The question I would like to try to answer tonight from the Bible is “Did Christ die for us or for God?” My text is Romans 3:25-26:
God put Christ 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.
What this text teaches is that Christ died to vindicate the righteousness of God, so that he could declare the guilty to be without being himself unrighteous. Which means he died for God’s glory — that is, he died to show the true value of God’s glory which man’s sin had degraded. This death “for God” is the foundation of his death for us.
One of the reasons it is hard to communicate such biblical reality to modern, secular people is that the biblical mindset and the secular mindset move out from radically different starting points.
What I mean by the secular mindset is not necessarily a mindset that rules God out, or denies in principle that the Bible is true. It’s a mindset that begins with man as the basic given reality in the universe. All of its thinking starts with the assumption that man is central and supremely important, and has basic rights and basic needs and expectations. Then the secular mind moves out from this center and interprets the world, with man and his rights and needs as the measure of all things.
This is the mindset we were born with — all of us — and that our secular society reinforces virtually every hour of the day in our lives. It is so much a part of us that we hardly even know it’s there. We just take it for granted — until it collides with another mindset, namely the one in the Bible.
“God, not man, is the center of reality.”
The biblical mindset starts with the assumption that God, not man, is the center of reality. All biblical thinking starts with the assumption that God has basic rights as the Creator of all things. He has goals that fit with his nature and perfect character. Then the biblical mindset moves out from this center and interprets the world with God and his rights and goals as the measure of all things.
If you start with man and his rights and wants, rather than starting with the Creator and his rights and goals, the problems you see in the universe will be very different. Is the basic riddle of the universe how to preserve man’s rights and solve his problems (say, the right of self-determination and the problem of suffering)? Or is the basic riddle of the universe how an infinitely worthy God in complete freedom can display the full range of his perfections — what Paul calls the “riches of his glory” (Romans 9:23) — his holiness and power and wisdom and justice and wrath and goodness and truth and grace?
How you answer that question has profound effects. It will radically affect the way you understand the central event of human history, the death of Jesus, the Son of God.
The Death of Jesus and the Secular Mind
I introduce our text (Romans 3:25–26) with these thoughts on the power of our starting points because the deepest problem that the death of Jesus was designed to solve is virtually incomprehensible to the secular mindset. And the Christian mindset has been so influenced by the natural, secular mindset that even Christians can barely comprehend how God-centered the cross of Christ is.
So let’s go to Romans 3:25–26 to see what one scholar calls “the innermost meaning of the cross.”
We are going beneath the issue of justification and reconciliation and forgiveness to the bottom and foundation of it all — to what C.E.B. Cranfield calls “the innermost meaning of the cross” (213).
What you should listen for as we read this text again is this: What is the problem in the universe that the God aims to solve through the death of Christ? How does it differ from the problems that the secular mindset says God has to solve? Romans 3:25:
God put Christ 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.
Boil that down to the most basic problem the death of Christ is meant to solve. God put Christ forward (he sent him to die) in order to demonstrate his righteousness (or justice). So the problem that needed solving was that God, for some reason, seemed to be unrighteous.
“God’s righteousness is at stake. Before the cross can be for our sake, it must be for God’s sake.”
So, in sending Christ, God aimed to vindicate his righteousness and clear his name. “God put Christ forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness.” That is the basic issue. God’s righteousness is at stake. His name or reputation or honor must be vindicated. In other words before the cross can be for our sake, it must be for God’s sake.
We Created the Problem
But what created that problem? Why did God face the problem of needing to give a public vindication of his righteousness? The answer is in the last phrase of verse 25: “because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.”
Now what does that mean? It means that for centuries God had been doing what Psalm 103:10 says, “He does not deal with us according to our sins or repay us according to our iniquities.” He has been passing over thousands of sins. He has been forgiving them and letting them go and not punishing them.
King David is a good example. In 2 Samuel 12, he is confronted by the prophet Nathan for committing adultery with Bathsheba and then having her husband Uriah killed. Nathan says, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord?” (2 Samuel 12:9).
David feels the rebuke of Nathan, and in verse 13 he says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” To this, Nathan responds, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Just like that! Adultery and murder are “passed over.” It is almost incredible. Our sense of justice screams out, “No! You can’t just let it go like that. Put yourself in the position of Bathsheba’s or Uriah’s father! A daughter is raped. A son is murdered, and God is going to “pass over it”!? David deserves to die or be imprisoned for life! Surely to be dethroned! But Nathan does not say that. He says, “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
That is what Paul means in Romans 3:25 by the passing over of sins previously committed. But why is that a problem? Is it felt as a problem by the secular mindset? Does the world feel the problem that God is good to sinners — that he is merciful to sinners? How many people outside the scope of biblical influence wrestle with the problem that God is good to sinners — that is, a holy and righteous God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45)? How many wrestle with the apparent injustice that God is lenient with sinners? How many Christians wrestle with the fact that their own forgiveness is a threat to the righteousness of God?
The secular mindset does not even assess the situation the way the biblical mindset does. Why is that? It’s because the secular mindset thinks from a radically different starting point. It does not start with the rights of God — the right to uphold and display the infinite worth of his righteousness and glory. It starts with man and assumes that God will conform to our rights and wishes.
Infinite Worth Despised
But what is really at stake in all the sins that God has passed over?
Notice verse 23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” What’s at stake in sinning is the glory of God. When Nathan confronts David, he quotes God in 2 Samuel 12:10 as saying, “Why have you despised me?” We could imagine David saying, “What do you mean, I despised you? I didn’t despise you. I wasn’t even thinking of you. I was just overcome by the beauty of this woman Bathsheba and then scared to death that people were going to find out. You weren’t even in the picture.”
And God would have said something like, “The Creator of the universe was not in the picture! The designer of marriage, the fountain of life, the one who holds you in being, the one who made you king — that one, I the Lord, was not even in the picture! That’s right, David. That’s exactly what I mean. You despised me. You belittled me. You trampled my word and my glory in the dirt.”
“All sin is a despising of God, before it is a damage to man.”
All sin is a despising of God, before it is a damage to man. All sin is a preference for the fleeting pleasures of the world over the everlasting joy of God’s fellowship. David demeaned God’s glory. He belittled God’s worth. He dishonored God’s name. That is the essence of sin — failing to love God’s glory above everything else. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
Therefore, the deepest problem when God passes over sin is that God seems to agree with those who despise his name and belittle his glory. He seems to be saying it is a matter of indifference that his glory is spurned. He seems to condone the low assessment of his worth. God seems to join the lie about his beauty and value and greatness. He seems to say, “You are right in choosing other treasures over me. I am not great. I am not beautiful. I am not glorious.” That’s what it would mean for God to be unrighteous—to act in a way that accords with that lie.
Punishment Fits the Crime
Suppose a group of terrorist plot to assassinate the President of the United States and his whole cabinet, and almost succeed. Their bombs destroy part of the White House and kill some staff, but the President narrowly escapes. The terrorists are caught, and the court finds them guilty.
But the terrorists say they are sorry, and so a judge suspends their sentences and releases them. Now what would that communicate to the world about the value of the President’s life and the importance of his governance? It would communicate that they are of little value.
That is what God’s passing over of sin seems to communicate about God: God’s glory and his righteous governance is of minor value, or no value. He is dishonored. The natural mind — the secular mind — however, does not see or feel this problem. What secular person loses any sleep over the apparent unrighteousness of God’s kindness to sinners!? But according to Romans 3 this is the most basic problem that God solved by the death of his Son. Let’s read it again. Romans 3:25-26:
God put Christ 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.
God would be unrighteous if he passed over sins as though the value of his glory were nothing. God saw his glory being despised by sinners (like David) — he saw his worth belittled and his name dishonored by our sins — and rather than vindicating the worth of his glory by slaying his people (which he could have done justly), he vindicated his glory by slaying his Son.
God could have settled accounts by punishing all sinners with hell. Perfect justice would have been done. This would have demonstrated that he does not minimize our falling short of his glory — our belittling his honor. But God did not choose to destroy us. He chose to save us. Indeed,
God did not send the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17).
This truth, we know well. Christians know that God is for us. We know that our salvation is his goal in sending Jesus. But do we know the foundation of it all? Do we know that there is a deeper goal in sending the Son? Do we know that God’s love for us depends on a deeper love, namely, God’s love for his glory?
God Loves His Glory Before He Loves Us
Do we know that God’s passion to save sinners rests on a deeper passion, namely, God’s passion to vindicate his righteousness? Do we realize that the accomplishment of our salvation does not rest on our value, but on the value of God’s glory. The vindication of God’s glory is the ground of our salvation (Romans 3:25-6), and the exaltation of God’s glory is the goal of our salvation. As Paul said in another place,
Christ has become a servant to the circumcised . . . in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. (Romans 15:8-9).
Someone may ask, “How can it be loving for God to be so self-exalting in the work of the cross? If he is really exalting his own glory and vindicating his own righteousness, then how is the cross really an act of love to us?”
I fear the question betrays a common secular mindset with man at the center. It assumes that for us to be loved, God must make us the center. He must make our value supreme. If our worth is not accented then we are not loved. The secular mindset says, “If our value is not the ground of the cross then we are not esteemed. If God’s honor is primary, then we are not loved.”
The biblical mindset, however, is radically different. It affirms the very opposite. The cross is indeed the pinnacle of God’s love for sinners. But this is not because it demonstrates the value of sinners, but because it vindicates the value of God for sinners to enjoy. Don’t miss that: It vindicates the value of God for sinners to enjoy!
God’s love for man does not consist in making man central, but in making himself central for man. The cross does not direct man’s attention to our own vindicated worth. It directs our attention to God’s vindicated righteousness.
“God’s love for man does not consist in making man central, but in making himself central for man.”
But this is precisely what love is! This is love because the only full and everlasting happiness of man is a happiness focused on the riches of God’s glory.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
God’s self-exaltation is loving because it preserves for us, and offers to us, the only all-satisfying Object of desire in the universe — the all-glorious, all-righteous God.
The End of Self-Exaltation, the Foundation of Joy
The root reason for why the cross is foolishness to the world is that it means the end of human self-exaltation, and a radical commitment to God-exaltation. Or maybe a better way to say it is this: The cross of Christ is a call to radical joy in the supreme value of God. The cross is the death of our demand to be loved by being made the center. And it is the birth of joy in God’s being made the center.
Test yourself. What is your mindset? Do you begin with God and his rights and goals? Or do you begin with yourself and your rights and wishes?
And when you look at the cross, why does it make you happy? Is it because you think your value is being exalted? Or is it because God’s righteousness and God’s infinite value is being vindicated? Does your joy arise because you are central? Or is it your joy that God is central — that God has saved you to enjoy his glory forever?
I appeal to you with all my heart, look away from yourself. Look at the cross of Christ. What do you see? I pray that you will see God’s love for you. Not because he makes you central. But because he vindicates — he magnifies — his own righteousness and glory for you to enjoy as your supreme treasure forever and ever.
Did Christ die for us or for God? He died first for God, that is, to repair the injury we have done to the glory of God. And on the basis of that, he died for us. That is, he died so that, in spite of our sin, we might enjoy God forever, as our all-satisfying treasure.
Build your hope on this, and it will never fail.