Welcome to a new week on the podcast. We start the week with an email from podcast listener Jessica from Davis, California, and it could not be more important. “Pastor John, as I talk with millennials about Christ and the gospel, I’ve repeatedly had people say that they don’t believe that someone else paying the punishment for another (substitutionary atonement) is just. I too have an internal pushback against this but have come to know that substitutionary atonement has roots in the Mosaic sacrificial system. Our generation, however, at least in California, is biblically illiterate and doesn’t have this framework. How would you explain the justice of substitutionary atonement to this generation?”
Well, not much more could be more important than the question of whether Christ was, in fact, a just and merciful substitute for sinners, so that when he died for his elect, he actually bore their punishment so that they can experience no condemnation. That is the heart of the Christian gospel. If that goes, everything goes. Let us eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we perish.
Now there are at least two issues here. One is how biblical authority relates to the categories of thought in people’s minds. And the other is how to help people today grasp the justice of the atonement, given what they presently have as categories in their minds.
Let the Bible Build Categories
A word about that first issue: My approach to biblical authority in relation to John Piper’s fallen and fallible mind is to try, at least try, to let the Bible shape and even create categories of thought in my mind. In other words, if I come to the Bible and I find I don’t have a category to make sense out of something, I want to try to let the Bible shape or create new categories.
The alternative, it seems to me, would be to insist that the Bible, God’s word, whose ways are higher than my ways, be squeezed into my present ways of thinking. I mean, it is just absurd to even think about. But all over the world, people are trying to squeeze the Bible, limit the Bible, into their conceptuality that they inherited from their sinful culture and parents.
If people today are unwilling to have their way of thinking about the world changed, then either we will twist the Bible to fit our preconceptions, or we will reject the Bible.
In My Place Condemned
The Bible is resolute in insisting that Christ died in the place of sinners, so that the justice of God is satisfied and sinners escape punishment.
- Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
- Isaiah 53:5 “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” He was pierced. We transgressed. He was crushed. Glory! Glory!
- 1 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.”
- Colossians 2:14: God canceled “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
I love this last one because it is the kind of image I expect a Sunday school teacher to create — and actually Paul created it. When the spike was put against Jesus’s hand, the spike was lifted up, a document was inserted between the spike and the hand called “the record of John Piper’s and Tony Reinke’s debts,” and it was driven through the record into the hand, into the wood, and that record was settled, paid, finished.
Now those are simply glorious truths. And I grieve, I grieve that there are people who turn away from those truths as inconceivable or unjust. But I am not surprised, because Paul said the gospel is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). So we need grace to have our categories or thoughts adjusted by the Bible.
Now the second issue: How then do we try? Let me make an effort to try to describe the justice of the atonement. This is a little bit like trying to conceptualize the Trinity. It is always risky, because human conceptuality of divine things might be inadequate — they are not comprehensive. But let’s see if they can be true at least. So here it goes.
The fundamental issue here is: What does sin do to God, and how is this set right? The most important answer is that sin dishonors God. It detracts from his glory. It belittles him. It treats him as inferior in value to what we prefer in our sinful desire. I think that is what sin is. This is why the most important paragraph on the atonement in the Bible (Romans 3:21–26) contains the words “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) — or literally, “lack the glory of God.” In other words, sin is related to glory, and it is related as losing glory — that is, exchanging the glory of God for images (Romans 1:23). It is an effort to rob God of his glory.
Here’s the greatest problem in the universe: God’s creatures have gone on record as devaluing the glory of God. It’s as if the image of the Roman Caesar was ripped off the wall and trampled by mobs. Treason like that has always been a capital crime everywhere in the world. Trampling the glory of the most glorious being is the most serious crime in the universe.
How then is this situation to be remedied justly? How is justice to be done here? And the answer is that the injury done to the glory of God has to be repaired. That is what justice is. Justice, or righteousness, is that the glory of God is to be restored to its rightful place of exaltation and admiration.
This justice happens by stripping glory from the perpetrators in proportion to the way they have stripped it from God. That is the meaning of hell. It will take an eternity to strip sufficient glory from finite creatures. They don’t have infinite glory. So it will take an infinite amount of time to balance the enormity of defacing the glory of an infinite being — and that punishment is, therefore, eternal.
And the major question is: Can Christ repair the glory of God for the people of God? And the answer of the Bible is yes. And the reason is that Christ came precisely to vindicate the glory of God. That is not true of any criminal on the planet who is in prison today. That is why we can’t do this kind of thing among men. The reason Christ came is precisely to repair, to vindicate the glory of God. Here is a glimpse of it in John 12. Jesus said,
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:27–28)
This is the ultimate reason for the death of Jesus: he came to repair the injury we had done to the glory of God. He laid aside his glory. He emptied himself. He endured utter humiliation, not in a random way, but precisely for the glory of the Father (Philippians 2:1–11). Christ’s whole incarnation was a reversal of our attack on the glory of God. Since he is infinitely valuable, his loss of glory in his humiliation and death can cover all of our God-diminishing, God-dishonoring, God-defaming sins. And therefore, complete justice can be done in justifying the ungodly like us.
The glory of God is vindicated precisely in respect to the ways we have insulted the glory of God. Christ loses glory in suffering and dying precisely for the ways I have caused God to lose glory in my sins. And so God is shown to be glorious in passing over my sins for the sake of Jesus, who lived and died to restore the glory of his Father. And that is precisely what justice demands.
So oh, how I hope God will open the eyes of those who think that the heart of the Bible, the heart of the gospel, the best news in all the world, is unjust. It is, in fact, the highest expression of justice that ever was and the greatest act of mercy.