A Primer on the Atonement (pt. 7)
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 Six)
C: Thank you for that elucidation of the question. I see your point. No, I could not live with the idea that the Father and the Son are at any kind of antagonism in their relationship with one another.
I: So you grant my point?
C: I grant that the idea of the Father and Son in conflict is not compatible with the very notion of the ever-blessed divine Trinity.
I: Are you being especially cagey here? On the one hand you seem to admit my point, and yet you seem not to admit it. I notice you speak of the “idea” that the Father and the Son are hostile to each other. Is it not clear that they are? Have you not said that the Father is propitiated by the Son, and that if that had not been done, the Father, in spite of the Son’s affection for sinners, would have plunged them into eternal condemnation?
C: Be patient with me; I did not really say that. Let us go over it a little more carefully. It is true that God is propitiated by the sacrifice of His Son.
I: That is exactly my point. You agree, then, that the Godhead (especially the Father) is estranged from men, and He is reconciled to them by the friendly Son offering Himself as a sacrifice for them.
C: Not exactly, though I can certainly understand why you see it that way. And I may have even been negligent in not making certain aspects of the atonement clearer before now. But that is not what we are saying.
I: Okay. Say it again, and I will listen very carefully.
C: We are saying that God is estranged from man the sinner and infinitely angry with him, and, if there is no way to clear the sinner from his guilt, God will pour out eternal wrath upon him.
I: I see the subtle difference you are introducing, which I had not heard before. You are saying that the Godhead, not just the Father, is estranged from man?
C: I am.
I: The Godhead includes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
C: It does.
I: Then you are saying that the Son, as well as the Father, is hostile toward the sinner. Are you also saying that the Son of God is infinitely angry with sinners, even elect sinners?
C: That is what I am saying.
I: That raises an even deeper problem for me.
C: What is that?
I: Now you are asking me to believe that the Son is both infinitely angry with the sinner and yet dies for his salvation! Can you possibly mean that?
I: You mean to say that the same person, the Son of God, infinitely hates and infinitely loves the elect sinner at the same time? Is that not a contradiction in terms—a split not in the Godhead, but in the second person of the Godhead?
C: Is it not possible for a person to hate with a holy hatred absolutely wicked persons (such as fallen men are) yet at the same time desire their salvation? Is that a contradiction?
I: Let me think that over. It certainly looks like a contradiction. How could Christ have a perfect hatred and a perfect love at the same time for the same guilty sinners?
C: Before I try to answer that deep question, let me observe one thing in passing.
I: Please do.
C: You realize that this is the very heart of the gospel: God the Son died for those whom He infinitely detested. I am not dealing with the problem of how that could be; I am just pausing for a station break here. I am reminding you that here is the whole wonder of the gospel, the incredibility of divine grace. As Paul puts it in Romans 5:6–7, no one would die for a righteous man, “though perhaps someone would, for a good man, even dare to die; but God [especially the Son] demonstrates His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” What you are having difficulty with is nothing less than the gospel in its quintessence. The all-gracious Son of God loved sinners so much that those whom He hated as sinners He died to deliver from sin.
I: Thank you for impressing that upon me. While, as you admit, that does not answer my question, it does, in a way, disarm me. It almost convinces me emotionally, even while I am intellectually still on the rack. I know that is what makes Christianity tick. That is the Christian religion, the gospel itself. And yet I find myself asking, does the gospel make sense, intelligible sense? I feel almost wicked raising the question when I realize that my only hope for salvation is that this not only could have happened, but did happen.
C: Most feel there must be an answer. Is it possible for someone simultaneously to have an infinite hatred and an infinite love for the same guilty persons? The answer is in terms of an ethical concept: the difference between a love of complacency and a love of benevolence.
I: Refresh my mind on these terms, please.
C: A love of complacency is based on an admiration and affection for a morally worthy individual—a person so excellent that one has complacency or pleasure in that person’s character.
I: And a love of benevolence?
C: A love of benevolence is good will toward a person. That person need not be worthy of admiration and affection because of any excellence in his character. The love is simply a desire to do good to a person irrespective of his character.
I: All right, I understand those terms. How do they solve our problem?
C: When we say the Son of God both loves and hates the same sinners at the same time, we are talking in terms of those two kinds of love. The Son of God does not have any love of complacency for sinners. They are absolutely obnoxious to Him. Without holiness, no man will see the Lord. Only the pure in heart will see God. God will by no means clear the guilty. So, as God, Jesus Christ has only absolute “displacency” or displeasure with sinners. They warrant holy hatred because they are utterly detestable and worthy only of condemnation.
I: So the Son’s love for sinners has no complacency in it, since they deserve infinite hatred; it is, instead, a love of benevolence or good will.
C: That is precisely the point. Jesus, who has an infinite hatred of the wicked person, may at the same time have a love of benevolence for him. In His good will toward sinners, He desires to bring blessing to them.
I: I think I can carry the ball from here. If the Son of God has such a will as that, I will have to admit that there is no contradiction. It would be up to Him to remove a person’s sin and bring him to a state of moral excellence, in which state He could have a love of complacency for him. Am I right?
C: Yes. That is exactly it. And you have answered how the same person, the Son of God, could have infinite hatred for the elect sinner and, at the same time, an infinite love of benevolence for the sinner. You even explained how the good that Jesus provides the sinner in His love of benevolence is the deliverance from sin and reconciliation toward God. That love of benevolence for this utterly unworthy person is what compels Jesus to redeem that person by shedding His blood for the remission of the person’s guilt.
I: You not only answered my question, but addressed my next concern as well.
C: You are ahead of me. Explain, please.
I: You have solved two problems with one observation. In pointing out that the Son of God could have both a love of benevolence and an infinite hatred for the same person, you have also shown me how God the Father and the Spirit could likewise simultaneously love and hate sinners. So instead of the doctrine of the atonement pitting the Father against the Son, the Father could very well have exactly the same disposition toward sinners as Jesus the Son does.
C: I see what you mean. I think that is implied, though you noted it before I did. Yes, the Father and the Son had this infinite hatred, and God had to be propitiated if the sinner was to be acceptable to Him. The Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit as well, have exactly the same dealings. And you would see what the Son’s role in His atonement and expiation actually was, would you not?
I: Yes. That is very easy now. The three persons of the Godhead all agreed to show love of benevolence for certain sinners. They agreed further that, to make those persons acceptable to them and an object of complacency, their guilt would have to be taken and expiated. And they agreed that the second person of the Godhead would take upon Himself human nature and suffer the sacrifice necessary to propitiate divine justice. In other words, it was the justice of the triune God and not merely the justice of the Father.
C: Precisely. I could wish that more professional theologians could understand this as well as you do. You are not a professional nor even sure of your own Christian faith, but merely a seeker of salvation! You put it very well indeed. So you see there is absolute harmony in the Godhead, especially in the atonement; there is no trace of antagonism or opposition. The Son does not propitiate the Father in that sense of the word; He propitiates as far as the essential Trinity is concerned. All three persons are involved in infinite hatred, infinite propitiation, infinite acceptance, and infinite complacency in the elect for whom Jesus Christ died. The difference is simply in the roles played by the utterly unanimous essential Trinity. The Father exercises the executive and judgmental right. He is the one who passes the judgment of condemnation on the wicked. The Son, by common consent of the Godhead and on behalf of the entire Trinity, provides the satisfaction to the Father, who exercises the executive right of judgment, as well as acquittal.
I: Yes. One sees how these doctrines mesh together so beautifully. We had a fine discussion of the Trinity earlier. And this is where the understanding of the Trinity is so important to understanding the atonement. If one does not remember the doctrine of the Trinity, including the essential Trinity and the economic Trinity, he will get into the very kind of confusion that I suffered from. He would be led to the same kind of objections, false objections based upon a misunderstanding that, until now, I labored under. I know hundreds of people who labor under such misunderstandings. But now I realize that, far from any antagonism in the Godhead, there is the most sublime and perfect unity, especially in the atonement.
C: Soli Deo Gloria!
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.