Tuesday, April 7, 2020
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
That Jesus had to die raises difficult questions for some. For instance, among unbelievers and theological liberals the idea of God sacrificing his Son in the place of the guilty (substitutionary atonement) is tantamount to “divine child abuse.” How can justice be served by the death of an innocent? Others object to the idea of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sinners on the basis that it portrays God as wrathful. Why would God need to punish sin? Isn’t God love? Couldn’t God have forgiven sinners without requiring a sacrifice?
The answer to these objections is found in understanding both the nature of God and the nature of sin.
It is very difficult to explain the necessity of the cross in a society where sin has been trivialized. Perhaps you have noticed lately how much advertising is turning to lighthearted and funny depictions of sin to sell products. Recently I saw adultery used as a funny punchline to promote a product. We are immersed in this sort of wink-and-laugh posture toward sin. Cars, perfume, shampoo, cable service, wine, vacations – you name it – increasingly appeal to our taste for transgressing God’s law to sell their products.
A number of years ago an article entitled “Are You Sinning Comfortably?” observed that people no longer avoid sin because sin does not exist as a serious idea in modern life. The idea that particular acts and attitudes offend God is lost entirely because we have privatized God. We have imagined him to be our divine and private talisman. He is a lump of magical clay which we mold and shape in our own image and according to our own preferences. As one theologian has observed – “Man with his own private deity has nothing left to sin against.”
I read an article recently about young people growing up in Great Brittan. The writer laments the steep rise of the unbelieving. But what has replaced their belief in God – specifically Christianity – is not substance but triviality. The author writes:
Sociologists have coined a term for these young adults. They call them ‘nones’ because the ‘nones’ believe in ‘nothing’ – of course, nones believe in diversity, inclusion, multiculturalism and intersectionality, but believe in nothing transcendent, eternal, or ultimate. Above all, they believe that life is all about ‘having fun’…For the first time in history a continent has jettisoned its God. Christianity is dead. You’ve won. We’ve lost.
And then he quotes the famous John Lennon song: “Imagine there’s no heaven. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people living for today! Yes, John Lennon, and they are living to ‘have fun.’”
This reality seems at times like an impenetrable wall to belief in the Christian message of sin and forgiveness. And so clarity and honesty about the moral catastrophe of sin is as needed as ever. We must be clear and honest about the pervasiveness of sin in our own lives and the damage that has wrought. Do we have a good and merciful God? Oh yes! He in infinitely merciful and good. But God is also infinitely just and righteous. Indeed, God would not be good were he not just and righteous.
A truly good God cannot treat sin as a small matter. For sinners to be rightly related to God something objective must take place to satisfy the demands for justice. We intuitively understand this. For instance, when someone has wronged us there must be something to cover over that wrong in order for the relationship to continue as it had before the offense. When someone breaks the law, the requirements of justice must be met, a debt must be paid for that law-breaker to be rightly related to society once again. We know this to be true. And yet when it comes to how we think about God we tend to jettison all notions of justice and expect the Holy and Righteous LORD to simply overlook sin like an indulgent grandfather.
Here is where we must understand that above all else, sin is Godward. That is, sin is always an offense against God. In every form and expression, sin is rebellion against God. Certainly sin damages and defaces us. We need look only briefly at ourselves and the world around us to see just how catastrophic sin has been to humanity. Sin is also against our neighbors. We rarely commit sins which damage only ourselves. But sin is ultimately directed against God (Psalm 51:4). It is breaking his law. Sin the act of setting oneself against God's righteousness.
One theologian calls sin “a triple block to the relationship with God and man because it involves a debt to God, alienation from God, and crime against God…Sin as relational is inherently illegal, the violation of God’s will as revealed in Scripture and creation.” We are told in Scripture that because of sin we are enemies of God and in need reconciliation (Ephesians 2:1-3).
The wages or payment for sin, the Bible says, is death (Romans 6:23). The Bible teaches us that death is not natural. Rather, it is a function of divine justice. It is God’s judgment imposed upon sinners.
For sinners to be rightly related to God required that something be done so radical that their status be changed. Sinners would have to be made righteous. This change of status required a remarkable act on God’s part. It required that God put forward a propitiation – a sacrifice in our place to satisfy the justice of God (Romans 5:9).
B.B. Warfield wrote, “If we have not much to be saved from, why, certainly a very little atonement will suffice for our needs.” But we have much to be saved from. Therefore, we needed a Divine Propitiation. This is the heart of Jesus’ work of atonement. Jesus quite literally had to be a sacrifice for sinners. He had to die in our place. And of course the sacrificial system that God placed at the heart of Israel’s worship was meant in part to train their minds to understand their need for an innocent substitute.
The act of God reconciling sinners to himself is called atonement. It reminds us that as sinners we are not equipped to repair the damage that has been done. To be reconciled to God; to have peace with God, sinners needed a holy Substitute. We needed a perfect keeper of God’s law. We needed one to stand in our place who was like us and unlike us; who knew our frailties but also stood apart from us in utter perfection.
Through the dying of Christ the legal charges which stood against us have been satisfied. Justice has been done. Jesus’ death on the cross vindicated the righteousness of God so that God’s forgiveness of sinners is based on actual justice. Through Christ, therefore, we have been pronounced innocent, not on a technicality or because the prosecution could not make its case. Rather, we have been declared innocent through the shed blood of our Savior. “There is one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
Rejoice Christian! What God required, he gave. And through Jesus Christ the righteousness of God has been vindicated, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”