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Home Sermons ‘Justification’ God’s words

‘Justification’ God’s words

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‘Justification’  God’s words [4]
Romans 3:9-26 & 5:1-5

By David Calderwood

This is our fourth week of thinking through God’s words that describe his saving activity. We sing the words in our songs, and use them in small group studies, ticking the boxes of approval and faithful bible teaching even though we don’t know how the words operate and fit together.

And our word this morning – Justification – is in the same boat. We commonly summarise the gospel in the words: being justified by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. But what does that mean?
Does the Bible mean what we mean when we use the word? A person might justify their actions – they give a reason for or a defence of their actions. So, what is it to be justified?

God’s good news gospel is what God has done to deal with our sin and put us back into right relationship with him. Therefore Justification is at the heart of what it means to be forgiven; and at the heart of why Jesus died for us; and at the heart of how we get and enjoy new relationship with God, even though as Christians we continue to sin.

So, once again the challenge is to understand this term so that we might have a proper understanding of our own salvation, and so that we might be able to live confidently as sinners in relationship with God; and also that we might tell our friends the right thing when we speak the gospel to them.

So, let’s turn to Romans 3:21-26 , where it is explained by Paul. One writer suggested that this paragraph is probably the most important paragraph ever written because it spells out how a person can get back into relationship with God.

The first point to note is God’s dilemma and that of the sinner. Look at verse 21. The issue at hand is sin and righteousness or a standard of behaviour that is acceptable to God. The context to this verse is really important and lies in Paul’s argument, which begins back in 1:18 – turn to it now.

Paul’s argument is very simple. Wherever there is sin, then there is God’s wrath or anger and judgment on that sin. And that means every person is under God’s wrath or anger and judgment because nobody treats God as he deserves.

Nobody lives in the light of what they know about God. Not the uncivilised tribesman, 1:21-32, who has some basic knowledge of God in creation; not the highly civilised Romans, 2:1-16, who had a God-given conscience of what is right and wrong; and not the highly religious Jews either, 2:17-3:8.

All people everywhere deliberately reject what they know about God; set up their own idea of God in his place; reject God’s truth and God’s standard of behaviour to do their own thing. 

The consequence of all this is spelled out by Paul in 3:9-20. Every person who has ever lived or breathed in this world is rightly judged by God to be a sinner, and rightly under his wrath or anger and judgement. There is nobody who achieves God’s standard of behaviour, and therefore nobody who is acceptable to God.
And here lies God’s dilemma. From the beginning of the world he had stated his intention to build a great community of people loved by him and intimately related to him. But how can God do that when at the same time he cannot, and will not have anything to do with sin and rebellion because he is the Holy God? God’s dilemma is how to accept sinners as though they were not sinners?

But people are also in a real dilemma because all instinctively sin or reject God and do their own thing, which will never be acceptable to God. They are caught going the wrong way in a one way street, unwilling and unable to honour and serve God as he demands. In fact, 3:20, the more we know of God’s law or God’s standard, the guiltier we appear.

And that leads to the second point to note in these verses, which is also what we call the good news gospel - God’s initiative to put us into right relationship with him. Look at verse 21 again.

God has acted to give us the righteousness we could never have achieved on our own. It is a righteousness or an acceptance before him that is not dependent on sinful people getting it right by their own efforts. And it was something that was in the pipeline since the time of the giving of the Ten Commandments and the prophets.

In verse 22-23 Paul tells us how we are to think about this initiative.
First: This righteousness or acceptance before God is something that comes to sinners from God. It is not something that is sourced in a person
Second: It is only available to you if you despair of your own efforts to please God and simply trust Jesus to sort out your relationship with God for you.
Third: It is available to anyone, and everyone, who is willing to put out their hand and take this gift of salvation and acceptance that comes from God through Jesus.

Friends, God’s initiative resolves his dilemma. It is God’s way of creating relationship and fellowship with those who are sinful and rightly deserve nothing but his condemnation and judgment. That is why it is such a good news gospel!

And this leads to the third point to note. How God’s initiative in the death of Jesus works? Look at verse 24. This new relationship with God, this new acceptance of us by God is achieved through the death of Jesus and is a totally free gift to us, even though it costs God heaps.

But HOW, precisely, does the death Of Jesus put us back into right relationship with God? The three key words in verses 24-25 explain the process. Look at the little salvation triangle. Justification is something God the father does as a direct consequence of two things that Jesus’ death achieves – redemption and propitiation, the word the NIV wrongly translates as a sacrifice of atonement.

Let me use the illustration I often use to help us understand exactly what Jesus’ death achieves. And girls and boys, this might help you understand some difficult ideas. Suppose a child is caught stealing money from his dad. Obviously the relationship between parent and child is broken. What is needed to restore the relationship?

Most obviously the crime of stealing has to be addressed and punished if justice is to be done. And then Dad’s wrath or anger and condemnation because of the way he has been treated and at the breach of trust needs to be dealt with. Finally dad will demand a change of heart and attitude, and new obedience in the child in the future. All three things must be fixed up if the relationship is to be restored between Father and child.

Jesus death is just like this. First, Jesus’ death pays the penalty his people’s crime deserves. God said repeatedly and clearly in his word that any and every act of rebellion or sin deserves and would receive punishment of death. Justice demands it.

Look at verse 24.  The death of Jesus redeems or ransoms or buys back God’s people by paying, on their behalf, what they owe to God. God’s law says the proper penalty for sin is death. Jesus volunteers to die in the place of God’s people, paying the full penalty of their rebellion and disobedience towards God, with the result they are set free from guilt and the demand of the law.

Let me illustrate. When I get an invoice it lists the things for which I owe money. I am indebted to them until such times as the account is paid. They have a legal claim on me while the account is outstanding. The invoice reminds me of all this.

In his death for me, Jesus takes the account I have run up because of sin and stamps it paid in full through my death on the cross. There is no more payment to be made to God, no more liability before God or before his law. My debt due to my sin and rebellion is paid and I am totally free from guilt and also from any further demands of the law.

Second, Jesus’ death soaks up or averts God’s wrath towards his people. Back to the illustration. You have just discovered your child has been stealing from you. What do you say? “How dare you treat me like that?” The breach of trust and betrayal from one who should honour and respect you causes a deep anger and offence that is not easily dealt with, but must be dealt with if the relationship is to be repaired.

Well how much more the wrath of God, the deep anger and offence God feels when people treat him like dirt? God’s anger must be dealt with before relationship can be restored. That is the idea of propitiation in verse 25, and we need to go back to Old Testament sacrifice to understand it properly.

Every time a person offered an animal sacrifice it symbolised two things. First it recognised the person deserves death because of God’s anger at my failure to treat him as he deserved. Second it recognises God has provided a substitute so that God’s anger is taken out on the substitute not the person who deserves it.

As the person poured the animals blood on the altar, God was propitiated or placated. That is his wrath was covered or soaked up or quenched. The amazing thing about the gospel is that God presented his own son as the substitute whose death covers or soaks up his wrath.

That is why the death of Jesus was so violent. Jesus himself described his death as the cup of God’s wrath. All of God’s anger and offence at sin past present and future was poured out on Jesus until not a single drop is left towards God’s special people. But the wonderful result is that sinners like you and me do not have to, and never will experience it if we are Christians.

Third, as a consequence God actually changes the way he views his sinful people. Jesus died as a substitute for his people. We are responsible for mess created by our horrible treatment of God and our rebellion; Jesus died to clean up our mess.

Jesus paid a very high price. Did he get what he paid for? The answer is a very clear “YES”. Look at verse 24 again. Paul says sinners like you and me are justified through or because of the propitiation and redemption of Jesus. What does it mean to be justified?

The word was commonly used in law courts. It was a legal term meaning a person was declared to be in the right by another. As a result of the death of Jesus, God declares his sinful people to be in right relationship with him again. It is God’s legally binding declaration and promise that I will be treated just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned.

How can God treat his sinful people like that? Let’s go back to the illustration one more time. We said that if the relationship was to be restored, the anger and the penalty for stealing had to be addressed. Jesus death has removed both these problems.

But we also said that the parent would look for changed attitudes and behaviour and obedience in the future. God’s law also demands perfect obedience. God cannot relate to any person unless they are perfectly obedient.

The death of Christ achieves this as well. Listen to 2 Corinthians 5:21 . Jesus has swapped me. He took all God’s wrath and all my sin while giving me his perfect obedience and righteousness.  This is what Luther called the great exchange.

This is what we call imputed righteousness. It is something I am given rather than something I deserve. Not only did Jesus pay out all the debt I owed God for my sin, he also put my account a trillion dollars in the red by depositing to my name his righteousness – his perfect obedience to God’s law.

So, when God looks at me now he sees Christ’s attitudes and desires and perfect obedience or righteousness. It’s not that I am a different person. I am still a sinful person, but the way God treats me and sees me because he sees all the good things of Christ credited into my account and so can easily accept me before him.

But why did God go to such extreme lengths to deal with my crimes, my sin and disobedience? Why didn’t he just turn a blind eye to it all and forget about it all or say it doesn’t matter? Because he is just. So, fourth, Jesus death publicly demonstrates God’s justice. Look at verses 25-26.

Forgiveness is not an easy thing for God. He cannot allow any sin to go unpunished because he is completely holy. If even one sin was left unpunished or ignored then he could no longer claim to be just and holy. On the other hand his love for his special people meant he wanted to find a way to restore the relationship fully and without cutting corners.

In the death of Christ God was able to forgive the sins of his people while at the same time doing the right thing and even more importantly being seen to do the right thing. God, our father, has paid the demands of justice very publicly but still found a way to set me free.

When God kills Jesus, justice is totally satisfied, verse 25. All the sins of God’s people, committed over the centuries had been piled up in a big stack to be paid for by Jesus, demonstrating his justice. At the same time rescuing us from sin and put us into right relationship with him, thus satisfying the demands of love as well.

Friends, let me very briefly suggests some points of application.

First, if you are a Christian, take time to study this passage and understand precisely and fully what justification means. Why?

Because this is the central teaching of the gospel. If we lose this or downplay its centrality, as many churches want to do today, then we don’t have the gospel of grace, we are left only with a gospel of acceptance before God on the basis of our own efforts or experience.

And because only as you do this will you have a real sense of how deep the father’s love for you is, and how wonderful the gospel of God’s grace is, and how great a gift God has given you. And only when we realise this will we then be motivated to live thankful lives that honour and praise and glorify your name.

And this is what you will use your time in response groups this morning to do.

Second, if you are not a Christian, then you really only have one big question to consider, how can I get rid of my sin and be acceptable to God.

That is the question of all religions. And the answer is before you this morning – not by seeing what I can do for myself, not matter how good a person I am, but by putting my trust in Jesus and in what he did for me thus allowing God to treat me just-as-if-I’d-never-sinned. 

You will never read a more important paragraph of literature. You will never hear of a more amazing rescue. In the lord Jesus God has found a way of accepting you into his heaven even as you continue to be a sinner.




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