Tuesday, May 23, 2017
The Miracle of Justification-Rom. 3:19-26
Years ago on a fishing trip with all of the Dickson boys (cousins and uncles included), we were rained out and decided to hit the theatres one afternoon for a showing of Apollo 13. It is still one of my favorite movies. This film is all about how a Houston-based NASA team guides an Apollo moon-bound crew safely home. At one point in the film, after disaster strikes the Apollo spacecraft, a group of NASA officials assembles in a room with a pile of random parts of the lunar module and is tasked with getting one piece to fit inside another using only those parts that are available. It is an extreme case of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole and to make matter even more precarious, lives are on the line.
This is similar to what Paul discusses in a major transitional passage in the Book of Romans. In Romans 3:19-26 Paul tackles the problem of mankind’s sin and God’s Holy wrath. How is a wicked race of human beings supposed to find salvation if a holy God is unable to tolerate any sin? The two teachings on justification provided in this passage will answer this question.
Justification is Not Connected to the Law-3:19-20
Romans 3:19-20 act as a sort of transition from Paul’s teaching on guilt and sin to justification and salvation. Paul had gone to great lengths to point out how everyone in the world is guilty before God because of sin. Not only that, but as we learned in verses 1-8 of chapter 3, this problem of sin is no small issue. Sin renders people completely incapable of righteousness (both righteous speech and righteous behavior) and on a path leading to death.
People will learn as much about themselves every time they confront the Law of God—“Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God” (3:19). Here, Paul decides to use legal language to suggest that all people are guilty before the bar of God’s justice.
Inasmuch as all are under the law—whether that be the written law of the Old Testament or the law written on the heart—all are guilty because none perfectly follow the law. In the courtroom of life, the law testifies against the human person and the human person has no rebuttal. This is what Paul means when he says “it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed an all the world may become accountable to God” (3:19). The case the law makes against humanity is so compelling that is shuts humanity up! They have no case against the standard of God.
Just to be clear, Paul continues by saying “because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (3:20). The very law that the Jews looked to in order to justify themselves, the very moral code that people believe they have in spades, actually condemns them. In fact, the very law that the Jews and others endorsed to make them righteous was not designed to accomplish this. The best that the law can do is point out the knowledge of sin.
There is a recent commercial for Lifelock that is analogous to what Paul is talking about here. Lifelock is an identity theft service that not only monitors accounts and credit cards, but promises to help remedy breaches and restore one’s full faith and credit if someone manages to sneak past the protections they provide. In the radio spot I’ve heard, the commercials talks about credit monitoring that any bank or credit card company performs, but them states something to the effect of “these services only monitor your credit and tell you when there is a problem.” In one version of the spot, they compare this kind of service to a dentist who tells a patient they have a major oral issue, only to then say that he/she can do nothing to help fix it! This is similar to the law. Though some were tempted to believe that knowledge of the law would get them out of a bind and make them right before God on some level, the law is only designed to point out problems, not fix them.
In other words, the law is capable of illuminating one’s need, not solving it. This important truth must be settled before Paul can move on to discuss the true nature of justification. Justification is not adherence to the law of God or found in good works that are in keeping with the law. The law’s purpose is to point out our need, convict us in court, and demonstrate how desperately we need the Lord to do what only He can do. Looking to the law for salvation is like unsuccessfully attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole. So if this method of solving the problem of human salvation from sin and God’s holiness is unsuccessful, is there any hope? Hurry! Lives are at stake!
Justification comes by Faith in Christ-3:21-26
In a huge pivot, Paul proceeds in verse 21 by saying “but now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets.” “But now” signals the transition from the sobering and depressing portrait of sinful humanity (1:18-3:20) to the celebration of the salvation available through God’s righteousness in Christ (Moo, 82). “Now” insinuates that there is a new era of salvation that has dawned with the coming of Christ. Christ is uniquely qualified to usher in this new era as He alone, apart from the law, has perfectly manifested the righteousness of God. In addition to pointing out the human need for salvation, the law (and the prophets) predicted that there would be one who could satisfy this need. This is what is meant by “being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets” (3:21). “Law and the Prophets” is one way to refer to the Old Testament witness as a whole. “Paul makes clear that although God’s activity of making people right before Him takes place outside the parameters of the law…it is an activity that the Old Testament looks forward to and predicts” (Moo, 82).
But where in the Old Testament does it predict that salvation is in Jesus? The better question might be “Where in the Old Testament is this not predicted?”
Genesis 3:15 predicts one who will forever annihilate the power of sin, the exodus story is one large illustration of how Jesus will free those enslaved to sin and bring them into freedom, the near sacrifice of Isaac and the replacement ram tell of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement for iniquity, Ruth’s salvation out of desperation via her kinsman redeemer is a beautiful analogy of how Christ accomplishes the same for his own, Isaiah 53 predicts the nature of this redemption on the cross, and the list goes on and on.
All of these passages demonstrate that while the law can’t justify a person in the courtroom of God, it does predict who can.
Paul expands on this as he continues his important delineation of justification—“even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (3:22a). Against those who would place their faith in the law, their own abilities, or in themselves for justification, Paul says that being acquitted from our sin and punishment in God’s courtroom comes through placing faith in Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 2:8-9-“For by grace are you saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves. It is a gift, not of works, lest any man should boast.”
To the question “How are sinners made right before God?” Paul says “God acts in Christ to put people in right relationship with himself. But this act cannot finally be accomplished without human response” (Moo, 83).
“People must believe in Christ to experience for themselves God’s righteousness” (Moo, 83). Paul makes this perfectly clear when he adds “for all those who believe;…” (3:22b). The participle form of “believe” calls to mind those who trust in the good news of Jesus Christ and in so doing become a follower of him. These are those who are acquitted of sin before God and are imputed with God’s righteousness, thereby rendering them in a right relationship with the holy Judge. To whom does this apply? Potentially anyone! “For there is no distinction.” Salvation is not reserved for an elite group or particular nation or specific ethnic background.
The potentiality for salvation matches the reality of sin—“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). This is the truth that Paul has reiterated time and time again throughout the beginning of Romans. Though it is quite bleak to gaze upon the world only to realize that all are standing trial because of their sin and in very real danger of deserved punishment, it is an equally compelling and yet glorious truth that people can, without distinction, be acquitted, saved, and receive God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ through faith.
Not only is justification by faith, it is a gift—“being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (3:24). In other words, rather than working for it or earning it, justification it bestowed. It not so much earned as it is freely given. That is why it is called grace and why salvation is so sweet.
Such a teaching runs complimentary with what Paul said earlier about the power of the law. Many had believed, especially the Jews, for many years that if they could just carry out the law, they would maintain a good relationship with God. However, as Paul has already said, the law is not good for that—it is only good at pointing out our flaws. Therefore, being right with God is not so much about one can do, but what God has provided.
When people could not redeem themselves, Jesus provided redemption and as a result offers justification as a gift of grace.
However, though the gift is free for the recipient, it came at an enormous cost to Jesus Christ. As Paul continues to describe the nature of justification, he reminds the reader that it came at a high price—“whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (3:25a). “Propitiation” is “the act of appeasing another person’s anger by the offering of a gift” and its use here helps the reader understand how God is able to tolerate those who are justified.
Those who are still in their sin (see Romans 1-3) are wretched in God’s eyes. He cannot stand what He sees and His holiness requires that men and women be punished. In order to turn his wrath into blessing and relationship, God’s wrath upon the unbelieving world had to be satisfied (He has to punish it somehow). Enter Jesus who took the punishment for the unbelieving world. When Christ died on the cross, God’s punishment against sin was poured out upon Him so that it would not have to be conferred upon those who are justified by faith and have this satisfaction applied to their case.
To help illustrate this point, Paul applies a popular Jewish image—Passover—and says “this was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God he passed over the sins previously committed” (3:25b).
Centuries prior to the writing of Romans, God’s people were enslaved by the Egyptians. In an effort
to change Pharaoh’s hardened heart and free the slaves, God issued several plagues that each exacerbated Pharaoh’s resolve. However, the last plague would change all this (at least temporarily). It involved an angel of death that moved throughout Egypt and killed the firstborn of every household—that is the firstborn of any household that did not apply the blood of a precious lamb on its doorposts. For these latter homes, death and wrath passed over. The blood of the lamb acted as a satisfaction for God—something died (a lamb) in the place of the first born—so that God would not have to execute any inside.
This is what Jesus provided on the cross for those who are enslaved to sin. Jesus is the perfect lamb whose blood was applied to the doorposts of the redeemed (those who believe in faith, receive grace, and are justified). As a result, when God’s holy wrath moves upon the earth, it passes over those who have been justified. God says—“someone has already paid for that one. Their case has already been satisfied and the penalty has been fulfilled.”
It is clear by this point that Jesus Christ, not the law, not the individual, is at the very center of justification. He is the correct destination of one’s faith, the One who redeems, the One who gives grace, and the One who provides satisfaction for the wrath of God. The centrality of Christ in God’s program of justification is celebrated in verse 26—“for the demonstration, I say, of HIs righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” He is the key that unlocks the potential for lost people to be saved, while preserving the righteousness of God.
“There can be no gospel unless there is such a thing as a righteousness of God for the ungodly” (there is no good news unless sinful people can be made right). “But just as little can there be any gospel unless the integrity of God’s character be maintained” (God has to remain holy himself and punish sin). “The problem of the sinful world, the problem of all religion, the problem of God in dealing with a sinful race, is how to unite these two things” (God has to punish sin with death with people can be justified and escape judgment). The Christian answer to the problem is given by Paul…” It is Jesus Christ and his program of justification. (quoted portions from James Denney). Because He stood in the sinner’s place and received the wrath of God as the perfect sacrifice, He alone is able to bestow the grace of justification for all who believe and allow God to maintain His holy character.
As we’ve learned so far in Romans, mankind is in a desperate situation—even more desperate than those astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission. In our life’s journey to exciting places, sin has interrupted things and totally veered us off course. Something radical and miraculous must take place to get us home alive and safe. Like those astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission and the teams scrambling to fit a square peg in a round hole, men and women have worked hard to find alternative solutions to put themselves right with God to no avail. No amount of human ingenuity, good works, or law keeping is able to accomplish what Jesus alone has already provided. Jesus is the answer to the problem of human sin. Praise be to God for the Lord Jesus Christ! He came, died in our place, and gives us his righteousness so that we can have a relationship with God! All we have to do is believe and follow Him!