Why couldn’t God simply have forgiven sinners? Precisely because sinners cannot be forgiven until they completely understand sin, with all its far reaching consequences, or before the wages of sin are paid.
Have you read the first part of this feature?
The last part of the previous phrase is one of the least understood factors in soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). However, the explanation lies in the nature of sin. Only once the wages of sin have been paid once and for all can the destructive and unredeemable nature of sin be fully recognised. Any sin that can be forgiven without having to pay its price (eternal death) would no longer be perceived for what it really is: deadly and totally opposed to God’s love. A misrepresentation of sin in the minds of created beings fuels sinful thinking. We are not speaking here of a mere impression which God tries to create in our minds. When a doctor finds cancer cells in the body of a patient, he does not tell him that he will die only to convince him of the malignant nature of cancer. He tells the patient he will die, because, left to manifest freely, cancer always kills.
Some theologians believe that Jesus’ death was necessary only to prove His love and solidarity and that this will produce a change of mind and heart (the theory of moral influence). Other thinkers say Jesus’ death showed us how much God is willing to suffer in order to maintain the order of His rule in the universe, and that the sinner who persists will experience eternal death (the governmental theory).
The great reformers—Martin Luther, John Calvin, and later, John Wesley—were all supporters of this understanding of Christ’s sacrifice.
Supporters of both theories are right in what they affirm, yet wrong in what they deny. What they deny is the fact that Jesus’ death was necessary to “satisfy” God’s justice and righteousness, which has an aversion towards sin, similar to an unavoidable allergic reaction (the theory of penal substitution). “In order to save us in a way consonant to His justice, God through Christ substituted Himself for us. Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice.” This fulfilment of His justice allowed God to be “just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” “Through Jesus, God’s mercy was manifested to men; but mercy does not set aside justice. The law reveals the attributes of God’s character, and not a jot or tittle of it could be changed to meet man in his fallen condition. God did not change His law, but He sacrificed Himself, in Christ, for man’s redemption.”
God judged sin on the cross and, based on this judgement, He is able to offer us the fruits of Jesus’ sacrifice: grace and forgiveness. Substitutive death changed our legal status before God. The great reformers, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and later, John Wesley, were all supporters of this understanding of Christ’s sacrifice.
The other Comforter
The Holy Spirit is, in a sense, the most discreet Person of the Trinity. He is not as prominent as God the Father or God the Son precisely because He voluntarily chose, through his work, for all the attention to be channeled to the life, sacrifice, and redeeming resurrection of Jesus, and His current mission in heaven. It is ironic that the Person closest to us, the One who calls us, convinces us of our sins and inspires us to repent—the One who produces in us the new birth, who lives in our hearts and transforms us—is the Person we know the least of.
To understand the Holy Spirit’s critical contribution to the plan of salvation, it is important to understand the implications of us being born sinful. A sinful nature resembles an autoimmune disease. We are born with sinful predilections and, by ourselves, we cannot live without sinning. In this sense, we are fighting against our eternal welfare. As a consequence of what we are, we run from God, we keep our distance and we are not able to change ourselves.
God the Holy Spirit is the one who initiates and maintains our saving relationship with God. From the position of One who has always been one with the essence of the Father and the Son’s sacrificing love, the Holy Spirit is the one who communicates this love and appeals to our hearts, urging us to stop running from God, and who makes sure God is willing to adopt us once more into His family.
It is the Holy Spirit who initiates every stage of the calling-conviction-conversion-justification-sanctification process that each sinner needs to go through. The Holy Spirit sends out His calling before and in the absence of any kind of human initiative. This calling is the attraction the sinner feels towards Christ and is followed by the conviction he feels regarding His love. The sinner then feels convicted of his own personal sin and sees the invitation to repentance. Repentance is also the work of the Holy Spirit, and His gift to human beings. The sinner is not able to lead himself to repentance. Repentance is the engine of the conversion process, which leads to being “born again”. “The new birth” is another work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of those who, although unable to change themselves, are now willing to respond to the call of the Holy Spirit.
When a believer consciously chooses to put his trust in Christ by faith, this is the most visible proof of his authentic conversion (“the new birth”). The Holy Spirit recreates his free will (being capable of choosing God once again), which the sinner can then exercise to be released from the subjugating power of sin. When, by faith, he responds to the work of the Holy Spirit, the sinner receives the benefits of grace: forgiveness of sins, a new legal status before God (justification—Romans 5:1) and the Holy Spirit’s help for the transformation of his character (sanctification—Romans 8:10-11). All through this process, it is the Holy Spirit who helps us, comforts us just as He did Christ, and teaches us how to pray. In fact, He is the “other Comforter”, the One who is a substitute for Christ’s redeeming presence all around the world.
One last thing
Through His life and especially through His death, Christ atoned for our sin, exposed Satan as the deceiver and murderer he is, and defeated him. There was, however, one question remaining which needed an answer. God still had to prove that He is just and merciful towards each and every created being who ever lived. Based on the verdict of this judgement, He has to eradicate sin and save the repenting sinners.
At the cross, God’s mercy and justice met, but the perfect unity between God’s mercy and justice needed to be highlighted in the way God relates to every created being. His judgement has to prove that God is totally just and perfectly loving in all cases. Based on this demonstration, the false accusations pointed at God can be completely dismantled, sin can be eradicated and its main agents and promoters can be destroyed. The moral order and God’s rule will be rehabilitated and love will become once more the essence of life throughout the whole universe.
From theology to life
When He created man “in His image”, the Triune God created him to live in loving relationships oriented outwards, not inwards. “If ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8) in the very essence of His nature and we have been made in His ‘image’ and ‘according to’ His ‘likeness’ (Genesis 1:26-27), then this ought to tell us that the very core of what it means to be human is found through our experience of social/spiritual relationships which are loving, trusting, and submissive to God and our fellow human beings.”
The plan of salvation enacted by the Trinity tells us that we owe the chance of being forgiven and saved to God’s love which was willing to sacrifice itself.
After a quick glance at our world, one can clearly observe the way in which sin has affected us. The world is mainly driven by the instinct for self-satisfaction, rooted inside of us by sin. Therefore, sin does not just mean transgressing against the law, but also transgressing against relationships (with God and other people). God’s salvation plan will, in the end, rehabilitate His love as the only moral way to ensure order and happiness in the universe. Furthermore, the unity manifested by God inside the Trinity is the promise of a unified universe. “If there is not perfect plurality and perfect unity in God himself, then we have no basis for thinking there can be any ultimate unity among the diverse elements of the universe either.” “Unless I understand the Cross”, said Ravi Zacharias, “I cannot understand why my commitment to what is right must have precedence over what I prefer”.
This is the most practical of the implications of the penal substitution theory. God’s law simply describes the way in which someone who understands God’s love will behave. “What is right” must be read not as a reference to a legalistic view on life, but as an allusion to what God’s love advises us to do, to what is best to do to find true purpose and true fulfilment in life.
The salvation plan enacted by the Trinity tells us that we owe the chance of being forgiven and saved to His love which was willing to sacrifice itself. It also tells us we are completely dependent on Him to be recreated in His image. And, in the end, it assures us that love and justice will once and for all put an end to evil and its most painfully obvious fruits: suffering and death.
Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.