It is rare to find people who would dispute loving God. In fact, most people have a one-dimensional view of God. Over the years of writing about moral and theological issues and years of ministry experience, I’ve heard a number of replies.
- “But God is love.”
- “A loving God would never do that.”
- “A loving God wouldn’t make me this way and call it sin.”
- “How could a loving God send me to hell if I don’t believe in him?”
So many people want to be laser focused on just one of God’s attributes – his love. They often neglect the fact that God is also just. Neither can be sacrificed for the other. He is both. How are those reconciled? At the cross. Dr. Michael Horton in Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church gives an excellent explanation.
In justifying sinners, God does not relax his righteousness that is revealed in his law but imputes Christ’s righteousness to every believer. In this way, God’s justice is not sacrificed to his love; rather his love and his justice are mutually satisfied. We are saved by works – in fact, by perfect love and obedience. However it is Christ’s works rather than ours that serve as the basis of our confidence: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1, NIV).
Early 19th Century Presbyterian Theologian, Albert Barnes, defined justification this way.
What is justification? It is the declared purpose of God to regard and treat those sinners who believe in Jesus Christ as if they had not sinned, on the ground of the merits of the Savior. It is not mere pardon. Pardon is a free forgiveness of past offenses. It has reference to those sins as forgiven and blotted out. Justification has respect to the law, and to God’s future dealings with the sinner. It is an act by which God determines to treat him hereafter as righteous–as if he had not sinned. The basis for this is the merit of the Lord Jesus Christ, merit that we can plead as if it were our own. He has taken our place and died in our stead; He has met the descending stroke of justice, which would have fallen on our own heads if He had not interposed.
We have to recognize that we deserve God’s justice and judgment, but that isn’t a message that people want to hear.
We are guilty.
The Apostle Paul wrote in his epistle to the Romans, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin,” (Romans 3:19-20, ESV).
We were declared sinners the law. The law will never justify us. We can’t measure up. It exposes our guilt. The late English pastor and Bible scholar J.B. Phillips wrote, “It is the straightedge of the law that shows us just how crooked we are.”
Not wanting to admit this, we tend to compare ourselves with others who seem more depraved. In this we justify ourselves. “I’m not that bad,” we lie to ourselves.
The Bible answers, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one,” (Romans 3:10b-12, ESV).
Sin isn’t just bad things that we do, but it is also knowing what is good and right and not doing that. We don’t measure up. God’s standard is perfection and there isn’t a one of us who is perfect.
Some may think they are nice, but hell will be populated with “nice” people as well, because our “niceness” is not the standard by which we are measured.
C.S. Lewis in Against the Night wrote:
A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world — and might even be more difficult to save.
The law condemns and points out our need for Jesus. It shows us that we are guilty and in need for a savior.
James describes the word of God as a mirror (James 1:23-25). Mirrors can’t clean us up, they can only point out the fact we are dirty. We need help.
We are justified by grace.
The Apostle Paul points out that our hope can’t be found in our righteousness, but the righteousness of the One who would die on our behalf.
“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,” (Romans 3:21-26, ESV).
Notice the conjunction “but”? There is a pivot… “since through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” We can’t measure up, but Jesus Christ can.
Paul provides another similar pivot in Ephesians 2 – we were dead.. following the prince of the power of the air… children of wrath, then verse 4, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses made us alive together with Christ,” (Ephesians 2:4-5a, ESV).
We see a similar shift by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6… “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God,” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, ESV).
We have a huge problem. We are sinners. The first three chapters of Romans drills down on this fact. Our problem is that we are lost and we cannot get to God. We find we cannot work our way to God. We cannot be good enough to please God. And yet, God the Father demands perfect righteousness to enter His heaven.
You see, we are miserable sinners, and we will never be right with God by virtue of our own efforts. When the Bible says that we “fall short of the glory of God” it literally means we missed the mark. The tense of this word in the original Greek suggests that this is an ongoing state of affairs. So, no matter how good we may get, we will still be missing the mark and falling far short of the glory of God.
We can’t get to God on our own, period.
The word “justify” means to “declare one not guilty, or to make one as he ought to be.” In the biblical sense, it means that God, in His power and in His grace declares us to be righteous and worthy of a relationship with Him.
The word “redemption” means “to set at liberty after the payment of a ransom price.”
When we receive Jesus as our Savior by faith, God applies the price that Jesus had paid on the cross to our account and declares us righteous. He thereby freed us from the condemnation and the consequences of our sins.
All of this happens “by his grace as a gift” The NIV says “freely by his grace”. This word literally means “without a cause”. God gave us His righteousness even when we did not deserve to receive it. He gave it to us even though we could never earn it or pay Him back for it.
Romans 3:25-26 tell us that Jesus is the “propitiation.” This is a theological word that means “an appeasement, or a satisfying.”
Through Jesus’ death on the cross, the judgment of God was satisfied. Jesus was the perfect sacrifice.
“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 justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” (Romans 3:24b-25, ESV).
When we trust Jesus as our Savior, God requires nothing further from us. He is absolutely satisfied. Because of this, He has forgiven us by the “remission of sins that are past.” The word “remission” means “to pass over, to disregard.” When we place our faith in Jesus, God puts our sins behind Him.
He removes our sin as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). He trampled our iniquities under foot and cast our sin into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:9).
He has forgiven us and cleansed us from all unrighteousness and continues to forgive us and clean us (1 John 1:9).
We are justified by faith.
We were guilty and now we can be justified. Where have you placed your trust?
For it is impossible to please God without faith (Hebrews 11:6).
“The what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary we uphold the law,” (Romans 3:27-31, ESV).
We have nothing to boast about because there is nothing we did to be justified. We are not justified by keeping the law. We are justified by faith in the One who perfectly kept the law. Because we can’t keep the law so it can never justify us.
So if we are justified by faith is the law pointless? No, the law is upheld because God’s justice is satisfied through Christ.
The French reformer John Calvin in his commentary on Romans wrote, “For the moral law is in reality confirmed and established through faith in Christ, inasmuch as it was given for this end — to lead man to Christ by showing him his iniquity; and without this it cannot be fulfilled.”
Salvation is mine, but not because I deserve it.
I don’t deserve what Christ did for me on the cross. That is the whole point of grace. It’s undeserved.
God sent Jesus Christ to bear the penalty for our sin because He is love, but He is also just! We don’t deserve it, but he provides this free gift anyway.
He is our justifier because we are completely unable to justify ourselves.
My response to this free gift was repentance (turning away from my sin) and belief (that Jesus died for my sin and rose from the dead). What is yours?
German reformer Martin Luther wrote of this reality and it hits home:
I do not come because my soul is free from sin and pure and whole and worthy of Thy grace;
I do not speak to Thee because I’ve ever justly kept Thy laws and dare to meet Thy face.
I know that sin and guilt combine to reign o’er every thought of mine and turn from good to ill;
I know that when I try to be upright and just and true to Thee, I am a sinner still.
I know that often when I strive to keep a spark of love alive for Thee, the powers within
Leap up in unsubmissive might and oft benumb my sense of right and pull me back to sin.
I know that though in doing good I spend my life, I never could atone for all I’ve done;
But though my sins are black as night, I dare to come before Thy sight because I trust Thy Son.
In Him alone my trust I place, come boldly to Thy throne of grace, and there commune with Thee.
Salvation sure, O Lord, is mine, and, all unworthy, I am Thine, for Jesus died for me.
That is my prayer today, may it be yours as well.