Jesus Christ’s Atoning Sacrifice
Up until now, this series has covered only passages from the Hebrew Scriptures on the subject of substitutionary atonement. We have looked at how, from the very entrance of sin into the world, God had a plan to bring people back into a right relationship with Him. He gave His people many pictures of substitutionary atonement to foreshadow the work of the Messiah that would finally be a sufficient sacrifice to justify sinful people before a holy God. Now, we will look at a passage from the New Testament, written after Jesus had come, lived a perfect life, and died a humiliating death on the cross. It is a passage written by the apostle Paul that wonderfully summarizes how this sacrifice is the substance, the fulfillment of all these shadows. It is on the basis of this sacrifice that God justifies any who believe–past, present, and future.
Take a look at Romans 3:21-26:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it”
In the first three chapters of Romans, Paul is setting the stage for this central passage and what follows. He makes the case that all people, whether Jew or Gentile, are under the wrath of God because of sin. This wrath is God’s necessary and just response to sin because sin is a personal affront to His holy nature. It has separated mankind from Him such that we are spiritually dead. There is not a single righteous person; “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10-11).
Here in 3:21, we see a major shift in Paul’s argument. “But now.” All are under God’s wrath because of their sin, “but now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” Now “God has intervened to inaugurate a new era, and all who respond in faith–not only after the cross, but, as Rom. 4 will show, before it also–will be transferred into it from the old era.”1 Christ’s death on the cross is the climax of redemption history. It is the manifestation of God’s righteousness. And it has been God’s plan from before time began (1 Pet. 1:20).
The Righteousness of God
This verse is very similar to Romans 1:17 which says, “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith…” In the previous verse Paul had said the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16) So we can understand the phrase, ‘the righteousness of God’ to mean, as Douglas Moo defines it, “the justifying activity of God. From God’s side, this includes his eschatological intervention to vindicate and deliver his people, in fulfillment of his promises. From the human side, it includes the status of acquittal acquired by the person so declared just.”2 Don’t get hung up on the big words here. Basically he is saying that the righteousness of God is the activity by which He has stepped into time to redeem people from their sin such that they are viewed as having His righteousness. This is why the gospel has the power to save anyone who believes!
Apart From the Law
The Law revealed to God’s people His standard of holiness and what was required of them. But in that, it revealed to them how far short of this standard they fall. The Law could never save anyone because no one is able to obey it. It only condemns because it reveals what sin truly is (Rom. 3:20). Romans 7:9-14 talks about how the Law is holy and good but against that holiness, sin is shown to be “sinful beyond measure.” It reveals the truth about us; that we are slaves to sin and spiritually dead, utterly incapable of pleasing God. The wonderful news Paul is declaring in Romans 3:21 is that now we have more than this condemning revelation of God’s holy requirement. We now have the means of salvation! We have His righteousness manifested in the cross of Jesus Christ.
This activity of God in sending His Son to die in our place frees us from the impossible burden of the Law, because Jesus lived that life of perfect obedience for us. He has met the righteous requirement of the Law that we never could, such that now, apart from the Law, there is a way to be righteous before God. It is this climactic event that the “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to.” An accessible way. One that requires only faith.
“…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…”
Because there is nothing people could ever do to earn a right standing with God, this righteousness has to come by something other than our striving. It has to be earned for us. And it is earned for us by Jesus Christ. He has done the work and all we can do is respond in faith. Remember how Adam and Eve tried to cover their nakedness with fig leaves, but then God clothed them with animal skins? This is a picture of our futile attempts to cover our own shame. The work must be done by God for us or it will always fall far short. God’s provision in the skins came at a cost–the death of an animal. The reality that this picture points to is the great cost that accompanies our salvation–the death of God’s own Son. His death is God’s provision to atone for our sin and sufficiently cover our shame and it is available to us “by his grace as a gift.”
In this passage the word faith is used three times and believe once. That is four references to faith in six verses. Yes, God’s righteousness has been made available to all, but only those who have faith in it will receive it. However, “all who believe” can receive it. God’s promise to Abraham that He would bless all the nations through him is fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice making atonement for “all who believe.” Israel’s failed mission to be a light to the nations is fulfilled in Christ, the light of the world. Isaiah’s prophecy of God’s Servant sprinkling “many nations” through his suffering is fulfilled in salvation being available to “everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). Just as there is no distinction in each person’s need for salvation, there is no distinction in each person’s access to salvation. It is available through God’s grace to “all who believe” but only to those who believe.
Justified By His Grace
Justification is a legal term that means a condemned person is acquitted of all charges and declared innocent. We have already looked at these two aspects of justification (pardon from guilt and a declared righteous status) in the Day of Atonement ritual. The two goats foreshadow the justification won by Jesus on the cross. The scapegoat bearing the sins of the people away symbolizes the removal of guilt and the goat sacrificed to atone for the people’s sins symbolizes the satisfaction of God’s wrath that enables sinners to be seen as guiltless before Him. That those who believe in Christ are “justified by his grace as a gift” means we are able to be forgiven of our sins and viewed by God as righteous not because we actually are righteous but only because of God’s grace. This favor is completely unmerited and as such is a free gift. How is God able to offer us this gift? It is only “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
The term redemption harks back to Israel’s slavery in Egypt. God redeemed them out of slavery (bought them back, so to speak), giving them life and freedom. He did this through the blood of the Passover lambs applied to the doorposts of their homes. Christ fulfills this picture by redeeming us from sin and death through his shed blood. It is like a payment to God to satisfy His justice so that those who put their faith in Christ have God’s judgment “pass over” them (not because He overlooks their sin but because Christ was an acceptable substitute, paying the penalty for them). They are set free from bondage to sin in order to worship and obey God in the context of a right relationship with Him.
“…whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
Whom God Put Forward
Propitiation is the satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin. Jesus Christ bore the full wrath of God on the cross for the sins of the world. He was punished as if he were the one who had committed every sin against God that humanity has. This verse says that God put Jesus forward as a propitiation. God must, because of his holiness, exact justice against sin, but He loves us and wants to spare us from His wrath so He provided a substitute for us. Indeed it is God Himself who is the propitiatory offering!
We looked at an amazing shadow of this in Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac where God is the one who provided the ram as a substitute. We also see typology in this story in the fact that Abraham offered up his only son whom he loved (who, nevertheless, went willingly). God knew the world He created would be plagued by sin and had ordained that He would “put forward” His own Son as a substitutionary sacrifice to make atonement for His sinful creatures. And Jesus went willingly.
By His Blood
The word translated ‘propitiation’ here is the Septuagint’s (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) translation of the word used in Exodus (26:34 for example) as ‘mercy seat,’ or the place on top of the Ark of the Covenant where God’s presence dwelt within the veil of the Most Holy Place. Paul’s use of this word (‘hilasterion’) serves to point the reader to the sacrificial system under the Mosaic Covenant and particularly to the Day of Atonement as it was the only day the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place.
The Ark contained the tablets of the Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The only way the high priest could enter within the veil where God’s presence dwelt was by the blood of an atoning sacrifice which was sprinkled on the Ark. This served as a picture that though the demands of the Law had not been met, God had provided forgiveness by the blood of the sacrifice. So, in Romans, we see the fulfillment of this picture in Christ, who was himself God dwelling among us. He was the only one to fulfill completely the “righteous requirement of the law” (Rom. 8:4), and therefore the only sacrifice sufficient to turn away God’s wrath against our sin. Thus, by the means of his blood, we can have real and full access to God in a restored relationship with Him.
Romans 8:3-4 says that it is as if we ourselves have met the “righteous requirement of the law” because Christ paid the penalty for our sin. This is the “great exchange” of substitutionary atonement: Jesus takes our sin and imputes to us his righteousness such that God’s just wrath against our sin is poured out on Christ and we are seen as having the righteousness of Christ.
“This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
To Show God’s Righteousness
This phrase refers back to the statement that Christ was put forward (or “displayed publicly”3). So, God put Christ forward…in order to show His righteousness. ‘Righteousness’ here has a slightly different meaning than in verses 21-22. There it means God’s justifying activity, but here it has more to do with His acting according to His character.4 How putting Christ forth showed God’s righteousness or why it was necessary for Him to prove it will become clear as we discuss the next phrase.
For Those Before Christ Came
“In his divine forbearance [God] had passed over former sins.” As we discussed in the Leviticus post, the animal sacrifices were never intended to sufficiently atone for people’s sins. They were a picture or shadow of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. It was God’s system whereby he “passed over” the sin of the people, knowing that he would one day send the only sacrifice sufficient to atone for sin. His “divine forbearance” was a delayed punishment. Had Christ not made atonement on the cross, no one, then or now, could be saved. But God was delaying his punishment until Christ came to take it for them. This forbearance made it possible for them to be justified on the basis of faith–faith in the God who had promised to send this Messiah and who had commanded the sacrifices in the meantime.
The point is that God would not have been acting in line with His just character by passing over the sins of the Old Testament believers. Their sin had to be punished, either by their own eternal death or by the death of a sacrifice actually sufficient to atone for them. So in putting Christ forth as this perfect sacrifice, God was proving Himself to be completely just. Christ paid the enormous penalty for their sin, justifying God’s forbearance and allowing them to be justified before Him.
For All Who Believe Now
In verse 26, we see the same phrase a second time, “to show his righteousness,” and it refers to the same statement in verse 25 “whom God put forward as a propitiation” but this time it is referring to the “present time.” This is a clear connection to the phrase in verse 21, “but now.” Now God’s justifying activity is complete in Christ’s atoning work on the cross. He has shown Himself to be just because He poured out His wrath against sin on the only sufficient substitute. He is just even in justifying sinners because of Christ’s propitiation. But again Paul reiterates that only those who have faith in Jesus can be justified.
I know…I packed a lot in here once again. Romans is deep! So here’s a quick summary: the Hebrew Scriptures (“the Law and the Prophets”) have been pointing all along to God’s righteousness or His justifying activity that has now been manifested. This action is apart from the Law because “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3:20). It is available for all who believe in Jesus Christ because he is the one whom God put forward as the sacrifice of atonement both for those who had faith under the Mosaic Covenant and for those who have faith now under the New Covenant.