Paul has largely completed his exposition of justification by faith, how it is, by the grace of God, that unrighteous men and women are made righteous and declared to be so. But in a way that is altogether typical of Paul, he finds he has still more to say. And we are grateful he thought so, because what follows are some of the most precious and beautiful and powerful words in the Bible.
v.1 Our problem was God’s wrath on account of our sin and guilt, but God having declared us righteous in his sight on account of Christ, wrath has been replaced by peace. It is objective peace in the first place – in Christ we have peace with God – but that is to be worked out in our hearts and lives in subjective peace, a peace we feel and enjoy. If we have peace with God, we should live like it! It is that double reality – the indicative and the subjunctive (we have peace, so we should be at peace) – that accounts for the fact that, as you will see in your footnote, there is a longstanding question as to whether Paul actually wrote “we have peace with God” or “let us have peace with God.” The difference in the spelling of the Greek verb is the difference between the two letters “o” in the Greek alphabet. Spell the verb with one “o” (omicron) and the result is “we have peace”; spell it with the other “o” (omega) and the result is “let us have peace.” Imagine a scribe working at his desk alongside other scribes and the reader at the front of the room reading out the text they are to copy. Did he say έχομεν or did he say έχωμεν? Given what we know about Greek pronunciation in the period the words would have been pronounced almost identically. [Bruce] It would be very easy to confuse the two all the more because each makes good sense. The editors of the Greek text upon which your English Bibles are based chose the indicative form of the verb, we have peace, which is certainly attested in the manuscripts because they thought it made better sense given Paul’s argument. A strong argument for this reading, the reading in your Bible, is verse 10 where Paul states that our reconciliation with God is a fact, not a hope or a goal. Those editors were, however, honest enough to give their choice a [C] rating, meaning they had some real doubt about it. The subjunctive reading – “let us have peace” – actually is much better attested in the manuscripts of the Greek NT. Either way, both statements are true: we have this peace, so let us have it in our daily lives!
v.2 Remember, in 3:23 we read that all men had fallen short of the glory of God; but now we have the promise of basking in that glory forever!
v.5 The statement that God had poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit is important in this immediate context. But it also anticipates Paul’s fuller account of this reality in chapter 8.
v.6 I’m not exactly sure all that Paul meant when he said that Christ died for us at just the right time. He certainly means that our Savior died at the time of our greatest need, when nothing else but his death could save us. [Bruce] But he may also mean that he died at just the right time in the history of God’s working with mankind. When the time had come as he puts it in Galatians 4. Why then? Why the first century? Why in the time of the Roman empire? Why not a thousand years before or a thousand years later? God knows; and it was at just the right time.
v.11 Reconciliation, with justification and redemption, is another important theological term in Paul’s expositions of the way of salvation. It is here used in place of or as a substitute for justification used in vv. 1 and 9. Justification language is legal; it conjures up the image of a defendant before a judge. Reconciliation language is more personal and relational. It has to do not with acquittal in court, but with the overcoming of hostility between two alienated persons. The point of this entire paragraph, as we will see, is that both justification and reconciliation result from Christ’s sacrifice. This reconciliation language by the way is another uniqueness of Biblical revelation. It does not appear in the language of other religions because in them God is not conceived in terms that make such a way of speaking appropriate. Muslims do not imagine that they could ever become God’s friends. It seem disrespectful to them to even consider the thought. But in the Christian gospel we who were God’s enemies become, through faith in Christ, his friends. As with justification, Paul uses reconciliation both for what Christ did for us at the cross and for what happens between us and God when we believe in Jesus. [2 Cor. 5:19-20]
In this remarkable paragraph Paul enlarges our understanding of the gospel he has so far described as a matter of sinners being acquitted or put righteous before God. And in doing so he says at least three remarkable things; he makes three extraordinary assertions. And we need all three of these assertions to understand and appreciate the glory of what Paul has already described in chapters 3 and 4 as the justification of sinners before God.
- In the first place Paul says that the work of Christ on the cross transcends time in its accomplishment and result.
Now, we have other statements of this fact in the Bible. Paul has already in effect said in 3:25 that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross was the ground or basis for the forgiveness of sins in the ages before. Abraham’s forgiveness and David’s, in other words, were based on the same atonement that our forgiveness is based on. We read not long ago in Revelation 13:8 – at least in a very likely translation of that text – that Christ was the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world. That too is way of saying that given the foreknowledge of God and the certainty of the accomplishment of his will in his Son, God could apply the righteousness of Christ, the results of his sacrificial death, to anyone, no matter when he or she lived.
Well, we have that same point made in a different way here in these verses. In verse 6 Paul writes as if we were all in the world when Christ laid down his life for us. “…when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” And, then again in v. 8: “While we were sinners, Christ died for us.” Well, of course we weren’t sinners in the first third of the first century. We weren’t anything. We would not exist for nearly another 2000 years. Yet Paul says, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Time is immaterial to Christ’s accomplishment on the cross. It is as if we were all there: Abraham, David, the Lord’s contemporaries, Paul’s contemporaries, and every Christian who has lived in the world or ever shall since those days. There, outside Jerusalem, that spring morning and afternoon, that was where and when we were justified, that was where and when we were reconciled to God. We were, as Paul puts it in v. 9, “justified by his blood.” That is where we where justified, and that is when we were justified. He is not denying what he has said about faith and about how we are justified by faith. Of course not. But he is putting our faith in its rightful place, as something secondary. It is not our justification; it is not our peace with God; it is only the way that peace and justification that already exist because of Christ’s accomplishment come into our hands. Our justification was accomplished when Jesus died on the cross.
And the tremendous implication of this way of speaking about the cross as transcending time is the emphasis that Paul puts on the certainty of its accomplishment. Paul sees together Christ’s death and our justification and reconciliation. They are, he says, the same thing. So much are they so, he can speak as if that reconciliation took place on the cross itself, in the very death of the Lord Jesus when we would not exist for another 2,000 years. That is the implication of his words in vv. 6 and 8, but Paul says it straight out in v.10. We were reconciled to God not when we became God’s friends but when we were still his enemies! The tense of the verb emphasizes that our reconciliation was an accomplished fact. Our reconciliation was accomplished once for all when Jesus died. If to be effective, to be complete, to accomplish the intended result something else was required – such as our faith – Paul could not have written what he has written here. The same point is made when Paul says in v.11 that “we receive” this reconciliation. It is made over to us. It is something that already exists, prior to our receiving it! You can describe your salvation and describe it accurately and you can describe it completely without ever once mentioning anything that has happened in your own life history!
In other words, in Paul’s orientation here our believing in Christ recedes into the background and his death as our salvation comes to the fore. We find the same orientation and the same emphasis on God’s act and God’s initiative in v. 5 where we read that God has poured his love into our hearts. What happens in us is the result of what God did for us by the Lord Jesus. The love already existed. It sent Jesus to the cross on our behalf, but there had to be a heart before the love could be poured into the heart and so in our case there had to be a 2,000 year wait. But it was still the same love that was poured into our hearts. To say that God’s love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us is to say that what happens in us, the change that takes place in us, our becoming believers in Jesus, that all of that was God’s doing. Why do we love God? It is because the Holy Spirit was sent to pour God’s love into our hearts.
Now spin out for yourselves the mighty implications of this truth: that our salvation was accomplished and was made certain on the cross: that we who are Christians were reconciled to Christ at that time, at that place, in that death long ago. It is a doctrine taught in many places in the Bible and in many ways. Think of such biblical statements as these: Christ saved his people from their sins; by his stripes we are healed. He saved us; he healed us while he was in the world. There are scores of statements like these. All of this means, it inevitably means, that the faith with which I come to Christ and receive the forgiveness of my sins and a right standing with God and are reconciled to him is the result of Christ’s atonement. It means I trust Jesus not in order that his death might be effective for me, I trust in Jesus because his death was effective for me; because he has secured my salvation. Faith is only the instrument by which God-Father, Son and Holy Spirit puts his salvation in my hands and heart.
We all struggle with our sins. It is our common plight as Christians. We know we ought to live better than we do, we ought to serve the Lord more faithfully, love him more consistently, and obey him more eagerly. The struggle with our sins is, as it has always been for Christians, the great source of grief and confusion in a Christian life. We stumble in many ways. But Paul is here as much as saying that every sin you commit, morning, noon, and night, every moral failure, every commission and every omission, every sin whether or thought or word or deed, is at the very moment it is committed a forgiven sin, a sin that is under the blood of Christ, a sin that has already been paid for and replaced by Christ’s righteousness. You Christians cannot commit an unforgiven sin! You cannot possibly sin yourself out of the circle of God’s grace because Christ’s righteous has already covered your sins. It did more than 2,000 years ago when you were nothing more than an idea in the plan of God. Astonishing! You cannot commit an unforgiven sin. A dangerous idea, to be sure, and Paul will have something to say about that; but what he will not say is that there is anything faulty in this reasoning. “There is,” he will later say, “no condemnation to the person who is in Christ Jesus.” The deed is done, the blood is shed, and all the rest is simply working out in an individual’s own life history the result of what Jesus has done for him. God must wait until we are in the world before his love can be poured out into his heart. We must exist as persons before the reconciliation that Christ achieved between God and us can be made a reality in our own experience. But all of this must and will occur because of what the Lord did on the cross. The Lord did not shed his blood potentially; he shed it actually for his people and for their sins. The timing is not the issue. The timing of our lives and our sins is not the issue. What occurs in our lives is the not the real cause of anything. The work of the Son of God on the cross is what tells the tale. That is where we were reconciled to God and it matters not that we were not even to exist for another 2000 years! You couldn’t change your destiny if you wanted to – but, of course you don’t want to because the love of God has been poured into your hearts!
- In the second place, Paul says that the cross achieves a deeply personal and happy communion with God.
There is nothing like this so far in Paul’s argument. The exposition of justification by faith in chapters 3 and 4 left us acquitted before a righteous judge. But there is nothing in law that suggests that the accused and the judge will become friends after the case is concluded.
I have been caught in the maw of the American judicial system just once in my life. As the Stated Clerk I was the representative of the Presbytery when it was sued and had to defend itself in court. On only one occasion in the nearly three years in which that case was in play did I ever even see a judge. There were three of them on a panel hearing a part of the lower court’s judgment that the plaintiff was appealing. I never met any of them; never spoke to them; can’t remember what they looked like. Most of what the judges did who heard Presbytery’s case was done out of our sight altogether. It was even done out of the lawyers’ sight altogether. I have a warm feeling toward them because they ruled in Presbytery’s favor, but I have no relationship with any of them. Never did except in a strictly legal sense.
Perhaps the sinner’s justification is like that. He hears his acquittal pronounced. He hears the judge pronounce him righteous and then goes on his way. But no, says Paul. It isn’t like that at all. Whereas between a human judge and a person who appears before him there may be no really personal meeting at all, no personal hostility if the person is found guilty, no new friendship if the person is acquitted, between God and the sinner it is not so. God’s justification of sinners involves a real commitment to the sinner personally. God the Father doesn’t justify us; he doesn’t confer the status of righteousness before the bar, without at the same time giving himself to us in friendship, peace, and love.
Consider carefully what Paul says: we rejoice in God and the hope of seeing his glory; God’s love is poured into our hearts; we are made friends with him; and we will continue to receive benefits from that friendship, what Paul calls being saved through his life. God and Christ are not by any means done with us when the Lord was taken from the cross and then rose from the dead to accomplish our justification. We get to know the living God and we get to rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We get to be his friends. Thomas Goodwin, the great Puritan theologian, put it this way:
“Christ died to make his enemies his friends even though he could have created new ones cheaper.” [Cited in Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 208]
Now stop and think about that. God has made you his friend. You have a friend and not just any friend. The Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, the one who does what pleases him in heaven and earth, the one whose arm no one can shorten, he is your friend. He has seen fit to pour his love into your hearts. Do you realize what this means? Well, here is one thing: You are utterly safe and secure. At any point in your life, no matter what is happening to you at that time, all is ultimately well. If God is for you, who can be against you? Your salvation and your inheritance in the world to come are guaranteed beyond any possibility of forfeiture.
Here is the great London preacher Charles Spurgeon.
“We are often told that we limit the atonement of Christ [his death on the cross] because we say that Christ has not made a satisfaction for all men, or all men would be saved. Now, our reply to this is, that, on the other hand, our opponents limit it; we do not. The Arminians say, Christ died for all men. Ask them what they mean by it. Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of all men? They say, “No, certainly not.” We ask them the next question – Did Christ die so as to secure the salvation of any man in particular? They answer, “No. Christ has died that any man may be saved if… — and then follow certain conditions of salvation. Now who is it that limits the death of Christ? Why, you. You say that Christ did not die so as infallibly to secure the salvation of anybody. We beg your pardon, when you say we limit Christ’s death; we say, “No, my dear sir, it is you that do it.” We say Christ so died that he infallibly secured the salvation of a multitude that no man can number, who through Christ’s death not only may be saved, but are saved, must be saved and cannot by any possibility run the hazard of being anything but saved. You are welcome to your atonement; you may keep it. We will never renounce ours for the sake of it.”
Is he not right? Could we come to any other conclusion Paul having said that by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross we were justified and reconciled to God. Of one thing you can be absolutely sure, the God that sent his Son to that death for you and your salvation will not be a fair-weather friend! He is your friend at all times and in every way. That is why Paul can say that we rejoice in our sufferings. God doesn’t allow anything in our lives that is not for our good because he is our friend and we have been reconciled to him. And it is not just security. Friendship is something that wonderfully enriches our lives. You know that it does. Every human being knows that it does. We love having friends and spending time with our friends. I found this out as a parent. My children all loved their friends and loved being with their friends. They even loved being with their friends more than they loved with their parents which I couldn’t understand at all! Friendship wonderfully enriches every human life. And Christ and God the Father have made themselves our friends.
And underlining these two emphases comes another.
- In the third place, the cross was motivated by and is the supreme demonstration of God’s love for us.
Nothing in Paul’s argument has yet been said about God’s motive in justifying sinners. We have learned how he puts sinners right before him but we have not learned why. And the question is pressing because the requirements of our justification were so terribly severe and onerous. Satisfying his justice on our behalf – turning away his righteous anger on account of our sins – was accomplished only at unspeakable cost to himself. The Father had to be willing to send his beloved son to humiliation and the cruelest imaginable suffering and death; the Son had to be willing to subject himself to this terrible necessity. And they were. Why? Paul tells us that God did this and Christ suffered so because they loved us. Something very personal, very mysterious and very deep lies beneath the great sacrifice offered in our place and on our behalf. And that great motivation, that divine love, continues to shine through in all that God does for our salvation. Long after Christ went to the cross for love’s sake, God poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us. The love that saw the great deed done is the love that he makes known to us by the Holy Spirit. He wants us to live in that love. He wants it to be a power in our hearts. He wants it to overcome our trials and our sufferings. His way with his friends is to show and then to prove his love for them again and again and again.
I know that many of you have experienced the power of love in your own hearts and lives; I mean a love that is pure and entirely beautiful. I’m not talking about simple desire, but true love; love that longs for the happiness and the blessing of another. Some of you young people have felt this to some degree, but you have more of it to look forward to. We know how important love is and how we crave it and long for it. But to feel your heart going out to another in deathless love, that is the summit of human conviction and feeling. Everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, knows that it is. And many of you, I know, have felt that and had such love in your hearts and have it now. I suppose many of us would gratefully say that we have such love for our wives or our husbands.
But I know that there is no question that many of us have such love for our children. I have had a few occasions in my life as a father to say to one of my children that I love him or her so much that if it were possible for my death to guarantee their holiness and eternal happiness – no matter that I am still a deeply selfish person and no doubt in some respects would prove still a coward in the face of death – I say, no matter my selfishness and my cowardice, if it were possible, if the Lord were to strike a bargain with me that if I were willing to give up my life for the sake of the holiness and eternal happiness of my children, why, I would give up my life in a heartbeat. It would be an absolutely uncomplicated and simple decision for me to make. And I know that many of you would say exactly the same thing. You know very well the power of love. You would readily give up your life for some others.
But the love we are talking about, the love Paul is talking about here, is not merely the best, the purest, the deepest, the most powerful human love – beautiful beyond words as such love is – but is a love that transcends our best love by so many orders of magnitude that we cannot take it in.
This love of God is a love so great that it was willing to bear not simply the death that comes to all men anyway but unimaginable suffering. And it was love not for those already bound to us by the ties of family and affection, but for enemies, rebels, ungrateful and unappreciative creatures who cared nothing for the sacrifice when it was made and who would, as God well knew, care far too little for it even when they knew what God had done for them in Christ. Love that is fixed on utterly unworthy objects and must bear on their behalf indescribable and immeasurable pain; you and I must confess we know nothing ourselves of such love. It is far above and far beyond us. But that is the love that was pitched on us; the love that reached down to us; the love that stooped so low to rescue us and make us God’s friends. Why would he want us for friends? But he does and he made us his friends, or Christ did on the cross.
All of this, Paul says, must be understood if we are not only to understand what it means to be justified by faith, but to appreciate it and live in the freedom and peace of it. We must know of how the cross upon which our justification is based transcends time and, therefore, how absolute and unqualified and certain was our Savior’s accomplishment on our behalf. We must know how our justification is also our reconciliation with God and brings us into friendship with him. And we must know that all of this comes from deep within the heart of God and is the supreme demonstration of the purity and power and magnificence of his love, a love we hardly begin to understand.
Our justification as we learned it in chapters 3 and 4 was already wonderfully good news. To know this about it makes good news seem an altogether weak description of what we have heard!