Six Facets of Scandalous Grace, Pt 3: Justification
An invitation to surrender to the Father's mercy, kindness, and unrelenting love.
In his book, Improving Your Serve, Chuck Swindoll tells a story about a young seminary student named Aaron who wanted to get a ministry position back home in Chicago over the summer. Nothing was available. Desperate for employment, he took a position driving a bus route on the south side of the city.
It didn’t take long for a group of kids in a local gang to begin taking advantage of Aaron. They’d get on the bus day after day but wouldn’t pay. Eventually, Aaron had had enough and pulled the bus over where a police officer was standing on the corner.
The officer told the boys to pay or get off. They paid. As the officer stepped off, they stayed on.
Not long after the bus pulled away and was out of sight of the patrolman, Aaron was jumped. When he woke up, his face was covered in blood. With teeth missing and both eyes swollen shut, he was fortunate to be alive.
With the help of the police, he identified the assailants and pressed charges. When the day of the sentencing arrived, Aaron showed up and requested to speak. As the boys glared, Aaron began.
What he said shocked the court.
"Your honor, I would like you to total up all the days of punishment against these young men—all the time sentenced against them—and I request that you allow me to go to jail in their place."
The dumbfounded judge responded, “Young man, you're out of order. This sort of thing has never been done before!”
But it had been done, and in a much more dramatic fashion. Aaron explained to the court what Jesus did when he took the sinner’s place—not in a jail cell but on a Roman cross.
This is the facet of scandalous grace Paul describes in Romans 3:20-26 we call justification. The scandal becomes clear when we realize those who receive this grace are ungodly, unrighteous sinners who are altogether undeserving of mercy.
20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in (God’s) sight by observing the (moral) law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. 21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from (obedience to the) law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and 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.
The Law Demands Justice
In this passage, Paul contrasts the demand of God’s law with God’s provision of mercy. Even in human courts, the law requires an offender to serve a fair sentence for their crime. If a judge were to throw out the charges of a convicted murderer, we would charge him with injustice. He’d be branded an unjust judge.
The same is true with God’s law. When a human rejects the decrees of the King, there is a penalty to pay for such wanton disregard for the King’s authority and wisdom. From this perspective, sin is not breaking rules. It’s treason.
What is the just sentence demanded by the law of even human courts for such a crime? Death.
The bad news is every one of us has committed treason against the King and deserves the death penalty before the law of God. The good news is the King himself has served the sentence of death in our place.
This is how, according to verse 26, God is able to “be just and be the one who justifies” at the same time. He is able to show mercy without compromising justice because the cross fulfills justice.
The Cross Fulfills Justice
The key phrase is found in verse 25, where we read, “God presented (Jesus) as a sacrifice of atonement.” The Greek word translated by the NIV as “sacrifice of atonement” is hilastērion, which in some English Bible versions is translated literally as propitiation.
The word propitiation means “to satisfy or absorb justice.” In other words, if the law demands justice, the cross, as a propitiation, fulfills justice.
Like a heavy-duty paper towel soaks up a spill, so the crucifixion of Jesus absorbs all the charges of sin. As the apostle John would state in his epistle, 1 John 1:8-9,
“8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
How much guilt does the blood of Jesus cover? How much does the cross absorb? Not just some or a lot but all.
But it gets even better.
When we receive justifying grace, we are not only forgiven of sin, we are declared righteous in the sight of God. To be justified is to be seen by the Father as morally perfect as Jesus. The Westminster Shorter Catechism says it like this in a question-and-answer format.
The question: What is justification?
The answer: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”
The “act of God’s free grace” is an unalterable, irrevocable decree of the King.
The Great Exchange
In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther called the transaction of justification the great exchange. It is an exchange because Jesus, the sinless, is clothed with the totality of my unrighteousness while I am clothed with his perfect righteousness.
Paul states the exchange in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
The gospel is a stunning rags to riches story. I exchange my rags for royal apparel. For another image, consider trading in a junkyard clunker for a new Range Rover (insert your own dream car here)? Upon first glance, such an exchange seems too good to be true.
Where is the catch?
Repentance and Faith
There is no catch. The exchange takes place when a sinner is given the grace to exercise repentance and faith.
Repentance is moral honesty. It is not a promise to do better but is a confession of my failure before the law, handing all charges over to Jesus, where he is executed for my treason.
Faith is not merely believing in Jesus or even that he rose from the grave. Even Satan believes that. Gospel faith is receiving the gift-righteousness of Christ as my very own and embracing how God the Father views me, not in my flesh but in Christ.
Consequently, to receive justifying grace is to possess a new legal status. So, when your conscience accuses you of failure, when Satan accuses you of sin, or when enemies highlight your flaws, none of these things define you anymore. The righteousness of Jesus covers your soul like Teflon coating on a pan. No charge sticks to you because, on the cross, it all stuck to him.
Surrendering to Jesus’ Complete Sufficiency
Because of this, with confidence in your new status as the beloved of the Father, you can be honest about your failures, flaws, and sins.
But this is harder than it sounds.
Rankin Wilbourne, in his book Union with Christ, speaks to the challenge with wise, gospel encouragement.
”By nature, we resist vulnerability. We hate to see our weaknesses exposed, much less boast in them. Rather, they are more often occasions for us to think, 'I'm unfit to be a Christian if I did that.' But one of the great discoveries of the Christian life is coming to see our failings as occasions to praise Christ for his complete sufficiency.”
Simply put, justifying grace is a call for the sinner to surrender to mercy. The word surrender comes from the French “sur” (over) and “rendre” (give back), implying a giving up and handing over. Isn’t that what justifying grace invites us to do?
To give up trying to justify yourself. To hand over your self-righteous pride. To wave the white flag.
When you finally surrender to the Father’s mercy, kindness, and unrelenting love, you will be able to receive the gift of grace that declares you forgiven and accepted by Father—not by your merits but by the merits of Jesus.