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Jan 12, 2020

Competing Character

Passage: Romans 3:25-31

Preacher: John Repsold

Series: Romans

Keywords: love, holiness, mercy, sin, christ, grace, just, justifier, competing qualities


We've all felt the tension of competing roles in life. Being a parent brings tension with being an employee or employer. We also feel tension between qualities like love and justice, grace and holiness. Might this be because of the nature of the God in whose image we are made? This message looks at the tension in Romans 3 between a God who is just and who justifies, who is righteous and yet wants to be "right' with us. Enjoy this last section of Romans 3!


Competing Character

Romans 3:21-26

January 5, 2020


Get acquainted question:  Of all the different roles you’ve had in life (sibling, parent, student, employee, etc.), name one or two that have been your favorites?

Earlier this morning, I asked you to share with each other one or two roles you’ve had in life that were your favorites.  Now, thinking of those and other favorites you’ve enjoyed, were those roles ever in competition or even conflict?  For example…

  • Did the role of parent ever produce tension with your role as a husband or wife?
  • Did your role as a student ever collide with your role as a friend of others in school/college?
  • Did your role in your job ever bring tension to your roles as a spouse and parent?

Life seems to be set up in such a way that there are unavoidable tension between not only roles we enjoy but often personal qualities and characteristics we have/are.  For example…

  • We love our children/spouse beyond words…and we become more angry with them than just about anyone else in the world.
  • We may be very generous with ministries and organizations we give money to and yet we may be a real penny-pincher/ tightwad when it comes to spending money on our family or even ourselves.
  • We may love to just spend time hanging out with our loved ones at home but find ourselves loving to be hospitable to others by inviting them home in ways that actually take away from family time.

Why is life like this?  Why can’t we have it both ways—where our good qualities never seem to compete or be in conflict?  Might it be because we are made in the image of God?  Might it be because God, in his perfections of character in every area of His existence, finds His perfect nature in balance?  Is it not possible that the best and most perfect of character qualities are, by nature of the Creator, in competition with each other at times?  Might it be that part of the beauty and even perfection of certain character qualities is because those very qualities do seem to make demands on us that also require moderation when taken together with other good qualities? 


  • Parenting: children need to know that parents will lovingly sacrifice for their good.  But they also need to know that love involves disciplining them when they engage in bad behavior.
  • Parenting: children need to know gentleness and kindness at close range.  And they also need to know that righteous anger is something they will experience from a parent when their actions are destructive of themselves or others around them (whether that is when they torture the family cat or hit and harm their baby sister). 
  • Marriage: spouses need to trust and love each other enough to give each other freedom to have friendships outside of their marriage.  BUT, they need to be moved to holy jealousy when something or someone else is stealing the affections of their spouse that should only belong to them. 

This is precisely the seeming catch-22 that we stumbled upon last week in our study of Romans 3.  We’ll be finishing up that chapter today.  So turn in your Bibles to Romans 3:21. As we read this, take note of the various characteristics and roles of God that are mentioned in just this paragraph. 

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 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.

            So what could possibly be competing about these roles and characteristics of God?  How about we list them out:


            Quality/Role                Potential Conflict                   

Righteous                                (“became sin for us”; 2 Cor. 5:21)

Glory                                       (Sin-bearer)

Just                                          Justifier

Grace-filled                             (holy)

Gives freely (“gift”)                (Sanctifier)                                         

Redeemer                                (Just Judge)

Forbearance                             (Judge/holy anger)


Since God is all of these qualities in perfection and full measure, there are times or at least experiences in which we may not see them working in perfect balance.  That doesn’t mean they are not doing so.  It simply means that we are not in a place or position or have sufficient capacity (mentally, emotionally, spiritually, etc.) to see the divine tension. 

We are, in fact, very much like children who complain that their parents must hate them if they are disciplining them. Children…teenagers…and too many adults genuinely feel that way when they are faced with truly loving discipline or rules or laws. 

In fact, it is a symptom of a very undisciplined and unloved generation that says today, “If you disagree with me, you hate me!”  “If you disagree about sexual ethics, you must be homophobic, transphobic, polyamerous-phobic, etc.”  “If I happen to be black and you happen to be white and we disagree about racial issues, you must be racist.”  That sort of thinking is the thinking of children who have not learned to live in a genuine world of diversity in tension. 

So when this passage talks about qualities of God that we may not share or immediately appreciate, our tendency is to gravitate towards those qualities that we like more because they are what we might call “softer” qualities of God while avoiding or outright rejecting the “harder” qualities of God (like His justice, His holiness and His righteousness).    

As we’ve noticed, this is a passage the weds both “sides” of God’s nature (if we can even speak in terms of ‘sides’). We would have little or no need for the “softer” side of God’s nature if we were not open rebels of God.  But the very fact of our eternal alienation from God through our sin calls out qualities of God that would be either partially or completely unknown apart from our neediness.   

            The qualities of God in verses 21-23 we looked at last week:

  • Righteous/righteousness: perfect outworking/living out of moral perfection.
  • Glory: unfiltered splendor of God’s holiness
  • Justified: God’s declaration of His righteousness to our account
  • Grace: God’s undeserved positive good blessing to us
  • Gift: blessing that cannot be earned by the receiver.
  • Redemption: RANSOME—“deliverance at a cost” or “release by payment” of a price, i.e. the life of Jesus Christ. 

So now we move into a new and very strange-sounding quality of God mentioned in vs. 25—“…Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood….”  The NIV states it this way:  “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.” 

            That introductory phrase “God put forward…” or “God presented…” tells us something about God.  What would that be? 

  • God initiates.
  • He isn’t passive.
  • He sees a need and does something about it.
  • He is generous in his giving
  • He is sacrificial in his giving
  • He is a provider

But what about that strange word “propitiation”?  The NIV hardly makes it more understandable with “…a sacrifice of atonement.”  Some scholars [Thomas Schreiner, Douglas Moo, and James Boice] point out that this word was used many times in the OT to refer to the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies, where the high priest sprinkled the blood of atonement once a year. While perhaps we should not translate the word as mercy seat, it is easy to think that Paul could have had this in mind when he used the word here. The mercy seat was the place where atonement took place. God’s wrath was averted by the sprinkling of the blood of an innocent substitute on that mercy seat. While that yearly ritual was hidden from public view, it pointed ahead to Jesus.  When His blood was spilled publically, out in the open, on the cross, the Gospels tell us that the veil separating sinful people from the holy God was torn in two from top (heaven?) to bottom as a visual exclamation mark that the way was now open for every human being who wanted to come into the presence of God, but only by the blood of Christ—the Lamb of God who dealt with our sin and God’s wrath over our sin once and for all.   

            So we have another definition of another difficult theological word:  propitiation/atonement

Propitiation/atonement = a satisfying of God’s wrath towards our sin. 

The very fact that I just used the terms “satisfying God’s wrath” in the same sentence has some of you reacting emotionally, right?  You may be thinking (if you’re honest), “How dare God show anger? How dare He be SO angry about my sin that He demands that anger be satisfied with blood-letting?  This is the reason some people reject the Christian notion of God.  They’ve had enough of an angry father growing up; they don’t need an angry Father in eternity!”

            Some of us may need to embrace the foundational idea that anger is a good attribute of the nature of a truly good God.  So let me illustrate it this way:

  • If our nation were, for whatever reason, thrust into a war that brought all the horrors of war to our homes, I dare say that every one of us—if we were exposed first-hand to some of the horrible injustices of war—would actually want God to be angry about those injustices. If we were forced to watch…as so many Christians and too many Muslims have been in the Middle East and Africa and Indonesia in the last decade…the torture, rape and brutalization of family members by an invading army, I think we would not be so opposed to a God who, in anger at those horrific actions, would display that anger in measured and meaningful justice. 
  • If we had been born in N. Korea and had been raised under now three generations of dictatorial fear, brutality, famine, torture, murder and death, I think that we would be crying out for a God who felt some anger against such abuses and would, if not in this life then certainly in the next, hold those brutal dictators to account. For a legitimate Judge to trivialize that suffering by saying, “Well, yes, I know he’s guilty of some really horrendous things but let’s let bygones be bygones!” would be to trivialize both the lives and the suffering of millions of people. 
  • We feel this in our own country when someone who has been given a fair trial and is convicted of some horrible crime such as murder or horrific assault or bilking poor widows out of their retirement is let off with a slap on the wrist. That devalues the lives of those who suffered and it tells us a lot about the lack of love of what is just, right and good in that human judge.

I’ve walked the grounds of Nazi Germany concentration camps.  I’ve seen the thousands of human skulls in the prisons of Pol Pot’s communist Cambodia.  If there is not a righteous Judge of all the earth and every one of us who are sinners in it, then something IS horribly wrong. 

            I have spared you the trauma of reading even one story or personal account of the thousands that exist of the survivors of these atrocities.  The danger in doing that is that we can think about the justice of God dispassionately and unemotionally. It is easy to maintain our flawed sense of superiority over the God who judges when we see or feell little to nothing of what He sees and feels each day watching billions of sinful people. 

            But it goes well beyond the atrocities of war and despots that turn our stomachs.  There is something about even our most “benign,” careless and seemingly inconsequential sins that calls forth divine wrath.  We may be repulsed and grieved over the sins of a Pol Pot or Stalin or Hitler or Kim Jong Un and completely miss the reality that our sins from the first to the last call out in our perfect God more revulsion, more grief and more righteous anger than we are even able to muster on our most righteous day.    

            A holy, righteous and morally perfect God is not possible, apparently, without holy anger. 

            But before we leave this discussion of anger, let me just ask, “How does God’s anger differ from ours?”  [Righteous in motives and outworking; “Slow to anger” 9x in OT), ‘anger’/’angry’ hundreds of times in the OT & NT; “day of wrath”—judgment.  Term “divine forbearance” in vs. 25>> )  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. 

            We even use this term “forbearance” in mortgage lending.  Forbearance, in the context of a mortgage process, is a special agreement between the lender and the borrower to delay a foreclosure. The literal meaning of forbearance is “holding back” or “patient self-control.” 

            Paul is here referring to the OT practice of bringing guilt offerings of sacrificed animals.  Someone was thinking in response to his description of what God had done in Christ, “Well, how come God didn’t take out his righteous, divine wrath on O.T. people?  Was God giving them a free pass?” 

            Paul’s response is essentially, “No, it was because of God’s ability to exercise patient self-control, to literally hold back His anger, that he was able to wait thousands of years until the predetermined timing of the incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ.  God’s divine wrath for their sins, our sins and anyone’s sin who will ever draw breath in this world was “passed over” because God knew that Jesus would one day take that required and righteous punishment for us.  The victim who had already suffered the divine affront and transgression of our sin stepped in at just the right moment to embrace the wrath of God against our sin in His own body on the cross. 

            Are you beginning to see the utter divine mystery of the work of God for us lost sinners?  Are you beginning to see why we needed a tri-unity Godhead?  Are you beginning to see why our salvation is so beyond what any other religion has to offer?  The aggrieved party took the pain of the offense and moral violation upon himself.  The sinned-against-holy-God took that sin upon Himself and allowed God the Father to satisfy His right punishment against our rebellion in Himself through His death.  The Judge of all mankind became the Judged for all mankind.  The just God of all the earth became the Justifer…the justifying God… of all who put their faith in Him. 

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.


  • Need to change your view of God and His justice?
  • Need to be reconciled to God by faith in Jesus?
  • Need to grow your gratitude for who God actually is and what He has actually done for you in Christ?


In the last paragraph of this chapter, Paul is simply driving home one more vital response to God’s work on our behalf.  In the process, he’s attacking what is too often one of the ugliest traits of religious people—arrogance, pride and letting others know how great we think we are.  Here’s how he says it.

27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

ILL:  Back in the day, Michael Jordan was indisputably the most amazing NBA player on the court.  He was part of a team, but he made the team, in this story, the Chicago Bulls. 

Stacey King, who also played with the Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan was at his peak, was playing one night when Jordan scored 69 points and King scored 1. Later on in an interview he confessed, “I’ll always remember this as the night that Michael Jordan and I combined to score 70 points” [Reader’s Digest (10/1991), p. 22]. Of course, he was joking.

But we’re often serious when we take some of the credit for our own salvation: “God must have seen something in me that caused Him to pick me out of the crowd!” We may even boast in our own faith, as if we were smart enough to believe on our own.

Religions and religious systems that allow people to think that they can and should flawlessly keep a set of laws, rules or rituals is like what Paul is speaking of here.  When a right relationship with God is based on God’s grace, not my effort or ability to keep rules, all boasting should go by the wayside.  What takes its place is a new “law”—the “law of faith.”  It’s a singular law.  It simply says, “Put your faith in what Christ has done for you, not in what you have or can do for Him.” 

ILL:  John Piper illustrates it this way.  Imagine going (in our case) to Silverwood on a beautiful summer day.  Imagine that the highest rollercoaster is twice as high as it is.  It’s one of the wooden timber ones.  It’s massive

            Imagine that the ride is like the relationship God wants you to enjoy with Him.  (I just lost those of you hate roller coasters!)  It’s filled with high speed, with wild turns and exhilarating drop-offs.  It’s hands down your favorite ride at Silverwood.  You know you were made for rollercoasters and you won’t be satisfied until you ride it…over and over again.

Imagine that the Law represents all that massive supporting structure of beams and bolts.  It’s there to support the tracks of this amazing ride. 

Oh, one more thing:  you’re a paraplegic, limited to a wheelchair.

So when you arrive, you’re looking up at about 25 stories of massive superstructure from your wheelchair.  And you decide that in order to get way up to the top where you have to catch the car before it descends through all the amazing route of the ride, you are going to use the supporting beams as your means to getting to the car you want to be in way up at the top. 

How well’s that going to work?  Oh, you may pull yourself up a few feet…or even a story or two.  The problem is, the superstructure wasn’t built to get you to the top; it was built to support what the designer and engineer want you to experience once you were at the top and in that car. 

So imagine that there is someone there with a super-long crane connected to a harness.  And they say to you, “I’d be happy to strap you into this harness and signal to the crane operator to hoist you up in to that front car.  Then you can ride it all the way to the end of this massive maze of rollercoaster track.  You interested?”

“No thanks,” you respond, with a very offended tone of voice.  “What, don’t you think I can do this on my own?  You got something against disabled people, buddy?” 

The truth of the matter is, you’ve got a soft spot for disabled people.  Truth is, you know your way is the only way they are ever going to enjoy this amazing ride. 

What’s happened?  Well you’ve misunderstood why the superstructure (Law) is there.  It’s not there to get you to the top so you can boast about your amazing athleticism or climbing ability.  It’s there to get you to the most amazing experience of your life.  But you can only get there by accepting the offer of a lift from the crane operator.  The crane lift doesn’t replace the superstructure.  It fulfills it.

That’s what faith does with the Law of God.  It doesn’t wipe it out.  It brings it to its proper end—giving people a relationship with God that is accessible to everyone no matter what our particular weaknesses and shortcomings are. Faith lifts us to the place where we can enjoy what the Law has been supporting all along—a living relationship with the Living God. 

ILL:   I’ll close with a story about a man who was an English poet in the 18th century, William Cowper.  He was actually an 18th century secular English poet who suffered greatly from depression. His mother had died when he was six and he was sent to a boarding school where the older boys mercilessly bullied and beat him.

In his late twenties, he tried to commit suicide.  Finally he was admitted to an insane asylum. Cowper struggled with his guilt and once wrote of his anguish of soul crying out, “My sin! My sin! Oh, for some fountain open for my cleansing!”

The main doctor at this mental institution was, mercifully, a committed Christian.  He gently and patiently guided Cowper to the only fountain he knew that could wash away sin and guilt. He told Cooper to read his Bible, and so he did.

One day Cowper opened his Bible to Romans 3:24-25--“Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God has set forth to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood, to manifest his righteousness.”

Cowper said, “Immediately I received strength to believe, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone on me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon in His blood, and the fullness and completeness of His justification. In a moment I believed and received the gospel.” [James Boice, Romans [Baker], pp. 371-372. For more, see John Piper, The Hidden Smile of God [Crossway], pp. 81-119.]

Cowper struggled with severe depression for the rest of his life, but God used him to write many beloved hymns.  One of those is a hymn I grew up on as a child.  It’s called, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and it goes like this:


There is a fountain filled with blood

Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,

And sinners plunged beneath that flood

Lose all their guilty stains.

Lose all their guilty stains

Lose all their guilty stains,

And sinners plunged beneath that flood

Lose all their guilty stains.


The dying thief rejoiced to see

That fountain in his day;

And there may I

Though sinful too,

Wash all my sins away.

Wash all my sins away.

Wash all my sins away.

And there may I

Though sinful too,

Wash all my sins away.


Dear dying Lamb,

They precious blood

Shall never lose its power

‘Til all the ransomed

Church of God

Be saved to sin no more.

Be saved to sin no more

Be saved to sin no more.

‘Til all the ransomed

Church of God

Be saved to sin no more.


When this poor lisping, stammering tongue

Lies silent in the grave

Then in a nobler, sweeter song

I’ll sing thy power to save

I’ll sing thy power to save

I’ll sing thy power to save

Then in a nobler, sweeter song

I’ll sing thy power to save. 


Cowper’s experience of knowing that his sins were forgiven the instant that he believed in the shed blood of Jesus can be our experience. Faith in Jesus and what He accomplished for us is the only way to that experience. He declares you not guilty both now and forever.