Way back in the Dark Ages, I started to put some scriptural terminology around salvation. The first important word I brought up was “justification” and I defined that. Now I want to take a look at what the grounds for justification are.
The Grounds for Justification
Put simply, justification is based solely on faith in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross (Rom 3:22-25; Rom 4:5).
Does God simply declare a person innocent out of pure mercy, simply saying, “I choose to look the other way regarding your sin.” Or does he justify on the grounds that the penalty we deserve has been satisfied in another way? I believe it is the latter, and Jonathan Edwards puts it like this:
The justice of God, as the supreme Governor and Judge of the world, requires the punishment of sin. The supreme Judge must judge the world according to a rule of justice. God doth not show mercy as a judge, but as a sovereign; therefore his exercise of mercy as a sovereign, and his justice as a judge, must be made consistent one with another; and this is done by the sufferings of Christ, in which sin is punished fully, and justice answered.
(Jonathan Edwards, Pardon for the Greatest Sinners, emph. mine)
If God does not carry out the very penalties (or their equivalent) that he has prescribed in his own law for sin then God cannot rightly be called “just.” When Scripture says that God is just (Gr. dikaios), it means he is righteous and “in a narrower sense, rendering to each his due and that in a judicial sense, passing just judgment on others, whether expressed in words or shown by the manner of dealing with them.”
In fact, this is the whole argument in Rom 3:25-26. For many years, God had “passed over” sins. It seemed as though he was not being just, simply letting them go. But it says that he passed them over so that he could show his righteousness at the “present time.” And that present time is when he “put forward [Christ] as a propitiation by his own blood” (Rom 3:25). The charge could have been levied against God that he was not being just, upholding his law, by letting these sins go. But he didn’t. Christ is who propitiated his wrath, and satisfied his law. For whom? The ones who had faith (v25).
I think this is where we tend to get a bit wishy-washy. We like to think that God is loving and kind and, “Hey, I know I’m a sinner but God understands my situation and he’ll just kind of let is slide. My little sins don’t warrant eternal hell!” There is an ignorant hope that God simply won’t do anything about sin. Of course, we want justice for “big” sins — we want rapists, murderers, and thieving CEO’s behind bars. But my lie? Or my lustful thought? Eh. No big deal.
And that’s exactly where we start going down the wrong path. We know and understand justice — but not perfect justice. We need a biblical view of sin. We don’t think our sins warrant judgment, but they do. God is a holy and perfect judge and he must punish sin. If you can understand that if an earthly judge just lets a convicted child molester go without even a slap on the wrist, then you understand that principle that God cannot let sin go unpunished. All that’s left is an accurate perspective on the severity of your sin. Even our most insignificant sins were serious enough to God that his innocent Son was nailed to a cross to pay for them. He didn’t just die for Joe Fornicator. He died for your anger, bitterness, and laziness, too. Think about that.
This is the Atonement, the Great Exchange. In the Old Testament, God did not just “forgive” or “pardon” without there being some kind of restitution. Hence, the Levitical system of atonement was established to teach about this need. It can all be summed up like this (from Lev 17:11): “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” You can see the various offerings in Lev 3-5, but esp. in Lev 23, the Day of Atonement. In a nutshell, the sacrificial system was a bloody reminder that God accepted a substitute — that something/someone could shed its blood in the place of another in order to satisfy God’s law and satisfy his wrath. We see this picture in the account of Abraham ready to sacrifice Isaac and seeing the ram, too. We must understand that has always been the case. We even see it implicitly when God clothed Adam and Eve with animal skin, and in the sacrifices offered by Abel and Noah.
Obviously, though, the system wasn’t good enough. It was only good until the next sin. That is, you could sin, make your sacrifice and not be under judgment again — but then you could sin again and be right back under his judgment. Hence, Jesus Christ became our perfect sacrifice. He died “once for all” (Heb 7:27; 9:12; 10:10). His sacrifice propitiated God’s wrath completely. Not only until the next sin, but completely. To say that it did anything less is to completely misunderstand why he needed to come in the first place.
Thus, when Scripture says we are justified by faith in his propitiation of God’s wrath, it is permanent and eternal. Heb 9:12: “he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”
That should give us an understanding as to why Christ had to die: to propitiate God’s wrath, and to permanently atone for our sins. Now, critical to this is understanding exactly what Christ accomplished on the cross and how it secures both justice and mercy.
First of all, understand that God does not owe us anything. We are guilty sinners and it would be just of him to throw us all into hell. Frankly, I’m amazed he didn’t just wipe out Adam and Eve and start over. If God was not gracious and merciful, there would be no you and me. So that justification is even possible is merciful act #1.
Later, we’ll look another way that the Atonement secures our justification.