All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 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— 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.
Late in the winter of 1992, Jeffrey Dahmer was found guilty of murdering 15 men and boys and was sentenced to 957 years in prison. The shocking nature of his crimes made Dahmer one of the most infamous serial killers of all time. It isn't appropriate to go into detail here, but it is sufficient to say that his crimes were unspeakably gruesome. As Dahmer served his time at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin, his father sent him Christian materials. In 1994 Jeffrey Dahmer accepted Christ as his personal Savior. He was baptized and met weekly with Reverend Roy Ratcliff until he was murdered by a fellow inmate later in that year.*
If a judge had chosen to proclaim Dahmer innocent because he had repented of his crimes, we would consider it a grave injustice. Yet, the Bible teaches that this is what God has done not only for Jeffrey but also for us. If he was sincere in his faith (and we have no reason to believe he wasn't), then God declared him innocent of sin and he was saved. But this creates a tension. If it would be unjust for a judge to do this, and God does it, then is God just?
The surprising answer is yes, because in Christ God does not merely forgive sin willy nilly. Paul tells us that in Christ God provides mankind with a "sacrifice of atonement." This word in the original Greek, which can also be translated ‘propitiation,’ means an offering meant to appease the anger of God. But that sounds way more like Greek mythology than it does the God of the New Testament. Is Paul really saying that God was angry and required some sort of human sacrifice to satisfy His anger?
As odd as it sounds, again the answer is yes. Now before you start throwing stones at me, check it out. God is angry. In Romans 1:18-2:11 Paul lays out a thorough explanation of God’s wrath against mankind. He tells us that although God has made His existence and His glory plain to us, we have refused to give Him glory or thanks. God created us to worship Him and to reflect His glory but instead we have exchanged Him for earthly things. We worship the created order rather than the Creator! Even today, we choose to place our own interest above His. The indictment is clear. God is angry because of man’s sinfulness.
So, God is angry, but not like the gods of mythology. Our God has a holy and a righteous anger. It is just for God to be angry at mankind. Our sin has corrupted the whole of His creation and is an affront to His glory and to His name. The penalty for sin is laid out clearly in the Bible: “for in the day that you eat from [the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Yet, this penalty for sin was not fully carried out. Adam and Eve didn't die immediately. You and I have sinned and yet we still live. So, the penalty for sin has not been fully enforced. This is what Paul means when he says, “He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Romans 3:25, above).
So, God left these sins unpunished, or at least not punished fully. Herein lies the dilemma. God cannot both allow these sins to go unpunished and be a just God. In the same way that a judge could not ignore Jeffrey Dahmer's sin, so God cannot ignore the sin of all mankind and still be just. But God hasn't ignored our sin. He sent Christ to pay the debt of our sin for us. That is what it means that “God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation.” The penalty for our sin had to be measured out. Someone had to drink the cup of God’s wrath. Someone had to be punished. In His infinite mercy God chose to take that wrath and punishment upon Himself. Christ's righteousness (or innocence) was credited to us and our sinfulness (or guilt) was credited to Him when He took the punishment for our sin upon Himself. That is why we can be forgiven, and that is why we praise God without ceasing!
For further reading this week…
*See Wikipedia's entry on Jeffrey Dahmer and http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2006/11/Saving-Jeffrey-Dahmer.aspx.