Years ago, I read a statement about substitutionary atonement. At the time it sounded so harsh, so stark and cold. If we sin, if we violate God’s law, we die. Period. The violation, that of God’s law—which itself in no circumstances could be waived, or even softened—had to be fully and absolutely paid for. No plea bargains, no reduced sentences, no time off for good behavior. God’s wrath on sin had to be poured out in full. Which meant that, because of Adam’s sin, the human race was doomed to eternal destruction; the law demanded nothing less.
The only option, the only way out for us, was for Christ, one equal with the Father (Phil. 2:6),to pay the penalty Himself, because, again, the legal structure of God’s universe required absolute payment. Thus Christ Himself, in facing God’s divine wrath against sin, paid the penalty for our sin, thus satisfying the expiatory requirements that violation of the law demanded.
As I said, the whole thing felt so cold, like steel cut and hewed into sharp edges; nothing soft, pliant, malleable about it.
Then I thought again: so what if it felt that way to me, a being arising at the far end of a sin-infested gene pool? That’s what Scripture teaches. Besides: Was God obligated to devise a plan of salvation that gave me the warm fuzzies?
Yes, it can sound so stark, so harsh, so cold. But what is sin if not stark, harsh, and cold? Look at the ravages, the suffering, the destruction, the evil, and the pain it causes. See the gas chambers, the bloated bellies, the blown-off limbs, the demented, the dying, the dead. Each one of us, meanwhile, is a unique testimony in our own wretchedness and sorrow to just how devastating sin is.
Of course the is atonement’s harsh; it’s supposed to be. When sinners in the Old Testament brought an innocent lamb to an altar, then slid a knife across its throat until its life drained out in a pool of blood, what was the message?
Be friends with God?
No, the message was that sin is so bad, so deadly, that it took the unjust and unfair death of the innocent in order to atone for it, to pay the legal penalty that God’s law (the moral background of His universe) demanded. If afterward, when the legalities are satisfied, and sinners, grateful to be forgiven, becomes friends with God, fine. But to ignore the legal aspect of the cross is like expecting a rocket to lift off the ground while not putting in an engine first. The sin problem, to be solved, needs more than just an attitude adjustment on our part.
It needed, based on God’s moral government, a cosmic legal resolution. And it was found in Christ Himself, the Creator of all that was made (John 1:3),bearing in His own body the death that sin, by its very nature, brings to us all.
Harsh? You bet.
Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His next book is tentatively titled Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity.