A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 3:21-4:25. a). The source of our justification: God and his grace.
We *are justified freely by his grace* (24). Fundamental to the gospel of salvation is the truth that the saving initiative from the beginning to end belongs to God the Father. No formulation of the gospel is biblical which removes the initiative from God and attributes it either to us or even to Christ. It is certain that we did not take the initiative, for we were sinful, guilty and condemned, helpless and hopeless. Nor was the initiative taken by Jesus Christ in the sense that he did something that the Father was reluctant or unwilling to do. To be sure, Christ came voluntarily and gave himself freely. Yet he did it in submissive response to the Father’s initiative. ‘Here I am… I have come to do your will, O God.’ (Heb. 10:7). So the first move was God the Father’s, and our justification is *freely (dorean*, ‘as a gift’, RSV, or ‘gift-wise, gratuitously’) *by his grace*, his absolutely free and utterly undeserved favour. Grace is God loving, God stooping, God coming to the rescue, God giving himself generously in and through Jesus Christ.
b) The ground of our justification: Christ and his cross.
If God justifies sinners freely by his grace, on what ground does he do so? How is it possible for the righteous God to declare the unrighteous to be righteous without either compromising his righteousness or condoning their unrighteousness? That is our question. God’s answer is the cross.
No expression in Romans is more startling than the statement that ‘God…justifies the wicked’ (4:5). Although it does not occur until the next chapter, it will help us to follow Paul’s reasoning if we take it now. How can God justify the wicked? In the Old Testament he repeatedly told the Israelite judges that they must justify the righteous and condemn the wicked (Dt. 25:1) But of course! An innocent person must be declared innocent, and the guilty person guilty. What more elementary principle of justice could be enunciated? God then added: ‘Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent – the Lord detests them both’ (Pr. 17:15). He also pronounced a solemn ‘woe’ against those who ‘acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent’ (Is. 5:23). For, he declared of himself, ‘I will not acquit the guilty’ (Ex.23:7), or ‘I will not justify the wicked’ (AV). But of course! we say again. God would not dream of doing such a thing.
Then how on earth can Paul affirm that God does what he forbids others to do; that he does what he says he will himself never do; that he does it habitually, and that he even designates himself ‘the God who justifies the wicked’ or (we might say) ‘who “righteousses” the unrighteous’? it is preposterous! How can the righteous God act unrighteously, and so overthrow the moral order, turning it upside down? It is unbelievable! Or rather it would be, if it were not for the cross of Christ. Without the cross the justification of the unjust would be unjustified, immoral, and therefore impossible. The only reason God ‘justifies the wicked’ (4:5) is that ‘Christ died for the wicked’ (5:6, REB). Because he shed his blood (25) in a sacrificial death for us sinners, God is able justly to justify the unjust.
What God did through the cross, that is, through the death of his Son in our place, Paul explains by three notable expressions. First, God justifies us *through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ* (24b). Secondly, *God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood* (25a). Thirdly, *he did this to demonstrate his justice…* (25b), *so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus* (26). The key words are *redemption (apolytrosis), atonement*, or better ‘propitiation’ (*hilasterion*), and *demonstration (endeixis)*. All three refer not to what is happening now when the gospel is preached, but to what happened once for all in and through Christ on the cross, *his blood* being a clear reference to his sacrificial death. Associated with the cross, therefore, there is a redemption of sinners, a propitiation of God’s wrath and a demonstration of his justice.
Tomorrow: Romans 3:21-4:25. (i) Redemption.