Devotional Podcast #23: “John 3:16 and the Atonement”

In this Good Friday episode, I discuss the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement in light of John 3:16. I promise it’s more interesting than it sounds! In fact, this doctrine melts my heart when I think about what it says about God’s love for me!

Devotional Text: Romans 5:8

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Hi, This is Brent White! It’s Friday, March 30, and this is devotional podcast number 23. This message is very much related to Good Friday, so I hope you enjoy it.

You’re listening to the song “You Are Loved” by the Christian rock band the Altar Boys from their 1986 debut album, Gut Level Music.

And I need to emphasize love because that’s the main reason for the cross of God’s Son Jesus. I say that because we are still reflecting on Bible’s most popular verse, John 3:16, which, from the ESV, reads as follows: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

If you’ll recall, however, in this series so far—this is Part 3—we’ve only looked at the very first word of the verse: the word “for.”

Why? Because that word indicates that everything that Jesus—or John, the narrator, we’re not 100 percent sure who’s speaking here—but everything that is said here in verse 16 is connected back to what Jesus said before—that is, in verse 14 and 15. So we’ve been looking at verses 14 and 15 in the previous two episodes. In those verses, Jesus says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

I’ve already talked about the context of these verses: they point back to Numbers 21:4-9. The Israelites are nearing the end of their 40-year trek through the wilderness, on their way to the Promised Land, and the children and grandchildren of the Israelites who left Egypt are now grumbling: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.”

As I discussed last time, what happens next is a reflection of God’s wrath: he sends poisonous snakes to kill these blasphemous, idolatrous Israelites. Until they repent and go to Moses and ask him to intercede with God on their behalf—and God does. God’s solution is not to merely take away the snakes, or ensure that the snakes don’t bite, or neutralize the snakes’ venom once they do bite. No, God’s solution is for Moses to forge a bronze snake and place it on top of a tall pole. So that when one of God’s people gets bitten by a poisonous snake, he or she can look to the snake on the pole and find healing from the poison.

It may seem like a strange solution, unless we believe that God was giving ancient Israel a sign pointing them to the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ, thousands of years before he sent his Son into the world. And God the Holy Spirit ensured that this sign would be written down in God’s Word for us. And, brothers and sisters, once you start searching the Old Testament for gospel signs such as this one, you start seeing them on nearly every page! Please… learn to read the Old Testament and see the many signs pointing to Jesus!

So in John 3:16, Jesus is saying that the lifting up of this bronze snake is like his being lifted up on the cross. We look to Jesus on the cross—and believe in everything that that cross represents—and what happens? We find salvation from the deadly venom of sin.

But how does God effect our salvation from sin through the cross? That’s the question I want to deal with today.

To help us answer it, let’s look again at the analogy that Jesus is making between what happened to him on the cross and what happened to the Israelites in the wilderness. Follow the analogy through: If Jesus being lifted up on the cross is like the snake being lifted up in the wilderness, who is the snake in this analogy?

That’s right: shocking as it is, Jesus himself is the snake.

What does that mean? Remember: for Israel, the snake was a symbol of the very thing that was killing them—the deadly poisonous venom. So, in the same way, on the cross, Jesus becomes a symbol of the very thing that is killing us—which is our sin.

What does the apostle Paul say in Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

What is this “curse of the law” that Paul is talking about? It’s the curse found in Deuteronomy 28:15 and following: “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you”—and then what follows is a long and frightening list of curses—which we deserve because of our sin.

But because “God so loved the world,” he has done something about it to rescue us: on the cross, he has transferred our sins—including the punishment, the judgment, the condemnation, the god-forsakenness, the hell that our sins deserve—over to his Son Jesus. In theological words, our sins are imputed to Christ. And he suffers the penalty for them—that we otherwise would have to suffer.

This imputation is also seen famously in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he”—God the Father—“made him”—Jesus, God the Son—“to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So again, think of the snake: On the cross, Paul says, Christ becomes the symbol of the thing that’s killing us.

Christ becomes our substitute, in other words. And of course the Old Testament prepares us for Christ’s substitutionary death in a hundred different ways: But think, for example, of God delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. He sent a series of ten plagues—the last and most severe of which is that an angel would go through each household in Egypt and kill the firstborn son. This death angel’s work was God’s judgment for sin. The only means of rescue from this judgment—or “passing over” a household—was what? That the blood of a lamb would be sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel of each door. This sacrificial lamb would take the place of, or substitute for, the firstborn.

And it’s not for nothing that John the Baptist, when he sees Jesus for the first time in John’s gospel, says to his own disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” How does Jesus take away our sins? By becoming our perfect substitute.

This is why this view of what happens on the cross is often referred to as “substitutionary atonement” or “penal substitutionary atonement.” Call it whatever you like: the good news is that God has done something—objectively—to deal with the guilt of all of our sins, once and for all. Our debt before God has been paid. Our punishment has been borne by Jesus. The guilt for our sin has been wiped out. God no longer has wrath toward us because of our sin. We are no longer enemies of God because of our sin—but we become God’s children!

There are many motifs that the Bible uses to describe how atonement—that is, reconciliation between God and humanity—takes place on the cross. And there are other motifs besides substitution. But substitutionary atonement is, I would argue, by far the most important way of understanding what happens on the cross.

But over the past hundred years or so, it has become deeply unpopular, even among some Christians. I’ve heard Christians refer to this beautiful doctrine as “cosmic child abuse.” According to this caricature, an angry father has to torture someone, so he uses his son—as a reluctant or unwilling victim.

I can’t see how this is anything other than a willful—and, frankly, offensive—distortion of the doctrine. First, we remember our theme verse: “For God so loved the world…” It’s not “for God so hated the world that he sent his Son”; it’s “for God so loved the world.” Everything he does by sending his Son, he does, first and foremost, out of love for us. His love—and his desire to save us—precedes his wrath, or his justifiable anger toward sin, his resolute opposition to sin and evil.

This is clear from Romans 5:8: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God loved us before his Son died on the cross. So God’s disposition toward us human beings didn’t change as a result of Christ’s death—as if God was angry at us and hated us and needed his Son to die in order to love us. No, God didn’t need his Son to die in order to love us; he already loved us, and that’s why he sent his Son.

But not only that… Look again at Romans 5:8: How does Christ’s death on the cross prove God’s love for us, when Jesus was the One who did the dying? I mean, sure, Jesus proves he loves us by dying on the cross, but how does God prove his love?

Easy! Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is God—fully God. God in the flesh. Opponents of penal substitutionary atonement try to split the Trinity and pit an “angry” Father against his “loving” Son. As if the Father and the Son don’t want the same thing: which is, the salvation of everyone who believes in Jesus as Savior and Lord! But the Father and the Son do want the same thing! They have the same will!

If the death of God’s Son Jesus on the cross is what it takes to save these sinful human beings that God loves from their sins, then of course that’s what God the Son will do—willingly, out of love. What does Jesus say in John 10:18? “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Of my own accord. And Jesus’ will accords perfectly with his Father’s will.

One more thing: When “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son,” this did not represent a change of plans on God’s part. As if God were surprised when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden, and surprised again when Noah and his descendants messed up, and surprised again when his people Israel failed to obey his Law. So finally he had to take matter into his own hands and send his Son—to do for the people what they were unable to do for themselves. This is not at all what the Bible teaches.

No, the Bible says that Jesus was the “Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.” In other words, before God even began creating the world, he knew that he would have to redeem it—by coming in the flesh into the world and suffering and dying on the cross through his Son Jesus. But because God foreknew us—and loved us—he decided that was totally worth it. Amen?

I hope that helps. I’ll say more soon! Love you!

One thought on “Devotional Podcast #23: “John 3:16 and the Atonement””

  1. Understanding the love that Jesus had for us, when he died on that cross for the remission of the sins of all who would believe in Him is something so deep, and so extraordinary that I can hardly take it in. I think it’s why most Christians love Sunday’s resurrection story, but shrink from the horror of what happened on Good Friday. But, until you understand that it was your sin that nailed Christ to that cross, you don’t really understand how much He loved you.

    Thank you for these messages.

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