Romans 8:3-4, “3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
Divine forgiveness is truly marvelous, and we magnify the excellencies of God’s mercies when we think on our sin and what we deserve as fallen creatures in Adam. Yet if we are not careful, we may miss the most amazing thing about the Lord’s pardon of His people in Christ. What seems to amaze the biblical authors the most about divine forgiveness is not that God forgives; rather, the most amazing thing for writers such as Paul is that the Lord forgives without ignoring sin and compromising His justice.
Romans 3:21–26 is a key text in this regard. After expounding on the righteousness of God in Christ and the Savior’s satisfaction of His Father’s wrath for His people, the Apostle writes that the cross happened so that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (v. 26). Paul understood that it is essential for the Lord never to sacrifice His holiness in order to give pardon; if such were to happen, God would no longer be God. But in Jesus, our Creator provided a way to show mercy without doing away with justice. He remains just and yet declares His people righteous, maintaining His mercy and His righteousness.
Because God is just, He will satisfy the “claims of his justice” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 12). There are but two ways this can happen. Either justice will be paid by the actual sinner who transgresses God’s will or it will be paid in full by another who stands in the sinner’s place. Jesus Christ alone can stand in a sinner’s place and receive the punishment that the sinner deserves; if we do not trust Him to satisfy God’s justice for us, then we will have to endure the full brunt of the Father’s wrath ourselves (John 3:36; 14:6).
We read in today’s passage that our Father sent His Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” and “condemned sin” in Jesus’ flesh (Rom. 8:3–4). When the Lord forgives us in Christ Jesus, He does not throw the just demands of His law out the window. Instead, He meets them in Christ. He shows us mercy and satisfies His perfect justice at the same time, leading us to marvel at His forgiveness. We who serve Jesus have a true, if partial, understanding of God’s greatness, for we see Him as He is — a being of infinite mercy and infinite holiness.
The hymn “Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness” reminds us that for every believer in Jesus, His blood “a full atonement made.” We can trust the Lord because He is just and always fulfills His promises, even His promise to punish sinners with the fullness of His wrath, and we know He fulfills His promises because in Jesus He poured out His full wrath on the sin of His people. Truly, He is a great, trustworthy God who is worthy of our love and loyalty.