Romans 3:25–26, “25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Though Scripture is our only infallible authority, we can learn much about what the Bible teaches by considering the issues that have occupied the theologians of ages past. Considering today’s passage, few theologians are more helpful than Anselm of Canterbury, the medieval archbishop whose work Cur Deus Homo is among the most significant treatises on the atonement. Anselm wrestled with the key question that underlies Romans 3:25–26: how can our righteous Creator forgive sin and remain true to His character?
To those who think that being sorry for the evil we have done is the only thing God requires to forgive sin, Anselm says, “You have not as yet estimated the great burden of sin.” Anselm understood that the Lord could not vindicate His own character if He did not require payment for transgression. God is so honorable and our sin is so dreadful that a payment must be made if He is to pardon us without sacrificing this honor.
Speaking of sin and atonement in terms of honor does not do full justice to the biblical witness. Yet Anselm was correct that while God is not obligated to pardon us, He cannot violate His character if He does choose to forgive us. This is what the Apostle Paul teaches. Having established that the basis or grounding of our right status before our Creator is “the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” Paul describes this redemption as the propitiation— the satisfaction of divine justice—that shows God’s righteousness (v. 25). Scripture tells us repeatedly that our just God will not clear the guilty; He will not let sinners get off scot-free (Num. 14:18; Nah. 1:3). Just as a human judge is unjust if he does not punish convicted criminals with a just sentence, the Lord would be unjust merely to pass over sin. Before Jesus, God passed over sins, even the sins of the old covenant saints who offered sacrifices according to the law of Moses to atone for evil (Rom. 3:25). Justice was not done when people sacrificed bulls and goats; God accepted these offerings in His great forbearance because He knew His Son would offer the necessary atonement at just the right time.
In putting forth Jesus as our propitiation, the Lord vindicated His righteousness, ensuring that He remains just even as He becomes the Justifier of those who believe in Christ Jesus (v. 26). God provides what sinners need to be righteous in His sight without compromising His justice. When we are accounted righteous in Christ, justice is still done, but we do not feel the punishment our sin deserves. Instead, Jesus suffered it in our place.
Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary on Romans: “In the drama of justification, God remains just. He does not set aside His justice; He does not waive his righteousness; he insists upon it… . If all he did was maintain his righteousness without extending the imputation of that righteousness to us, he would not be the justifier. He is both just and justifier, which is the marvel of the gospel.” Only in biblical religion does God remain just when He forgives people.