For years now I have been trying to get brethren to understand that our heavenly Father could not have saved sinful man “just any old way.” Even so, many think that if God is truly omnipotent, then He can do whatever, whenever, and wherever He wants. According to this way of thinking, there are absolutely no limitations on God; and if not, then God can save man just any old way. Before I can get them “up to speed” on what the Bible actually says about this, things can sometimes get a bit testy, at least until they begin to realize that Jesus wasn’t simply “a way” to the Father, but was, instead, “the way” (John 14:6). Truth is, God could not have saved man just any old way. Clearly, and this in spite of the ecumenism that so easily besets modern-day Christendom, the Bible makes it clear “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, ESV).
After reminding my brethren that Jesus isn’t just a way, but the way, and that God’s omnipotence, when properly defined, does not mean there are no limitations on it (e.g., God cannot lie, Titus 1:2), I, at least, have their short-lived attention. I quickly remind them that although God’s omnipotence is not limited by anything outside of Himself, nonetheless, it is, indeed, limited by His own nature or character. A God who is perfectly holy truly cannot lie all right, but this inability in no way impairs His omnipotence. With this under their belts, I take them to Romans 3:21-28 (esp. v. 26), which is a passage, the real significance of, they begin to understand for the first time in their walk as a Christian—which serves, in turn, as a reminder of just how shallow the “modern church” can be. And just how shallow is this. Well, it’s so shallow that some have begun to call what passes for Christianity in many places today as nothing much more than “Christless Christianity” (Michael S. Horton, “Christless Christianity,” Modern Reformation, click here to visit website). For now, let’s focus on Romans 3:21-28 and what it says about whether God could have saved man just any old way.
21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, 26 to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus [emphasis mine]. 27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore, we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.
One of the issues Paul addresses above is how or why it is possible that a holy and righteous God can justify “the ungodly” (Romans 4:5) while remaining “just.” Too many evidently just read over what Paul says here with little, if any, appreciation of the deep theological issue at stake. Some of these are preachers and teachers of the word. One of these, a preacher with whom I had a rather lengthy written discussion on the subject of Jesus’ vicarious death, had an interesting response which I will share with you. Let me set it up by relating to you what I had said that had originally elicited his response:
You say, “Some here say that the sins were taken away by a non-substitutionary sacrifice, thus rendering the sinner legally innocent (justified), and thereby canceling the need for punishment…the propitiation ‘turned aside’ God’s wrath by removing guilt,” which is your position as I understand it. My question for you, and I am expecting a biblical response, is HOW could such a sacrifice alone do that?”
He responded by saying in part:
When sins are forgiven, sinners are justified. When sinners are justified, they are regarded as righteous, innocent, not guilty. God’s wrath is not directed at people who are righteous, innocent, and not guilty. Therefore, God’s wrath was propitiated…turned away from those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb that was slain. God is still just…for a just God punishes those who die in their sin, and a just God does not punish people who are righteous. And God is the justifier, for He justifies us by the blood of Christ poured out in His sacrificial death.
Substitution theory requires God to punish the only truly innocent person and let the truly guilty people go free. How is that justice? It is a miscarriage of justice. Imagine if our courts today decide to lock up all the innocent people and let the criminals run loose! True justice occurs when guilty people are punished and innocent people are free.
What this brother fails to appreciate is that what Paul is telling us in Romans 3:21-28 is that the only way the heavenly Father could remain just and still be the justifier of those who exercise faith in His Son was by sending His only begotten Son into this world to die “for us” or “on our behalf” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:21).
This necessitated Jesus’ bearing “our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). This means that the Father “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Thus, it is indisputable (or at least it should be) that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13, ASV; cf. Deuteronomy 21:23).
But there’s more. Because God’s law consists not just of commandments to be obeyed, but penalties to be suffered, it is precisely these penalties that require us to come to grips with the “how”/“why” question already mentioned, and this because Paul makes it clear that our Lord Jesus Christ could not have redeemed us from the curse or penalty we so rightly deserve as sinners “without being made a curse [or ‘sin’] for us,” or “on our behalf” (cf. Galatians 3:13; 2 Corinthians 5:21), which is something the aforementioned brother/preacher emphatically denies. Nonetheless, it is incontrovertible that what he denies is precisely what Peter affirmed when he said that Jesus “bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
As a result of passages like those mentioned above, most Bible students, regardless of their theological leanings, have recognized that the very basis of salvation for “ungodly sinners” is, and remains, Jesus’ substitutionary (vicarious) death on the cross. Thus, it seems clear that the biggest mistake anyone can make is to think that God could have saved man “just any old way.” He couldn’t, and everything He’s revealed to us about Himself says He couldn’t, and Romans 3:21-28 is the “smoking gun” proof He couldn’t! Until one understands this, there’s little hope he’ll ever come to terms with the true basis of our atonement.
“Not Guilty” Vs. “Forgiven”
Another common error the brother/preacher mentioned above falls victim to is the idea that the “righteousness” that has been imputed to (or put to) our account makes us “not guilty” or “innocent,” rather than “forgiven.” Truth is, we are not now, nor will we ever be, innocent or not guilty. After all, this is why we need God’s grace to begin with. We are, and will remain, nothing more than wretched sinners who have been saved by grace through faith. Consequently, we are “forgiven,” praise God, and remain so as long as we continue to meet the conditions of God’s great and glorious grace, which initially is belief, repentance, confession, and baptism, and subsequently continued belief, confession, and repentance. Notice that in trying to deal with the force of Romans 3:25-26, the Jesus-didn’t-die-vicariously brother said:
When sinners are justified, they are regarded as righteous, innocent, not guilty. God’s wrath is not directed at people who are righteous, innocent, and not guilty. Therefore, God’s wrath was propitiated…turned away from those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb that was slain. God is still just…for a just God punishes those who die in their sin, and a just God does not punish people who are righteous.
Such an answer demonstrates his failure to appreciate the force of this passage as it stands opposed to his position, in that it and its context say nothing about God’s wrath being turned away from those who are “righteous, innocent, not guilty,” which is, in itself, a totally absurd concept. Instead, it speaks of how God’s judicial wrath is propitiated and, consequently, turned away from “guilty-as-sin” sinners! It is this problem that Paul is dealing with, and if one fails to realize this, he will not be able to understand just how it is that God could remain just while justifying sinners.
As a further demonstration of the aforementioned brother’s failure to understand this subject, he went on to say: “Substitution theory requires God to punish the only truly innocent person and let the truly guilty people go free. How is that justice?” Now, and here’s the kicker, there is certainly a sense in which it isn’t, at least when it comes to us (viz., sinners being saved). Instead, it is grace, great and glorious grace! It is only when one comes to grips with the unfairness of grace that one can begin to understand just how it was that God was able to remain just when justifying sinners.
We must never forget that grace isn’t fair. This sounds strange, I know, but if we want fair, then it is necessary for us to relate to God through a system of perfect law-keeping, which would look like this:
- If we keep the law, we are blessed.
- If we break the law, we are cursed.
Although this is fair, under such a system all mankind, except for Jesus, sinned and, as a result, deserves the penalty, not the blessings. But because He loved us so much, God sent His only begotten Son into this world to effect our salvation through the blood of His Son and our willingness to accept His Son as our Lord and Savior. As a result, all of us sinners who have “kissed the Son” receive the blessings, not the curse. Praise God!
However, the good news of the gospel is not just that Christ died for us, which was totally undeserved and, therefore, unbelievably gracious, but that, in His resurrected state, “He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He ever lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). As such, Jesus, our Savior and High Priest, serves as our “Advocate with the Father,” being Himself “the propitiation for our sins” (1 Peter 1:1-2). The term “propitiation” literally means “an offering that turns away wrath.” Jack Cottrell, in his excellent book, The Faith Once For All, explains this rather well:
In pagan circles these terms [speaking of the several Greek words from which is derived “to propitiate,” “a propitiation, a propitiatory offering, that propitiates God”] had the connotation of appeasing or placating angry deities. This crude pagan connotation must not be carried over into the biblical usage, however, not because the term means something different in the Bible, but because the God of the Bible is different from the false heathen deities. He is not merely a God of wrath but is also a God of love and grace who takes the initiative in providing the offering that turns away his own wrath. He does not wait in an angry pout until the anxious sinner brings him an offering he deems suitable, nor does the kindhearted Son “win over” the hard-hearted, angry Father through his death on the cross. We must not think the term “propitiation” carries only such primitive connotations. The terms are used often in the Septuagint, where they do not have “the usual pagan sense of a crude propitiation of an angry deity,” something which “is not possible with the God of Israel” (Cottrell, The Faith Once For All, p. 265. Further note that the quoting Cottrell does here is from Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, p. 155, with Cottrell’s observation that Morris’ treatment of propitiation in this volume is simply unsurpassed, a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with).
Thus, one must not think of God and our redemption in such primitive terms. We must know that the idea involved in the use of this term is the idea of a sacrifice that turns away wrath, and if the God who has revealed Himself to man was not a God of wrath, then there would have been no need for a propitiation of that wrath. That Jesus was, through the work He was sent here to do the propitiation for our sins—a work which culminated in His death on the cross—is the beginning of the good news of the gospel. Nevertheless, our blessed assurance and hope must not focus on His earthly work alone, for He ever lives in His glorified state to make intercession for us as we serve Him here on this earth.
Praise God for the sacrifice of His only begotten Son for us on that cruel cross of Calvary!
Praise God that Jesus ever lives to make intercession for us at the right hand of the Father on high!
Praise God that Jesus, who was and is Himself God, came to this earth and lived and experienced death as a man, and that in addition to being the perfect and complete sacrifice for our sins, He is able to make sympathetic intercession for us at His Father’s right hand!
Indeed, praise God!
I could, of course, say more; but as I’ve already begun to repeat myself, I’ll conclude with this post.