Last evening I tried to show that in securing the justification of his people, God was doing something deeper. There is a deeper problem in the universe than our unrighteousness and peril — namely, the problem that God himself seemed to be unrighteous in passing over so many sins that deserved condemnation. The whole Old Testament is a testimony to the truth that God is
merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. (Exodus 34:6–7)
And I said that we will never really feel this problem until we are God-centered in the way we think about sin and righteousness. Sin is not primarily a crime against man. It is a crime against God. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Sinning is always a valuing of something in the world more than God. It’s a belittling of his glory. It’s a dishonoring of his name.
God Always Does Right
But God’s righteousness is his commitment to do what is ultimately right — namely, to uphold the honor of his name and the worth of his glory. Righteousness is the opposite of sin. Sin belittles the worth of God by choosing against him; righteousness magnifies the worth of God by choosing for him.
So, when God just passes over sin and lets sinners go without just punishment, he seems to be unrighteous. He seems to be saying: the scorning of my worth is not significant; the belittling of my glory is unimportant; the dishonoring of my name doesn’t matter. If that were true, God would be unrighteous. And we would be without hope.
“The death of the Son of God is a declaration of the value that God places upon his glory.”
But God did not let it be true. He put forward his Son, Jesus Christ, that through death, he might demonstrate that God is righteous. The death of the Son of God is a declaration of the value that God places upon his glory, and the hatred that he has for sin, and the love that he has for sinners.
Another word for this passing over sin, which made God look unrighteous, is “justification” — the justification of the ungodly. That’s what I want to talk about this morning. And not just the fact that God passed over sins done a long time ago, but that he passed over the sins of his people, which he did yesterday and this morning and will do tomorrow.
And by the time I am done, I hope to be able to answer the question why God takes pleasure in the death of his Son, and how we know it is the joy of God that he overflowed in justification. Isaiah says, “It pleased the Lord to bruise him” (Isaiah 53:10 KJV). And Ephesians 5:2 says, “Christ . . . gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Which means the death of his Son was a pleasing aroma. It sounds unspeakably cruel. How can it be? We will see.
Romans 3:26 says that when Jesus died two things happened, not just one. “It [the death of Christ] was to prove that God himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (my translation). God is shown to be just, and believers are justified.
Four Gifts of Justification
Let’s look at four things that justification means for those who receive the gift through trust in Jesus.
1. Being justified means being forgiven for all our sins.
Look at Romans 4:5–8 where Paul is unpacking the truth of justification by quoting the Old Testament.
To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
This is right at the heart of justification. Cherish these three great phrases from verses 7–8: “Lawless deeds are forgiven,” “Sins are covered,” and “The Lord will not count his sin.”
Every Sin Gone
Notice that Paul does not limit forgiveness to the sins we did before we believed — as though your past sins are forgiven but your future is up for grabs. There is no limitation like that mentioned. The blessing of justification is that iniquities are forgiven and sins are covered and “the Lord will not count his sin.” It is stated in a very absolute and unqualified way.
How can he do that? Romans 3:24 says that we are justified “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” That word “redemption” means freeing or releasing or loosing from some imprisonment. So, the point is that when Jesus died for us, he freed us from the imprisonment of our sins. He broke the bonds of guilt that put us under condemnation.
Paul says in Galatians 3:13 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Peter says that Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). Isaiah says, “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
So justification — the forgiveness of sins — comes to us because Christ bore our sin, bore our curse, bore our guilt, and so released us from condemnation. This is what it means that we are justified “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” We are released from their punishment because he bore their punishment.
Once for All
And mark this: he only suffered once. He is not sacrificed again and again in the Lord’s Supper or the Mass as though his first sacrifice was insufficient. Hebrews 9:26 says that Christ “appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (see also Hebrews 7:27). And again it says in Hebrews 9:12, “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
Do you see the connection between the once for all death of Christ and the totality of your sins and the sins of all God’s people? It isn’t some sins, or certain kinds of sins, or past sins only, but sins and sin absolutely that Christ put away.
So the forgiveness in justification is the forgiveness of all our sins past, present, and future. That’s what was secured for God’s people when Christ died.
2. Being justified means being reckoned righteous with God’s righteousness imputed or reckoned to us.
We are not merely forgiven and left with no standing before God. God not only sets aside our sin, but he also counts us as righteous and puts us in a right standing with himself. He gives us his own righteousness.
Apart from the Law
Look at Romans 3:21–22. Paul just said in verse 20 that no human could ever be justified by works of the law. Then he says (to show how justification is attained), “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.”
So even though no one can be justified by works of the law, there is a righteousness of God that you can have through faith in Jesus Christ. This is what I mean when I say being justified means being reckoned righteous.
When Jesus dies to demonstrate the righteousness of God, as we saw last night from verses 25–26, he makes that righteousness available as a gift for sinners. Had Christ not died to demonstrate that God is righteous in passing over sins, the only way the righteousness of God would have shown itself is by condemning us. But Christ did die. And so the righteousness of God is now not as condemnation but as a gift of life to all who believe.
Second Corinthians 5:21 is one of the most breathtaking passages about this great gift of imputed righteousness. “For our sake he [God] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
“Christ bore our sin, bore our curse, bore our guilt, and so released us from condemnation.”
Christ knew no sin. He was a perfect man. He never sinned. He lived perfectly for the glory of God all his life and in his death. He was righteous. We, on the other hand, have all sinned. We have all sinned. We have belittled the glory of God. We are unrighteous.
But God, who chose us in Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world, ordained that there would be a magnificent exchange: he would make Christ to be sin — not a sinner, but sin; our sin, our guilt, our punishment, our alienation from God, our unrighteousness — and he would, in turn, take the righteousness of God, that Christ had so awesomely vindicated, and make us bear it and wear it and own it the way Christ did our sin.
The point here is not that Christ becomes morally a sinner and we become morally righteous. The point is that Christ bears an alien sin and suffers for it, and we bear an alien righteousness and live through it.
Innocent and Righteous
So, justification means not only that your sins are covered and forgiven and not imputed to you, but justification also means that God’s righteousness is reckoned to you. You are not only not guilty because of Christ; you stand righteous in Christ.
Be sure that you see the objective reality of this outside ourselves. This is not yet the reality of sanctification — the actual process of becoming morally righteous in the way we think and feel and live. That too is a gift. But it is based on this one. Before any of us can make true gospel progress in being righteous, we must believe that we are reckoned righteous. Or to put it another way, the only sin that you can overcome in the power of God is a forgiven sin. The great gift of justification precedes and enables the process of sanctification.
3. Being justified means being freely loved by God and treated with grace.
If God did not love you, there would have been no problem to solve by the death of his Son. It was his love for you that made him pass over your sin and that made him look unrighteous. If he did not love you, he would have solved the sin problem simply by condemning us all to destruction. But he didn’t do that. And the reason is because he loves you. This is most beautifully pictured in Romans 5:6–8:
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die — but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
What God is proving in the death of his Son is not only the truth of his righteousness, but also the measure of his love. In Romans 3:24, Paul says that we “are justified by his grace as a gift.” The love of God for sinners overflows in gifts of grace — that is, gifts that come from God’s bountiful kindness and not from our works or our worth.
The forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of God are free gifts. That means they exact no payment from us because they exacted infinite payment from Christ. They cannot be earned with works or inherited through parents or absorbed through sacraments. They are free to be received by faith. Romans 5:17 says it like this:
If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
The forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of God are free gifts of grace that flow from the love of God. Being justified means being forgiven, being reckoned righteous, and being freely loved by God.
4. Being justified means being secured by God forever.
This is the crowning blessing. Paul proclaims it in Romans 8:30, “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
If you are justified, you will be glorified. You will reach the glory of the age to come and live forever with God in joy and holiness. Why is this so sure?
It is sure because the effect of the death of God’s Son is objective and real and definite and invincible for God’s people. What it achieves, it achieves forever. The effect of the blood of Christ is not fickle — now saving and now losing and now saving and now losing.
“God’s pleasure is not so much in the suffering of the Son, but in the great success of what the Son would accomplish in his dying.”
This is the point of Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” That is, will he not also glorify us? Yes. The same sacrifice that secures our justification secures our glorification.
If you stand justified this morning, you are beyond indictment and condemnation. Romans 8:33, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” Do you see the point? If God has justified you through the death of his Son, no one — not in heaven or on earth or under the earth — no one can make a charge stick against you. Because you are sinless? No. Because you are justified.
A Pleasing Sacrifice
We close now by returning to our question concerning the pleasure of God in bruising his Son. What does it mean that it pleased the Lord to bruise him? What does it mean that the sacrifice of Jesus was a fragrant aroma to God?
The answer is that God took pleasure in the death of his Son because of what that death achieved. God’s pleasure is not so much in the suffering of the Son, considered in and of itself, but in the great success of what the Son would accomplish in his dying. For example, Isaiah 53:10 says,
When his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will [or pleasure] of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
This means that by his death Jesus begets, as it were, spiritual offspring, and he goes before them into eternity prolonging his days — and their days — forever. He rises from the dead and says, to use the words of Hebrews 2:13, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” The way God’s pleasure prospers in the hand of the Son is by creating what we might call the offspring of the cross. Who are these people?
Where Glory and Justice Meet
Isaiah 53:11 describes who they are in terms virtually the same as those used by Paul in Romans 3:24, and relates them to all we have been talking about this morning. They are justified sinners — people who are reckoned righteous because of the death of Jesus. Listen to this great Old Testament prophecy of the work of justification:
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous.
This is the pleasure of God that prospers in the hand of God’s servant, Jesus — the justification of the ungodly. This is the first part of the answer why the Father was pleased to bruise the Son. God delights in the death of his Son because that death effects the justification of the ungodly.
But the deepest reason for the joy of God in the death of his Son is this: the depth of the Son’s suffering was the measure of his love for the Father’s glory. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus said, “For this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” And the Father answered, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (John 12:27–28).
It was the Father’s unwavering allegiance to the glory of his name that made recompense for sin necessary. So when the Son willingly took the suffering of that recompense on himself, every footfall on the way to Calvary echoed through the universe with this message: The glory of God is of infinite value! The glory of God is of infinite value! This is the deepest reason why it pleased the Lord to bruise him; why the sacrifice of his Son was a fragrant aroma. God’s passion to uphold his glory and his passion to justify the ungodly met and married in the cross, and he was glad.