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, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
(Romans 3:21-26 ESV)
I can’t think of any statement I ever heard that did more to form my theology than this one from Ray Steadman (1917-1992). He said, “All good theology begins with God.” If you will use that statement as your beginning point in interpreting the Word, you’ll be on safe ground every time. Let’s apply this idea to Romans 3:21-26.
The gospel is about God’s righteousness, not about man’s sin. If we start with our telescope set on the phrase, “All have sinned and fall short,” we have begun our theological journey by saying, “Man has a problem, and it is up to God to fix it.” But if we start at the other end, as we saw yesterday, and say, “God is utterly and completely righteous in all his being and all his deeds,” Man’s sin is seen to be what it is, an utterly selfish separation from the very root of our being that came about because in our hearts we want God to serve us, not the other way round.
God is so completely righteous that he “hems me in behind and before” (Psalm 139:5); he pursues me like Thompson’s Hound of Heaven, not in order to demonstrate to me how great a sinner I am. I already know that. His purpose is to demonstrate to me how great and faithful a lover HE is.
But there’s that pesky word “propitiation,” the dictionary definition of which is, “relating to an appeasing or expiating, having placating or expiating force, expiatory; a means of appeasing or expiating.” That gives us the very aboriginal idea of sacrificing virgins to keep the gods happy. It gives us very much the picture that we are “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” to utilize Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon title.
The word “propitiation” is troubling until you do a little research and discover that the only other time it is used in the New Testament is in Hebrews 9:5 where it is translated as “mercy seat,” referring to the covering of the Ark of the Covenant, the place from which God would execute judgment, yes! But it is called the Mercy Seat because his abiding and overriding desire is always to offer mercy. As James 2:13 says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
God had no problem he was compelled to solve on behalf of Man. Popular culture understands this better than the church. In the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz, this is portrayed as the realization that “home” is always better:
Glinda: You don't need to be helped any longer. You've always had the power to go back to Kansas.
Dorothy: I have?
Scarecrow: Then why didn't you tell her before?
Glinda: Because she wouldn't have believed me. She had to learn it for herself.
Tin Man: What have you learned, Dorothy?
Dorothy: Well, I - I think that it - that it wasn't enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. And that it's that - if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with. Is that right?
Glinda: That's all it is!
Glinda was never nervous about whether Dorothy would figure it out and doesn’t step in until her presence is requested. I don’t mean to say that sin and redemption are as easy as all that. Without the specific intervention of the Holy Spirit, none of us would ever want to go home to be with God. We would never ask for his help. We would all forever be vagabonds out alone on the road of our own desire. And isn’t that where Hell begins?
But God did not put Jesus forward to appease the just demand of an Angry God. God put Jesus forward as a propitiation, as a mercy seat for a world full of wayward Dorothys. If you’ve been hanging back from giving your life to Christ because you’ve always thought of God as a judge, remember that God is not a human judge and does not judge for the purpose of punishment. God’s purpose in judgment is mercy and love and grace. If you hear his voice today, don’t just click your heals together three times. Run to the mercy seat and discover the God who is there.