The Atonement: Getting a Grip on the Gospel of Grace – Part I

In the opening chapters of the book of Romans, the apostle Paul shows the barrenness of paganism and idolatry and the deficiency of morality and religion. His conclusion is a devastating indictment:

There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks after God . . . there is none who does good, there is not even one (Romans 3:10-12).

This would leave the reader of the book of Romans with this question: How can a person stand before God and claim to be righteous?

Beginning in verse 21 of Romans 3, Paul uses the words “But now”—a great contrast, a startling revelation. Only the intervention of God in grace can answer this question. That answer will be the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. In order to make sure you do not miss the point, Paul presents this truth in three different ways, three views—the view from the courtroom, the view from the marketplace and the view from the temple. In this post we will deal with the first view. The next post will deal with the other two views.

The View from the Courtroom (vs. 21-22; 25b-26)

The issue here is justice–how can God provide righteousness to sinful people and still remain just? Paul has already stated that you can’t be saved from the law and its judgment and you can’t be saved by the law and its commands.

The law is like a thermometer—it shows you that you are sick but it does not heal you and if you try to take what is inside it will kill you.

That’s why verse 21 is such good news, a gospel, it is righteousness apart from the law; a God-sent, God-given righteousness grounded in grace and centered on the person of Jesus Christ, and that justification is received by faith.

Justification is a legal declaration—God declares you “not guilty.” How can he do that and remain just?

He does it by substitution.

Sin is a crime against God. It is always a diminishing of God’s glory in the eye of the sinner so that glory is treated as worthless. Substitution allows the penalty against God and his glory to be paid and the guilt to be removed. Jesus Christ is that substitute.

The sins of all those who would believe in Jesus were imputed, or credited, to him and Jesus paid the penalty for sin that you and I deserved when he died on the cross. If you want to know how God sees you apart from Christ, look at the cross. Christ was not cursed as Christ, he was cursed because he became like you.

By this substitution, the justice of God was vindicated. However, not only were your sins imputed to Jesus, but his perfect righteousness was imputed, or credited, to you. This is what the Reformers called “the wonderful exchange.”

So not only are you made innocent by the death of Christ, but you are made righteous by his life. On the basis of the substitutionary work of Christ, you have been declared “not guilty” by God. God made the judgment, declared the sentence of “guilty,” then paid that sentence himself in the person of Christ.

The only thing you contribute to your justification is the sin which needs to be overcome.

The view from the courtroom shows that through the substitutionary work of Christ, the atonement, the just condemnation of the righteous God against you has become the gracious action of a loving Father for you.

How astounding and amazing is the grace of God in Christ for you! Have you thanked him recently for the grace of the gospel?


About Dr. John H. Harbison

Son of God, Husband, Father, Author of "Keeping Christ in Ministry,"Vice-President for Academic Affairs, College Pastor, Runner, Writer
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4 Responses to The Atonement: Getting a Grip on the Gospel of Grace – Part I

  1. Reblogged this on Christian Theology and commented:
    A new Christian Theology Blogger: Dr. John H. Harbison

  2. What do you mean when you say “The only thing you contribute to your justification is the sin which needs to be overcome.”? The way I understand it is that you can’t contribute Anything at all to your justification you can only look to Jesus. Would appreciate if u could clarify, this is something I often get confused about.

    • Dr. John H. Harbison says:

      Hi Janice,

      Thanks for visiting my blog.

      You are correct that you cannot contribute anything to your justification. Justification is an act of God’s free grace by which he declares sinners righteous in Christ. But it does take place in the lives of sinners. So saying that the only thing I contribute is my sin is a way of saying that I am the one in need of justification that only God can give. I do not contribute to my justification but come only in my sin for which I need the free-grace justification that God gives.

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