That "Christ died for our sins" (1 Cor 15.3) has been a keynote of the gospel since the Saviour Himself said concerning His death that his blood would be "shed for many for the remission of sins" (Mt 26.28). The idea behind "for" that has been generally accepted starts with an understanding that sin is an offence to God and that therefore His justice demands that sin be punished. In His death the Lord Jesus took our place as a substitute and suffered the punishment we deserved so that we might be free from the penal consequences of our guilt. That God is angered by sin and that His wrath is brought to bear against it is clearly basic to this teaching.
This simple, yet profound, doctrine has often been challenged. An example can be found as recently as this Easter (2007) when the BBC broadcast a talk by the Dean of St Albans, which he later defended in a letter. He described the Old Testament teaching on justice and suffering as "pretty primitive" and the claim that Christ as a substitute suffered at Gods hand for sin as "repulsive as well as nonsensical". For him "the basic truth about Gods nature is that He is Love, not wrath and punishment". To confuse matters he nonetheless states in his letter to the Church Times: "Of course Christ died for our sins; but the price is paid not to God, but by God". His position is that "The crucifixion did not placate an angry God and change His mind".
Wherein lies the truth? Two points must be made initially: first, that for us Scripture must alone decide, and second, that the two Testaments cannot be separated from one another. They go together to form the Word of God Written. Sadly this is not accepted by all those who occupy positions of influence and authority in the established churches. Often, for example, it is claimed that the teaching of the New Testament leaves behind the Old Testaments angry God and brings forward a God who is only marked by love.
The Nature of God
It is essential in beginning to deal with this key issue to remind ourselves of the nature of God. Is He love to the exclusion of wrath and punishment? From Scripture the basic truth about Gods character is that He is holy. His love, power, justice, and indeed any other attributes cannot compromise His absolute holiness.
Gods dealings with Adam in Genesis 3 and the Flood He brought against the world as described in Genesis 6 to 8 together show, from the beginning of the Bible, that God is grieved by and acts in judgment on sin. Romans 5.12, "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned", takes the record of Genesis 3 as the foundation for an understanding of the need for the grace of God and justification by faith. The Lord Jesus in Matthew 24.38,39 refers to Noah in terms that speak of a future judgment on mankind that will have similarities to the one that took place by the Flood. It is therefore wrong to suggest a division between Old and New Testaments in their views on Gods attitude toward sin and sinners.
There is No Difference
Psalm 7.11 puts it simply by stating that "God is angry with the wicked every day". Given that God is holy and perfectly righteous, His anger is necessary if He is to be true to His character. Now, as gospel preachers have insisted, God cannot make a difference between sinners, "that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty" (Rom 3.19). Yet God is able to be "just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Rom 3.26). That means He is able to preserve His holy character as perfectly just and righteous and is also able to declare to be righteous sinners who "believe in Jesus".
It should be noted that this does not mean that everyone is as wicked as it is possible for them to be. Indeed it can be argued that if Gods people behave as the true "salt of the earth" (Mt 5.13) the world will be less corrupt than it would otherwise be.
Distinction in Wickedness
Sometimes in preaching we may have given the impression that to call men sinners means we believe there is no distinction in their wickedness. I note that the Lord Jesus said of those who refused the word of the disciples that it would be "more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city" (Mt 10.15). "More tolerable" means that the punishment meted out will vary according to the degree of guilt, but since all are guilty then all will be judged and the judgment will be unending. It is He who tells of "everlasting fire" as the fate of sinful men though that fire was originally prepared for "the devil and his angels" (Mt 25.41).
The question that arises is, "What did the Lord Jesus do that enables God to justify and forgive sinners?". According to Peter the answer is that "Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust" (1 Pet 3.18). It is this understanding that allows the same apostle to say that we were redeemed "with the precious blood of Christ" (1 Pet 1.19). It is difficult to imagine how it could be made clearer. The suffering of Christ at the cross was "for sins" and so "for us".
Romans 3 emphasises that the benefit of the death of Christ comes to "him which believeth in Jesus" (v.26). On the basis of faith on our part and the death of Christ on His part we are justified by God who reckons to our account the work of the Lord Jesus in suffering for sins at the cross. So Romans states that we are justified "by his blood" (5.9) and "by faith" (5.1). Since it is not deserved by us then it is also "freely by his grace" (3.24).
It seems to me that this message is one that has logic. It is not at all "nonsensical".
Now it is true that notions of placating the gods were and are prevalent in heathen idolatry. Is the Christian gospel just the same? No! The anger attributed to idols was not based on any ethical foundation. It was usually capricious. Placating and appeasing that anger could be attempted by bringing a valuable offering to the god. The God of the Bible is angry with reason. He is not placated in the sense described above; it is not about Him changing His mind or being bribed to ignore sin. Rather, His justice is satisfied by the punishment due against the offence being fully carried out.
It is, of course, important to bear in mind that the Old Testament sacrifices were no more than pictures. "It is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins" (Heb 10.4). But the Lord Jesus "offered one sacrifice for sins for ever" and so "by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified" (Heb 10.12,14). These pictures have been superseded by the real thing!
In coming to an understanding of "for us" note that Scripture speaks of us being "crucified with him" and of us "being dead with Christ" (Rom 6.6,8). To the Ephesians Paul writes that we are "accepted in the beloved" (Eph 1.6) with the implication that we are seen by God as in Christ and so are found in the good of His work and character. "I am crucified with Christ" was the ground of Pauls confidence, not his keeping of the law (Gal 2.19,20). It is this truth that helps one understand how God can punish someone in our stead. Without this it can appear that God is behaving unreasonably in allowing a third party to take the guilt and the accompanying judgment that are due to us. To put it in simplistic terms we are seen by God to be "in Christ" at the cross in His death and now too are seen "in Him" in resurrection.
We do preach the blood of Christ. This is offensive to many who claim that it is "primitive". It is worth therefore explaining that we hold no "magic" view of the blood of Christ. Were someone to have caught some of the blood as it fell from the cross it would not have been a mystic salve to be applied to sinful men to cleanse them. The blood shed at the cross was the evidence that His life had been given. Death was essential to ensure that He endured all sins punishment ("death by sin") and so the New Testament writers were neither ashamed of the cross nor of the blood. In addition it was well understood that a binding covenant between two parties had to be ratified by blood being shed. So the Lord Jesus can state in establishing the Lords Supper that "this is my blood of the new testament (covenant), which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Mt 26.28). In comparison to the covenant made at Sinai the Saviour is "the mediator of a better covenant" (Heb 8.6). This covenant depends solely on the promise of God and is established by the blood of Christ. Its benefits flow without condition to the one who enters it by faith in Christ.
The truth of Scripture is that God "will judge the world in righteousness" (Acts 17.31) but commends "his love towards us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5.8).
To be continued.