Monday, November 4, 2019

For Him to be Just: A Study on Romans 3:21-26 (Part Two)

God’s righteousness and the passing over of sins

Paul went on to write that the purpose for which God “purposed” Christ as “a Propitiatory shelter” was ”for a display of His righteousness because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God.” Before we consider what Paul was referring to by God’s “righteousness” here (and how Christ’s death displayed or “showed forth” this righteousness), let’s consider why God thought it necessary to “display his righteousness” in the first place. The first reason is provided by Paul in the rest of v. 25: ”…because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God…”

Young’s Literal Translation renders this part of v. 25 as follows: “…because of the passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God…”

The Dabhar translation reads as follows: “…because of the remission of the failures having become before…”

The term that is translated “penalties of sins,” “sins” and “failures” is the Greek noun ἁμαρτημάτων (hamartēmatōn). This term occurs only three more times in the Greek Scriptures ( But which translation is more accurate? Is it better translated “sins” or “failures” (which are virtually synonymous in meaning), or “penalties of sins?” Despite its attempt at a more literal translation of hamartēmatōn, I’m inclined to think the CLNT may actually be less accurate here. Although it’s true that the elements of the word hamartēmatōn are, literally, “UN-MARK-EFFECT,” it is not, I don’t think, the penalties of sins that are in view here. Rather, what I believe Paul had in mind are the sinful actions to which sin leads, and which are the “effect” of sin (by implication, the term hamartēmatōn could also be understood as referring to the sins in which the actions result).

In support of this view, consider Christ’s words in Mark 3:28-29. The CLNT translates Christ’s words in these verses as follows:

“Verily, I am saying to you that all shall be pardoned the sons of mankind, the penalties of the sins (ἁμαρτήματα) and the blasphemies, whatsoever they should be blaspheming, yet whoever should be blaspheming against the holy spirit is having no pardon for the eon, but is liable to the eonian penalty for the sin (ἁμαρτήματος).”

The Dabhar, on the other hand, translates these verses as follows:

“Amen, I say to you: All will be remitted to the sons of men, yea, all the failures (ἁμαρτήματα) and the blasphemies, as it were, as many as they blaspheme, but the one who blasphemes toward the Holy Spirit, as it were, not has he remission till into the eon, but he will be liable of eonian failure (ἁμαρτήματος).”

Understanding the term hamartēmatōn as referring to sins/failures (or perhaps “sinful actions”) seems preferable in light of the fact that the term is coupled with the term translated “blasphemies.” Moreover, in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ words here (see Matt. 12:31-32), the term hamartia (“sin”) is used instead of hamartēmatōn. Thus, given the fact that hamartēmatōn is used elsewhere in Scripture as if it were equivalent in meaning to the term for “sins,” I believe it would be preferable to understand hamartēmatōn in Romans 3:25 to mean either “sins” or “sinful actions” (rather than “penalties of sins”).

In any case, it’s clear from what we read in Mark 3:28-29 that the term hamartēmatōn denotes something that could be “forgiven” or “remitted” by God (and in the case of those who were guilty of “blasphemy against the holy spirit” – which involved attributing Jesus’ power to that of an “unclean spirit” rather than to the holy spirit of God – they will be having no forgiveness or remission “for the eon”). Thus, we can understand the term hamartēmatōn in Rom. 3:25 as also referring to that which could be forgiven, or remitted, by God (whether it be understood as referring to “sins” or “penalties of sins”).

Let’s now consider the words, because of the passing over of the penalties of sins which occurred before in the forbearance of God” (or, “because of the passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God.”). Concerning the term translated “passing over,” A.T. Robertson remarked as follows: “Late word from pariēmi, to let go, to relax. In Dionysius Hal., Xenophon, papyri (Deissmann, Bible Studies, p. 266) for remission of punishment, especially for debt, as distinct from aphesis (remission).” Similarly, Albert Barnes commented, “The word used here πάρεσιν paresinoccurs nowhere else in the New Testament, nor in the Septuagint. It means “passing by,” as not noticing, and hence, forgiving.”

Understood as a reference to forgiveness, God’s “passing over” sins refers to his mercifully setting aside the penalty of which those who’d committed the sins had become deserving. I think it’s also significant that, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the forgiveness of sins is depicted as a “propitiatory shelter” being made “over” those whose sins were forgiven by God (see, for example, Lev. 4:20, 26 in the CVOT). With this shelter “covering” them, God consequently “passed over” their sins, so that they would not have to suffer the penalty that would’ve otherwise followed. In view of these considerations, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that the ”passing over of the bygone sins in the forbearance of God” refers to the fact that, for centuries, God had been doing what we find affirmed by David in Psalm 103:10: ”He does not deal with us according to our sins or requite us according to our iniquities.”

God’s forgiveness of David’s sins is a good example of what I believe Paul had in view in Rom. 3:25. In 2 Samuel 12 we read that David was confronted by the prophet Nathan for committing adultery with Bathsheba and then having her husband killed. In 2 Sam. 12:9-10 we read that Nathan rebuked David for having “despised the word of the Lord.” What’s more, it’s evident that God considered David as having despised him by his sin (hence God’s rhetorical question, “Why have you despised me?”). Although it wasn’t his conscious intention to despise God when he sinned, David nevertheless treated God with contempt by sinning. His sin communicated the false idea that God was not deserving of faithful obedience. After acknowledging his sin against God (v. 13), Nathan responded, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” In other words, God “passed over” David’s sins, despite the fact that – according to God – David had “despised” God by his sins, and was deserving of death.

How Christ’s death displayed God’s righteousness

That which Paul referred to as “[God’s] righteousness” in Romans 3:25-26 – and which was “displayed” or “shown forth” by Christ’s death – is, I believe, God’s own righteous status or character (which I believe is evident from the expression “for Him to be just” in v. 26). This righteousness of God was referred to earlier, in Rom. 3:3-8:

For what if some disbelieve? Will not their unbelief nullify the faithfulness of God? May it not be coming to that! Now let God be true, yet every man a liar, even as it is written: “That so Thou shouldst be justified in Thy sayings, And shalt be conquering when Thou art being judged.” Now if our injustice is commending God's righteousness, what shall we declare? Not that God Who is bringing on indignation is unjust! (As a man am I saying it.) May it not be coming to that! Else how shall God be judging the world? Yet if the truth of God superabounds in my lie, for His glory, why am I also still being judged as a sinner, and why not say, according as we are calumniated and according as some are averring that we are saying, that "We should be doing evil that good may be coming"? -- whose judgment is fair.

The unbelief of “some” Jews (which was actually the majority of Israelites in Paul’s day, and remains so today) cannot make God’s faithfulness of no effect. As Paul went on to argue in greater depth in chapters 9-11 of this letter, God will, in fact, fulfill his promises to the believers among his covenant people. However, God will also bring his threatened indignation upon the unbelievers among them (and it is this second point that Paul is emphasizing in this passage). Paul quotes Psalm 51:4 to support his claim that God is not unfaithful even if some Jews are unbelieving. David himself affirmed the fact that God had the right to judge him because of his sins. David did not, in other words, attempt to take refuge in his status as a member of God’s covenant people (as if his covenant status alone made him exempt from God’s righteous judgment).

Notice how Paul considered God’s righteousness as something inseparably tied to God’s “bringing on indignation” and “judging the world” for unbelief and unrighteousness (or “injustice”). It is this divine act of “bringing on indignation” and “judging the world” (in response to the world’s unbelief/injustice) which, according to Paul, is “commending God’s righteousness,” and which is “for [God’s] glory.” In other words, God’s righteousness is displayed through his judgment of, and bringing indignation upon, sinners (cf. Rom. 1:18ff.). By giving God the opportunity to display his righteousness through the judgment of sinners, the injustice of unbelieving Jews serves to commend, or magnify, God’s righteousness.

In light of this fact, Paul anticipates the following objection from someone opposed to what he’s saying concerning God’s righteous judgment of unbelieving Israelites: If God condemns people for the very thing that commends his righteousness (and thus glorifies him), wouldn’t this make God unrighteous for condemning those who are unrighteous (for God’s being glorified is, of course, a good thing)? But of course, God is not unrighteous for bringing indignation on the unrighteous. For – as those whom Paul is representing as bringing this objection would’ve agreed – God is going to judge the world (i.e., the Gentile inhabitants of the earth). But God couldn’t judge the world if the objection to which Paul was responding had any merit (which, again, is that God couldn’t justly condemn people if their condemnation commended his righteousness, and thus brought him glory). Thus, on the basis of the fact that God is going to be judging the world (and will be righteous in doing so), the objection to which Paul was responding fails.

Now, we know that God is absolutely responsible for everything that occurs in his universe. It is for this reason that Paul described God as “the one who is operating all in accord with the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). The “all” that God is operating in accord with the counsel of his will necessarily includes the committing of sin by his creatures (which necessarily includes the very first sin that ever occurred). Rather than passively allowing his creatures to sin, God himself is actively bringing about the circumstances that necessarily result in people sinning (whether those sinning are human or celestial beings). In light of the fact that God is, absolutely speaking, the reason why sin occurs, some may wonder why God can’t “just forgive sins,” or why God couldn’t have “just saved us” apart from Christ’s having had to die. Why did God need Christ to die for our sins if our sins are a necessary part of God’s “purpose of the eon?”

The fact that sin is necessary to God’s plan (and that it would not exist if God didn’t intend for it to exist) does not mean that God doesn’t take sin seriously, or that God delights in, and is directly pleased by, its occurrence. Nothing could be further from the truth. As is evident from God’s rebuke of David, God takes sin very seriously. In fact, God takes sin so seriously (and so utterly disapproves of it) that he considers sinners to be justly deserving of death. This is not only implied by what we read in 2 Sam. 12:8-10 (where it’s implied that David would’ve died had God not chosen to mercifully “pass over” his sin), but it’s explicit affirmed by Paul in Romans 1:32 (where we read of the “just statute of God” that those committing sin are “deserving of death”).

But what makes the “just statute” referred to by Paul a “just statute?” It is evident that God – as the Supreme Being and the uncreated Creator of all that exists – is deserving of faithful obedience from all of his intelligent creatures. It is, I believe, for this reason that the “foremost precept” is, ”You shall be loving the Lord God out of your whole heart, and out of your whole soul, and out of your whole comprehension, and out of your whole strength.” Obedience to this greatest of precepts, then, is what every intelligent being owes God, and is what we fail to give God whenever we sin.

Some may be uncomfortable with the idea of God’s creatures “owing” God anything (even if it’s love). However, in Rom. 13:8-10 we read that Paul considered love to be that which we “owe” our associate (or “neighbor”). If, in accord with the precept, “You shall be loving your associate as yourself,” we can be said to “owe” love to our associate, how much more do we owe love to God? For, according to Christ, the “foremost precept” of the law is, “You shall be loving the Lord your God out of your whole heart, and out of your whole soul, and out of your whole comprehension, and out of your whole strength” (Mark 12:30). It is for this reason that I believe Christ understood sin to be a “debt” (or something very much like a debt). In Matthew 6:12 we read that Christ taught his disciples to pray, “And remit to us our debts, as we also remit those of our debtors. In Luke’s account, we read, “And pardon us our sins, for we ourselves also are pardoning everyone who is owing us (Luke 11:4; cf. Matt. 18:21-35).

A popular belief among Protestant and “evangelical” Christians is that the “debt” that sinners owe God is punishment. However, since sin involves a failure to give to God the obedience he deserves, it would be more accurate to understand the debt we owe God as being the obedience that we fail to give him whenever we sin. The penalty for sin (i.e., death) is simply the just consequence of our debt; it is not itself the debt. And the obedience that we owe God is a debt that we cannot pay. No subsequent obedience that we give to God can make up for the obedience that we failed to give him. This “debt” of obedience can only be forgiven. Thus, when God forgives sins and justifies sinners, it necessarily involves his mercifully forgiving the “debt” we owe him, and thus setting aside the just penalty that he himself considers all sinners to be justly deserving of (in accord with his “just statute”). But the very fact that this statute is “just” raises the following question: How can it be just (or righteous) of God to forgive sins and justify sinners when this necessarily involves the setting aside of a penalty that is in accord with what God considers to be a “just statute?”

If it’s righteous of God to condemn sinners (and it is) – and sinners justly deserve to die (and they do) – how can God’s decision to extend mercy to sinners and bestow grace upon them (by forgiving their sins and justifying them) be consistent with his righteousness? It is this problem – the apparent unrighteousness of God’s decision to forgive sins and justify sinners (rather than dealing with them in accord with his “just statute”) – that required a “showing forth” or “display” of God’s righteousness through the death of Christ. Concerning this important point, Martin Zender remarked as follows in his commentary on Romans 3:24-26:

“We rarely think about God’s righteousness or His reputation. It’s usually all about us. We want to make sure that we are justified, that God loves us, and that we will be with Him forever. There comes a time, however, when a spiritually mature person will ask: “What is in this for God? What does the cross of Christ do for His reputation? Does He come out smelling like lilies of the field? What are people going to think of Him after all this?”

In the current era, not too many people think highly of God. They either hate Him and don’t believe in Him (worldly people), or they so miscalculate His purpose and character (speaking now of religious people) that they perform moralistic feats (such as going to church or refusing to smoke cigars), hoping to avoid hell.

In Romans 3:26, Paul tells us that the deliverance from sin and death won by Jesus Christ on the cross was a display of God’s righteousness in the current era. This is one of the secrets of the cross of Christ, that the cross was a display of God’s righteousness. Hardly anyone sees it as that.”

Again, the deserved death of sinners is in accord with (and a reflection of) the fact that God is deserving of obedience from all of his intelligent creatures. It is because sin results in God’s failing to receive what he, as God, deserves that sinners are justly deserving of death. Moreover, we know that God can’t lie and is necessarily committed to the truth. Thus, we can understand God’s need for Christ’s death for our sins as simply reflecting his uncompromising commitment to the unchanging truth of his infinite worth (which is what makes him worthy of perfect, faithful obedience - as well as continuous praise - from his creatures). If God were to forgive sins and justify sinners apart from, and without regard for, Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf, then God would be acting contrary to the truth of who and what he is. God would, in other words, be acting contrary to the truth of his own infinite worth as God. And God can no more act contrary to what is true than he can act contrary to his own nature. However, because of Christ’s death, God is able to be merciful and gracious toward sinners without compromising his righteousness. But how can this be? How did Christ’s death justify God’s decision to extend mercy and grace to sinners (by forgiving their sins and justifying them), and thus reconcile God’s mercy and grace with his righteousness? How is it that, in the words of A.E. Knoch, Christ’s blood “settles for sins, past present and future,” and “vindicates God’s justice and makes it possible for Him to be the Justifier of all who are of the faith of Jesus”?

Among the views that can actually be said to be attempts to explain how Christ’s death justifies God’s decision to be merciful toward sinners, one of the most common among Protestant Christians involves the idea that, when Christ died, he was paying the penalty for our sins. For example, in the booklet “The Outcome of Infinite Grace,” Loyal Hurley (who, I must add, was a believer) affirmed this view when he wrote, “Jesus is the Savior because He bore the just penalty for sin…Paul insists that God dealt fully and righteously with human sin in all its aspects. Accordingly, whatever debt, or price, or judgment or penalty should have been met (call it by any word you choose), He exacted in full from His own Beloved Son” (p. 12). Similarly, we read the following from Joseph E. Kirk on page 63 of the same booklet: “In the death of Christ on the cross, we see God dealing righteously with sin. What a dreadful thing sin is to call forth such a severe penalty! What great sinners we are that we should justly deserve all that Jesus Christ endured!” Kirk went on to write, “Whatever the penalty of sin is, Jesus Christ endured it to the full in order to become our Saviour.”

In contrast with the view expressed by these two fellow members of the body of Christ, I don’t believe Christ’s death involved his suffering the penalty of sin. But if Christ didn’t “pay the penalty” for sin when he died, then what, exactly, occurred when he died that made it possible for God to be merciful to sinners while remaining righteous? As these believers would’ve whole-heartedly agreed (Kirk even makes this very point in the context from which I quoted him), Christ committed no sin whatsoever during his life on earth, and was completely innocent when he died. Not only did Christ not deserve to die, but his death was an act of self-sacrifice to God. Rather than being a passive victim, Christ’s death was a voluntary act of perfect obedience to God. In John 10:17-18, Christ declared,

Therefore the Father is loving Me, seeing that I am laying down My soul that I may be getting it again. No one is taking it away from Me, but I am laying it down of Myself. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to get it again. This precept I got from My Father.

Everything that occurred to Christ during this time (as well as prior to it) involved his obedience to God’s will. This included the time from his betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane to the moment he committed his spirit to God and breathed his last on the cross. Everything that Christ allowed to happen to him during this dark time fulfilled prophecy and was done in humble obedience to God. Christ had to die in the exact way and in the exact circumstances he did in order to remain obedient to God, as well as to fulfill all that was written concerning him. Consider Christ’s tearful and heartfelt yielding to God’s will while praying in Gethsemane (which cannot be understood as anything other than a voluntary act of obedience to God, apart from which the prophecies concerning him would not have been fulfilled):

Then Jesus is coming with them into the freehold termed Gethsemane, and He is saying to His disciples, “Be seated, till I come away and should be praying there.” And taking along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He begins to be sorrowful and depressed. Then He is saying to them, “Sorrow-stricken is My soul to death. Remain here and watch with Me…” And coming forward a little, He falls on His face, praying and saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass by from Me. However, not as I will, but as Thou!” Again, coming away a second time, He prays, saying, “My Father, if this cannot pass by from Me if I should not drink it, let Thy will be done!” And, coming again, He found them drowsing, for their eyes were heavy. And, leaving them, again coming away, He prays a third time, saying the same word (Matthew 26:36-44).

In Luke’s account Christ explicitly acknowledged that what he was about to do would fulfill prophecy (Luke 22:37), which means that Christ was very much aware of the fact that his actions were completely necessary for the fulfilling of prophecy (and apart from which prophecy wouldn’t have been fulfilled). We’re also told in this same account that, while praying to God to let the “cup” pass by from him, our Lord came “to be in a struggle,” and that “His sweat became as if clots of blood descending on the earth” (:44). Evidently, Christ’s struggle involved the decision to exercise his God-given right to “lay down His soul” and thus be “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8), rather than avoiding the cross (which, in Matt. 26:52-54, Christ acknowledged he had the authority to do).

Keeping in mind the fact that Christ’s death was an act of perfect, faithful obedience to God, how did his death vindicate God’s justice and make it possible for God to justly show mercy and grace to sinners? Simply put, when Christ died on the cross in faithful obedience to God, he gave to God a gift of obedience that is of greater worth and value than the obedience that every sinner owes God (the fact that God considered Christ’s obedience unto death to be of greater value than the obedience of any other created being - including the ongoing, perpetual obedience of holy celestial beings such as Gabriel or Michael - is evident from the fact that, following his death, Christ was exalted by God far above all terrestrial and celestial beings). Understood in this way, it wasn’t a debt of punishment that Christ “paid” to God when he died. Rather, it was a “debt of obedience” that Christ “paid” to God when he was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” And because Christ, by his sacrificial death, gave to God a gift of obedience that is far greater in value than the obedience that we fail to give God when we sin, God is able to justly set aside the penalty of which our sins make us deserving.

This understanding of how Christ’s death made it possible for God to forgive sins and justify sinners finds support from Israel’s divinely-instituted sacrificial system. According to this system, Israelites had to offer sacrifices to God – via a representative priesthood – in order to receive the forgiveness of certain sins. It was in response to their offering to God something that was of (relatively) great value – i.e., an unblemished animal (the blood of which was considered precious to God, the Creator of the animal) – that God mercifully forgave the sins of those for whom the animal was offered. The people of Israel were, essentially, giving something valuable/precious to God in order to eliminate the “debt” they’d incurred by their sins (and it should be noted that the idea of giving to God something of value was present even when the sacrifices were made as an expression of thanksgiving to God, rather than as compensation for sins/guilt).

In addition to referring to Christ’s death using words and imagery derived from the sin offering (Rom. 3:24-25; 8:3; Eph. 5:1-2), Paul explicitly stated that Christ was made a sin offering for our sakes. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, we read, “For the One not knowing sin, [God] makes to be a sin offering for our sakes that we may be becoming God’s righteousness in Him.” Instead of “sin offering,” many translations have, “sin.” However, even if the Greek word hamartia is translated “sin” here, Paul cannot be understood to mean that Christ literally became sin for our sakes. There is simply no meaningful sense in which this could literally be true. Nor can these words be understood to mean that Christ became a sinner (or sinful) for our sakes. As already noted, Christ never sinned during his lifetime, and remained sinless when he died on the cross (which was itself an act of ultimate obedience to God). On the other hand, translating “sin” as “sin offering” in this verse not only makes good sense, but it is consistent with the usage of the word sin in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (where it is frequently used to mean “sin offering”), as well as with what is said elsewhere in the Greek Scriptures concerning the nature of Christ’s sacrifice (e.g., Heb. 7:27; 10:12).[1] And insofar as a sin offering is a sacrifice offered to God that has, as its intended purpose, the elimination of the sins for which the sacrifice is offered (i.e., it results in God’s ceasing to reckon the sins of those for whom the sacrifice is offered against them), it follows that the sins of everyone for whose sake Christ died as a sin offering shall be eliminated, and all sinners shall ultimately be reconciled to God.

I’ll close this study with the following from A.E. Knoch:

God is jealous lest you think He is not just. “But I thought that when He saves anyone He overlooks his sins.” Not at all. If that were true Christ need not have died. The blood of Christ is a continual reminder of the fact that God must do right even if He is Love. Did you ever think that Christ's death, first of all, was for God, and to display Him to us? Not that God needed to be made just, but He needed to be justified in the eyes of His creatures, and this means everything to Him. Before Christ's death He passed by sin. He tolerated it for the time being; but one of the main benefits of Christ's sacrifice was the vindication of His merciful acts of old. But how much more, then, shall it vindicate His grace now! For Christ has died, He has risen, God is just, even when He justifies all who are of Jesus' faith.

[1] Concerning his preference for the translation “sin-offering” (rather than “sin”) in this verse, Adam Clarke remarked as following in his commentary: “[The Greek word translated ‘sin’ in the KJV] answers to the chattaah and chattath of the Hebrew text; which signifies both sin and sin-offering in a great variety of places in the Pentateuch. The Septuagint translates the Hebrew word by ἁμαρτια in ninety-four places in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, where a sin-offering is meant; and where our version translates the word not sin, but an offering for sin.” Clarke went on to reference more than one hundred verses from the Septuagint in which the Greek word for “sin” (hamartia) is used to denote a sin-offering.

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