God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:25-26 ESV)
These have long been favorite verses of mine, but they hit me with fresh power this morning. I’m going through Romans now in BSF, after going through the whole book in a men’s study in church earlier this year. All the while I’ve been listening to Piper’s 225 sermons on Romans, and it has been great to be saturated in this hard-work-but-very-much-worth-it exploration of the Gospel. But until this morning, I hadn’t ever gotten the connection of these verses with what comes before it in Romans. Sure God is just and our justifier. That’s poetic, and cool, and beyond what we could do. But as I seem to find more often than I thought, Paul is not just making this pithy point, he’s putting that pithy point as the pinnacle of his proposal: the propitiation of the wrath of God, while accomplishing his purposes for our pleasure in Jesus.
To set up more fully why it doesn’t normally work to be both just and a justifier, it may help to remind ourselves of what Paul has said so far. Almost everything up to 3:20 could be summarized as “we have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin” (3:9). In consequence, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven” (1:8). So on the one hand, we are all under sin. On the other, God’s wrath is being revealed against that sin. Put those together, and God’s wrath would seem to be revealed against all of us.
Looking at God’s justice, I hope most of us would agree that not punishing sin would not be just. A judge who throws out a charge against a criminal without good reason is not a good judge. Even if he really likes him. Even if the criminal knows his son, and has eaten at his house — and perhaps especially so, as that perversion of justice would result from a conflict of interests.
Considering God’s power to justify, we wouldn’t normally see executing wrath as a corrective measure. I guess some people look at prisons as institutes of reform, not punishment, but I’m not sure there’s evidence of that actually working. And given God’s power, and the extent to which his justice and holiness have been violated, he isn’t going to rain brimstone down on you (or turn you to a pillar of salt), then say, “would you please do better next time?”
So as we see the sinfulness of humanity laid bare in the first three chapters of Romans, it becomes clear that God’s wrath is not only justified, but necessary to satisfy any kind of real justice. But that very wrath puts at jeopardy any possibility of reconciliation, so how could God do anything to help us?
On the other hand, if God chooses to forebear his wrath (despite the sin as Paul has laid it out in such painstaking detail), that puts in jeopardy any claim that God is just.
I’ve heard a number of variations of this “Problem of sin” or “Problem of evil” in the world. If God is all powerful, how come he doesn’t remove evil from the world? Others would say why doesn’t he punish evil? Some would say where was he during that last hurricane? Others would say why did he bring that hurricane? It’s like we can’t decide which is worse: believing that God is all-powerful and causes things we don’t like, or that he’s not all-powerful, and is up there wringing his hands at all these horrible things going on (either by accident, or by some competing and/or greater power). Either God really is the Just Judge of all creation, or he is our Faithful Friend; he can’t be both.
This is, I think, the problem set up by Paul in Romans up to this point. But in these verses he shows us the beauty and elegance of God’s plan in Jesus. When he talks about Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in vv24-25, he says God “did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” Paul recognizes that God’s not punishing sin is a problem, so he clarifies that God was only postponing punishment, he wasn’t absolving sin willy-nilly. Rather than leave himself open to a charge of injustice, he does punish sin, though he does it at the right time, after much patience and endurance (9:22), and in the right way.
And this is where “to demonstrate his righteousness” can have a double meaning. On the one hand, God is showing that his judgment is right; he is a just judge, punishing sin. On the other hand, he is making his righteousness clear, plain, and available to us in Jesus. This is the sense of “the righteousness of God” that the Holy Spirit used to open Martin Luther’s eyes. It is not (only) that God is showing how right he is by punishing us, but it is (also) that he shows us Jesus, the right one, who calls to be reconciled to God, and who provides his righteousness to us – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2Cor 5:21)
So “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement… to demonstrate his righteousness” in these two senses. The one allows God to show that he is just in punishing sin. The other allows God to show that he is faithful to us calling us to be right, by showing us the only one who ever was, and by providing that righteousness for us. This is how God can be “just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus”.
In the end, it becomes clear that this is our only hope. One resolution to the problem of God not punishing all sin now above is to point out that if he did, we would all be condemned. We must understand that Romans 1:18-3:20 applies to us as individuals. If you don’t have that yet, I encourage you to read it again. You can’t complain that God didn’t strike Hitler down (sooner), without also complaining why you are still alive yourself –unless you’re willing to maintain an inconsistent standard yourself.
The only way for God to be just is to punish sin. And the only way to reconcile us to himself is to not punish us (or not as much as we deserve, anyway). Which is where Jesus comes in. At one point he basically asked the Father to find another way, but there apparently wasn’t one, and so Jesus went through with it (Matt 26:37-46). He showed us a perfect life, then took our punishment, so we wouldn’t have to. This allowed for justice to be satisfied, since sin was punished, but it also allows for us to see true righteousness face to face in Jesus, to fall in love with him, and to thereby be reconciled to God.
This is how “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven” (1:18) and “the righteousness of God has been made known” (3:21), allowing God “to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (3:26). God is just, and I am saved, in Jesus.