STUDIES IN ROMANS
Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2002
STUDY SEVEN: JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH - THE WORK OF JESUS CHRIST ON THE CROSS - ROMANS 3:21-31
Paul has said much in this passage about Gospel righteousness, that is, about justification by faith. Although later in his letter he will spell out at length the meaning and impact of the death of Christ, here in Romans 3 he mentions four foundational facts about the death of Christ, without which gospel righteousness (justification by faith) would be both meaningless and arbitrary, and without which God could be accused of injustice.
 Righteousness (justification) is by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (3:24). As we saw in the previous study, redemption means freedom at a price. The most common contemporary example of redemption is when an item left with a pawnbroker in exchange for a certain amount of cash, is redeemed by its owner for the payment of a greater amount of cash. To release an article from the pawnbroker a price has to be paid.
In the history of Israel, God redeemed his people from slavery in Egypt, bringing them out in great triumph through the Red Sea (Exodus 6:6; 15:13; Deuteronomy 7:8; 9:26; 13:5; 21:8; 2 Samuel 7:23; 1 Chronicles 17:21; Psalm 74:2; 106:10; Isaiah 43:1; 44:22-23). Because of that historic event, and its revelation of God's liberating power, God is referred to as the Redeemer of Israel (Psalm 19:14; 78:35; Isaiah 41:14; 43:14; 44:6,24; 47:4; 49:26; 59:20; 63:16; Jeremiah 50:34). As you will notice in some of the above references, the exodus event became an indicator, not only of God's ability to act on behalf of his people, but also of the high responsibility that it placed upon those who were so redeemed. In the exodus event as redemption of the nation of Israel the dominant thought is that of freedom from slavery and bondage. One might ask: what price was paid? And one might find the answer in Isaiah 43:3.
In addition to this underlying concept of national redemption in the exodus event, you will find in the Old Testament quite a number of references to the redeeming of individuals. This also originates in the exodus history. On the night of the first Passover every firstborn male in Egypt died, except the firstborn males of the Israelites, upon whose doorframes the blood of the Passover lambs was painted (Exodus 11 & 12). In Exodus 13:1, the Lord instructed Moses: 'Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal'; in 13:12-13 he said: 'you are to give over to the Lord the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the Lord. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons.' The Lord went on to instruct the Israelites that when their sons asked them what they were doing, they were to explain: 'With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons' (13:15). Just as on the first Passover night, a year-old sheep or goat died instead of the firstborn son of the family, so, in the rituals of Israel, remembering that the Lord spared (redeemed) the firstborn sons of Israel by the death of a lamb, even so each firstborn son is redeemed through the ritual sacrifice of a lamb. Here the dominant thought in redemption is that of releasing an individual from a mandatory death by the death of another.
Yet another instance of redemption is presented to us in the Old Testament, in various places, but particularly in Leviticus 25. Here the Year of Jubilee is described: in every fiftieth year several incredible acts of redemption were to take place, all under the heading of 'proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants' (25:10). This proclamation took place on the Day of Atonement. Its contents were specifically: (i) property forfeited or sold because of debt was to be returned to its owner (25:25-28, 32-34); (ii) anyone who was in slavery because of poverty was to be restored to liberty (25:39-43, 47-54); and (iii) any debts owed on property were to be cancelled (25:25-28). The key thought here is liberation from debt by its cancellation. If redemption (liberation) could not take place by the payment of money prior to the Year of Jubilee, then, once the Year of Jubilee (every fiftieth year) had come, the cancellation of the debt was implemented, and whatever had been forfeited, whether property or personal liberty, was returned, and any debt still owing was wiped off. It is significant that this concept also is linked to the exodus event (25:38, 42-43, 54-55). This liberation from slavery, poverty and debt which occurred in the Year of Jubilee was an impactive reminder and reflection of the massive liberation which occurred at the exodus.
This might seem all beside the point. What have such ancient and mysterious rules and rituals to do with us today? What have these things to do with our redemption in Christ?
All of them are prophetic of the 'redemption that came by Christ Jesus' (see Romans 3:21). Each is a shadow of which Christ is the reality. Each is an anticipation of which he is the fulfilment. From each we gain insight into the many faceted work that he did on the cross: there he redeems us from an inescapable bondage, there he redeems us from a mandatory death, there he releases us from an incredible, unpayable debt and restores to us all that we had forfeited because of sin, there he proclaims to us a permanent Year of Jubilee ' the year of the Lord's favour (Luke 4:18,19; Isaiah 61:1,2) in which the believer lives in a state of perpetual redemption, perpetual freedom from spiritual bondage, spiritual debt and spiritual poverty, and has, in Christ, possession of a perpetual spiritual inheritance. All of this redemption, all of this liberation which is by Christ Jesus, Paul will explain at length as we work our way through Romans.
 God presented Jesus Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood (3:25). Paul here begins to explain what God did to make righteousness and redemption available. It is not that he suddenly relaxed his standards, and in his great love for mankind discarded his justice. It is not that he generously said to us 'It doesn't matter, I'll forgive you, I'll forget about the death penalty, it was rather harsh, after all, for you guys just haven't got what it takes.' God is not like that. His mercy and loving-kindness are in no way antagonistic to his justice. He is not divided; he is not, like we often are, split in two by alternatives that seem to oppose each other. In his perfection he experiences no frustration, no division. His love and his justice co-exist perfectly, indeed, each expresses the other. Here in 3:25a we read of the supreme action of God in which this joint expression of love and justice occurred: God presented Jesus Christ as a sacrifice of atonement.
What is this 'sacrifice of atonement The Greek word is hilasterion. It is variously translated in English: 'the means by which people's sins are forgiven' (GNB); 'the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death' (NEB); 'a propitiation', 'a propitiatory sacrifice' - margin (NASV); and 'a propitiation' (KJV). The only other place the word occurs in the New Testament is in Hebrews 9:5, where it clearly refers to the atonement cover, or 'mercy seat' which was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place in the Jewish Tabernacle and Temple. Related words are hilasmos, found in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10, hilaskomai, used in Luke 18:13 and Hebrews 2:17.
Paul's use of the word hilasterion assumes the existence and reality of the wrath of God; it is more than the removal of the sin penalty, which the translation 'expiation' would infer. Rather it is 'propitiation' - the means by which the wrath of God is turned away; it speaks of the appeasement of a wronged person. From 1:18 through to our present passage Paul has made clear that God's wrath lies upon us, that we are, without exception, answerable and accountable to him, under condemnation, and incapable, by our own efforts, to do anything that would make God view us favourably. How can his wrath be averted? How can we regain his favour? How can we appease him? We can't. Romans 3:24 has told us that we are 'justified freely by his grace by the redemption that came by Jesus Christ'; now Paul tells us how God did it: he 'presented him (Jesus Christ) as a sacrifice of atonement '(note the NIV footnote: 'as the one who would turn aside his wrath, taking away sin') through faith in his blood'.
We are thrown here back into the Old Testament in its ritual and symbolic prophecies of the sin-bearing death of Jesus Christ. Here two prophetic elements come together: (1) the 'atonement cover' or 'mercy seat', and (2) the Day of Atonement. The Atonement Cover or Mercy Seat was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. Inside the Ark were placed the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written. On the cover were two cherubim. Inside, the Law which we have broken. Outside, the cherubim, reminiscent of those in Genesis 3:24 who barred us from life. And all of this behind the golden cherubim embroidered on the huge curtain which prevented access to the Most Holy Place in which the Ark and its cover were housed. This Most Holy Place, and in particular the Atonement Cover/Mercy Seat, symbolized the presence of God: a presence from which we are banned and excluded because of sin. Yet it was on this Atonement Cover/Mercy Seat that 'propitiation' was made, that God was appeased, that his wrath that ought to fall on us was turned aside by a means he himself ordained. Here, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, blood was sprinkled. On that one day, every year, one person, the High Priest, entered the Most Holy Place, bringing with him the blood of a sacrificed goat, and sprinkled it on the Mercy Seat, to turn aside the wrath of God so that it would not fall on the people.
Paul tells in Romans 3:25: this is how God did it: he sacrificed his Son to turn his wrath away from us. Through his blood, God is appeased. Through his blood, through this sacrifice, our sin no longer comes between us and God. Atonement has been made. A shedding of blood (see Hebrews 9:22), a death, has occurred, sufficient to answer for all the sins of all the people. As we will learn later, the whole amazing concept of substitutionary atonement is in focus here.
For your study: Read the original description of the Atonement cover/Mercy Seat in Exodus 25:10-22, and the Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16. Study also Hebrews 4:14-10:18 for lengthy teaching on how Jesus Christ fulfilled these prophetic rituals and symbols. Think deeply about the way these rituals and symbols enrich our understanding of the death of Jesus Christ; think deeply also about the repeated emphasis in Hebrews that the Day of Atonement had to occur year after year, but the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ is effective once-for-all.
Further on Romans 3:25: we need to notice here that God is not having his arm twisted by the death of Jesus. We do not have here a division between the Father and the Son, or between the God of the Old Testament and God of the New Testament. It is God who presented Jesus Christ as a sacrifice of atonement. We must never imagine that Jesus is begging an unwilling God the Father to accept and forgive us because he (Jesus) has gone to all the trouble to die for us. It is God who initiated and implemented the whole plan ' a plan in which, as stated above, his love and his justice work together, in which he, in the perfection of his being, achieves his purpose. This was always his plan and purpose.
For your study: Discuss the concept of the purpose of God in the sacrifice of Christ in these verses: Matthew 13:35; Ephesians 1:4-5, 9-12; 3:1-12; Colossians 1:19-20; 1:25-27; 1 Peter 1:10-12, 18-20; Revelation 13:8. If you wish to extend your study further, consider all of the Old Testament prophecies which predict or anticipate the sacrificial death of Christ on our behalf. All of these affirm that this death was always embedded in the purpose of God for our salvation.
Justification by faith is a demonstration of the justice (righteousness) of God. In presenting Jesus Christ as a sacrifice of atonement God is shown, at one and the same time, 'to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus' (3:25,26). In the justice of God 'the wages of sin is death' (Romans 6:23). It has always been that way from the beginning (Genesis 2:17). Jesus Christ, who had no sin of his own for which he needed to pay the penalty, died in our place, as Paul explains in Romans 6, taking the penalty due to us. He, our substitute, 'bore our sins in his body on the tree' (1 Peter 2:24). God's justice and God's love here find expression in the one act, in the one man, Jesus Christ. In this great, incredible act of love, justice is maintained: the debt is paid, the penalty exacted. Never will God exact that penalty again from those who have received the Lord Jesus Christ: it has been met in full. For this reason, Jesus cried out from the cross 'It is finished!' (John 19:30); for this reason, we read in Hebrews that the one sacrifice of Christ is 'once for all' (7:27; 9:12; 10:10) and 'there is no longer any sacrifice for sin' (10:18). There on the cross, through the blood (death) of Jesus Christ, the full, just demands of the law of God were satisfied. There sin was punished in full. Those who have embraced Jesus Christ by faith, those who have received him, receive along with him the full benefits of his death: justification (legal acquittal) through his sin-bearing death. As Paul has stated, this is for all who believe (Romans 3:22-24). Gospel salvation, then, is not a denial or annulling of the justice of God; rather it is the ultimate expression of the justice of God.
 Gospel righteousness upholds the law '(3:31). In this verse Paul has in mind the godless question he anticipated in 3:8, and raises again in 6:1, that suggests that if we are saved by grace, if the death penalty has already been paid, then it doesn't matter if we break God's law. Does the content of saving faith 'nullify the law No, says Paul, it upholds the law. How is this? The Gospel upholds the law in a number of ways.
[4.1] The Gospel upholds the law in the fact that the penalty required by the law is fully paid.
[4.2] The Gospel upholds the law in the fact that Jesus Christ lived a life perfectly in accord with God's law. Without this he would not have been legally qualified to die as our substitute. He would have had to pay the death penalty for his own sin.
[4.3] The Gospel upholds the law in the demonstration it gives of what happens to those who break the law. When we stand and look at Christ dying for our sin on the cross we are seeing (1) how abhorrent sin is to God, and (2) how horrific the penalty of sin is. Here we see clearly that sin is never okay. Here we see clearly this is the end result of sin. Here we see clearly this is the just judgement that we deserve.
And we are not talking here of the physical trauma; we are speaking of the spiritual trauma which Christ expressed when he cried 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Matthew 27:46).
The person who truly believes in Jesus Christ is justified by faith, not by keeping the law; but, when we look at it from the perspective of Jesus Christ and what he did, we are justified by the keeping of the law: Christ's keeping of the law, both positively in obeying its commands, and negatively in paying its penalty. All for us. We are saved because the law has been kept ' by Christ. 'Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith' Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law' (3:31). We can truly say that what Jesus Christ did on the cross is the clearest and most powerful validation and affirmation of God's law.
Paul's explanation of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross in Romans 3:31-31 is not given in a vacuum. It is not simply a statement about the death of cross. It is given in the context of the church at Rome, where the Jewish believers were, as we have seen, assuming that they had something to boast about in their national identity, their possession of the law, and their possession of circumcision. Paul has previously explained that they, as well as the Gentiles, are sinners, unable to be declared righteous in the sight of God. Here in his description of the work of Christ on the cross Paul is also addressing this perceived superiority of the Jewish believers. The extreme necessity and the sin-bearing nature of the death of Christ render any human thought of merit or self-generated legal acquittal both foolish and blasphemous. To assume that I might some how, to some degree, save myself, or keep myself saved by my own list of religious credit points, is to totally misunderstand God's holiness, my sinfulness, and Christ's substitutionary death. As the Reformers of the sixteenth century emphasized: we are save by grace alone, by faith alone, by Christ alone. We contribute nothing. As soon as we add something of ours to the work of Christ, we destroy the effect of the work of Christ. It stands alone, or it doesn't stand at all.