A Primer on the Atonement (pt. 6)

from Apr 21, 2010 Category: Articles

In this ongoing series from John Gerstner’s Primitive Theology, Dr. Gerstner uses a fictional dialog between Christian and Inquirer to provide a primer on the Christian doctrine of the atonement.

(Continued from Part Four)

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I: Something has always profoundly disturbed me about the very idea of an atonement like the one taught by Christianity. I understand the biblical doctrine is that Jesus Christ was offered up as a sacrifice to divine justice. And He paid for our sins by enduring our punishment, or receiving our wages of sin in His death. What bothers me about the idea is that it seems to wipe out what I have always thought of as the very heart of the Christian religion.

C: What do you mean?

I: I have understood from my childhood, when I was taught about the Christian religion, that God was a God of mercy and pardon and forgiveness.

C: You were well instructed. He is a God of infinite mercy. Do you think the satisfaction of Jesus Christ is inconsistent with the mercy of God?

I: That does trouble me. I am puzzled that you do not see the problem here. Do you not see a contradiction in saying that God was satisfied totally because payment was made in full for the guilt of our sins, and yet saying that God is a God of mercy? If you were preaching a God of justice, I could see how the atonement, with its full payment for sins, would be consistent with that. But how in the world can the atonement exist alongside of mercy?

C: Before I address that question, may I remind you that earlier in our conversation it was the justice of the atonement that bothered you?

I: Yes, I remember. You have answered persuasively that God’s justice is not obliterated by the atonement, but is actually fulfilled in infinite fullness. But now my question is whether the price of vindicating divine justice has not been the obliteration of divine mercy.

C: I am a little confused on this point. Would you explain a little more why you feel that the satisfaction of justice in Christ’s death is somehow incompatible with His mercy? I understand how justice could look like the opposite of mercy, but I do not quite see why you feel that something in this gift of divine justice contradicts the mercy of God. Would you go over it again?

I: If God’s justice is utterly satisfied for the sinner who comes to Jesus Christ, then whatever benefits result from that absolutely adequate sacrifice are the sinner’s due. Therefore God owes something to the sinner who comes in the name of Jesus Christ?

C: Yes, He does, on the basis of Jesus’ full payment. I am beginning to see what you mean. I apologize for lagging behind. What you are asking is that since God has been paid in full and owes the sinner the pardon purchased by Christ for him, how can that be called a demonstration of divine mercy? Am I understanding you now?

I: That is the problem as I see it. Do you not see that as a problem?

C: Yes, when stated that way. And I realize now why I was slow to catch on. My thinking was absorbed with the implied mercy of God, which is in the background and not in the foreground of our discussion.

I: Now you are losing me.

C: Sorry. It is just that my mind was in another area of the discussion, which we have not yet brought to the foreground—that the mercy of God was what sent Jesus Christ to pay the full price for the remission of the penitent’s sins. Do you follow?

I: Now I do. There is mercy here, though it is at a different point from where I was looking. In a certain sense there is no mercy in pardoning the sinner whose guilt has been paid in full by Jesus Christ. At that point, it is a matter of absolute justice. And if God is a God of justice, then He must acknowledge that the sinner who claims the atonement of Jesus Christ is totally expiated of his guilt and reconciled to God. But what I failed to ask was, where did that payment come from? When I answer that question, I have to say it came from the mercy of God. Is that what you are suggesting?

C: That is the idea. It is by the mercy of God that Christ’s full payment of God’s justice makes it absolutely obligatory for that just God to receive a repentant sinner, who trusts in Jesus Christ. God’s mercy, in other words, satisfied His justice. Or to put it another way, God’s willingness to be merciful is what led Him to “so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” His love, in the form of mercy, led to His satisfying His justice by the gift of Jesus Christ. Or to put it still another way, that gift of mercy was the satisfaction of divine justice.

I: That is truly sublime. The justice of God in the atonement of Jesus Christ, which on the surface seems to be the enemy of mercy, is actually the supreme demonstration of it.

C: You see why I so often say that the Christian religion has a built-in apologetic. When one understands it, he is compelled by the obvious, irresistible truth of it. A truth so sublime can only come from God.

I: Yes, I have seen that time and time again, though this is the first time I have seen it with respect to the atonement. It amazes me to think of the number of people who reject the atonement because they say they believe in the forgiveness of God.

C: Yes. What they should say is they believe in the atonement because they believe in the forgiveness of a holy God who would by no means clear the guilty except in the only way they could truly be cleared.

I: That must be the meaning of the biblical expression, “that God might be just and the justifier of the ungodly.”

C: Yes, it comes from Romans 3:26: “That He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God is both just and the justifier of the ungodly. Normally when a person is the justifier of the ungodly, it is because he is not a just person. Any human being who declares a guilty person innocent is himself guilty, and not an honorable judge. And on the surface of it God could be mistaken for the ultimate unjust judge. But inasmuch as His justification of the ungodly is based on the punishment of their sin in Jesus Christ, God is clearly just when He justifies the ungodly, and they are made godly in the righteousness of Jesus Christ reckoned to them. Have you run the gamut of your questions on the atonement?

I: For the most part. But there is another formidable question I would like to raise. I think I know the answer, but I am not sure. Even if I do know the answer, I cannot state it very well.

C: What is the question?

I: Let me work up to it. First of all, it is true that Christ was offered as a propitiation to satisfy divine justice.

C: Yes.

I: That offering or sacrifice was made to God, correct?

C: Yes.

I: And obviously that sacrifice was made by the Son of God.

C: Correct.

I: All right. I have my facts straight now, and that leads me to ask, does this doctrine of the atonement mean that God the Son placates God the Father?

C: Yes, in a sense.

I: What sense? If God the Son, by His sacrifice, placates God the Father, does that not imply a split in the Godhead?

C: I think I know what you mean, but I would like to have you spell it out more fully.

I: If the Son placates the Father, that would seem to suggest that the Son is friendly to lost sinners (at least some of them), but the Father is hostile to them; and thus there is a profound split in the Godhead—a real antagonism between the Father, who is angry with the sinners and is ready to plunge them into hell at any moment, and the Son who loves them so much that He is willing to die for them. Is that not a profound split right in the heart of the divine Trinity, militating against any notion of eternal love and unified purpose shared by the members of the Trinity? Could you live with the idea that the Father and the Son are at loggerheads, in such a way as this?

To be continued…

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Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.

Read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four and Part Five.