Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Just and the Justifier - A look at God's justice through the cross.

“As far as I know.... Jesus's death on the cross is the pinnacle, the foundation of Christianity. Supposedly believing that he dies for our sins makes us Christians, grants us eternal life. But how does it make sense? They say God comes to earth as man and he dies not because he has to, but because he wants to. And that act of humbleness washes away our sin... cleanses us from this sin??? Right? It just doesn't sound right. Sounds like magic. I don't know enough probably. But I don’t see how one of many men dying on a cross helps me or anyone else anymore. I just don’t get it. A guy comes to earth lives a humble yet miraculous life, does great deeds, is persecuted, dies on a cross, frees men from evil.

Tell me what you know.”

(A friend of mine sent me the above message on Facebook. I thought I might share my answer to him in the form of a non-intrusive post.)

Let me start by explaining why I appreciate your questions. First, I can see that you’ve asked these questions honestly. By that, I mean you didn’t ask questions in an attempt to confuse or frustrate, thereby “proving” Christianity as foolish. Some people use this approach as an attack and passive-aggressively disguise it as mere discourse.

Second, you at least recognize Jesus as a person who existed in human history. I can’t tell you how many people have debated this point with me, ignoring all of the historical data and presenting no opposing evidence. If you agree that Jesus was a man, then you’re halfway there, which saves me half the trouble of explaining this to you. Still, some other parts to your questions imply that you are uncertain of Jesus’s divinity. Explaining how Jesus is God would take another discussion, one I welcome, but for this response I want to focus on the significance of the cross.

Third, I appreciated the question of God’s motive in your message. Why would God choose to save us? Many people mistake the ultimate motive for salvation by saying it was purely because of His love for us. While John 3:16 clearly says God sent Jesus out of love for us, the motive goes much deeper. Psalm 115:3 says, “But our God is in Heaven, He does whatever He pleases.” While reading the book Desiring God by John Piper, I learned how God’s ultimate goal is to glorify Himself. So the purpose of Jesus’s crucifixion was to glorify God and please Him. Prophesying about the crucifixion, Isaiah 53:10 says, “But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief.” Knowing this helped me to understand the why behind the crucifixion, because scripture is also clear that we don’t deserve salvation and God is not obligated (whether out of love, goodness, or otherwise) to offer salvation.

You were right in saying this is the foundation and pinnacle of Christianity. I recently read in Death By Love by Mark Driscoll and Gary Breshears (a book which I take much information from on this subject) “As important as Jesus’s teaching, kind deeds, and miracles are, surprisingly, it is Jesus’s death and resurrection that are emphasized in Scripture. Matthew devoted 33 percent of his Gospel to Jesus’s final week; Mark, 37 percent; Luke, 25 percent; and John, 42 percent. The rest of the New Testament builds on the reality and power of his death and resurrection, referring to the life of Jesus far less frequently.”

So why did God come to earth to die for our sins? Why was this the main topic of much of the New Testament? The cross, among other things, displays both His perfect justice and mercy. Justice is a massive theme in the Bible. At the beginning, God creates the world and calls it good. By chapter 3 of Genesis, man joins Satan’s rebellion and introduces sin to the world. From there, it seems, it’s a continuous cycle of stories where people sin and receive judgment.

Sin, essentially, is the same thing as crime. God set up law and order in the world when He created it. You and I have both sinned and committed crimes against His law. Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” The punishment for these crimes is death. God said this in Genesis 2:16-17. Paul reminds us of this sentencing in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death”. We might not necessarily be killed on the spot when we break God’s law, but sin works out death in every area of our lives. Medical studies have proven angry, bitter, fearful, lazy, etc. people to have a higher likelihood of contracting disease. Lies, lust, jealousy, and resentment bring death to relationships. The examples just go on.

I’m not going to say my metaphors are perfect, but imagine that we commit these crimes and God the perfect judge rightly sentences us to a particular fine. Jesus, as perfectly innocent God, having no crime of His own to pay for, stands up and offers to pay for (or redeem us for) our crime. God the judge says that this would satisfy the court. This satisfaction of the law is called propitiation, and the legal declaration of innocence called justification. Because I accept Jesus’s offer, then I am free from the guilt and penalty of the law. If you don’t accept, then God will still hold you accountable for your crimes. He must demonstrate His law or else He would be an unrighteous judge, the kind we sometimes read about in the news and despise. Sadly, the just punishment is not a “fine” you could ever pay. It’s a death sentence.

Since “all have sinned”, nobody on Earth could pay for another’s sin. Everyone is guilty. It took God the Son coming down as a man, who could die, to live a life we couldn’t live and die in our place. I referred to Romans 3:23, but in addition to this look at verses 24-26. I’ll add some emphasis.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Before I finish, I want to touch on the point of eternal life since you mentioned it. The Bible tells of the eternal God who created everything including time. Eternity, as an attribute, means that He exists outside of time. He is not bound, as Cornelius Van Til says, by a temporal series of events. Otherwise He would have to wait for time to pass until His knowledge became complete. This is impossible in an omniscient God.

The eternal God existing outside of time can look at the whole of time at once. All of human history and mankind’s future are in His sight. The death of Jesus on the cross in history has immense meaning in the work of redemption. There are times that I still struggle with sin. But when I commit that crime against God, because I have put my trust in the work of Christ on the cross, God looks at the cross and continues to declare my forgiveness.

It does no good for God to merely “wipe the slate clean” when you accept Jesus as your Lord and savior. Clean slates have a tendency to get dirty again. However, the Bible teaches us about something called imputation. In this case, the word means an attribute of sin or righteousness is credited to all men by means of another. Paul best explains this in Romans 5 by saying God imputed Adam’s sin to all men born through him. Likewise, through Jesus, God imputes Christ’s righteousness to all who accept Him as their Lord and savior. By accepting Jesus in this way, not only does God legally forgive us of our sin, but He also considers us to have Christ’s righteousness.

This should astonish people. Every other world religion tells of a god requiring people to earn his favor by their good works and suffering. On the other hand, the Bible tells people how God knew of man’s inability to earn salvation. So He fulfilled the law by living a sinless life as a man, suffering, and dying on our behalf. Accepting this truth alone brings salvation and His favor. If sin brings death, and God forgives this sin in a person through Jesus, then the Christian has the promise of eternal life.

I know this might not have answered all the parts to your question and some of my points may have raised other questions. It’s hard to explain a whole doctrine within 2,000 words. But hopefully I’ve given you some understanding on why I believe in the significance of Jesus’s death on the cross.

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