Can God make a rock so big that he can't lift it? Is there anything that God cannot do? According to Scripture, God cannot violate his own character. He cannot sin or tempt people to sin. And, Scripture declares, he cannot acquit the guilty. That is, he cannot just forgive-he cannot just let bygones be bygones when his justice, holiness, and righteousness are at stake.
We live in a sentimental age. Love has become the pretext for all sorts of infidelities between friends, parents and children, and even spouses. In past eras of church history, sensitive consciences were often driven to despair of finding a loving, gracious God. But now most preaching, teaching, worship, evangelism, and pastoral care seems unable to grasp the reality that fueled that despair. Today the knowledge of God as just and righteous and holy seems as lost among evangelicals as among the liberals they used to berate. Now pandering to the church consumers' felt needs brings to all-too-tragic light William James's claim, "God is not worshiped; he is used."
In All is Forgiven, Marsha Witten produced an illuminating survey of forty-seven sermons on the prodigal son that were delivered in mainline and conservative churches from 1986 to 1988. Her research adds to the mounting evidence that there is a feel-good deity in the Protestant pulpit across the denominational divide.
For example, Andrew Greeley reports that nearly three quarters of respondents in a survey in the mid-1980s preferred the image of God as "friend" to that of him as "king." Surveys by the Gallup Organization show that most Americans think of God as loving them, and only a small minority say they have ever been afraid of him. And James Hunter has documented the tendency of the popular evangelical literature he studied to stress God's therapeutic role, to downplay notions of sin, and to highlight the accessibility of forgiveness and conversion.
Witten observes that our culture's reduction of religion to a private matter has gone hand-in-hand with accommodation to the pragmatic and therapeutic aspects of our culture as well as to the pluralistic belief that all religions are equal. To illustrate the aspect of this reduction that concerns us here, she nicely juxtaposes nineteenth-century philosopher/theologian Sren Kierkegaard and televangelist Robert Schuller:
God and man are two qualities between which there is infinite qualitative difference. Every doctrine which overlooks this difference is, humanly speaking, crazy; understood in a godly sense, it is blasphemy. (Kierkegaard in Sickness Unto Death) Affirm OUT LOUD: "I am God's friend. God loves me. If God has chosen me for His friend, I must be a marvelous person." (Robert Schuller in Believe in the God Who Believes in You)As Witten's sermon survey indicates, "God as Daddy, Sufferer, and Lover" has replaced older and more adequate conceptions in both mainline and conservative Protestant contexts.
Of course, the preaching of the cross has always been "folly to those who are perishing" (1 Cor. 1:18), but this is especially true now. Here I want to show why the cross is the only answer to the question, How can God forgive? This is now necessary even in our own circles because, regardless of what we hold on paper, the cross has increasingly become a symbol for the love and forgiveness that God supposedly inevitably gives. In contrast, I want to show that Christ's cross work is the only way in which God can be both just and the justifier of sinners.
God's simplicity is a divine attribute that is easy for us to overlook. Basically, his simplicity means that God is not composed of various properties but is loving, merciful, just, holy, gracious, kind, omnipotent, and everything else he is altogether and all at once. This means that we can't just pick out our favorite attribute-whether sovereignty or love, justice or mercy-and define God by it. God's power can never be divorced from his goodness, or his love from his holiness.
This also means that when God runs into what from our vantage point appears to be a conflict, he does not-in fact, cannot -decide to be one thing (say, loving) at the expense of another (say, just). In every act he must be all of whom he is-that is, an undivided, wholly integrated personal God. Therefore, he cannot ignore his justice and holiness and then simply forgive the guilty. As the prophet Nahum declared:
The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.... Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him. (Nah. 1:1-3, 6)As God said through his prophet Isaiah: "I cannot endure iniquity" (Isa. 1:13).
Would we want God just to forgive the guilty, even if he could? What would you think of a judge who acquitted a serial murderer? A rapist? A thief? An extortionist? A child molester? To be sure, a judge can personally forgive another person who has stolen her own car, but if she were to forgive a thief for stealing someone else's car while she is in the courtroom acting as a judge, then we would be filled with righteous indignation that justice had not been served. In fact, we know that we cannot in principle object if an absolutely just judge refuses to forgive anyone's trespasses, including our own. Yet while we all believe that some people sometimes deserve condemnation, do we really acknowledge that this also includes ourselves? Almost all Americans believe in hell, but only 11 percent think they could go there.
Perhaps it is understandable that those who reject Christian orthodoxy object to such a stark possibility. For instance, in commenting on Anselm's argument for why Christ became a man, Oxford University theologian and former evangelical Keith Ward asks,
Is it not a slightly odd view of a morally perfect God that the divine nature can be so slighted and offended by what human beings do? ... Anselm's idea is that the penalty must be paid in full; but is this really compatible with belief in the mercy of God? Secondly, even if one can accept that the sinner must pay such a tremendous penalty, how can it be just for someone else to pay it for me? ... God shows love by healing, forgiving, suffering for us. God gives us love by placing his Spirit in our hearts. God places before us the ideal of the Christ life, and forms it within us as we contemplate it. But there is here no substitutionary death, no vicarious justice, and no literal death of one person in place of another.This is sentimentalism and a kind of sentimentalism that assumes that God is not simple and that he can, consequently, decide to act in terms of only some of his attributes. Such sentimentalism is not new, but it is surprising that it is so pervasive even in churches that confess orthodox theology. But perhaps even this should not be so surprising, since Charles Finney and a host of American revivalists would agree with Ward that the cross shows us how much God loves us and perhaps how he upholds his moral government but that it is hardly possible for one person to die for another's sins. Many evangelicals would be careful not to explicitly repudiate the biblical view, but the sad reality is that most of what we actually get out there is the view that Keith Ward offers here.
If we are to avoid this kind of sentimentalism, we must be very clear about what God, in his simplicity, must require of us.
The kind of righteousness that God requires of us is the very kind that he created us as capable of attaining. But after our first parents refused to attain that righteousness, a just God could not simply set aside the law that he gave to human beings, since that law was actually nothing but the expression of his own moral character. He would himself become a sinner if he simply tolerated our transgressions, as Scripture repeatedly affirms: "You ... are of purer eyes than to see evil and [you] cannot look at wrong" (Hab. 1:13). "The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers" (Ps. 5:5). These are not frequent proof texts in evangelistic tracts or in popular preaching, but they are unmistakably biblical. The law found in Scripture is not external to God; it is not arbitrary or a mere reflection of human convention; indeed, it is a revelation of God's very person. Scripture establishes that God is not angry by nature, but he is just, righteous, holy, and true. And thus he becomes angry when his nature or character is attacked or violated. This world isn't ours but God's. How we act in it is equivalent to how we are acting toward God. So we ought to expect that if we violate God's law then he will be angry with us. If you were to violently attack your host in his own home, would you expect tranquil acquiescence?
On the basis of his righteous nature, God can only say, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless" (Gen. 17:1) and "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart" (Ps. 24:3-4). Of course, some might try to dismiss these declarations by pointing out that they are from the Old Testament. But, in fact, the New Testament actually ups the ante. I have always found it strange that of all the portions of Scripture to choose from, liberals tend to choose the Sermon on the Mount. After all, what we find there in Jesus is not a kinder, gentler Moses, but the strictest interpretation of the law found anywhere in the Bible-"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:20). In the Sermon on the Mount, not only wrong outward actions but wrong inward affections and motives are considered sinful: "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment" (Matt. 5:21-22). "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks upon a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:27-28). Even what it means to be a loving person is now redefined not by what you do for your friends, but by how well you treat your enemies! (see Matt. 5:43-48).
"Yes," some will say, "but God looks at the heart." But this hardly brings good news: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? 'I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds'" (Jer. 17:9-10). It is not comforting to know that while we only look on outward appearances, God judges the heart. It is the heart that brings forth lies, hatred, malice, adultery, and all other sins (see Matt. 15:10-20).
Early in Romans, Paul tells us the truth about our situation-the truth that we are unwilling to tell ourselves: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth" (Rom. 1:18). When we, as Jews or Gentiles, try to justify ourselves and rationalize our wicked lives, God's law stops us in our tracks (see Rom. 3:19-20). Jesus is making the same point in his parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector: the law is and always was intended to be for sinners a measure of their sin, not a way of salvation (see Luke 18:10-14). God's law offers no way out, no possibility of time off for good behavior. In his justice, God is incapable of flexibility or accommodation because he would be less than God if he were to "bend the rules."
God's law, consequently, measures the seriousness of our predicament. Standing before it, we discover that we who were just moments ago talking about how nice we all are, how well-intentioned and helpful we have been to our neighbors, and perhaps hearing how the good news offered in church is that we can have better families if we just follow the "owner's manual," and realize who we really are. As Isaiah exclaimed as he stood before the majestic throne, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" (Isa. 6:5).
If we are sinners who deserve a holy God's wrath, and if God's simplicity means that he cannot deny what his holiness demands, then how can God love us? Scripture answers back, only justly and mercifully. Consequently, if God is going to justify the wicked (which he is not obligated to do), then it will have to be in a way that is consistent with his whole nature.
This is what God accomplishes through Christ's cross work. God can be both just and merciful through the cross of Christ. In other words, through Christ's work God can be both "just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26).
Scripture teaches us that God's motive for the atonement lies in his own pleasure and love (see Isa. 53:10 [kjv, nas] and John 3:16). In other words, the atonement originates in God's nature and not simply in some arbitrary will. Yet God's pleasure is linked not just to one or another of his attributes-like his love or his kindness-abstracted from the rest of him. God's pleasure arises not merely from his exercising his love, but also from his exercising his justice, from the fact that he is both "just and the justifier" of those who look to Christ on the cross. For in the cross, God is pleased to be both gracious and righteous simultaneously (see Rom. 3:24-25). Emphasizing only God's justice can lend support to critics of substitutionary atonement that God's requiring such a sacrifice was cruel and vindictive. Yet the fact that "God gave up His only begotten Son to bitter sufferings and to a shameful death cannot be explained on the principle of His love only," as Louis Berkhof says. According to the "moral government" theory of the atonement that Socinians and Arminians have held, God could relax or entirely set aside his law in pardoning sinners. And even to this day the stiffest resistance to the biblical doctrine of the atonement comes from the charge that it is too judicial in its orientation, requiring the satisfaction of God's justice. Liberal theology, represented by Friedrich Schleiermacher and Albrecht Ritschl, broke entirely from any juridical understanding of the atonement; God's need to satisfy his justice dropped entirely out of sight. As Berkhof notes, with Schleiermacher and Ritschl "and with modern liberal theology in general atonement becomes merely at-one-ment or reconciliation effected by changing the moral condition of the sinner." Some liberals, as Berkhof goes on to note, "speak of a moral necessity" for the atonement, but all of them "refuse to recognize any legal necessity."
Today, these positions are retreaded by feminists and even some evangelicals. They accuse those who hold the biblical view of Christ's substitutionary atonement with providing a basis for sanctioning violence. Church fathers like Anselm, they argue, with their judicial understanding of the atonement as a substitutionary sacrifice, present a distorted view of God. Luther, Calvin, and other Protestants then supposedly followed them. As Anabaptist Dennis J. Weaver recently wrote,
Building on the stress Martin Luther and John Calvin placed on Christ's death as penal suffering-the suffering by Christ of divine judgment on behalf of sinners-the divines of Protestant Orthodoxy in the following centuries developed the satisfaction theory within a strong legal and penal framework ... What Christ's death satisfied was the divine law. With satisfaction aimed at the law, the role of God was conceived in the mode of the trial judge who exacted the penalty demanded by the law, or as the prosecuting attorney who charged sinners with violating the law.... Common to this family of views in any of its versions is that the death of Jesus involved a divinely orchestrated plan through which Jesus' death could satisfy divine justice or divine law in order to save sinful humankind.Ironically, nearly every line in this definition of the substitutionary atonement is easily supported by numerous biblical texts taken at face value.
To be sure, some presentations of the atonement have reduced Christ's saving work to its judicial aspect, neglecting other important aspects-for instance, the cross as victory over the powers that hold us captive, the cross as a moral influence, and even the cross as the measure of God's love and as proof of God's moral government. In Colossians, at least the first two of these aspects of the atonement are held together: "God [has] made [us] alive together with [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him" (Col. 2:13-15). Here the atonement involves God's triumphing over the powers that have held humans captive by his having nailed to the cross "the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands." The case against us in the cosmic courtroom has thus been settled in our favor, leaving no basis for Satan's accusations, and thus no final claim for demonic powers over our lives.
Sometimes critics of substitutionary atonement reject Paul's courtroom by attributing it wholly to the influence of Roman jurisprudence. But this is wrong. Paul's courtroom is the courtroom where Adam was convicted and pardoned (see Gen. 3:17-21). It is the courtroom of the altar's sacrifices and of the Holy of Holies where Isaiah, beholding God's enthronement in a vision, was "undone" and where atonement was made for his cleansing (see Isa. 6:1-7). It is also the courtroom where Joshua the high priest was justified, despite his filthy clothes and Satan's prosecution of the case against him (see Zech. 3:1-10).
What the atonement considered as the satisfaction of God's justice and as his conquest over the powers share is their objectivity. That is, they focus on something that God has done for us. The moral influence and moral government theories that are now so prevalent in theology and preaching are, by contrast, subjective. They deny that the atonement has anything to do with reconciling God to sinners or propitiating his wrath and are exclusively concerned with what effect the atonement has on us.
Although in Scripture the substitutionary motif is central, it is not everything. The church has rightly seen in Christ's work transformative as well as legal aspects. Paul brought these aspects together especially in Romans 5, where he writes that through Adam we inherited both guilt and corruption and through Christ both justification and new life. This chapter forms the basis for his transition from the more legal, justificatory aspect of the atonement in chapters 3 and 4 to the more organic, baptismal language in chapters 6 and 7. To be united to Christ in the likeness of his death obtains our forgiveness, and this entails union with him in the likeness of his resurrection, involving a new, obedient way of life (see Rom. 6). Christ's substitution remains, however, the only biblical basis upon which the other things we can say about his atonement are true.
It is only because the offering of Christ is expiatory -that is, actually atones for our sins-that the cross is a symbol of love. According to the classic formulations of the moral influence and moral example theories, the cross simply expresses God's love, and this can be sufficient to induce sinners to repentance. Such views, however, rest upon a Pelagian view of human nature, involving both a low view of God's righteousness revealed in the law and a high view of human moral capacity after the fall. The result is a view of salvation where human repentance rather than divine redemption becomes the basis for forgiveness and reconciliation. And yet, once the expiatory character of the atonement is sufficiently appreciated, the cross can indeed be recognized as the most obvious demonstration of God's love and as a model for true friendship in our relationships with others. Finally, if, as the so-called moral government theory has it, Christ's death simply reestablishes God's justice as the world's ruler, apart from rendering a payment for sin on behalf of human beings, how could this be anything more than the mere assertion of justice by an act of arbitrary will? Yet in the substitutionary work of Christ, God himself "plays by the rules." God establishes justice throughout the earth by submitting himself to the justice that he himself is in his very being.
Only within the broader context of sacrificial analogies, then, can the cross be seen both to encompass and satisfy the whole being of God and the need of humankind. Justice at the expense of love reveals a deity whom the unjust can fear but never trust. Love at the expense of justice worships love as God instead of God as love. Within such sentimentalism, the cross can hardly be seen as a sign of anything but arbitrary cruelty. For if, once he has decided to redeem, God does not need to satisfy his justice through the work of his Son, then the cross loses its moral rationale. What kind of deity is revealed if the death of the beloved is simply an object lesson? What then does that death really teach?
The good news is not that God has provided an overwhelming picture of his love to induce us to repentance. It is not that thinking about the cross will help us do better in the future. It is that God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves: The righteousness that God requires has been given to us as a gift because Jesus Christ has lived a perfect life in our place, died for our sins, and then been raised for our justification (see Rom. 4:25). The good news is not that God offers us a clean slate and a fresh start-although he does. The good news is far greater than that! It is nothing less than the blessedness about which Paul speaks in Romans 4: "And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (v. 5).
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.... God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. (Rom. 5:1-2, 8-9)If you are a criminal, it is easy to trust a judge who acquits criminals. But God does not acquit criminals. He justifies them. He does not pardon them even though he still considers them guilty; he declares them righteous, so that, as far as justice is concerned, they have perfectly satisfied all requirements of the law. This is not (as some say) a "legal fiction," because Christ has perfectly kept the law for us and his righteousness is truly credited to us as if we had done it ourselves. But God only justifies the wicked. He justifies the wicked as wicked. He does not leave them in their wickedness, but he does justify them while they are still wicked on no other basis than the life, death, and resurrection of his own Son.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died-more than that, who was raised-who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? (Rom. 8:31-35).
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
Issue: "Forgiven, Forgiving" March/April 2004 Vol. 13 No. 2 Page number(s): 17-23
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