It’s been quite the hiatus from this blog and I can’t promise that there will be more frequent posts after this. Unfortunately we’ve entered a very busy season. But since I had some time today, I thought I’d go ahead and get this written.
The other day I read Romans 3 and there was a paragraph in there that gave me a Gospel hammer to the head. It was so powerful that I had to break it down bit by bit to digest it. So please bear with me as I hash this out for myself (and anyone else interested enough to actually read this).
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom 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. It 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.” (Romans 3:21-26)
Wow, is this not amazing? Maybe you don’t see it. Paul is making an incredible point here. God has manifested his righteousness apart from the law – apart from my good works or the good works of my parents. It’s the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Righteousness through faith? What a wacky concept. It doesn’t really compute in my analytical mind. Our acute sense of right from wrong – our beloved consciences – tell us that right is only right when you yourself think it, feel it, and do it. There is no such thing as righteousness apart from the law to a fallen creature who has eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. “We must justify ourselves,” our consciences say. That is, if we believe justification is necessary at all. An honest sinner will admit that justification is necessary, but they’ll usually find that justification within themselves (i.e. “There is no God, I’m fine.” “He deserved it, so I’m fine.” “I’m a pretty good person overall, so I’m fine.”). An honest Christian will admit that justification is necessary and that they can’t do it themselves with the law of God as the standard of righteousness. So what are we to do?
“…For there is no distinction: for all have sinned (read: transgressed the law) and fall short of the glory of God. We are justified (because we need it, remember?) by his grace as a gift.” Woah. Grace. As in I don’t deserve it, as in justice under the law would be punishment, damnation, death. A gift! As in free, as in “not the wages I earn from all my works of righteousness.” And the gift is given through the redemption that is IN Christ Jesus. Side note: where in the world did we get all this “asking Jesus into my heart” stuff? Does it say: “…and are justified by his grace as a gift through asking Jesus into your heart”? No, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. It’s not that he needs to be in us, but that we need to be in him. How? We’ll get to that.
“…Whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.” Two things stand out. One, God did it. He “put Jesus forward,” he offers the solution. As Paul will say in a second, he is both just AND the justifier. It’s as if you were in court and your judge sees that you’re guilty, knows you should be condemned, and so instead of sending you to jail, he sends himself to jail! Kooky! What good does that do? You’re still standing there guilty right? No, the second thing that stands out is “propitiation.”
Propitiation is wrapped up in the idea of atonement. Under the law in the Old Testament the presence of God was kept in the Ark of the Covenant. On the Day of Atonement (today celebrated as Yom Kippur) there were two lambs. The high priest would lay his hands on the first lamb and symbolically transfer the sins of the people of Israel to it. It would be killed, the blood would be sprinkled on the cover of the Ark, known as the “mercyseat,” and God’s wrath would be appeased. Jesus is the true and better atonement lamb. Propitiation is also tied to the idea of expiation. On the Day of Atonement there was also a second lamb that the high priest would lay his hands on, only this one was not killed. It was sent out into the woods, chased away never to return. Jesus death expiated our problem of sin and propitiated us as people. Make sense? But the crazy thing is, God satisfied his own wrath by providing a sacrifice and a scapegoat for us. It’s kind of like in the story of Abraham and Isaac when God provides his own sacrifice (see Genesis 22:1-14). P.S. All of this is “…the Law and the Prophets bearing witness…”
It’s as if that courtroom judge sends his son (his only son) to the electric chair for you – and that son also happens to be himself. It’s all very wacky. Ok, it feels like we’ve come a long way from the idea of righteousness by faith, but Paul’s getting there. These are all facts that we must understand to make this work:
“…and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Boom, there it is: the “how.” We’re justified by faith! Crazy! The woman with the issue of blood was healed by her faith, right? She just believed that touching Jesus’ garment would make her well and it did (see Mark 5:24-34). Perhaps we complicate faith too much. Maybe it’s not this vague, abstract concept to be studied and experimented on. It’s just childlike belief. Know who Jesus is, understand what he did, recognize that it was necessary (that’s called repentance, you realize all of a sudden that you need this stuff I’m talking about) and then believe it. Read it. Believe it. Do it. Do what? Live out the Gospel. You’ll become more like Jesus, you’ll have a new nature. It’s a miracle! It’s called regeneration. And then as you “do” the Gospel it’s called sanctification. Bring us home Paul.
“…This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It 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.” We can’t be justified apart from the law, our consciences say. We must justify ourselves, but we can’t. This is why the Gospel is for both the self-righteous and the sinner, the Pharisee and the tax collector, the church kid and the drug addict. It’s for me. God is just AND the justifier. He is the beginning and the end. He created it all, he owns it all, he’s making it all work, it’s for his glory (and our good – amazing!) and he’ll finish it.
Amazing grace – what a wacky idea that I would have never thought of.