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.
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. 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.
Now 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 person” thinks (1 Corinthians 2:14). 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 at the Center
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 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 at the center as the measure of all things.
“God is the basic given reality in the universe. He was there before we were in existence — or before anything was in existence.”
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.
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 (Romans 9:23; Ephesians 3:16) — 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 justification 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.
God Is No Idolater
God is central and supreme in his own affections. There are no rivals for the supremacy of God’s glory in his own heart. God is not an idolater. He does not disobey the first and greatest commandment. With all his heart and soul and strength and mind, he delights in the glory of his manifold perfections. The most passionate heart for God in all the universe is God’s heart. He takes infinite delight in the glory of his name and the greatness of his fame.
All my years of preaching and teaching on the supremacy of God in the heart of God have proved that this truth hits most people like a truck laden with unknown fruit. If they survive the impact, they discover that this is the most luscious fruit on the planet. I have unpacked this truth with lengthy arguments in the books Desiring God and The Pleasures of God.
The Chief End of God
What I am claiming is that the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is the same when asked concerning God as it is when asked concerning man. Question: “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Question: “What is the chief end of God?” Answer: “The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy himself forever.”
Another way to say it is simply that God is righteous. And this is crucial for understanding the text we are about to look at.
The opposite of righteousness is to value and enjoy what is not truly valuable or rewarding. This is why people are called unrighteous in Romans 1:18. They suppress the truth of God’s value and exchange God for created things. So, they belittle God and discredit his worth.
Righteousness Recognizes Supremacy
Righteousness is the opposite. It means recognizing true value for what it is and esteeming it and enjoying it in proportion to its true worth. The unrighteous in 2 Thessalonians 2:10 perish “because they refused to love the truth.” Righteousness is recognizing and welcoming and loving and upholding what is truly valuable.
God is righteous. This means that he recognizes, welcomes, loves, and upholds with infinite jealousy and energy what is infinitely valuable. Namely, the worth of God. God’s righteous passion and delight is to display and uphold his infinitely valuable glory. This is not a vague theological conjecture. It flows inevitably from dozens of biblical texts that show God in the relentless pursuit of praise and honor beginning with creation and into consummation and eternity.
‘For My Name’s Sake’
Probably no text in the Bible reveals the passion of God for his own glory more clearly and bluntly as Isaiah 48:9–11 where God says,
For my name’s sake I defer my anger;
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another.
I have found that for many people these words come like six hammer blows to a man-centered way of looking at the world:
- For my name’s sake!
- For the sake of my praise!
- For my own sake!
- For my own sake!
- How should my name be profaned!
- My glory I will not give to another!
What this text hammers home to us is the centrality of God in his own affections. The most passionate heart for the glorification of God is God’s heart. God’s ultimate goal is to uphold and display the glory of his name.
What Problem Does God Solve?
All that I have said up to this point sets the stage for grasping the utterly strange and wonderful truth of Romans 3:24–26. Here Paul teaches that the ground of our justification is the death of the Son of God, but also that the death of the Son of God was ordained and executed not first to justify us but to vindicate God’s righteousness, his unswerving commitment to uphold the value of his glory. Which means that the problem that the death of Jesus was designed to solve is virtually incomprehensible to the secular mindset, which puts man at the center and not God.
We shouldn’t be surprised if 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.
“There are no rivals for the supremacy of God’s glory in his own heart. God is not an idolater.”
Consider with me Romans 3:24–26. What you should look for as I read these verses 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. Romans 3:24: “[They] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
So, Paul mentions the great gift of justification, but he passes immediately to say that God was doing something deeper on the cross. Something first and more fundamental. Something that would make justification possible. There was a deeper problem to be solved than that I am unrighteous before a holy God. Romans 3:25:
Whom God put forward as a propitiation [a sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God against sinners], 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.
Is God Unrighteous?
Boil that down to the most basic problem the death of Christ is meant to solve behind justification and as a foundation for justification. 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 seemed to be unrighteous, and wanted to vindicate himself and clear his name.
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: “he had passed over former sins.”
Now what does that mean? It means, for example, that for centuries God had been doing what Psalm 103:10 says, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” He just passes over them. He does not punish them.
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 asks, “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 passed over.
The Problem of Kindness
That is what Paul means in Romans 3:25 by the passing over of former sins. 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 the biblical influence wrestle with the problem that a holy and righteous God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45)? How many wrestle with the problem that God is kind to sinners? How many people (even in the church) struggle 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 Creator-rights of God to display the infinite worth of his glory. It starts with man and assumes that God will conform to man’s rights and wishes.
God’s Glory on the Line
Look at Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” What’s at stake in sinning is the glory of God. And the reason the scorning of God’s glory is a problem is the infinite commitment God has to uphold and display his glory. God has infinite joy in the greatness of his glory and his fame. And all sin is a belittling of God’s glory and a devaluing of his fame.
Every Sin Despises God
Do you remember what God said to David when he was caught in adultery? “You have despised me” (2 Samuel 12:10). David could have said, “What do you mean that 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. All sin is a preference of the fleeting pleasures of the world to the everlasting joy of God’s fellowship. You demeaned my glory. You belittled my worth. You dishonored my name. You scorned my fame. That is the meaning of sin — failing to love my glory above everything else.”
The problem in God’s passing over my sin is that God’s worth and glory and righteousness seem despised. They look worthless.
Suppose a group of anarchists plot to assassinate the President 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. Now what would that communicate to the world? It would communicate that the President’s life and his governance of the nation are of minor value.
That is what the passing over of sin communicates: God’s glory and his righteous governance is of minor value, or no value.
Slay the Sinner or the Son
Apart from divine revelation, the natural mind —the secular mind — does not see or feel this problem. Because the whole problem hangs on the radical God-centeredness of God — his infinite, joyful commitment to the immeasurable worth of his glory and his fame. What secular person loses any sleep over the unrighteousness of God’s kindness to sinners?
“Jesus came into the world to reveal the infinite worth of God’s glory.”
But according to Romans, this is the most basic problem that God solved by the death of his Son. Read it again (Romans 3:25–26): “This [the death of his Son] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance [or patience] he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just.” 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 — 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. Jesus came into the world to reveal the infinite worth of God’s glory. It cost him his life. No one can now say God takes sin lightly. God upheld his honor and glory and fame in the death of his Son.
Where to Find Hope
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.
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 requiring from us a price of suffering equal to the infinite worth of the glory we have despised?
And 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 esteem of God for his glory and for his Son?
This is an unspeakably wonderful truth. The foundation of our justification — our acquittal, our forgiveness — is not a flimsy sentimentality in God, nor is it a shallow claim of human worth. It is the massive rock of God’s unswerving commitment to uphold the worth of his own glory, to promote the praise of his holy name and to vindicate his righteousness. The God-centeredness of God is the foundation of his grace to the ungodly. If God were not committed first to vindicate the worth of his own glory, there would be no gospel and no hope, for there would be no glorious God.
Take your stand on this. Base your life on this. Ground your hope on this. And you will never fall.