Justification is a big deal. Every human heart craves it, inescapably needs it, and yet struggles to obtain it. Why the struggle to obtain a solid and true sense of acceptability, approval, security, meaning, or justification? The answer is in the way we try to obtain it…the default way of human effort or performance rather than the Divine way of God’s grace through Jesus’ performance: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift.” (Rom 3.23-24)
God welcoming us and making the unacceptable acceptable, the broken perfect, the stained spotless, the ungodly justified, is free to us but not to God: “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3.24). Redemption is costly to God; it literally means liberation through the payment of a price. The Apostle Paul has just spent sixty-four verses laying out universal slavery to sin, death, and judgment (Rom 1.18-3.20), and now God sets the slave free. The key to this liberation, however, is not overlooking the slave’s debt, but by paying it “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood.” (Rom 3.24-25)
The slave-debt is judgment…the wrath of God, separation from God, getting what we ultimately want unchecked…or hell.
Modern people inevitably think that hell works like this: God gives us time, but if we haven’t made the right choices by the end of our lives, He casts our souls into hell for all eternity. As the poor souls fall through space, they cry out for mercy, but God says, ‘Too late! You had your chance! Now you will suffer!’ (Tim Keller, The Reason For God)
This caricature misses the very nature of evil. The Bible sees sin or evil as separation from the presence of God, the source of all life, joy, love, acceptance, wisdom, and every good of any sort. In God’s presence we thrive, flourish, and become our true selves; therefore, to lose God’s presence would be hell.
A common image of hell in the Bible is that of fire. Fire disintegrates. Even in this life we can see the kind of soul disintegration that self-centeredness creates. We know how selfishness and self-absorption leads to piercing bitterness, nauseating envy, paralyzing anxiety, paranoid thoughts, and the mental denials and distortions that accompany them. Now ask the question: ‘What if when we die we don’t end, but spiritually our life extends on into eternity?’ Hell, then, is the trajectory of a soul, living a self-absorbed, self-centered life, going on and on forever. (Tim Keller, The Reason for God)
God pays the slave-debt “by his blood.” (v.25) All hell was unleashed on Jesus at the cross in the place of those who trust in him until there was no more left. All separation, alienation, judgment, wrath was unleashed on Jesus at the cross in the place of those who trust in him until it was finished (propitiated). God loves messed-up people. God pays the slave-debt of eternal justice himself because he loves messed-up people. Take this costly love deep into your soul and let it fill you, flourish you, free you, energize you.