Our previous post argued that when Paul speaks of ‘the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel’ (Roms 1:17) he means precisely that; in the gospel God reveals himself acting righteously, that is, acting consistently with all he is in himself (Roms 3:21-26). Among the ways God reveals himself acting righteously is in declaring righteous those who are ungodly; he passes a verdict of righteous (justifies) on people who are unrighteous. How he does so righteously remains to be explored, however, what ‘justifying the ungodly‘ (Roms 4:4) does underline is that the righteous standing of sinners is not one they deserve but one God gifts. Thus Paul speaks of ‘the gift of righteousness’ (Roms 5:17), in fact, lest there is any doubt he speaks of, ‘the free gift’ of righteousness (Roms 5:15,16,17), indeed ‘a free gift by grace’ (Roms 5:15,17; 3:24). In this sense our righteousness is truly ‘of God’. It finds its source, initiative, and quality or nature in God. Paul writes,
…and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God that depends on faith.
But how can a righteous God declare righteous the unrighteous? How can he render a righteous verdict on lives that are unrighteous? On the face of it, such an apparently false verdict does not glorify God’s righteousness but shames and disgraces it. Where is God’s righteousness in imputing (reckoning or counting) righteous those who are ungodly?
Scripture tells us faith is imputed or reckoned as righteousness (Roms 4:4). Does this mean that faith itself is the righteousness that God requires to declare us righteous? No, for this would make righteousness ‘of man’ and not ‘of God. Understood in this way faith becomes a form of works and the righteousness procured ‘my own’ (a righteousness which Paul repudiates) and not a righteous standing sourced in God. Besides faith itself does not deal with the problem of human unrighteousness; faith cannot cancel existing guilt and is not said to so do. No, while faith is reckoned for righteousness it is not because faith is itself righteous. The reason faith counts as righteousness must be found elsewhere?
Is, as some say, the righteous life of Christ imputed to the believer as his righteousness? Well, certainly Scripture does not say it is. Scripture does not say that God takes the righteous life of Christ and reckons it to us as righteousness. To be sure the righteous life of Christ gives value and worth to Christ’s death nevertheless the life of Christ it is not said to be imputed. We must let Scripture speak and not our traditions. Again and again Scripture locates the basis of God’s justifying verdict in the death of Christ. It is there and there only God finds a basis to declare the ungodly righteous. The death of Jesus is God’s great initiative to establish a righteousness sourced in him and displaying his glory.
Rom 3:21-26 (ESV)
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.
Notice, we are ‘justified by his grace as a gift‘. Why? How? ’Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a propitiation [mercy-seat, propitiatory] by his blood’. Here, is God’s righteousness in the gospel. Here is solved and unveiled the justifying verdict of the unrighteous. Here God finds an adequate moral motive to ‘justify the ungodly‘. In sinners there is none, in the blood of Christ there is.
Redemption was necessary. Sin had created a debt that must be paid. It is an offence that must be addressed. Left unpunished sin impugns God’s righteousness. God’s glory is at stake where sin is unjudged. The debt of sin must be met. The price must be paid. It could of course have been paid by God simply wiping out humanity. But such a way of displaying his righteousness is not where the heart of God truly lies. He wishes to righteously bless not curse, save not destroy. Thus the glorious wisdom of the cross. Here God’s heart of love and grace is displayed in all his righteousness in salvation. Here the debt of man is paid in full and in such a way that God is perfectly glorified in who he essentially is.
How is this redemptive debt paid? By faith? No. By Christ’s life imputed? No. It is paid by the value of the blood of Christ. Christ’s blood is the ransom price (Rev 5:9). In the words of Romans again, ‘ and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation [mercy-seat, propitiatory] by his blood, to be received by faith.’
This language is alien to us unless we are familiar with the ceremonies of the OT law (intended as models of what would be realized in Christ). To these we must turn if we are to understand the basis of our justification.
When Israel left Egypt they travelled through the desert living in tents. God resided among them in his own tent (the tabernacle); it was his travelling palace and sanctuary. In the innermost tent of this travelling palace was the ark of the covenant. The ark was a box containing (among other things) the two tablets of the covenant, the law. Covering the box was a slab of pure gold called ‘the mercy-seat’ above which were cherubim (symbols of rule and authority). Although God could not be contained by heaven and earth, the ark was God’s designated throne in the world. From it he ruled Israel and in fact the nations. He ruled righteously, the tablets of law below the throne expressing what he required of man. If they were flouted then God’s righteous anger would necessarily be aroused for he hates all unrighteousness. It defies him and destroys all that is good and right. His throne is dishonoured and everything defiled by it. Where sin erupts under his rule (a defiance of all that God is) his glory (all that he is) must be upheld thus judgement and cleansing/purging must take place.
And the reality, of course, is that Israel did sin and did arouse God’s anger. Their sin both defied and defiled yet in grace God provided for sin. Mercy was available from the very seat of his throne. It was called, as we noted, ‘the mercy-seat’ or ‘covering’. Its title hints at its function; although the seat of God’s throne from which he ruled it suggested that God’s rule in a sinful world, although righteous, would be merciful and would provide a covering for broken law. But it could not be merciful per se. The slab did not cover sin just by existing. It functioned in mercy and became a covering for a broken law only when sprinkled with blood. The blood of an animal sacrificed as a sin offering must be splattered on the mercy-seat and it was the value that God placed on the blood of the sacrifice that enabled him to forgive sins and cleanse from unrighteousness.
The blood meant the High Priest and people (both sinful) did not die, instead the judgement was borne by the sacrifice and God’s holy justice satisfied*. The blood provided purification. It cleansed. It made a sinful people clean before God (Lev 16:16, 30). The blood of a slain goat apparently satisfied God’s moral nature enabling him to accept as righteous an unrighteous people; it (along with the scapegoat) made atonement (Lev 16:16). Blood enabled a throne that must otherwise, because of sin, be a throne of righteous judgement, become a throne of righteous mercy; God could justly justify.
The basic principle of the OT is that it is blood that atones and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (Hebs 9:18-22). However, these OT sacrifices were of mere dumb animals, in reality they had no atoning worth. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebs 10:4). These sacrifices were not pleasing (of moral value) to God (Hebs 9:8). Their fragrance was merely sensory and not spiritual. Their value was symbolic and not substantial. They had no intrinsic moral virtue that could deal with the problem of sin. They but pointed forward to blood of a different value; the blood of Christ. When Scripture speaks of the blood of animals it simply speaks of ‘blood’ but when it speaks of the blood of Christ it is always identified distinctly with him; it is ‘his blood’ (Roms 3:25), ‘the blood of Christ’ (1 Cor 10:16), ‘the blood of the Lord’ (1 Cor 11:27); ‘his own blood’ (Acts 20:28), ‘Jesus blood’ (Hebs 10:19), for it is ‘precious (valuable) blood’ (1 Pet 1:19)
It is the value of this blood, his blood, that enables righteous mercy. Here was not the blood of an uncomprehending animal but the blood of a Son who voluntarily came to do the will of he who sent him. Animal sacrifices though chosen carefully by men were worthless, Christ’s body, fashioned by God for the express purpose of sacrifice, would be the sacrifice to fulfil and finish all sacrifice (Hebs 10:5). Every aspect of his full and selfless obedience in life prepared him to be the perfect flawless sacrifice for sin. Every step in life was one of intentional consecrated obedience in the direction of the cross where he would be the sin-bearer. The cross with all its awful implications of sin-bearing and divine judgement was willingly embraced because it was the will of God. Here was immeasurable obedience. Here was a righteous act of surpassing moral worth – the Holy One willing to be made sin and become a curse, bearing our sin in his own body on the tree, the one who had life in himself entering death and dismissing from his body, his spirit. Here in this conscious and deliberate act of self-immolation, intended that God may act in and through it and be perfectly glorified in all that he is - his truth, wisdom, power, holy wrath, grace, love and righteousness – a ransom was found that redeemed. The debt of sin was cancelled and indeed so great was the glory that this bloody selfless sacrifice bought to God, God was in turn indebted. If Christ in an intentionally sin-bearing death (ordained by God and undertaken by his Son) brought such glory to God then God was in righteousness obligated to honour this intent. He must show mercy for mercy is that for which this righteous blood cries. Mercy is God’s only righteous response. And, of course, he does, for the mercy which this blood demands is the same mercy that the throne upon which it lies splattered delights. Blood, the blood of Christ, is the great basis of justification (Roms 5:9). Hear once more the words of Romans 3
Rom 3:25-26 (HCSB)
God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus.
Here then, is the basis of the justifying righteousness of God, apart from law-keeping, though both law and prophets bore witness to it. It is as simple and plain as it is sublime. The infinite value of Christ’s atoning blood is reckoned to us, and reckoned for righteousness by faith. When God sees Christ in death he sees a mercy-seat covered in blood, the blood of sacrifice for sin, blood that pays debt and cleanses and thus he can be righteous and declare righteous those who have faith in Jesus. This is the righteousness ‘of God’; he who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
Thus with Horatius Bonar we say
I hear the words of love,
I gaze upon the blood,
I see the mighty sacrifice,
And I have peace with God
’Tis everlasting peace,
Sure as Jehovah’s Name;
’Tis stable as His steadfast throne,
For evermore the same.
And with Isaac Watts
Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away the stain.
But Christ, the heav’nly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.
* Controversy rages as to whether atonement simply expiates (removes sin) or also propitiates (removes wrath). It appears to do both. Wrath after all is simply the divine reaction to sin. Thus, if the blood does not atone the High Priest and nation die. Death here, as always, is punishment, it is judicial wrath. In fact, the institution of the Day of Atonement is a direct result of God’s wrath erupting in fiery judgement, a symbol of consuming wrath, because of disobedience (Lev 16:1).
Lev 10:1-7 (ESV)
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said, ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.
And Moses called Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron, and said to them, “Come near; carry your brothers away from the front of the sanctuary and out of the camp.” So they came near and carried them in their coats out of the camp, as Moses had said. And Moses said to Aaron and to Eleazar and Ithamar his sons, “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; but let your brothers, the whole house of Israel, bewail the burning that the Lord has kindled. And do not go outside the entrance of the tent of meeting, lest you die, for the anointing oil of the Lord is upon you.” And they did according to the word of Moses.
Fire consuming is a symbol of purifying judgement.
Exod 15:6-7 (ESV)
Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries; you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble.
Deut 4:23-24 (ESV2011)
Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you, and make a carved image, the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you. For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.
Lam 2:3 (ESV2011)
He has cut down in fierce anger all the might of Israel; he has withdrawn from them his right hand in the face of the enemy; he has burned like a flaming fire in Jacob, consuming all around.
Thus the fire that consumes the sacrifice implies righteous wrath and judgement, propitiation.
Lev 6:8-13 (ESV)
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the burnt offering. The burnt offering shall be on the hearth on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall be kept burning on it. And the priest shall put on his linen garment and put his linen undergarment on his body, and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and put them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it; it shall not go out. The priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and he shall arrange the burnt offering on it and shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings. Fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually; it shall not go out.
Lev 6:24-30 (ESV)
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the sin offering. In the place where the burnt offering is killed shall the sin offering be killed before the Lord; it is most holy. The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. In a holy place it shall be eaten, in the court of the tent of meeting. Whatever touches its flesh shall be holy, and when any of its blood is splashed on a garment, you shall wash that on which it was splashed in a holy place. And the earthenware vessel in which it is boiled shall be broken. But if it is boiled in a bronze vessel, that shall be scoured and rinsed in water. Every male among the priests may eat of it; it is most holy. But no sin offering shall be eaten from which any blood is brought into the tent of meeting to make atonement in the Holy Place; it shall be burned up with fire.