The Cross and God's Justice

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Romans 3:24-26

Whom God put forward as an expiation 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 prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:25,26 RSV

I once attended an art appreciation seminar in which we studied Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Like most of us, perhaps, I had seen prints of the painting before. I knew that it was considered a great work of art, but I had never studied it carefully or seen anything especially remarkable in it, to tell the truth. But our instructor had. He was able to help me and others to begin to see what he saw. He showed us the techniques of lighting and line by which the artist had made Jesus the central figure in the scene. He called attention to the facial expressions of the disciples, especially of Judas. He pointed out things I had never noticed before about Jesus’ hands. Gradually, I began to look upon The Last Supper in a new way. I was seeing something there and appreciating something there that I had missed before. Our instructor had ushered me, at least a little way, into a fresh world of appreciation.

The apostle Paul does that for us, at a level far more profound, with another scene from Jesus’ life: the crucifixion. He helps us, this time through the medium of words, to grasp what was happening there, to be moved by its inner meaning.

Most of us have heard about the crucifixion many times and have perhaps seen paintings depicting it. What does that spectacle mean to us? What does it evoke in us? To some it may be only one more tragic instance of a good man rejected by a corrupt society. To others it may be a model of heroic suffering. To many, of course, it means little, if anything.

Paul and his fellow apostles were given divine insight into the mystery of that scene. They had an awareness of its significance which they felt compelled to share. Just as that art instructor flashed the slide of the Last Supper on the screen in front of us, so Paul endeavored to hold up the Cross before people and invited them to consider it. In fact, he could describe his hearers in Galatia as those “before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” Paul was always placarding, as it were, the crucifixion before people and pointing to its inner meaning. For him, the Cross held the key to life’s greatest mystery. There, on Golgotha, he had learned the secret of God’s ways. Here is a part of what he saw. I’m reading from Romans 3, verse 25:

This [that is, the death of Jesus] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

These are two of the great revelations in the Cross. God is just and He justifies those who trust in His Son.

GOD IS JUST

It’s easy to say that God is just. But does life in this world sometimes make you wonder about that? Many things around us seem grossly unjust, don’t they? Sometimes the God-fearing, the harmless, suffer most terribly. Think of children orphaned, battered and abused, burned by fire-bombs. Think of the guileless, trusting ones who get exploited by cheats and scoundrels. What of those who dream and struggle for a better world and are shot in the head for their pains? Can that be justice?

Again, think of those who have accumulated vast fortunes by trampling upon little people. Think of underworld chieftains who live in luxury, even respectability, while governing empires of terror, extortion, and murder. What about all the killers who never get caught and those who go on blinding officials with their bribes? Come now, can anyone call that justice?

It’s no wonder that some become cynical. This is a world of monstrous inequity. “How can we say,” protests someone, “that the One who made it, who is supposed to rule it, is just and fair?” All of us would have to admit that if this present life is all there is, then the whole of life seems what the preacher in Ecclesiastes called “vexation of spirit.” It is patently, painfully unjust.

But beyond the puzzling, heartrending injustices of history, the Bible points us to a final judgment where all wrongs will be righted, all scores settled, all evils condemned, perfect justice done. There’s something about that which strikes us as eminently right, isn’t there? How the loose ends need to be tied, the hidden things brought to light, the baffling questions answered! We tremble at the prospect, but know that something like that must surely be coming if God is just. And this theme appears throughout the Scriptures: God will have His day; the Judge of all the earth will “do right.”

And the chief sign of that, according to Paul, is the Cross of Jesus. Have you ever thought of the crucifixion as a glimpse, a preview of the Last Judgment? It reveals, as nothing else does, God’s condemnation of human evil. It says with dreadful eloquence that your rebellion and mine will not be forgotten, ignored, unpunished. Sin incurs debt and that debt will surely be paid. It’s an offense against God that must be punished. Our disobedience is a tragic evil that inevitably brings suffering and death in its train.

Paul says in the verses we read a moment ago that the Cross was “to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” Think of all the sins against God’s grace and all the crimes against humanity that had been unpunished in the ages before Jesus’ died. Most of them God had seemed to ignore. People got by in spite of the most heartless cruelties. God seemed silent, impotent, uncaring. Many, literally, “got away with murder.” But then came Good Friday. That awful, mysterious day brought with it this message: God won’t pass over sins forever. He will judge them. He will do right. Oh, friends, let that sink in today. Let the Cross of Jesus make it clear. God is a judge who knows all the evidence, who can’t be bribed or bought, who abhors the evil that spoils His world and makes His people suffer. And mark this – He will bring it to judgment at the last.

HE JUSTIFIES BELIEVERS

But if that was all the apostle saw in the Cross, that God is just, he would never have preached it with such joy and hope. The dying of Jesus reveals also that God is the justifier. The righteous Judge, yes, but also One who puts things right. He is indeed just and He justifies those who believe in Jesus.

That image of “justifying” calls up a scene solemn beyond description. We stand in a great courtroom, all of us on trial. The creation around us testifies. Sun, moon and stars, earth replete with wonders, fields and forests, mountains and seas, all things lovely and life-giving bear their witness. “I told them of God’s majesty and power,” they say, “but they would not listen.” Next the commandments of God rise up one by one and bear their testimony. “I showed them the way of life, for their good always, but they would not walk in it.” Then our consciences accuse us of stifling the inner voice, rejecting the light we had. The evidence leaves little room for doubt. “None is righteous, no, not one…. all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:10,23).

And yet, when the verdict is pronounced, it is not “guilty, condemned” but rather “justified, acquitted!” How can such a thing be? How can God the righteous Judge acquit one whose guilt fairly shouts to the heavens for judgment? Where is divine justice when a red-handed offender can be pronounced blameless? How can a holy God accept sinners and even call them “righteous”? The answer is in that Cross, and in the One who hung upon it for us.

In Jesus and in Him alone, God was well pleased. He only of all men deserved God’s blessing. Yet He took the responsibility for our wrongs upon Himself. He stood in our place. God laid on Him the iniquity of us all. “He was wounded,” as the prophet says, “for our transgressions.” Do you realize what that means? There on a barren hill, the Last Judgment, as it were, entered into time. There fell the stroke of condemnation. There struck the lightning of God’s wrath. There the sins of all the world were condemned and punished. But by God’s amazing mercy the blow fell on Jesus instead of on us. He bore our sins in His own body on the Cross.

Can you see it there now in the crucifixion, not only a justice that judges but also a mercy that saves? Behold the wonder of crucified love! Dr. E. Stanley Jones tells somewhere of a wife who heard of her husband’s unfaithfulness, was utterly crushed by it, yet refused to let bitterness ruin her life. She kept on caring for him, waiting for him, praying for him, and later saw him repent and return. When he was gravely ill, she nursed him back to health at great personal cost. Suffering love – that’s what shines forth from Golgotha. That’s what radiates from the Cross of Jesus.

THE UNVEILED SECRET

I don’t know how you feel about it, but it seems to me that the dying of Jesus for the sins of the world is the most magnificent revelation of God the world has ever received. Here if anywhere is our clue to the mystery, the unveiled secret of God’s ways with His world.

Why did He make us free? Why did He create a world in which the crown of His handiwork could turn against Him? Why put us to the test? Why that fateful choice out of which so much evil, suffering and sadness has come?

He didn’t want robots – we can understand that. He desired a people to respond to Him freely, to turn their faces toward Him in love, to obey Him from the heart. But what a risk it was! What misery and madness our abuse of freedom has loosed upon the world! However you look at it, the experiment was terribly expensive.

When I confront the rampant injustices of our world, when I look at the unhealed sores of our common life and sense something of the world’s sadness – yes, and when that evil and sorrow sometimes invade my personal world, it seems too much. But then I picture to myself again a middle cross on a hill outside Jerusalem long ago. The God who gave us the gift of freedom, the God who made it possible for us to say no, who looked on while we turned from Him to our own way, this God of grace didn’t stay on the sidelines uninvolved. No, in Jesus Christ He came into our world, took on Himself our humanity, lived out His life amid the conditions we face, and then took upon His own heart all the consequences of our sin.

That’s what the Cross means to me: the great Lord of all the earth stepping down from His judgment seat to bear what we deserve. And I pray God that you too today may see in that Cross the secret of God’s ways, the marvelous justice of the Lord, and may trust in One who died there so that you and I can be forgiven!

PRAYER: O God, we praise You for being the just Judge of all the earth and yet giving us a new and right standing with You as a sheer gift through the cross of Your Son. Blessed be Your name forever!