MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 3, 2000 FROM ROMANS 3:21-4:25

 

          This week, we continue our task of providing a broad overview of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  This telescopic, survey approach to a book is intended to give us the big picture of Paul’s argument here.  We know the main theme of Romans is “the gospel of Jesus Christ.”  In Romans, Paul lays out, in comprehensive form, the gospel.  He answers the question, “How does God bring individual sinners into relationship with himself?”  Last week, we saw that Paul begins his treatment of Romans by establishing the need for the gospel.  He tells us why the gospel is necessary.  This only makes sense.  If the guiding question of the letter is, “How does God bring individual sinners into relationship with himself?” it only follows that Paul begin by explaining the dismal plight of the sinner without the gospel.  What is it that is so awful about being a sinner before God that would require a gospel to bring salvation to them?  Paul says in 1:16-17 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes:  first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.  For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: the righteous will live by faith.”

          In 1:18-3:21, Paul tells us the great and horrific problem with sinful humanity is; we are saturated with unrighteousness.  That is, we are by nature and behavior in rebellion against God and his standard of conduct.  Adam, through his sin brought this rebellious unrighteousness into the human family and Paul tells us that a righteous, holy God has a response to this, his wrath.  Ultimately, Paul’s argument in this section is; the wrath of God against the unrighteousness of sinful humanity is what makes the gospel necessary.  We saw from chapter one this unrighteousness is expressed in two fundamental ways.  First, in verse 18, the unrighteousness in the sinner causes them “to suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”  That is, instead of looking at the evidence of God’s creation and appropriately responding by acknowledging God and even worshipping him, the unrighteousness in the sinner causes him to do just the opposite.  Though there is compelling evidence in creation to cause humanity to worship God, they instead turn away from him.  A second root expression of this unrighteousness is the sinner’s rebellious desire to worship god’s other than the true God.  G.K Chesterton said, when “we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.”

          Paul moves on in chapter one to say that this wrath of God is actually being revealed in this life against the sinner.  This wrath is seen in the fact that God, instead of restraining these sinful impulses caused by the sinners’ unrighteousness, He instead, “gives them over” to them.  God let’s them run without restraint into the self-destructive sin they crave.  He allows the obsessive, idolatrous appetites to completely dominate the sinner so they will run full speed ahead into sin with all its destructive power.  Paul says this refusal of God to intervene to stop the wrecking ball of sin in the sinner’s life is His wrath being revealed against their unrighteousness.  In chapter two, Paul argues that this unrighteousness is present not only in those who sin with reckless abandon, but also in those who are outwardly religious.  He says these people too are subject to God’s wrath because, even though they may cluck their tongues at sinners, they practice the same things.  God will not overlook any sin, whether committed by a pagan or a religious person.  His wrath falls on all sin.  Finally, in chapter three, Paul spends most of his time delineating the extent and the depth of the unrighteousness of humanity.  In a scathing indictment against unrighteous humanity, Paul makes it clear there is nothing of any spiritual good in any fallen sinner.  There is nothing, nothing, nothing in any sinner that would in a million years commend them to God.  In fact, just the opposite.  There is a magnificent amount of darkness and depravity and death in the heart of the sinner that makes the only disposition God can take toward them (apart from his mercy) to reign down his furious wrath upon them.  In the last verses of this section, Paul erases any hope that the problem of our unrighteousness can be solved by following the Old Testament law.  He says in 3:20, “no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.”  The law is not God’s solution for the problem of our unrighteousness.

          Once Paul has established the need for the gospel in chapters 1-3:20, beginning in 3:21 he begins to lay out the glorious gospel which meets this huge need of the sinner’s unrighteousness.  As he begins this section, Paul launches into what is arguably the most compressed section of theology found anywhere in the New Testament.  When we studied this in July of 98, we spend four messages to cover just 3:21-25.  These verses, simply put, convey the very heart of the gospel message.  Paul stuffs this short section with rich, glorious theological language.  These five verses contain most of the content of this entire section which ends with 4:25.  So, this morning we will give an overview of the heart of the gospel—God’s glorious good news that alone answers the question, “How does God bring sinners into relationship with Himself?” 

          Beginning in 3:21, Paul says, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

          As you read that text, it is apparent that it is just chocked full of theological language.  In one text, you get words like, “justified,” “redemption,” “sacrifice of atonement” or more  in some translations, “propitiation.”  Add to that “grace” and “faith” and you have a veritable theological dictionary in this text.  And those words are so important because they drive the meaning of this text.  Those words and what they represent are the foundation of the gospel.  If you are a Christian who finds theology distasteful, then you find the gospel distasteful because the truth of the gospel is built on these foundation stones of theological language.  If we don’t have a good understanding and appreciation for words like justification and propitiation, then we will necessarily have a superficial appreciation for what God has done for us in the gospel.  It is because of this that every Christian must be a theologian.  Without the theological structure, the skeleton of the gospel, the message just collapses in on itself and degenerates into little more than a warm, syrupy hug from a God.

This text, with these words at the heart, answers five questions.  These questions are:  1. How does God make an unrighteous sinner legally righteous? 2.  Why would God make a sinner legally righteous? 3.  What does God do with his holy wrath that sinners rightfully deserve?  4.  What is the sinner’s role in this process? 5.  What was required of God to make sinners righteous? At the center of each one of the answers to those questions is one of those theological words in this text we mentioned.  The answer to the first question, how does God make an unrighteous sinner legally righteous is found in verse 24.  Paul says there, believers are, “…justified freely by His [God’s] grace.”  God makes sinners legally righteous by justifying them.  One of the most beautiful words a believer can hear is “justification.”

What is justification? The word is a legal term.  In the legal realm, justification is opposite to condemnation.  Romans 8:33-34 says, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies, who is to condemn?  Do you hear the way those two terms are juxtaposed against one another?  We know that to condemn someone is to legally sentence them to death.  A definition Wayne Grudem has given to justification is, “Justification is an instantaneous, legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of a believer sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) he declares us to be righteous in his sight.” God declares believers to be righteous in his sight.  To declare something is to make a pronouncement.  Justification does not change a person internally.  Now, there are elements of the gospel that do that and we will get to them—regeneration, sanctification and glorification.  But, justification is solely a legal declaration.  Part of justification is the forgiveness of sins.  In justification, God forgives our sins, past, present and future.  But that is only part of justification.  If we are left as only forgiven sinners, that does not make us righteous in God’s sight, we are only morally neutral, neither righteous or unrighteous, simply pardoned of our crimes against God.  You don’t get to heaven simply by being pardoned.  The requirement for having a relationship with God is not simply the absence of guilt, but the presence of a “positive” righteousness—in fact, the righteousness of God.

          In the gospel, we are not only pardoned, but we are made legally righteous by God imputing the righteousness of Christ to us.  Chapter 5:19 is speaking of Christ and says, “by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”  When Christ came to earth, he lived a perfectly righteous life.  His life and death perfectly conformed to the law.  He fulfilled the law perfectly.  In justification, God transfers Christ’s spiritual resume and makes it ours.  We have been given (as one pastor has said) an “alien righteousness”—the righteousness of Christ.  This is called the imputation of righteousness.  Part of understanding how God can impute righteousness to the unrighteous is seen when we look at two other instances in the Bible when God imputes something to someone.  The first imputation of God in the Bible is when Adam sinned, his guilt was imputed to all of humanity and we bear that imputation of Adam’s sin.  All of us were in or in some way united to Adam as the father of the human race, so God imputed the guilt of Adam to the rest of us.

The second imputing work of God is when Christ suffered on the cross for us and God imputed our sin to him.  Christ willingly took our sin on himself and he had a right to do that because he had no sin of his own to put him to death.  Just as believers bear an alien righteousness, the righteousness of Christ, on the cross Christ bore an alien sin, ours.  This is done by imputation. God credits, puts on the believer’s spiritual account the righteousness of Christ—the very righteousness he lived out here on earth for 33 odd years.  This is how God makes unrighteous sinners, who deserve nothing but his eternal wrath, righteous.  He justifies them, forgiving their sin which stands against Him and positively imputing to them the righteousness of Christ.  They have, in one sense, the same legal standing before God as his holy, spotless Son.

          A second question this text in Romans three in part answers is Why would God make a sinner legally righteous?”  We must stress that this text only gives part of the answer, but the part it gives is glorious.  In verse 24, it says we are “justified freely by his grace.  Part of the reason why God makes sinners righteous is seen in this attribute of God called grace.  If we are going to understand grace, we must first see that grace is an expression of God’s love along with his attributes of mercy and benevolence.  They are simply different facets or expressions of his love.  Grace is one of the conduits through which God expresses his love to sinners.  Why would God transfer his Son’s righteousness to us at the expense of his Son’s life?  In part, because he loves us.  Chapter five verse eight says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  The Bible teacher Donald Grey Barnhouse understood grace as an expression of God’s love.  Barnhouse is quoted as saying, “Love that goes upward is worship; love that goes outward is affection; love that stoops is grace.”  God, in the soaring heights of his own holiness and righteousness, stoops down, bends over and lifts sinners to himself through His Son.  

God calls unrighteous humanity to be like himself—to be on his level, morally and ethically.  Humanity looks up from the bottomless pit of sin into the face of a holy God.  We are helpless, utterly powerless to stop our rapid descent into the bowels of hell.  The fallen sinner can in no way lift himself to God’s level.  So God, in his gracious love, through His Son, stoops down and reaches down into the pit and picks us up out of the darkness, forgives us and gives us the righteousness of Jesus, elevating us to his own towering level of perfect righteousness.  This is done, in part because, before the foundation of time, God purposed in his heart to love us who believe.

A third question about the gospel is What does God do with his wrath against all unrighteousness?  We have said that because God is holy and hates sin and because he is just and must punish sin, his wrath cannot simply be dismissed or “written off.”  This would violate God’s character.  We see what happened to his wrath in verse 25.  Paul writes of Jesus, “God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement…”  The word is also translated, “propitiation.”  To propitiate someone is to appease their anger.  Placed within this context we have a holy God who is angry at the sin of sinners.  Make no mistake.  This is not politically correct, but it is true.  The glory of the gospel is seen in the fact that Christ came and incarnated himself—became a man so that he could be the legitimate human target for the arrow of God’s wrath and therefore appease God’s anger against humanity.  God wasn’t angry with His Son, but His Son incarnated—became a human being and agreed to represent sinful humanity on the cross, taking our sin upon himself.  When he did that, God the Father was free to legitimately spend his wrath, unleash his fury on the substitute He had provided.   

Jonathan Edwards pictured God’s wrath by the use of the metaphor of archery.   The bow of God’s wrath had been aimed at you and me—bent back, strained by the holy justice of God and was released from the string and found its target instead in His Son on Calvary.  Jesus took the lethal arrow that we deserved.  He was pierced, he suffered the wrath of God’s holy hatred for sin.  God’s wrath will NOT be poured out on those he has saved because HIS wrath, which we have all richly earned, was appeased on Calvary.  This is propitiation.

Also related to propitiation is another reason God did this to His Son.  In verse 25b he says this was done “…to demonstrate [God’s] justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”  God poured out his wrath not only to propitiate his anger, but also to vindicate his righteousness.  We know that God is holy and must punish sin and yet, as we look in the Old Testament, God on several occasions simply let sin go unpunished.  The most famous example of this is probably the case of King David.  In the entire debacle with Bathsheba, David commits multiple sins that are worth of the death penalty. 

So why didn’t Nathan lead a procession to take David out and stone him?  In 2 Samuel 12:13 God says to David through Nathan, “The Lord has taken away your sin.  You are not going to die.”  Although David would have to pay the consequences of his sin—a broken family and kingdom, there was no penalty attached to it.  David reflects on the incredible mercy of God in Psalm 32:2, “How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity.”  God was merciful to David, but that mercy meant that David’s sin, along with countless other people who lived before Christ, had gone unpunished.  And this by a holy God who MUST punish sin?  Romans 3:25 tells us how God was able to do that without compromising his justice or righteousness.

          The reason God was able, in His mercy to repeatedly—again and again simply pass over sins without compromising his righteousness is because, in eternity past, within the sacred confines of the Holy Trinity, He had devised a plan for him to be patient and merciful to the sinner without compromising His integrity as a righteous God who must punish sin.  God was able to express mercy time after time to sinners who, like David, deserved death without compromising his righteousness because as those sins were being committed, he knew His wrath for those sins would be spent…on His Son.  What this means is that when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane praying to His Father, he knows that the Father has this vast, ocean of wrath stored up as penalty for the huge warehouse of sins that had been previously passed over.  God’s anger at the sin of David and all the other Old Testament saints… was waiting for Jesus.

Those past sins, the sins of his own time period, not to mention the sins that would come after, the holy wrath of God for all those sins was waiting for Jesus.  When Christ was on the cross, all the stored up wrath and anger God had, in his mercy postponed, slammed against his Son in a torrential flood of divine fury.  The damn of God’s forbearance which had been holding back the torrent of stored up, holy wrath was torn down and unleashed on Christ and Jesus drank that ocean of divine wrath to the dregs.  We must know that Christ’s death was first for God, to vindicate his righteousness.  It was to manifest the wisdom, mercy, grace, forbearance and wrath of a holy God.

The fourth question is:  What is the sinner’s role in this process?    What is our part in this gospel that makes unrighteous, wrath-bearing sinners into legally righteous, forgiven saints?  Verse 21 gives us the answer when it says, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”   We receive the righteousness of Christ’s life and death by simply receiving it by faith.  Robert Haldane, the great Puritan scholar said faith, “perceives and acknowledges the excellence and suitability of God’s righteousness, and cordially embraces it.”  Faith looks at our own miserable unrighteousness and rejects it as inadequate to merit anything from a holy God.  Then, upon seeing the righteousness of Christ offered by God, this faith eagerly, ravenously snatches it up as the  pearl of great price, as the treasure buried in a field, as our only hope of ever standing before God.  Faith looks at the sin-caked heart of the sinner in all of its blackness and then looks at the righteous life of Christ and it says, “I receive it. I receive Christ.  I receive His perfect fulfillment of the law in exchange for my daily rebellion against the law.  I receive Christ’s perfect faith in exchange for my doubt and self-reliance.  I receive Christ’s perfect motivation in living only for the glory of God and reject as futile my self-oriented life and motives.  And I receive Christ’s righteous payment for the penalty of my sin.  I renounce my hopeless inability to pay for my sin.  I receive his satisfaction of the holy wrath of God.  I take it as mine because it has been graciously offered to me—not because I have done anything to deserve it, but because God in his grace offers it to me.”

The voice of faith says, “Oh God, as a believer I will seek to obey you because you’ve given me a new heart, but I will never offer THAT obedience to you for my salvation.  Even my most sincere obedience as a believer is tainted with sin and self.  I offer that obedience to you in response to what you have done, but I will never trust in that to save me.  I rest my entire hope of salvation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which you have graciously offered as a substitute for my sin and rebellion.”  The voice of faith says with the hymn writer, “My hope is built on nothing less that Jesus’ blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.  On Christ the solid rock I stand; All other ground is sinking sand.”  This faith is a gift of God so that no one will be able to boast before God or look down their nose at anyone in hell and say, “Well, if you would have only had faith like me, you wouldn’t be down there.” Even saving faith is a gift of the gospel so that salvation can be totally of God for His glory alone.

The final question about the gospel this text answers is What was required of God to make sinners legally righteous?  Verse 24 says that we “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  Though our righteousness is free to us by the grace of God, it wasn’t free to God.  We know it came at an exquisite price and that price is conveyed in that word “redemption.”  Redemption means “release by payment” or more simply, “ransom.”  God paid a terrible price to Himself, not Satan, to release us from the bondage and penalty of sin.  He gave his Son’s blood to purchase our freedom and that is what we remember in the Lord’s Supper which is the “word acted out.”

 

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