Jesus’ empty tomb sends people running on that first Easter Sunday. Everyone is dashing through the cemetery, but why? They’re running to find answers to their questions and help with their confusion. They don’t know why Jesus’ body is not where they had put it the day before. The confusion is understandable. If I were to go to the gravesite of my parents, and I saw nothing but a big hole in the ground with no vaults or caskets, I’d be asking questions, too.
So, the disciples are running around confused. Most of them are slow to believe in the resurrection—despite the fact that Jesus had said repeatedly it would happen. But here is the good news for them (and us): every time the risen Christ meets people after the resurrection, he helps them to believe in him. That’s amazing because the last time Jesus saw these guys in action, they were blowing it big time. They were denying and deserting him. But when Jesus finally appears to them face-to-face, there’s not a word of rebuke on his lips. Correction, yes, but not rebuke. Quite the opposite. He helps them believe.
In fact, the risen Christ deals with all of his followers personally and uniquely—according to their own needs, experiences, weaknesses, and hard-wiring. The attentiveness of Jesus to everyone in this story is remarkable. And what was true 2,000 years ago is still true today: Jesus gives people time and space to wrestle with—and then plenty of reasons to rest in—his resurrection from the dead. Consider the figures mentioned in John 20, and how Jesus interacts with them—both before and after his resurrection:
JOHN is the portrait of an EASY-COMING faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need significance in my life.” And John discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new identity and purpose. PETER is the portrait of a GUILT-RIDDEN faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need forgiveness for my sins.” And Peter discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new freedom and power.
MARY MAGDALENE is the portrait of a GRIEF-STRICKEN faith. Her personal struggle seems to be, “I need comfort for my despair.” And Mary discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new intimacy and hope. THOMAS is the portrait of a SHOW-ME faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need irrefutable evidence to believe.” And Thomas discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new assurance and confidence.
Because of his humility, Jesus does not coerce faith, but because of his authority, he deserves it. The risen Christ still gives open-minded and tender-hearted people what they need to believe in him. What is it that you still need to believe?
In his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus achieved something that God the Father recognized, namely, humanity’s sin crisis was rectified once and for all. To use longstanding theological categories, the atonement was objective (i.e., directed toward God), not merely subjective (directed toward humanity). The reason the atonement can be viewed objectively is because the New Testament presents Jesus as God’s acceptable representativeof—and chosen substitutefor—all humanity:
Christ died for the ungodly (Rom 5:6).
Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).
Christ died for our sins (1 Cor 15:3).
God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us (2 Cor 5:21).
…who gave himself for our sins (Gal 1:4).
…who gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13).
…who gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim 2:6).
Christ suffered for you (1 Pet 2:21).
Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Pet 3:18).
Historic Christian orthodoxy has largely understood the “for” in these verses as “in the place of.” That is, the atonement involved the substitution of Christ “for” or “in the place of” the sinner. As the old hymn by Phillip Bliss (1838-1876) puts it:
Bearing shame and mocking rude, In my place condemned he stood.
This essay seeks to explore the legitimacy of understanding substitution as one facet of the atonement diamond. As N. T. Wright said on a recent podcast, care must be taken when presenting the atonement in such a way. To paraphrase his comment, we preachers don’t want to find ourselves in a position of saying, “For God so hated the world that he killed his only Son.” Such a proposition would be a travesty, which is where we will begin our analysis.
The Cross—A Travesty of Justice?
Substitution is not the only legitimate image of the atonement, but it certainly is prominent in both the Old and New Testaments. An animal in the Garden of Eden dies so that Adam and Eve don’t have to. A ram in the thicket dies so that Isaac doesn’t have to. A Passover lamb dies so that the firstborn doesn’t have to. Two Yom Kippur goats die so that the nation of Israel doesn’t have to. The entire sacrificial system is built on the concepts of propitiation and expiation. Animal substitutes die so that humans alienated from God may live. In Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), animal sacrifices give way to the ultimate substitute, the Son of God (cf. Heb 10:4).
Nevertheless, this understanding of Jesus’ death has been widely criticized in recent years. The rationalistic Professor at Oxford University, Sir A. J. Ayer once called the idea of substitutionary atonement “intellectually contemptible and morally outrageous.” The common objection of unbelievers usually goes something like this: “I can’t possibly believe in a God who has to see blood before he can forgive sin.” To the contemporary mind, the very idea is offensive, disgusting, primitive, and obscene. Even believers, when we ponder the issues surrounding forgiveness via the cross, we have to admit it’s an extraordinary claim we’re making. In some ways, it’s scandalous (cf. 1 Cor 1:23).
That God should victimize the innocent Jesus in order to acquit the guilty sinner is seen to be a travesty of justice. It seems to attribute to the court of heaven a more monstrous corruption than the court of Pilate. At least Pilate resented the crowd’s cry to execute Christ rather than Barabbas. Even though he eventually yielded to it, he didn’t like it. But the Bible goes out of its way to suggest that God planned the cross as a similar kind of judicial exchange. Isaiah 53:10a says, bluntly, “It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” Indeed, the whole thrust of Isaiah 53:4-6 features substitutionary language:
4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Victimizing the innocent in order to acquit the guilty—that’s what scandalizes people. But it’s not just unbelievers who make this objection anymore. In the last few decades, even some believers have begun to describe the concept of substitution as “divine child abuse.” As such, we can’t understand the cross as “penal substitution,” they say. That which is so predominantly advanced in Scripture has to be re-thought now because people don’t like it, and we’ve gotten it wrong for so long. Consequently, alternative views of the cross have been elevated in our day, including subjective or “moral influence” theories. Why? Because they’re far less offensive to contemporary sensibilities.
The Cross—Just an Example?
The purpose of the cross, they say, is for God to provoke some sort of emotional impact in us, or moral influence on us. In other words, when we look at the cross, we feel conscience-stricken about our failures, and we determine to live our lives as better people as a result. So, the cross is our example to live well and to do good. It’s our model for living a more selfless, self-sacrificial, and non-retaliatory life. That’s the purpose of the cross, it is proposed, and that’s why, ultimately, it “works.” That’s why God honored his Son’s sacrifice with a resurrection to follow.
There is indeed some truth to this view. Christ’s behavior on the cross is explicitly described as an example for believers in 1 Peter 2:21-23:
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you anexample, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
When we look at the cross and see what Christ did there, we can’t help but be moved by the depth of his love and sacrifice on our behalf. It has emotional power in and of itself.
The Cross—More Than an Example
But the cross is much more than an example for humanity. Peter goes on to say of Jesus in the same passage, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet 2:24a). That is, he didn’t just die to show us how to live. Indeed, if the cross is not more than an example, then we have to conclude that Jesus saw his death as little more than a form of emotional blackmail. His intent was to get us to behave in a certain way by making us sad about his ordeal or sad about ourselves. Such a view, however, puts the cross of Christ into the same category as a political hunger strike.
Do we really want to suggest that Jesus intends to manipulate us into being better people by this kind of emotional lever—a histrionic gesture that achieves nothing but embarrassing those of us who have to watch it? If so, that could rightly be considered an immoral influence. Moreover, viewing the cross in this way not only reduces it to a form of crass manipulation, it renders the theory hopelessly incoherent. Yes, the death of Jesus can serve as an example to us, but the cross must first have a real (objective) value in order for it to have any personal (subjective) value. Why is this the case?
Imagine seeing a man standing on top of a tall building, and hearing him yell, “I love you all, and to prove how much I love you, I’m going to jump from this building and die for you.” Would you go home saying, “Wow, I saw a most wonderful demonstration of love today”? Or, “I saw a man die for me today”? No, you’d go home saying, “I saw a mentally disturbed man jump to his death today. How sad.” And you’d be right, because unless some objective benefit flows out of that death to somebody else, it can’t be considered a moral example. It is more rightly considered a tragic display of lunacy. On the other hand:
If I were drowning out in the middle of a frigid lake, and somebody jumped into the icy water to save me, drowning in the process himself, then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
Or if I were a terminal cardiac patient in a hospital and needed a transplant, and someone stepped in and said, “I’ll give you my heart so that you can live,” then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
Or if I were on death row expecting execution at dawn, and someone stole into my cell the night before and said, “I’ll take your place on the gallows tomorrow,” then I can rightly say, “He died for me.”
There has to be some real situation of danger in which I am placed, and some real, objective benefit flowing to me out of the other person’s death. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense to say that the other person died for me. In the same way, we can only have a subjective view of Jesus’ death if there’s an objective benefit preceding it. Otherwise, the death of Christ for me is incoherent.
The Cross—Where the Punishment Really Falls
Still, people object to this view of the cross—that it was a substitutionary sacrifice—because they think it portrays God as a spiteful and ruthless monster. He comes across as a deity who punishes an innocent third party in order to satisfy his insatiable lust for revenge that he has somewhere in his heart. He’s like a rogue soldier who executes innocent civilians who aren’t even part of the battle. We’re outraged when something like that happens, and rightly so. Punishing the innocent is no virtue.
Those who criticize an objective, substitutionary view of the cross say it portrays God like that—punishing an innocent third party so that the guilty can go free. But that’s a caricature and gross misrepresentation of what the Scriptures teach. According to the New Testament, and according to Jesus’ own self-understanding, Christ is not a third party. Of course God could not take an innocent man and arbitrarily make him a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of the world. That would have been a total miscarriage of justice. But what the New Testament dares to suggest to us is that at the cross, God did not arbitrarily punish an innocent third party; he deliberately punished himself.
Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus said, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30). Jesus is called, “Emmanuel,” God with us—God in human flesh (Matt 1:23). So, Jesus is not some innocent third party. He’s innocent, all right, but he’s not a third party. He’s the first party. Consequently, when we look at the cross, we shouldn’t think of Jesus as being there doing all the work in isolation, with God the Father being somewhere far away—totally disinterested in what’s happening, or totally unaffected by it (cf. Hos 11:8c). No, Paul said that at the cross, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19; cf. Gen 15:17-18a).
The Father was right there “taking it on the chin,” so to speak, as his own Son bled and died for humanity. God in Christ took full responsibility for human sin, even though it obviously wasn’t hissin. That’s why Acts 20:28 refers to “God’s own blood.” In God’s mind, divine blood shed is the price required for divine forgiveness granted. God did not sweep humanity’s sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with his adult Son’s permission (cf. John 12:27; Mark 14:32-42; Matt 26:52-54; Heb 10:5-7). This can hardly be considered divine “child abuse.” It’s more akin to the brave and noble soldier going off to war and giving his life in battle for the sake of his fellow citizens.
The Cross—God’s Instrument of Reconciliation
We sometimes assume it should be easy for God to forgive sin. After all, when does God ever have to break a sweat to do anything? Besides, isn’t it God’s job to forgive sin? It’s just what he does, right? God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Why then can’t he likewise say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and there is forgiveness? In short, why is forgiveness not by divine fiat?
Historically, the former statement, “Let there be light,” has always been seen as entailing no breach of God’s nature or ways. God is creator, and God is light. The latter statement, however, “Let there be forgiveness,” has often been seen as entailing a potential violation of at least some aspect of God’s nature and ways. God is holy, so sin must be punished. God is love, so sin must be pardoned. Herein lies the dilemma, and one that doesn’t seem to have an easy resolution. God must always be true to his own nature; otherwise, he cannot be God.
So, in the end, will God’s justice lead to the condemnation of sinners, or will God’s grace lead to the forgiveness of sinners? Is there a way for God to cut this Gordian knot, admittedly of his own making (by virtue of the fact that he created a race he knew would rebel against him)? Is there a morally acceptable way for him to separate sinners from their sin so that he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all his attributes perfectly intact?
However the issue is resolved, one can surely say that if forgiveness is by divine fiat alone, it renders the cross of Christ little more than a foolish waste. As Paul writes (in a related but slightly different context), “If righteousness could be attained through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal 2:21). That the eternal Son of God should come to earth and deliberately squander his life in crucifixion—which he had the power to prevent—for no objective gain or benefit is unthinkable.
It appears, then, that there is a divine necessity to the cross. Hebrews 8:3 says, “Every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices, and so it was necessary for this one [Jesus] also to have something to offer.” Moreover, Hebrews 9:23 says, “It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these” (Heb 9:23). In God’s mind, the cross of Christ was objectively essential to the full grant of divine forgiveness.
But how does the cross of Christ effect the final atonement that God accepts? How and why does the cross “work”? The dilemma is acute. If God overlooks evil, it’s as good as saying morality doesn’t matter in his universe after all. His righteousness would be undermined by his own neglect and inconsistency. Moreover, God would be open to the charge of moral apathy. But that is an accusation God cannot allow to pass unchallenged. His moral consistency must remain flawless and unimpeachable. He must always act justly, or the very idea of righteousness loses its meaning.
And that is why forgiveness can be said to be “difficult” for him—if we dare speak of deity in such terms. Forgiveness is “difficult” precisely because it is not easily distinguishable from moral indifference. How could one tell the difference between a God who forgives sin and one who couldn’t care less about it? If goodness is to mean anything in his universe, it is absolutely necessary that God’s righteousness should be beyond dispute. God must, in some way, dissociate himself personally from evil in this world. He must make a clear stand against it. If he doesn’t, then all moral standards and values are themselves called into question. So, how is forgiveness possible if God is to remain righteous? It is possible because no dilemma is bigger than God. Consider a similar dilemma in earthly terms.
Jack and Jill were married. They had been living together for several years, and everything seemed perfect. But then along came Joe, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, muscle-bound boy with an English accent and a bronze tan. Jill became infatuated with him, so one day, quite suddenly, she walked out and left her husband Jack so she could go be with Joe. Six months passed—six months in which Jack spent a good deal of time weeping inconsolably. But eventually, he pulled himself together. He decided that he was better off living alone and tried his best to put Jill out of his mind.
Then, as suddenly as Jill had departed, there she was again—on the doorstep now, luggage in hand. Things hadn’t worked out with Joe. She discovered that her English hunk had a mean streak and a wandering eye, so the infatuation fizzled. She wanted to apologize to Jack and make amends. She wanted things to go back to the way they were. She wanted to come home. All this she communicates to Jack while standing on the stoop.
The question at this point is this: “What is Jack going to do?” What would you do? It’s possible that Jack’s love for Jill has died—murdered by the cruel stab in the back of her betrayal and desertion. Perhaps he now just feels emotionally numb to the relationship. If so, his reaction to Jill’s appeal is going to be one of total indifference. “Well, you can come in and collect the rest of your stuff if you want, but that’s it. I couldn’t care less about you or anybody else anymore. I’m done with women. I’m done with marriage. I just want to be left alone.”
Another possibility is that Jack is still fuming with inner rage, his sense of honor scalded by his wife’s callous infidelity. If that’s the situation, he might well lose his temper and scream, “How dare you come back to me! Get out, you wretched woman! I don’t ever want to see you again! Go to hell!” Both scenarios are real possibilities.
But what if Jack’s love for Jill is still burning within his heart? What if he has long dreamed of their reconciliation? What if he wants to be with her again? How would he react then? He can’t fake indifference; he cares about her too deeply. He can’t pretend he isn’t angry, because he is, and he has every right to be. Yet, he can’t tell Jill to get lost either, because he desperately wants her to stay. So, what does he do?
For Jack to be true to himself, he has to say something like this: “I still love you, Jill. And I do want you back. I’ve longed for you to come back. In fact, it’s my heart’s desire that we be together again. But you have to understand how much you’ve angered me and hurt me by what you’ve done. Your betrayal caused me deep personal pain and great public humiliation. I was devastated by it. And I’ve never felt so dishonored in all my life. You really hurt me.”
If there is to be any chance of their relationship being restored, Jack must find the inner resources to absorb the injury that Jill has inflicted on him. His love must be large enough to overcome his indignation. His grace must be deep enough to swallow his own dishonor. His mercy must be great enough to accept the pain associated with extending the hand of reconciliation toward his wayward wife. For Jack to forgive Jill, he has to be willing to suffer whatever pain there may be in not exacting vengeance, drinking instead the bitter cup himself.
While this may not be a perfect illustration, according to the New testament, something like that is happening on the cross. We have deserted God, as Jill had deserted Jack. We have angered God as Jill had angered Jack. We have dishonored God as Jill had dishonored Jack. We have broken God’s law, and, more to the point, we have broken his heart. We have sinned against him—every one of us. And, as a result, God could have turned the cold shoulder of indifference toward us. Or he could have, with perfect justice, vented his wrath toward us and told us to go to hell.
But here is good news that spells hope for the world. God’s divine heart yearns for reconciliation. He does not want to give us up (cf. Hos 11:8), so he says to humanity, “I love you, and I want you back. My deepest desire is that we have a true and lasting relationship once again. I want genuine reconciliation. But you have to realize how much you’ve dishonored me by what you’ve done. That’s all I ask. Just come back to me humbly, and grace will be yours in abundance—and we can be together again. I am willing to swallow the pain myself to make it happen.”
Do we realize the cost of human reconciliation with God? Do we need to see it spelled out in dramatic form? If so, look at the cross, for it’s there we see the God of the universe allowing his heart to be ravaged by the sin of this world. There we see the cataclysmic collision of divine attributes—holiness and love, justice and mercy, righteousness and grace—all resolving themselves in mutual satisfaction until there is a just and settled peace in the violent death of his beloved Son.
When we look at the cross, no one can accuse God of moral indifference now. As Paul argues in the book of Romans, the cross of Christ demonstrates the righteousness of God, not simply the grace of God. All things are properly settled now. As gruesome as it may be to consider, the bruised and bleeding Jesus—humanity’s perfect substitute—became the focal point of God’s revulsion toward sin. Here, then, is the gospel at its core. For those who embrace Jesus as their substitute, no divine revulsion remains. Humanity’s sin crisis has been rectified once and for all.
Conclusion: The Death of Christ—It Is For Us
On one occasion, Jesus said to his disciples, “Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Additionally, the Apostle Paul wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). The cross, then, is good news for a fallen race. A great transaction took place there that God the Father accepted. He planned it, authorized it, carried it out, and honored it. That transaction is this: God treated Jesus as we deserved so that he could treat us as Jesus deserved.Whatever else the cross may entail, it surely entails the concept of substitution. As Charitie Lees Bancroft (1841-1892) wrote:
When Satan tempts me to despair And tells me of the guilt within Upward I look and see Him there Who made an end of all my sin Because the sinless Savior died My sinful soul is counted free For God the just is satisfied To look on Him and pardon me
Luke Garrett (1959-2016) captured the same theological truth in his song, “Wondrous Exchange”:
The victim on a cross of execution The Lamb of God that sacrificed his life And the sky grew dark, and the rain poured down The price of my redemption was so high
For on that hill was done the great transaction As God paid out the ransom for my sin I can walk away; I am truly free From the prison and the hell my life had been
A wondrous exchange A wondrous exchange An offer so great I can scarcely believe His crown for my shame His loss for my gain His death for my life What a wondrous exchange
The objective dimension of Christ’ redeeming work on the cross opens up a wide variety of legitimate subjective expressions of its efficacy and impact on believers and their spiritual lives.
In his book The Cross of Christ, John R. W. Stott (1921-2011) writes, “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” In similar fashion, Edward Shillito (1872-1948) wrote in his poem “Jesus of the Scars”:
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Finally, the subjective impact of Christ’s objective atonement is illustrated well in the famous hymn by Horatio Spafford (1828-1888), “It Is Well with My Soul”:
My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought— My sin, not in part but the whole, Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
The atonement is objective before it is subjective—and that is precisely what gives its subjective dimension so much power for the church in every age. Because Jesus is our substitute, we love him and want to follow his example.
Image Credits: gettyimage.com; gerhardy.id.au.
Parts of this essay were informed by the writings of John Stott, William Lane Craig, Roy Clements, and others who have written on atonement theory.
It all started in the garden of Eden. One man—made in the image of God—has the privilege of walking with God, talking with God, and enjoying God. His Hebrew name is Adam, which means “humanity.” He is the fountainhead of the human race, and he represents all of us. In this garden, Adam has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and all will be well, or say “no” to God, and all will be lost. As the story goes, Adam says “no” to God. In effect, he says to him, “Not thy will but mine be done.” As a result, his paradise is blitzed, the ground beneath him is cursed, and humanity is born again backwards into the darkness. Weeds of alienation start springing up everywhere. Humans are alienated from themselves, from each other, from creation, and from God himself. They’re naked and ashamed, hiding in fear.
But it’s a gracious God who seeks them out. Though he was the one dishonored, God pursues Adam and his wife to start repairing the mess they had made. He replaces the fig leaves they made to cover their nakedness, giving them instead garments of skin to wear (Gen 1:21), a more suitable covering than what they had crafted with their hands. But in order for Adam and Eve to wear garments of skin, God had to take the life of one of his own creatures to make it happen. Somewhere in Eden, then, there lies a dead animal carcass so that Adam and Eve can be spared the death sentence for their cosmic treason. As such, we are introduced on the earliest pages of the Bible to the theological concept of substitution—one dying so another can live.
If that weren’t enough, God gives them a word of hope, a prediction. He speaks of a man who will someday come to crush the head of the serpent, the creature that enticed the first couple to say “no” to God in the first place. In the process, the man will suffer a devastating wound. It’s the first hint in Scripture of the sacrificial death of Messiah to come, but God is determined to see human sin atoned permanently. And so, we wait. For thousands of years, we wait until we find ourselves in another garden. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane is “the Last Adam” and the fountainhead of a new human race. In this garden, Jesus also has a choice to make: Say “yes” to God, and humanity will be rescued, or say “no” to God, and humanity will stay ruined. Thankfully, where Adam said, “Not thy will but mine be done,” Jesus says to his Father, “Not my will but thine be done.” Gethsemane, then, is reversing the misfortunes of Eden, as the next day, Jesus goes to the tree of death to give us back the tree of life. He becomes the carcass in the garden.
But why was the cross of Christ necessary for our salvation? Why did Jesus have to die? Why is forgiveness not by divine decree? If God can say, “Let there be light,” and it was so, why could he not also say, “Let there be forgiveness,” and it was so? Historically, the former statement has been seen as entailing no violation of God’s nature or ways. The latter, however, has been seen as a violation of at least some of his attributes. On the one hand, God’s holiness and justice require the condemnation of sinners. One the other hand, God’s mercy and grace require the forgiveness of sinners. Which will it be? Is there not a “divine dilemma” here demanding resolution? Is there a way for God to separate sinners from their sin so he can judge the sin while sparing the sinner—thus keeping all of his attributes perfectly intact?
In addition to connecting the dots from Eden to Gethsemane, this message explores how the cross is God’s crowbar that separates sinners from their sin, allowing them to be forgiven. Indeed, on the cross, God’s holiness and justice are satisfied (sin is condemned), and God’s mercy and grace are realized (sinners are forgiven). God did not sweep human sins under the rug, he swept them onto his Son—with the adult Son’s permission. On the cross, then, God’s attributes “collide” and find their mutual resolution in the death of Jesus Christ. And the restoration of Eden begins.
Last night I sinned. Multiple times. My son and son-in-law were with me at the time. They sinned, too, and we all had a great time doing it. Let me explain. We were celebrating my son-in-law’s birthday, so we went to a shooting range before dinner, cake, and gift giving. It’s something Micah enjoys, though he doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to do it, so we surprised him with a round at Enck’s Gun Barn. My son Drew also has more experience than I do in this area, making me the rookie of the bunch.
I’ve shot pistols before, but only a few times in the distant past and only at Coke cans set up in the woods near my brother-in-law’s house in North Carolina. Last night we used a rifle—a Ruger AR-556, which is considerably louder than a pistol, though the kickback isn’t bad at all. Given my lack of experience, I was hoping to just get my shots on the paper target!
I didn’t get a bullseye this time, but all my shots were inside the 8 and 9 rings, and one even nicked the center circle. Not bad for a beginner. But all three of us kept missing the mark, which is one of the biblical metaphors for sin. There are many other images, too, but this one is prominent.
Judges 20:15-16 says, “At once the Benjamites mobilized twenty-six thousand swordsmen from their towns, in addition to seven hundred chosen men from those living in Gibeah. Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred chosen men who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].”
The word ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ is a general word for sin, usually having the sense of missing the mark, going astray, offending, or ignoring something required by God’s law (e.g., Gen 40:1; Jdgs 20:16; Neh 13:26; etc.). It can also mean “sin offering” (e.g., Exod 29:4).
King David prays in Psalm 51:2, “Cleanse me [ṭāhēr] from my sin [ḥǎṭṭāʾṯ].” The word ṭāhēr means to “be clean,” “cleanse,” “purify,” or “pronounce clean,” as from a defiling condition. It can have a ritual context (e.g., Lev 11:32), or it can refer to the actual cleansing of impurities (e.g., Naaman’s leprosy in 2 Kgs 5:10).
It can also refer to the removal of impurities from metal (e.g., refined gold and silver in Mal 3:3). Therefore, the word does not necessarily have a sacramental connotation (contra Goldingay, etc.) or even a ceremonial connotation (contra Wilson, the ESV Study Bible, etc.). Indeed, David’s hope of forgiveness rests on nothing ceremonial (cf. vv. 16-17). The sense of his prayer in v. 2 is, “Purify me from my defiling sin.”
Because of his mercy, grace, and compassion (Ps 51:1), God can certainly do that. And because David came to him humbly, he did. “The Lord has taken away your sin,” said Nathan the prophet. You are not going to die” (2 Sam 12:13-14). David later wrote, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven” (Ps 32:1).
Interestingly enough, all three of us last night were landing our initial shots low and to the right of the bullseye. That would seem to suggest a sighting issue on the gun. Our Range Safety Officer (RSO) helped us make the necessary adjustments to shoot more accurately. He also helped me with my stance and positioning vis-à-vis the target. He was patient, kind, and supportive, not condescending at all toward this novice.
Probably my biggest challenge as a shooter is the fact that I’m left-eye dominant trying to shoot from a right hander’s position. My impulse, then, is to use my left eye to align the sights, but that doesn’t work when you’re pressing your right cheek to the gun stock. Here again, the RSO was perceptive and gave me some suggestions to help me “not sin.”
Our night at the range caused me to think about the fact that we’re in this spiritual journey together. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23), which is why judging and condescension are out of place in the Christian life. Smug self-righteousness is just a way to justify our anger at other people because they sin differently than we do.
Our natural misalignments and daily temptations to “miss the mark” don’t go away when others scold us, humiliate us, or impose their asceticisms on us (Col 2:21-23). They tend to dissipate when those with a little more experience help us learn how to aim higher.
We are pilgrims on a journey We are brothers on the road We are here to help each other Walk the mile and bear the load
The RSO actually showed me last night how to be a better pastor. Lord knows, I need ongoing training.
If you knew you had only two weeks to live, what would you do? Where would you go? How would you spend your time? With whom would you spend it? What would be the final experience you give yourself before exiting this life and entering the next? Most people (believers included) would spin out scenarios that focus on their own interests, desires, or pleasures. It’s a natural and understandable impulse. By the time Jesus encounters Zacchaeus in Luke 19, he has less than two weeks to live before dying on the cross, and he knows it. But what do we see him doing? We see him focusing his time on “the priority of one.” And the one that Jesus focuses on is the chief tax collector of Jericho! No one was more despised or vilified than the wealthy Zacchaeus. Matthew was a garden variety tax collector, but Zacchaeus was his boss. He cheated the cheaters!
So, this famous story isn’t just about a mafia thug, it’s about a mafia don—the godfather of the first century. In fact, the rabbis in that day said, “A tax collector could never be saved. It would take a lifetime of lifetimes for him to repent of all his sins.” Jesus didn’t agree with them on that point, so he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house, causing everybody to “mutter” (Luke 19:7). But it was an encounter that changed Zacchaeus’ life. Indeed, Zacchaeus received Jesus into his home, and somewhere during the visit, he received Jesus into his heart, too. The story is rich with insights about: (1) the gospel message (i.e., how the lost can be found); and (2) the gospel mission (i.e., how the found can impact the lost). It’s a story that teaches not only that God can save anybody, but also that God—and the godly—are on the lookout for the lost.
Quite significantly, in the previous chapter, a rich young ruler comes to Jesus, wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. The man doesn’t like Jesus’ answer, so he goes away dejected. His wealth had become an idol to him, and Jesus tells him to smash his idol and follow him. The man won’t do it. So, Jesus declares as the man is walking away, “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25). But those who heard him say it asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26). Hear the panic in their question! The rich young ruler was a man of status and wealth, so he was assumed by most people to have been unusually blessed by God. If he can’t be saved, then who can be? The shocking truth is that Zacchaeus can be saved. In fact, Zacchaeus is the camel that Jesus got through the eye of the needle! “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Listeners are therefore challenged at the beginning of this new year to pray:
Lord, lay some soul upon my heart, And love that soul through me; And may I bravely do my part To win that soul for Thee.
There are two main words in the Old Testament for “forgiveness,” and they’re usually translated in the semantic range or cluster of “pardon” / “pardoned” / “forgive” / “forgiveness” / “forgiven” / “forgiving.” Together they form a mega-them in the Hebrew Bible. The two words are nāśā and sālǎḥ.
The first word is transliterated nāśā.
The word nāśā (accent on the second syllable, with the vowel sounding like the word “ah’”) means “the taking away, forgiveness or pardon of sin, iniquity, and transgression.” So characteristic is this action of taking away sin that it is listed as one of God’s attributes (e.g., Exod 34:7; Num 14:18, Mic 7:18).
Sin can be forgiven and forgotten by God because it is “taken up and carried away.” In Exodus 32:32, 34:7, Numbers 14:18, 1 Samuel 15:25, Job 7:21, and Micah 7:18, nāśā means “take away guilt, iniquity, transgression, etc.” (i.e., “forgive” or “pardon”). Micah 7:18-19 contains these wonderful words:
Who is a God like you, who pardons [nāśā] sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.
This passage reveals that no angel or human has a character so willing to pardon wickedness done against himself or others as God does. Micah 7:18 says that God delights in showing mercy. This means he enjoys doing it. He does not pardon our sins in a begrudging way. Verse 19 here shows how far God removes our sins from us. He figuratively hurls them into the depths of the sea.
The second word is transliterated sālǎḥ.
The word sālǎḥ (accent on the second syllable, same vowel sound as nāśā, hard “ch” ending as in “Bach”) is used of God’s offer of pardon and forgiveness to the sinner. Never does this word in any of its forms refer to people forgiving each other (e.g., Exod 34:9; Num 14:19-20; 2 Kgs 5:18, 24:4; Ps 25:11; Isa 55:7; Jer 5:1, 7, 33:8, 50:20; Lam 3:42). It is exclusively a divine action.
Sālǎḥ removes guilt associated with a moral sin or wrongdoing connected to a ritual or vow. Isaiah 55:7 reveals that God calls individuals to turn from their known sinful ways and thoughts to him so that their sins may be pardoned:
Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon [sālǎḥ].
And now let us add a New Testament (Greek) word to the mix:
The Greek word is transliterated Iēsous.
Iēsous (ee-YAY-soos) is a proper noun that comes into English as “Jesus,” which is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Joshua,” meaning “the Lord saves.” Matthew 1:21 says:
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus [Iēsous], because he will save his people from their sins.
According to the New Testament, Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the Creator and Savior of the world, the founder of Christianity, and the sinless exemplar of the nature and ways of God. Since the name was common in his lifetime, he was usually referred to in a more specific way, such as “Jesus of Nazareth” (e.g., John 1:26).
“Christ,” which means “the anointed one,” is a title acknowledging that Jesus was the expected Messiah of Israel. In the Gospels, Jesus is usually identified as “the Christ” (e.g., Matt 16:16). After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:38, he was usually referred to as “Jesus Christ.” This composite name joins the historic figure with the messianic role that prophetic expectation and early Christianity knew he possessed.
In Luke 7:36-50, Jesus is anointed by a sinful woman in the presence of Simon the Pharisee, a religious leader in first-century Israel. The scene is provocative and scandalous for its day, but the encounter ends like this in vv. 48-49:
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
That’s the right question to ask. Jesus Christ is the embodied forgiveness of God. He is nāśā and sālǎḥ in the flesh.
Bobby was six years old, and he had an inquiring mind. He had been learning how to measure things at school, and his teacher suggested the class go home that night and see what they could find there to measure. Bobby took the challenge to heart. When he got home, he measured his desk. He measured his toy box. He measured his bed. He measured everything within reach.
Then, while enjoying a moment of inspiration in the second-floor bathroom, Bobby thought to himself, “I wonder how long the wiggly white worm is that lives inside the tube of toothpaste.” Soon, under the pressure of eager, juvenile fingers, the wiggly white worm oozed its path down the sink, across the bathroom floor, out into the hall, and down the stairs into the living room, where the economy size tube finally expired.
Bobby was ecstatic. It was only a moment’s work to walk his ruler along the gleaming white trail and record the measurement. “Now,” he said to himself, “all I’ve got to do is put the toothpaste back into the tube before mommy finds out.” Sadly, Bobby’s progress in physics was not as advanced as his mathematics, or else he would have known that certain processes are irreversible.
His mother’s voice sounded from the kitchen, “Bobby, what are you doing?” A deep intuition alerted him to the fact that she would not be pleased with the long white worm on the floor. Frantically, he tried to scoop up the evidence, but that only made the mess worse.
“Bobby!” cried his mother at the sight of the strange new design on her favorite carpet. “What have you done?”
And with no further ingenuity forthcoming, Bobby—in typical six-year-old fashion—burst into tears. He ran full tilt and buried his face in the apron of his startled but kindhearted mother. “I’m sorry, mommy. I’m really sorry!”
Has it ever occurred to you that life can be a bit like toothpaste? It, too, flows out in an irreversible stream, and sometimes we wish we could put it back. But that cannot be done, and we’re often left with a mess we cannot clean ourselves.
“If life had a second edition,” wrote the poet John Clair, “I would correct the proofs.” King David might have agreed with that sentiment. After his famous sin with Bathsheba and his murderous ploy to cover it up, he realized he had made a terrible mess of his life and kingdom, and he had no ability to clean it up himself. Yet in the midst of his tormented soul, he somehow knew that God did. In Psalm 51:1-2, he asked the Lord:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
With true remorse and raw repentance, David ran full tilt and buried his shame in the apron of God’s lovingkindness. He understood full well that to get clean with God, he had to come clean with God. And so, the disgraced king cried out to God in Psalm 51:7-10:
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
David discovered that the crushing weight of sin was no match for the mercy of God. In fact, he went on to celebrate in another psalm the forgiveness he received from the Lord: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered” (Ps 32:1). God had truly made him “whiter than snow.”
Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, received this instruction: “Call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). “Jesus” means salvation. Reflecting on what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection to make sinful people righteous, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Rom 5:20).
Ultimately, David learned that while our lives may be irreversible, they are not irredeemable. That’s true of your life, too.
Thank you, Lord, for your merciful heart. I confess that I’m not a person with a small debt. Sometimes I willingly choose my way above your way, preferring my own glory to yours. Sadly, I have done this, like David, even as a believer. Yet, your gracious heart remains. Thank you, God. I am grateful that my forgiveness is based on your character and not my own; that it’s based on your love for me, not my love for you. If that were the case, I’d be lost forever. But you are the God who still gives people new hearts. Do that for me, I pray, and help me to walk in your ways. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Welcome to This New Life, a website devoted to biblical hope and radical grace. Thanks for stopping by. We’re Tim and Sonya Valentino. We live in Myerstown, PA, a small town halfway between Reading and Hershey. Both of us are into family, nature, hiking, music, art, history, museums, Christian ministry, theological education, and the Philadelphia Phillies. We’re also into coffee. The darker the better.
We’re on the journey of life with the Author of life. Let’s walk together and marvel at the scenery. As we go, let’s “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). We’ve created This New Life as a resource to help with that endeavor. We also write to clarify our own thinking. And laugh at ourselves.
On this site we try to provide a balance of content creation and content curation. Creation refers to the materials we generate ourselves. Curation refers to the materials that other people publish and we repost. Our goal for This New Life is simply this: Creation + Curation = Inspiration + Formation. It’s a digital journal, of sorts, chronicling “our life in God’s light,” with others welcome to look in from time to time.
For more information on who we are—personally, vocationally, educationally, theologically, politically, and relationally—check out the About page. For the rest of this post, we’d like to share why biblical hope and radical grace are so important to us.
In some ways we’ve lived a privileged life. But in other ways we’ve slept in the emotional gutter from time to time. Life can be challenging like that. One moment things are delightful; the next they’re devastating. Today everything is beautiful; tomorrow everything is broken. Disappointment gives way to disillusionment, and rank cynicism tries to move into the attic of our minds. “Vanity, vanity,” says the Teacher. “All is vanity” (cf. Eccl 1:2).
But there’s one thing that has always kept us going—one thing that has always been an anchor for the soul in troubled times: our unshakable hope in the grace and goodness of God. Jesus is risen from the dead, and that changes everything. Hope refuses to die in a world where Christ has conquered death.
Hope refuses to die in a world where Christ has conquered death.
Ask the average Christian why Jesus came to earth, and you’ll get a variety of answers:
Jesus came to die for the sins of the world.
Jesus came to reveal the heart of the Father.
Jesus came to destroy the power of death and hell.
Jesus came to heal, teach, and forgive.
These responses are all accurate. Still, there’s another color on the palette to paint with. Jesus himself answered the question this way: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). That’s a beautiful, hope-filled statement, and it thrills the heart of anyone who’s ever been able to say, “I once was lost but now am found.”
We can say it. Jesus came to seek and to save the two of us. We revel in this good news—and the new life it brings. “Because I live,” said Jesus, “you also will live” (John 14:19).
But how did Jesus go about seeking the lost? What was his approach? Luke 7:34 says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking.” That’s a fascinating statement. How would you have filled in the blank? The Son of Man came ____________ and ____________.
Teaching and preaching?
Healing and forgiving?
Loving and restoring?
Dying and rising?
Again, all true answers, but the text says, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking.” Fellowship and hospitality were his modus operandi.In fact, a major feature of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus is usually going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal. Every time we turn the page, we smell another dish from the kitchen. Markus Barth has said, “In approximately one-fifth of the sentences in Luke, meals play a conspicuous role.”
A major feature of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus is usually going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal. Every time we turn the page, we smell another dish from the kitchen.
But does that sound like a holy man to you—more feasting than fasting? More parties than protests? What kind of a rabbi is this? Indeed, the rap on Jesus was that he was “a drunkard and a glutton,” a man more into parties than piety, or so it seemed to the religious crowd (cf. Luke 7:34b).
A drunkard is someone who drinks too much alcohol. A glutton is someone who eats too much food. Jesus was neither of those things—the Bible says he never sinned—but apparently he gave his enemies enough ammunition to make the charge stick.
It stuck, not because he was eating and drinking per se, but because he was eating and drinking with all the wrong people—the blind, the lame, the diseased, the prostitutes, the thieves, the criminals, the tax collectors, the unfaithful, the ceremonially unclean—“sinners” who were as low as you could go on the religious food chain.
Not only that—and we may need to swallow hard on this—there’s no record that these folks ever had to “repent” before they could come and eat at Jesus’ table. The fact that they came at all, and ate and enjoyed his welcome, apparently was repentance enough for him. Many of them changed after eating at Jesus’ table—precisely because they had had a life-transforming encounter with him.
There’s no record that these folks ever had to repent before they could come and eat at Jesus’ table. The fact that they came at all . . . was repentance enough for him.
The word for that is grace. Amazing grace. Radical grace. Scandalous grace. Even Peter—the lead disciple who had walked with Jesus for three years and received the keys to the kingdom—needed a lot of it. Over and over again.
Even after the great day of Pentecost, when he was filled with the Holy Spirit and preached to thousands of people, Peter blew it. Again. For example, Peter once broke fellowship with people whom God had accepted—a clear denial of the gospel—and it needed to be corrected lest the good news become ugly news (cf. Gal 2:11-21; 1:6-9).
Thankfully, Peter never gave up. Throughout his life and ministry, Peter received grace every time he needed it. Such is the ministry of reconciliation that Jesus came to bring. Religion parcels out grace in teaspoons to those it perceives to be worthy. Jesus lavishes it on those who know they need it.
Religion parcels out grace in teaspoons to those it perceives to be worthy. Jesus lavishes it on those who know they need it.
But the grace that Jesus gave to people was a little too much for the religious bureaucrats in the first century. Tim Chester has said, “In Luke’s Gospel Jesus got himself killed because of the way he ate.” It’s true. Before Jesus ever picked up the cross, he picked up the fork. In fact, the one led to the other. Jesus died, in part, because of grace. For some folks, his grace was a little too amazing.
Before Jesus ever picked up the cross, he picked up the fork. In fact, the one led to the other.
Grace means that no believer can ever feel smug. Every time we take Communion, we sit at Jesus’ table, too. Do we deserve to be there? Of course not. Like Mephibosheth at King David’s palace (cf. 2 Samuel 9), we come to Jesus’ table as guests, and by invitation only. All are welcome there, and none are excluded unless they refuse to come by faith.
And that’s why the two of us are really into biblical hope and radical grace. We need it. We love it. We want to share it. It’s changing our lives, and it can change yours, too. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life” (Acts 5:20).