Martin Luther had a problem. Listen to his words:
I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in my way but that one expression, ‘the justice (righteousness) of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Martin Luther was not the first one to wrestle with God’s justice. In the oldest book of the Bible, Job, the author struggles to understand God’s righteousness: “In truth I know that this is so, But how can a man be in the right before God?” (9:2). And “How then can a man be just with God? Or how can he be clean who is born of woman?” (25:4). Even Solomon recognizes the “problem” God has in accepting the unrighteous: “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the righteous, Both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord” (Prov. 17:15).
For most of us, “justice” sounds ominous. We think of God’s wrath and judgment. Truth be told, we’d rather have “grace” and rather have God be a little forgetful about sin. Yet “the righteousness of God” is still one of the most precious phrases of our faith.
Why is “justice” a precious word and why is God’s righteousness a gracious truth?
Because the tension between God’s requirement for righteousness and our inability to be righteous is solved in the cross and the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Nowhere is it said more clearly than in Romans 3:25-26 where Paul speaks of Christ’s work —
whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
On the cross, God demonstrated the vastness (infiniteness!) of His wrath. He was unwilling to leave sin uncondemned. Yet, Jesus Christ — the perfectly sinless God-Man — could satisfy (propitiate) God and His wrath. For millennia, God (through the OT sacrifices) kept passing over sin in anticipation of the perfect sacrifice. And when Christ, the perfect sacrifice, came, God put Him on display. Christ demonstrated on the cross that God was just — that God would condemn sin. But Christ also demonstrated that God was the justifier, that God would declare righteous those who were not just, when they trust in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21).
At the cross, God is fully just, and yet He is also the gracious justifier of those who do not deserve His righteousness.
Yes, Martin Luther had a problem (and so do we). But God had a solution. Listen to what Luther wrote when he understood the gracious provision of Romans 3:
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before ‘the justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven.
God’s justice is not something to be feared, but for the believer, it is to be relished. God’s justice, executed at the cross, is the very thing which allows Him the right to stamp across our lives the word “APPROVED!” That’s God. That’s Christ. That’s the cross. That’s the blood of Christ. That’s justification.