God Vindicated His Righteousness in the Death of Christ
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation 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 prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.
The Secular Mindset Vs. the Biblical Mindset
One of the reasons it is hard to communicate biblical reality to modern, secular people is that the biblical mindset and the secular mindset move from radically different starting points.
The Secular Mindset
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. So all of its thinking starts with the assumption that man has basic rights and basic needs and basic expectations or wants. 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.
What the secular mindset sees as problems are seen as problems because of how things fit or don't fit with the center—man and his rights and needs and expectations. And what this mindset sees as successes are seen as successes because they fit with man and his rights and needs and expectations.
This is the mindset we were born with and that our secular society reinforces virtually every hour of the day in our lives. Paul calls this mindset the "mind of the flesh" (Romans 8:6–7) and says that it is the way the "natural man" thinks (1 Corinthians 2:14). It is so much a part of us that we hardly even know its there. We just take it for granted—until it collides with another mindset, namely, the one in the Bible.
The Biblical Mindset
The biblical mindset is not simply one that includes God somewhere in the universe and says that the Bible is true. The biblical mindset begins with a radically different starting point, namely, God. God is the basic given reality in the universe. He was there before we were in existence—or before anything was in existence. He is simply the most absolute reality.
And so the biblical mindset starts with the assumption that God is the center of reality. All thinking, then, starts with the conviction 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 at the center as the measure of all things.
And what the biblical mindset sees as basic problems in the universe are usually not the same problems that the secular mindset sees. Because what makes a problem is not first what fits the rights and needs of man but what fits the rights and goals of God.
Focusing on God's Work Outside Ourselves
What we are trying to do in these messages leading up to Easter is to focus our attention on the great, objective, divine realities outside ourselves that God has accomplished to establish his invincible purpose of salvation. And in focusing on God's great work (rather than ours) the aim is to experience the full assurance of hope. Assurance comes not only by assessing our subjective participation in salvation but even more importantly it comes by our meditation on the objective foundation of salvation.
We have looked at God's work of election by which he chooses who will be united to Christ and come to faith (Ephesians 1:4). And we have looked at God's work of predestination rooted in the good pleasure of his will and aimed at the praise of his glory (Ephesians 1:5). And we have seen that these realities do not fit well with the secular mindset. Because if you start with man, 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.
Each Mindset Sees Different Problems
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 wealth of his glory—his holiness and power and wisdom and justice and wrath and goodness and truth and grace?
If you start with man at the center (with the natural tendencies of the human heart to assert its rights and wants), you will assess the biblical teaching of election and predestination very differently than if you start with God and with his goal to manifest all that he is so that he might be known and worshiped with a reverence and awe and joy that correspond to all that he really is in perfect proportion.
I introduce today's text with this long meditation 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. What we see in today's text is probably the clearest illustration of what I have been talking about—namely, that the man-centered secular mindset and the God-centered biblical mindset don't even see the same problems to be solved, let alone the same solutions.
We shouldn't be surprised if we find in this text that the problem God was solving by the death of his Son and the problem the secular mind likes to think he was solving are not the same.
Let's go to the text to see what I mean.
The Innermost Meaning of the Cross
Our focus today is very limited. We are going to talk about the death of Christ for three weeks, especially its power to justify the ungodly and its power to reconcile sinners to God. But today we go underneath all that to the bottom of it all—what C.E.B. Cranfield calls "the innermost meaning of the cross" (Romans, vol. 1, p. 213).
The Most Basic Problem Christ's Death Solved
It's found in verse 25 and 26. What you should look for as I read this is the problem in the universe that the biblical mindset (God's mindset) is trying to solve through the death of Christ, and how it differs from the problems that the secular mindset says God has to solve.
25) God put Christ forward as a propitiation [a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God against sinners], through faith, by his blood, for a demonstration of his righteousness, on account of his passing over sins done beforehand.
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). The problem that needed solving was that God, for some reason, seemed to be unrighteous, and wanted to vindicate himself and clear his name.
"On Account of Passing Over Sins Done Beforehand"
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: "on account of passing over sins done beforehand."
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 requite us according to our iniquities." He just passes over them. He does not punish 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 killed. Nathan says, "Why have you despised the word of the Lord?" and God says, "Why have you despised me?" (2 Samuel 12:9–10).
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 passed over.
Why Is This a Problem?
That is what Paul means in Romans 3:25 by the passing over of sins done beforehand. But why is that a problem? Is it felt as a problem by the secular mindset—that God is kind to sinners? How many people outside the scope of biblical influence wrestle with the problem that 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 problem that God is kind to sinners? How many people struggle with the fact that their own forgiveness is a threat to the righteousness of God?
The secular mindset does not even assess the problem 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 Creator rights of God to display the infinite worth of his glory. It starts with man and assumes that God will conform to his rights and wishes.
The Meaning of Sin
Look at verse 23: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." What's at stake in sinning is the glory of God. Do you remember what God said to David when he was caught in adultery? "Why have you despised ME?"
David could have said, "What do you mean, I despised you? I didn't despise you. I wasn't even thinking of you. I was just red hot after this woman and then scared to death that people were going to find out. You weren't even in the picture."
And God would have said, "The Creator of the universe, the designer of marriage, the fountain of life, the one who made you king, was not even in the picture—that's right. You despised me. All sin is a despising of me and my glory. All sin is a preference for the fleeting pleasures of the world over the everlasting joy of my fellowship. You demeaned my glory. You belittled my worth. You dishonored my name. That is the meaning of sin—failing to love my glory above everything else."
What the Passing Over of Sin Communicates
The problem in God's passing over sin (that the secular mindset does not grasp) is that God's worth and glory and righteousness have been despised, and passing over it makes him look cheap.
Suppose a group of anarchists plot to assassinate President Bush and his cabinet, and almost succeed. Their bombs destroy part of the White House and kill some staff, but the President narrowly escapes. The anarchists are caught and the court finds them guilty. But then the anarchists say they are sorry and so the court suspends their sentences and releases them. What that would communicate to the world is that the President's life and his governance of the nation are cheap.
That is what the passing over of sin communicates: God's glory and his righteous governance are cheap and worthless.
What the Secular Mindset Misses
Apart from divine revelation the natural mind—the secular mind—does not see or feel this problem. What secular person loses any sleep over the unrighteousness of God's kindness to sinners?
But according to Romans this is the most basic problem that God solved by the death of his Son. Read it again (v. 25b): "It [the death of his Son] was to demonstrate God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance [or patience] he had passed over former sins; 26) it was for a demonstration of his righteousness at the present time in order that he himself might be righteous . . . " God would be unrighteous if he passed over sins as though the value of his glory were nothing.
But he didn't. God saw his glory being despised by sinners—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, he vindicated his glory by slaying his Son.
Embrace a Biblical Mindset
I urge you now to embrace a biblical mindset this morning. If you never have done so before, do so now. I urge you to think and feel the way God does about the death of his Son.
The Test of the Biblical Mindset
And the test of that mindset is this: do you feel that, apart from the death of Jesus, God would be righteous not to forgive your sins? That he could vindicate his righteousness by requiring from us a price of suffering equal to the infinite worth of the glory we have despised?
When you look at the death of Christ, what happens? Does your joy really come from translating this awesome divine work into a boost for self-esteem? Or are you drawn up out of yourself and filled with wonder and reverence and worship that here in the death of Jesus is the deepest, clearest declaration of the infinite worth of the glory of God and the Son of God?
An Objective Foundation for the Full Assurance of Hope
Here is a great objective foundation for the full assurance of hope: the forgiveness of sins is grounded finally not in my finite worth or work, but in the infinite worth of the righteousness of God—unswerving allegiance to uphold and vindicate the glory of his name.
Take your stand on this. Base your life on this. Ground your hope on this. And you will never fall.