Romans: The Clearest Gospel of All
By E.H. “Jack” Sequeira

#6 – Legal Justification

(Romans 3:24-26)

24 ...And [all] are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.  He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

As we turn to verses 24, 25, and 26 of Romans 3, we will discover that Paul is dealing with an extremely important truth here.  First of all, I want you to look at verse 24 because here in verse 24 Paul is pointing us to three facts concerning the righteousness of God which He has now made available to us through his son Jesus Christ.

  1. The righteousness of God justifies us.

    That is the first truth verse 24 brings out, that the righteousness of God justifies us.  What does Paul mean by that word “justifies” because it is one of those key words, it’s a crucial word in the New Testament.  Well, this word, “justifies,” primarily had a legal connotation.  It’s a term that is used in the court, it is used by judges, and it has a legal connotation.  We need to be clear on this.

    I’ll tell you why:  because there are some now in our own church, some of our scholars, who want to do away with this legal meaning.  Like one scholar says, the word only means “set right.”  Well, I’ll tell you folks, if you take the word “justified” in the New Testament and translate it or exchange it for the words “set right” and you will discover in some places it makes good sense, but in some places it does not because you cannot limit the word “justified” to simply “set right.”

    The reason for this is because, as we shall see in verses 25 and 26, that there are some (it began among the liberal theologians and it is now creeping into our church) who do not want to accept the legal framework of the atonement and I will say a few more things about it in a moment.  But the word “justified” primarily had a legal definition.

    Let me give you two examples how this word is used in scripture. Keep your finger here at Romans 3 and turn your Bibles to the book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 25.  This is counsel given by God through Moses to Israel as God prepares her to be a theocracy in the country of Canaan and this is the instruction that God gives because in a theocracy God is not only their spiritual leader but He is also their political leader.  In verse 1 of chapter 25 of Deuteronomy I read these words:

    When men have a dispute, they are to take it to court [please notice they come to court, it’s a legal matter] and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty.

    Please notice that you justify, or acquit, the righteous and you condemn the wicked.  These two words “justify” and “condemn” are legal terms; they are terms that are used in connection with the law.  When you obey the law, the law justifies you, and when you disobey, it condemns you.

    Let me give you one more example; turn to the I Kings 8.  I want to give you a couple of examples of how this word is used in a legal framework in the Bible.  Let’s look at verse 32; this is a plea for God to hear and to judge:

    ...Then hear from heaven and act.  Judge between your servants, condemning the guilty and bringing down on his own head what he has done.  Declare the innocent not guilty, and so establish his innocence.

    Please notice the legal framework of the words.  So, going back to Romans 3:24, the righteousness justifies us.  What does that mean?  That means that those who believe in Christ (because verse 22 talks about righteousness by faith, those who accept the righteousness of Christ through faith), God declares you or looks upon you as if you are righteous.  I know some of you will say, “I don’t feel righteous.  I am not righteous.”  And you are right in both areas.  God doesn’t declare us righteous because we are righteous; God declares us righteous because of His righteousness.  It’s the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ that is the issue here.  The righteousness of God justifies us.

    Now this is something tremendous because you see, in verse 19, Paul has just told us that according to the law, the whole world is guilty before God, which means that the law of God condemns us. But now comes the righteousness of God and it justifies us.

    I want you to notice that is that the word “justified” in Romans 3:24 is in the present tense:  “being justified.”  Paul is not saying that one day in the future God will justify you; he says no, right now, in the present tense, you are justified (as he will go on) through the redemption that is in Christ.

    What does it mean for a person to stand justified before God? The answer is found in the words of our Lord Jesus Christ in John 5.  You see, in Chapter 3 of John, verse 17, Jesus tells Nicodemus that:

    For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

    Now in chapter 5, verse 24, I want you to notice how different translations begin.  The New King James Bible puts it “most assuredly”; others read “verily, verily.”  They all mean, “this is guaranteed” (and this is Christ speaking):

    I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has [not will have, but already has] eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.

    Yes, in ourselves we stand condemned to death, but in Christ we have passed from condemnation of death to justification of life.  That is the first thing that verse 24 says, that in the present situation, the moment you believe, the righteousness of God in Christ becomes effective to you and you have passed from death to life, you are now being justified.  That’s number one.

  2. Going back to Romans 3:24, you will notice that this justification comes to us not because we have paid some money or because we have made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, it comes to us freely.

    ...And [all] are justified freely....

    What does that word “freely” mean?  It means “without cost.”  As Isaiah 55 puts it, “it is without money and without price.”  It’s free, but it is more than a gift.  It is more than that because I read on:

    ...And [all] are justified freely by his grace....

    Now “by his grace” gives a very definite meaning to the word “freely.”  What kind of meaning does it give?  That word “grace,” like the word “justified,” is also a crucial word in the New Testament.  What does it mean?  Normally, it is explained as “unmerited favor” or “undeserved favor.”  But let me explain it in a little more in detail by giving you an example.

    Let us say that Steve, my friend, has an appointment and I know about it, so, while he’s gone, I come to his house and I beat up his wife, Kathy, giving her a real black eye.  Of course, the kids are at school and the baby is crying and while they are all doing that, I take his furniture and I wreck it, taking his axe and smashing his furniture and I burn up his T.V.  set and I do everything terrible and then I take off.  Steve then comes home from his appointment and sees Kathy on the floor all bruised and beaten up and bleeding and he says, “What happened?  Did an earthquake strike?”

    Kathy says, “No, it was that fellow Jack who did it.”

    And Steve gets into his car and he flies, breaking the speed limit, and comes to the house and I see him from the window and his hands are behind his back and I say to myself, “I bet he has a revolver and he is coming to shoot me for what I’ve done.”  And I say to myself, “Shall I run or shall I stand up?” And I say, “No, I’ll be a coward if I run.  I’ll try and disarm him before he shoots me.”

    And so I go and open the door and I look at him and he says, “Jack, why did you do this?  I am your friend.”  I have no answer.  He pulls his hands from his back and I am expecting a revolver and guess what it is?  It’s a check for $1,000.00.  Now that is grace, folks.  That’s grace.

    Here we are folks, we crucified the Son of God and what does God do?  He forgives us.  What did Christ do on the cross?  He said, “Father, forgive them.”

    Now that, folks, is grace.  Grace is not only doing you a good favor, it is doing a good favor to somebody who hates you, to somebody who is your enemy, as we shall see in Romans 5:10:

    For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

    While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.  That is grace, folks.  That is why the gospel is unconditional good news.  God doesn’t say, “First you shape up and change your ways then I will justify you”; He justifies us not only freely but by his grace.  That’s number two, folks, we need to keep this in mind.

  3. I want to go to number 3, because number 3 is extremely important.  For there I read in verse 24 that I am not only justified freely and graciously, but that this justification is:

    ...through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

    And it is here, folks, where creation and redemption part company because, you see, the same Jesus who created us is also the same Jesus who redeemed us, but there is a difference.  All that God had to do to create this world was to simply speak, to make a statement.  All that God had to do was to say, “Let there be light,” and there was light, because the breath of God — the words of God — are power, energy.  He can create something out of nothing and all God had to do was to speak the word and it happened.

    Now, of course, He could have done that also for us.  God did not have to make us out of dust and breathe into us the breath of life, He could have created us by simply making a statement.  The only reason why He made us of the dust of the earth is because He knew, through His foreknowledge, that we would sin and He knew that sin would make us a proud people.  So He deliberately made us out of mud so that, after we fell, we would be reminded when we got too proud of who we are.

    You know, when we were in Africa, we discovered that the word for mud, the word for dust had some beautiful expressions.  For example, in Uganda the word for dust or mud is “fufu.“ Sounds wonderful! That’s what you and I are made of.  In Ethiopia, the word for mud is “cushasha.”  It sounds terrible, those words, but that’s what we are and God knew that we needed a reminder that our glory is as beautiful as the dust of the earth.

    But when it comes to redemption, God could not save us simply by making a statement.  God could not say, “Well, I love these dear people.  I know they have gone wrong, they have broken my law, but I am God and no one is above me.  I can do what I like and I love them and so I declare you forgiven.  I declare you justified simply because I love you.”

    God could not do that because God is not only love, He is a just God.  He could not redeem us, He could not justify us, by bypassing his law because his law says the soul that sins must die.  God has to be true to his own word, otherwise He becomes an unjust God Himself.

    When the policeman forgives me for speeding, he is doing an unjust thing because he never volunteers to pay the ticket.  How many policemen that have forgiven you have paid the ticket for you?  They can forgive you by excusing you because they are sinful men but God can’t do that.  He is a holy God, He is a righteous God.  He can’t simply make a statement and say, “I love you so I forgive you.”

    Justification by faith is free to you and me but it is extremely costly to God.  Let me put it this way:  if God gave me a million dollars today, it would cost Him nothing because He can create gold out of stones, He can simply speak the word and the stones can turn into gold.  That’s no problem for God.  But, when He gave me His only begotten Son, do you realize that He gave me something that He could not replace?  He gave me His only begotten Son and, in giving me His Son, He was giving me Himself.  We shall see in a minute what that involved.

    The reason I’m stressing this is because, as I said already, there are many people today who think and teach that God did not have to send his Son, and Christ did not have to die on the cross to justify us.  He did it because He wanted to influence us.  This is called the “Moral Influence Theory.”

    Through the years there have been many theories in the Christian church concerning the atonement.  There is the Satisfaction Theory, there is the Ransom Theory, the Governmental Theory, and there is the Moral Influence Theory.  The 14th, 15th Century came up with this theory.

    Each theory says this is the correct meaning of the atonement.  I’ll tell you, folks, the atonement is too big an event to be locked up in only one theory; it is too big.  In fact, we will never be able to comprehend all of the mysteries of the atonement until we go to heaven.  We will spend eternity wrestling with the atonement.  Each of these theories have an aspect of truth but they become wrong when they deny the other.  In other words, there is nothing wrong in the Moral Influence Theory in its teaching, it is correct that the death of Christ on the cross demonstrated the love of God, which should change my attitude towards God.  There is nothing wrong with that; that’s correct.

    It’s wrong because of what it denies.  A lot of heresy in this Christian church is not wrong in what they teach; they are wrong in what they deny.  Anyone who denies the legal framework of the atonement is doing God an injustice.  Do you know that?  God could not simply save us because He loved us; God’s love and justice had to meet together and they met at the cross.  It was only at the cross that God became legally just in justifying us and that is what verse 25 and 26 are talking about.  Let us read it first:

    God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.  He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished —he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

    In Chapter 3, verse 24, we are told that we are justified freely, but it is through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.  What does the word “redemption” mean?

    It means to be ransomed from something that you are under.  For example, if you read the New Testament, you will discover that we are redeemed from the Devil [Hebrews 2:14,15], or we are redeemed from death [I Cor.  15:  56, 57], or we are redeemed from sin [Roman 6:22], but here in this context Paul is saying that we are redeemed from the curse of the law.

    He says the same things in Galatians, so let me give you a similar argument found in Galatians chapter 3.  I want you to notice what the law says in verse l0.  Please notice the clear statement of Scripture:

    All who rely on observing the law are under a curse...

    For those who try to go to heaven by their own righteousness, the law will curse them, not because they haven’t tried.  But, why does the law curse you if you are trying to go to heaven by your works?

    ...For it is written:  “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”

    Now the question is:  “Have you kept the law in detail, continuously, from the time you were born?” Have you?  If you have not, then you are under the curse.  The law says so.  God could not bypass this curse, he could not do it because He is a just God, He is a holy God.  So I read in Galations 3, verse 13 the good news of salvation:

    Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written:  “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”

    Notice the past tense.  There are three main truths that the cross reveals (which I will be covering in detail at another time):

    1. The cross demonstrates that Satan is a liar and a murderer and that the human heart is desperately wicked.  We need to know that.  John 8:44 says that:

      You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to cary out your father’s desire.  He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

    2. Then I want to show you how the cross demonstrates the love of God.  Romans 5:8 will touch that, too:

      But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

    3. But here, the cross demonstrates the justice of God.  In other words, through the cross of Christ, God is just in justifying the sinner.  He has redeemed us, He has ransomed us, He has set us free by the cross.

    When I was in Africa, I had a coworker with me.  He was a black American and we worked together in the Ministerial Department.  He was from Seattle [Washington, U.S.A.] and, at that time, I had only heard of Seattle and didn’t know what it looked like.  He was a good man and we worked together and he often would tell a story.  It would be a story that had some meaning to him because it had to do with slavery.

    The story was about a man — a strapping, strong slave.  He was sold in this country many years ago on an auction block and the auctioneer introduced him as a “strong, capable young man and you would be able to get a lot of work out of him.”  Before anyone could bid, the slave opened his mouth and said, “I am not going to work for anybody.”

    The auctioneer told him to keep quiet.  The bid went on and on and a man at the back kept bidding, refusing to back down and he went up and up and finally nobody could compete with him and he got the bid and the auctioneer said, “He’s all yours!”

    The man came forward with the money, gave the money to the auctioneer and the auctioneer gave him the keys of the shackles.  As the new owner dragged this man away, the slave began muttering “I am not going to work for you.”  The owner just kept quiet and took him away from the crowd, undid the key, took off the shackles off his hands and his feet and he said, “Now, you are no longer a slave.  I didn’t buy you; I don’t know where you got the idea.  But I didn’t buy you to use you to work for me; I bought you to free you.  You are a free man, you can go where you like.  The world is yours!”

    This slave did not know how to react.  He was so shocked by this that he fell down on his knees and he said to the slave owner who bought him, “I will work for you all the rest of my life!”

    That is the attitude we must have towards Christ.  Christ did not buy us so that He may use us; He bought us that He may share with us His throne and His kingdom and all the joys of heaven.  That’s why He bought us, why He redeemed us.  It was free to us, but it was very costly to God.

Now in verse 25 there are two words that I want to touch quickly.  The first word [in some translations] is “propitiation.”  It’s a word that has caused endless problems in this controversy about the atonement.  What does it mean to propitiate?  Well, the word comes from a Greek word called “hillastraion” and a similar noun used in 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10.  “Hillasmos” and the equivalent verb “hilastros” are found in Hebrews 2:17.  This word was used in the days of the New Testament, in Pagan customs and religion, and was used to refer to sacrifices that the Pagans would give to appease their angry god.  That is what the word “propitiate” means:  to appease somebody who is angry with you.

The word came about because of the idea that God up there is an angry judge ready to punish you unless somebody appeases his anger.  Jesus said, “Look God, please don’t get angry at these poor people; I will die in their place” and so God was satisfied. No, that is never the use of propitiation in the New Testament.  You see, in the Pagan culture:

  1. It was always the person, the human being, who offered the sacrifice to appease an angry god.  In the gospel, it wasn’t man that offered the sacrifice; it was God Himself who offered Himself as a sacrifice.  So there’s a world of difference between Pagan custom and Christianity.

  2. The person never offered himself.  He offered an animal or vegetable or mineral and sometimes he offered babies, but never himself.  But, in the Gospel, God not only offers the sacrifice, but He offers Himself for our sins.  So, please, we must not project the word “propitiation” from Pagan culture into Christianity.  This is what has caused the problem.

So what does the word mean?  Well, the word was used in the Old Testament for the mercy seat that was over the Ark of the Covenant and if you look at Leviticus 16:15,16 or if you look at Hebrews 9:5 where these words are used, you will notice that the word “propitiation” simply means that, through the blood of Christ, our sins were expiated or cancelled or taken away.  In other words, God took away our sins and our guilt and the punishment that comes with it through the blood of Christ and this brings us to the second word.

What does the New Testament mean by the word “blood”?  It does not mean the blood of Christ in terms of the literal blood that went through his veins.  The word “blood” is a symbol, it is used as a type pointing to a truth and, in the Old Testament, the blood symbolized life.  Let me give you one text, Leviticus 17:11:

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar:  it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

So what does blood mean?

It means life.  What does “shed blood” mean?  It means life that is laid down in death.  On the cross Jesus died, but He did not die the first death.  Hebrews 2:9 tells us that:

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

It becomes obvious that he could not have tasted the first death for every person for the simple reason that believers who have accepted Christ and who stand justified must also still die the first death.  But they will never die the second death [see Rev. 20:6].  Why?  Because there is one who tasted the second death for you and me.

What does it all mean?  What was the issue on the cross?  It is this:  that on the cross Jesus was willing to say “goodbye” to life, not for three days (there would be no sacrifice in that), but that He was willing to say “goodbye” to life forever that we may live in his place.  That is the love of God and that propitiation, that blood that was poured out for us, satisfied the law because the law says that the soul that sins must die.  We will cover that in more detail, but I would like at this point to remind you that we dare not throw away the legal framework of the atonement.  Jesus could not save us apart from the cross.

Let me give you a couple of statements before we go to verse 26. This is from the Spirit of Prophecy [by Ellen G.  White].  This first one is 6BC, page 1,099:

“Justice demands that sin be not merely pardoned but the death penalty must be executed.  God in the gift of His only begotten Son met both these requirements.  By dying in men’s stead, Christ exhausted the penalty...”

Do you know what that means?  [It means] that every sin that you have committed or that you will commit to your dying day has already been exhausted on the cross, been paid for.

“...Christ exhausted the penalty and provided pardon.  As Hebrews 9:22 says:  ‘according to the law, there can be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.’”

Let’s go on.  Here is the second statement from 2 Testimonies, page 201:

“The death of Christ proclaims the justice of the Father’s law in punishing the transgressor in that He consented to suffer the penalty of the law Himself in order to save fallen men from its curse.”

This is the New Testament meaning of propitiation.  Recently, one of our own scholars said to me that he did not believe in the legal framework of the atonement and I said, “What about Romans 3:25,26?” and he said, “Why don’t you read that text in the New English Bible?” Unfortunately I did not have the Bible with me so I came home and I read it and I didn’t know what he meant because when I read the New English Bible it defends the legal framework more than the King James! It says that Christ’s death demonstrated the justice of God.  It uses the word “justice” there twice.  Now let’s look at verse 25, especially the second half:

God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.  He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished....

What does it mean here?  This last phrase has been misinterpreted by many.  Paul is not saying here that when you accept Christ he forgives your past sins.  The idea that justification is only the forgiveness of past sins is unbiblical.  It is a heresy to me and I’ll tell you why:  because it leaves you in insecurity, because every time you make a mistake it means you become unjustified until you repent.  So then you are a yoyo, in Christ and out of Christ.  Such living is what produces poor Christianity in God’s house!

We are living under the umbrella of the justification of Christ.  This doesn’t mean that we can condone sin, as we shall see when we come to Romans 6.  You dare not condone sin under justification by faith.  But what does Paul mean when he says that in the past God overlooked the sins that were previously committed?  Here is what Paul is saying and the context supports this.

The word “beforehand” [or “past,” in some translations] here refers to before Jesus shed his blood, before the cross event.  Did God forgive sin?  The answer is yes.  Could He forgive sin in a just way?  The answer is no, He forgave it out of His forbearance, out of His patience, out of kindness, but not out of justice, because His own law says there can be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood and the shedding of the blood of bulls and goats and lambs could not do that legally and that’s what the book of Hebrews brings out, chapter 9 and 10 especially.  But now verse 26 says:

...he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

That is legal justification, at least one meaning of legal justification.  In other words, since the cross, God is absolutely just before his own law in forgiving us and this is what Paul means in verse 31, which we will cover in the next study.  Do you make void the law through preaching justification by faith?  Does this doctrine of justification by faith nullify the law?  Paul says nothing doing.  It upholds the law because in Christ — in his life and his death — God is legally just in justifying the believer.

In other words, before the law of God, you and I stand perfectly justified in Christ and God is upholding His law in doing that.  God is not going against His law; in other words, the law and God are in harmony in justifying the believer and this is what Paul says: demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

In other words, the Devil, before the cross, could point his finger at God and say, “You have no right to take these sinners to heaven.  They are sinners!”  But, since the cross, the Devil’s mouth has been shut up and God will say to the Devil, “I rebuke thee.  Is not this a branch plucked out of the fire?”

Yes, by nature and performance we belong to the lake of fire, that’s where we belong by ourselves.  But Jesus plucked us out of that fire and justified us and now He stands before the right hand of God, not to plead before the Father, but to defend that justification before the accusation of Satan and He is just in doing that.

In other words, why should we have the investigative judgment if I am already justified in Christ?  The purpose of the investigative judgment is not to find out if you deserve heaven or not.  None of us deserve heaven; we are saved by grace.  It is because our justification in Christ has to be vindicated before we go to heaven and, in the investigative judgment, Jesus will defend our justification and he will vindicate it and he will say to Satan, “You have no right to accuse them because they have accepted me and I am their propitiation.  Therefore, I rebuke you.”  And he will turn to us and say, “Come inherit the kingdom of my Father which was prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

My dear people, do you realize what the righteousness of God means to you?

  1. It means that you are justified right now.

  2. You are justified freely.

  3. God is just in justifying you.

That is the message of the gospel and this is why we need to understand this.  Because the world desperately needs to know that God is just in justifying the sinner and that, in Christ, we have salvation full and complete.  This is a message that we need to preach to a perishing world.  May God help us to understand what this message is all about and then take it to the world and tell them this unconditional good news.  May God bless us that you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.

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