The Heart of the Gospel

Romans 3:21-3   |   Sunday, June 17, 2007   |   Code: 2007-06-17-PJ


By Phil Johnson


     The law of God is like a mirror that exposes our sin. It's like a magnifying mirror that shows us a focused perspective of our sin and makes sin appear exceedingly sinful. And it's my conviction that the greatest single deficiency in the message proclaimed to the world by the evangelical movement for the past fifty years is its utter neglect of the law. Christians have grown accustomed to telling people, "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life"—and now we have a generation of narcissistic sinners on our hands who have no clue that they have offended God's holiness, no sense of His wrath, and no one who wants to tell them that (in the words of Psalm 7:11) "God is a just judge, And God is angry with the wicked every day." And we need to get back to proclaiming the law to sinners so that they recognize their sin. Because as we saw a few weeks ago when we studied 1 John 3:4, "sin is the transgression of the law." And (Romans 3:20) "by the law is the knowledge of sin."

     But what I want to focus on this morning is not the law but the gospel. There are some great ministries out there these days reminding people of the importance of using the law in evangelism, and they have that right. I've mentioned Way of the Master, Ray Comfort's ministry, as because I appreciate what they have done to highlight the importance of letting the law of god do its work.

     But every so often I meet someone under the influence of that truth who can't seem to see anything else. Once they see the vital role of the law, it's like they can't see anything else. And they end up taking an isolated truth to an untruthful extreme. They put so much stress on preaching the law that they never get around to explaining the gospel. They see the crucial work the law must do to prepare a sinner's heart, but they lose sight of the fact that it is the gospel that's the power of God unto salvation.

     Notice: I just read Romans 3:20, where Paul says: "by the law is the knowledge of sin." Paul doesn't stop with that, though. He goes on in verse 21: "But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe." In other words, once he has convicted the entire world of sin and stopped the mouth of the sinner, he moves straight from law to gospel. That's the right approach. And ultimately, in the evangelism modeled by the apostle Paul, the primary stress is not on law but gospel. Law is only preliminary to gospel. And that's what we have to keep in mind.

     This morning, I want to stress that in your thinking by looking at this very text in Romans 3 where Paul moves from law to gospel. We'll start with Romans 3:21 and try to make it through the end of the chapter.

     This passage is the meatiest gospel text in all of Scripture. If you have ever studied Paul's epistle to the Romans, then you know that the whole book is the apostle Paul's systematic study of the gospel. It is not a survey of Christian doctrine per se, but Paul homes in on the one most essential issue of Christianity—the gospel itself. And he gives us the most ordered, logical, and systematic study of any doctrine anywhere in Scripture.

     So Romans a very important book, and I don't hesitate to say it is the vital foundation for all Bible doctrine. If you want to study the broad sweep of Bible doctrine, you could not find any better starting point than Paul's epistle to the Romans.

     And if the gospel is the theme of the book of Romans, this passage we are studying this session is the very heart of it. This passage we're looking at dissects the gospel in a way that lays bare its very heart. What you will see and feel in this passage this morning is the heartbeat of all redemptive truth.

     If you can master the truths in this short passage of Scripture you will have the main tool you need for an accurate understanding of everything else in Scripture.

     But confuse or corrupt the truths in this passage, and you will confuse and corrupt all of Scripture. So there is no way to overstate the importance of what Paul says in this passage.


     Now, let me begin by giving you a brief overview of the book of Romans, and I want to summarize for you the apostle Paul's argument up to this point, so that we can start our study of these verses with a proper context in mind.

     The key word in Romans is righteousness. The word appears 39 times throughout the book, and cognate words such as just and justify and justice and righteous appear another 25 or 30 times.

     Paul introduces the theme of the epistle in Roman 1:16-17, where he writes, "I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith."

     And then he proceeds to give a logical, ordered outline of gospel truth.

     But notice in 1:17 how he says that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel. That's how he characterized the gospel. You or I might be inclined to say that the gospel is a message about the love of God, or the mercy of God. But Paul said the point of the gospel is to reveal the righteousness of God.

     And pay careful attention to this expression "the righteousness of God"; and a similar expression "God's righteousness"; or the pronoun form "His righteousness." These expressions appear again and again throughout Romans—in no less than eight or nine key verses.

     In fact, you'll notice that our passage begins with this very expression (Romans 3:21): "But now the righteousness of God . . . is manifested."

     And it is important to understand what Paul means when he speaks of the righteousness of God. It is not God's attribute of righteousness; it is not the righteousness we speak of when we acknowledge that God Himself is righteous. But rather Paul is speaking of a righteousness that God confers on those whom He redeems. Verse 22: "the righteousness of God . . . unto all and upon all them that believe." He is speaking of a way of righteousness, a way sinners can obtain righteousness from God Himself—and he refers to this repeatedly as "the righteousness of God."

     Now listen carefully, because it is crucial that we understand this. When you come across that expression "the righteousness of God" in Paul's writings, you must understand what he meant by it. If you take it as a reference to the attribute of divine righteousness, in most places what Paul is saying will not make any sense. But if you see that Paul is speaking about that righteousness that is given "unto all and upon all them that believe," it will be like someone turned on a bright light so that you can see these the truth of the gospel more clearly than you have ever seen it.

     That is precisely what happened to Martin Luther that launched the Protestant Reformation. Listen to Luther's own description of how he came to understand what this expression ("the righteousness of God") means. Luther wrote this:

I greatly longed to understand Paul's Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, "the [righteous­ness] of God," because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.  My situation was that, al­though an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in con­science, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him.  There­fore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and mur­mured against him.  Yet I clung to . . . Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

Luther thought of the righteousness of God as an attribute of the sovereign Lord. And in Luther's mind, it was that attribute in accordance with which God judges sin­ners. So when he read about the righteousness of God, in his mind, he was reading about judgment, not redemption.

     Luther was too aware of his own sin to be under the delusion that a fallen man like him could ever possess righteousness through his own merit, and so he languished in despair. angry that the gospel, which is supposed to be good news, placed so much stress on "the righteousness of God," which Luther thought was bad news for any sinner. He wrote,

      . . . Night and day I pondered until . . . I saw the connec­tion between the [righteousness] of God and the statement that "the [righteous] shall live by his faith." Then I grasped that the [righteousness] of God is that righ­teousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith.  Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.  The whole of Scrip­ture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the "justice of God" had filled me with hate, now it be­came to me inexpress­ibly sweet in greater love.  This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.[1]

What Luther discovered in this passage is that God justifies sinners. He provides on their behalf a righteousness that they lack and have no hope of earning for themselves.

     This is the doctrine of justification by faith, and whenever you see this expression "the righteousness of God" in Paul, let your mind go immediately not to the idea of judgment, but rather to the doctrine of justification by faith, because when Paul speaks of "the righteousness of God," he is speaking of that righteousness which God supplies on behalf of undeserving sinners so that He can freely redeem them. Is that clear?

     Now with that in mind, let's take a wide-angle look at the book of Romans and set the context for our passage. The theme is the gospel. The key word is righteousness. And here's a simple three-point outline of the whole book: From the beginning of the book through 3:20, Paul focuses on the subject of sin. We'll call that first part "Righteousness Defied," because he shows how all mankind is both collectively and individually guilty of disregarding and opposing God's righteousness.

     Then, starting in the passage were looking at today, and all the way through to the end of chapter 11, he lays out the way of salvation. He covers every aspect of soteriology, starting with justification, then moving to sanctification, dealing with the problem of sin and the believer's security—and he stresses throughout these chapters that the work of redemption is all God's work. No aspect of it is brought to the table by the believer. God supplies for sinners everything they need to please and glorify Him. So we'll label this second section "Righteousness Supplied."

     And from the beginning of chapter 12 through the end of the epistle, Paul deals with the practical ramifications of the gospel, getting into all sorts of practical and applicational issues. We'll label this final section "Righteousness Applied."

     So there you have a simple three-point outline for the whole book of Romans: Righteousness Defied, Righteousness Supplied, and Righteousness Applied. (Actually, you can name those three sections Sin, Salvation, and sanctification—or anything you want as long as you clearly see the direction Paul is going. You won't be able to make much sense of the epistle if you do not recognize the basic logical flow of Paul's argument.)

     Now notice that our passage for today takes up at the very point where Paul has completed his discussion of sin, and now takes up the subject of redemption. That's why he turns from the law to the gospel. Before we get into the text, let me give you a very brief summary of everything that has gone before our passage:

     First, beginning in chapter 1, just after he gets past his greeting to the Romans and into the substance of what he wants to say, he starts by mentioning the gospel, and calling it the power of God unto salvation (v. 16). But before he ever gets to a description of the way of salvation, Paul sends a considerable amount of time dealing with the subject of sin. He goes through all classes of humanity—the rank heathens, (whom his readers all knew were horrible sinners anyway); the moral and religious gentiles, honorable, sophisticated, and cultured people who were often respected by the Jews but who nonetheless were without God and without any true righteousness; and then he turns to the Jews (who thought their status as members of the chosen nation made them acceptable to God. So when the Jewish people in New Testament times spoke of "sinners," they were always referring to Gentiles and never to themselves). Paul shows them that they are no less sinners than the Gentiles. And in order to sum up and make his point, he quotes this string of proof-texts from the Old Testament in Romans 3:10:

10  As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:

11  There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.

12  They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

13  Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips:

14  Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness:

15  Their feet are swift to shed blood:

16  Destruction and misery are in their ways:

17  And the way of peace have they not known:

18  There is no fear of God before their eyes.

And he says, "Look, that's from the Jewish Scriptures. And that message is to those who are under the law (v. 19: "Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law.") So even the Jews, despite all the spiritual advantages their race and culture had received because of Abraham's unique relationship with God—even they were condemned by the law because of their sin.

     And someone says, "Paul! You sure do paint with a broad brush! You have just condemned everyone who ever lived."

     You see, that was precisely Paul's point (vv. 19-20): "that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin."

     The law was never given to the Jewish nation to be a way of salvation. It was given to show sin for what it is, "that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful" (Romans 13:7). The truth is that unredeemed Jews living under the light of the law faced a greater condemnation than Gentile sinners did, because to whom much is given, much shall be required.

     So Paul has meticulously demonstrated for nearly three full chapters that every person desperately needs redemption from sin, and now, in our passage, he turns to an explanation of how that redemption is possible:

21  But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;

22  Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference:

23  For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

24  Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:

25  Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;

26  To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.

27  Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.

28  Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

29  Is he the God of the Jews only? is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also:

30  Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.

31  Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law.

That entire passage has one central point, and it is this: Redemption from sin is entirely a free work of divine grace. There is nothing for the sinner to contribute to the process, but rather God Himself supplies everything the sinner needs to be reconciled to Him. God Himself has made the necessary atonement. God Himself supplies the necessary righteousness. God Himself satisfies all the legal and moral requirements for forgiveness. Everything in this passage underscores all of that, and it all stresses the central truth of the gospel: that our salvation is entirely a work of divine grace, and nothing we could ever do could contribute to or augment what God has done on our behalf.

     Now some historical background on this passage. This passage became a battleground between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers. When Martin Luther translated this passage into German for his German Bible, he translated verse 28 like this: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith [alone] without the deeds of the law." It was from that expression "faith alone" that the Reformation drew its motto sola fide. Sola fide is simply Latin for "faith alone."

     Luther was simply trying to give proper stress to the true sense and meaning of Paul's words here. The Roman Catholic Church accused Luther of adding to Scripture. And they still make that accusation today. I have often heard Roman Catholic apologists make the claim that Luther was adding to Scripture in his translation of verse 28. And they'll usually point out that in a literal translation of Scripture, the expression "faith alone" appears only once, and that is in James 2:24, where James writes, "You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone." And so they claim that Scripture nowhere teaches sola fide.

     Scripture does not support that claim. In fact, the best answer to it is found in Romans 4:1-6. I'll show you that in a moment, and perhaps we'll examine Romans 4:4-5 in detail in an upcoming week. But for now, we'll just note that Luther's Catholic critics often object to the addition of the word alone in his German translation. Well, the word alone isn't in our English Bibles, but I think you'll see that this still is the sense conveyed by this passage: "A man is justified by faith [alone] without the deeds of the law.")

     (When James wrote that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only, he was speaking of a completely different kind of justification than Paul is here. Paul is speaking of our justification before God—our legal standing in the court of God. James was describing our testimony to others, justification before men—visible proofs by our lives that we are authentic believers. The two are not in conflict; Paul and James were merely talking about completely different things.)

     Here, in this context, Paul is clearly dealing with our eternal salvation—redemption from sin—justification before God. And his whole point is that our redemption is accomplished completely by God and we contribute nothing to the process. We even appropriate it through faith, not by any ritual or sacrament, not by legal obedience, not by racial birthright. But by faith. And if words mean anything, Paul is teaching that it is by faith alone, because the minute you add any sacrament or legal duty to faith as a condition of our salvation, you nullify the whole point of what Paul is teaching here.

     (And I think you'll see that as we unpack the chapter, but just to make the point as quickly and clearly as possible, look ahead to the next chapter, and notice Romans 4:4-5, where Paul sums up what he has been saying about justification: "Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." So Paul quite clearly does exclude works of all kinds from the justification formula, and it does not alter the meaning of Paul's words but merely gives them due stress, to translate verse 28 so that it reads, "A man is justified by faith [alone] without the deeds of the law.")

     Now Paul lists three ramifications of this justification by faith in this passage, and I want to look at them one at a time. First, he says there is no role for the law in our salvation. Then he says there is no relevance in any racial distinctions as far as our justification is concerned. And finally he says there is no room for boasting if God is the one who has done it all. Let's look at these one at a time. First,


1. There Is No Role For The Law

     Let's go back a moment and look at verse 20, and then we'll read verse 21 in light of it. Verse 20 closes and sums up Paul's earlier point that the unredeemed Jews who were under the law were no better off than the pagans, and he writes, "Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin."

     Then verse 21 is where he shifts focus. He stops talking about sin, and he starts talking about salvation. This is the turning point and the very focal point of the whole book of Romans: (v. 21)  "But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets." In other words, the Old Testament itself is a witness to the doctrine of justification by faith. The law was never given as a means for us to acquire righteousness. All the law can do for a sinner is condemn him. It can never be a means of righteousness. And even the law itself and the prophets—that is, the entire Old Testament—is a witness to the fact that God graciously grants his righteousness to believers apart from any works or ritual.

     A lot of people misunderstand this. They imagine that Old Testament saints somehow could acquire righteousness and be justified by obedience to the law. One commentary I read (and it happened to be one written by a former pastor of mine) said this (and I quote): "Under the Old Testament Law, righteousness came by man behaving; but under the Gospel, righteousness comes by believing." May I just say kindly, that is dead wrong, and it misses Paul's whole point in verse 21. Even the Old Testament testified to the righteousness of God that comes on a believer by faith and totally apart from the law. "[Abraham] believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness"—Genesis 15:6. And we'll see more of this next session in Romans 4, where Paul systematically goes through the Old Testament era and shows how thy were justified by faith and not by works.

     Even in the Old Testament era, there was no role for the law in making sinners righteous. The law could only condemn them. They had to look to God's grace for salvation. Verse 20: "by the law is the knowledge of sin"—not redemption from sin.

     Now I need to move if we are going to get through this. Notice the second point: There is—


2. There Is No Relevance in Any Racial Distinctions

     Verses 22-23: "Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." So everything Paul has said in the first two and a half chapters boils down to this: It's fine to belong to a race that was chosen by God to be the recipients of His law and His national blessings. But at the end of the day, no matter what race you belong to, it is a fallen race. Tribal distinctions, cultural differences, skin color—all these things are irrelevant before the throne of God. You may be a member of the highest caste of the most glorious race, but as far as God is concerned you're a part of Adam's race, and Adam was a sinner, so you are too.

     And all these racial and cultural barriers that the world of humanity is so preoccupied with amount to absolutely zero when it comes to the matter of our soul's salvation. We're all sinners, and if we are going to be saved, someone who is not a sinner is going to have to save us.

     Now this is Paul's whole point: Sinners cannot possibly earn enough merit to please God. What God demands is a perfect righteousness, and by definition, no sinner can attain that. God cannot lower his standards, because if He did, he would be unholy. A holy God cannot set a standard that is less than perfect.

     But, he says, a righteousness is provided for sinners. Given to them freely gratuitously—by grace. Now these are complex sentences Paul is using, but be sure you get the gist of them, starting in verse 21: "now the righteousness of God . . . is manifested,  . . .  Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe."

     He is talking about a righteousness that comes from God and is bestowed upon the sinner. How? Verse 24: "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." That word "freely" is the Greek word dorean. It means "freely" in the sense of gratuitously. It literally means "without a cause." And in fact, the very same word appears in John 15:25, where Jesus, foretelling His crucifixion said, "This cometh to pass, that the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause." "They hated me dorean—for no valid reason whatsoever." There was nothing in Him that warranted their hatred. The same sense is conveyed here. God justifies us dorean—for no apparent reason. There is nothing in us that warrants His favor. But he justifies us freely, gratuitously, lavishly—on His own, for His own reasons, and through His own efforts. It is not something we deserve. It is not something we can even contribute to. We will never deserve it, even if we worked as hard as possible from now on through all eternity and never messed up again. We have already sinned, and for that we deserve only judgment. But God graciously redeems us instead.

     And that brings us to the third point Paul makes here: There is—


3. There Is No Room for Boasting

     Skip for a moment down to verse 27: "Where is boasting then? It is excluded." God's means of redemption does not permit the sinner to boast. Scripture emphasizes this again and again, right? Ephesians 2:8-9: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast."

     Here's why there is no room for boasting: because the work of our salvation is all work that has been done on our behalf, not something we do for ourselves; not something we contribute to. Once you mingle the least amount of religious ritual or human work and make that a ground of our justification, you give the sinner ground for boasting. If to any degree salvation hinges on something I do for myself, then the whole point is lost.

     But, Paul says, we are not saved by our obedience to the law. We are not saved by our social or racial status. We are not saved by any amount of our own works. We are saved solely and exclusively because of the atonement Christ offered on our behalf.

     Verse 24: "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood. . . . " Now what is this concept all about? This is speaking about the kind of atonement Christ purchased on our behalf. The reference to His blood makes clear that this is a reference to the cross and Christ's atoning work there. The expression "through faith" actually modifies the verb "being justified." And the sentence should probably be punctuated with a comma before the phrase "in his blood," So that the sense of it is this: We are justified freely through faith; we are justified freely by His blood. And in the shedding of that blood, God put Him on display as a propitiation.

     Notice that it uses this word propitiation. That's a big word for a simple concept that has deep roots in all ancient religion—including most of the pagan religions. It speaks of placating the wrath of an angry deity. To propitiate a god was to appease his wrath. In paganism, a propitiation was a payoff, like a bribe, to buy favor rather than wrath from a formerly angry deity. When the wrath of a god was placated, he was said to be propitiated,appeased, satisfied. And pagans would do all sorts of radical things to try to satisfy the wrath of their gods. You remember Moloch, the Canaanite deity in the Old Testament who supposedly required people to throw their children in a fire and burn them to death in order to propitiate him.

     Now, if propitiation has such horrid overtones, why does Scripture employ this term to describe the atoning work of Christ? After all, we know that God's love is not for sale. His favor cannot be bought with a bribe. Doesn't it demean the work of Christ to portray it as a propitiation?

     Lots of people have thought that, and it has even caused some theologians to tamper with the doctrine of the atonement. The Socinians claimed that God's wrath did not need to be appeased; he could simply forgive and forget our transgressions because he is so loving. And so they said Christ's death on the cross was not an atonement at all; for no atonement was needed. Christ's death was just an example for martyrs to follow.

     Then there's another view that has often been popular among Arminians, and it's making a comeback today, known as the governmental view of the atonement, or sometimes "Moral Government Theology." This was the view held by Charles Finney. It is the view held by Clark Pinnock and others today. And this view agrees with the Socinian view in one respect. This Governmental theology also claims that God's wrath did not need to be appeased, but that God's love was a sufficient ground for the forgiveness of sins. But they say public justice needed to be satisfied. God had to show the world what he thinks of sin. And so he sacrificed Christ as an example of the divine wrath against sin. God put his son on public display just to say, "You want to know what I think of sin? Here's what punishment for sin looks like."

     And so in both of these views, Christ is not really a substitute for sinners; he is merely an example.

     But that is not what Scripture teaches. If Christ's atoning work was an example only, then the stress is still on what sinners must do for themselves. And if Christ's death was not a satisfaction of God's wrath against you and me for our sin, then God would be unrighteous to forgive us.

     There's no need to be embarrassed or ashamed of the concept of propitiation. There is a huge difference between the propitiation demanded by petty pagan gods and the propitiation that is described here. And here's the difference: God Himself provided the propitiation. It is not a bribe or a payoff; but it is a satisfaction of the divine righteousness that requires every sin to be punished in full. And God took that punishment on Himself in the person of his Son. Christ substituted for us. He hung there on the cross in our place and in our stead, and He bore the wrath of God against our sin.

     That's the biblical view of Christ's atonement.

     Now here's an interesting footnote: The greek word translated propitiation is the word hilasterion. It is the same word used in the Septuagint, the greek translation of the Old Testament, to speak of the lid of the ark, the mercy seat, the place where blood was sprinkled. That ark was kept in the holy of holies, and no one could go in there except once a year the High Priest, who entered with blood and sprinkled it on the mercy seat on the day of atonement.

     If anyone else ever dared enter the holy place without the atoning blood, he was to be killed. But with the application of the blood, symbolizing the future sacrifice of Christ, God's wrath was propitiated. And the lid of the ark, which was a place of judgment, because a place of mercy.

     For thousands of years and hundreds of generations, animal sacrifices were offered as a symbolic atonement. Scripture says in Hebrews 10:4 that "it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins." And Hebrews 10:11, those sacrifices could never take away sins.

     And yet during those generations, God justified believers graciously, freely, just as He does today. No one in those days fully understood how God would make redemption possible. One thing was clear to those with faith: He would have to satisfy His own justice, atone for sins with an effectual sacrifice, and provide a righteousness on behalf of those whom He justified.

     In fact, listen to Proverbs 17:15: "He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD." That's saying that in the normal course of human affairs, if you call an unrighteous person righteous, or if you call a righteous person unrighteous, that is an abomination to God. So the natural question that arises is this: How can God himself justify the ungodly? How can God violate his own moral code without becoming unrighteous? Do you see the dilemma?

     And yet throughout all the ages, God had counted unrighteous people as righteous. Abraham, and moses, and David, and all the other men whom God blessed and called righteous in the Old Testament were sinners. How could God justify them?

     The cross answers all those questions. Verse 25: It "declare[s] his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God." All those sins in the Old Testament era that God forgave; all those sinners whom He declared righteous—now we see how He did it. He imputed those sins to Christ, and Christ atoned for them. And He imputed Christ's righteousness to those sinners, and on that ground He was able to declare them righteous without compromising His own justice.

     Verse 26: "that [God] might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." He can justify the ungodly, and yet remain just. And he can do this only if Christ's atoning work was substitutionary.

     Well, there's much more in this passage, but that is the heart of it, and that is the heart of the gospel. I never tire of these truths, and I hope you don't either. And I hope you'll ponder these things carefully, because if you are trusting anything other than the work of God on your behalf, you are not even a genuine Christian. And we'll look into that more next session.