The Problem Only God Could Solve

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Romans 3:21-26

When you get right down to the bottom of it, the problem for God is not just how to save sinful people, but how to save them justly, in a way that doesn’t force God to deny his very nature.

“The Problem Only God Could Solve,” as the apostle Paul describes it in his letter to the Romans, was created by human sin and the terrible judgment of God that sin calls forth. Specifically, as we learn in the key passage (Romans 3:21-26), the problem is how can God forgive sin without either compromising his righteousness or denying his love. If God just waved sin away and said it didn’t matter he would betray his own holy nature and make a liar of himself, for he is the one who pronounced the solemn sentence of death upon all who sin. The soul who sins must die, says the Bible (Ezekiel 18:4, 20; cf. Romans 6:26). But everyone has sinned. The apostle has made this point at great — some would say exhaustive — length in the first three chapters of Romans. And now, just in case anyone still fails to get it, in Romans 3:23 Paul states it baldly: “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” So here’s the problem: if all have sinned, and all sinners must die, how can God save anyone?

The issue, you see, is not just how God can forgive, but how God can forgive righteously. Indeed, being God, he has to do this. If he were to pretend that sin was no big deal and could simply be dismissed, he would no longer be good. In other words, he would no longer be God.

So here’s the essence of the problem: If God is truthful and just, he must punish sin with death. If God is to save us, he must somehow both punish our sins and provide us with a righteousness we don’t deserve. And yet he must do all of that without compromising in any way his own integrity. So how can he do it?

The solution to this problem — a solution so profound that only God could have thought of it, so demanding that only God could have undertaken it, and so gracious that only God would have been willing to accomplish it — was for God to punish sin by paying sin’s penalty of death himself in the person of Jesus Christ. Then, in addition, he imputes or credits Christ’s righteousness to anyone who is united to Christ through faith, “so that,” as the apostle Paul writes, “[God] might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Listen to the whole passage:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness . . . . at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

To understand what Christianity is all about, you have to understand the ideas talked about in this brief paragraph I just read from Romans. To understand that paragraph, you need to understand the half dozen key terms that the apostle Paul uses there. We could spend a long time with great profit wrestling with just these few sentences, but in the brief time we have, let’s look at three crucial pairs of related terms that are used there.

Righteousness and Faith

The first pair is righteousness and faith: “But now,” Paul writes, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law . . . the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” The first key to understanding the gospel is to understand the relationship between righteousness — which in this sense, as Paul uses it here, is the condition of being in a right standing with God — and faith or our own belief. The kind of righteousness that saves comes to us entirely on the basis of faith, not on the basis of our own doing.

Think of it like this: We are separated from God as a result of sin. Now just imagine that spiritual distance as a physical one. Trying to reach God by our own efforts, by our own righteousness, would be like trying to jump to the moon. True, some people would get higher off the ground than others, but from the moon’s perspective, even the best efforts would be hopelessly inadequate. Everyone falls far short. To quote Paul again, “No one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law” (Rom. 3:20). What we need is another kind of righteousness, not based on our own efforts but a righteousness that comes from God.

The righteousness the gospel talks about, the righteousness that saves, is not our faulty attempts to do good offered to God as the basis of forgiveness, but one coming from God and supplied to us in place of our own, to be claimed by faith alone. And Paul says that this righteousness has now been manifested in the world. There is something new, a new possibility for salvation that wasn’t there before. Something new has happened that can make us right with God. And that “something” is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This new way of being right with God becomes operative for us when we put our trust in Christ. Paul makes this point negatively in verse 21 when he says that the righteousness God gives is “apart from the law,” meaning it’s not based on any human striving or doing, either to obey God’s written law or the law written on our own conscience. And then he puts it positively in the next verse: “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (v. 22). It is through faith in Jesus that we receive the righteousness God offers.

Notice that to be made right with God, what matters first is your belief, not your behavior. It’s not first of all what you do, or how much you do, that counts; it is whom you trust. Faith is the key, and the faith that’s needed is faith in Christ. God’s righteousness isn’t automatically extended to everyone, whether they are aware of their need or not, whether they care about receiving it or not. Nor is it credited to anyone who “believes” in God in a vague or general sense, or who believes some philosophy or other. Generic faith doesn’t save anyone. Only faith in Christ saves. Believing in anything is not the way to receive God’s righteousness. Believing in Jesus is, for this righteousness is credited to all who are joined to Christ through faith.

Justification and Grace

The next pair of terms to consider is justification and grace. God’s righteousness, given to us in Christ, is a free gift of grace. We are “justified by his grace as a gift” as the apostle says in verse 24. Justify is a form of the word we’ve just been considering: righteousness. It’s a legal term, taken from the courtroom. It means to pronounce someone innocent. Imagine a trial is being conducted: The evidence is in, and the final summations have been offered. The accused stands before the bench waiting to hear the verdict from the lips of the judge and back it comes: “Not guilty!” That’s what justification means.

When we are justified — which happens the moment we truly trust in Christ alone for our salvation — we are declared righteous, not guilty, by God. Even though we’re still sinful in ourselves, Christ’s own righteousness is credited to us as if it were our own. And all this comes as a result of grace. God’s grace is his free, self-generated, unearned love. So God freely gives us a righteousness that isn’t our own. That’s what a gift is. If you’ve earned something, it’s not a gift, it’s wages. But the only thing we have earned from God is death: the wages of our sin. Instead he gives us the righteousness of Christ; he says “not guilty” to those who in fact are guilty.

Now the question is, how can God do that without being unjust?

Redemption and Propitiation

And that brings us to the final point. The righteousness from God that is freely given by grace through faith in Christ is made possible, Paul says, through “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (vv. 24-25). The final pair of terms we must understand — in some ways the most difficult — is redemption and propitiation. We are redeemed — rescued, ransomed, delivered from sin and its consequences, in a word, saved — by the propitiation of Christ’s blood, put forward by God, to be received by us through faith. That statement takes a lot of unpacking, and I’ll defer that until our next message.

But here let me just say this. Speaking personally, I know that my redemption is in Christ Jesus. His death is the satisfaction of the justice of God for my sins. I have cast myself upon him in faith, and all my hope both now and for eternity is in Christ’s righteousness, not my own. This is the gospel. I must have heard that message thousands of times, but, you know, I never tire of hearing it again. Each time I do I have the same reaction: I am filled with wonder. I can hardly believe that the God of the universe should have done this for me! You know, it could be for you, too. The rules are the same for everyone: no one will be righteous through good works or religious deeds; but anyone can be righteous through faith in Christ’s blood. All it takes is believing.