I read an interesting article today, specifically saying that the substitutionary death of Christ is not a doctrine which is true to God’s character. If we embrace a substitutionary view of the cross, that teaching portrays God as a blood-thirsty, vengeful being satisfying his need for wrath and punishment of sin.
But we know that God is a loving Father, like we read in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus tenderly cares for his sheep as the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14). And we all know that “God is love” mainly because First John references this fact a few times.
- 1 John 4:7 – Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.
- 1 John 4:8 – But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
- 1 John 4:10 – This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.
I have come to believe that any doctrine taken to its ultimate extreme will eventually lead to heresy. For example, the love of God taken to its ultimate conclusion leads to universalism, that all people will be saved in the end because the love of God would never punish anyone, and certainly a loving God would never send anyone to hell.
Yet there must be a balance between the love of God and the holiness of God, because sin cannot be in God’s presence. So, how will sinful human beings come to the Father, unless the Father provides a solution to our sin problem? Some say we should just act more like Jesus, following his example (1 Peter 2:21), conforming to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). But if we fully embrace this teaching to its ultimate conclusion, it leads to a works righteousness. We can even leave the cross out of the picture and therefore the blood he shed is made irrelevant.
While we know that God is love, the New Testament also supports the concept of God as a God of wrath who judges sin. The story of the rich man and Lazarus speaks of the judgment of God and serious consequences for the unrepentant sinner (Luke 16:19–31).
John 3:36 says, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
Theologians (who have studied the Bible much deeper than your average Christian) have taught for generations that the one who believes in the Son will not suffer God’s wrath for his sin, because the Son took God’s wrath upon Himself when He died in our place on the cross (Romans 5:6–11). Those who do not believe in the Son, who do not repent and follow Jesus, will be judged on the day of wrath (Romans 2:5–6). Paul seems pretty clear.
Let’s get back to First John, where the apostle teaches point blank that Jesus is the propitiation for our sins…
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)
The word “advocate” is “Paracletos,” one called alongside to help; or intercessor, and “propitiation” is the word “hilasmos,” meaning satisfaction, or the means of appeasing.
While I do not claim to be a Greek scholar, it seems to me that the cross of Jesus, the blood that was shed, somehow appeased or satisfied God’s wrath. Jesus took on the sins of the world but they must respond to his sacrificial death by means of faith in order for the sacrifice to be effectual in the believer’s life. Basically, Jesus died for the whole world, but forgiveness comes only to those who respond to God’s grace with faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Just as the incarnation teaches that Jesus was 100% God and 100% human (not half God and half man), the New Testament can also teach that God is both 100% love and 100% holy. After all, once we have God all figured out, he will cease to be God at all.
I suppose I will end with a quote from Peter…
If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. (1 Peter 1:17-19)
I still believe that we had a debt that we could not pay, and Jesus paid the debt he did not owe. The wrath of God is a fearsome and terrifying thing. Only those who have been covered by the blood of Christ, shed for us on the cross, can be assured that God’s wrath will never fall on them. “Since we have now been justified by His blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through Him!” (Romans 5:9).
We cannot begin to understand God’s justice or wrath unless we first understand sin. Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4) and iniquity (Daniel 9:4-5; Micah 2:1; James 3:6). It embodies everything contrary to God’s holy nature and is offensive to him. So, sin is a crime against God and justice demands a penalty of death and separation from him for it (Romans 1:18-32; 2:5; 3:23). But God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to earth to pay that penalty for us (Romans 5:8-11; 6:23) and made salvation available to all who believe in his name (John 1:12; 3:15-17; 20:31).