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Justice, Wrath, and Propitiation

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The gospel reveals many aspects of God’s character. It certainly reveals His love, mercy, grace, goodness, and kindness. If we want to know whether the true and living God is a God of love, all we have to do is to look at the cross. Yet the gospel reveals more than God’s love: it also reveals God’s justice (Rom. 1:17).

Many English translators use the word righteousness for the Greek term dikaiosunēs. Unfortunately, the contemporary word righteous, like the word sin, has lost much of its denotation and most of its connotation. The alternative term justice, however, strikes exactly the right note. Even people who claim to reject moral absolutes still retain a sense of justice. If you want to see their sense of justice at work, just step in front of them in the queue at the supermarket. Everybody believes in justice. Everybody wants justice, at least for themselves.

Paul says that the gospel (Rom. 1:16) reveals God’s justice (Rom. 1:17). He then draws a direct line from this revelation of justice to the revelation of God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18). He states that God’s wrath is revealed against all the impiety and injustice of humans who suppress the truth in injustice. In other words, the rejection of God’s standard of justice brings with it a moral opprobrium that demands retribution. As a just judge, God must visit retribution upon all injustice (so Paul says) without exception.

The condition of having committed injustice and consequently of meriting retribution is what Scripture calls guilt. In the Bible, guilt is not a feeling but a condition. Guilt is the moral opprobrium that attaches to injustice and demands retribution. When God visits retribution upon the guilty, He is exhibiting what Scripture calls wrath. In other words, divine wrath is not irritability or peevishness. God is not One to pitch a fit like a petulant teenager. God’s wrath is simply His justice directed against guilt in retribution.

God’s justice is at stake in every sinful deed, as we should recognize intuitively. We despise even human judges who knowingly clear the guilty, but at least when human judges become corrupt we can retain some hope that a final judgment is pending. If, however, the final judge, the judge of all flesh and the moral arbiter of the universe, were to clear the guilty—if He were to leave injustices unavenged—then Justice itself would fail. That would be a condition even worse than hell.

But God does not overlook sin. Instead, He reveals His wrath (His determination to visit retribution) upon all human injustice. He reveals His wrath against the injustices of the pagans (Rom. 1:19-32), the injustices of the seemingly (at least to themselves) moral (Rom. 2:1-16), and the injustices of the religious—even when their religion is of God’s own revelation (Rom. 2:17-3:8).

There is no justice without retribution. Retribution means that God will repay each of us according to our individual deeds (Rom. 2:6). More specifically, retribution means that to those who obey injustice, God will repay wrath, anger, affliction, and distress (Rom. 2:8-9). This is exactly what God owes to all humans, for absolutely all humans are “under sin,” which means that all humans bear guilt and merit retribution (Rom. 3:9). Without exception, no one is just (Rom. 3:10).

The fundamental barrier between God and humans is guilt. No matter how much God might love people (and let us grant that He does), He cannot overlook their guilt. He must visit retribution upon them. He must recompense their injustice with wrath.

This is the point at which the cross really matters. To be sure, the cross is an example. It is a moral influence. It is a paid-up ransom. It is the occasion of Jesus’ victory over principalities and powers. It is an illustration of the gravity with which God views infractions of His moral government. It is all these things, but if it were only these things, it could not save us. None of these effects of the cross manages to address the fundamental problem, and that problem is our guilt. Somehow at Calvary God had to remove our guilt, or we would be forever condemned.

Salvation confronts us with a massive paradox. On the one hand, we all sinned and have fallen short of God’s glorious standard, i.e., His justice (Rom. 3:23). On the other hand, God pronounces at least some sinners to be just (i.e., He justifies them), and He does this completely without cost to them (Rom. 3:24). Does not such a declaration of justice constitute a moral contradiction? Does it not implicate God in the unspeakable injustice of clearing the guilty (Ex. 34:7)?

It would, except for the cross. By His cross-work and through His blood, Jesus presented Himself as a propitiatory sacrifice, i.e., a sacrifice that made satisfaction (Rom. 3:25). What did His death satisfy? The entire context gives the answer to this question. By dying on the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ satisfied justice, which is to say that He satisfied God’s wrath. The only way to satisfy justice is through retribution. Guilt must be visited with anger, wrath, affliction, and distress. This retribution was visited upon Jesus Christ, not because He Himself was in any way displeasing to God, but because we were. Our guilt was charged against Him, and He bore God’s wrath as He occupied our place.

God never overlooks guilt. If He could overlook guilt, He would no longer be God because He would no longer be just. True forgiveness does not merely ignore or wink at transgressions. God can forgive sin because He has actually already judged the guilt of every sin at the cross of Christ. Our guilt has received its just retribution in the person of Christ, who has suffered for us the equivalent penalty of wrath, anger, affliction, and distress. God caused our iniquity to fall upon Him (Isa. 53:6).

That is why it is not wrong for God to say that we are just, provided only that we have trusted in the provision of Jesus and that it has accordingly been applied to us. God can pronounce us just because that is how He now sees us. God can remove (expiate) our sins because justice has been satisfied (propitiated). In the cross, God shows Himself to be both just and the justifier of each one who believes on Jesus (Rom. 3:26).

The glory of the cross is that it gives full play to God’s justice (Rom. 3:26) while also giving full play to His mercy and grace. That means that the gospel is not only a revelation of God’s love, but also a revelation of God’s justice. If we want to see the love of God clearly demonstrated, all we have to do is to look at the cross. But that is not all. If we want to see the wrath of God fully demonstrated, we must also look at the cross. The gospel shines the dazzling light of God’s glory upon both.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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When This Passing World Is Done
Robert Murray McCheyne (1813-1843)

When this passing world is done,
When has sunk yon glaring sun,
When we stand with Christ in glory,
Looking o’er life’s finished story,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know—
Not till then—how much I owe.

When I hear the wicked call,
On the rocks and hills to fall,
When I see them start and shrink
On the fiery deluge brink,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know—
Not till then—how much I owe.

When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own,
When I see Thee as Thou art,
Love Thee with unsinning heart,
Then Lord, shall I fully know—
Not till then—how much I owe.

When the praise of Heav’n I hear,
Loud as thunders to the ear,
Loud as many waters’ noise,
Sweet as harp’s melodious voice,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know—
Not till then—how much I owe.

Even on earth, as through a glass
Darkly, let Thy glory pass,
Make forgiveness feel so sweet,
Make Thy Spirit’s help so meet,
Even on earth, Lord, make me know
Something of how much I owe.

Chosen not for good in me,
Wakened up from wrath to flee,
Hidden in the Savior’s side,
By the Spirit sanctified,
Teach me, Lord, on earth to show,
By my love, how much I owe.

Oft I walk beneath the cloud,
Dark, as midnight’s gloomy shroud;
But, when fear is at the height,
Jesus comes, and all is light;
Blessed Jesus! bid me show
Doubting saints how much I owe.

When in flowery paths I tread,
Oft by sin I’m captive led;
Oft I fall—but still arise—
The Spirit comes—the tempter flies;
Blessed Spirit! bid me show
Weary sinners all I owe.

Oft the nights of sorrow reign—
Weeping, sickness, sighing, pain;
But a night Thine anger burns—
Morning comes and joy returns;
God of comforts! bid me show
To Thy poor, how much I owe.

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

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