SERMON FOR JULY 26, 1998 FROM ROMANS 3:24
This week, we pick up where we left off last week in the third chapter of Romans, verse 24. This entire section discusses the true heart of the gospel. We said that the main theme of these verses is this: The Gospel of Jesus Christ solves humanity’s most unsolvable problem, our unrighteousness before a holy God. We noted that unrighteousness, when you boil it down, is our failure to conform to God’s character. God calls everyone to be like himself morally and ethically. As we examined the concept of sin from a biblical understanding, we saw just how desperately far even the best person is from meeting that standard. To look into the bible and clearly see God’s standard for humanity expressed in the law and then to take an honest, truthful look into your heart reveals a gap between the two so broad as to make the Grand Canyon seem like a crack in the sidewalk. We said that the degree to which we understand this standard of righteousness and see our complete inadequacy to meet it is the degree to which we will prize the gospel. If you don’t prize and treasure the Gospel and what God has done for you at the cross, it’s almost certainly because you haven’t seen a truthful, vivid picture of the blackness of your heart lately. This is a huge problem in evangelicalism today. We need to pray for brokenness in our hearts and in the church and it comes as the Holy Spirit reveals the truth to us about the depth and intensity of our sin.
Last week we looked at Romans 3:21–23. Paul says, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes from faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” From this text, which contains the very heart of the gospel, we saw that the answer to the seemingly unsolvable problem to our lack of conformity to God’s character, our unrighteousness is this: The gospel contains a righteousness apart from the law, the very righteousness of God. We saw that this righteousness of God was fully expressed only in the life and death of Christ. Each and every aspect of his life was in perfect conformity to the character of God. He NEVER disobeyed the law. He completely fulfilled the law. He always showed perfect faith in God, acting in total reliance upon the Father. Everything he did, said, felt and thought was always, only for the glory of the Father. Christ’s life perfectly met the standard of God’s righteousness. Not only did Christ perfectly live out the righteousness of God, fully satisfying the righteous requirements of the law, but in his death, he fully satisfied the penalty of the law. Just as no man apart from Christ could ever fulfill the requirements of the law, no man apart from Christ could ever fully satisfy the full penalty of the law. Christ did both.
We also looked at how a person receives this righteousness of God in Christ as a substitute for our unrighteousness. Our part in this transfer of Christ’s righteousness to ourselves is faith. Faith involves knowing in our hearts that we can in no way stand before God in righteousness ourselves and from that understanding, eagerly embracing the righteousness of God offered in Christ as our only hope. Faith receives Christ’s perfect fulfillment of the law in exchange for our daily rebellion against God. Faith receives Christ’s perfect exchange for our doubt and self-reliance. Faith receives Christ’s perfect motivation for the glory of God and rejects as futile our self-oriented life and motives. Faith renounces our total inability to adequately pay for our sin and delights in the penalty Christ has paid, receiving it as the key to our forgiveness before a holy God. Faith clings tenaciously to the cross of Christ as its only hope.
Last week, we began to explore the wonder of the gospel. This week, we are going to explore the question, “How does God transfer His righteousness to a sinner and what is it that enables Him to do that?” The answer to that question is found in verses 24-25 of chapter three, but let’s read verses 23-25 together. Paul says, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (v24) and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.” This entire section is so highly compressed—these two verses are jam-packed with profound truth. Paul introduces four theological concepts here in verses 24-25, justification, grace, redemption and propitiation, which the NIV translates as “sacrifice of atonement.”
These four works of God are pillars upon which the gospel rests. There are many believers who have a vague idea what these terms mean. They will tell you that to be justified is to be “just as if I’d never sinned.” They have a general idea of what redemption is and probably a pretty fuzzy understanding of propitiation. Let me say this, your appreciation for and delight in the gospel can never exceed the depth of understanding you have for these three works of God. Our delight and appreciation of the gospel is directly related to the degree to which we really understand and have internalized these giant works of God. If you have a vague understanding of, say justification, you will have a vague appreciation for the fact that you have been justified and the same is true for the others.
This is so important to say here because as we study Romans, we are going to study a lot of theology—many terms like justification, redemption, propitiation, mortification, sanctification. The evangelical church today has a frighteningly large element within it that believes something like this: “Look, I just want to love Jesus, I don’t want to be a theologian—that’s for people who have been to seminary. I can enjoy a wonderful experience with God without being a student of theology.” Many who teach the Bible in churches are afraid to get into any depth for fear of boring people. There is a myth from the pit of hell which holds that theology is boring except to a few people who seem to have a knack for it. Let me say this, if theology is boring to you, it’s because you have had bad teachers or you really don’t want to know Jesus very well.
People who think they can, over a lifetime, genuinely know God well experientially and delight in the Lord in a biblical sense without deepening understanding of theology, are fooling themselves. They are believing a lie. Many people assume they can revel in God, be enraptured by hid grace for years and years without significantly deepening their understanding of who God is and how He works—they feel justified in remaining an inch deep theologically. Let me say, if you are not growing in your understanding of theology, you are vulnerable to deception of the truth which abounds in the church today and will only increase as Christ’s coming gets closer. More to our point, you will not be growing in your love and delight in God. Oh, you may be having all sorts of purely emotional experiences—the fuzz on the back of your neck may stand on end, but true deep, delight in the Lord always comes from the Holy Spirit and He is the Spirit of TRUTH who guides us all into truth. The main door of delighting in the Lord is the door of truth as the Spirit impresses truth upon us and reveals truth about God to us. It’s as we come to a deeper understanding of truth (and theology, being the study of God,) is really a study of truth because God is truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Later on in Romans Paul says, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” As we know the truth, we are set free to love God more, to delight in him and grow in intimacy with him.
This divorce between our emotional experience of God and our mental understanding of the truth of God is dangerous and accounts for much of the false fervor we have seen in the church which has much heat, but almost no light. God desires a people who delight in an evergrowing understanding of truth—theology, NOT so they can become self proclaimed Bible experts, “knowledge puffs up.” We’ve all met these people—so full of facts about God they sound like a walking bible dictionary. They are very conversant with the latest theological trends and know and can defend to the death, their theological convictions. But their knowledge isn’t driven by a passion to know God, only to know facts. These people are prideful, condescending experts who use their knowledge to impress and intimidate other people. On the contrary, a person who pursues truth to know God will grow more and more humble because the more they understand issues like justification, redemption and propitiation, they are driven to their knees in worship for God’s unspeakable gift. The more God reveals of himself—which is what they want, HIM—the more they humbly live as only sinners saved by God’s grace.
People who truly want to know God will want to learn as much theology as they can. These people have wonderful, emotional experiences with God, but the emotions flow from the beauty of the truth about God and what He has done for them. And their emotions are inspired by the Spirit of truth. They have both the light of knowledge and the heat of passion for God. The more light they receive, the more white-hot they burn in love for God because their growing knowledge of God and his works are the fuel for the fire of their devotion which blazes within them. The truth/theology comes into them, stokes their fire as they meditate on it, and it drives them to their knees in humble worship and obedience. If you are a person who doesn’t like, even eagerly embrace theology, something is wrong. And if you like theology, but your increasing understanding of truth is not causing you to burn hotter in your love for God, then you need to get hold of god and find out why not. Are you pursuing truth to know God, or to become a bible expert? Experts area dime a dozen. What God is looking for is worshippers who allow his truth to feed their passion for him and his glory.
Now that we have heard an apologetic for the necessity of theology and growth in theology, let’s begin to look at some. This morning, let’s look at justification. Now remember, when you hear a theological word like “justification” think of it as a piece of spiritual fuel which, when you understand it more and meditate on it more, will stoke you fire for Christ. If you want to be on fire for Christ, then do theology, but do it with the right heard and motives. Paul says in verse 24, believers are “…justified freely by His(God’s) grace.” What is justification? What does God do when He justifies someone? The term is a legal term. It is the opposite of condemnation. Paul indicates that to justify is opposite of condemnation. Romans 8:33-34 says, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect” It is God who justifies who is to condemn?” We know that to condemn someone is to legally sentence them to death. What is involved in all that? A definition Wayne Grudem has given for justification is this: “Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of a believer’s sin as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) he declares us to be righteous in his sight.”
Let’s take a look at the second half of that definition first. God declares believers to be righteous in hi sight. To declare something is to make a pronouncement. We see the same term applied to God in Luke 7:29. Jesus has just announced to the crowds that John the Baptist was the greatest man born of women. As we pick up the crowd’s response to that statement in verse 29 we read, when they had heard this all the people and the tax collectors (lit.) justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John.” The NIV translates that word into the phrase they “acknowledged that God’s way was right.” They declared that God was righteous. Now, did what these people say, make God righteous? No, they simply declared that God was righteous—they “justified “ God. We must understand that justification does not change the person internally. It is solely a legal declaration that the person is righteous. It’s a bit like the queen of England declaring that someone is a knight or a duke or an Earl. The declaration does nothing to change the person, it simply declares that the person’s status and standing has changed.
We see justification does nothing to change the person internally in texts like Romans 4:5, “And to one who does not work but trusts Him (God) who justifies the ungodly.” Paul is not saying that God makes the person internally righteous because these that have been justified he calls “ungodly.” Justification does not change the person internally, another act of God called regeneration does that. Part of justification is the forgiveness of sins. In justification, God forgives our sins, past, present and future. “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” But that is only part of justification. If we are left there, as only forgiven sinners, we are not righteous before God, we are morally neutral before God. If we were only forgiven, there is no guarantee that God would enter into relationship with us.
Justification does not leave the sinner morally neutral before God. No, He does something else and this brings us to what we said last week. He imputes the very righteousness of Christ to us. Romans 5:19 refers to Christ’s work and says, “by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” The very righteousness of Christ—his fulfillment of the law and his payment of the law’s penalty is transferred to our spiritual resume. Christ’s moral and ethical resume becomes ours. The question which naturally follows from this is: How can God declare us to be not guilty, but righteous when in fact we are unrighteous?
I speak in human terms—is this some sort of smoke and mirrors God is pulling off here? How can he call someone righteous who is in fact unrighteous without compromising hi integrity? The way God does this is he imputes Christ’s righteousness to us. That means he thinks of it as belonging to us. We see this in chapter four where Paul sights the righteousness of Abraham. He says, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Part of understanding how God can impute righteousness to the unrighteous is by examining two other instances when God imputes something to someone. This justifying imputation is actually the third time in salvation history where God imputes something to someone. The first imputation of God in the bible is when Adam sinned, his guilt was imputed to us. Have you ever wondered, “Why do I have to pay for Adam’s sin? Why should I have to drag around this rebellious sin nature just because Adam sinned—aren’t I paying for his mistake?” The reason we will see in chapter five is because all of us were in Adam—He is the Father of the human race. So god imputed the guilt of Adam to the rest of us because we were all in Him. The human race is all “united in Adam” because he is the father, that is, the genetic and spiritual origin and source of all of us when we are born. We are, in that sense, “one in Adam.” The second imputing work of God is when Christ suffered on the cross for us and God imputed our sin to him. The reason God could do this is because fundamentally because Christ, having lived a perfect life and not doing anything deserving of death before God, volunteered to take our sin. He willingly took it on and He had a right to do that because he had no sin of his own to put him to death. Therefore God consented to impute my personal sin, your personal sin to Christ. When Christ was on the cross he became, if you will, “one with our sin”—he became united with our sin—he took it on himself. When he took our sin on himself, he became a curse and died to pay the penalty for our sin because God imputed the guilt of our sin on Him.
Finally, God imputes the righteousness of Christ on all who believe. This is justification. He credits Christ’s righteousness to us. The reason he can do this and not lose his integrity is because in regeneration, which occurs before justification, we are united with Christ. We become “one with Christ” as we are united with him through the Holy Spirit. When God looks at us, he sees the righteousness of Christ and is able to impute His righteousness of Christ to us because we are one with Christ. “Christ in you, the hope of glory. Because we are united with Christ, being one with him, the Father is free to impute to our accounts the very righteousness of Christ.
What a wonderful gift God has given every true believer in Jesus Christ. Just as the sin of Adam and its penalty is imputed to every person born into this world because we are united with him, so too is the righteousness of Christ imputed to all who have been born again into the kingdom of God. The reality of our righteous identity before God now is just as real as our sinful identity was before we were saved. This transfer from the imputation of sin to the imputation of righteousness is all because the Father imputed our sin to His Son on the cross. What a wonderful, life-changing, fire-stoking truth this is. Do you believe this? Do you delight in the Lord as much as you would like to? If not, take this precious truth of justification home and meditate on it, allow it to transform you, to renew your mind. Be a theologian for the glory of God. May God give us the grace to delight in Him as we seek to know the truth.
Page last modified on 12/31/2001
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