Atonement

Richard Burgess, 2nd April, 2021.

One of the questions people struggle with today is over the atonement, the fact that Jesus died in our place in order that we might be forgiven, justified/made right with God, and have the hope of heaven when we die.

It is said, if God is love and all powerful surely he could and should just forgive us anyway, and welcome us into his family. The fact is, to quote Dale Carnegie, “Forgiveness to man is the plainest of duties, but to God it is the profoundest of problems.” In other words, we are in the same boat, and therefore should forgive, but with God it’s all together different.

The problem is that the statement neither understands God or the nature of man’s fallen condition. In order to make that kind of statement we have to in some way ‘lower’ God and ‘raise’ humanity. So we make God’s holiness more accommodating and humanities sin not so serious. To jump to that conclusion we have to do all sorts of contortions with the Bible, in fact we would need to rip a lot of it out!

Why is forgiveness a problem?

1. God is absolutely holy. His holiness is not some wishy washy niceness, whereby he can be influenced this way, that way, and the other, or where he goes with the crowd of popular opinion. Indeed, the angels emphasise his holiness as day and night they cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty…” Totally pure, totally holy. Totally other than we are.

2. God is holy love. People say, well isn’t God love, with the implication that he is bound to forgive me, us, anyway, no matter what. Not so. God is not and does not love in slushy terms, where anything goes, a love that can be used and abused. God is holy love, his love is qualified by his holiness and will never contradict it. Such love is truly awesome.

3. The seriousness of sin. Its popular to talk of the goodness of humanity. That’s not the language of the Bible, the Bible makes it clear all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Sin is not some trivial misdemeanor, but serious rebellion, anarchy. We have all fallen completely. That doesn’t mean we don’t do some good things, we do so by the common grace of God, but that is not enough to save us, to gain us any merit before God. The Bible is absolutely clear in regards to humanities condition. Theologians have referred to it as total depravity, perhaps not something that sits comfortably with us in our “advanced age.” It means no part of us is untainted by the Fall, and we are desperately lost and under judgement, a judgement from which we cannot extricate ourselves however hard we might try.

4. How can a holy and righteous God forgive sins and remain true to Himself? Simply to turn a blind eye to sin, or to shrug off the nature of our sin, or to simply forgive it as if it didn’t matter, would undermine the character of God. Its fascinating that we want to judge God by our own standards of morality – ‘If I was God I’d just forgive them, I mean why should God need to send his own Son to die, that’s cruel, wrong, barbaric.’ Yet we live in a world that wants justice, a world that is horrified when justice is not done, why? because it undermines not only the character of justice but those who are supposed to exercise it. God must be true to Himself.

The only way that God could save, could justify the ungodly, would be for someone to live a pure, unblemished life, then take our sins, and bear heavens judgment on them. I say ‘heavens’ because there are those who want to pit the Father against the Son in some kind of cosmic child abuse when it comes to the Easter story, something that is a complete and utter distortion of the word of God.

When thinking through these things it’s important we understand the doctrine of the Trinity, otherwise we will pit one against the other, as if the Father coerced the Son against his will to come and die. From all eternity God has been one being in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, co-equal and co-eternal, and in loving and harmonious unity they planned our redemption. Indeed in the counsels of heaven in response to the request “Who will go for us?” can be heard the response of the Son, “Here I am, send me…”

And so, Jesus became our willing substitute. He came to live the life we should have lived and then take our sins upon himself and die the death we should have died, bearing heavens justice upon his own body on the cross. This was far more than a demonstration of love, a moral example, or of victory over cosmic powers, Jesus was our substitute, paying the price, bearing the punishment, the wrath of God for all our sin.

A word about wrath. The problem is we see wrath from our fallen experiences of it, i.e. a temper tantrum, an uncontrolled outburst etc. . But God’s wrath is not fitful or uncontrolled. God’s wrath is part of his love. It is thoughtful, it is controlled, it is measured.

Such an understanding of the cross is not pretty, and yes, it’s an offence to our modern sensibilities – to quote Marva Dawn, “If we don’t admit the depths of our sin, such a complete atonement at such an appalling cost is an outrageous stumbling block.”

Let me finish with Charles Wesley’s hymn:

’Tis finished! The Messiah dies,
Cut off for sins, but not His own:
Accomplished is the sacrifice,
The great redeeming work is done.
’Tis finished! all the debt is paid;
Justice divine is satisfied;
The grand and full atonement made;
God for a guilty world hath died.

The veil is rent in Christ alone;
The living way to Heaven is seen;
The middle wall is broken down,
And all mankind may enter in.
The types and figures are fulfilled;
Exacted is the legal pain;
The precious promises are sealed;
The spotless Lamb of God is slain.

The reign of sin and death is o’er,
And all may live from sin set free;
Satan hath lost his mortal power;
’Tis swallowed up in victory.
Saved from the legal curse I am,
My Savior hangs on yonder tree:
See there the meek, expiring Lamb!
’Tis finished! He expires for me.

Accepted in the Well-beloved,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
I see the bar to heaven removed;
And all Thy merits, Lord, are mine.
Death, hell, and sin are now subdued;
All grace is now to sinners given;
And lo, I plead the atoning blood,
And in Thy right I claim Thy Heaven!

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