Cliff's Edge

Law, Freedom, Love

Our moral freedom is no illusion

Clifford Goldstein
Law, Freedom, Love

I’ve always been baffled by those among us who deny the penal substitutionary aspect of Christ’s death, viewing it as merely a dramatic expression of God’s love, as opposed to a legal payment for sin. For them, penal substitutionary atonement goes like this: you break God’s law (sin), you face God’s wrath (death). Period. However, to spare us, God poured out His wrath against the violation of His law (sin), not on the violators of His law (sinners) but on the sinless Jesus, the only way that God could “be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). In short, rather than killing us for violating His law, the Father killed Jesus instead.

Crudely put—but, yes, that’s penal substitutionary atonement.

To understand it we need to understand the relationship between law, freedom, and love.

Law, Freedom, Love

First, there is law.

“The wages of sin,” the Bible says, “is death” (Rom. 6:23).  And “sin,” the Bible also says, “is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4).  So, according to the Bible, the wages of violating God’s law is death. Which helps explain Ellen White’s words: “The broken law of God demanded the life of the sinner.[i]

Why such a harsh penalty (the divine guillotine?) for violation of God’s moral law?

The answer begins in the next concept: freedom. Why, after all, does God have a moral law? Because God has created moral beings. A computer doesn’t need a moral law; humans do. What is the difference? As moral creatures, humans must be able to make moral choices, something that laptops or mainframes can’t. A computer that filters out porn is not making a moral choice; a human who does the same, filters out porn, is making a moral one because that human has the freedom to make a different choice. (See Deuteronomy 30:19).

Only because God gave us this moral freedom did God give us His moral law. The reality of the law reveals the reality of our freedom; without that freedom, the law would be meaningless, useless, like giving a lecture on porn to a MacBook. We, as free beings, need the lecture precisely because we, not the laptop, are morally free creatures who need to know the boundaries of that freedom.

Why were we given this freedom? One word answer: love. Our Creator can force all intelligences in His universe to worship Him; He can force them to fear Him, even to obey Him. But He cannot force a single one to love Him. Love, to be love, must be freely given or it’s not love. For God to force love would be like God forcing the number “5” to be less than “3.” How interesting, too, that the two most important commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor (see Luke 10:27), are the two commandments that cannot, even by God Himself, be forced.

Love, Freedom, Law

So, to run this logic in reverse, for us to be able to love, which is a moral attribute, we need moral freedom. And moral freedom requires a moral law to define that freedom.

But, still, “the life of the sinner” for violating that law, for stepping over the bounds of that freedom? (see Ezekiel 18:20). Isn’t that a bit harsh? Well, let’s look at the results of our having stepped over the bounds of that freedom for about six thousand years now. How well has that been working for us? War, genocide, crime, sickness, suicide, insanity, sex trafficking (of children!), Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, 9/11, and, all arose from one thing: violation of God’s law or, rather, human freedom to violate that law.

Our freedom, our moral freedom, is no illusion, no joke. For us to be able to love, God created us as, truly, morally autonomous beings, which (as millennia of horror has shown) was potentially, and exceedingly, dangerous. But that freedom is what love absolutely required, which is why God’s law—which defines that freedom, and the boundaries of it—is so sacred, so important, and why violation of it is so serious.

Let’s look at the Ellen White quote above in context: “The broken law of God demanded the life of the sinner. In all the universe there was but one who could, in behalf of man, satisfy its claims. Since the divine law is as sacred as God Himself, only one equal with God could make atonement for its transgression. None but Christ could redeem fallen man from the curse of the law and bring him again into harmony with Heaven. Christ would take upon Himself the guilt and shame of sin—sin so offensive to a holy God that it must separate the Father and His Son. Christ would reach to the depths of misery to rescue the ruined race.”[ii]

The Divine Law

The divine law is as sacred as God Himself?  How can that be? Because the divine law stems directly from God Himself, from who He is as God. As the Creator, He defines goodness and holiness, and He has made manifest those attributes to His creatures through His divine law—an expression of His own character, His own divine being, and so to violate that law is to violate God’s holiness itself. When tempted to commit adultery, what did the young Joseph cry out but “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen. 39: 9).

Maybe God, in Eden, should have let Adam and Eve die right then and there, that very day, as He had said (Genesis 2:17)? We would have been spared what 6,000 years of sin has brought.

However, here’s where the Gospel comes in. Because the law is as sacred as God Himself, “only one equal with God could make atonement for its transgression,” and that is Jesus. “Atonement for transgression” depicts something legal, the law, the divine law, which freedom—the metaphysical foundation requisite for love to even exist—necessitated.

Violation of the divine law was so serious that “none but Christ could redeem fallen man from the curse of the law and bring him again into harmony with Heaven. Christ would take upon Himself the guilt and shame of sin—sin so offensive to a holy God that it must separate the Father and His Son. Christ would reach to the depths of misery to rescue the ruined race.” Or, to put it crudely, the Father killed Jesus so that He wouldn’t have to kill us. (See Psalm 22:1; Mark 15:34).


We get angry, offended, and rightly so, when the rich or connected don’t face the penalty for violating the same law that penalizes the rest of us. A just God, however, isn’t going to do that, especially with His divine law. That’s why, in a plan formulated from “before time began” (1 Tim. 1:9; Titus 1:2), Jesus, “equal with God,” paid the fully penalty, and made full satisfaction, for the violation of the divine law—the law upon which the freedom inherent in love, the foundation of God’s moral government, rests. If we find that solution, Jesus on the cross, harsh—we should because it is. Six thousand years of sin is pretty harsh, too.   Those who deny penal substitutionary atonement for a model that emphasizes only the love aspect of Christ’s death, in which we love God because of the cross, fatally underestimate the role that law, divine law, plays in the moral architecture of a universe that gives them the freedom to express the very love so crucial to their non-penal theology to begin with.

[i] Ellen G. White, Patriarch and Prophets (Washington D.C.; Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1890), p. 62

[ii] Ibid., p. 63

Clifford Goldstein

Clifford Goldstein is the editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide. His latest book is Risen: Finding Hope in the Empty Tomb.