It’s More Blessed to Be Forgiven than to Receive Payment
Passage: Romans 3:21– 4:12
This is an extremely important text but not necessarily for the reasons people normally think it is. In fact, it’s actually a frequently misunderstood text. Part of that has to do with how remarkably tight and interconnected Paul’s argument is throughout Romans. It’s sometimes very hard to see where one point ends and another begins, and they are so radically interrelated that when you separate one from the context of the other you do run a serious risk of misunderstanding both. For that reason, Ben and I are preaching sequential texts this week and next, but we are going to be all up in each other’s sections because the points are so interrelated. A seminary classmate of mine once made the observation that all guys have at least one weird niche youtube channel they are into. All of the guys in the room started to object but then each of us started to quiet down as the realization began to set in that she was, in fact, correct. I myself tend to go through seasons of fascination so I’ll have one channel I’m interested in for a while and then move on, but one of those seasons was videos on japanese wood joinery. It’s the art of joining wood together without nails and even sometimes without glue, by using extremely precise cuts and joint techniques that fit together so tightly and perfectly that they lock the wood in place. It’s extremely satisfying to watch.
Our current sermon series is, in many ways, like a playlist of theological wood joinery videos. When we broke up the book for the sermon series, we actually tried to break it up so that the texts we preach on contain the seams between arguments. So the point where one section transitions to the next is actually the main focus of the sermon instead of preaching one point one week, and the next on the following Sunday. I think the reasoning behind that will be especially clear over the next two weeks, because this passage and the next are exceptionally interconnected, even for Romans. But what we hope to do is demonstrate the flow of argument in the book of Romans so that we can see what Paul is really getting at and how he gets there. It’s a bit of an unusual way to preach this book but we hope and believe it will be beneficial.
The bigger argument is that righteousness comes only by grace through faith. But this week, we are looking at the first smaller argument, which is this: God justified us because he loved us. Not because we deserved it, and not in order to love us. Next week Ben is going to argue that, if justification is based in love, it says some very important things about our faith. I won’t spoil his message for you, but I am very much looking forward to it and want to set him up well to do that work. So, in service to that, we are going to tackle the first argument today: that God justified us because he loved us. I’m going to go about that in the following way: first, I want to show you what the text is saying. Second, I want to show you what the text is not saying. And third, I want to show you why our joy in God depends on us getting this right. So first, I want to show you how Romans is arguing that God justified us because he loved us. And I'll warn you, we are about to get the hard thinking out of the way up front so buckle up. It's gunna be a steep takeoff before we level off for a bit, so seat backs and tray tables in their upright positions.
Point 1: What This Text Is Saying
The point of Romans 3-4 is that being physically descended from Abraham doesn't say anything about your salvation because God wanted the promise to rest on grace and depend on faith, not on lineage and depend on works. God prefers to bless us with righteousness that doesn't belong to us rather than give us something we are owed in any sense. He preferred to show us grace that was utterly independent from our efforts or our identity to show his righteousness and love as the just and the justifier of him who has faith in Christ. He says look, Genesis 15 says God counted Abraham as righteous, right? Well that was before he was circumcised or had performed any act of obedience. You, likewise, are counted righteous by faith. Not because of what you do, not because you are physically descended from Abraham, not because you celebrate the passover or get circumcised, only because you trust in God who justifies the ungodly by his mercy alone. This is the doctrine of unconditional election. There’s nothing in you that deserves any part of what God blesses you with, and salvation is totally from God and totally not dependant on anything that we do. This is an inescapably clear reality of God’s Word. You can love it or hate it but you can not hide from it.
Earlier, Ragan already read the first portion of our text, all about how God put forth Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins that we should receive by faith - (not by obedience to the law). Paul said this was to show God’s righteousness, because in his patience, he had passed over former sins. This 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.
Ok, so. God’s patience is what caused him to pass over former sins. It’s not that it would have been harsh or unfair of him to punish them. Quite the opposite. In fact, this act of passing over the sins without punishing them called into question his righteousness, because how could a just God not punish sins? First off, note the choice of terms there. “Pass over” sins. Ok, he didn’t forgive them yet. He passed over them. So the Spirit of God is going through the nation of Egypt and he’s handing out the just punishment of sin, which is death, and he sees blood on the door post of an Israelilte, and he passes over that house. This does not mean that the house he passes over deserves death less than the other houses. It means there is a bloody sign there which indicates the penalty of death for sin is going to be accomplished another way. But that bloody sign was not itself the sacrifice that removed sin. If so, God would not be passing over, he’d be exercising judgement on the animal, and passover would be called "judgement day." Moreover, Israel would have been declared righteous by their obedience to his instructions to kill the animal and paint the blood, and Paul’s whole argument would fall apart. If the sin had been sufficiently punished in the animals that were killed for passover, then God’s righteousness would not be called into question here in Romans. Do you get me? Paul says the act of passing over sins required a subsequent revelation of God’s righteousness in order for him to be seen as just.
God didn’t just pass over everybody’s sin. The Egyptians' sin wasn’t passed over. Nor did he justify every Israelite with blood on their door. According to the text, who is to be justified before God? The one who has faith in Jesus. In other words, he passed over sin in the former days, in order to show his righteousness through the sacrifice of Christ, so that one act would both show him to be just, and show us to be justified. Incredible. Therefore, because the acts that God’s people did in order to mark themselves out to be passed over were no cause for boasting. Circumcision and the blood on the door post, that is the two signs and seals of the old covenant, were not cause for boasting. Because persons were not justified by them, but rather through the faith which they indicated. Paul goes on to make the exact same argument with circumcision that he had with passover, because again, these are the two signs and seals. The very ones which correspond to baptism and the Lord’s supper now. This is why the name changed, by the way. We celebrate a meal with God, not passover, because God no longer passes over our sins. He visited wrath on another in our place, and now he does not pass by our door but rather knocks and comes in to sit down for a family dinner. How about that?
But anyway, that’s passover, then Paul moves on to circumcision. So Paul just argued that the sacrifice of Christ didn’t buy God’s patience, but happened because of it, just like passover was based in God’s patience in the OT. Now he makes the same argument for circumcision. Abraham was not counted as righteous by being circumcised. Abraham was justified by faith in Genesis 15 before he was circumcised in Genesis 17. Circumcision was to mark him out as one who had been counted righteous, not to make him righteous. But even then, he was counted as righteous because of His faith in God who justifies the ungodly. Even in the former days, God passed over sins to show his righteousness by becoming both just and justifier of one who has faith in Christ. So it was Abraham’s faith in God’s work of justification, which we now know to be Christ, that justified him. Not circumcision, not sacrifices. Christ. Paul says David speaks of the same blessing in Psalms when he refers to the man whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered, and against whom the Lord will not count his sin. David knew a way was coming for God to forgive sins that previously he only passed over.
Paul concludes by saying that we walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. Our father, Abraham, he says to an audience of jewish and gentile Christians in Rome. So that’s point 1. What this text is saying: In every age, God justifies his people by faith. Alright, now we're at cruising altitude. You may unfasten your seat belts and move about the cabin.
Point 2: What this text is not saying
This text is not saying that God loves or justifies us because we are faithful. It’s a fairly simple point, but truly, this may be one of the most violently misunderstood and abused texts in the whole New Testament. Everybody is real cool about everything I just said until they go read NT Wright, Doug Wilson, or the Left Behind series and suddenly they aren’t sure it’s that simple. I know I said the names and that makes everybody really tense but hang with me for a minute. Not everything these guys say is wrong. But some of it is very wrong. Wrong enough that we need to be crystal clear about this stuff. We just saw that Paul ruled out the following things as basis for justification: obedience through the covenant signs of circumcision or passover and being physically descended from Abraham. Those are the two major areas where it is increasingly popular to say, “did Paul really say that?” “Is it really that simple?” And yes. He did really say that and it is that simple. If you want a second opinion Galatians says the same thing but shorter and meaner.
There are some things that it is necessary and appropriate to believe gently. Things we call open handed issues because we hold them with an open hand. Not these things. This is a closed handed issue. People say, “well that’s not very humble these men are experts, they are more educated than you, it’s arrogant to definitively say they are wrong.” No, it’s arrogance to remain uncertain when God has spoken clearly. Satan was more educated than Eve and when he asked her, “did God really say?” it was her job to say “yes he did move along.” Now I’m not comparing anybody to Satan. But I’m saying there’s a principle here. God has nowhere spoken more clearly than in our text today, it is faith in Christ, not faithfulness to the law, that justifies a person. I dont care how many letters somebody has after their name or how many books they have published. Its our responsibility to believe what God has said. Look at the text:
“Then 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. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith papart from works of the law. “
“For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. “
There is no room for NT Wright’s definition of righteousness as “faithfulness to God’s covenant.” Does that really matter? Yes. That view is called the New Perspective on Paul and it’s the dominant theological position in most seminaries today. The Roman Catholic Church holds the following tennant, canon 10 from the council of Trent, to be infallibly true: “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, let him be excommunicated.” To this day, every Roman Catholic is required by their religious authority to believe this. Dispensationalism is the statistically dominant view of most baptists and non denominational churches, at least in the last 150 years since it was invented, and it teaches that Jews have hope of salvation in their ethnic identity, that the temple sacrifices will one day be restored after Christ returns, and that God has two distinct peoples with two distinct hopes of salvation. Paul, however, says,
“For we hold that one is justified by faith papart from works of the law. 29 Or qis God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since rGod is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and sthe uncircumcised through faith… (chapter 4) [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith… The purpose was dto make him the father of all who believe… [whether Jews or not]
Paul is clear. God is the God of Jews and Gentiles, Abraham is the father of all faithful jews and gentiles. Both jew and gentile have always, in every age, had a single means of salvation: faith in God. As he said back in Romans 2, “no one is a jew who is merely one outwardly. Rather, a Jew is one inwardly. A matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not the letter.” put very, very simply. Faith in God's work through Christ is the only way of salvation that God has ever made. Nobody has ever been saved another way, nobody will ever be saved another way. What makes you worthy of this is nothing but the sovereign grace of God. It’s not your ethnicity. it’s not your obedience. Your faithfulness is not the basis of your righteousness. Christ’s faithfulness is the basis of your righteousness, and the only way for it to become yours is by faith. It’s actually very simple and clear. People like to complicate it, but it’s not complicated. Sorry I know we hit a little turbulence there but we're making good time.
Point 3: Getting This Wrong Means Missing Out On Joy
Aside from the self-evident fact that we should believe what the bible says, there are some practical, and possibly more helpful reasons we must be clear here. For one, errors in Romans 3 will destroy the work of Romans 4 and 5. Remember the purpose of this series is to see the argument of Romans. We are looking at the forest more than the trees. It’s like you’re trying to teach the marvel movies, ok? The first time you watch them they are great, but then if you go back and watch the early ones again you see so many tie-ins to later films that you missed the first time. So what I’m trying to do here is not just show you what Romans 3 says, but what it’s doing in the argument. I want you to see the tie ins before we get to the really good part. Why Paul is talking about justification here? What is the purpose of justification? Because if you misunderstand what the chapter is doing in the argument, you actually misunderstand the chapter itself. Errors in this chapter will not only cause you to misunderstand Romans 3, but also 4 and 5. The two most common types of errors here are errors of misunderstanding and errors of emphasis. Roman Catholic doctrine, the New Perspective on Paul, and Dispensationalism are three examples of errors of misunderstanding. These errors aren’t just wrong, but they are likley damaging to our enjoyment of God.
For one, they put the focus on you, not God. If God is working justification by means of covenant faithfulness, parental lineage, or one way for the jews and another way for Christians, then the emphasis is shifted from what he’s doing to what you’re doing. Which then makes Romans 2 and 3 a hurdle or an obstacle to overcome, because they say the opposite of this. That’s why plenty of Pauline scholars want to pretend they aren’t originally part of the book or something. Wright calls Romans 2 the “joker in the pack” because, I believe, he doesn’t know what to do with it. Views that place the emphasis on what we do require you to either remove or totally reinterpret these passages because that’s not the emphasis of Paul here. Look at what Paul says:
So that God, not us, might be the justifier. Moreover, these errors remove the blessedness of grace. To think that the Jews attained righteousness through the law, and that they were God’s plan A, and that the gentiles receive plan 2.0 is to disregard Paul’s use of the Old Testament to prove his point, and to remove the blessing of grace from God’s people in the Old Testament. But look what Paul says in Romans 4:
“David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: y“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not zcount his sin.”
We all start from 0 and are all utterly undeserving of God's grace because of God's grace. Because it shows more love that way. Because it's more merciful that way. In other words, his point is that from of old, those who had faith in Christ in the Old Testament were saved by the same grace you are, because God believes that is the most blessed way to do it. God believes it is better for us to experience his grace by getting heaven through forgiveness rather than earning it by works. And Abraham and David are the examples he cites for this principle, so if Abraham and David can’t be examples of God’s saving work through Jesus then you can’t explain Romans. This is a point Paul will return to throughout Romans, because he wants the jews in Rome to understand they are saved the same way the gentiles in Rome are. Their ancestors did not receive the law to be saved by it, but to learn to hope in Christ.
The law is like the game. Which all of you just lost. For those of you under 25 and over 40, "the game" is a game you win as long as you don't think about it. Think about it and you lose. Which means the harder you try the more you lose. Welcome to the game. The law works a lot like this. I didn't know what it was to lose the game until somebody told me. Then losing the game came alive to me. That's not the only purpose of the law, but it is the first one. And we'll unpack that further down the road. But for now you need to know that trying to be saved by the law is a lot like trying to win the game. And anybody who tells you otherwise is just setting you up for failure, frustration, and loss of joy in Christ. God wanted to save you through grace rather than law because he wants to bless you.
Ok I think I’ve made my point about those views now. There is another type of error though, and it’s frankly perhaps more dangerous for us at OGC than any of the others I’ve mentioned, if only because we are more susceptible to this one. This one belongs to us and to many of those who share our beliefs about salvation. This is an error of emphasis. You see, it is possible to believe that justification depends totally upon faith, not at all on our faithfulness or identity, and still not understand this text or see the goodness of God. Now that’s dangerous. Because we tend to think we are good if we pass the doctrinal exam. But this cancerous failure to see the goodness of God can eat away at our souls the entire time we confess the catechism and listen to the sermon every week. You can teach an equipping hour class on justification and this sickness can be gnawing on your spirit the whole time. I know because I’ve done it. Let me show you wat I mean by asking a series of questions. Please just answer silently in your own minds, but please do answer.
Why is Justification Necessary?
I answered, because we are sinners.
Why is it a problem that we are sinners?
Now for this one let me guess some answers you may have offered. “Because God hates sin.” “Because God can’t be around sinners.” or even “Because God is angry with us.”
Now, all of those are, in some ways, accurate. But none of them are the answer that Paul gives here. Paul says, “in his divine patience, he had passed over former sins.” And Christ’s sacrifice was “to show his righteousness” “so that he might be just and the justifier of him who has faith in Christ.” think about it… For thousands of years God had been drawing near to sinners. He had been loving them. He had been passing over their sin. Because of his patience, and his mercy. He passed over their sin in Egypt, and then he came to dwell in their midst in the wilderness. He had Solomon compose an entire book called the Song of all Songs, which is to say the best possible song, about how much he loved His people. And that book even includes chapters about loving them in spite of their sin. We did not need to be justified because God hated us. We needed to be justified because God loved us even though his righteousness obligates him to show wrath to sinners. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying God denied his righteousness to love us. I’m saying Christ came as a sacrifice for us that God might be both just and the justifier of him who has faith in Christ.
Jesus was put forward as a sacrifice to be received by faith, thereby showing God’s righteousness, because in His mercy he had already passed over sins. Listen to me. God did not need Jesus to die in order for Him to love you or be patient with you. Jesus died because God had been patient, and because he wanted to justify the people he had been patient with. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Christ’s blood does not buy God’s patience, it justifies both us and God’s patience. All those thousands of years, he passed over the sin of his people and drew near to them, counting them as righteous if only they would have faith in his ability to justify them one day. The problem that the gospel solves is not the fact that a righteous God hates sinful people. It’s that a righteous God loves sinful people. If your sin didn’t stop him from loving you when you were unrighteous, it sure isn’t going to stop him from loving you now that you are in Christ.
Justification is not the heart of the gospel. God is. Justification is a means to a greater end, of showing God’s righteousness and love to people he freely chose to show mercy to. Imagine you got engaged to a billionaire. You made a huge deal of it. The ring, of course, was giant, and you basically made a personality out of talking about the ring and telling the engagement story. People would ask you about your relationship, or how things are going, and you would show them the ring and tell the story of how you got engaged. People would ask you if you’re looking forward to marriage and you’d say of course, but then start talking about the ring again. People would ask you to tell them about your fiance and you would start talking about the ring and how they proposed. They’d ask what you like about him and you say you like how he proposed. “How did you know he was the one?” “Oh! By the size of the ring."
That doesn’t work because a proposal isn’t meant to carry the weight of a relationship. You know what it is good for? Serving as a demonstration of commitment. Somebody asks you, “hey, how do you know that guy likes you?” Flash the ring. Some other girl tries moving in on your guy, you tell her to back off, she says, “I don’t see a ring on his finger” show her the ring on yours. Discussion over. The ring is a symbol and a representation of his love and commitment. It’s not the primary experience of it, however. And if it is, you’ve got problems. Imagine you talk about your relationship and your family and your home as being “an engagement ring centered home.” “Yeah we have an engagement ring centered relationship.” “We like to keep our conversation as engagement ring centered as possible.”
I’ve got no problem with the phrase “gospel-centered” as long as you don’t think justification is the heart of the gospel. God is the center of the gospel. My wife loves her engagement ring and I’d be lyin if I said I wasn’t pretty proud of that thing. It was a long layaway on a youth pastor’s salary, ok? I am not anti-engagement ring. I’m actually very pro-that ring. I bought it. It’s a shining example of my love and commitment to my wife. It’s not the center of our relationship or the heart of our marriage. And I love justification by faith alone. It’s tattooed on my arm. I love the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. It is not the heart of the gospel. The good news is not primarily that we are spared from wrath. It’s that we are spared from wrath so that God might reveal his righteousness while continuing to show His love. Justification isn’t what’s great about heaven, it’s how you get to heaven. Why do you want to get to heaven if justification is the heart of the gospel? If the majority of the good news is that you have already been saved from wrath then my friend what are you looking forward to? What’s good about heaven isn’t the absence of pain or punishment, it’s the presence of God among his people. The gospel isn’t that you get forgiveness, though you do, it’s that you get God. He's what the forgiveness is given for.
If you read Romans like a systematic theology of justification you will butcher it. If you skim the low parts to get to the high parts about justification you won’t get it. Do you know that Romans 3, 8, and 9 are actually in service to 4-5 and 10-11? The purpose of expounding the doctrine of total depravity and unconditional election is not to show you how much wrath you were spared from, but how much love has been poured out on you and what blessings and grace and mercy and affection have been lavished upon you. The quote is not, “God spares his wrath for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Is that true? Yes. Is it what Paul said? No.
“God shows his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
I’d like to close with a very anceint old testament example of God’s love for His people. The blessing He instructed Moses to put on His people.
“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord turn the light of his countenance upon you and give you peace.”