Theme: God’s Remedy in Christ
From this week’s lessons we learn that Romans 3 can be considered the heart of the Bible because of the clear and comprehensive way it shows us the depth of our sin, and what the Lord Jesus Christ has done to save us from it.
Scripture: Romans 3
Propitiation comes from the world of ancient sacrifices and concerns the wrath of God. Most of us do not like the idea of wrath. We push it off. But the ancients understood more than we do at this point. They knew that God was a God of wrath because they knew they were sinners. Unfortunately, they wrongly thought that they were capable of appeasing that wrath by their actions. This is what the sacrifices were all about. Everybody had the idea that God’s wrath was appeased by sacrifices. When you did something wrong and knew that God was angry with you for acting in this wrong way, you came with a sacrifice. If your act was just a bit wrong, you brought a little sacrifice. If you had done a big wrong, you brought a big sacrifice.
The problem with the pagans’ view was that they imagined they could turn aside the wrath of God themselves. We cannot do that, but the Bible conveys the good news that God has done that for us. This is the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. In Christ, God has turned aside His own wrath, punishing sin in the person of His Son who died for sinners. We deserve to die. The wages of sin is death, and we have sinned. Nevertheless, God sent Jesus to bear the punishment of death in our place. He experienced the wrath of God for us. So it is not a question of our turning aside God’s wrath but of God satisfying His wrath Himself so that His love might go out to save the sinner. That is the meaning of propitiation.
The second word is justification. It is a judicial term. It has to do with the courts. To justify a person is to declare that the person is in a proper relationship to the law. If someone comes into court accused of a particular crime and the case is heard and the judge decides that the law of his court is satisfied, the person is justified. He or she is free. This is what God does for us on the basis of Christ’s death. You and I are guilty before God’s laws and court. We have sinned. But Jesus died for us; as a result, when God looks at Jesus and His work, He says, “The requirements of the law are satisfied so far as this sinner is concerned. This sinner deserves to die, but Jesus has died in his place. The penalty has been paid. Therefore, I declare that this one is now justified. He is free to go.”
In verse 26 Paul says that God did this to “demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies the man who has faith in Jesus.” What is he talking about? He is saying that there was a time in history, before Jesus Christ actually came and died in our place, when God had been justifying the ungodly. Abraham was a sinner, yet God justified Abraham. Abraham stood in a right relationship to God. So, when Abraham died, he did not go to hell; he went to heaven. When Isaiah died, it was the same situation. So also with David, Moses, and the other Old Testament believers. God justified them. He saved them.
Yet, says Paul, this really was a puzzling reality before Christ came. It was evident that God was forgiving people; He was justifying them. But on what possible basis? Is it not necessary for the judge of all the earth to do right? We can understand God wanting to forgive, but how can He forgive? Can He just forget about sins? A righteous judge cannot do that. But then the puzzle was explained. Jesus Christ died, and sin was dealt with. It was now seen how God could be the justifier of the ungodly and be just at the same time. It was because God sent His own Son to pay the fine, to die for sinners.
Reread Romans 3:21-26, where Paul mentions the three important doctrines of propitiation, justification, and redemption. What is the meaning of propitiation? How does the Bible’s definition of it differ from the view of ancient pagans?
Define justification. How can God be both just and the one who justifies the ungodly?
For Further Study: For a fuller treatment of the doctrines discussed from Romans 3, pick up a copy of James Boice’s book, Foundations of the Christian Faith, available from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.