Know the Whole Story
Many people know some stories from the Bible, but not how the narrative fits together. The Bible is one story that begins in a garden, ends in a city, and all the way through points to Jesus Christ. Open is your guided journey through this powerful, life-transforming story.
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00:34
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God's Righteousness Upheld

3:1 Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written,

  “That you may be justified in your words,
    and prevail when you are judged.”

But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my lie God's truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

No One Is Righteous

What then? Are we Jews1 any better off?2 No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:

  “None is righteous, no, not one;
11     no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
12   All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”
13   “Their throat is an open grave;
    they use their tongues to deceive.”
  “The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14     “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15   “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     in their paths are ruin and misery,
17   and the way of peace they have not known.”
18     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being3 will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

The Righteousness of God Through Faith

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 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.

27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Footnotes

[1] 3:9 Greek Are we
[2] 3:9 Or at any disadvantage?
[3] 3:20 Greek flesh

(ESV)

Overview

God justifies sinners on the basis of the propitiation that was offered by Jesus on the cross. He does this for all who will come to Jesus in faith. Faith unites a person with Christ who pays our debts and credits us with His righteousness.

For Jesus, union with us meant going to the cross. For us, union with Jesus means being set free from condemnation and enjoying a new relationship of peace with God.

Justification does not depend on your performance in the Christian life but on God applying the benefits of the death and resurrection of Jesus to you.

I love the story of the man who went out to try archery for the first time, and then returned claiming that he had hit the center of the target with every shot.

“How do you do that?” his friends asked.

“It’s easy. I just shoot the arrow and then I go to the tree and paint circles around it!” The man may come home with a warm feeling that he is absolutely on target, but he is living in a fool’s paradise!

God paints the target. “Shoot at this,” He says: “You shall have no other gods before me… Do not covet… Be holy, because I am holy.” God is the lawgiver; He defines right and wrong. We are under His laws, and sin is breaking His commandments: “Whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). At its heart, sin is a personal offense against God. The question is: What will it take to remove this offense?

The Night of the Party
Let me introduce you to Neil and Sally. Neil was in his early twenties when he began dating Sally, an attractive girl he met at the office. He had a reputation for being “a bit on the wild side,” and there were times when Sally was uncomfortable with him.

One night, Neil took Sally to a party where things got a little out of hand. Neil began drinking, and by the time they drove home in the early hours of the morning, he was scarcely able to control the car. Neil drove in a blurry haze until the unthinkable happened. The car hit a bank, careened out of control, and rolled over several times. When the vehicle came to rest, both Neil and Sally were unconscious.

Several hours later, Neil came around in the hospital. His head was thumping and his body ached as he tried to remember what happened.

“How is Sally?” he asked.

“It’s bad news,” said the doctor. “She’s paralyzed. She won’t ever walk again.”

“Can I see her?”

“No, she will not talk to you.”

Suddenly Neil was in a walking nightmare, and it wasn’t long before he received a letter from Sally’s lawyer. In the light of her permanent disability, Sally was bringing legal action.

Neil lies in the hospital wondering how he could have been such a fool, and how one simple action could have landed him in a situation with such desperate long-term consequences. It was just one night, but it changed everything. Neil wonders how he can live with himself, and he has no idea what to do about Sally.

Satisfying Sally
There are three factors in this situation: First, there is an offense. Neil acted recklessly and irresponsibly when he decided to drive home after drinking. Second, there is an offended person. Sally is angry, and rightly so. Third, there is an offender. Neil knows he is to blame. He is deeply sorry for what he has done, but that won’t change the fact that Sally is paralyzed and that her lawyers are preparing a legal action against him.

Neil hires a lawyer and his lawyer talks to Sally’s lawyer about what it would take to settle the case. Their discussion centers on one issue: What will it take to satisfy Sally? The issue is not what Neil thinks is appropriate. It’s all about Sally, because she is the offended party.

Suppose that the lawyers identify a sum of money that would be acceptable to Sally. The payment of that money would be “a propitiation.” A propitiation is a payment offered to placate the anger of the offended party and to satisfy the need for justice so that the case is settled and cannot be raised in a court of law again.

Satisfying God
Since our sin is an offense against God, it follows that God is the one who determines what the propitiation should be. The question is, “What will satisfy God?”

And the Bible gives us the answer: “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25). God presents His Son, Jesus Christ, as the propitiation. His death on the cross satisfies God and placates His anger toward our sin.

The God whose holiness we have offended, whose laws we have broken, whose world we have spoiled, and whose wrath we have incurred, sent His one and only Son. God became a man in Jesus Christ and bore His own wrath.

Through the death of Jesus, God’s anger has been placated and His justice satisfied. It is on this basis that sinners can be justified and declared right with God: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (3:23-25).

The Coach and the Umpire
Picture yourself at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on a bright summer’s afternoon. A packed crowd is enjoying the baseball game, despite the fact that the Cubs pitcher is struggling. To the great frustration of the crowd, he has thrown a sequence of ten balls, walking two batters in the process, and he is beginning to look despondent.

Then to everyone’s surprise, the umpire begins walking toward the mound and puts his arm around the pitcher’s shoulder. “I know you’re having a bad afternoon,” he says, “so let me help you with your pitching.”

Of course, the story is absurd. It is not the job of the umpire to improve the pitcher’s performance. That job belongs to the coach. The umpire’s task is to call balls and strikes, and he must do this with consistency, accuracy, and integrity.

God is both our “coach” and our “umpire,” but we must never confuse the two. In sanctification, God acts as our coach, promoting our growth. But in justification, God acts as the umpire making one of two calls: “justified” or “condemned.” Justification is not about God making us better people. It is about God declaring our standing before Him.

God declares you “justified” when the propitiation that Jesus offered on the cross is applied to your life. He does not justify you on the basis of you achieving or maintaining a perfectly righteous life, but on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus becoming yours, and that happens when a living connection is formed between you and Jesus through faith (3:26).

Debt and Credit
When God justifies us, He does two things that are made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. First, God charges our sins to Jesus, counting them against Him; and second, God credits the righteousness of Jesus to us.

When Karen and I were married, my parents paid for a week at a classy hotel in the Lake District of England. There were no charges for us, because the cost was absorbed by someone else. God justifies us freely by charging our sins to Jesus. This gift is ours because the charges we have incurred have been assumed and paid by Jesus.

It was a wonderful thing to check out of the hotel at the end of the week and hear the concierge say, “There is no charge.” It will be an even greater thing to stand in the presence of God and hear Him say, “There is no charge.”

The second dimension of our justification is that God credits you with the righteousness of Jesus.

Some time ago, I decided to close a credit card account that I had used over several years in Britain. When I called, the representative seemed surprised. “Do you realize, sir,” she said politely, “that you have 2,000 points on this card?” Obviously I didn’t.

I asked the representative if I could give these points to someone else. “Oh, yes,” she said, “anyone else who has the same card. All you need to do is give us the number.”

I think my father was rather suspicious when I phoned and asked, without explanation, for his credit card number. But for some months after that, he enjoyed the benefits of 2,000 points that he never earned.

When you come to faith in Jesus Christ, God credits His righteousness to you. He justifies you, not because of your performance in the Christian life, but because the righteousness of Christ becomes yours.

The Importance of Faith
Since the only basis for justification is the death and resurrection of Jesus, it follows that God will justify those who belong to Jesus. Faith seals the relationship in which the benefits of His death and resurrection flow into your life: “The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe … [God] the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus … We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:22, 26, 28).

Imagine a young couple; we’ll call them Tom and Mary. They meet on a blind date and feel rather awkward as they make polite conversation. But over time, they come to know one another better and their relationship deepens.

One evening, Tom pops the question, and a few months later, Mary is walking up the aisle. The pastor turns to Tom and asks: “Tom, will you have Mary to be your lawful, wedded wife? Tom says that he will.

Faith is like a marriage in which you are united with Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit conducts this marriage. It is as if two thousand years ago, the Spirit of God said to Christ, “Will You take a Scottish lad called Colin, and be his Savior and his Lord?”

On the cross, Jesus Christ said, “I will.”

In May of 1964, the Holy Spirit spoke to a young Scottish lad as he heard his pastor speak of how every person needs to come to faith in Jesus. I knew that I had to respond, and in a simple prayer, I said, in effect, “I, Colin, do take You, Jesus, as the Lord and Savior of my life.”

Think of what being joined to you meant for Jesus: The Holy Son of God had to take your sin as if it were His own. But now think of what being joined to Jesus means for you: You possess the righteousness of Christ as if it were your own!

When you come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, all that He accomplished on the cross becomes active in your own experience, and at that moment God declares you “justified.”

  1. Are you living your life as if you are painting the target around what is right and wrong? Or as if God is painting the target?
  2. In your own words, what is a “propitiation”?
  3. According to the Bible, what is the “propitiation” that God requires?
  4. What are the two aspects of “justification”? What is your initial reaction to this?
  5. In your own words, what is the relationship between “faith” and “justification”?
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