"How Can a Just God Forgive Sinners?"

Apr.3, 2011 Romans 3:19-31


On Wednesday, I was in a hurry. Before 11:30 a.m.I cut short a pastoral visit, excusing myself because I had to get to the lab in Wingham before noon. This because I had an appointment scheduled with a specialist this coming week, for which the results of the test would be needed. So, I flew home, grabbed a clergy shirt which I left on the hanger, changed my shoes, grabbed the lunch I'd prepared beforehand to eat in the car, and was back on the road inside a few minutes. Upon arriving at the clinic, I dashed up to the door and inside, down the hallway: was the door still open? To my great relief, it was!

It might help to understand the urgency in my movements if I told you that last time I'd done this, I had arrived at the same lab the same weekday, a few minutes before noon on Wednesday, only to find the door already closed and no one around. I was shut out. Excluded. Not a chance of getting in. The only solution was to make a special trip the next day when the lab would be open again.

In a way, that's the place we all are together as humans - shut out. Excluded, without hope. But not just from a lab but from eternity. The Bible does teach a variety of universalism: not that all will be saved, but that all are lost, condemned to hell for eternity were it not for God's gracious intervention. Romans 3:23 says, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God..." The Greek term behind "fall short" means "to come late or too tardily" - like me that first time, arriving at the door only to find I was too late. I had 'fallen short' of my goal of arriving in time to get the test. Here Scripture says we have all sinned, we have ALL fallen short, been late and missed out on the glorious standard God had for us when He created us. We've all messed up, rebelled and gone our own way, offending His infinite holiness and perfection, so are guilty by an infinite proportion.

In chapters 1-3 of Romans Paul has gone to some lengths to show that both Greeks (without God's special revelation through Moses and the prophets) and Jews (who had God's law) have blown it. V19, "so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God." EVERY mouth, the WHOLE world. All those with a conscience have heard it protest somewhere along the way. We know we've trespassed against God's boundaries. V20, "Therefore NO ONE will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law..." We'd all be left standing outside that locked door of God's holiness together, stymied by our sin.


So much for our own merit. But thankfully that's not the end of the story, because the amazing thing is that God has a great love for us. But He can't just open the door and let us walk in anyway.

Here's the thing: in the context of God's absolute holiness, goodness, and perfection, our sin presents a massive problem. A holy God cannot tolerate sin. Yet God created people in His image, we were built for relationship and communion with God in spirit; this can be seen by God showing up to walk in the garden with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day, and God calling for them when they hid: "Where are you?" (Gen 3:8f; cf Rev 21:3) So our sinning thwarts God's objective, prevents Him from having relationship with His creature. How can God overcome this roadblock and still remain a God of justice and holiness?

The dilemma or problem is summarized in Romans 3:26, "to be just AND the one who justifies..." You might circle the 'and': How's God gonna solve this one? How can He possibly overcome the barrier of our sin and still be God, by His own definition holy and just? How can God be "just AND" sinner-justifier while all the time (vv25-26) "demonstrating [or, showing] His justice"? As Abraham pled with God en route to shower judgment on dreadfully sinning Sodom and Gomorrah, "Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Gen 18:25) Forgiveness without payment - without some accounting for the sins and incredible damage done - would throw a wrench in theodicy, the doctrine of God's justice and righteousness.


Just AND justifier - 'dikaion' and 'dikaiosunta' in the Greek. This word can be translated as either 'righteous' or 'just'. Righteousness constitutes a major theme in Paul's letter to the Romans. The theme of the book is summarized in 1:17, "For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith."" The heart of Paul's message revolves around this word 'righteousness', as Robertson's Word Pictures puts it, 'a God-kind of righteousness.' That word is the core of this passage: the root 'dik-' occurs 11times in just 12 verses from 3:19 to 30, though sometimes disguised. 19 'held accountable', 20 'declared righteous', 21 'a righteousness from God', 22 'this righteousness from God', 24 'are justified freely', 25 & 26 'demonstrate His justice' (2X) and 'just' and 'justifies', 28 'a man is justified by faith', 30 'only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith...' A variety of forms, but 'righteousness' is clearly Paul's main idea and concern.

What does it mean to be 'justified' / 'made righteous'? You don't hear the word 'righteousness' in secular society any more, hardly even in church - we usually talk about 'discipleship' in other terms. But if it's so important to Paul, do we even understand what it is? How are we going to develop or foster it if we have trouble describing it?

There seem to be at least a couple of dimensions to righteousness, one more talked-about than the other. There is what's called in the textbooks a FORENSIC sense. Now, today when someone uses the word 'forensic' we think of some scientific medical sleuthing involved in solving a crime. But the word 'forensic' has nothing to do with medical detective work; 'forensic' refers to the court, judgment made in an official public forum. This then is the 'legal' aspect of righteousness: Christ-conferred favoured standing in God's court. It's positional; justification means the person is viewed as having right standing before God. Like the judge bringing down the gavel and declaring the prisoner 'not guilty', acquitting them, clearing them of any charges.

Easton's dictionary defines "Justification" this way: "A forensic term, opposed to condemnation.As regards its nature, it is the judicial act of God, by which he pardons all the sins of those who believe in Christ, and accounts, accepts, and treats them as righteous in the eye of the law, i.e., as conformed to all its demands.In addition to the pardon of sin, justification declares that all the claims of the law are satisfied in respect of the justified. It is the act of a judge and not of a sovereign. The law is not relaxed or set aside, but is declared to be fulfilled in the strictest sense; and so the person justified is declared to be entitled to all the advantages and rewards arising from perfect obedience to the law (Rom 5:1-10).It proceeds on the imputing or crediting to the believer by God himself of the perfect righteousness, active and passive, of his Representative and Surety, Jesus Christ (Rom 10:3-9).Justification is not the forgiveness of a man without righteousness, but a declaration that he possesses a righteousness which perfectly and for ever satisfies the law, namely, Christ's righteousness (2Co 5:21 Ro 4:6-8)."

So, you can see how much that angle on justification is relative to the law; you're cleared in the divine court.

But there is another aspect to righteousness, less talked about but still there in the Bible; not positional or legal viewed from the outside, not 'forensic' but FORMATIVE, internal: righteousness as an actual personal attribute related to godliness; a Spirit-empowered stabilized steering. This righteous character develops through the process of sanctification.

By way of illustration - when children start to learn how to ride a bicycle, we often equip it with 'training wheels'. The training wheels keep them from falling over; they limit the tipping so the girl or boy don't become totally unbalanced and tip right over. The Biblical 'law' is sort of like training wheels (Paul in Galatians 3(24)&4(2) likens it to a guardian or baby-sitter). But eventually there comes a point at which the child's sense of balance and steering skill keeps them upright within the range of the training wheels, so they're no longer needed. To have this internal righteousness, then, to be 'dik-' (in the Greek) or 'upright', means you have this built-in God-oriented gyroscope that's going to help keep you within the limits of the law without actually having to be confined externally. This angle of righteousness relates more to the latter elements of the 'fruit of the Spirit' - kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control. A Christly quality He induces in us.


But, how do we get there? Back to God's dilemma - how to remain just/righteous Himself AND One who makes sinners just/righteous. This is where the miracle and mystery of the Trinity makes Christianity unique among world religions. God simultaneously becomes both Judge (as Father) and Mediator/sacrifice paying the penalty (as Son). V21 "But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known..." This is God's initiative / organizing / providing, not ours based on our performance, lest there be anything of which we can boast (27). V24 is the heart of the matter: sinners of v23 who believe "are justified freely" (it's totally a GIFT) "by His grace" (God's own cost-absorbing; undeserved, unearned) "through the redemption" (in those times, a slave-buying-back fee) "that came by Christ Jesus" (the 'lamb of God' of infinite worthy, innocence, and purity).

Jesus clearly viewed this as His role in saving us. Mark 10:45, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."" Think too of the words of institution in the Lord's Supper: Matthew 26:28, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." Could He spell it out any more clearly?!

For justice to be done - somebody's gotta pay the price, the penalty incurred by the guilty party. Somebody ALWAYS has to pay. We sinners couldn't: we had nothing to offer, standing condemned as having spurned and offended God's holiness and authority. So Jesus stepped up (rather, down) to take the punishment we totally deserved.

Somebody's always gotta pay. This first week of the election campaign, promises have been unveiled designed to woo the voter. But whenever there's a treat, someone's going to have to come up with the cash by paying higher taxes. In a finite economy, there's no 'new' money out of thin air. Jesus paid the moral debt we in our depravity had no cash or collateral to cover.


The demand for justice runs deep; it's ingrained within us (especially when OUR rights have been abused). Frank Cappra, who directed the movie It's a Wonderful Life, said the most mail he got was about the injustice of crooked old Mr Potter never being caught, having stolen Uncle Billy's deposit which forced the Building & Loan into bankruptcy and George Bailey into despair. That irked viewers: we want morally satisfying movies in which bad guys are taught their lesson. In that sense, there is a moral thermometer or gauge built in to our hearts. It just ain't right to let the bad guy get off scot-free: somebody's gotta pay!

V25, "God presented" (put forth) "Him" (Christ) "as a sacrifice of atonement". This is how God 'demonstrates His justice'. By the sacrifice of His Son, God atones or pays the required price, absorbs the cost of punishment, which makes it possible for sinners to be reconciled (put right) with a holy God and justice still to be done. Note carefully the phrase 'sacrifice of atonement': the NIV Study Bible comments on Leviticus 16:2 on the words "atonement cover" - "In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) the word for 'atonement cover' is the same one used of Christ and translated 'sacrifice of atonement' in Romans 3:25."

You may recall that, in the layout of the Tabernacle by Moses, the Ark of the Covenant was the focus of the most sacred spot, the Holy of Holies. Once a year on the annual Day of Atonement the High Priest dared to enter behind the curtain to sprinkle blood of a sacrificed bull and goat on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant (Lev 16:14f). But it's really more than just a lid: it is THE special spot, THE place of atonement.

In Exodus 25, the making of the Ark or 'chest of acacia wood' is described separately from the cover; the sides and bottom are just made of wood overlaid with gold (perhaps thin as foil), while the 'atonement cover' is made of solid gold - that's a significant difference. Ex 30:6 says, "Put the altar in front of the curtain that is before the ark of the Testimony-- [listen carefully!] before the atonement cover that is over the Testimony-- where I will meet with you." In that phrasing, it's as if the bottom and sides of the ark fade into the background and what's highlighted is the solid-gold cover suspended (as if in mid-air) above the stone tablets with the Law. Christ's shed blood on the cover is shielding us from the brunt, the condemnation of the Law we've broken.

The hammered-gold cherubim are another way God draws our attention to the specialness of the atonement cover. Ex 25:20 says, "The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover." So, like people in a painting turning their heads toward what the artist intends to be a focal point, God by His directions for the building of Tabernacle is pointing to what's most precious: follow the gaze of the cherubim - it's as if they're forever pondering the blood of Christ, wondering WHY such an Almighty Holy God would cause the blood of Jesus to be spilled for such a depraved race as we humans have proven to be.

Somebody's always gotta pay. In the movie It's a Wonderful Life, who ends up covering the cost of George Bailey's bankruptcy? The community - everybody chips in from the bottom of their pocket and their heart. George is brought to tears as he realizes how much he's loved and valued by the community. That basket overflowing with donations is the proof.

Likewise, the body and blood of Christ symbolized in communion are proof how much God loves us, and the extent to which He's prepared to go to make reconciliation possible. All that remains is for us to receive His gift through faith. So it is true that, as v26 says, God is "just AND the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus." Let's pray.