those who trust Jesus and chapter 4, verses 6–8, show that he has been doing the same thing for generations to those who trust him. "So also David pronounces a blessing on the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon his sin." God had passed over sins of old when he justified Abraham and David by faith, and now he is passing over the sins of all who trust in Jesus. And because of this Paul says, in verse 25, God's righteousness is called into question, so that he must demonstrate his righteousness by putting Christ forward as an expiation through his blood.
But why is God's righteousness called into question when he passes over sins and justifies the ungodly? The reason is not that this will confirm sinners in their wickedness and perpetuate their sinning. It was evident from last Sunday's message that saving faith always transforms the sinner. God always sanctifies those whom he justifies. Therefore, the acquittal of the guilty does not turn rapists back onto the street, it results in transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit (which is what I want to talk about next Sunday). So the justification of the ungodly does not call God's righteousness into question because it might perpetuate sinning. The real reason, I think, is that sin is always a depreciation of God's glory, and therefore God's passing over it looks as if he is agreeing that his glory is of no value. It makes God look as if he is not being true to himself. It makes God look as if he no longer aims to display his glory or preserve his honor. But if God denies his own infinite value, then not only is he untrue to himself but also the glory for which his people have hoped is devalued of its ultimate worth. That would be the ultimate outrage and the height of unrighteousness.
The reason I think it is this horrible prospect that calls God's righteousness into question is that in Romans 3:23 and 1:21 the essence of sin appears to be a refusal to glorify or honor God. Verse 23 says, "All have sinned and fall short of (or lack) the glory of God." Romans 1:21–23 explains what this means, "Although men knew God, they did not glorify him as God or thank him . . . Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles." Natural man always delights more in the glory of created things than he does in God's glory. And in that, he exchanges God's glory and therefore lacks, or falls short of it.
Therefore, when God passes over sin that so belittles his glory, it looks as if he regards his glory as worthless. But it would be wrong for God not to preserve his honor and not to display his glory. He would be unrighteous to act this way. That is the heart of Paul's problem with the justification of the ungodly. It makes God look as if he no longer values his glory, by acquitting people who have trampled it in the dirt.
The Vindication of God's Righteousness
His solution, in a word, is the death of Christ. According to verse 25, God put Christ forward as an expiation "by his blood," i.e., by his death. How could God maintain the value of his own glory and thus be righteous, and yet justify the ungodly whose sin has belittled and depreciated that glory? The answer given in verses 25 and 26 is: by sending Christ to die and thus demonstrate the righteousness of God. But how did the death of the Son of God demonstrate God's righteousness, that is, his faithfulness to the value of his own glory?
Paul doesn't spell this out for us in detail, but I think we can put the pieces together briefly like this. We know from other Scriptures that everything Jesus did in life and death he did for the glory of his Father. For example, as Jesus approaches the hour of his death, he says, "Now is my soul troubled, and what shall I say, 'Father save me from the hour?' No! For this purpose I have come to this hour: Father glorify thy name" (John 12:27, 28). Then when Judas had left the Last Supper and Jesus' death was imminent, he said, "Now is the Son of Man glorified and in him God is glorified" (John 13:31). Finally, in Jesus' great prayer in John 17, he views his death as virtually complete and says: "I have glorified you (Father) upon the earth having accomplished the work you gave me to do" (17:4).
What we see from these texts is that everything Jesus suffered, he suffered for the sake of God's glory. Therefore, all his pain and shame and humiliation and dishonor served to magnify the Father's glory, because it shows how infinitely worthy God's glory is that such a loss should be suffered for his sake. When we look at the wracking death of the perfectly innocent and infinitely worthy Son of God on the cross and hear that he endured it all that the glory of his Father might be restored, then we know that God has not denied the value of his own glory, he has not been untrue to himself, he has not ceased to uphold his honor and display his glory, he is righteous. The awful death of the Son is the means whereby the Father can be both righteous himself and the one who justifies the ungodly who have faith in Jesus.
It is a glorious thought. The foundation of our justification is not a flimsy sentimentality. It is the massive rock of God's unassailable righteousness demonstrated in the death and certified in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. May the Word give deep root and strength to our faith as we commemorate our Lord's death together.