Where Grace and Wrath Meet: What the Cross Meant to God
February 21, 1999
Easter comes in just six weeks. In order to prepare our hearts we are going to take the five weeks leading up to Palm Sunday to focus on the cross of Christ. I do not intend to repeat the details of what happened on Good Friday. Most of us know the story very well. Instead I want to ask what happened when Jesus died outside the city walls at the place called Skull Hill. We all understand that the cross is the very heart of the Christian faith, and without the cross we have no faith at all. What happened on that bloody hill was the single most important event in all history since the very beginning of the universe. No event can be compared to it. The cross of Jesus stands alone, in the words of John Bowring, “towering o’er the wrecks of time.”
My goal, my hope and my prayer is that all of us will see the cross in a new perspective. In order to do that, we will be looking at the cross from five distinct points of view. First, what the cross meant to God. Second, what it meant to Christ. Third, what it meant to Satan. Fourth, what it means to the world. Fifth, what it means to the church.
We begin today by asking what happened on the cross from God’s point of view. What did it mean to God the Father as his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, died a criminal’s death? In order to answer that question we will focus on just three verses—Romans 3:24-26. Our text this morning has been called “the marrow of theology,” and well it should be because this passage contains the very heart and soul of the Christian gospel. These verses contain three answers to the question, What did the cross mean to God?
I. The Turning Away of God’s Wrath: 25
The NIV translates the first part of verse 25 this way: “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.” The phrase “sacrifice of atonement” translates a Greek word that means “propitiation.” Few people have ever heard the word propitiation, and fewer still understand what it means. Here’s a simple definition: To turn away wrath by the offering of a gift. In this context it means that the death of Christ turns away God’s wrath.
I realize that God’s wrath is not a popular topic these days. Many pastors fear to preach on God’s wrath lest they incur the wrath of the congregation. We’d all rather hear about God’s love than about his wrath. Yet both are entirely biblical because both wrath and love flow from God’s basic nature. While it is true that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), it is also true that he hates the wicked and those who do violence (Psalm 11:5). Sometimes in our attempt to appear compassionate, we proclaim that God “hates the sin and loves the sinner.” I caution against using that statement indiscriminately because it is only partly true and can be misleading. Does God love sinners? Yes, he does because sinners are part of the world Christ came to save (John 3:16). But as it stands, the statement seems to imply that love is God’s only response to sin. Check out the book of Psalms and you will discover that God hates sinners and he abhors the wicked (Psalm 5:4-5; 37:13, 20; 101:7; 119:119). I believe that much modern gospel preaching is anemic precisely because we preach less than the whole truth to guilty sinners. If all we say to the lost is “God loves you,” we are in danger of making them think that their continued rebellion doesn’t matter to God. Instead, we must warn them to flee from the wrath to come (Luke 3:7). 
And if we must say, “God hates sin but loves the sinner,” let us at least add this phrase, “And he warns the sinner to repent before it is too late.” When Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the listeners held on to the pillars of the building lest they suddenly slip down into eternal damnation. Can anyone imagine that happening today?
Lest I be misunderstood, let me say that I believe fervently in God’s love. But God’s love, as magnificent as it is, cannot cancel God’s holy hatred of sin. There is no conflict between love and anger. True love is often angry. Ask any wife and she will say (at one time or another) “I’m angry because the one I love has disappointed me.” Because God is holy, he is angry over our sin. Because he is love, he provided a means to turn away his own anger by the offering of His Son.
In pagan religions, the worshipers offer animal sacrifices to appease their gods. Next month we’re sending a high school team to Haiti to work with Caleb Lucien. As you may know, Haiti is the land of voodoo. Caleb says that at least 90% of the people practice voodoo to one degree or another. Sometimes the Haitians will slaughter a chicken and place the blood (with the entrails) on a dish by the front door, hoping to ward off evil spirits. It is their way of appeasing the god who stands behind voodoo. That is the pagan idea of propitiation.
On a completely different level, we see propitiation at work when a husband realizes that he has offended his wife. Hoping to make it up to her, he stops on the way home and buys flowers and candy and a card. Before she can say a word, he gives her the gifts, hoping to turn away her wrath and restore a good relationship.
But the greatest illustration comes from the Old Testament Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of a goat. Leviticus 16 describes the ritual in exacting detail. It must be the high priest and him alone, and it must happen on the Day of Atonement—and on no other day. On the Day of Atonement the high priest would take off his regular clothes and put on a sacred linen tunic. He would sprinkle the goat blood on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. That lid—made of beaten gold—was called the “Mercy Seat.” Inside the Ark was a copy of the Ten Commandments—representing the Law of God. By the sprinkling of the blood, the sins of the people were “covered.” That covering by means of blood was called the “atonement.” The sacrifice of blood turned away the wrath of God. Why is this important? Because God’s justice demands death as the ultimate punishment for sin.
A Friendly Father, Not an Angry God
What does the symbolism of the Day of Atonement represent? During the other days of the year when God looked down from heaven, he saw the Ten Commandments inside the Ark. The Ten Commandments stood as a testimony against the sins of the nation of Israel. But on the Day of Atonement God saw the blood of the sacrifice which covered the sin of the people of Israel.
The sacrificial system had one major problem. It provided temporary forgiveness because it was based on the blood of animals. We know that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). That is why every year, year after year, the high priest would go in and do it all over again. And when he died, another high priest would take his place and do the same thing each year on the Day of Atonement. The Old Testament system provided no permanent forgiveness for sin (Hebrews 7:23-28).
When Jesus died on the cross, the blood that he shed was like the blood on the Mercy Seat. It turned away the wrath of God and covered the sin of the entire human race. How could that be? In the Old Testament it is the blood of bulls and goats, in the New Testament it is the eternal blood of Jesus Christ which has eternal value in the eyes of God. When Jesus hung on the cross, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). In that moment all the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus. He became sin for us, and all of your sin and all of mine and the sins of the whole world were poured out on Jesus. In that moment God turned his face away from his own Son. To call the death of Christ a “propitiation” means that God’s wounded heart is now satisfied with the death of his Son. When a sinner trusts Christ, God accepts him on the basis of the bloody sacrifice Christ made when he died on the cross.
Why did God do it this way? Because as an infinite God of infinite holiness, all sins committed against him are infinite in magnitude. Only a gift of infinite value could turn away the infinite wrath of God. And only God himself (in the Person of his Son) could make such an infinite gift. That’s why our piddling efforts to turn aside God’s wrath are doomed to failure. We think that going to church or being baptized or going to Mass or saying our prayers or being good or stopping a bad habit or “trying really hard to be better” will somehow turn away the infinite wrath of God. The wonder of propitiation is that the offended party (God), who has every right to be angry at sinners himself, offers the gift (the death of Christ) to turn away his own wrath, thus making it possible for guilty sinners to be forgiven.
Therefore, when we come to God through Christ, we come to a friendly Father and not to an angry God.
II. A Demonstration of God’s Justice: 25-26
In verse 25 and against in verse 26 Paul says that God set forth Christ as a propitiation for sin “to demonstrate his justice” so that he might be “just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (verse 26). About a month ago, I filled in for Pastor Donald Cole as the host of “Open Line” on the Moody Broadcasting Network. During the program we got a call from a man in Miami who asked why Christ had to die on the cross for our sins. He seemed troubled by this fact and said that he didn’t believe that Christ had died in our place, standing in our stead, as a substitute taking our punishment. I tried to answer his question by referring to this text—Romans 3:25-26. What the listeners didn’t know is that while I was answering the question, he was shouting into the phone. We had taken him off the air but evidently he didn’t realize it or didn’t care. The very notion of Christ as our substitute seemed to anger him greatly.
Several years ago Phil Donahue (who hosted a popular TV talk show for many years) listed the various reasons why he had become disillusioned with Christianity. Among them was this: “How could an all-knowing, all-loving God allow his Son to be murdered on a cross to redeem my sins?” That’s an excellent question because it goes to the very heart of the gospel. 
Why did Jesus have to die? Why would God put his own Son to death, especially to save people who had rebelled against him? In searching for the answer, it helps me to think of another question: Since God is both all-powerful and infinitely gracious, why didn’t he simply offer forgiveness to anyone who says, “I’m sorry”? Many people secretly think that’s what God should have done. Then we wouldn’t have to deal with the embarrassment of God killing his own Son.
Sin Must be Punished
The answer goes like this. From a human point of view, God had a problem. Because God is holy, he cannot allow sin to go unpunished. His justice demands that every sin be punished—no matter how small it may seem to us. If he were to forgive sin without proper punishment, he would cease to be holy and just. God would no longer be God because he would have denied his own character. That could not happen. All offenses against God must be punished. That’s why sinners can’t simply say, “I’m sorry” and instantly be forgiven. Someone has to pay the price.
We follow this same principle in our criminal justice system. Suppose a man is found guilty of embezzling six million dollars from his employer. Let us further suppose that just before sentencing, he stands before the judge, confesses his crime, begs for mercy, and promises never to embezzle money again. How would you react if the judge accepted his apology and released him with no punishment? Suppose the man had been convicted of rape and then was set free with no punishment simply because he apologized. Or what if he apologized for murdering a father and mother in front of their children—and the judge set him free? Let us go further and ask about a group of terrorists who break into the White House and murder the president. Upon their capture, trial and conviction, they apologize and promise never to murder a president again, and are released on a promise of good behavior. What would we do with the judge who set them free? We would throw that judge in jail for a long time. 
Even in this life a price must be paid for breaking the law. When lawbreakers are set free with no punishment, respect for the law disappears. When assassins are not punished, respect for the presidency disappears. The same principle applies to raising children. When parents refuse to discipline with tough love, they end up raising criminals instead of responsible adults.
The same is true in the spiritual realm. When sin is not punished, it doesn’t seem very sinful. God’s “problem” was to devise a plan of salvation whereby he would remain holy and just, and still provide a way of forgiveness for guilty sinners. Somewhere, somehow, there had to be a place where grace and wrath could meet. That place is the cross of Christ.
Back to Phil Donahue for a moment. He asked a second question that deserves an answer: “If God the Father is so ‘all-loving,’ why didn’t He come down and go to Calvary?” The answer is, he did. He did! God came down to this earth in the Person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and died for our sins.
The paradox of salvation is this: God is a God of love … and therefore wants to forgive sinners. But he is also a God of holiness … who must not and cannot overlook sin. How could God love sinners and yet not overlook their sin? No one would ever have dreamed of his answer. God sent his own Son to die for sinners. In that way, the just punishment for sin was fully met in the death of Christ, and sinners who trust in Christ could be freely forgiven. Only God could have done something like that. Thus, Paul says, God is both just (in punishing sin) and the justifier of those who believe in Jesus.
Think of it. In the death of this One Man, all the sins of the human race are fully paid for—past, present and future. As a result, those who believe in Jesus find that their sins are gone forever.
This is the heart of the gospel: God’s holiness demands that sin be punished. God’s grace provides the sacrifice. What God demands, he supplies. Thus salvation is a work of God from first to last. It is conceived by God, provided by God, and applied by God.
III. An Outpouring of God’s Grace: 24
Verse 24 tells us upon what basis God saves us. “And are justified freely by his grace.” The word “freely” literally means “without a cause.” Salvation comes “without a cause” in us. That is, God saves us despite the fact that he can’t find a reason within us to save us. Salvation is a “free gift” to the human race. There is nothing in us that causes God to want to save us. No good works, no inner beauty, no great moral attainment, no intellectual merit of any kind. When God saves us, he does it despite the fact that we don’t deserve it.
This week I read a neat definition of grace: What you need but do not deserve. God declares us righteous when we have nothing but the sewage of sin in our veins.
This is the doctrine of free grace. God saves people who don’t deserve it! God saves people who actually deserve condemnation! God saves people in spite of themselves and contrary to their record. It is “pure, abounding, astounding grace!”
Let me go a step further. When God saves people, he doesn’t do it because of any potential he sees in them. I think most of us secretly feel (though we would never say it) that there must have been something in us worth saving. Human pride dies hard. But it’s not as if God saw a musician and said, “We need a good piano player in the church. I think I’ll save him.” Or “She’s got a lot of money and we could use some extra cash for world missions.” Or “Those twins would make excellent ushers. I want them on my team.” No, no, a thousand times no. God doesn’t save on the basis of your potential. Apart from the grace of God, the only potential you have is the potential for eternal damnation.
Jesus Stood in My Shoes
When God saves, he saves us by free grace, wholly apart from anything in us or anything we might “bring to the table” later. This is a shocking truth, hard to hear, but entirely biblical. And in the end, it is most comforting because it means that anyone, anywhere, at any time can come to Christ for salvation. No one has any advantage since “there is no difference” because all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
The story is told about an elderly country woman named Betty who trusted in Christ for salvation. One of her skeptical friends heard about it, and intending to make fun of her, asked if she had indeed become one of the saints. “Yes, I have,” she replied. “Well,” said the skeptic, “are you now an expert in theology?” “I’m no Bible scholar,” Betty replied. “I’m simply positive that God loves me enough that he’d rather go to hell than have me go there, and that God loves me enough that he’d rather leave heaven and die than for me not to get to heaven to be with him.” The skeptic insisted, “Is that all you know about it? Can’t you at least explain what being saved by grace means—that is one of your central doctrines, isn’t it?” Betty thought for a moment, then answered with these words: “Jesus stood in my shoes at Calvary, now I’m standing in his.” It would be hard to find a better explanation of justification by grace. 
This is so hard for us to believe. We would prefer to work for our salvation. But God’s gift of salvation costs us nothing, even though it cost Christ everything. The Lord now says to us, “Take it by faith! It’s yours for free. I have paid the cost for you.”
Some 220 years ago there was a man in England by the name of William Cowper. He had a nervous disposition and often struggled with bouts of severe depression. At one point he became extremely depressed, fearing that he was under the wrath of God. “I flung myself into a chair by the window and there saw the Bible on the table by the chair. I opened it up and my eyes fell on Romans 3:25, which says of Christ, ‘Whom God has made a propitiation through faith in his blood.’ Then and there, I realized what Christ’s blood had accomplished and I realized the effects of his atonement for me. I realized God was willing to justify me, and then and there, I trusted Jesus Christ and a great burden was lifted from my soul.”
Looking back on that day, William Cowper wrote a hymn that we still sing today:
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins.
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stain.
Has the blood of Jesus ever been applied to your heart? God’s Son has made propitiation. He has turned away the wrath of God. He shed his blood and what was a place of judgment is now a mercy seat for people like you and like me.
Recently a friend told me about a billboard posted near a Chicago freeway advertising the cardiac services of Christ Hospital in the Oak Lawn area. The billboard reads: “Christ is #1 in Open Heart Surgeries.” I don’t know about the hospital, but I can vouch for its namesake. Jesus Christ is indeed #1 in open heart surgery. He has never lost a case yet. When you come to him by faith, he gives you a brand-new heart.
Because of the cross, salvation is now entirely free. What then must I do to be saved? Must I be holy? Must I be good? Must I change my ways? Must I promise to clean up my act? Here is God’s answer: Romans 3:24 says, “Freely by his grace.” But the human hearts cries out, “I must do something, I must make my contribution.” So we clean up, we go to church, we pay our money, we go to Mass, we enter the waters of baptism, and on and on. We think God will never forgive us until we do something to deserve it. But it is not so. God gives his justification away freely and if you try to pay for it, he will throw it in your face.
Don’t Wait to Get Better
If I said you can be justified for $5, who would not pay? If I said you must walk a hundred miles, we’d all line up tomorrow morning. If I said God will justify you if you will endure a 20-minute beating, would we not endure the pain and count it a small cost? But if I say, “Free, free, God’s grace is free,” something in the human heart rebels against that fact. Either you take it freely or you don’t take it at all. 
How then do we receive God’s gift of salvation? Simply by asking for it. Do you know in your heart that you want Christ in your life? You may have him today! This is the wonder of the gospel. Do not say, “I’ll do my best and come to Christ later.” That is the language of hell. You cannot be saved as long as you hold to your notions of goodness.
“I’ll get better,” you say. No you won’t. You can’t get better, that’s your problem. You’re as good as you can be right now—and that’s not very good. Sin has gripped your soul and made you depraved inside and out. Here’s some shocking news. If you somehow got better, you would be worse off, because the worse you are, the better it is to come to Christ (Luke 5:32). If you are unholy and you know it, come to Christ. If you are a sinner and wish to be forgiven, come to Christ. If you feel unworthy, come to Christ. If you feel like a failure, come to Christ. If you admit that your life is a mess, come to Christ.
I pray that you will run to the cross as your only hope of salvation. But I cannot make you believe. I do not have the power within me to change your heart. I could preach for hours but I would be preaching as to the dead unless God should give you life. If you have any stirring in your heart, any sense of your need, any desire to be saved by grace, that desire has been placed in your heart by God. May that desire lead you to the cross where Jesus waits to receive you.
Our heavenly father, may your Holy Spirit draw men and women to the Savior. Grant a holy discomfort to those who do not know Christ. Give them no rest until they find rest in him. I pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.
D.A. Carson makes this point in Basics For Believers, p. 38.
The Phil Donahue quotes come from Erwin Lutzer, Why the Cross Can Do What Politics Can’t, p. 111.
Illustrations suggested by John Piper, “God’s Invincible Purpose: Foundations for Full Assurance #3” and from a sermon by a Presbyterian pastor in Australia whose name I do not know.
Gareth Flanery, “What God Did at the Cross of Golgotha.”
Much of the material in the final paragraphs comes from a marvelous message by Charles Spurgeon, “Justification by Grace”