Paid in Full
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia
Reverend Glen A. Land, Senior Pastor
Romans 3:21-26 (ESV)
21But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put 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. 26It 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.
· John Piper pronounced it the greatest letter ever written.
· John Stott called it, “…the fullest, plainest and grandest statement of the gospel in the New Testament.”
· Martin Luther once said, “This epistle is in truth the most important document in the New Testament, the gospel in its purest expression.”
· John Knox declared, “It is unquestionably the most important theological work ever written.”
· According to Calvin, “When anyone gains a knowledge of this Epistle, he has an entrance opened to him to all the most hidden treasures of Scripture.”
· It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the English poet, philosopher, and literary critic of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, who perhaps best summed it up: “I think that the Epistle to the Romans is the most profound work in existence.”
It was reading the Book of Romans that directly led to the conversion of such theological giants as St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Wesley. The impact on Christian history of Paul’s longest and most important letter cannot be exaggerated. It contains the clearest and most complete expression of the gospel in the Bible. It’s not by chance that the plan of salvation has often been called “The Roman Road.”
If this were not impressive enough, consider the fact that my text this morning, Romans 3:21-26, is often viewed as the very heart of the letter:
· C.E.B. Cranfield, author of what many regard as the finest commentary on Romans in print, calls these verses ‘the centre and heart’ of Romans.
· The late D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, long-time pastor of Westminster Chapel in London who for years preached to standing-room-only crowds, called Romans 3:21-26 “… the acropolis of the Bible and of the Christian faith.”
· Another preeminent New Testament scholar, Leon Morris, described it as “…possibly the most important single paragraph ever written.”
· And finally, pastor and popular Christian writer and conference leader, John Piper, declared this passage to be “… the Mount Everest of the Bible…. There are great sentences in the Bible, and great paragraphs and great revelations, but it doesn’t get any greater than this paragraph in Romans 3:21-26.”
I trust I have your attention. Today’s message deals with the very heart and essence of the Christian faith. How you choose to respond will determine your eternal destiny. It doesn’t get any more important than this. So open your bibles and follow along closely as we consider what the Apostle Paul wrote from Corinth to the church in Rome, sometime during the winter months of AD 56-57.
The Context of Romans 3:21-26 – God’s Righteous Wrath toward the Sinfulness of the Human Race (Romans 1:16-3:20)
A basic principle of sound Bible study is to know your context.
After a few introductory comments, in Romans 1:16-17 Paul spells out the theme of his letter, the righteous shall live by faith:
16For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
From this point on through chapter 3, verse 20 Paul unpacks the sad, sorry litany of a sinful human race in rebellion against a holy God, a God whose righteous wrath is quite properly directed against sinners.
1:18 – For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
1:28, 32 – 28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. . . . . 32Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
2:1, 5 – 1Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things . . . . . 5But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.
3:10-12 – 10as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
3:20 – For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
Romans 3:21-26 – The Path to Justification: The Story of God’s Costly Forgiveness
Paul has painted an utterly desolate picture of the plight of the human race. Without exception from Adam onward, we are judged to be uniformly evil, hopelessly lost in our sin. No matter how earnestly we try, we cannot, through own efforts, keep God’s law. Nor can we earn our own justification in his sight.
We are the objects of God’s righteous wrath. We’re an affront to his divine holiness and stand even now under his condemnation. Yet while all hope seems lost, Paul declares that there is good news after all! Beginning with Romans 3:21, he tells the story of God’s costly forgiveness. He shows us the path to justification and peace with God. And it starts with two little words…
“But now…” (vs. 21)
Just two little words, but on them swings the hinge of history. How many times have we seen a conversation or a relationship pivot on one tiny word? “I still love you but…” “I like your work however…” “I’ll buy your house if…” Too often those conjunctions work against us. “I still love you but I love someone else even more.” “I like your work however your co-workers despise you and want you dead.” “I’ll buy your house if you install a new kitchen and drop the asking price by twenty grand.”
But sometimes we catch a break. Sometimes a little word works to change things in our favor. With verse 21 something significant has changed. More than a new paragraph has begun. A new approach to the Living God has been opened up to us. Before righteousness meant perfect obedience to the law—and no one was able to live up to that lofty standard. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” Those two little words, but now, have introduced the first fundamental change in the relationship between God and humanity since The Fall. God is offering us a way forward, a way out of sin and into his righteousness, but without the impossible challenge of living up to the Law’s demands.
The words point backward to an event in history. When Paul wrote this he was describing something in the still recent past. Many living eyewitnesses could testify to its truth. In contrast to the impossibility of justification by good works, we’re now offered justification as a free gift—God’s free gift to us.
“…the righteousness of God…” (vs. 21)
This refers to a new status of righteousness before God for you and me, a status that is God’s gift to us. This is critical if we are to understand what Paul is saying. That God is righteous or that God’s righteousness is evident is hardly news. But that you and I can stand before God and be declared righteous… that we can come under the protection of God’s righteousness… that’s huge. This is a new thing in the relationship between God and humanity. It’s kind of like being allowed backstage to meet your favorite performer, not because he knows you but because some else has vouched for you and says your OK. But my analogy is flawed. God does know you. And he knows you’re not OK. But he has found a way to let you into his glorious presence for all eternity anyway, and in a way that still satisfies his justice.
“…the righteousness of God has been manifested…” (vs. 21)
The Greek verb for has been manifested is in the perfect tense, describing a completed action that occurred in the past but which produced results that continue into the present. The emphasis of the perfect tense is not the past action so much as the present “state of affairs” resulting from the past action. This gift of righteousness that God offers is a lasting inheritance. Once given, it’s forever.
“…the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—” (vs. 21)
Paul is making a very important point here on a topic he feels strongly about. He is asserting that both the Torah—the books of Moses, first five books of the Old Testament—and the writings of the prophets affirm the truth that even before the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the gospel of salvation by grace through faith was anticipated. This is a recurring theme in Romans beginning in the first two verses of the letter:
1Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,
There is a widespread, serious error in the thinking of many Christians. It is the mistaken belief that while Christians are saved by grace through faith, the Jews of the Old Testament were saved by following the law. Even a hurried reading of Romans ought to put this notion to rest. As Paul states clearly in Romans 4:2-3:
2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
In verse 22 Paul expands and clarifies what he said in verse 21.
22”…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:”
The promised righteousness of God comes to us through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the first point in Romans where Christ is explicitly identified as the object of saving faith. This salvation is available to any and all who believe—Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white and yellow and brown—all stand level at the foot of the cross. All are equally in need of salvation. All are equally welcome. But, and this is critically important in a day when many different paths to God are being promoted, while the righteousness of God is freely available through faith in Christ it is only available through faith in Christ. As Peter made emphatically clear on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 4:12:
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
There is only one antidote for the sin poison in your soul. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there feverishly pitching other remedies. Please understand that the sincerity with which you embrace a lie will count for nothing in eternity. If you have bacterial pneumonia you need an antibiotic. A mustard plaster will not help. Neither will Pepto-Bismol, Rolaids, or E-lax. Without the right medicine you may die.
Sin is a terminal genetic disease of the soul. It is always fatal. There is one and only one known cure: the grace of God received through faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the antidote. Accept him and you will live. Refuse him—look for a cure elsewhere—and you will die.
23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
You have no claim on God. He owes you nothing. Your best efforts to live a good life have earned you exactly…zilch. We are all members of the fellowship of sin, and it’s a big club.
We all know what it is to be disappointed by another. Even those we love best, those closest to us, let us down. And we, in turn, disappoint others. But our disappointment with one another pales beside God’s profound disappoint in us.
Paul tells us that we all fall short of the glory of God. That’s a phrase easily misunderstood. Paul’s not suggesting that we’re under judgment for failing to achieve divinity. Quite the contrary, it was Satan tempting Eve with the promise that “…you will be like God…” that got us into this mess in the first place. Our falling short of the glory of God speaks rather of lost potential. It takes us back to Eden and reminds us of just how far we have fallen.
In The Chronicles of Narnia C.S. Lewis uses a memorable phrase to describe human beings. He calls us “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”. Have you ever paused to consider what it would be like to encounter that first man and woman in Eden as they existed before the Fall? To meet the parents of our race in all their sinless perfection? Were they to walk into this sanctuary right now, we would easily mistake them for gods, like characters out of Greek mythology only better. For they would be more than beautiful; they would be pure. They would be holy. Remember what it said in Genesis 1:27?
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
When Paul tells us that we fall short of the glory of God he is lamenting the lost glory of paradise. He is weeping over our lost inheritance. God created us in his image, an image that has been stained and distorted by our sin. How far we have fallen!
What’s more, a careful study of the Greek grammar clearly implies that not only unbelievers but Christians as well still lack this glory of God. We can take comfort that we are once again heirs of the glory that was Eden. With saving faith comes justification. We are declared “not guilty”. Over a lifetime of discipleship comes a process of sanctification as we become daily more and more like Christ. But only when we are freed from this body of sin and stand at last in the presence of our Lord will the full glory that God intended for us be restored.
24and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
What does it mean when Paul says that we are justified? In a purely legal sense it means to be declared “not guilty”. But the courtroom is a poor metaphor for what God does for us in Christ. Let’s go back to Eden. We were created to be in fellowship with God. Sin destroyed that fellowship. In Christ that broken fellowship is restored. When we talk about the Old and New Testaments we are using a word that means covenant: the old and new covenants. To be in right relationship with God is to be in covenant with him. Our sin broke the covenant. Christ’s sacrificial death has restored it. When we are in covenant with God we are in communion with God. Hence the imagery of the communion service where we celebrate the new covenant in Christ’s blood.
When we are justified a right status with God is restored and a process of moral regeneration—sanctification—is begun so that we will ultimately become what we have been declared to be.
“…by his grace as a gift…”
Our justification comes as an undeserved grace gift. We are not saved so that God will love us. We are saved because he loved us when we were still unlovable.
“…through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,”
The word translated redemption in the ESV can have several different meanings. It can simply mean deliverance or emancipation. But it often carries with it the idea of deliverance by paying a ransom. I’m strongly in favor of interpreting this passage with the sense of a ransom paid in light of statements such as Jesus made in Mark 10:45:
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Then there’s Isaiah’s prophecy quoted in Luke 4:18:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,”
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,”
It was by offering as a ransom his own life that Jesus purchased our freedom from slavery to sin while also freeing us from the consequences of sin: God’s condemnation, God’s wrath.
This was achieved through Christ Jesus. It was through the Person and Work of the Son that the Father accomplished His redeeming action.
And now we come to verse 25…
25whom God put 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.
“…whom God put forward…”
Better translated, “whom God purposed.” This means that it was the eternal purpose of God’s grace to offer His Son for our redemption. The cross was not some hastily conceived Plan B. It was always God’s plan for our redemption.
“…as a propitiation by his blood…”
Propitiation is one of those scary-sounding theological words that over-simplified bible translations and preachers of feel-good sermons try to avoid. It’s not a word you’re likely to encounter outside a seminary theology class. That’s unfortunate, because as used in the New Testament, it’s a VERY important word that describes a critical aspect of our salvation.
Propitiation comes from the Latin word propitiat-, meaning “made favorable.”
It is the act of placating and overcoming distrust and animosity; of appeasing or atoning for sin or wrongdoing (especially in the case of appeasing a deity). Propitiation is an act meant to regain someone's favor or to make up for something you did wrong. It’s a two-part act that involves appeasing the wrath of an offended person and then being reconciled to them. The process typically involves an offering. In relation to the Christian theology of salvation, propitiation means placating or satisfying the wrath of God by the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
The Greek word sometimes translated propitiation only occurs 4 times in the New Testament: Hebrews 9:5, 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10, and here in Romans 3:25. Its Hebrew equivalent is the word translated mercy seat in the description of the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 25:21:
And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you.
So what does my salvation have to do with the Ark of the Covenant, an object from antiquity that most people today associate with Indiana Jones? I’m glad you asked.
If you saw The Raiders of the Lost Ark you will remember the big gold box that was the focus of all the excitement, the long lost Ark of the Covenant. Steven Spielberg actually did a very good job in creating a replica of the ark as it’s described in Exodus. The Ark was the most important object in the religion of ancient Israel. It was a box made of acacia wood, gilded inside and out with hammered sheets of pure gold. Once completed, on pain of instant death it was never to be touched by human hands. It was holy, sacred, set apart. Two long poles were used to carry it and only the priests were allowed to touch them. Inside the Ark were some very special and sacred objects: the tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments had been carved by the very finger of God, and five parchment scrolls on which Moses transcribed the books of the Law—what we now know as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—the first five books of the Bible. Aaron’s rod—a staff made of almond wood that miraculously sprouted branches and bloomed, and a clay jar of manna—the “bread of heaven” as it was called that God provided as food to Israel during their desert wanderings, may have also been stored in the Ark. More likely, however, they were kept outside, in front of the ark. Resting on top of the Ark was a covering. It was not gilded. It was solid 24 carat gold, as pure as the refiner’s art could make it. Though it rested on the ark it was not actually part of the ark. On both ends of this covering were images of cherubim. These were not the smiling fat little angelic nudes associated with Valentine’s Day. Far from it. They were fearsome-looking creatures with the faces of men, the bodies of lions, and the wings of birds of prey. They are described as facing the center of the covering with their wings outstretched over it. It was this covering over the Ark that was called the Mercy Seat. Before the Mercy Seat sinful man met Holy God. Out of the seemingly empty space just above the Mercy Seat, between the protective wings of the attending cherubim, the voice of God would issue forth in conversation with Moses.
During Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness, when the people traveled from place to place the ark went before them as a symbol of God’s presence. When they camped it was kept in the Holy of Holies, the innermost room of the tabernacle. The Jews regarded the Holy of Holies as the most sacred spot on earth. Not even the High Priest entered it except for one day each year, The Day of Atonement—Yom Kipper.
Yom Kipper is the holiest day in the Jewish year. On our calendar it falls between mid-September and mid-October. In ancient Israel it was the start of their new year, the day on which the high priest offered a sacrifice for the sins of Israel. As part of that sacred rite, after a careful ritual cleansing the priest would enter the Holy of Holies to burn incense and to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice upon the Mercy Seat, offering it as close to the presence of God on earth as possible. Thus the blood of a sacrificial animal was offered as symbolic propitiation for the sins of the nation.
The linguistic support for propitiation as the best translation of the Greek word found in Romans 3:25 is strong. But over the years some people have raised objections. They’re uncomfortable with the doctrine of divine wrath. They argue that the idea of having to appease an angry deity is beneath the dignity of a modern understanding of God; that this is some kind of throwback to paganism—on a par with tossing a virgin into the mouth of a volcano to appease the mountain god. So instead of propitiation, they translate the word in question as expiation. The controversy has even affected the choice of hymns that are approved for inclusion in church hymnals.
Earlier in the service we sang the modern hymn, In Christ Alone. It has become one of the most popular and beloved hymns in the country. It’s definitely one of my favorites. Yet just last month the hymnal committee for the Presbyterian Church USA refused to include In Christ Alone in their new hymnal. Why? Because the song’s authors refused to remove the line, “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”
Where the literal meaning of propitiation is to make favorable and specifically includes the idea of dealing with God’s wrath against sinners, expiation means to make pious and implies either the removal or cleansing of sin. The idea of propitiation includes expiation; but not the other way around. Expiation alone does nothing to quench God’s righteous anger.
The difference in meaning may seem subtle, but it’s very important. The object of expiation is sin, not God. One propitiates a person, one expiates a problem.
Perhaps this will help you see the difference. You may have watched the TV commercial where a man foolishly saws off the limb of a tree in his yard and drops it onto his neighbor’s car—just a stupid mistake, no malice intended. In real life, chances are if he apologizes profusely for his carelessness and quickly makes good on the repair or replacement of the car, all will be forgiven. His sin will be expiated.
Now let’s imagine that instead of accidently dropping a limb on his neighbor’s car, in a fit of anger he deliberately slashed all the tires on that car. Even if he immediately regretted the act and bought four brand new replacement tires—the best tires that money can buy—all will NOT be forgiven. The outward evidence of the sin may have been removed, but the relationship is not healed. Why? Because the righteous anger of his neighbor will not have been propitiated. This guy’s not just destroyed four tires. He’s destroyed a relationship by an attack on the honor of his neighbor. He has added insult to injury. And the insult is harder to correct.
We intuitively understand about the need for propitiation—at least when we’re the victims of another’s sin. We demand justice. And when justice is denied we experience moral indignation. We are outraged.
Many Montana residents are outraged right now and are calling for the removal from the bench of District Judge, G. Todd Baugh after he sentenced a 54-year-old former high school teacher to only 30 days in jail for raping a 14-yr-old girl. The girl later committed suicide. Justice has not been served. The scales have not been balanced. Of course, when we’re the sinners in question, we change our tune. Then we cry for mercy, not justice.
And here we come to God’s dilemma. For he is both righteous and loving. He is holy and he is merciful. His holiness is outraged by sin. His perfect sense of justice demands that those scales be balanced. If some Montana voter is outraged by injustice, how much more so is God?
There is a dualism of holiness and love … of mercy and wrath in God’s nature that cannot be dissolved. The sacrificial death of Jesus is at the very heart of justification. Because God is holy, he must punish sin. By definition sin is belittling God’s glory. If God chose not to punish sin he would be declaring that his glory is not worth defending. We read in the Psalms, “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” But how can God just simply overlook our sins? Unless we affirm that people really deserve to have God visit upon them the painful consequences of their wrongdoing, we empty God’s forgiveness of its meaning. Romans 3 tells us that God put forth Jesus as a propitiation—a wrath-absorbing sacrifice. That is, on the cross Jesus paid in full the penalty for our sin. God’s wrath was poured out on his own son. Jesus’ death on the cross justifies the sinner and it also justifies God. It justifies the sinner because those who place their faith in Christ are declared righteous based on Christ’s righteousness, and it justifies God the Father because it vindicates his glory and it vindicates his mercy.
Remember that Old Testament passage Paul quoted earlier regarding Abraham? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Abraham was not alone. Before Christ was nailed to that cross, millions of people lived and died having placed their trust in God’s mercy. And God was merciful. As Paul just reminded us in verse 25, God “…had passed over former sins.” But each one of those sins represented a debt that God’s mercy owed to God’s justice. Generations of high priests sprinkled blood on that Mercy Seat and mercy was granted. But no sacrificial lamb every saved anybody. A huge debt against justice accumulated year after year, like a massive credit card debit hanging over the head of God. The bill finally came due. Jesus paid it in full. John Stott writes that propitiation “…does not make God gracious. God does not love us because Christ died for us, Christ died for us because God loves us.”
In his book Knowing God, J.I. Packer makes a distinction between pagan and Christian propitiation: “In paganism, man propitiates his gods, and religion becomes a form of commercialism and, indeed, of bribery. In Christianity, however, God propitiates his wrath by his own action. He set forth Jesus Christ... to be the propitiation of our sins.”
Christ's death was both an expiation and a propitiation. By expiating—removing the problem of—sin God was made propitious—favorable—to us.
I agree with Leon Morris. Romans 3:21-26 is the greatest paragraph ever written. Its greatness lies in its subject. It attests to the wonder of the gift of righteousness, the marvelous story of God’s costly forgiveness.