Romans 3:21-26: The Justice of God Justifies

This year a good number of us participated in the first ever New Word Alive in Pwllheli in North Wales. Speakers included Don Carson, Terry Virgo and John Piper. We hope to take an even larger group back to Pwllheli next April. The joy of being together with like-minded believers, hungry to learn how to follow Christ from God’s word, was tinged with sadness.

After 14 years partnership UCCF, Keswick and Spring Harvest have parted company. In previous years we have taken church groups to the Word Alive week of Spring Harvest. No more. Why? What would cause evangelical Bible-believing Christians to separate? It came about because of a controversial book entitled The Lost Message of Jesus, published in 2003 and written by one of the Spring Harvest Event Leadership Team – Steve Chalke. In it, he writes,

“How… have we come to believe that at the cross this God of love suddenly decides to vent his wrath on his own Son? The fact is that the cross isn't a form of cosmic child abuse—a vengeful father, punishing his son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a construct stands in total contradiction to the statement "God is love." If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus' own teaching to love your enemies and refuse to repay evil with evil. The truth is the cross is a symbol of love. It is a demonstration of just how far God as Father and Jesus as his son are prepared to go to prove that love. The cross is a vivid statement of the powerlessness of love.”[i]

Really? The truth is that the cross is far, far more than a symbol of God’s love, as Steve Chalke suggests. In calling the orthodox biblical view of the cross, in which the love of God, the justice of God and the wrath of God are all satisfied in the death of Jesus, as a “form of cosmic child abuse” is blasphemy. As Adrian Warnock put it,

To question the idea that Jesus died to take the punishment for our sin questions the very heart of the gospel… The wrath of God against sin is very real and needs to be turned away. So if this debate is arising, it is once again a debate about the very definition of an Evangelical. The lines are clearly drawn.”[ii]

They are indeed. Because the Word Alive committee, of which UCCF is a part, believed Steve Chalke’s views to be contrary to orthodox Biblical teaching they decided regrettably that he could not teach from a Word Alive platform. The leadership of Spring Harvest, however, stood by Steve Chalke and therefore terminated the relationship with UCCF and Keswick.

John Piper, one of the guest speakers at this year’s New Word Alive wrote this of Steve Chalke’s statement,

“One of the most infamous and tragic paragraphs written by a church leader in the last several years heaps scorn on one of the most precious truths of the atonement: Christ’s bearing our guilt and God’s wrath… With one cynical stroke of the pen, the triumph of God’s love over God’s wrath in the death of his beloved Son is blasphemed, while other church leaders write glowing blurbs on the flaps of his book. But God is not mocked. His word stands firm and clear and merciful to those who will embrace it.” (John Piper)

I’d like to recommend three of the most important books ever written on this subject:

Knowing God by J. I. Packer (Hodder, 2004)

The Cross of Christ by John Stott (IVP, 2006)

Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the glory of penal substitution by Steve Jeffrey, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach (IVP, 2007).

This controversy, which strikes at the heart of the gospel, is addressed in our passage Romans 3:21-26. Leon Morris suggests that these verses may be “possibly be the most important paragraph ever written.” Please turn to it with me.

Yesterday I went all the way to Birmingham to speak at the Methodist Central Hall. And after half an hour I nearly came home because we could not get in. The security officer could not open the front door with the keys he had been given. It’s the first time I have been locked out of a church. Eventually we moved to the Quaker Centre who accommodated us at short notice. 

John Calvin once described the book of Romans as “The door to all the treasures of the Scripture.” In our studies of Romans so far we have discovered that the door to heaven is well and truly shut in our faces. We cannot open it ourselves.

If we try and gain access through our good works or religious behaviour the door will remain shut. We have neither the strength, power or authority to gain entry. Tonight we are going to see that door open on its hinges. In chapters 1-3 Paul has demolished all the arguments mankind can summon. Our best attempts to reach God are not good enough. God’s righteous standard is too high for us to make it. The chasm between God’s holiness and our sin is too great for us to scale. We cannot bridge the gap. Its like taking some amateur swimmers (the heathen of chapter 1:18-32), some professional swimmers (the moral people of chapter 2:1-16), and some top Olympic swimmers (the religious people of chapter 2:17-3:8), lining them up on the Irish coast and telling them to swim the Atlantic. The amateurs might make 500 yards, the professionals might make 5 miles and the Olympic class swimmers might make 50 miles but none would be able to swim the 4000 miles. None would be good enough. That is what Paul is saying in these first three chapters. He demolishes their arguments, showing one by one that they are an inadequate foundation for a right relationship with God. “There is no one righteous, not even one.” (Romans 3:10).

From Romans 3:21 Paul begins to lay a very different foundation that God himself has laid. Romans 3:21 begins dramatically, “But now…”  But now, Paul now explains how we can be made right with God even when we are in the wrong. Lets look at these verses one at a time and observe Paul’s argument:

1.    God’s righteousness revealed long ago

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.” (Romans 3:21)

The verse is in the imperfect tense signifying the death of Christ and its abiding consequences. But Paul emphasizes this is not something new.

Beginning: It was practiced by the Patriarchs - Abraham was declared right before God by faith 400 years before the Law was given.

Law: It was pre-figured in the sacrificial system - The blood of the atonement.

Prophets: It was promised in the Suffering Servant – the ransom sacrifice.

But now a righteousness from God… has been made known. Practiced by the patriarchs, prefigured in the sacrifices, promised by the prophets. God’s righteousness revealed long ago. But, secondly,

2.    God’s righteousness only realized now

“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ  to all who believe.” (Romans 3:22)

God’s righteousness was finally revealed in Jesus Christ. We cannot be made right with God by trying to be good. We must trust in the one who was good and remains always right with God. Jesus Christ. God’s righteousness revealed long ago, a righteousness only realized now.

3.    God’s righteousness needed by all

There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:22-23)

If all our under the same condemnation, all must be rescued the same way. If you have been through passport control recently at a UK airport you will know that there are three separate queues. British and EU passport holders are in one line, other nationalities in a separate line. And one for fast track VIPs. What Paul has shown us in the first three chapters of Romans is that no one has a natural right of entry to heaven. There is no fast track, no immunity, no privileged status. We are all barred from heaven. We all fall short of God’s immigration laws.

God’s righteousness was revealed long ago. God’s righteousness is only realized now. God’s righteousness is needed by all. The fourth principle we learn is:

4.    God’s righteousness uniquely satisfied in the cross of Christ

“and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished  — 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:24-26)


Now we come to the heart of the gospel and we must do so reverently. We are going to see the source of our justification, the ground of our justification and the means of our justification. And for this outline I am grateful to John Stott.[iii]

4.1         The source of our justification: God and his grace

“and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24)


We “are justified freely by his grace.” As John Stott says, “Fundamental to the gospel of salvation is the truth that the saving initiative from beginning to end belongs to God the Father. No formulation of the gospel is biblical which removes the initiative from God and attributes it either to us or even to Christ.” We did not and cannot take the initiative for we are “sinful, guilty and condemned, helpless and hopeless.”

Nor was the initiative even taken by Jesus.


Instead, he voluntarily and willingly gave himself freely to do the Father’s will. Jesus took the prophetic words of David in Psalm 40 and said “Here I am… I have come to do your will, O God.” (Hebrews 10:7; Psalm 40:6-8). It is God the Father who took the initiative to redeem us “by his grace”. Grace is, Stott reminds us “God loving, God stooping, God coming to the rescue, God giving himself generously in and through Jesus Christ.”. The source of our justification


4.2         The ground of our justification: Christ and his cross

“God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” (Romans 3:25)


If it is God who justifies us, on what grounds does he do so? How does he ‘redeem’ us? Again, Stott, in his superb commentary on Romans puts the question so succinctly,


“How is it possible for the righteous God to declare the unrighteous to be righteous without either compromising his righteousness or condoning our unrighteousness?... God’s answer is the cross.”


If God hates sin, how can he justify sinners? The language used here is from the court room. The judge in a court room is only interested in one thing. Is the accused innocent or guilty. He does not ask for a character reference. Is the accused in the right or in the wrong? That is what righteousness means here. It is not a qualitative or subjective definition but a clinical judgement.


And God has already made his judgement plain  “I will not acquit the guilty.” (Exodus 23:7). How can a righteous God act unrighteously? “Without the cross the justification of the unjust would be unjustified, immoral, and therefore impossible. It is as Paul says here, only because “God presented him [Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement” so that God could “demonstrate his justice”. Paul uses three vitally important words to describe what God did “through the cross, that is, through the death of his Son in our place”. Redemption; Propitiation; Demonstration.


Stott says “All three refer not to what is happening now when the gospel is preached, but to what happened once for all in and through Christ on the cross. Three aspects to the work of Christ: The redemption of sinners; the propitiation of God’s wrath and a demonstration of God’s justice.


Lets consider these one at a time.


The Cross Redeemed Sinners

“and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24)


Apolytrosis is a commercial word borrowed from the market place. In the Old Testament it is associated with the slave market. Slaves who are purchased are said to be redeemed.


On the 1st March 1932, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr., twenty-month-old son of the famous aviator colonel Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped. He paid $50,000 in ransom but it was not enough to redeem his son who was murdered. On 8th December 1963, Frank Sinatra’s son was kidnapped and he paid $240,000 for the return of his son.  For God to deliver mankind from the slavery of sin, it took more than money. It took the life of the only person who ever lived who was not himself a slave of sin. John Stott says “Jesus Christ ‘redeemed’ us, bought us out of captivity, shedding his blood as the ransom price.” Jesus had himself explained he came “to give his life a random for many” (Mark 10:45). Therefore, having been redeemed, we belong to him. The redemption of sinners.


The Cross Propitiated God’s Wrath

“God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” (Romans 3:25) The NIV translates this word hilasterion as “a sacrifice of atonement”. The Authorised translation and the English Standard Version translate it as propitiation. And here we come to the heart of the controversy with Steve Chalke and those who take a liberal line.


Many are embarrassed by this word because it means to placate someone’s anger. That is why the translators of the Revised Standard Version and commentators like C.H. Dodd prefer to translate this word as ‘expiation’. They teach that the blood of Jesus expiates sin rather than propitiates God. Dodd wrote that the act of expiation was “felt to have the value, so to speak, of a disinfectant.” Steve Chalke says “Jesus, as he hung on the cross, soaked up all the forces of hate, rejection, pain and alienation all around him.” So the blood of Jesus cleansed us from sin in much the same way that disinfectant cleans a surface or, or a sponge absorbs liquid, or soaks up dirt.


How far these analogies take us from the actually teaching of Scripture. The NIV, while not using ‘propitiation’ does rightly point us back to the sacrifice of atonement, for this is an Old Testament analogy.


God is holy, a consuming fire. Under the Old Covenant, when a person broke God’s law, the penalty was death because of God’s righteous wrath. God required justice, but in his grace he allowed a substitute – the sacrifice of an unblemished male lamb. The blood of the sacrificed animal provided a temporary covering for sin, and propitiated his wrath – but the animal sacrifice had to be repeated as a reminder of sin and its consequences.


Death and the smell of death were ever before the people of God in the Temple as a reminder of God’s righteous, holy anger and implacable opposition to sin. That is why with dramatic language, John the Baptist announced the Lord Jesus with these words, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Not a lamb but the lamb. Not covers but takes away. Not just an individual’s sin but the sin of the world. Once for all, for all sin, for all people, for all time.

Charles Cranfield in his commentary on Romans expresses the meaning of this verse in this way:


“God, because in his mercy he willed to forgive sinful men, and being truly merciful, willed to forgive them righteously, that is, without in any way condoning their sin, proposed to direct against his own very Self in the person of his Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved.”


No, the death of Jesus accomplished so much more than the expiation of sin, it purchased the redemption of sinners and propitiated the wrath of God.


The Cross Demonstrated God’s Justice

“He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” (Romans 3:25)


The word here translated ‘demonstration’ is endeixis. It simply means a vindication, a demonstration, a public revelation or achievement. The cross Paul tells us not only demonstrated the love of God and propitiated the wrath of God but also vindicated the justice of God. God left unpunished the sins of former generations, letting nations go their own way and suffer the consequences, not because he did not care, nor because he was unjust – but because, at the right time, Christ would die for us. Paul has used legal, commercial and religious language to describe the work of Christ on the cross.


Legal: “Justified” – the fact of sin removed (Romans 3:24)

Commercial: “redeemed” – the debt of sin paid (Romans 3:24)

Religious: “Propitiation” – the wrath of God toward sin placated


Let me quote John Stott one more time:


“He has redeemed his people. He has propitiated his wrath. He has demonstrated his justice. Indeed these three achievements belong together. Through the sin-bearing, substitutionary death of his Son, God has propitiated his own wrath in such a way to redeem and justify us, and at the same time demonstrate his justice. We can only marvel at the wisdom, holiness, love and mercy of God, and fall down before him in humble worship. The cross should be enough to break the hardest heart, and met the iciest.”

The source of our justification. The ground of our justification.

4.3         The means of our justification: Faith and faith alone

“he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:26)


On three occasions Paul emphasizes in these verses the necessity of faith – that is trust. In verse 22, 25 and 26.

“This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ  to all who believe“God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:22, 25, 26)

“Faith alone” sola fide was the heart cry of the Reformers. Faith is not a work, nor is it an act of cooperation with God. Justification by faith alone simply means in Christ alone.

“Faith is the eye that looks to him, the hand that receives his free gift, the mouth that drinks the living water.” Richard Hooker, in the 16th Century wrote, “God justifies the believer – not because of the worthiness of his belief, but because of his [Christ’s] worthiness who is believed.” Cosmic child abuse? I don’t think so. We have seen in the short but vital passage:

God’s righteousness revealed in scripture.
God’s righteousness realised in Jesus Christ.
God’s righteousness is needed by all.
God’s righteousness uniquely satisfied in the cross of Christ.

In his book, Future Grace, John Piper says this:

“We do not earn or merit anything by taking refuge in God. Hiding in something makes no contribution to the hiding place. All it does is show that we regard ourselves as helpless and the hiding place as a place of rescue. The condition we must meet to have this grace is not a meritorious one; it is the condition of desperation and acknowledged weakness and need. Destitution does not demand or deserve; it pleads for mercy and looks for grace.”

These six short verses of Romans 3, leave us in no doubt of the grace which inspires the call to come and enter a right relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Jesus we come face to face with the grace of God.
God’s grace to those who haven’t sought it, for those who don’t deserve it, to those who can’t earn it, and those who will never, ever, be able to repay him for it. Let us pray together.


In this sermon I draw heavily on the ideas and content of John Stott’s Bible Speaks Today commentary, The Message of  Romans; J.I. Packer’s, Knowing God and Pierced for our Transgressions by Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach.

[i] Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus (Oasis, 2003)


[iii] John Stott, The Message of Romans (IVP, 1994)