As I work through a sermon series on the book of Romans at New Covenant I remembered a quote I had stumbled across many years ago by James Henley Thornwell that captures what is really the theological backbone of Paul’s argument from Romans 1:16-3:31. In his sermon “The Gospel, God’s Power and Wisdom,” James Henley Thornwell made the shocking statement that God’s “entertaining of a purpose of mercy created a crisis in the Divine Government.” He wrote:
The third form in which the power of God is displayed in redemption is under the character of a just and righteous Governor; and here it assumes its most glorious and august form. In His moral government God reveals Himself as the patron of holiness and the avenger of sin; it is a government of law adapted to the capacity of moral agents and supported by adequate sanctions. It is here, and here only, that the moral character of God is made known to His creatures. The power which is employed to sustain the interests of righteousness and to uphold the eternal principles of justice and truth is sublime and venerable. As the natural government of God consists in maintaining the established order of nature or those physical laws, such as attraction and repulsion, in conformity with which all physical changes take place, so His moral government consists in administer- ing the affairs of moral agents, dispensing to them happiness or misery according to the eternal principles of rectitude which necessarily grow out of the Divine character. The justice and holiness of the Divine nature are the rule of the Divine Will, and without denying Himself, God cannot, as Judge of all the earth, do otherwise than right. But it may be asked how God as a righteous Governor has displayed His moral power any more strikingly in the redemption of men than it was displayed in the happiness of angels and the destruction of devils, or than it would have been displayed by the perdition of our race. There is a peculiarity in His power in this case, because there were peculiar difficulties to be overcome.
The entertaining of a purpose of mercy created a crisis in the Divine government; it seemed to unhinge all the principles upon which that had previously been conducted. The grand problem to be solved was, How shall God spare the sinner without letting down the majesty of the law–without ceasing to be the patron of righteousness and the avenger of guilt? There appeared to be a moral impossibility in the salvation of the sinner, because the principles of eternal justice demanded his condemnation. It was in reconciling the conflicting elements of mercy and justice, benevolence and truth, and in building up a stupendous fabric of grace without compromising a solitary principle of equity, that the power of God was illustriously displayed. And as the resurrection of Jesus was the consummation of the plan by which He proposed to magnify the law without destroying the transgressor, the Scriptures speak with pointed emphasis of the exceeding energy of God’s mighty power which it required to raise Jesus from the dead. The difficulties in His resurrection were not physical, but moral: He was the representative of sinners, and could only be raised as the first-fruits of His people after a full satisfaction rendered to justice and an ample reparation to the Divine law. The power of God, however, in redemption can only be known from the plan which He devised…1
1. James Henley Thornwell The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1871) pp. 311-312