3 Things Often Forgotten in the Atonement

The idea that God is an angry deity sitting in the sky too often distorts the view of Christianity. If God is seen as a mean ogre, so mean that He would abuse his own son on a cross then no wonder people would reject the Christian faith. 

I’ve found people can be surprised to find out that this isn’t a right understanding of what is known as the doctrine of “penal substitutionary atonement” described in the Bible. People are usually surprised if I tell them, “I don’t believe in that angry-all-the-time abusive God either.”

The idea of Jesus dying as a substitute for sinners on the cross is rejected by many. Sometimes it is rejected, though, because it is not understood. While there are many reasons why it is not understood, I think these are probably the top three reasons:

1. God’s love always moves first.

The first thing that is quickly forgotten when it comes to the atoning work of Jesus is that God’s love is always the first move. God began the world in love. God began the world to share his love. He didn’t create the world because he had a lack. He created the world in order to share what had existed in the mystery of the Godhead since eternity past. The divine fiat of creation is “let us make man in our image.” In other words, let man taste of the goodness of the Lord. Let man exist in order to experience the love of God in the universe God has created.  

So also, after mankind freely sinned and spurned that love, after mankind marred the image of God bestowed upon them, God’s love also moved first. Why didn’t Adam and Eve instantly disintegrate into dust particles upon succumbing to the serpent’s voice and eating the forbidden fruit? Because God didn’t stop loving them, they weren’t destroyed. What moved God, who had been disobeyed even though he had given these perfect creatures a perfect paradise, to come and ask them a question: Where are you? What moved God to not only add curses to the man and the woman, but to the serpent? God’s love moves first with the promise that the offspring of the woman would eventually crush the serpent (see Genesis 3:15).

2. Our sin is always the problem.

Another thing downplayed when talking about the necessity of the atoning work of Christ is the seriousness of our sin. Dealing with sin is too often treated like dealing with a list of small cosmetic repairs that need to be made in your home. We know the paint on the porch is peeling, but we can get to it next summer. We’ve gotten used to the sound of the dripping faucet at night. If we treat our own heart idols and heart addictions like this then of course we won’t see the importance of justice that condemns sin and the need for a substitute on our behalf.

Jesus came to condemn sin in sinful flesh. In other words Jesus came so that God could be just, delivering justice in regard to the eternal wrongs done by our sins against him. Yet also Jesus came so that God could be the justifier of sinners who would place their faith in His Son. Who doesn’t want to see justice served? Who has ever winced at the miscarriage of justice in our society or in the world? There are crimes that go unsolved. There are criminals who are never caught. There are ledgers that are never reconciled. 

Most of the time we function as people who want justice to be served to the person who wrongs us, but we want understanding and a second chance when we wrong another person. If everyone holds that double standard then the state of our world should make rational sense. We’re killing each other in order to get ourselves off the hook. We do it in subtle and not so subtle ways. It has been said that the depravity of mankind is the most empirically verifiable fact, yet the most vehemently denied reality.

3. God provides that which He requires.

Let God be true and every man proved to be a liar. If we are unjust toward each other even while we cry out for justice in the world, then we prove how much we need someone to come in and help us. We need someone who will not be corrupted by our corruption. We need someone who can change not only our circumstances, but who can change our hearts. 

God does both by sending His Son Jesus Christ as a substitute for us, as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. The love of God shared between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit before the world began, was shared with us on purpose. That same love put into action a plan for the salvation of the world after God’s love was rejected. That plan included the rejection of Jesus by the very people he came to save, so that they could turn and be accepted by God. 

Don’t forget then: What God requires of us, God provides for us. Justice is shown forth in God’s wrath poured out on sin on the cross. That wrath is taken by our representative, Jesus Christ. Those who are in Christ through faith have had their wrath meted out. Now all that is left is the eternal love of God, which is what He wanted to give us in the first place.


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