What does true love look like? How does true love behave? Would it help to know how our own Creator expressed love toward us at a defining historic moment? A very prevalent Christian tradition teaches that God demonstrated his love by sending his only-begotten Son to earth in the person of Jesus Christ in order to die on a Roman cross under divine condemnation. Although he was innocent of any wrongdoing, he suffered God’s wrath as a substitute for us guilty human beings—who actually do deserve to be punished for our wrongs—as payment for our sins. This displacement of deserved punishment to an innocent victim is construed as the highest expression of God’s love toward wrongdoers because he can then justly forgive sins without compromising his holiness, having sufficiently expressed his hatred of sin by the crucifixion.
However, this rather roundabout interpretation of the Bible’s story of salvation increasingly rings hollow to many people and even gives extreme offense to some. What’s wrong with this picture? Some critics actually denounce this version of the salvation process as “divine child abuse” and deplore its punitive implications for God’s character. Indeed, such violence by God hardly seems quite right, much less loving. Its rationale strikes one as somehow halfhearted, forced, artificial, or worse, as duplicity. Is there any viable alternative, one that more fairly represents the language and storyline of the Bible?
Consider the following. In order to save the human population from final destruction due to its sin and consequent evils, God commissioned his only-born Son to undertake a suicide mission to earth. We are that valuable to God. For the Father to send his dear Son into a world originally created good, but since then corrupted by vice and viciousness of every description, and at every level, meant certain and cruel death. Despite that calculated outcome the Lord determined to accept the fateful mission. Sure enough, corrupt officials illegally condemned and executed him unjustly, savagely, and publicly. With forgiveness on his lips toward his brutal Roman executioners, he surrendered his life and breathed his last. For their part, the oligarchy breathed a sigh of relief and congratulated themselves on a mission accomplished. Little did they know! After his lacerated, pierced, and bloodied body was entombed, the authorities secured the gravesite to make sure he stayed that way. Thus far only human “justice” had played its hand, with gruesomely tragic results.
Then God stepped in. On the third day after Christ’s crucifixion, just as he had repeatedly prophesied (attested even by witnesses for his prosecution!), and so that no fair observer could doubt he was stone cold dead, Christ rose up alive from the grave and strode out of his tomb immortal, emitting life-making power! God thus made a spectacle of the rump court that dared to condemn the Savior of the world and hereby turned the tables to condemn the sin of the crucifixion instead. Here at last was the heartburst of God’s deeply satisfying justice in answer to the grossest injustice committed against his dearest loved one.
God managed to outwit the outrage of the Cross even without violence against Christ’s murderers, for if a capital sentence can be actually reversed even after execution, what need is there to punish the culprits? This unique historic display of God’s deepest restorative justice, quite in line with the historic testimony of Jesus’ own countless restorative miracles of healing, was the authentic unveiling of God’s true love.
In this version of justice, expounded repeatedly throughout the New Testament, there is no contradiction to what we should expect from a fair judge, even if it does often go over the top in order to bring peace and restoration in place of rage and ruin. God’s rewarding justice to his victimized Son flowed from love for his enemies and was executed without violence to them. Best of all, it more than reversed the injuries they perpetrated against their Victim! So it accorded perfectly with the generous offer of pardon even to those killers, if they would reconcile and follow him. That was the defining moment for God’s graciousness.
Yet someone may fairly ask how this version of the gospel story deals with the nagging problem of evil that still afflicts the human family. The answer lies in the judicial repayment of damages that God awarded Jesus for agreeing to this suicide mission of surrender to his lethal enemies and for pulling it off successfully. Not only did God bring him back from the dead, he was actually more alive than before! That malicious shedding of Jesus’ sinless blood appealed to heaven for God’s true justice to intervene, which ushered in the New Covenant prophesied in Israel’s Scriptures. That Covenant promised a vast surplus of the actual Spirit of life and holiness, made available free to the entire human family in order to inaugurate a new era of righteousness, and all on the mere condition of faith that Jesus was in fact the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, and now, by virtue of God raising him from among the dead, Lord of all nations! The stupendous magnitude of his legacy is purely a measure of the super-compensating justice God rendered to this upright One who called on him to redress the injuries and insults he suffered instead of taking justice into his own hands.
The Holy Spirit is the down payment to us of Christ’s vast inheritance of the coming Kingdom of God, supplying us with a foretaste of its agelong life and wholesomeness even now. This is the power that cleanses us from our sins and transforms us from the heart to become more like Jesus. His walking the way of his Father’s directions had led him to bona fide immortality despite, and in fact because of, his brutal execution. Thus our Savior’s teaching has been verified as worthy of our own loyal obedience, for which we are assisted by his Spirit’s power, exclusively won for us by his lifelong flawless faithfulness to God’s desire, even to the supreme sacrifice. All this was the outcome of God’s restorative or premial justice, not his penal justice! This was an unprecedented move on God’s part. But, after all, he had finally found Someone on earth who had the right stuff!
So let’s take stock. Does it seem more loving that God should require “payment for sin” from an innocent party before he could pardon the human “debt of sin,” or that he should forgive our debts and absorb the cost himself without any payment whatsoever? On which accounting does his personal graciousness receive the higher credit? Which story shows greater love on the Father’s own part? Which evokes the greater thankfulness? This is a no-brainer. Naturally, we can certainly understand the loving sacrifice of the innocent party in the traditional version. “No one has greater love than this, that anyone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). But what exactly did God personally give up according to that model? His Son? And to what exactly did he surrender him? To his own wrathful condemnation to death? Can this be love? No one would baldly allege such a monstrosity. Instead they must go on to add that love was visible in the circumstance that by exhausting his wrath against human wrongdoing on a totally faultless person, God did not “have to” express it against the guilty party, thus they could go free without punishment. The idea is that God’s holiness, understood as unalterable hatred of sin, also “had to be satisfied” (Latin: satis, enough + facere, to make) or forgiveness is cheap and merely sentimental. But is that true?
The apostle Paul goes out of his way to elaborate God’s indignation against stubbornly wrongful behavior in Romans 1:18-3:20. He stresses that God is perfectly just in his execution of wrath against the obstinate, yet is mercifully kind, tolerant, and patient, in hopes they’ll change their minds. Nevertheless, if they continue to “harden their hearts,” his rightful anger will surely arrive to take them down. By contrast, he will pay those who endure in good works with lasting life.
God’s judgment is unalterably fair and impartial. His indignation cannot be averted except by elimination of its cause: persistence in wrong conduct. He cannot be bribed. Conversely, God’s graciousness cannot be acquired except by right behavior. Its counterfeit has been styled “cheap grace,” and its dangers are generally well known. Yet what about the perils of “cheap wrath”? This is the hazard run by the usual story. It claims that God’s indignation was quenched by getting unloaded “fully” on a perfectly sinless human being in place of sinful ones. Of course, since Christ’s historic crucifixion doesn’t seem quite wrathful enough to cancel all the wrath-deserving crimes of humanity, it is routinely claimed that his sufferings must have been infinite, since, after all, he is the Son of infinite Deity, too.
However, this whole line of thought can be nipped in the bud. No Scripture teaches that God’s wrath or condemnation fell on his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, contrary to superficial and forced readings. Rather, the evidence shows that Jesus, due to his blameless obedience to his Father’s desire, was always in his good graces; he was consequently wrath-proof! It was for this reason that he could qualify as the protective cover, shelter, or shielding (hilasterion, Romans 3:25) concerning sins. Even though, under diabolical inspiration, he suffered abuse from many, God was not among them! Christ’s resurrection from the dead proved God’s inalienable favor towards him decisively. That was the whole point, for heaven’s sake! Consequently, we must get indemnified or immersed “in Christ” and stay in him to enjoy those protective benefits. That’s what baptism is all about. The ultimate truth of the Atonement might aptly be dubbed “premial inclusion,” in distinction from “penal substitution,” the orthodox view.
Now even assuming all this is true, doesn’t God still “need” to exert wrath against sin in order to show how much he abhors it, lest folks get away with murder? Fair enough, and he does so. That’s the grim upshot of Paul’s explanation of sin and wrath in Romans 1:18-3:20. God’s indignation against entrenched moral evil shows up again and again in Scripture, often in frightful episodes, and no less in later history, if we have eyes to see. Yet Paul never ventures to argue from this sad record that the Atonement itself somehow demanded a show of wrath to reinforce it or make it effective. Quite the opposite, God’s resurrectionary solution to the predicament of his murdered Son showed that his justice was perfectly capable of saving Jesus without ever needing to punish the conspirators and henchmen who did him in, because that justice was premial, not penal! God’s life-restoring justice had finally found a Person worthy of its full unrestrained downpour, and the regenerative benefits are veritably contagious to human beings weakened by sin, disease, and injury.
However, does this kind of justice then imply that God need not punish the wicked since, after all, it was such an “easy” matter to restore life? God forbid! But it emphatically does mean that punishment plays no role in the Atonement. Neither God’s justice, nor his holiness, nor his love required such a mechanism in order to take away sin. In fact, his love is severely compromised by the insinuation that he did require it. Human history is quite a sufficient witness to God’s penal justice against the buildup of highhanded corruption and violence in the earth. His punishment of the vicious has never ceased breaking forth, and can never stop doing so as long as sin is allowed a place in human affairs. And that goes equally for alleged believers if they should ever shrink back and depart from his upright ways. God’s wrath, when aroused, cannot be placated, pacified, or appeased even by the Cross. To teach otherwise is a very serious and all too common misrepresentation of the gospel truth.
Yet what about holiness? That is simply the opposite of decay, corruption, or “uncleanness”—whatever compromises life and health. God is holy because he is superabundantly alive—everflowing with life. There is no death in him, so no decadence whatever. He desires this quality also for his disrupted and disordered creation—“Holy unto the Lord.” But death, which entered humankind through Adam’s sin that banned everyone from the Tree of Life, has brought pervasive deterioration. God’s love sought a way to reinvest his dying and decaying creation with vitality and consequent wholesomeness. Accordingly, he himself furnished that way by permitting a wrongful Crucifixion that demanded a rightful compensation of such extraordinary magnitude that life and holiness could rightly come rushing back into our dying world with healing benefit to all who would simply accept it. Good gracious!
This amazing good news reveals a justice of God apart from his justifiable wrath against stubborn wrong—a justice that gives access to his graciousness instead, through the perfect faithfulness of Jesus Christ, upon the exercise of our own faith in him, in spite of our irreverence and sinfulness. On the strength of his perfect faithfulness, our own imperfect faith is accounted as righteousness and our misdeeds are not counted against us. Woo hoo!
The upshot of all the above is that the Lord Jesus Christ came all the way from the splendor of heaven to the misery of earth not to pay for sins but to forgive them. God is not the payee but the payer. He himself paid the cost of creating heaven and earth and he personally absorbs the cost of human sin, as well—a gesture of true love. That’s the very essence of his graciousness, the throbbing heartburst of God’s love! The unique Son of God came visibly to earth to reveal that forgiving heart of his invisible Father in heaven. Christ wasn’t paying God to forgive, he was demonstrating God doing it, or how else could we possibly know such a transcendent truth? For “God was in Christ, conciliating the world to Himself, not counting their offenses to them, and placing in us the Explanation of the conciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
The Lord Jesus Christ is the marvelous centerpiece of God’s true love to us failing human beings. His terrible death unveiled the passion of that love for us since, in return for crucifying God’s beloved Son, we should have expected only devastating wrath. Yet “God is commending this love of His to us, seeing that, while we are still sinners, Christ died for our sakes” (Romans 5:8). “For God does not dispatch His Son into the world that he should be judging the world, but that the world may be saved through him” (John 3:17). “In this was manifested the love of God among us, that God has dispatched His only-born Son into the world that we should be living through him. In this is love, not that we love God, but that He loves us and dispatches his Son a protective shelter around our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). “And he is the protective shelter around our sins, yet not around ours only, but around the whole world also” (1 John 2:2). “For thus God loves the world, so that He gives His only-born Son, that everyone who is believing in him should not get destroyed, but may be having life agelong” (John 3:16). “Fear is not in love, but mature love is casting out fear, for fear has punishing. Now he who is fearing is not matured in love. We are loving God, for He first loves us” (1 John 4:18).
“Perceive what manner of love the Father has given us, that we may be called ‘children of God.’ And we are!” (1 John 3:1). “Become kind to one another, tenderly compassionate, dealing graciously among yourselves, according as God also, in Christ, deals graciously with you. Become, then, imitators of God, as beloved children, and be walking in love, according as Christ also loves you and gives himself up for us, an approach present and a sacrifice to God, for a fragrant odor” (Ephesians 4:32-5:2). “[W]e are observing Jesus, who has been made some bit inferior to angels—because of the suffering of death, wreathed in glory and honor—so that in the graciousness of God he should be tasting death for the sake of everyone. For it became Him, because of Whom all is, and through Whom all is, in leading many sons into glory, to perfect the Inaugurator of their salvation through suffering. For both he who is hallowing and those who are hallowed are all of One, for which cause he is not ashamed to be calling them ‘brethren’” (Hebrews 2:9-11). “For the love of Christ is constraining us, judging this, that, if one died for the sake of all, consequently all died. And he died for the sake of all that those who are living should by no means still be living to themselves, but to the one dying and being raised for their sakes” (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). “With Christ have I been crucified, henceforth no longer am I living, but living in me is Christ. Now that which I am now living in flesh, I am living in faithfulness that is of the Son of God, who loves me and gives himself up for me. I am not repudiating the graciousness of God” (Galatians 2:20-21). “Yet God, being rich in mercy, because of His vast love with which He loves us…vivifies us together in Christ (in graciousness have you gotten saved!) and raises us together and seats us together among the celestials, in Christ Jesus, that in the oncoming ages He should be displaying the transcendent riches of His graciousness in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For in graciousness, through faith, have you gotten saved” (Ephesians 2:4-8).
“What, then, shall we declare to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? Surely He who spares not His own Son, but gives him up for us all, how shall He not, together with him, also be graciously granting us all? Who will be indicting God’s chosen ones? God, the Justifier? Who is the condemner? Christ Jesus, the one dying, yet rather being raised, who is also at God’s right hand, who is pleading also for our sakes? What shall be separating us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? Affliction, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? According as it is written, that ‘On Your account we are being put to death the whole day, we are counted as sheep for slaughter.’ Nay, in all these we are more than conquering through Him who loves us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor sovereignties, nor the present, nor what is impending, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39). “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, our Father, Who loves us, and is giving us an agelong consolation and a good expectation in graciousness, be consoling your hearts and establish you in every good work and word….Now may the Lord be directing your hearts into the love of God and into the endurance of Christ!” (2 Thessalonians 2:16-17, 3:5). “Now expectation is not mortifying, seeing that the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit which is being given to us” (Romans 5:5). “To him who is loving us and looses us from our sins by his blood and makes us a kingdom and priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and might for the ages of the ages! Amen!” (Revelation 1:5).
“God IS love” (1 John 4:16).
THE LOVE OF GOD
The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled and pardoned from his sin.
When hoary time shall pass away and earthly thrones and kingdoms fall;
When men who here refuse to pray, on rocks and hills and mountains call;
God’s love, so sure, shall still endure, all measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—the saints’ and angels’ song.
Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill and every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky.
F. M. Lehman
(Final stanza, anonymous; found
written on a prison cell wall.)
© 2012, revised 2013, Ronald Lee Roper
Saint Valentine’s Day
Scripture altered from the Concordant Literal New Testament