God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
There are three great words here and it is essential that we become familiar with them, principally because they are the truth, but also because they are the essence of Christianity and the heart of saving religion. The three words are ‘propitiation,’ ‘demonstration’ and ‘justification.’ Now we all know about inflation, and taxation, and superannuation, and nationalization, and privatization, and immigration, and disqualification, and conservation, and contamination, and vaccination and many other words like that. And we all have opinions on many of those subjects because we are affected by them, but men know nothing about propitiation and justification because they say they are ‘religion’ and they have made religion irrelevant to them. And I want to say to you that they are the most important words you will ever meet, and life and eternity consists of coming under the truth of those words.
The living God, your Creator and Sustainer, once presented his Son Jesus Christ to earth and heaven, “as a sacrifice of atonement” (v.25), or the more accurate translation is “as a propitiation to a sin-hating God.” To propitiate is to ‘appease,’ to ‘turn wrath away.’ John Ling told me that once Stephen Olyott had been preaching in our pulpit and he gave a vivid illustration of what is the meaning of propitiation. He had come home and discovered that his sons, Philip and Richard, had made a terrible mess of a room, and he was angry with them. “Now you are in deep trouble, and unless you clean up this mess you will be in deeper trouble still.” The boys smirked back at their father and did nothing, but their sister Delyth, seeing their father’s anger, set to and cleared up the room completely, so that when their father returned his wrath towards his sons was appeased by what Delyth had done. She had made propitiation for their sins, and so their father had been reconciled. Now that is what Jesus Christ has done by his sacrifice on Golgotha. He has propitiated the wrath of a sin-hating God. Let me explain this by asking three questions.
i] Why is propitiation necessary? If we asked that question to pagans who made sacrifice to idols. Then they would reply that Baal and Molech and Dagon were spiteful and bad-tempered gods subject to moods and fits of rage. So their followers had to make sacrifices to appease them. We Christian don’t think like that. For us propitiating the righteous God is essential because God’s holy anger rests on all that is evil – murder and torture and abuse and theft and deceit and idolatry and blasphemy and rape. John Stott says that there is nothing unprincipled or unpredictable or uncontrolled about God’s anger; his wrath is aroused by evil alone.
ii] Who does the propitiating? The prophets of Baal say, “We do.” And so they chanted and danced and cut themselves shedding their own blood to take away the offence they had caused God. Christians give a very different answer. We have nothing at all to give to God to turn away his anger towards us because of what we are, but God has done something! In fact God has done all that needs to be done. God has found a lamb. God has given a lamb. God has become the Lamb and the Lamb of God willingly and freely propitiates the wrath of God by taking our guilt, and suffering all the consequences for what we have done. The love in devising and doing this was God’s; the idea was God’s; the purpose was God’s; the initiative was God’s; the gift was God’s; the achievement was God’s alone.
iii] How was the propitiation accomplished? The followers of Baal and Molech and Dagon were bribing their gods to be kind to them with sweets and animals and human sacrifices, but it was our God who himself made provision for peace. He installed the levitical sacrificial system in the Old Testament – the priests, the sacrifices and the Temple – and in the New Testament we discover what all these types and shadows were anticipating – God gave his own Son and spared him not. In giving him the living God was giving himself.
What a difference between the pagan and the Christian views of propitiation! God’s own great love propitiated his great wrath towards all that contradicts what he is as true and sinless and loving. God gave himself in order to save us from himself. God was willing to forgive sinful men, willing to forgive them righteously, without in any way condoning their sin focusing his hatred for all that is tawdry and cruel and hurtful upon himself as he was made sin for us. His own heart, his own Son, Jesus Christ bore the full weight of that righteous wrath which we deserve. He declares sinners to be righteous in a manner that is altogether worthy of himself – the merciful and loving eternal God! If he merely shrugged and said, “Forgiven,” ever so lightly, then God’s own righteousness would have been compromised. He would have been a weakling, morally indifferent to hateful actions. He would have been saying that wickedness doesn’t matter. What a lie! What squalid falsehood. No, it was by a costly self-sacrifice that his wrath was propitiated towards our sins, moved by his love for pathetic people like us.
Now here is a word that everyone knows. Chefs speak about recipes that will transform our cooking; then they print them out or sell recipe books, but they go on from that. They immediately give a demonstration of the whole process of preparation and cooking. You watch the demonstration. That is the difference between a book which teaches us and actions which display how things are done. We need the cookbook, yes, but we need the demonstration too.
The death of Jesus Christ on Golgotha is a demonstration, Paul is telling us (v.25). What does it demonstrate? It demonstrates God’s justice. Those are the very words before us. The cross is a visible display of this particular perfection of God, his justice. So first you have the words, the teaching, and then you get the demonstration showing the truth and reality of the words true. First, here are some of the words, “The day that you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you will die,” and then there is the demonstration, “The LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out” (Gen. 3: 23&24). There are the words, “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the LORD said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth” (Gen. 6-5-7). Then there is the demonstration; “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month – on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth for forty days and forty nights.” (Gen. 7:11&12). There are the words, “The LORD said, ‘The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous’” (Gen. 18:20) and then there is the demonstration, “The Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah – from the Lord out of heaven. Thus he overthrew those cities” (Gen. 19:23). There are the words, “This is what the LORD says: ‘By this you will know that I am the LORD: With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood. The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink; the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water’” (Ex. 7:17&18). Then there is the demonstration, “Moses and Aaron did just as the LORD had commanded. He raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed into blood” (Ex. 7:20).
That is the pattern throughout Scripture, the word of warning, given with a plea that people change, that they repent and turn from their sins because if they don’t then they face judgment. Then there follows the demonstration that vindicates the word and does exactly what God said. So here in our text we are told that the propitiation accomplished by Christ on Golgotha demonstrates God’s justice (v.25). The question then is this; if this was the demonstration then what were the words? They are no mystery. Here they are in Romans chapter one and verse 18, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men.” And in Romans 6 and verse 23, “The wages of sin is death.” Galatians chapter 6 and verses 7 and 8, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction.” Those are the words of warning. You say, “but they are the words of Paul. I want to hear what Jesus said.” So you shall for they are no different; “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36). Or again, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matt. 7:26&27). The demonstration that those warnings are true is Golgotha.
The death of Jesus is the hurricane of God’s wrath and it is falling on Jesus. The death of Jesus is the wrath of Jehovah remaining on his Son. The cross of Christ is Jesus paying the wages of sin. Golgotha is the wrath of God being revealed from heaven against Jesus Christ. That is a simple historical fact. Jesus is condemned to death by crucifixion and God does nothing to deliver him. Calvary is Christ reaping what we have sown. The cross is a demonstration of God’s justice, but its glory is this that instead of that justice condemning and punishing us criminals it punishes the innocent Jesus because Christ is hanging there in our guilt. In my place condemned he stood. God remains just and he deals with sin as sin deserves, but he visits his displeasure upon the Son of his love. It pleased the Lord to bruise him. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Read carefully our text. Isn’t this exactly what Paul is saying here? “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice” (v.25). The cross of Christ is a demonstration that those words of warning and justice and judgment coming upon sin – words that God speaks many times in Scripture – are all true, but those judgments fall on his Son and not on his people. The righteous God has kept his word and shown that he is a sin-hating God, but – see – he is also a wonderfully merciful God willing and able to pardon us because he has provided one on whom his wrath can be poured out – Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Man and Son of God. He has received the condemnation so freely and lovingly in our place. Our dear Lord was crucified because he loved us as much as his Father loved us, and we could be forgiven.
But Paul goes on; do you see the next thing that Paul says here, that he links to the demonstration of God’s justice in the death of Christ? In God’s “forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished – he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time” (vv.25&26). Let’s look at this in a number of ways.
i] Killing an animal, shedding its blood, cannot remove human guilt for the terrible things we’ve done. Impossible! Pigeon’s blood, or goat’s blood, or the blood of a red heifer can’t wash away the blame and shame of our wickednesses. Here is Queen Jezebel, and she arranges the judicial murder of Naboth so that her husband can take Naboth’s beautiful vineyard which has been in the family for generations. Do you imagine that the queen and king could trot along to the Temple the next day and slaughter a lamb and that death would cover the cruelty of the greed and the murder? I tell you that it cannot. Let’s imagine our baptistery, under the pulpit, to be filled to the brim with the blood of goats and lambs and heifers and that you were totally immersed in that blood. When you came out of it would all your sins have vanished? No. Not one of them would have been removed by that gory ritual. You would come out of that pool of blood as guilty as you went in.
Let us read the verdict of Scripture on this to make it absolutely clear. Hebrews 10 and verse 4, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Again seven verses later in Hebrews 10 and verse 11, “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins” (Hebs. 10:11). Yes the law of God required the sacrifices to be made. “You must do this,” God told them, but there was no efficacy in the blood of the animals to remove the indelible stain on our souls of that guilt. Then why did God ask this to be done? They were not the realities themselves, they pointed to the reality that was to appear. They were shadows of the good things to come. The cross of Jesus Christ casts a shadow over the Old Testament and you see it in the sacrifices. They are the shadow of the Lamb of God who would bear our sin and guilt and take it away. That is how an Old Testament believer would explain it to his little boy. “I know it hurts you to take the best lamb of the flock, your favourite, the one without a blemish, and see its throat cut like that, but we deserve eternal death because of what we have done, and one day God is going to send the Messiah, the Seed of the Woman, the promised one of the line of Abraham. God will prepare a body for him and he will die. The Lord will lay on him the iniquity of us all when he suffers as God’s Lamb, and that death of the Son of God is what this sacrificial lamb is pointing to. He is our hope, his life and death, not these sacrifices. They are just symbols and signs and shadows..”
So here in the Old Testament were rivers and lakes of blood, and mountains of the carcasses of dead sacrifices and not one single sin of one person could be atoned for by all that blood. The sins were still there; the guilt of David and Ahab remained. The sacrifices were all pointing forward to the death of the Lord Christ. The sins committed throughout the Old Testament were not pardoned by any ritual or any sacrifice of any animal from Abraham’s time until Jesus was nailed to the cross of Calvary. The sacrifices were all mere types waiting for that great anti-type to deal with guilt once and for all.
ii] Sins of all the past generations before Christ came were set to one side by God. He let them pile up and up and up – an Everest of guilt. Remember how Paul preached to the crowds on Mars Hill in Athens who were worshipping the idols their own hands had made. What were they thinking worshipping idols? He told these idolaters very boldly, “We should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance,” (Acts 17:30). God was overlooking their sins. At times there were outbursts of his justice – the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the destruction of the ten tribes by Assyria, the Babylonian exile. Occasions like that were demonstrations that he was angry with their idolatry and cruelty and their killing of his prophets, but there were centuries when he did nothing at all. He permitted them to sin with an open hand and they died without judgment. He overlooked their ignorance. Or as Paul tells the people of Lystra, “In the past God let all nations go their own way” (Acts 14:16).
Do you see the inevitable consequence of this? That many people thought they could sin and get away with it. That God was an easy-going old duffer, that he was simply talk talk. He didn’t have the heart or the power to be just in condemning sin. Sin was covered from view, like a father covers the misbehaviour of his children but doe nothing to chastise them for atrocious cruelties. He’s a weakling. That misunderstanding needed to be corrected. It needs to be corrected still today, that you can do anything you want to do and God is helpless; God simply shrugs. For thousands of years before the cross of Christ there was a continual scandal in the world. Women and children were abused and destroyed and nothing was done to judge the perpetrators. There were occasional cases of divine judgment but apart from them God’s justice seemed to be asleep or blind. Is God a just God? Doesn’t God care when a woman cries to him in her pain? Is there such a reality as the justice of God? Men do atrocious acts and they live on to old age, fat and wealthy. They reach hoary old age waited on by their slaves. Where are the wages of sin? Where are the solemn actions of God that show his hatred of cruelty and deceit? Why doesn’t he take it seriously? Why the seeming indifference?
Paul tells us that God was waiting, by-passing their wickedness, suspending his judgment as the clock ticked on and on and on and Golgotha came nearer and nearer, and the blood of Jesus Christ falling to the ground in death came ever closer. You see what Paul is saying in our text? Looks at these words in verse 25, “In God’s forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” What did John Newton the slave captain do to the women slaves on his long journeys over the Atlantic? Shameful things, while God did nothing to him and the other men. What did God do to the people involved in the extermination of the Jews in Germany in the 30s and 40s? Did he smite them down dead? No. You know what happened to you, when there were great sins that you committed, and God did not show the full measure of his abhorrence at your wickedness. He was forbearing, but he was not indifferent. The suspension of his just dealing with you is not the same as his cancellation or revocation of his judgment. It is still, “After death the judgment.”
God was waiting until his Son came and then he would demonstrate his justice for all the sins of the past. He would lay on Jesus Christ all the iniquities of his people. He would make him sin for them. He would come with unmitigated judgment and condemn his own holy and beautiful Son for all the things we had done wrong, past sins, present sins, future sins, sins of deed, sins of word, sins of imagination, sins of omission, all dealt with by God in Christ’s death on Calvary. God waited from the first Adam to the last Adam to deal once and for all with our entire guilt and blame. It is all over. It is all done with. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is relevant. What Jesus did and how God responded. Only that counts. God’s forbearance ceased with Calvary.
You know the controversy earlier this year when a large, American, modernist-dominated, Presbyterian denomination was compiling a new hymnbook. They wanted to inclue the popular modern hymn, “In Christ alone,” but they wanted to modify it slightly. They wanted to change the lines that said that on the cross when Jesus died, “the wrath of God was satisfied” to the words, “the love of God was magnified.” But the author of the hymn would not give them permission to alter those words and so the hymn was not included. Now it is true that the love of God was magnified when Jesus died. Imagine it! God loved sinful people like us so much that he condemned our sins in his own dear sinless Son. What extraordinary love! I have no problem with the love of God being magnified by the death of Christ. I am simply asking whether it is true to say that the wrath of God was satisfied by the death of Christ. Yes it was satisfied for all those for whom Jesus died. Christ loved the church and gave himself for it. Yes. Paul says he loved me and gave himself for me. God’s wrath against Paul’s sins was satisfied. But for all those who reject the cross of Christ, who reject any covering they need from the wrath of God, then the wrath of God is not satisfied by Calvary for their sins. Remember that great picture in the letter to the Hebrews? “But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned” (Hebs.6:8). Only for those who can say, “In Christ alone my hope is found” is the wrath of God satisfied by the death of the Son of God.
That is the third and final word and it is here again in our text, “so as to be just and the one how justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (v.26). Here is the great divine dilemma if I can put it like that. God must be a just God, straight and righteous in all he does. A God of eternal integrity. If he to condemn anyone, angels or men, then he must be above reproach in what he does. If he is to acquit anyone then that person must be righteous. He dare not be a liar, a cheat, a torturer, a criminal. To acquit him would be the epitome of injustice. The law of Moses put it like this, “When men have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty” (Deut. 25:1). Again, there is a great proverb in the book of Proverbs that echoes that also, insisting on this, “Acquitting (or justifying) the guilty and condemning the innocent – the LORD detests them both” (Provs. 17:15).
Now that statement from the book of Proverbs shows us exactly what to ‘justify’ means. It proves quite conclusively that to justify someone does not mean to change someone for the better. The Lord doesn’t detest improving a person, and making him a good person. The Lord rejoices in that. He demands that, “Be holy as I am holy,” but to justify a person does not mean making him holy. To justify a person is to declare him innocent, to announce him as having a righteousness. The scene is a law-court and a man is accused of doing some terrible things, but he’s been set up by his enemies. They have bribed witnesses to tell lies and so on. The judge listens to the evidence and his barristers are particularly sharp in pointing out the inconsistencies and deceit of the people charging him with wrong-doing. The man has a cast-iron alibi and a blameless character. What does the judge do as everything comes to light? He acquits him. He justifies him. He says to the court, “This is a righteous man.” He was righteous entering the court and he is righteous leaving the court. The judge has not changed him at all. The judge has simply declared him to be just and without guilt. Then there is the next case and this man on trial is a real rotter, an immoral man through and through destroying the lives of many people by his actions. When the judge condemns him he does not thereby make him a wicked person. He says simply that this man is a wicked criminal. All he does is to confirm his status.
How can God do this to us? All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. That is the standard by which God evaluates and judges us – that we have reached the glory of God! It is not that you have been sincere. That is not good enough. It is not that you have lived according to your own light and understanding. You have not; no one has. It is not that you have always done your best. No one has ever succeeded in doing their best. Yet if that is what God demanded then there might be a few people he would declare to be righteous, but I don’t believe there is one. No. There is a far higher standard which only the seraphim that surround God attain. You have to attain the glory of God, and none has. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.
Then how can God be righteous and declare to be righteous anyone at all? Justifying the guilty God detests! The righteous God cannot do what he detests. Ah, there is a category of favoured men and women whom God will justify. He will declare them to righteous people. He tells us here in our text their identity. This is how he describes them, “Those who have faith in Jesus” (v,26). But why are they declared righteous? Are they perfect men? No not one of them. Not a single one is anything less than a sinner who has come short of the glory of God.
Then how have they been justified by God? They have realized their true condition. In other words they have acknowledged their sin. “I am a sinner,” they have said, not in the sense of shrugging and saying, “Nobody’s perfect.” No, but rather like the tax-collector in the temple was overwhelmed with a consciousness of his own wrongdoing looked down at the dust and beat his breast and spoke to the Lord and said to him from his heart and mind these seven words, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” He believed in God. He believed that God would hear him when he spoke to him. He believed that the Lord was a merciful God and that he would be merciful to him. That is how his faith in God showed itself. It was not that he had the glorious virtue of abounding faith – not that – that he handed 100 per cent magnificent glorious conquering faith to God and that God in return declared him to be righteous. He may have felt that his faith was as small as a mustard seed. It might have been tiny faith. The quantity of faith ultimately does not matter because we are not justified because of our faith. Our faith did not live for us and die for us and rise for us and reign for us. That is Jesus. He is the Saviour not our faith. What faith does is to join us to him. It is a connecting grace. It brings the Saviour and us together as eternal friends. Faith makes Jesus and us one; he is in us and we are in him and the inter-faces men cannot know. Only the word of God can join us and Jesus together and can distinguish between the two. When the tax collector in the Temple cried to the Lord to be merciful to him then immediately the Lord answered. The mercy of God got him and never let go of him from that time on. The mercy of God pardoned him and justified him. The merciful God spoke and said, you are justified because you are in Jesus Christ. You were in him when he died for your sins and when he was condemned your sins were condemned. When he rose from the dead you too rose from the dead. When he sat down in the heavenlies you sat in the heavenlies too, and so you can speak to me and call me ‘Abba Father” because from now on you are my righteous son and I am your righteous Father. Those who put their faith in the life and death of Jesus – how ever small their faith may seem to them – God justifies them. He declares them to be righteous.
That is the gospel. Jesus Christ has propitiated God’s holy wrath towards our sin by his death in our place on Golgotha. God has demonstrated that his wrath towards all who believe has been exhausted by raising Jesus from the dead and pouring out his Spirit on 3,000 Jerusalem sinners on the day of Pentecost. They are the first fruits, and now all who trust in Jesus Christ alone are justified freely through the blood of Jesus Christ. Ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven; they are joined to Christ for ever, justified for ever, adopted into the family of God for ever and glorified in him.
Can’t you see how crucial it is for you to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God by whose life and death salvation is offered to you, that you might receive him as your very own Saviour and know that there is no condemnation to you but rather a free justification, “Come you blessed one to me your eternal Father. I will never leave you. I will always be there for you. Nothing will separate you from my love. Come to me tonight. Come just as you are and trust in me.” That is what he is saying to you now. You come. You come now to him. God be merciful to you sinners.
13th July 2014 GEOFF THOMAS