The Only Way To Be Right With God
3:19-26 We know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are within the law, and the function of the law is that every mouth should be silenced and that the whole world should be known to be liable to the judgment of God, because no one will ever get into a right relationship with God by doing the works which the law lays down. What does come through the law is a full awareness of sin. But now a way to a right relationship to God lies open before us quite apart from the law, and it is a way attested by the law and the prophets. For a right relationship to God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and all fall short of the glory of God, but they are put into a right relationship with God, freely, by his grace, through the deliverance which is wrought by Jesus Christ. God put him forward as one who can win for us forgiveness of our sins through faith in his blood. He did so in order to demonstrate his righteousness because, in the forbearance of God, there had been a passing over of the sins which happened in previous times; and he did so to demonstrate his righteousness in this present age, so that he himself should be just and that he should accept as just the man who believes in Jesus.
Here again is a passage which is not easy to understand, but which is full of riches when its true meaning is grasped. Let us see if we can penetrate to the basic truth behind it.
The supreme problem of life is, How can a man get into a right relationship with God? How can he feel at peace with God? How can he escape the feeling of estrangement and fear in the presence of God? The religion of Judaism answered: "A man can attain to a right relationship with God by keeping meticulously all that the law lays down." But to say that is simply to say that there is no possibility of any man ever attaining to a right relationship with God, for no man ever can keep every commandment of the law.
"Not the labours of my hands
Can fulfil thy law's demands."
What then is the use of the law? It is that it makes a man aware of sin. It is only when a man knows the law and tries to satisfy it that he realizes he can never satisfy it. The law is designed to show a man his own weakness and his own sinfulness. Is a man then shut out from God? Far from it, because the way to God is not the way of law, but the way of grace; not the way of works, but the way of faith.
To show what he means Paul uses three metaphors.
(i) He uses a metaphor from the law courts which we call justification. This metaphor thinks of man on trial before God. The Greek word which is translated to justify is diakioun ( Greek #1344 ). All Greek verbs which end in "-oun" mean, not to make someone something, but to treat, to reckon, to account him as something. If an innocent man appears before a judge then to treat him as innocent is to acquit him. But the point about a man's relationship to God is that he is utterly guilty, and yet God, in his amazing mercy, treats him, reckons him, accounts him as if he were innocent. That is what justification means.
When Paul says that "God justifies the ungodly," he means that God treats the ungodly as if he had been a good man. That is what shocked the Jews to the core of their being. To them to treat the bad man as if he was good was the sign of a wicked judge. "He who justifies the wicked is an abomination to the Lord" ( Proverbs 17:15 ). "I will not acquit the wicked" ( Exodus 23:7 ). But Paul says that is precisely what God does.
How can I know that God is like that? I know because Jesus said so. He came to tell us that God loves us, bad as we are. He came to tell us that, although we are sinners, we are still dear to God. When we discover that and believe it, it changes our whole relationship to God. We are conscious of our sin, but we are no longer in terror and no longer estranged. Penitent and brokenhearted we come to God, like a sorry child coming to his mother, and we know that the God we come to is love.
That is what justification by faith in Jesus Christ means. It means that we are in a right relationship with God because we believe with all our hearts that what Jesus told us about God is true. We are no longer terrorized strangers from an angry God. We are children, erring children, trusting in their Father's love for forgiveness. And we could never have found that right relationship with God, if Jesus had not come to live and to die to tell us how wonderfully he loves us.
(ii) Paul uses a metaphor from sacrifice. He says of Jesus that God put him forward as one who can win forgiveness for our sins.
The Greek word that Paul uses to describe Jesus is hilasterion ( Greek #2435 ). This comes from a verb which means to propitiate. It is a verb which has to do with sacrifice. Under the old system, when a man broke the law, he brought to God a sacrifice. His aim was that the sacrifice should turn aside the punishment that should fall upon him. To put it in another way--a man sinned; that sin put him at once in a wrong relationship with God; to get back into the right relationship he offered his sacrifice.
But it was human experience that an animal sacrifice failed entirely to do that. "Thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased" ( Psalms 51:16 ). "With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" ( Micah 6:6-7 .) Instinctively men felt that, once they had sinned, the paraphernalia of earthly sacrifice could not put matters right.
So Paul says, "Jesus Christ, by his life of obedience and his death of love, made the one sacrifice to God which really and truly atones for sin." He insists that what happened on the Cross opens the door back to a right relationship with God, a door which every other sacrifice is powerless to open.
(iii) Paul uses a metaphor from slavery. He speaks of the deliverance wrought through Jesus Christ. The word is apolutrosis ( Greek #629 ). It means a ransoming, a redeeming, a liberating. It means that man was in the power of sin, and that Jesus Christ alone could free him from it.
Finally, Paul says of God that he did all this because he is just, and accepts as just all who believe in Jesus. Paul never said a more startling thing than this. Bengel called it "the supreme paradox of the gospel." Think what it means. It means that God is just and accepts the sinner as a just man. The natural thing to say would be, "God is just, and, therefore, condemns the sinner as a criminal." But here we have the great paradox--God is just, and somehow, in that incredible, miraculous grace that Jesus came to bring to men, he accepts the sinner, not as a criminal, but as a son whom he still loves.
What is the essence of all this? Where is the difference between it and the old way of the law? The basic difference is this--the way of obedience to the law is concerned with what a man can do for himself; the way of grace is concerned with what God can do, and has done, for him. Paul is insisting that nothing we can ever do can win for us the forgiveness of God; only what God has done for us can win that; therefore the way to a right relationship with God lies, not in a frenzied, desperate, doomed attempt to win acquittal by our performance; it lies in the humble, penitent acceptance of the love and the grace which God offers us in Jesus Christ.
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