The Just and the Justifier
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because in the forbearance of God he passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
The Wakening of William Cowper’s Soul
Most nights as I tuck Talitha into bed she says, “Sing me a song.” The one we sing most often is one of my favorites by William Cowper,
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds you so much dread,
Are big with mercy and will break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will.
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
What Talitha doesn’t know, but may learn someday is that, in 1759 when Cowper was 28 years old, he had a total mental breakdown and tried three different ways to commit suicide. He became convinced that he was damned beyond hope. In December 1763, he was committed to St. Alban’s Insane Asylum, where the 58-year-old Dr. Nathaniel Cotton tended the patients. By God’s wonderful design, Cotton was also an evangelical believer and lover of God and the gospel.
“It was not God’s delight to destroy.”
He loved Cowper and held out hope to him repeatedly in spite of Cowper’s insistence that he was damned and beyond hope. Six months into his stay, Cowper found a Bible lying (not by accident) on a bench in the garden. First, he looked at John 11 and saw “so much benevolence, mercy, goodness, and sympathy with miserable men, in our Saviour’s conduct” that he felt a ray of hope. Then he turned to Romans 3:25, our text for today. This was a key turning point in his life.
Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification. In a moment I believed and received the gospel.
In June 1765, Cowper left St. Alban’s and lived and ministered 35 more years — not without great battles with depression, but also not without great fruit for the kingdom, like the hymns, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” “O for a Closer Walk with God!” and “The Spirit Breathes upon the Word.”
This has happened in history over and over again. Some great gospel sentence from the book of Romans has wakened the soul — Augustine, Luther, Wesley. May it be so today as we rivet our attention on these words. Verses 25–26 are, perhaps, the most central or most important words in the Bible — especially if you consider them along with verses 23–24, which we looked at last week.
Vindication of God’s Righteousness
What happens in verses 25–26 is that we penetrate through the issue of “justification” (verse 24) and through the issue of “redemption” or ransom (verse 24) to what C.E.B. Cranfield calls “the innermost meaning of the cross” (The Epistle to the Romans, 213). Verses 25–26:
Whom [referring back to Christ] God displayed publicly [or, put forth] as a propitiation [NIV, “sacrifice of atonement”; in this context the word means “the turning away of . . . wrath”] in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness [Note: this is the purpose of Christ’s death that hasn’t been mentioned yet — to demonstrate God’s righteousness. Now why does God need to demonstrate his righteousness?], because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; [then he repeats this aim lest we miss it] for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
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. Indeed, verse 26 says he would have been unrighteous, or unjust, in justifying sinners, if Christ had not been put forward as a propitiation by his blood: “so that he would be just. . . .” That is the basic issue. God’s righteousness is at stake. His name or reputation or honor must be vindicated. Before the cross can be for our sake, it must be for God’s sake.
Why Does He Need Vindication?
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 and at the end of verse 26: “Because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed” and because he is “the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
“Christ bore the wrath of God for our sins, and turned it away from us.”
Now what do those two phrases mean? They mean that now and for centuries God has 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 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. He deserves to die or be imprisoned for life!” But Nathan does not say that. He says, “The Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.”
God Passes over Sins Previously Committed
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 — 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 apparent injustice that God is lenient with sinners? Indeed, how many Christians wrestle with the fact that our 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 — the right to uphold and display the infinite worth of his glory. It starts with man and assumes that God will conform to our rights and wishes. But in the context of Romans, the issue is: How has the glory of God been treated and what is God’s righteous response to that?
Remember what we saw last week in verse 23: “All have sinned and fall short of [or lack] the glory of God.” What’s at stake in sinning is the glory of God. When Nathan confronts David, he quotes God 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 hot after this bathing 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 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.” 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 meaning of sin — failing to love God’s glory above everything else. “All have sinned and ‘exchange’ the glory of God.”
The Problem: God Appears to Despise His Own Glory
Therefore the 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. That is what the passing over of sin — forgiving sin, justifying the ungodly (Romans 4:5) communicates: by itself, God’s glory and his name and worth are of minor value or no value. And that is the essence of unrighteousness. So God appears to be, and indeed would be unrighteous if he passed over sin without saving us in a way that demonstrates his infinite passion for his glory — which is his righteousness.
Apart from divine revelation, the natural mind — the secular mind — does not see or feel the crisis God was dealing with in the cross. What secular person loses any sleep over the apparent 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. Let’s read it again (verse 25–26): “He did this [put his Son forward to die] to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance [or patience] he had passed over sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of his righteousness at the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God would look and God would be unrighteous, if he passed over sins as though the value of his glory were nothing.
God could have settled accounts by punishing all sinners with hell. This would have demonstrated that he does not minimize our falling short of his glory — our belittling his honor. But it was not God’s delight to destroy. John 3:17 says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
God Is Just and the Justifier
At the end of verse 26, Paul shows what God’s two great goals were in the death of Jesus. Why did Jesus die? It was “so that [God] would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” To be righteous, and to reckon as righteous those who don’t have their own righteousness. These seem to contradict each other. God’s righteousness would dictate: pour out your wrath on sinners who exchange your glory for other values — that would be righteous. Or: have no wrath against the ungodly — that would be unrighteous. But if God wills that he demonstrate the infinite value of his glory and that he justify the ungodly, then someone — namely, Jesus Christ — had to bear the wrath of God to show that God does not take lightly the scorning of his glory. That’s why the word “propitiation” in verse 25 is so important. Christ bore the wrath of God for our sins, and turned it away from us.
“Behold the beauty of this salvation and embrace it. Trust Jesus.”
On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus agonized and triumphed in his love for the glory of God. In John 12:27–28 he says, “‘Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, “Father, save Me from this hour”? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.’ Then a voice came out of heaven: ‘I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.’” God glorified himself in the life of Jesus, and he will glorify himself in the death of Jesus. And so he will show himself to be righteous in justifying the ungodly.
Christ is our propitiation. That is, out of love for the glory of God, he absorbs the wrath of God that was rightfully ours, so that it might be plain that when we are “justified as a gift by his grace through the ransoming in Christ Jesus” (verse 24), God will be manifestly just, righteous, in counting as righteous those who trust in Jesus.
How We Connect with God’s Work
So let’s close by making crystal clear how we get connected with this great work of God in Jesus. Three times in this short paragraph (verses 21–26) Paul says it. Let’s go backward. You look at them, and pray that God would do for you what he did for William Cowper.
Verse 26b: “So that he would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Faith in Jesus. Faith in Jesus. Trust Jesus.
Verse 25a: “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith.” Do you want the wrath of God that you deserve to be what Jesus bore, so you don’t have to? If so, behold the beauty of this salvation and embrace it. Trust Jesus.
Finally, Verse 22: “even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe.” The righteousness of God is for all who believe. The righteousness that you do not have in yourself, but must have for eternal life, is given to you “as a gift, by his grace” through your faith. Trust him. Trust him. This is what he calls for — not a payment, not works that put him in your debt, but “trust in him who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5).