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Romans 3:24-26 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
24 being justified as a gift by his grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because in the forbearance of God he passed over the sins previously committed; 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.
Edward D. Andrews writes,
If we look at the first prophecy in the Bible concerning the Messiah (Jesus Christ), found at Genesis 3:15, it was partially fulfilled in 33 C.E. When Jesus was executed by the Roman government under the pressure of the Jewish religious leaders. (Gal. 3:13, 16) The moment that God gave that prophecy, being that his word is absolute, the ransom sacrifice of Christ was paid, from his perspective. First, we have the fact that God can foresee all future events, and second, there is nothing that could thwart God from achieving his will and purposes. So the future sacrifice of Christ Jesus, God could forgive the sins of Adam’s offspring who would place their trust in the promise of Genesis 3:15, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” This also means that the ransom is retroactive (backdated) in that it covers over the sins of persons of faith with a righteous standing before God who died before Jesus paid the price. They too will receive a resurrection. – Acts 24:15.
Kenneth Boa and William Kruidenier write,
3:24. The key to receiving God’s righteousness—a righteous standing in his sight—is faith. The cause for God’s having to provide righteousness for humankind is moral failure on our part. And now, Paul reveals the cost to those who are justified—it is provided free: [we] are justified freely by his grace.
What is free for us was not free for God, for we are justified through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. The price God paid for our justification was incalculable, in that it involved the sacrifice of his Son. And it is also an offense to the human ego, as Oswald Chambers has observed: “There is a certain pride in people that causes them to give and give, but to come and accept a gift is another thing. I will give my life to martyrdom; I will dedicate my life to service—I will do anything. But do not humiliate me to the level of the most hell-deserving sinner and tell me that all I have to do is accept the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ” (Chambers, My Utmost, Nov. 28).
What does it mean that we are justified? It does not mean that God looks at me “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned. Hortatory hokum at best, it is bad theology at worst that drastically discounts what God has done in Jesus Christ. When God justifies—declares righteous—a guilty sinner, two things happen: negatively, the sinner is declared no longer guilty of sin. Positively, the sinner is declared righteous. Not made righteous, but declared righteous. God cancels out the debt of guilt that is on the sinner’s account and then credits righteousness to his or her account. Both actions must take place for justification to occur. To say that, once justified, God looks at sinners as if they had never sinned, discounts the worth of the sacrifice God offered to forgive our sin.
Charles Swindoll explains it this way: after a day of dirty yard work, a hot shower and a bar of soap renders one clean. It is tempting to say, “ ‘Ah, it’s just as if I’d never been dirty.’ But that would not have adequately conveyed the power and the value of the water and soap. Better to look in the mirror and say, ‘I was filthy and now I’m clean’ ” (Swindoll, p. 327). All one need do is look back in the first two chapters of Romans to realize exactly how much sin was cancelled and how much grace is required to declare sinners righteous. John Newton had it right in “Amazing Grace,” when he marveled at the grace that “saved a wretch like me.”
Paul uses forms of “justification” more than twenty times in Romans and Galatians. It is at the heart of the gospel. And the heart of justification is the crediting of one person’s righteousness to the account of another. When Paul illustrates justification in Romans 4, he will use forms of the word “credit” ten times in that one chapter alone to drive home the point that our justification is a free gift. The righteousness of God, specifically that of his Son Jesus Christ, has been credited to the account of all who believe in him and what he accomplished by his death and resurrection. Why did God have to transfer the righteousness of Christ to our account? Because we have none of our own. We are totally unrighteous; Christ is totally righteous.
Everett Harrison explains why we are justified freely by his grace and illuminates the bankrupt nature of our own accounts. Freely is dorean, an adverb from dorea, a gift. Interestingly, dorean is used in John 15:25 when Jesus is characterizing those who hate him: “They hated me without reason (dorean).” When Paul says that we are justified freely, he is saying that we are “justified without reason” insofar as reasons that exist in the sinner. “God finds no reason, no basis, in the sinner for declaring him righteous. He must find the cause in himself” (Harrison, p. 42). Justification “expresses the judicial action of God apart from human merit according to which the guilty are pardoned, acquitted, and then reinstated as God’s children and as fellow heirs with Jesus Christ” (Boice, Galatians, p. 449).
The motivation for God’s justification of guilty sinners is grace. As has been rightly said, “If mercy is not getting what we do deserve, grace is getting what we don’t deserve.” Blaise Pascal said that “grace is indeed needed to turn a man into a saint, and he who doubts it does not know what a saint or a man is” (Ward, p. 130). Only grace could declare an unrighteous sinner righteous. The well-worn phrase, “But for the grace of God, there go I” regains its strength when one understands that the person who said it first was watching guilty criminals going to their death on the gallows. Perhaps John Bradford, the sixteenth-century English Protestant martyr, had Romans 3:24 in mind when, watching the death march, he said, “But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford” (Ward, p. 88).
The grace of God in our salvation was when God interrupted the death march, took us out of line, and took our place. As Deitrich Bonhoeffer reminds the church, “Grace is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” (Ward, p. 205).
Justification comes through redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Fortunately, “redemption” was a term not lost on either Jews or Gentiles, for it was a term of the slave market. Historians believe that the population of first-century Rome was probably more than half slaves, so Gentiles in the church at Rome understood redemption—the process whereby a slave’s freedom is purchased for a ransom price. For the Jews, in addition to having statutes governing the redemption of slaves (Lev. 25:47–53), their entire salvific history was bound up in their redemption out of slavery in Egypt (Exod. 15:13; Deut. 7:8; 9:26; 13:5 15:15; Neh. 1:10; Pss. 77:15; 78:42; Isa. 43:1; Mic. 6:4). What was new for both classes of humanity was that there is a slavery that all people are subject to for which there is only one ransom price.
Jesus himself confronted the Jews on this issue when they declared they were no one’s slaves: “Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin’ ” (John 8:34). This is the redemption that the gospel proclaims—freedom from slavery to sin purchased by the ransom price of Christ’s own death.
Righteousness: Demonstrates God’s Justice (3:25–26)
Paul’s concern now is to answer the question, “How can God himself be called righteous, or just, if he simply declares the wicked righteous?” And it is a good question. The same God who seems to be holding sinners accountable for their wickedness appears not to be holding himself accountable with the same consistency. Imagine if a judge arbitrarily decided to pronounce a group of guilty lawbreakers innocent and reinstated them as members in good standing of the community. That judge would be guilty of the same inconsistency (injustice) that God could be accused of if he did a similar thing. Is that what he did when he “justified freely” those who sinned? It is Paul’s purpose to demonstrate that while God is indeed the one who justifies, he is also just in doing so.
3:25a. Few passages of Scripture have had more ink spilled over them by theologians than Romans 3:25a. Critical commentaries are filled with the technical discussions that revolve around the meaning of the word hilasterion, translated in the NIV as “sacrifice of atonement,” and in other translations as “propitiation” (e.g., KJV, NASB, NKJV). In our “Deeper Discoveries” section, we will comment on some of the finer points of this discussion, but here stay focused on the bigger picture, which is the role of the hilasterion in God’s justifying of sinners. When God presented Jesus Christ as a hilasterion, “he did this to demonstrate his justice” (v. 25b). There is the crux of the issue raised in the question outlined above—the need to explain how God can justify sinners and remain just himself.
Here is the heart of the matter: when Paul calls Christ a hilasterion, he uses a Greek word which the translators of the Greek version of the Old Testament used more than twenty times to translate the Hebrew kapporeth. The kapporeth was the covering of the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies in the tabernacle and temple. As outlined in Leviticus 16, the high priest was to take the blood of the sacrificial bull (v. 14) and goat (v. 15) and sprinkle it on the cover of the ark of the covenant (kapporeth) in order to make atonement (kipper) for himself, his household, and the people. The ark of the covenant contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments representing God’s moral and righteous standards which had been broken. But when the sacrificial animals were killed and their blood sprinkled over the cover of the ark, the broken laws of God were atoned for by the death of the animals instead of the death of the Israelites.
Leviticus 17 goes on to point out two critical factors: first, life is in the blood, and second, God initiated the sacrifice (v. 11). Therefore, God took it upon himself to initiate the exchange of life by the shedding of blood: the life of a “sinless” animal for the life of a sinless human.
When Paul then says that Christ became a hilasterion, he could be saying that Christ became the “mercy seat” (Heb. 9:5 NASB; “atonement cover,” NIV) or he could be using the term simply to represent the atoning sacrifice (or propitiation) for our sins since in the tabernacle the sprinkling of sacrificial blood “turned away” (propitiated) the wrath of God. In either case, it is clear that Christ became the sinless sacrifice prefigured by the Old Testament sacrifices. And the effect on God’s standards of righteousness? His standards were totally satisfied, allowing him to free those (redeem those) who were slaves in the marketplace of sin.
F. F. Bruce summarizes nicely by noting, “Paul has thus pressed into service the language of the lawcourt (‘justified’), the slave-market (‘redemption’) and the altar (‘expiation,’ ‘atoning sacrifice’) in the attempt to do justice to the fullness of God’s gracious act in Christ. Pardon, liberation, atonement—all are made available to men and women by his free initiative and may be appropriated by faith” (Bruce, pp. 101–102).
By believing in (having faith in) the efficacy of his blood, and the covering of God’s broken law, a sinner is able to appropriate (have applied to his or her account) the righteous standing (the sinlessness) of the sacrifice, Christ Jesus. Do not forget that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven” (Rom. 1:18), and now that wrath has been propitiated, or turned away. God’s wrath has been turned away from those who deserve it to one who did not deserve it.
Paul now anticipates another question: Why did God do this at this time?
3:25b. He did this to demonstrate two aspects of his justice—the first here and the second in verse 26. First, in order to avoid a charge of unrighteous mercy (inconsistent justice) arising from the past when sins had gone unpunished, or when sins were punished on a temporary basis. The Old Testament sacrifices were temporary and symbolic, not permanent and eternally effectual (as Heb. 9 points out). But now God has vindicated his mercy, because all the sins committed beforehand, temporarily and symbolically atoned for, have now been permanently atoned for—and justice has been served and demonstrated.
3:26. Second, he did it … to be just and the one who justifies, and in so doing reveals his own righteous character. This is the final answer to the question of God’s own justice (righteousness). If he had forgiven sin without a sacrifice, the charge of injustice would be valid. But because a sacrifice was made for sin—and because he himself initiated and provided the sacrifice—he is both just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. The righteousness of God that demanded a payment for sin is demonstrated by his own provision of the payment.
Paul uses diatribe again in verses 27–30 to illustrate why God’s justice leaves man totally in his debt, as Francis Schaeffer illustrates:
Our faith has no saving value. Our religious good works, our moral good works, have no saving value because they are not perfect. Our suffering has no saving value. We would have to suffer infinitely, because we have sinned against an infinite God; and we, being finite, cannot suffer infinitely. The only thing in all of God’s moral universe that has the power to save is the finished work of Jesus Christ. Our faith merely accepts the gift. And God justifies all those who believe in Jesus (3:26). If all this is true, then verse 27 is certainly an under-statement. (Schaeffer, p. 81)
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 Kenneth Boa and William Kruidenier, Romans, vol. 6, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 108–112.