I woke up dreaming about this, so I’m going to write it up.
For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. Romans 3:22-25 ESV
In the arc of the argument Paul sets forth in Romans 1-8, which is the cornerstone of the entire Christian faith, this little passage is the center. If you delve deep enough to get it, if the Holy Spirit is able to cause you to understand this, if the light bulb comes on for you, the rest of Romans will make tremendous sense. If you gloss over this and pretend to understand it when you don’t, then you are consigned to a damaging and flawed interpretation of the rest of the New Testament. Martin Luther’s distinction was that he hammered and hammered on his understanding of Paul’s message in Romans. The fact that he acknowledged that he didn’t get it was the beginning of an earth-shaking movement of God that still reverberates today. Either the way you understand “the Gospel” and Christianity in general harmonizes with and reinforces this passage, or it does not. The second half of Romans 3 is not to be trifled with. As the writer of Hebrews says:
1 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. Hebrews 2:1-4 ESV
So I am going to echo his thoughts to you: stop making light of justification. Stop thinking that the main problem lies beyond justification, that the real question is sanctification. Stop pretending that your fear and preoccupation with ‘sanctification’ isn’t just more works based justification. Stop saying that justification is simple. Stop assuming you get it. According to the scripture, we should pay much closer attention to it, we ought not to neglect so great a salvation. Examine it over and over and over. Go back to the propitiation He accomplished for you through His blood. It is a game changer. It is amazing. It is our ONE THING.
Perhaps you find it puzzling that Paul was determined among the Corinthians to KNOW NOTHING except Christ and Him crucified (1Cor 2:2). We’re not just talking about SAYING nothing, we’re talking about KNOWING nothing! What about the “Christian life.” What about “discipleship”? Don’t we need to “know” those things too? Perhaps, but not divorced from Christ and Him crucified. Christ crucified is not just the foundation, it is the warp and woof of all things Christian. It is the blood that brings nourishment and takes away waste for every individual cell in our body as long as we live. The question is, why is this such a game changer? What’s all the fuss? I just want to get on with the good stuff.
Well, here is the good stuff. What if Romans 3:23-25 were actually true? What if we are really justified completely, once and for all, through a singular and simple faith in the gift of grace? What if the operative idea becomes, not that I prove by my behaviors that I am just, but that it is declared authoritatively by God that I am just, as a gift? What if I am simply handed my declaration of righteousness on a silver platter as simply as gratefully receiving a present? What if it is completely true that I am forgiven all things forever? What if the propitiation in His blood is really sufficient for the rest of my life on to eternity? What if all of this is really true?
If this is really true, then every accusation against us falls flat. If this is true, then we have to rethink why we do everything! It’s kind of like winning the lottery – when you don’t have to work any more, what do you do with yourself? In Christ, if we are relieved of every obligation, what do we do now? What motivation is there to live and act? (Romans 6)
This is the intended question. If you are not asking it you do not get the power of Christ’s propitiation. But the point isn’t to ask this question. The point is to really actually believe that Christ’s death absolves you of all guilt forever. Just as one little taste of forbidden fruit consigned us to the universe of judgement, of knowing everything in terms of good and evil, so one little taste of faith in Christ gains us entrance once and for all to eternal life. In so doing, you die to the law, to sin. You are no longer judged that way, because you are no longer under the law. All of your sin has been punished and declared horrible in a far more definitive way than any penitence you could muster. Your sins are not just “forgiven”, they are judged, and vengeance has been visited on them. God has shown wrath from heaven against them in Christ’s death. If you try to sneak new obligations in the back door, you are saying that His suffering wasn’t enough.
29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? Hebrews 10:29 ESV
This is exactly what the first 10 chapters of Hebrews is all about! Stop worrying with and going back to your works and your deeds, and give extreme attention to His blood and His work. It makes no difference if you plaster all this with theological jargon or by saying it is sanctification and you’re not talking about legalism. When you go back to motivating people by guilt and judging them by the quality or quantity of their deeds, you are sneaking in works to your idea of justification. We must give greater attention to so great a salvation. I am completely sick of people trying to water this down or explain it away. STOP DOING THAT. There is so much banter about justification vs. sanctification, for example here. Your worry over your “sanctification”, however it might seem to be progressing, is a pile of steaming poo. Your worry with the sanctification of others is even worse than that. Let me help you: your sanctification is entirely inadequate and incomplete, and your focus on it proves you don’t get any of this. Let me help you further: everyone else’s sanctification is going much worse than they are letting on. Do you really think it will help those less sanctified if you withhold love from them? Do you think God loves them less than you do? Do you really think you can carry on with the Christian life without a passion or central focus on Christ and Him crucified? Do you really believe that you are living so clean that this isn’t a necessary focus for you? Do you really think you can have meaningful relationships with others without grace?
The true good news is that Christ has died for your sins. In believing that, you have entered a universe where the old rules of being blessed because you obey, or because you earn it, or because you deserve something, no longer apply. You can release God to bless you simply because He loves you, and His hatred of your sins is more than adequately displayed. Your virtue is one of these blessings. Virtue isn’t an obligation, it is a gift. God in grace isn’t trying to appeal to your guilt, He is appealing to your love. Guilt is out of the picture. Stop trying to put it back. Start making a very very big deal of your justification through His blood. It is a big deal. As He said, it is finished. It is time that we stopped covering this up and acting like we were ashamed of it. It is time to start living like His blood shed is enough to save us, like His grace really is sufficient. It is time to start living like children of the King of the Universe, like the beloved bride of Christ, esteemed and desired and exalted. Because that is the real truth.