This objection claims, even if tacitly, that “Grace isn’t fair.” Truth be told, there’s a very real sense in which it isn’t, and this is what makes it grace. At the same time, there’s a sense in which it is fair. Knowing this helps in navigating the issues that arise concerning Jesus’s vicarious death and substitutionary atonement. When one fails to understand this, he’s going to get the atonement wrong. To demonstrate this, I’ll continue to use a discussion I had with David Sims, a non-vicarious-death-of-Jesus brother, on this very subject; specifically, the “how” or “why” of Romans 3:26. In that discussion, He wrote:
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 (ellipses in the original).
As I see it, there are several problems with this answer. First, where does the Bible ever say anything about sinners being viewed by God as “innocent” or “not guilty”? Truth is, it doesn’t. The Bible, instead, speaks of forgiveness. This means that the “righteousness” we have “in Him” is not our “own righteousness” in the sense that it derives from keeping law perfectly, “but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Php. 1:9). In such a relationship, God does not treat us as if we’ve never sinned (i.e., as “innocent” or “not guilty”), but just as if the penalty for our sins has already been paid. In other words, when we are justified by the sacrificial, atoning, propitiatory blood/death of Jesus, we are declared or reckoned righteous, not made righteous, as Sims’ theology demands. This can be seen by the use of the verb “justified” (dikaioo) in Luke 7:29. There it says those who heard the Lord’s teaching about John the Baptist “justified God” (NKJV). This does not mean the people conferred righteousness upon God or made Him righteous. Instead, they were declaring (acknowledging, reckoning) Him to be righteous. Consequently, the NASB translates this passage as “They acknowledged God’s justice,” while the NIV says they “acknowledged that God’s way was right.” Therefore, when God justifies us, He is not making us righteous (i.e., imparting righteousness to us), but declaring us righteous (viz., imputing righteousness to us) based on our obedience, by faith, to the gospel.
The second problem is the one having to do with how (or why) it is possible a holy and righteous God can justify sinners and remain just in doing so. The only way this was possible was for the heavenly Father to send His only begotten Son into this world to die for us (cf. 2 Cor. 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 [we] were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). This isn’t simply man-made think-sos, as some are claiming, but God’s word. What it means is 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 Cor. 5:21). It is, therefore, indisputable (or, at least, it should be) that “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’)” (Gal. 3:13; Deu. 21:23). As a result of such passages, most Bible students, regardless of their theological leanings, have recognized the absolute necessity of Jesus’ vicarious or substitutionary death on the cross. The mistake bro. Sims et al. make is believing God could have saved man “just any ol’ way.” He couldn’t, and everything He’s revealed to us about Himself says He couldn’t, and Romans 3:21-26 is the “smoking gun” proof. Until one recognizes this, there’s little chance he’ll understand the exigent nature of Jesus’ vicarious death.
Blessing & Life Vs. Cursing & Death
But there’s more. God’s law consists not just of commandments to be obeyed, but penalties to be suffered when one disobeys.
I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live (Deut. 30:19).
It is precisely these penalties (“cursing” and “death”) which require us to come to grips with the “how”/“why” question, for Paul makes it clear that Jesus could not have redeemed us from the curse/penalty that we so rightly deserve “without being made a curse [or ‘sin’] for us” (cf. Gal 3:13; 2 Cor 5:21). This is the very thing Peter was talking about 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 Pet 2:24).
Now, is there anything fair about this? Well, not in the sense that the only one who ever kept God’s law perfectly, and thus deserved to be blessed, suffered and died under its curse, and those of us who deserve the curse are, instead, blessed by what Jesus did for us on the cross. In this sense, then, it can be argued that “Grace isn’t fair!,” and this because under law “fair” is:
- Keep the law; escape the penalty.
- Break the law; suffer the penalty.
So, as long as we remain under a system of justification by law, these must be the rules that apply to us. Truth is, it is possible, at least theoretically, to keep law perfectly. In other words, man does not have to sin. However, and this is why I used the term “theoretically,” we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Therefore, the problem is not with God’s law, which is perfect, but with us who aren’t. Nonetheless, perfect law requires perfect obedience. If we sin but once, we are, as lawbreakers, guilty of all. As James says, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10). Paul makes this same point when he says, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them” (Gal. 3:10). It is just here, then, that the gospel finds its appeal, in that God has provided an alternative to the law system. It is a completely different way of being justified. It’s called grace. Under grace, one is justified by means of the following terms:
- Keep the law; suffer the penalty.
- Break the law; escape the penalty.
This means that if we insist on viewing grace as if it were a system of justification by law, we have no choice but to view it as unfair, and, in this sense, it is. Thank God for grace, for under grace, a lawbreaker (a sinner like you and me) may escape the penalty of eternal damnation. Thus, “Break the law; escape the penalty” is, indeed, good news. Otherwise, we don’t, as sinners, stand the proverbial snowball’s chance of ever making it to heaven.
But wait a minute. Isn’t there something wrong with these terms? After all, why should one who keeps the law suffer the penalty, while those who break the law escape the penalty? As already pointed out, this doesn’t seem fair, and it’s not. And, it’s not supposed to be, for if it were fair, it wouldn’t be grace. Remember, law is fair; grace, on the other hand, is much, much more than fair—it’s completely undeserved. Even though bro. Sims and others of his persuasion have no problem understanding the undeserved part of grace, they appear to stumble over its unfairness. In his effort to explain Romans 3:25-26, Sims argues that “God’s wrath is not directed at people who are righteous, innocent, and not guilty.” Yes, of course, but what he’s failed to understand is that the issue in play in Romans 3:25-26 is not the justification of “righteous, innocent, and not guilty” people, but God’s justification of rank sinners (cf., e.g., 1 Tim. 1:15); i.e., how can we, as front-of-the-line sinners, be justified by God and Him remain just when doing so? This is the aspect of this that Sims and others have failed to appreciate.
Thus, the question Paul deals with has two parts: (1) how can God justify sinners and (2) remain just when doing so? It is at this juncture that law comes back into play, for in order for God to justify sinners in such a decidedly unfair way as salvation by grace through faith, His righteous and just law had to be satisfied, vindicated, upheld, or whatever other term one finds satisfactory here. I have presented my case for believing this could only be accomplished by the vicarious death of Jesus over and over again, so I’ll not repeat that here. But if this is not, in fact, the issue Paul is addressing in these verses, then my whole argument is based on a false premise, as I view what Paul said here as a key to understanding the very nature of Jesus’ cross work, as well as the atonement itself. This disproof, as I noted at the beginning of this series, would entail conclusive proof that ἱλαστήριος (hilastērion) does not mean propitiation, but expiation. Until this can be done to my satisfaction, I see no reason to reject Jesus’ vicarious death.
The purpose of this post was to demonstrate what I believe to be a fundamental lack of understanding that non-vicarious-death-of-Jesus brethren have concerning the inherent unfairness of grace; namely, that the only One who ever lived perfectly sinless under God’s law had to die as the cursed object of the Father’s judicial wrath in order that the rest of us who are sinners could be justified by faith in the very One who became “a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
In conclusion, there’s a sense in which grace isn’t fair, just as there’s a sense in which it is. Except for the latter, there was no way for the former—i.e., no way for God to be “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26b). Miss this, and you’ll be inclined to ask, “How is it even thinkable that the Father could punish His Son in our stead on the cross when His Son was faithful in all things, even to the point of death?” In other words, fail to appreciate the fairness, yet unfairness, of Jesus’ cross work, and you’ll probably wind up espousing the anti-vicarious-death-of-Jesus position.
 A discussion with David Sims that he has since made public at http://www.retainthestandard.com/to%20Allan%20Turner%20on%20substitution.pdf.↩
 When thinking about this, remember that Jesus makes it clear He was not “a way,” but “the way,” and that “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (Jn. 14:6).↩
 I use this term to emphasize the point made in footnote 2, with the point being that if the Father was going to save sinners, He could not simply overlook sin and remain just in doing so. A substitute was needed, and God Himself agreed to step into the breach between Himself and man, becoming, in point of fact, that substitute.↩