If the accused man is clearly guilty of a crime and the judge fails to convict and sentence him, there will be uproar, and rightly so. For the judge to free a guilty man would be a manifest injustice. There would be appeals and the competence of the judge would be questioned. A fundamental principle for judges is that the verdict must be according to the evidence. This is a sound biblical principle (Proverbs 17:15).
The gospel message, however, seems to contradict that principle and tell us that God does what is unjust. Consider these two things:
The Bible frequently tells us that God is just/righteous. Abraham asks, ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:25). When the Lord shows his glory to Moses, one of his perfections is ‘he does not leave the guilty unpunished’ (Exodus 34:7).
At the same time the Bible says in Romans 8:1 ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. Jesus was able to say to a paralysed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’ (Mark 2:5) and to the terrorist on the cross beside him, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43). God is a God who forgives guilty sinners.
The two sides of the problem are brought together in one verse – Romans 3:26, which tells us that God is ‘just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus’. God is a perfectly just Judge and one who declares guilty sinners to be not guilty. Surely this compromises his justice? How can he let those who deserve punishment go free?
The solution centres on the person and work of Christ. The only sinners whom God justifies are ‘those who have faith in Jesus’. It is what Jesus has done that allows God to forgive sins whilst still being a just Judge. Note v24 ‘justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus’. As v25 puts it, he is a ‘sacrifice of atonement (or ‘propitiation’)’. If God ignored our sin, he would be an unjust Judge. We deserve his wrath because we have broken his holy law (v23). The demands of that law must be met if we are to be saved. If we do not do it, someone must do it in our place.
Central to our understanding of the work of Christ is the idea of substitution. The gospel message is that Christ has taken the place of all those who will ever put their trust in him. At the cross he has taken the punishment that their sins deserve – ‘God made him who had no sin to be sine for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). The whole burden of sin and guilt has been taken by the Son of God. So great is God’s love for sinners that he has provided the means of satisfying his own justice. So great is Christ’s love for us that he has done all that is needed for our salvation (Ephesians 1:7).
God is a just Judge – the demands of his broken law are met by the Son as our Substitute, who lived a sinless life and in death took his people’s punishment.
God is also a Saviour – because of what Christ has done, he forgives our sin and counts Christ’s righteousness as ours (Romans 3:22). We receive the gift of Christ’s righteousness.