The Consequences of His Death
As we saw last month, the death of the Lord Jesus brought great delight to the heart of God. There are many reasons for this, but we will consider one that is given great prominence in the epistle to the Romans, especially in chapter 3. It is in the death of Christ that God’s righteousness is declared.
That man is unrighteous is abundantly plain in the Scriptures, particularly in Romans: “There is none righteous, no, not one” (3:10). That God is righteous is also clearly stated; indeed, in the same chapter (v5) His righteousness is contrasted with man’s unrighteousness: “But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say?” God is intrinsically righteous, even if mankind had never existed, but, juxtaposed against our unrighteousness, His righteousness stands out in glorious relief. While the context of the passage is His faithfulness, contrasted with man’s unfaithfulness, the wider reality is still unmistakeably seen. God is righteous, and we are not.
This is a very serious matter, for we read that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18), and of “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (2:5). God must judge sinners, and He will certainly do it on a righteous basis, without respect of persons (2:11).
Yet, amidst this bleak picture, there is a sharp change. Having declared, categorically, that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (3:23), Paul speaks, in the very next verse, of “being justified freely by His grace.” How can this be? How can a righteous God, Who “will by no means clear the guilty” (Exo 34:7), declare sinners righteous, without compromising His own righteousness?
The answer, of course, is in the death of Christ, or as Paul states, “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation,” which is explicitly said to be “in His blood,” showing without doubt that it is through His death that this comes about (Rom 3:24-25).
The word here translated “propitiation” occurs only one other time in the New Testament – in Hebrews 9:5, where it is rendered “mercyseat,” referring to the covering of the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle. However, a word very closely related to it (the difference being that one is neuter and the other masculine) is also translated “propitiation” in 1 John: “And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (2:2), and “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (4:10). The related verb is rendered “be merciful” in the prayer of the penitent tax collector: “God be merciful to me a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
While a detailed discussion is beyond the scope of this article, the above references give us a clear picture of what is meant when the Lord Jesus is called a “propitiation.” In His death, His sacrifice upon the cross, “in His blood,” as Paul states it, He fully satisfied Divine justice, allowing God to come out in mercy to sinners, and declare them righteous in His sight. This, as is stated in the verse in 1 John 2, quoted above, is for “the whole world,” yet not all benefit from it, for it is “through faith” (Rom 3:25). Justification is only experienced by “him which believeth in Jesus” (v26).
How glorious are Paul’s words in verse 26: “To declare, I say, at this time His righteousness: that He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” The words “righteousness,” “just” and “justifier” are all from the same root: “righteousness” is a noun, “just” (“righteous”) an adjective, and “justifier” verbal (a present participle – He is the One Who declares people righteous). We marvel at the greatness of the truth expressed here. On the grounds of the propitiatory sacrifice of the Lord Jesus, God can declare sinners righteous, yet remain righteous Himself; and, far from compromising His righteousness, in declaring sinners righteous, His own righteousness is being demonstrated!
However, a difficulty could be raised. It is all very well for a sinner who, post-Calvary, hears the gospel, and “believeth in Jesus.” He receives the forgiveness of sins and is declared righteous before God. But what of those who lived and died before the death of Christ?
Paul answers that question. God has set Him forth, “to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” (v25). There were many people, before Christ came, who exercised faith in God, and they were reckoned righteous before Him on that basis. Indeed, in the next chapter, Paul names two examples of this: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (4:3), and, “David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works” (4:6). But was God righteous in doing so, although Christ had not yet died to provide the basis for such action? He certainly was, but the demonstration of it had not yet taken place. At that momentous day, when Christ died, it was abundantly manifest that God had indeed been righteous in the “forbearance” He had shown toward those whom we now call “Old Testament saints,” by justifying them in anticipation of what His Son would do at Calvary. His actions over all the ages that preceded the death of His Son were fully vindicated by that death.
We can only begin to enter into the joy that filled the heart of God, when His only well-beloved Son laid down His life, and, in so doing, demonstrated God’s righteousness in granting forgiveness to sinners, in the centuries that had gone before, and in the centuries that would follow. Well could Paul write concerning the gospel: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed” (1:17).