…Christ Jesus, 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. 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. Romans 3:25-26
What is the most important book in the universe? I’d say the Bible. Which document within the Bible is the most important? Romans. Which chapter in Romans is the most important? Chapter 3. Which paragraph in Romans 3 is the most important? Verses 21-26. Which verse in that paragraph is the most important? Verse 25. Which word in verse 25 is the most important? Propitiation: “. . . whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.” So the most important word in the most important verse in the most important paragraph in the most important chapter in the most important document within the most important book in the universe is propitiation. That makes “propitiation” the most important word in the universe. It’s worth knowing.
Here is what’s on the line. The mere fact that we’re born, the mere fact that we are what we are, means either an eventual surrender to God or an eternal divorce from God. We have to choose. And the choice is all about propitiation. So we have to understand the most important issue in our lives. Our passage today helps us get into a clear choice for God. That choice is called faith twice in the passage. What God has to say to us here draws us into that faith. This passage is not a barrier; it’s a threshold.
These verses show us two things about God. One, God is just (verse 26). What does that mean? It means that no one is getting away with anything. If you and I could see for one second all the evil being committed in the world right now, we would pass out. But God is just, and no one is getting away with anything. For a long time, before Christ came, God tolerated so much wrong (verse 25). But his tolerance was part of his strategy to display his justice all the more clearly at the cross. Your sins will be punished. The only question is, will your sins be punished by God’s justice at the cross, where the Lamb was slaughtered, or will your sins be punished by God’s justice in your own experience of hell? Hell is a hard teaching, I know. But what many people don’t realize is that the cross was Christ’s hell, which he willingly suffered for others. It can be your only hell, and it was finished 2000 years ago. Or you can face God’s justice on your own, hoping for the best, out in the future. God is just. All sins are punished – either in a Substitute in the past or in ourselves in the future. That is the choice of faith – either faith in Christ or faith in yourself. But one thing’s for sure – God is just.
Two, God is the justifier (verse 26). What does that mean? It means no one can justify himself, exonerate himself, excuse himself, talk his own way out of it. God the justifier is the only one who can rescue us from God the just. This truth takes us deep into our own hearts. Self-justification is the most profound and the most present impulse in all our hearts. We desperately want to evade our own guilt and project it onto someone else. How do we do that? It is so hard for us to own up and admit our real guilt. So our strategies for self-justification take the form of blame-shifting, changing the subject, turning the tables, criticizing, excluding, even racism and violence. But what’s going on is self-justification. It’s a battle within over the moral question of our lives. The fact that it’s a moral question driving us within explains why self-justification, ugly though it is, takes the form of moral fervor – however any one of us may define “moral.” But our self-justifying strategies wrap themselves up in a cloak of indignation and innocence and victimhood. Have you seen any of that in yourself this past week? The Bible is opening our eyes here to what’s going on inside us and why it tears us up. The gospel helps us see that the drama of justification lies deep in our hearts every day.
When our hearts are not living in the comfort of justification by God’s grace alone, we invent our own justifications, often grotesque. If Christ is not our God-given Scapegoat, we’ll find another, because we know we cannot bear our own guilt. Guilty human hearts know they are unworthy. We feel this. The Gallican Confession of 1559 offers us a keen psychological insight:
We believe that in falling away from this foundation [of justification by God’s grace], however slightly, we do not find rest elsewhere, but are always troubled. We are never at peace with God till we resolve to be loved in Jesus Christ, for in ourselves we are worthy of hatred.
We talk a lot today about self-esteem not because we feel it but because we don’t. We feel, at a deep level of unease, that if the truth about us were known we would be hated, and we’d have nothing to say. Every one of us is carrying around guilty secrets we can hardly bear to think about. What do we do with all that? We change the subject. We exalt ourselves. We blame others and punish others, at least in our thoughts and sometimes even in our deeds. I read a fascinating essay this week in which the author proposed that the French Revolution of 1789 was a blood ritual of atonement on a grand scale. They wanted to be cleansed of their past. So they found sacrificial victims, isolated them as “the guilty,” and sent them off to the guillotine. Enemies of the new order had to die there, so that the nation could be born again. Blood was shed on a false Calvary, to save the nation. Another example of social self-justification is lynchings in the old South. Guilty, frustrated white people regained their honor by transferring their shame onto sacrificial victims. Or Islamic terrorists today, extremely self-righteous people with grievances a mile long, are out to purge the world of evil by their violence. There is the human heart.
Without God the justifier as a felt power in our hearts, we invent our own dark justifications. But we’re not very good at saving ourselves. We live every day in a mental world of injury and reparation and claims and counter-claims and deeply felt offense. It’s all about justification. It’s a profound reality in us all. It’s our need for redemption, a new beginning, a scapegoat who will bear far away from us forever our unbearable guilt. But the gospel reveals a better way. God is the justifier. He is the only justifier. And he offered himself as the Scapegoat.
God is just, and only God is just. God is the justifier, and only God is the justifier. Let’s find out what he alone has done to save us from ourselves and our own deadly righteousness.
…Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. —Romans 3:25
There’s the most important word in the universe – propitiation. What is the context? Paul is describing what God did at the cross of Jesus. The cross wasn’t about the Jewish accusers or the Roman executioners. Something deeper was going on there. It was propitiation. What does that mean? Propitiation is satisfying someone’s anger, soothing and appeasing that anger, conciliating the offended person. Propitiation atones for the offense and wins reconciliation. Propitiation is what makes everything okay again.
For example, you buy a new car. At first, everything runs okay. But after a few weeks, little things start to go wrong. The automatic door locks won’t work, the CD player skips from one cut to the next, there’s a disturbing ping in the engine, and so on. It runs, but things are going wrong. What will you say about your new car? Will you say to your friends, “What a great car. It runs”? Or will you say, “I’m not satisfied. They’ve got to make this right”? Of course that’s what you’d say. And you’d be right to say it. That isn’t an over-reaction, because the car was designed and manufactured to work well every time. You and I were created in the image of God. But a whole lot goes wrong with us, and he is not satisfied with our performance. There’s no reason why he should be satisfied. He would be wrong not to be offended. But in pagan religion, it’s the worshiper who placates the (often irrationally) angry God with rituals and sacrifices. In the gospel, it’s God himself who placates his own wrath. He doesn’t scream for our blood. He gives his own.
I realize some of us have difficulty with a God of wrath being propitiated by blood sacrifice. But here’s how I can accept it. He found a way to absorb it into himself, in order to spare us. In fact, that love creates beauty in human relationships. The Bible says, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11).
Another way to lock onto Christ as our propitiation is to look back at the Old Testament’s annual Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). The sins of the nation that had accumulated all year were atoned for by two goats. One goat was sacrificed on the altar. The priest took the other goat, put his hands on its head and confessed the sins of the people, symbolically transferring their guilt onto this (literal) scapegoat. Then the goat was led out into the desert, far away from the people, and abandoned there in that desolate place, never to return. Both illustrate what God lovingly accomplished for us at the cross of Christ. Whatever the Roman soldiers were thinking, God was putting him forward, presenting him, displaying him, going public with him, as the sacrifice and as the scapegoat. The ultimate Day of Atonement was 2000 years ago, when God’s love made obvious and accessible to us all the only one who could satisfy his holy wrath against our sins. This was how God’s holy and just outrage against our crimes was propitiated.
Jesus satisfied God. You do not satisfy God. Your exemplary life does not satisfy God. And if you tell yourself, “But I’m better,” that very thought offends God, because it diminishes the costly triumph of Jesus. He alone lived the perfect life we’ve never lived, to fulfill human destiny. He died the guilty death we deserve to die, to remove human guilt. His blood was the propitiation, the only propitiation. At the cross God was saying to us all, “Here is your only escape from yourself, your only escape from my wrath, your only life worth having – here in Christ crucified.” And if you have bowed down at the cross and embraced the crucified Christ as the only justification for your life, God is satisfied with you. The you that you are right now. He is no longer angry with you. He poured it all out on Christ 2000 years ago. Now he declares you free and clear. You can live again, because God is happy about you for the sake of Christ.
Years ago Donald Grey Barnhouse was about to preach in a church. Just before he spoke a lady sang the hymn, “I am satisfied.” She sang, “I am satisfied, I am satisfied, but is God satisfied with me?” When she finished, Barnhouse stood up and shouted, “Yes, he is!” You can believe that. You can enter into that acceptance and joy and confidence through Christ alone. You can stop justifying yourself. You can be loved right now as the desperate sinner that you are, for his sake, and you can receive other sinners with zero feelings of superiority. It’s all yours at the cross, where God put Christ forward as a propitiation. What’s your part in this? If Christ was put forward in this way, your part is to do the obvious – notice him, pay attention to him, value him, run to him and receive his dying love with the empty hands of faith. That is the moment when God says to you, “You don’t have to prove yourself any more. I’m satisfied. Now let’s get going.”
This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 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 —Romans 3:25-26
God does not justify us because he doesn’t have the stomach to punish sin. He is just. But in the grandeur of all that God is, he is also the justifier who takes guilty, touchy, finger-pointing, blame-shifting people whose problems are always someone else’s fault and he forgives people like that through the cross. He freely credits to them the righteousness of Christ.
Our only part is to make it our own by faith, and that faith is both a first step into Christ and a whole mentality in Christ. The cross is both a doorway for the beginner and a pathway for the believer. If you are not a Christian believer, here is the open doorway God is inviting you to step through today: “God put Christ forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith,” “[God is] the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Will you receive Christ with the empty hands of faith? If you will, God promises to forget what you have done and bring you back into his favor because of what Christ has done. If you’ll stop justifying yourself, you’ll top making the world a more miserable place. If you’ll receive Christ, you will have peace with God, and you will also discover how to start loving the people around you. God will do this for you. Will you step through the doorway of the cross right now?
If you are a Christian believer, you know the finished work of Christ on the cross. But are you walking in that pathway of humility and repentance as your whole mentality? Are you living in freedom from the need to be better than other sinners? Are you enjoying Christ, magnifying Christ, exalting Christ as the only justification in the universe for your existence? The gospel sets us free from self-justifying comparisons and put-downs. We learn to love sinners who have no excuse at all for their lives, because we have no excuse and yet Christ has received us for his own sake. Here is the gospel for believers and unbelievers alike: We are more evil than we ever feared, and we are more loved than we ever hoped. It is so freeing to admit our real guilt and live in God’s real love. This is the doorway God wants you to step through to become a Christian and the pathway he wants you to walk on as a Christian. Won’t you let God love you for no reason but Christ alone?