Romans 3: 24 - 26
What happened on the bloody hill of Calvary was the single most important event in all history since the very beginning of the universe. No event can be compared to it. The cross of Jesus stands alone - “towering o’er the wrecks of time.”
What did it mean to God the Father as his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, died a criminal’s death? These verses contain the very heart and soul of the Christian gospel. 3 answers to the question - What did the cross mean to God?
1. The Turning Away of God’s Wrath v. 25
“Sacrifice of atonement” means “propitiation.” Few people have ever heard the word propitiation, and fewer still understand what it means. Here’s a simple definition: Propitiation - To turn away wrath by the offering of a gift. In this context it means that the death of Christ turns away God’s wrath.
I realise that God’s wrath is not a popular topic these days. Many pastors fear to preach on God’s wrath lest they incur the wrath of the congregation. We’d all rather hear about God’s love than about his wrath. Yet both are entirely biblical because both wrath and love flow from God’s basic nature. While it is true that “God is love,” it is also true that he hates the wicked and those who do violence. Sometimes in our attempt to appear compassionate, we proclaim that God “hates the sin and loves the sinner.” I caution against using that statement indiscriminately because it is only partly true and can be misleading. Does God love sinners? Yes, he does because sinners are part of the world Christ came to save. But the statement seems to imply that love is God’s only response to sin. Check out the book of Psalms and you will discover that God hates sinners and he abhors the wicked. I believe that much modern gospel preaching is anaemic precisely because we preach less than the whole truth to guilty sinners. If all we say to the lost is “God loves you,” we are in danger of making them think that their continued rebellion doesn’t matter to God. Instead, we must warn them to flee from the wrath to come.
If we must say, “God hates sin but loves the sinner,” let us at least add this phrase, “And he warns the sinner to repent before it is too late.” When Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the listeners held on to the pillars of the building lest they suddenly slip down into eternal damnation. Can anyone imagine that happening today?
Lest I be misunderstood, let me say that I believe fervently in God’s love. But God’s love, as magnificent as it is, cannot cancel God’s holy hatred of sin. There is no conflict between love and anger. True love is often angry. Ask any wife and she will say “I’m angry because the one I love has disappointed me.” Because God is holy, he is angry over our sin. Because he is love, he provided a means to turn away his own anger by the offering of His Son.
On a completely different level, we see propitiation at work when a husband realises that he has offended his wife. Hoping to make it up to her, he stops on the way home and buys flowers. Before she can say a word, he gives her the gift, hoping to turn away her wrath and restore a good relationship.
But the greatest illustration comes from the OT Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of a goat. He would sprinkle the blood on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. That lid was called the “Mercy Seat.” By the sprinkling of the blood, the sins of the people were “covered.” That covering by means of blood was called the “atonement.” The sacrifice of blood turned away the wrath of God.
What does the symbolism of the Day of Atonement represent? During the other days of the year when God looked down from heaven, he saw the 10 Commandments inside the Ark. The 10 Commandments stood as a testimony against the sins of the nation of Israel. But on the Day of Atonement God saw the blood of the sacrifice which covered the sin of the people of Israel.
The sacrificial system had one major problem. It provided temporary forgiveness because it was based on the blood of animals. We know that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin. That is why every year, year after year, the high priest would go in and do it all over again. And when he died, another high priest would take his place and do the same thing each year on the Day of Atonement. The OT system provided no permanent forgiveness for sin.
When Jesus died on the cross, the blood that he shed was like the blood on the Mercy Seat. It turned away the wrath of God and covered the sin of the entire human race. How could that be? In that moment all the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus. He became sin for us, and all of your sin and all of mine and the sins of the whole world were poured out on Jesus. In that moment God turned his face away from his own Son. To call the death of Christ a “propitiation” means that God’s wounded heart is now satisfied with the death of his Son. When a sinner trusts Christ, God accepts him on the basis of the sacrifice Christ made when he died on the cross.
We think that going to church or being baptized or going to Mass or saying our prayers or being good or stopping a bad habit or “trying really hard to be better” will somehow turn away the infinite wrath of God. The wonder of propitiation is that the offended party (God), who has every right to be angry at sinners himself, offers the gift (the death of Christ) to turn away his own wrath, thus making it possible for guilty sinners to be forgiven.
2. A Demonstration of God’s Justice v. 25, 26
“How could an all-knowing, all-loving God allow his Son to be murdered on a cross to redeem my sins?” That’s an excellent question because it goes to the very heart of the gospel.
Why did Jesus have to die? Why would God put his own Son to death, especially to save people who had rebelled against him? In searching for the answer, it helps me to think of another question: Since God is both all-powerful and infinitely gracious, why didn’t he simply offer forgiveness to anyone who says, “I’m sorry"? Many people secretly think that’s what God should have done. Then we wouldn’t have to deal with the embarrassment of God killing his own Son.
Sin Must be Punished
Because God is holy, he cannot allow sin to go unpunished. His justice demands that every sin be punished—no matter how small it may seem to us. If he were to forgive sin without proper punishment, he would cease to be holy and just. God would no longer be God because he would have denied his own character. That could not happen. All offenses against God must be punished. That’s why sinners can’t simply say, “I’m sorry” and instantly be forgiven. Someone has to pay the price.
We follow this same principle in our criminal justice system. Suppose a man is found guilty of embezzling R6 million dollars from his employer. Just before sentencing, he stands before the judge, confesses his crime, begs for mercy, and promises never to embezzle money again. How would you react if the judge accepted his apology and released him with no punishment? Suppose the man had been convicted of rape and then was set free with no punishment simply because he apologized. Or what if he apologized for murdering a father and mother in front of their children—and the judge set him free?
Even in this life a price must be paid for breaking the law. When lawbreakers are set free with no punishment, respect for the law disappears. The same principle applies to raising children. When parents refuse to discipline with tough love, they end up raising criminals instead of responsible adults.
The same is true in the spiritual realm. When sin is not punished, it doesn’t seem very sinful. God’s devised a plan of salvation whereby he would remain holy and just, and still provide a way of forgiveness for guilty sinners. Somewhere, somehow, there had to be a place where grace and wrath could meet. That place is the cross of Christ.
The paradox of salvation is this: God is a God of love … and therefore wants to forgive sinners. God is a God of holiness … who must not and cannot overlook sin. How could God love sinners and yet not overlook their sin? No one would ever have dreamed of his answer. God sent his own Son to die for sinners. In that way, the just punishment for sin was fully met in the death of Christ, and sinners who trust in Christ could be freely forgiven. Only God could have done something like that. Thus, Paul says, God is both just (in punishing sin) and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus.
Think of it. In the death of this One Man, all the sins of the human race are fully paid for—past, present and future. As a result, those who believe in Jesus find that their sins are gone forever.
This is the heart of the gospel: God’s holiness demands that sin be punished. God’s grace provides the sacrifice. What God demands, he supplies. Thus salvation is a work of God from first to last. It is conceived by God, provided by God, and applied by God.
3. An Outpouring of God’s Grace v. 24
God saves us despite the fact that he can’t find a reason within us to save us. Salvation is a “free gift” to the human race. There is nothing in us that causes God to want to save us. No good works, no inner beauty, no great moral attainment, no intellectual merit of any kind. When God saves us, he does it despite the fact that we don’t deserve it.
Grace - What you need but do not deserve. God saves people who don’t deserve it! God saves people who actually deserve condemnation! God saves people in spite of themselves and contrary to their record. It is “pure, abounding, astounding grace!”
Let me go a step further. When God saves people, he doesn’t do it because of any potential he sees in them. I think most of us secretly feel (though we would never say it) that there must have been something in us worth saving. Human pride dies hard. But it’s not as if God saw a musician and said, “We need a good piano player in the church. I think I’ll save him.” Or “She’s got a lot of money and we could use some extra cash for world missions.” No, no, a thousand times no. God doesn’t save on the basis of your potential. Apart from the grace of God, the only potential you have is the potential for eternal damnation.
When God saves, he saves us by free grace, wholly apart from anything in us or anything we might “bring to the table” later. This is a shocking truth, hard to hear, but entirely biblical. And in the end, it is most comforting because it means that anyone, anywhere, at any time can come to Christ for salvation. No one has any advantage since “there is no difference” because all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3: 23).
This is so hard for us to believe. We would prefer to work for our salvation. But God’s gift of salvation costs us nothing, even though it cost Christ everything. The Lord now says to us, “Take it by faith! It’s yours for free. I have paid the cost for you.”
God’s Son has made propitiation. He has turned away the wrath of God. He shed his blood and what was a place of judgment is now a mercy seat for people like you and like me.
Because of the cross, salvation is now entirely free. What then must I do to be saved? Must I be holy? Must I be good? Must I change my ways? Must I promise to clean up my act? Here is God’s answer: Romans 3:24 says, “Freely by his grace.” But the human hearts cries out, “I must do something, I must make my contribution.” So we clean up, we go to church, we pay our money, we go to Mass, we enter the waters of baptism, and on and on. We think God will never forgive us until we do something to deserve it. But it is not so. God gives his justification away freely and if you try to pay for it, he will throw it in your face.
Don’t Wait to Get Better
If I said you can be justified for R50, who would not pay? If I said you must walk 100kms, we’d all line up tomorrow morning. If I said God will justify you if you will endure a 20 minute beating, would we not endure the pain and count it a small cost? But if I say, “Free, free, God’s grace is free,” something in the human heart rebels against that fact. Either you take it freely or you don’t take it at all.
How then do we receive God’s gift of salvation? Simply by asking for it. Do you know in your heart that you want Christ in your life? You may have him today! This is the wonder of the gospel. Do not say, “I’ll do my best and come to Christ later.” That is the language of hell. You cannot be saved as long as you hold to your notions of goodness.
“I’ll get better,” you say. No you won’t. You can’t get better, that’s your problem. You’re as good as you can be right now—and that’s not very good. Sin has gripped your soul and made you depraved inside and out. Here’s some shocking news. If you somehow got better, you would be worse off, because the worse you are, the better it is to come to Christ. If you are unholy and you know it, come to Christ. If you are a sinner and wish to be forgiven, come to Christ. If you feel unworthy, come to Christ. If you feel like a failure, come to Christ. If you admit that your life is a mess, come to Christ.
I pray that you will run to the cross as your only hope of salvation. But I cannot make you believe. I do not have the power within me to change your heart. I could preach for hours but I would be preaching as to the dead unless God should give you life. If you have any stirring in your heart, any sense of your need, any desire to be saved by grace, that desire has been placed in your heart by God. May that desire lead you to the cross where Jesus waits to receive you.
Our Heavenly Father, may your Holy Spirit draw men and women to the Saviour. Grant a holy discomfort to those who do not know Christ. Give them no rest until they find rest in Him. I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.