BY ANDREW SUM
If we are to understand anything in this world, we must understand it the way God ordains it. It follows that if we are to understand justice in any sense, we must understand God’s absolute justice as revealed to us in His Word. In doing so I hope that a theological foundation would be laid, upon which the Church might proceed with regards to the issue of justice here on Earth without crumbling under the weight of secular influence. Some might argue over the practical implications of such a study, “What does this have to do with human suffering? How does this affect those in poverty? What about prison reform? I don’t need your pie in the sky theology, give me something practical!”
Though these are noble causes, we must recognize that there is nothing more practical and valuable than the glory of God. His glory is the end for which the universe exists (Isaiah 43:7). The word glory conveys a sense of weightiness. It is essentially the showing forth of God’s numerous perfections. To act righteously is to count God’s glory as supremely and infinitely valuable and to devalue that glory is the greatest imaginable injustice. Yet, sinners (everyone) who have trampled on the glory of God are allowed to live. The Bible has a word for such an attitude. It’s called idolatry. Reader, do you feel the weight of this injustice?
But not only do men devalue the glory of God, it seems that even God, in allowing sinful men to live, does not uphold the infinite worth of His glory. Is God then an idolater who does not even care about His own glory? Of course, the biblical answer is a resounding “NO!” But we must understand how the Bible shows God as perfectly just and righteous in condemning sin, upholding His glory, and allowing sinners to live. To do so, we turn to the book of Romans. While doing so, we must operate under a biblical understanding of “the righteousness (justice) of God.” John Piper defines the righteousness of God as, “most basically, His commitment to act unswervingly for His own name’s sake and thus display His glory.”
Some have said that the book of Romans is the greatest book in the Bible. Paul writes this to Roman Christians almost as if he were writing a missionary letter, asking for their support as he passes through Rome. It reads like theological treatise and, more specifically, it details the precious, multi-faceted nature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The thesis of the book is found in Romans 1:16-17:
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written
Do you see what Paul says here about the righteousness of God? (It must be noted here that in the book of Romans, the Greek word for righteousness and justice are exactly the same) He says it is revealed in the Gospel! We must therefore look to the Gospel if we are to understand the justice of God. The two cannot be separated.
Paul goes on to write the entire book of Romans building upon this idea that the Gospel is the revelation of the righteousness of God. Nowhere is this theme more clearly put forward than in Romans 3:21-26:
21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,
22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction;
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;
26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
This is a profound reality, especially considering the backdrop upon which this truth is brought forth. Paul’s words “But now” point to the depths of sin that are described in the first three chapters. God’s verdict is that all men suppress the truth in unrighteousness (1:18), exchange God’s glory for the glory of created things (1:23), maintain a stubborn, unrepentant heart (2:5) and the list goes on. Because of this, all men are deserving of God’s holy, righteous wrath (1:18, 2:5). The human condition is summed up in that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (3:23)
It is with this in mind that Paul’s “but now” has its full impact. These calculated words signify a change in the direction of the argument. The immediate outpouring of God’s wrath against sinners would be a clear revelation of God’s justice. But notice that here God’s righteousness is manifested “apart from the Law” (that is, apart from mere obedience to the Law) and that this righteousness is “through faith in Jesus Christ.” It is clear that this is the same “righteousness of God” as put forth in Romans 1:16-17, namely, the righteousness of God demonstrated in the Gospel.
So, finally, we come to this question: How is the Gospel the revelation of the righteousness of God? In other words, how does the Gospel show God’s commitment to uphold His glory? Isn’t the Gospel the news of Jesus becoming a man, dying on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and rising from the dead so that we could have eternal life? It is certainly no less than that. This is seen in that God “displayed [Jesus] publicly as a propitiation.” The word propitiation conveys the idea of a wrath-satisfying sacrifice. As Christians, we must get this right! God is wrathful in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. He shows His wrath by punishing His own Son so that all who would have faith in Him might have their sins paid for! What a precious truth this is! This is the truth that converted us and makes us Christians. Even more, belief (or faith) is the vessel by which we receive the Gospel (3:22) because it excludes all human boasting (3:27) and points to the goodness of our Savior who shows sinners unmerited favor. God upholds His glory in the Gospel by showing that He alone is the all-sufficient, initiating, saving God.
But in this passage, Paul says the Gospel message has a greater purpose than simply giving us eternal life! For in the Gospel, God, who is unchangeable in His commitment to uphold the value of His own glory, most clearly shows His righteous, loving, holy character. This is apparent in verse 25. The purpose of Christ’s redemptive work is to “demonstrate God’s righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” Were God to continue only in patient forbearance without punishing (“passing over”) our sins, He would have no claim to holy justice and He would indeed be an unrighteous God, unworthy of worship. But in placing the sins of the world on Christ, God shows Himself both patient and just. There is no one else who could uphold such seemingly contradictory characteristics, yet God does this in the Gospel! God upholds His glory in the Gospel by demonstrating His singular character.
Paul continues to rise to greater heights of God-honoring truth as he describes the uniquely sovereign purposes of God. In verse 26, after reemphasizing that the Gospel is “for the demonstration… of His righteousness at the present time,” he explains that God’s purpose in divine forbearance and justice is “so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (emphasis mine). This is strange, especially considering that the Bible says that “He who justifies the wicked… [is] an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 17:15). It is certainly abominable for sinful men to declare other sinful men innocent. But Paul argues that this same standard cannot apply to God. He is the only One who stays completely just while “justifying the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). God upholds His glory by showing sovereign hand over all creation in that the He alone has the divine right and power to declare sinners righteous.
The Gospel is a revelation of the righteousness and justice of God. It is not merely the means by which we inherit eternal life, but is rooted and grounded in God’s commitment to uphold the glory of His name in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see this in the words “in His blood.” (Romans 3:25) Pastor John Piper sums it up in this way:
“Everything Jesus suffered, he suffered for the sake of God’s glory. Therefore, all his pain and shame and humiliation and dishonor served to magnify the Father’s glory, because it shows how infinitely worthy God’s glory is that such a loss should be suffered for his sake. When we look at the wracking death of the perfectly innocent and infinitely worthy Son of God on the cross and hear that He endured it all that the glory of his Father might be restored, then we know that God has not denied the value of his own glory, he has not been untrue to himself, he has not ceased to uphold his honor and display his glory, he is righteous. The awful death of the Son is the means whereby the Father can be both righteous himself and the one who justifies the ungodly who have faith in Jesus.”
In conclusion, what we see is that God’s justice cannot be separated from the cross of Jesus Christ. Reader, as you think about issues of justice, I exhort you to keep in mind the foundation of God’s justice as demonstrated in the objective news of the Gospel. If Christians are not dedicated to the verbal proclamation of the Gospel, who will be? It is the ordained means by which God upholds His own glory and saves sinners (Romans 10:14-15). Any attempt to glorify God apart from a commitment to this Gospel as the highest good would bring no glory to God at all.
Andrew Sum is a sinner saved and sustained by God’s grace. He is a third-year studying bioengineering.
Photo Credit: Bon Jin Koo