When I wrote on the righteousness of God awhile back (see The Gospel of God’s Righteousness), I stated that it is God acting in judgment to save His people from their enemies in faithfulness to the promises which He made to them. In other words, God is executing a judgment in favor of the people He is saving, and against whatever is oppressing his people. But there is a problem, namely, that what oppresses human beings is their own guiltiness before God. We have all sinned. I don’t mean that we have merely made mistakes out of ignorance or misinformation. No, we have all rebelled against God and are or have been hostile toward Him and His commands. We have not wanted to do His will, but went our own way. As Paul says:
“There is no one righteous, not even one, there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, not even one. Their throats are open graves, they deceive with their tongues, the poison of asps is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood, ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
So the question remains: How can God justify guilty sinners? How can He make right those who are clearly in the wrong, and at the same time remain a just and righteous God? Clearly not through the law, because on the one hand, human beings have not kept the law (“All are under Sin’s Power”),and because the old covenant law itself has failed to make the Jews into a holy people of God, whether through circumcision and observance of the food laws, or through the sacrificial system of the temple (The Law’s Ineffectiveness).
The twin failures of humanity and the law mean that a solution apart from the law has to be found, a solution which will at once solve the problem of human guilt before God and deliver them from the sentence of eternal death that hangs over us, as well as preserve the holiness and justice of God’s character. There must be no doubt as to the rightness of His actions, whether in saving or in judging, not simply because He is God and who dare question Him, but because His actions truly are just and righteous and fair and altogether good. God is totally Self-for-others, both within the Trinity, and for us, so He is the very embodiment of holy love and pure justice. So, whatever way that God acts to save humanity from the plight they have brought upon ourselves, He must at the same time be a just and righteous God. For if God does not act justly and righteously in saving us, then how can we trust him to be a safe God for us? But his character of holy love makes His justice safe to be trusted.
But how can God be just and at the same time justify ungodly sinners? How can God both judge sin and not destroy us sinners in the process of executing His righteous judgment? How is this paradox to be resolved? Paul’s answer is found in Romans 3:21-22: The righteousness of God, attested by the Law and the Prophets, is revealed through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe. Now most translations have “through faith in Jesus Christ,” not “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.” But I think the second translation to be the better one. Considered just as a phrase, the Greek pistis Christou can be translated either way and the Greek word pistis can mean either faith or faithfulness. It all depends on the context. If the word pistis is translated “faith,” then Jesus Christ is the object of our faith, but if it is translated “faithfulness,” then Jesus is the one who is expressing faithfulness (toward God).
So how do we decide who is the one who is believing or expressing faithfulness toward God? The key is that the righteousness of God is revealed by means of this faith or faithfulness. But it is not our act of believing that reveals the righteousness of God – that would make our act of believing into some kind of righteous work that we perform. We are only the recipients of God’s righteousness, and faith is only the means of receiving it: “to all who believe.” Our faith does not reveal God’s righteousness; it only receives it, for faith is really receptivity to God.
Instead, it is the act of Christ, His faithful obedience to the Father unto death, which reveals God’s own righteousness. In Phil 2: 8, Paul says that Jesus “humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross!” That God’s righteousness is revealed through the obedient faithfulness of Christ makes better sense because it is the cross which reveals God’s righteous judgment against sin, as well as His righteous judgment in favor of the sinners who put their trust in Him. The faithful obedience of Christ is an essential component of our salvation, as Rom 5:19 makes clear: “For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” It is the obedient death of Christ which reveals God’s righteousness, both in condemning sin as well as saving us, not our believing. Our faith only receives God’s righteousness, it does not reveal it.
So, returning to our original question: “But how can God be just and at the same time justify ungodly sinners?” The answer is the faithful obedience of Jesus Christ unto death, even death on a cross. Jesus was perfectly faithful to God, completely without sin (2Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15), fulfilling every demand of the law, not only the letter of the law, but its spirit or divine intention behind the law. In every way He perfectly mirrored the character of God as His image and was the exact representation of his very being (Col 1:15, 2Cor 4:14, Heb 1:3). By His obedient faithfulness, Jesus fulfilled what Adam failed to do in the Garden of Eden, and so He regains on behalf of humanity what Adam lost. At the same time, because Jesus was not only perfect man, but God in the flesh, His perfect faithfulness and righteousness was a manifestation of the very righteousness of God Himself. Paul says in 2 Corinthians that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” The obedience of Jesus to the Father was not just the action of a man, but the action of God the Son, submitting Himself wholly and perfectly to the will of the Father. And it is by this obedience that the many are made righteous. Just as Adam’s sin was considered or reckoned as ours, so that all humanity fell when Adam sinned, so Christ’s obedience is reckoned as ours, so that all who believe are justified before God on the basis of Christ’s obedience.
Not only does Christ obey on our behalf, He also takes upon Himself bodily the consequence of our sin, namely the curse of the Fall, death itself. It was not enough that Jesus obeyed the Father perfectly, He had to be obedient unto death – He had to pay the penalty of our sin, the consequence of death. This is how God can be just – the penalty of sin is executed upon the body of Jesus dying on the cross on our behalf, and at the same time the justifier of ungodly sinners – another has assumed our place on the cross. He has taken upon himself the curse of the law, whether the Mosaic law or curse from the law in the Garden of Eden (Gal 3:10-13). This is called the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, because Jesus has been substituted for us in bearing the penalty or curse of death. The idea of penal substitution appears twice in the Old Testament: in one case God rejects someone’s offer of himself in the place of others, but in the other case God accepts the offer. In Exodus 32, the people apostasize from the Lord and break the old covenant by committing idolatry by making and worshiping a golden calf. Moses pleads with the Lord to forgive their sin and to blot him out of the book of life if it will atone for their sin:
“Then Moses returned to the Lord, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. But now, if You will, forgive their sin-and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!” The Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book.” (Exod 32:31-33).
But God rejects Moses’ offer of Himself as a substitute for Israel, though He does not give the reason. Perhaps it is because Moses is himself a sinner, or perhaps because he is only one person, but he cannot atone for the covenant-breaking high-handed rebellious sin of Israel. But there is another spoken of in the Old Testament, like Moses but far superior to Him, who can offer Himself for the sins of the people, and not only Israel, but for the sins of the whole world. Isaiah prophesied of a person who would intercede for the people in way that Moses could not and who would bear the punishment due to them:
“But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
And by His wounds we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not open His mouth;
Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
because of the rebellion of his own people, he was wounded.
My Servant, will justify the many,
Since He will bear their iniquities.
He poured out Himself to death,
And was numbered with the transgressors;
Yet He Himself bore the sin of many,
And interceded for the transgressors. (Isa 53:6-8, 11-12).
The consequence of death for Adam’s (and our own) sins could not and cannot be avoided. Either Jesus pays it on the cross, bearing the punishment upon His own body, or else we will bear it upon our bodies in death. If we have not already done so, let us call upon the name of the Lord, upon Jesus, and receive the offering Jesus has made for us in our place. He has substituted Himself for us, and God has accepted his offering, and we need only to receive it through trusting in what God has done. all that is required is the crucifixion of our pride, our ego, that refuses to depend helplessly on the grace of God expressed in the death of Christ. How can we refuse Him when so great a gift is offered? Today, if you hear his voice calling you to Himself, harden not your hearts… (Heb 3:7-8).