How can God declare sinners “not guilty” and remain a just God? Part 1

Historical Background

Paul is the author of Romans and he wrote this letter from Corinth around AD 56-58, most likely AD 57. Paul was at this stage facing a lot of opposition from those who did not agree with him, and even those who believed that Paul’s preaching was affecting their livelihood. By the time Paul wrote the letter, there were both Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome. However, Gentiles were in the majority. The purpose of writing this letter was threefold:

  • Paul wanted to explain his gospel to those in Rome so that they may support his trip to Spain.
  • Paul was writing a defense of his gospel to the Romans as a rehearsal for his defense in Jerusalem.
  • Paul was writing to unify Jews and Gentile Christians in Rome

Literary Context

In summary, the section from chapter 1 verse 18 all the way to chapter 3 verse 20 (1:18-3:20), can be summarized by saying that Paul has successfully argued that every single human being knows that God exists, and are all sinful before God, and are all under His wrath, and not even the law, can save them. The next logical question is what then can save us from God’s wrath and the section Romans 3:21-24, deals with that question. In summary then of Romans 3:21-24, it is that the righteousness of God has been revealed, and it is revealed such that no one can claim to not know about it. This righteousness is obtained by means of putting our faith in Jesus Christ, and those who do put their faith in Jesus, are declared not guilty before God by His grace as a gift. Question: How can God justify sinners and remain just? Our passage for today, Romans 3:25-26, answers this question

The message is divided into 2 main points:

  • God’s means of Justification
  • God’s purpose of Justification

Let us look at the first main point:

1. God’s means of Justification (v. 25a)

25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

Verse 24 tells us that all sinners are justified by grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Verse 25 begins with a pronoun “whom” whose antecedent is Christ Jesus mentioned in verse 24. This means simply that the pronoun “whom” refers to Christ Jesus in verse 24. Therefore, Paul is saying that God put forward Jesus Christ. The Greek word translated here as “put forward” means to display or make something or someone publicly available. This means that God made Jesus publicly available. God displayed Jesus publicly. Jesus was there for everyone to see. The grammar indicates that God displayed Jesus publicly for Himself. When God displayed Jesus publicly, it was not for us but it was for Himself. Paul is therefore saying to us in this verse that, at some point in time, God decided to display Jesus publicly, and this was done by God and for God.

But how did God display Jesus publicly, when did this happen and why?

Firstly, how did God display Jesus publicly?

God displayed Jesus publicly according to Paul, as a propitiation. Big word “propitiation” is it not? The Greek word translated in this verse as “propitiation” is “hilasterion”. We will discuss this word just now.

Secondly, when did God display Jesus as a propitiation?

The propositional phrase “by His blood” indicates the means by which God succeeded in displaying Jesus as a propitiation. By His blood simply refers to by Jesus’s blood. In other words, the blood of Jesus was the means by which God could display Jesus publicly as a propitiation. Jesus bled heavily form the severe beating and torture. If God was only interested in Jesus’s blood, the amount of blood Jesus bled from the severe torture and beating would have been enough, but it was not. It was the death of Jesus that God was after, and therefore, when Paul says by Jesus’s blood, Paul is metaphorically referring to the death of Jesus. Therefore, what Paul is saying in this verse is that, Jesus’s death, was the means God used to display Jesus publicly as a propitiation. So, when Jesus died on the cross, it was God’s way of displaying Jesus publicly as a propitiation.

Thirdly, why did God display Jesus as a propitiation by means of His death?

For us to understand this, we must first understand what propitiation means? I did promise that we will discuss that. Remember that I said that the Greek word translated in this verse as “propitiation” is “hilasterion”. What Paul means by designating Christ a hilastērion has been the subject of considerable debate. When the use of hilastērion in the Bible is considered, a strong case can be made for taking the word as a reference to the OT “mercy seat,” the cover over the ark where Yahweh appeared (Lev. 16:2), and on which sacrificial blood was poured. For this is what the word refers to in its one other NT occurrence (Heb. 9:5), as well as in 21 of its 27 LXX occurrences. LXX refers to the Greek translation of the Hebrew old testament. Particularly significant are the several occurrences of the word in the description in Lev. 16 of the “Day of Atonement” ritual. According to this text, the high priest is to enter the “Holy of Holies” once a year and sprinkle on the mercy seat (= LXX hilastērion) the blood of a sacrificial victim, thereby “making atonement.” In the OT and Jewish tradition, this “mercy seat” came to be applied generally to the place of atonement. By referring to Christ as this “mercy seat,” then, Paul would be inviting us to view Christ as the New Covenant equivalent, or antitype, to this Old Covenant “place of atonement,” and, derivatively, to the ritual of atonement itself. What in the OT was hidden from public view behind the veil has now been “publicly displayed” as the OT ritual is fulfilled and brought to an end in Christ’s “once-for-all” sacrifice. God’s wrath is the inevitable and necessary reaction of absolute holiness to sin. Since this atonement takes place by means of Christ’s death as a sacrifice, and the word hilastērion includes reference to propitiation, translations such as “means of propitiation” and “propitiatory sacrifice” are not inaccurate. But they may be too restrictive. “Mercy seat” would be all right if the broader theological connotations of the phrase were obvious; but, considering the breadth of the concept to which the term refers, the NIV and NRSV “sacrifice of atonement” is as good as we can do. Therefore, propitiation means a sacrifice of atonement. This means a sacrifice that not only turns God wrath away from sinners but also, a sacrifice by which sins can be forgiven. Therefore, just as the old testament Israel used a sacrifice of an animal as a means of getting their sins forgiven and turning God’s wrath away from them, Jesus’s death is the final and satisfactory sacrifice that not only turns God wrath away from sinners but also, serves as a means by which sins can be forgiven. Therefore, when God displayed Jesus as a propitiation by His blood, that means that God was publicly displaying Jesus, through His death, as a necessary sacrifice that will be capable not only of turning His wrath away from sinners but, also will serve as means by which the sins of sinners can be forgiven and therefore be justified. Therefore the means by which God can justify sinners and remain just, is by means of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, which allows God to forgive and declare sinners, not guilty.

Why then did God do this?

Paul says it was so that sinners can access the benefits of this sacrifice by faith. Notice that Paul is not saying by faith and works but, only by faith. In short, in the old testament, the atonement sacrifice was done behind a veil away from the public. However, the same sacrifice is now done by God, and for God publicly. Jesus’s death, replaces the death of animals and becomes the final and public sacrifice. This sacrifice of atonement, was done by God so that through it, He can forgive sinners who repent and put their faith in Jesus, and declare them not guilty, and most importantly, do all of that and still remain a just God. So, the only way that God’s wrath can be turned away from a sinner is through the death of Jesus Christ. The only way a sinner can be forgiven by God is through the death of Jesus. The only way a sinner can therefore be declared not guilty before God, is through the death of Jesus. If Jesus did not die on the cross, then we are still living in sin, God’s wrath is upon us and we remain guilty before God. Also please note that the initiative to sacrifice Jesus publicly was from God, by God and for God. It had nothing to do with human beings. Human beings simply access the benefits of this sacrifice, through faith alone in Jesus alone. The public sacrifice of Jesus, allows God to not only forgive us our sins but declare us not guilty.

As believers, how do we respond to this, with praise and thanksgiving. As unbelievers, how do we respond to this, through repentance and faith in Jesus alone. As an unbeliever, if you do not repent and put your faith in Jesus alone, then you remain in your sin and God’s wrath remains on you, and you remain guilty before God

Part 2 to follow………………

Posted in Christians, God's will, Grace of God, Jesus Christ, Repent, Romans, Romans 3, Salvation, The Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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