[This post is part of the Atonement series]
Tomorrow is Good Friday, and of course Sunday is Easter. This then may turn out to be the last post explicitly dealing with the atonement. Not because I’m finished studying it (especially with respect to the issue brought up here) but my original commitment was in lieu of Lent, and my upcoming course load is going to require taking a slight break from blogging (only slight though).
Anyway, I’ll be painting with broad strokes here, but in a continuation of where the last post left off, this one is focusing on redemption. In other words, we are answering the question posed at the end of the last post:
- How can God save sinful people from death while remaining faithful to his promise to punish sin?
To answer this, one needs only look to Christ and his work on the cross.
Looking back to Genesis, and what went wrong there, we can see that part of the reason Christ came was to bring completion to creation, for God intended creation to be ruled by a perfect human being. Christ accomplished this by living a perfect life and was then vindicated by His resurrection. Had he simply lived and died, and not risen from the dead, He wouldn’t be able to fulfill this purpose of ruling a new creation as it’s perfect King. Humanity’s original intended rule is thus fulfilled by Christ, who succeeded where both Adam and Israel had miserably failed.
By looking at Christ we can see just how far de-creation has come, and also see that he is the first over many who will be transformed and glorified. He is the first to become a part of the new creation which is why Paul draws the parallels with Adam in Romans 5:12-21 (see also 1 Cor. 15:45-49). We will follow him in this transformation from old to new.
In order for that to happen though, someone had to bear fully the curse God had placed on the old creation. This curse was placed over all humanity, and we all deserved our share of it. But Christ in our place took it upon himself:
- Jesus then bore the penal consequences of sin (the curse) when he died a physical death
- Jesus also bore the consequences of our sin in our place, as a substitute by enduring God’s wrath for us
Penal substitution then is God’s means of redemption, of re-creation, that upholds his truthfulness and his justice, while simultaneously demonstrating his love and grace by extending mercy to rebellious sinners like ourselves.
In a sense, as a model of the atonement, penal substitution is not only “a model” but is rather the model on which the other vantage point are based. Penal substitution should not be the only vantage point presented, but the other ones (like Christus Victor, or the Moral Influence theory) really do not answer the original question adequately on their own. They do though, in light of penal substitution.
In other words, the victory that Christ won over the powers of evil was by his penal substitutionary death. We should emphasize his Lordship and victory over Satan and the powers of evil (Colossians 1:13-14, 2:15ff). We should emphasize the Kingdom of God that is now inaugurated by Christ’s resurrection and that will one day completely remove all sin and evil. But the means that it is all possible is by Christ dying the type of death that he did, namely one that bore the curse of the old creation and simultaneously God’s wrath for the sins of those whom He would redeem.
To maybe attempt to bring this all full circle, the extent of this redemption needs to be addressed. Obviously, not everyone experiences the redemption that is accomplished by Christ on the cross. In that sense then, the redemption is particular rather than universal. It is possible from one aspect that it might be universal since all men will be resurrected like Christ was. And certainly when Paul in Colossians speaks of Christ reconciling all things to himself (1:20), that includes people who die in their sins.
The difference then is that they are reconciled to Christ as judge, not as redeemer. God’s wrath is a facet of his love (I know that sounds contradictory), and for eternity, those who did not believe in Christ as Lord and Savior will experience it. Those who did believe will experience God’s love apart from any wrath, because it was already experienced for them by Christ on the cross. The best way to think of this is that God responds in love to those who trust in Him and in wrath to those who do not. This certainly an oversimplification, but there is no inherent conflict in the attributes of God, and His wrath does not contradict His love as some allege.
The reason for this is that God’s wrath is always in the sense judicial, in that it is a correct response on the part of a Judge to moral evil. Thinking in our terms, it is similar (though not exactly the same) the way you might feel towards the group of men that committed the Christian/Newsom murders/torture/rape (Don’t click if you don’t want to be slightly nauseated). It happened literally just down the road from me, right before I moved to Dallas (Even though it’s a Wikipedia link, the report of the actual crime is accurate).
These men ruthlessly tortured and murdered an innocent young man and woman, even making the woman watch what they did to the man. What you and I might feel (and most anyone for that matter) is intense anger towards these individuals and would feel sorely disappointed if they received anything less than an equal penalty for their crime.
This is more or less how God feels towards sin. And not just sins like this, but all sin. The fact that Christ had to die in your place should tell you not that God is unjust, or that he flew off at the handle in punishing His Son, but that in his eyes, sin is really really morally reprehensible. Our moral senses are just so dull that it is only really sensational sins (like the ones above) that give us any clue as to how God might feel towards our “lesser” sins like lying and greed and what have you.
The beautiful story of redemption though is that while we were actively living in sin and disobedience, God demonstrated His love towards us by pouring out his wrath on Christ on the cross. The cross then is the supreme demonstration of both God’s love and God’s wrath. It is wrong to say that at the cross, God’s mercy triumphed over his justice, or something of that nature. Rather, it is at the cross that God’s mercy is demonstrated by his justice. The cross in many ways is the nexus of God’s attributes revealing themselves to us.
In the atonement, God the Father accomplished our redemption through the work of His Son Jesus who was empowered by the Holy Spirit. By doing so, the curse for the old creation was carried out and the new creation was brought into existence with Christ as its Head. Those who by faith, trust in the person and work of Christ and acknowledge Him as the Son of God in power, will have this atonement applied to them and Christ suffering will have been on their behalf.
This is what we celebrate tomorrow and Sunday, hopefully this is not the only time we meditate on both the person of Christ as God, but also on His work, and not just His work in the abstract, but His work for us.