Posts Tagged ‘penal substitutionary atonement (PSA)’

Defending substitutionary atonement again

January 10, 2019

Just this morning, Roger Olson has a fine post called “The ‘Judge Judged in Our Place’: Substitutionary Atonement Reclaimed,” which I recommend to anyone who struggles to understand or believe that Jesus suffered God’s wrath in our place on the cross. Sadly, this would include many of my United Methodist clergy colleagues—certainly those who went to seminaries like the one I went to, the Candler School of Theology,[1] where substitutionary atonement[2] is practically verboten.

But plenty of evangelicals are questioning the doctrine, too, egged on by “exvangelicals” such as Steve Chalke and Brian Zahnd, both of whose ideas I’ve criticized in the past.

So I admire the clarity with which Dr. Olson defines and defends the doctrine. Here’s how he defines it:

Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, God the Son, voluntarily suffered the judgment of God on sin that we deserve and suffered it in our place. He did this in order that he, God, together with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, could forgive us and justify us righteously. Without his suffering he could not forgive righteously; without it forgiveness would be indulgence. The cross event is a work of love that includes a work of justice (and wrath).

Note his emphasis on God’s righteousness, or justice. It would be unjust of God to forgive sin without at the same time paying the cost—indeed, suffering the penalty—to do so.

Forgiveness is never free. To see this, I refer you to a thought experiment that I’ve used in sermons before, based on a sermon illustration from Tim Keller:

Suppose somebody steals your car. It’s missing for several days. Then one day the police call: the man who stole your car crashed it. But the good news is that the police arrived on the scene and arrested the man. But instead of taking the man to jail right away, they say to you, the owner of the car: “you get to choose. This man can either go to jail and face punishment… Or… you can just forgive him, and he can get off scot-free. What’s it going to be?” Now I know that’s not going to happen in real life, but just work with me…

Suppose you chose to forgive the man. He doesn’t have to serve jail time. He doesn’t have a black mark on his record. He’ll walk away from the crime and never see you again. Because you forgave him.

O.K., let me ask you: Is your forgiveness of this man free? Does your forgiveness cost nothing? Of course not! First of all, the car has to be repaired—which could be very expensive. And even if your insurance covers part of it, you still pay the deductible, not to mention you’re the one who’s been paying the premiums every month. Also, you’ve been without your car for a few days already, and it will be several more days before your car is back from the shop. So maybe you’ve had to pay for a rental car to get you back and forth from work or other places. Not to mention the emotional turmoil or the time away from work or whatever else it’s cost you just to deal with the hassle of having your car stolen.

Who’s going to pay for all that if you forgive the perpetrator and he goes free? You are. And I’m not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t forgive him; I only want you to see that forgiveness even in this trivial case isn’t free. It’s costly. Somebody must pay for the damaged car… Either the person who committed the crime. Or his family. Or the insurance. Or you. Regardless, the price must be paid.

And so it is for evildoing we commit against a holy God: in the interest of justice, someone must pay for it, either the perpetrator or God.

But in his recent debate on substitutionary atonement, for example, Brian Zahnd said that God doesn’t need to pay anything to forgive us: as he put it, “God forgives because God forgives.” In other words, Zahnd would say, it’s in God’s nature to forgive. While I agree that it’s in God’s nature to be merciful (“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” Exodus 34:6 and many parallel verses in the Old Testament), God’s mercy is costly. Otherwise, as Olson says, “forgiveness would be indulgence.”

Suppose, by contrast—as we proponents of substitutionary atonement believe—that justice is a part of God’s loving nature—that God cannot merely overlook sin because to do so would be to deny a part of himself. (Indeed, I don’t care whether you say that justice is a part of God’s nature or, as I believe, justice proceeds necessarily from God’s love, which, as the apostle John makes explicit in 1 John 4:8, characterizes God’s nature. Same difference.) The cross of God’s Son Jesus solves the problem of God’s justice, or resolves the tension (if you want to think of it that way) between mercy and justice, or love and justice. How so? On the cross, God’s commitment to perfect justice and God’s perfect love find their fullest expression: “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10).

This is why I can live with N.T. Wright’s—ahem—substitution of “the love of God was satisfied” in place of “the wrath of God was satisfied” in the contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone”—so long as I footnote it to explain that God’s love is satisfied in part because God poured out his wrath on sin through his Son Jesus. (Wright, who believes in substitutionary atonement, would accept this explanation.) Don’t get me wrong: In the context in which I minister, I would prefer to keep the song the way its songwriters wrote it and explain why it’s theologically and biblically appropriate to speak of God’s wrath. (There are, I’m sure, some preachers who speak of God’s wrath too much, but I’ve never heard a contemporary Methodist preacher who had that problem!)

Getting back to Olson, he describes the satisfaction both of God’s love and justice (righteousness, holiness) succinctly as follows:

[I]n order to forgive sins righteously and maintain his holiness God himself had to suffer the punishment deserved by sinners—death as separation from God—and he did this out of a motive of love even though justice required it.

Notice he says that “God himself had to suffer the punishment deserved by sinners.” Remembering that Jesus is God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, who wants the redemption of sinners exactly as much as his Father and the Holy Spirit, and willingly does what is necessary to make it happen, guards against popular caricatures of substitutionary atonement, all of which pit a vengeful, angry father against a loving, merciful son—as if a bloodthirsty God needed to torture and kill some innocent person to satisfy his wrath, and, behold, his Son would have to do. Or God’s wrath was going to be “fired at” human beings until this “second party,” God’s Son Jesus, stepped in to “take the bullet” on our behalf.

This is ridiculous! But watch this debate between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown and tell me that Zahnd doesn’t caricature the doctrine in this way. It’s irresponsible and disingenuous, to say the least. Zahnd, a self-described fan of David Bentley Hart, reads some dense theology. I’m sure he’s capable of accurately describing the doctrine of substitutionary atonement even if he disagrees with it. When you’re in a debate, after all, you should always attack the best version of your opponent’s position. Otherwise, you’re guilty of committing the “straw man fallacy.”

As Olson puts it, “What many people miss when they ‘picture’ substitutionary atonement is that Jesus Christ was not just an ‘innocent man’ on whom God took out his wrath; he was God the judge judging himself in our place thereby judging our sin and making it possible to forgive without neglecting holiness.”

Amen.

In a future post, pastor John Piper will help me describe the way in which an allegedly “competing” theory of atonement, Christus Victor, fits hand-in-glove with substitutionary atonement.

1. I urge anyone interested in pursuing professional ministry to avoid the Candler School of Theology! It’s awful, and it’s caused great harm especially to the United Methodist Church. (I describe one example of harm in this post.) If you think think it’s impolite of me to say so, at least appreciate that I’ve paid for the privilege. Indeed, I continue to pay, both through student debt and in my spirit. Also, I write this as someone who graduated toward the top of my class. I’m not holding a grudge against Candler, for instance, because of my grades or its alleged academic rigor.

The alma mater that I love is the Georgia Institute of Technology. I have two undergraduate degrees from that fine institution, and I display these diplomas proudly on my office wall. Meanwhile, I literally have no idea where my Emory diploma is. I assume they keep records!

2. In this post, I’ve used used the term “substitutionary atonement” because Dr. Olson uses that term. Normally, I’m happy to say “penal substitutionary atonement” (PSA). Olson draws a distinction between the terms that I wouldn’t make. Whether I speak of PSA or substitutionary atonement, I want to affirm, alongside Olson, that Christ’s death on the cross was necessary to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, apart from which none of us can be saved. On the cross, God did something objective through his Son’s suffering and death to make forgiveness of sin possible.

Reductio ad Hitlerum, Part 26: What if Hitler had a deathbed conversion?

November 10, 2018

I’m a fan of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale, an apologetics podcast from Ravi Zacharias’s ministry. In each episode Vince and Jo (along with host Michael Davis) answer often difficult questions about Christianity that are submitted by listeners.

In the most recent episode, a listener asked the following: “If Hitler repented to God on his deathbed, would he have been forgiven?”

Please note that no one is asserting that Hitler did repent and believe in Jesus. Indeed, since he committed suicide, it seems unlikely that he even had a deathbed. So the question is hypothetical. But I like Jo’s response:

This is what it comes down to at the bottom of it, right? This may be the hardest thing to accept in Christianity. People say that if there’s a loving God, why would he judge people? But I think the much harder thing is, if there’s a loving God, why would he forgive people—even this person, even Hitler? But actually, the reality of the Christian faith is, either it’s for everybody or it’s for nobody. There’s no middle ground here. And I think what this question reveals is that on some level we’re still thinking of forgiveness as about what we deserve: that there are certain people who deserve forgiveness and there are others who don’t. But the bottom line here—the message of the Bible—is that none of us do. Grace is completely unmerited.

The theologian Christopher Wright says that every victim of sin is also a sinner. There is none who is not also sinned against. That’s the state we’re in. It doesn’t mean that all sin is the same. I do think there are certain things that are horrifying and grotesque and sick and evil, and Hitler is the example we go to for that, and the life he lived is absolutely appalling. We’re not leveling out and saying that there aren’t differences in the way that we sin. But nevertheless we are saying that we’re all in the same boat in the sense that, yes, we’re still dead in our sin—whether it was extreme sin that killed us or small sin, we’re still dead in our sin.

And I think the question here becomes, Is the cross big enough to carry it? No matter the horrendousness of the evil, is God big enough to defeat it? Is his love strong enough to wipe out even the most horrendous kind of hate? And what does that say about what Christ carried on the cross, and the gravity of that, and the enormity of it—that even something so heinous could be what Christ is bearing for us at the cross?

My favorite part of her answer is this: “On some level we’re still thinking of forgiveness as about what we deserve.” We believe we have to deserve or earn or pay for or prove ourselves worthy of God’s saving grace. Some people measure up, while others clearly don’t.

What about you? Do you believe that you have to deserve forgiveness?

The dying Capt. Miller speaks the most unhelpful words possible to Private Ryan.

Before you answer, consider how you respond to the following scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan. If you’ve seen it, you may recall the dying words that Capt. Miller, Tom Hanks’s character, spoke to Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. After nearly everyone in the unit dies in order to save Ryan’s life, Miller grabs Ryan by the lapels and says, “Earn this… Earn it!”

Next we see an elderly Ryan, decades later, near the end of his own life, standing beside the grave markers at Normandy beach—asking his children and grandchildren, “Did I earn it?”—in other words, did he live a life worthy of the sacrifices that Miller and his fellow soldiers made for him so long ago? Did he deserve the life that their deaths made possible for him?

His family reassures him: “Of course you did, Dad!”

And I’m like, Really? Who are they kidding? A dozen or so men sacrificed their lives to save Ryan’s life: How could he possibly “earn” that sacrifice? How could he repay that debt? How could he balance those scales?

He couldn’t… which is why I find this scene between Miller and Ryan more horrifying than any of the bloody carnage depicted in the movie. Miller places on Ryan an impossible burden of guilt.

Yet, in a way, this scene depicts our predicament before God. Because of our sin, we owe God a debt we can never repay. The difference, of course, is that instead of insisting that we repay the debt—a debt infinitely greater than what Ryan owes—God himself pays it for us on the cross of his Son Jesus, who is also God.

Instead of grabbing us by the proverbial lapels and saying, “Earn this,” God says, “Receive this… receive this free gift, which I paid for on the cross. It was my pleasure to purchase this gift for you because I love you that much! Receive it!”

So the question is not about Hitler, and how evil he is, but Jesus and how powerful the cross is. Do we believe, in other words, that Jesus accomplished something objective on the cross to make forgiveness of sin possible, such that both God’s perfect love and his commitment to perfect justice—both of which are aspects of God’s nature—would be upheld?

If the Bible is telling the truth, the answer is a resounding yes.

In Mark 10:35-45, which I preached on a few weeks ago, Jesus hints at how the cross accomplishes this. When James and John ask about sitting at Jesus’ right and left hand in glory, he says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

This “cup” is the same cup to which Jesus will later refer in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14:36 (and parallels): “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” This is also the cup to which the Old Testament refers—a symbol of God’s wrath, which, scripture warns repeatedly, the unrighteous will have to drink as punishment for their sin:

For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
    with foaming wine, well mixed,
and he pours out from it,
    and all the wicked of the earth
    shall drain it down to the dregs. (Psalm 75:8)

Thus the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them.” (Jeremiah 25:15-16)

The good news, as Isaiah prophesies, is that God will remove the cup of his wrath.

Thus says your Lord, the Lord,
    your God who pleads the cause of his people:
“Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more.” (Isaiah 51, 17, 22)

In the interest of justice, how can God do this? Does humanity not deserve to drink this cup? What causes God to take the cup away?

Only this: God offered an acceptable substitute for us. And who could possibly serve as a fitting substitute? Only God.

In other words, we owed a debt to God that only God could pay. So he paid it—willingly, out of love. This is why God came into the world in Christ: to “give his life as a random for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus’ words in this verse point back to Isaiah 53:5, 10:

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed…

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

As a result of God’s offering of himself on the cross, an “offering for guilt,” we—those of us who believe in Jesus—become the “offspring” of God himself. As John himself (the very one who, along with his brother, is squabbling over sitting at Christ’s left or right hand) would later write,

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

This is the gospel, the very foundation on which I’ve built my life. Thank you, Jesus!

Sermon 10-29-17: “Christ Alone, Part 2”

November 2, 2017

This is the second of two sermons on this passage from Hebrews 2, and the final sermon in my “Reformation 500” series. Among other things the author of Hebrews says that on the cross, Jesus “destroye[d] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” How is this true, especially since Satan remains alive and active in our world? How did Christ win a victory for us?

Sermon Text: Hebrews 2:5-18

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Think back with me to the Exodus, when God delivered his people Israel out of bondage in Egypt. If you’ll recall, he sent a series of ten plagues as punishment against Egypt, until finally the Pharaoh relented and let Israel go free. And then the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his armies after the Israelites, before being drowned in the Red Sea. But the climactic and most destructive plague—you may remember—was the Passover. Remember? The Lord told the Israelites in Exodus 12 to take the blood of a lamb, without blemish, and sprinkle the blood on their doorposts. An angel would then pass through the land and kill the firstborn son of every household that didn’t have blood on the doorposts—which would mean many, many Egyptians would die. And of course, this final plague was so effective that the Pharaoh let them go… at least at first.

When we read or hear about this event, we think of God’s anger toward and judgment against Egypt. Right? “The Egyptians are getting what they deserve for their sins! God is punishing them!” But not so fast… If the Passover were all about God’s anger toward and judgment on Egypt—if it were all about punishing Egypt for their sins—why would God bother having the Israelites sprinkle this blood? Couldn’t he just have sent the angel through the land and killed all the firstborn Egyptian sons? Why did the Israelites have to do anything? They were the good guys, right? They were the heroes! They were the innocent victims!

Right?

Wrong… It’s clear that if the Israelites hadn’t obeyed God and sprinkled the blood on the doorposts, they would have fallen under the same judgment as Egypt. Their firstborn children would have died as well. To be sure, God was incredibly merciful and gracious to give Israel the opportunity to be spared this judgment. But in sparing them God was not giving them what they deserved. Like the Egyptians, they too deserved death because of their sins. And their lives were only spared by the blood of the lamb. Their deliverance from slavery and death was made possible through an act of God’s grace by the blood of the lamb.

And it should be clear to us Christians why God did it this way: to point to that future sacrifice, when God himself, in the person of his Son Jesus, would shed his own blood to spare us from God’s judgment. The prophet Isaiah, in Isaiah 53, looks forward to Jesus’ sacrifice when he says that Christ was “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”[1] John the Baptist looks forward to Jesus’ sacrifice when he sees Jesus coming in John chapter 1 and says to his own disciples, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus looks forward to this sacrifice when he has the Last Supper with his disciples—which was a Passover meal—and he says, “This is my body and this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”[2] Jesus is telling the disciples that he will be the Passover lamb.

The Bible’s message is crystal clear: If God is going to forgive us, justify us, save us, deliver us, liberate us, give us eternal life, give us abundant life—however you want to phrase it—he is first going to have to deal with our sins by offering the bloody sacrifice of the lamb of God, Jesus Christ. On the cross, Christ absorbed God’s wrath—God’s justifiable anger—toward sin.

I talked about God’s wrath two weeks ago in my sermon two weeks ago, but I realize that some of us don’t even want to consider the idea that God has wrath toward humanity because of our sins. But what’s the alternative? Some will say, “God is love. So why would he be angry at us because of our sin?” But of course, he wouldn’t be loving if he weren’t angry. N.T. Wright makes this point in the following way:

The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation… the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.[3]

But… if God is going to “root out” all this evil, well… he’s going to have root us out as well! What does the psalmist say? “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”[4] And the answer? None of us!

But please, please, please don’t miss this: While it’s absolutely true that every one of us who’ve ever lived—with one exception—deserve God’s judgment and God’s wrath because we’re sinners, in the same breath we also say that God so loved the world—including us—that he planned before the foundation of the world to save us from God’s judgment and God’s wrath. We know just how loving God is by his willingness to come to us, in the flesh, and absorb his Father’s wrath, suffer the penalty for our sin, and suffer hell on the cross! For us! As the Bible says, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[5]

Now I want to look at two things that the author of Hebrews says Christ accomplished for us on the cross: First, verses 14 and 15, through his death he destroyed “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver[ed] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” And in verse 17, he became our “faithful high priest” who made “propitiation for the sins of the people.” I talked about “propitiation” in Part 1 of this sermon: this is what Christ did to turn away God’s wrath from us—sprinkling the blood of the lamb on the doorposts during Passover, for example, was propitiation.

But the author of Hebrews wants us to know that these two events—the defeat of Satan and the turning away of God’s wrath—are related. How?

For one thing, as we look around the world and scan the news headlines, it seems clear that Satan is alive and active in the world. And, as I’ve preached before, the Bible is clear that the devil has real power in the world. God’s Word says that in the beginning, Satan was an angel, created by God with free will, who chose to use his freedom to rebel against God—along with other angels. And like us, Satan can use this freedom to work great harm in the world. He has a limited power, to be sure—Satan can’t do anything in the world that God doesn’t permit him to do. And whatever Satan does, God can transform it into something good. But he does have real power to affect our world and our lives within it.

I was listening to an interview recently with Alvin Plantinga. He’s a world-renown philosopher who’s argued persuasively for God’s existence and the truth of Christianity. Plantinga has taught at Notre Dame and Calvin College. He also happens to be an evangelical Christian. And just this year, he won the Templeton Prize, which is awarded to the person who’s made the greatest contribution in the area of religion and spirituality—Mother Teresa, for example, was a previous winner of the Templeton Prize. The award is presented by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace. And the cash award is over $1.5 million. It’s a big deal!

But I was listening recently to an interview with Dr. Plantinga. And he was talking about the “problem of evil,” and how a good and loving God could allow it. And he talked about how important it was for God to give us free will, which helps explain human evil. But then the interviewer asked about so-called “natural evil”—hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and the like. Or what about diseases like cancer. Why would a good and loving God allow those things? And Dr. Plantinga said, “I know this isn’t a popular answer today, but I believe those kinds of events happen in part through the power and influence of Satan.”[6]

That blew me away! But then I looked back at Job chapters 1 and 2: Satan literally has the power to affect the weather and cause all kinds of disease and pestilence. It’s right there in the Bible!

But as bad as these things are, they’re not nearly the most harmful weapon in Satan’s arsenal. What does Jesus say? “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[7] No disease, no pestilence, no natural disaster has the power to cause any of us ultimate harm: Because none of these things—even if they kill us—has the power to send us to hell. Only one thing can do that: our sin. And Satan is at work in the world right now doing everything he can to keep us enslaved to sin; keep us from repenting of sin; keep us from trusting in Christ and being saved. Or, if we’ve possessed saving faith in the past, he’s tempting us right now to abandon our faith.

Satan’s power to tempt us is the most destructive weapon in his arsenal. And he’s still wielding that weapon. So how is that Christ’s death has destroyed “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” as verse 14 says?

Because of what the author of Hebrews says in verse 17: Christ became our “merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Through Christ’s sacrifice—offered once for all time—all of our sins, past, present, and future, have been taken away.

At Bible study last Wednesday, we were talking about the pervasiveness of sin in our lives—even after we’ve become Christians. We talked about the importance of repenting of our sins as we become aware of them. As the apostle John says, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”[8] And someone asked, “What if, despite our best efforts to confess our sins and repent, we die with unconfessed sin? Will we still be forgiven? Will we still be saved?”

What do you think? How would you answer that question?

Before we answer that question, consider this: we can’t begin to know all the sins we’ve committed in this life—even the sins we’ve committed this morning! Even in church! We’re not just talking about the things we do. We sin with every judgmental thought; we sin with every lustful thought; we sin with every prideful thought. We sin when we lose our temper. We sin when we lose our patience. We sin every time we fail to trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding. We sin when our love for God and neighbor isn’t one-hundred percent pure! How often do we manage to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and our neighbor as ourself? Not often.

So… will we die with unconfessed sin? Of course we will. Will we still be forgiven?

The answer is a resounding yes! We will be forgiven, so long as we continue to trust in Christ!

How do I know? Because Christ our high priest has made propitiation for the sins of his people—all of our sins—past, present, and future! The Old Testament has a sacrificial system in which priests offered the blood of bulls and goats, but the author of Hebrews tells us that these sacrifices were just a “shadow of the good things to come… For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”[9] But Christ’s sacrifice was different: as the author says in chapter 10, verse 10, “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”[10]

Once for all! Did you hear that?

I’ve told you before that I was adopted. I always knew, from my earliest memory, that I was adopted. So I never thought much about it. Until around fourth grade when some of my classmates found out. And let’s just say back then schools were not a “Bully Free Zone.” As far as we knew, when you were bullied, you fought back. And so I did. I got in a fistfight. I got sent to the principal. And my parents got involved, and suddenly the fact that I was adopted became a very big deal!

And my parents wanted me to know that I was one-hundred percent a full-fledged member of their family. In fact, they said I was extra special because, after all, unlike a natural born baby, I was chosen. They “chose” me. I’ll be honest: even as a ten-year-old I didn’t quite believe I was chosen: I didn’t imagine that they rolled out a bunch of basinets in the maternity ward at the hospital and told my parents, “Take your pick.” I figured my parents would have been happy with any baby they got. But still… I got their point.

I was a one-hundred percent, full-fledged member of the family. In a sense, I was chosen. And everything that belonged to my parents and my older sister Susan, who wasn’t adopted, now belonged to me: including their name and everything else. And one thing is for sure: my adoptive parents would have sacrificed their lives for me if they had to—just as I would for my own children.

The same is true of the One who adopted us and made us part of his family. Look at verse 11 of today’s scripture: “For he who sanctifies”—that is, Jesus—“and those who are sanctified”—that is, those of us who’ve accepted Christ as our Savior and Lord—“all have one source”—or as the NIV and other translations put it, we all have the same Father. Now listen to this: “That is why he”—Jesus—“is not ashamed to call them brothers” and sisters.

Everything that belongs to our big brother Jesus now belongs to us—including his very righteousness. It’s not that we Christians don’t sin, but from God’s perspective, we are as holy as his Son Jesus.

So… what can Satan do to us now? He can accuse us. His name means “Accuser,” after all. He can say, “When you die, God’s not going to save you. Look at all these sins you’ve committed!” He can remind you, again and again, of your past sins and try to make you afraid of meeting God in Final Judgment after death. But if you’re in Christ, you’re in his family now. And your adoption papers are signed in the blood of the Lamb.

So Satan’s power over you is destroyed. Amen?

Why can’t God forgive sin without the cross?

October 28, 2017

As I’ve argued on this blog many times before, I’m a proponent of the doctrine of penal substitution, or penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). I believe that it isn’t merely one way of understanding what God accomplished through his Son Jesus Christ on the cross—as if we can choose among several equally compelling alternatives: it’s the main way of understanding the Atonement.

In advocating for PSA, I’m standing on the shoulders not only of the Protestant Reformers but also Jacob Arminius, John Wesley, and most of the classic Methodist theologians who followed in their wake.

But these are only men, of course. More than anything, I believe PSA is most faithful to the Bible, and its depiction of the way in which God reconciles us to himself.

PSA means that, ultimately, we sinners need to be saved from God’s wrath, which is God’s perfectly justifiable anger toward sin. (I preached on that topic last week.) Notice I say “perfectly justifiable.” I like the way N.T. Wright puts it in this essay:

The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.

But how can we be saved from this wrath?

We need a human representative to endure it for us—one who is himself without sin. Who would be qualified to do that? Only a human being who is also (somehow) God. As St. Anselm of Canterbury put it in the eleventh century, “If it be necessary, therefore… that [salvation] cannot be effected unless the aforesaid satisfaction be made, which none but God can make and none but man ought to make, it is necessary for the God-man to make it.”[1]

This is, of course, precisely what the God-man, Jesus Christ, has done for us. When Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” the “cup” is a reference, as in Isaiah 51:17 and 22, and Jeremiah 25:15, to God’s wrath being poured out. PSA means, in a way, that God saves us from God. Because of God’s perfect justice, God requires a payment. Because of God’s perfect love, God makes the payment. This payment, by the way, is what the Bible means, even in last Sunday’s scripture, when it speaks of “propitiation.” PSA does not pit God’s justice against God’s love: on the cross, they are in perfect harmony.

I like the way one commentator, quoted by N.T. Wright in his defense of PSA, puts it in a nineteenth-century commentary:

God is love, say [some], and therefore he does not require a propitiation. God is love, say the Apostles, and therefore he provides a propitiation. Which of these doctrines appeals best to the conscience? Which of them gives reality, and contents, and substance, to the love of God? Is it not the apostolic doctrine? Does not the other cut out and cast away that very thing which made the soul of God’s love to Paul and John? . . . Nobody has any right to borrow the words ‘God is love’ from an apostle, and then to put them in circulation after carefully emptying them of their apostolic import. . . . But this is what they do who appeal to love against propitiation. To take the condemnation out of the Cross is to take the nerve out of the Gospel . . . Its whole virtue, its consistency with God’s character, its aptness to man’s need, its real dimensions as a revelation of love, depend ultimately on this, that mercy comes to us in it through judgment. (James Denney, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Expositor’s Bible, Hodder, 1894, p. 221f.)

Notice the last sentence: PSA is “consistent with God’s character.”

The appeal to God’s character answers an objection we may have: If God’s justice demands propitiation (because of our sin) and God’s love offers it (through the death of God’s Son Jesus—who is also God, remember), isn’t this—to put it in human terms—like withdrawing money from one account, which belongs to you, and depositing it another account, which also belongs to you? After this transaction, you’re neither richer nor poorer. So why bother? Why can’t God merely forgive us without the cross?

Because we remember God’s character. God’s law emerges from his very nature. In a sense, then, as Stephen Wellum puts it, God is the law. Therefore all sin—which kindles God’s wrath—is against God.

Since God is the law, he cannot forgive our sin without satisfying his own holy and righteous demand. For God to forgive sin apart from the punishment of our sin or its full satisfaction is impossible. God cannot overlook our sin nor can he relax the retributive demands of his justice because he cannot deny himself. The God of the Bible is a se: self-existent, self-attesting, and self-justifying, which entails that he must punish sin because our sin is against him. Sin is not foremost against an external, impersonal order outside of God; it is against him, the triune-personal God of holy love, righteousness, and justice.[2]

This helps me.

If we would never expect or want God to do anything to compromise or contradict his love and mercy—which spring from his nature—why should we expect God to do something (or avoid doing something) that compromises or contradicts his justice? His love and justice are both part of who God is.

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 157-8.

2. Stephen Wellum, Christ Alone (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 178.