The Righteousness of God and the Cross

The following is a sermon I preached on Romans 3:21-26 on Sunday, September 28th, 2008.

The French poet Charles Baudelaire once said, “If there is a God, he is the devil.” He said this in regard to the massive evil, suffering, and injustice that prevails all around us. In a world where the strong oppress the weak, where the poor have little or no recourse to pursue justice, where the innocent suffer because of the sins of others, how can we claim that there is an almighty, righteous God ruling over it all?

Dennis Prager recently gave a good answer to this question on his radio show. I love listening to talk radio, and I happened to hear Prager the other night talking about our current economic woes. He was talking about the fact that these corporate executives who have run their companies into the ground by making reckless decisions are making off with what are known as “golden parachutes,” severance packages of millions, or even hundreds of millions of dollars. And all of this happens while investors, who have played by the rules, are taking big losses, and honest employees are losing their jobs. This is not right, Prager said. Often times those who break the rules will prosper in this world, and those who live by the rules will have to pay the difference. And so injustice prevails. But then Prager went on to say that this is precisely why we must believe that there is a God and that he has a coming Day of Judgment when all the wrongs will be accounted for, when the scales will be balanced, and when justice will finally prevail. Every human heart longs for justice. We don’t want to believe that we live in a universe that is ultimately without any standards of right and wrong. But in order to believe that, we must put our hope for justice in God and in the day of reckoning to come.

Dennis Prager is right, but he is still missing something of massive importance. You see, Dennis Prager is Jewish. He does not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. And so while he rightly recognizes that a Day of Judgment is coming, he does not rightly understand what that will mean for him personally. God will demand not only that the corrupt executives answer for their sins, he will also demand that Dennis Prager answer for his sins. And for that matter, he will demand that you and I answer as well. So, in light of the unrighteousness that prevails now, we long for God’s righteousness to be revealed in the coming Day of Judgment. But that puts us in a predicament: if justice is coming, then it is coming to me too. How can I stand before the judgment of God? The Scripture makes it abundantly clear that no one is righteous, that we are corrupt to the core, rebels against God who have stirred up his anger against us. Dennis Prager longs for justice to come, but how will he himself escape when it does? The answer for him and for you and for me is that we will only escape if we cling to the cross of Christ.

The central phrase of Paul’s letter to the Romans is “the righteousness of God.” In 1:17 he says specifically that in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. Here in these verses he mentions the righteousness of God four times, two at the beginning of the passage and two at the end. What Paul tells us is that the righteousness of God has been revealed in the cross of Christ, and it has been revealed in two ways. On the one hand, it has been revealed as a gracious gift given to sinners whereby they are declared righteous before him. On the other hand, it has been revealed as judgment against sin, thereby vindicating God’s own character and showing that he truly is righteous, that the scales will be balanced, and that there is ultimately a difference between right and wrong. These two aspects of the revelation of God’s righteousness answer the two deep longings of our hearts: the longing for righteousness to prevail in the end, and the desire to escape the judgment of God that we rightly deserve when it does. What a wonder is the cross, that by it both God and sinners are justified!

Notice first
I. The Righteousness of God as a Gift to Sinners, 21-24.
This passage begins with two glorious words: “But now.” This signals a transition in Paul’s argument as well as a transition in history. Paul launched into an argument about the wrath of God directed against all of humanity beginning in 1:18, which reads, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Paul goes on for three chapters about the wrath of God, arguing that it is directed not only against pagan Gentiles, but against the Jews as well. Collectively, all of mankind is under the power of sin and, therefore, under God’s wrath. Broadly speaking, you could say that everything up to this point has been bad news. And then Paul says, “But now,” and he talks about the cross of Christ, and everything that follows through the rest of the book is good news: good news about a right standing with God, about hope in the midst of suffering, triumph over sin and death, and the glorious hope of resurrection. This paragraph signals the turning point, the hinge of the whole letter. And the “now” signifies not only a turn in Paul’s argument, but a turn in history as well. It signifies that something major has happened, so that the time in which we live is a new time when things have changed. And what Paul means is that the death and resurrection of Christ has happened. Christ is the dividing point of history. It is in him that the great transition is made.

The rest of the verse fleshes out this transition: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it.” Throughout his argument thus far, one of Paul’s major points has been that the Law, the whole covenant structure made with Israel through Moses, has not kept Israel from sin or from the wrath of God. It has been powerless to defeat sin. And that’s why Paul says in 3:19-20: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” In light of the law’s powerlessness to put anyone right with God, God has revealed his righteousness apart from the law. What is the “righteousness of God” in this verse and in the following verse? It is a gift of right standing with God. We have no righteousness before God on our own, and that’s why we are under his wrath. But in the gospel the righteousness that comes from God as a gift to sinners is revealed, and this righteousness is apart from the Law, apart from anything we could do to earn it. But even though it is apart from the Law, it is attested by the Law. When Paul says, “although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it,” he is referring to the whole of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Law covenant that God made with Israel always pointed beyond itself to a time when God would act in a decisive way to deal with sin and renew his people. So this righteousness of God that is now revealed is revealed apart from the Law, but that does not mean that God has changed his strategy. The Law itself has always pointed in this direction.

And then verses 22-23 expand: “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.” This righteousness, then, comes through faith. By “faith” here Paul doesn’t mean just any faith. He means a specific kind of faith: “faith in Jesus Christ,” or as some translations say, “the faith of Jesus Christ.” It is a faith that comes from what Christ has done on the cross and that is directed to him. It is not a general belief in God or a vague hope that things will be okay, much less a blind leap into a fantasy world that is detached from reality. It is a specific, directed trust in Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Savior. Those who believe receive the gift of righteousness from God. More than that, Paul says, all who believe receive the gift of righteousness. And when Paul says “all,” his particular focus is on both Jews and Gentiles. As he says, there is no distinction in this regard between them, for all have sinned. All descend from Adam. All have their origin in the same lump of fallen humanity. And, therefore, all have fallen short of the original glory in which Adam was created. Whoever you are and whatever your background, you are a sinner, and the promise of the gospel is that you may be made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

And this is what Paul goes on to explain in verse 24: “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” We don’t see it in English, but in the Greek the word “justified” is related to the word “righteousness.” To be justified is to be declared righteous, to have a right legal standing with God. And here Paul says that justification comes to us not based on what we do but as a gift. It comes as a gift because it comes from the grace of God. And the means by which we have it from God’s grace is through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. “Redemption” refers to liberation by payment of a price, a term that was often used in the slave market to refer to the purchase of a slave’s liberation. God has paid that price with the life of his own Son, out of the abundance of his grace, and that means that our right standing with him comes to us as a gift, not as a reward for what we have done.

There was a time when Martin Luther hated that phrase “the righteousness of God” as he read it in the book of Romans. In his medieval theology classes, he had been taught that the phrase referred to the righteousness by which God condemns sinners. And Martin Luther knew that he was a sinner. So he could not understand how the gospel could be good news if it meant that God would condemn him for his sins. But then he had a breakthrough. After much study and meditation, he came to realize that the righteousness of God is not the righteousness by which he stood to be condemned but rather the righteousness by which he stood to be declared righteous. In other words, the phrase refers to the gift of righteousness that comes from God and puts sinners in right standing with him. Writing later about this experience, Luther said, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” And I proclaim to you that paradise is open through the righteousness of God given to us as a gift in the gospel, because of the cross of Christ. Trust in Christ; trust in what he has done on the cross, and you will be counted righteous now and forever in the sight of God

But another aspect of the righteousness of God is revealed in the cross, and that is, second,
II. The Righteousness of God as Judgment against Sin, 25-26.
We are not so eager to talk about the judgment of God, but Scripture is packed full of references to it. The truth is, without just judgment against sin, God would not be righteous. He himself would become complicit in evil; he would therefore be unholy, unjust, and ultimately unworthy of our praise, worship, and adoration. And that conclusion is simply intolerable. It is precisely because God is so good that we must acknowledge his holy wrath against sin.

And what we find in these two remarkable verses is that God’s righteous character is demonstrated through the cross. Having just mentioned Jesus Christ, Paul says in verse 25: “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.” First we need to address that complicated word “propitiation,” or as some translations say, “sacrifice of atonement.” What does this mean? In the culture of the day, the word signified some kind of offering that makes the gods favorable. You see, the gods of the pagan world were a bit bad-tempered, but it was believed that they had authority over different spheres of the world and, therefore, had the power to make life good or bad for us. So, if you were scheduled to go on a sea voyage, you would offer some kind of sacrifice to Neptune, the god of the sea, in order to make sure that he gave you a safe trip. Or, if you were scheduled to give a speech, you might offer a sacrifice to Hermes, the god of communication. Or, if you wanted abundant crops or an abundance of children, you would offer sacrifices to the appropriate gods. The sacrifice offered is a propitiation, because it makes the god propitious, or favorable, to you. Now I don’t want you to get the idea that the one true God is anything like the gods of the pagan world. He is not capricious and bad-tempered, subject to our control if we only bribe him with the right gifts. But he is full of wrath against our sin, wrath that is his holy response to our wickedness, and unless his wrath turned away from us, we are doomed. Therefore, God must be propitiated. But how? Ah, this is where the difference between the one true God and the false pagan gods is most striking. Notice the one performing the action in verse 25: it is God himself! God put forward his own Son as a propitiation through his bloody death on the cross. God has taken the initiative to satisfy his own wrath against sin by directing it to Christ instead of us. And so, God has not simply swept his wrath aside in all this, which would compromise his justice and holiness. No, he has fully poured out his wrath upon sin, but he has done so in a way that has shielded us from that horrible plight. In his love he sent his Son to take our place.

Paul says that God did this in order to demonstrate “his righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” In other words, God’s righteousness, which here indicates his holy judgment against sin, had been called into question so long as he had not dealt with sin in a full and decisive way. And until the cross, he hadn’t. He had “passed over” sins, which in some cases meant allowing sinful rebels to go their own way, and in others it meant actually forgiving sins of Old Testament believers. But what about his justice? How can the justice of God be upheld in light of this passing over of sin? Only if, at some point, he publicly deals with sin in a decisive manner. And this he has done in the cross by delivering up his Son as a substitute for sinners.

In 1998, Karla Faye Tucker became the first woman executed in the state of Texas since 1863. She had been convicted of murder, an act that included repeatedly hacking away at a woman with a pickaxe. Her execution made headlines because she had appealed for clemency, claiming that her life had been transformed by faith in Jesus Christ. Clemency was not granted. But assuming that her conversion to Christ was real, then we must conclude that Karla Faye Tucker stood before God and heard him say, “Not guilty.” What would her victims think of that? What would their families think? If it were any human court, they would no doubt conclude that injustice had prevailed and that the judge was corrupt. And yet, Paul’s point here in Romans 3:25-26 is precisely that this judge who acquits the guilty, who justifies the ungodly, who calls the filthy clean, is completely righteous. God’s righteousness cannot be questioned in the least because it has already been demonstrated on the cross. Judgment was already handed out to Karla Faye Tucker—and to you and to me—on the cross, where her Savior took it in her place. Justice has prevailed. God’s righteousness has been revealed.

Paul then closes in verse 26: “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.” God’s righteousness has been demonstrated now, at this point in history, through the cross of Christ, so that he is both “just” and the “justifier.” His character is fully vindicated even as he counts righteous those who are clearly guilty before him.

Unrighteousness is evident all around us. This creates a longing within us for a coming day of reckoning, a day when the wicked will have to answer for their sins. But unrighteousness also prevails within us, whether we realize it or not. And that creates a longing within us for forgiveness, for some way to escape the judgment of God that will certainly come. So the very Day of Judgment that we long for is the Day that will sweep us away with all the rest who have offended God by their sins. Is there any hope for God to reveal his righteousness and yet for us to escape his judgment?

Yes, there is hope. There is hope in the cross of Christ. For it is in the cross that the righteousness of God is revealed, both as a gift of right standing with God for sinners and as a vindication of God’s own righteous character. Take hold of the cross and of the Christ who hung there for you, and don’t ever let go.

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One Response to “The Righteousness of God and the Cross”

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