Dr. John Piper preached through a sermon series on the book of Romans that spanned eight and a half years, and has preached 15 messages just from Chapter 3 of Romans! Here is a portion of one, “God Vindicated His Righteousness in the Death of Christ” that relates directly to Psalm 51 which we read today also, and a link to a conference message, “The Most Important Paragraph in the Bible” that focuses on verses 21-26 of Romans 3.
Boil that down to the most basic problem the death of Christ is meant to solve. God put Christ forward (he sent him to die) in order to demonstrate his righteousness (or justice). The problem that needed solving was that God, for some reason, seemed to be unrighteous, and wanted to vindicate himself and clear his name.
“On Account of Passing Over Sins Done Beforehand”
But what created that problem? Why did God face the problem of needing to give a public vindication of his righteousness? The answer is in the last phrase of verse 25: “on account of passing over sins done beforehand.”
Now what does that mean? It means that for centuries God had been doing what Psalm 103:10 says, “He does not deal with us according to our sins or requite us according to our iniquities.” He just passes over them. He does not punish them.
King David is a good example. In 2 Samuel 12 he is confronted by the prophet Nathan for committing adultery with Bathsheba and then having her husband killed. Nathan says, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord?” and God says, “Why have you despised me?” (2 Samuel 12:9–10).
David feels the rebuke of Nathan, and in verse 13 he says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” To this, Nathan responds, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Just like that! Adultery and murder passed over.
Why Is This a Problem?
That is what Paul means in Romans 3:25 by the passing over of sins done beforehand. But why is that a problem? Is it felt as a problem by the secular mindset—that God is kind to sinners? How many people outside the scope of biblical influence wrestle with the problem that a holy and righteous God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45)? How many wrestle with the problem that God is kind to sinners? How many people struggle with the fact that their own forgiveness is a threat to the righteousness of God?
The secular mindset does not even assess the problem the way the biblical mindset does. Why is that? It’s because the secular mindset thinks from a radically different starting point. It does not start with the Creator rights of God to display the infinite worth of his glory. It starts with man and assumes that God will conform to his rights and wishes.
The Meaning of Sin
Look at verse 23: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” What’s at stake in sinning is the glory of God. Do you remember what God said to David when he was caught in adultery? “Why have you despised ME?”
David could have said, “What do you mean, I despised you? I didn’t despise you. I wasn’t even thinking of you. I was just red hot after this woman and then scared to death that people were going to find out. You weren’t even in the picture.”
And God would have said, “The Creator of the universe, the designer of marriage, the fountain of life, the one who made you king, was not even in the picture—that’s right. You despised me. All sin is a despising of me and my glory. All sin is a preference for the fleeting pleasures of the world over the everlasting joy of my fellowship. You demeaned my glory. You belittled my worth. You dishonored my name. That is the meaning of sin—failing to love my glory above everything else.”
What the Passing Over of Sin Communicates
The problem in God’s passing over sin (that the secular mindset does not grasp) is that God’s worth and glory and righteousness have been despised, and passing over it makes him look cheap.
Suppose a group of anarchists plot to assassinate President Bush and his cabinet, and almost succeed. Their bombs destroy part of the White House and kill some staff, but the President narrowly escapes. The anarchists are caught and the court finds them guilty. But then the anarchists say they are sorry and so the court suspends their sentences and releases them. What that would communicate to the world is that the President’s life and his governance of the nation are cheap.
That is what the passing over of sin communicates: God’s glory and his righteous governance are cheap and worthless.
What the Secular Mindset Misses
Apart from divine revelation the natural mind—the secular mind—does not see or feel this problem. What secular person loses any sleep over the unrighteousness of God’s kindness to sinners?
But according to Romans this is the most basic problem that God solved by the death of his Son. Read it again (v. 25b): “It [the death of his Son] was to demonstrate God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance [or patience] he had passed over former sins; 26) it was for a demonstration of his righteousness at the present time in order that he himself might be righteous . . . “ God would be unrighteous if he passed over sins as though the value of his glory were nothing.
But he didn’t. God saw his glory being despised by sinners—he saw his worth belittled and his name dishonored by our sins—and rather than vindicating the worth of his glory by slaying his people, he vindicated his glory by slaying his Son.