We know from personal experience that forgiveness is a process involving two parties and two stages. First, it must be offered by the wronged party as an act of mercy. This stage completes forgiveness by the wronged party and makes it available for the party that committed the offense. Second, the party that committed the offense must accept forgiveness. Acceptance of forgiveness involves acknowledgment that the offense was wrong, trust in the goodwill of the forgiver, restoration of goodwill toward that party, and commitment to refrain from further offenses in the future. With completion of this stage, the offending party enjoys the benefits of forgiveness.
A community context complicates forgiveness because other parties can ask: On what basis is it fair for the wronged party to offer forgiveness to one offender but not another? Will mercy harm the community by allowing or even encouraging further offenses in the future? This is especially serious when the offender has not only wronged another party, but has violated a rule or law that has been established to protect the community by establishing known boundaries of conduct and equal penalties for violation of those boundaries. Adequately addressing these questions so that a forgiven offender can be accepted within the community requires that forgiveness be mercifully extended in such a way that justice is maintained. The offender not only needs to be forgiven; this party also needs to be justified.
Further complicating forgiveness is a situation in which the offending party is a group of people. What if individuals within the group accept forgiveness offered to it, but others do not? To accomplish lasting peace between the wronged party and the group, those who do not accept forgiveness must be identified and removed from the group.
For example, when a rebel group or offending nation is defeated in war, terms of peace can include corporate amnesty. But for individuals to enjoy the benefits of the amnesty, they must accept it and lay down their weapons. Otherwise their threat must be eliminated.
All of the dynamics just described apply to God’s efforts to save human beings within the context of the great controversy. But the magnitude of the problem and the stakes involved are vastly greater than any other situation involving a need for forgiveness. All human inhabitants of Planet Earth have been in rebellion against God. All have sinned against Him and His eternal law of love that governs and safeguards the universe (Rom. 3:23; cf. Matt. 22:37-40). The penalty for that sin is eternal death (Rom. 6:23) because intelligent beings with free choice whose lives are not controlled by love are destructive and follow Satan in challenging the sovereignty of the benevolent Creator, who alone gives and sustains life. To make matters worse, fallen humans are incapable of adequately keeping God’s law even if they want to (Rom. 7).
Because God’s eternal moral character is love (1 John 4:8), and because love includes both justice and mercy, He must maintain full justice when He forgives. To do otherwise would violate His nature, which sustains all life, and jeopardize the safety of the universe. It is the death of Christ, who is Himself God (Col. 1:19; 2:9), which makes it possible for God to justly justify sinners (Rom. 3:26). As God, Christ is the Creator (John 1:3; Heb. 1:2) and therefore can represent everyone on Planet Earth. As the originator of human life, He is our ultimate Father (Isa. 9:6; compare Luke 3:38). Just as Abraham could represent any of his descendants (Heb. 7:9, 10), Christ has represented all humans in order to bear the penalty of our sin as our substitute so that we might escape death and enjoy eternal life (John 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:14, 21). Thus Christ’s sacrifice is both representative and substitutionary.
Now we can understand how Christ’s sacrifice solves relational aspects of evil on earth by accomplishing seven things:
Jesus described the effect of His death: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31; NRSV).1 Satan has been “the ruler of this world” because he usurped humanity’s dominion over earth (Gen. 1:26, 28) through deception resulting in human choice of him (Gen. 3). But when the God-man Christ died, bearing the full effects of human sin as the representative of all humanity, He annulled Satan’s right and reclaimed the lost dominion for the human race.
In other words, since the cross event, the whole world belongs to Christ not only as the Creator-God who was always over the world, whether its master was human or Satan (compare Matt. 4:8-10), but now also as the representative Human subregent who has succeeded where Adam failed (compare Rom. 5:12-17). Therefore, He has the right to share the dominion with His faithful people as a gift to them (Dan. 7:22, 27). The world, and eternal life on it, belong to them, just as Canaan already belonged to the Israelites when they reached its borders (Num. 32:7; Deut. 3:18), and they need only to appropriate what is already theirs in order to enter into their rest (Heb. 4) in dwellings that God has already provided for them (John 14:2, 3).
By winning back the dominion of Planet Earth for humans through Christ’s sacrifice, God “was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19, NRSV). That is, having decapitated the rebellion by destroying the right of the devil and his angels to exercise subregency over earth, God has granted corporate legal amnesty (not to be confused with legal-only justification of individuals) to human beings who rebelled against Him, and, in this sense, are forgiven as a group (Col. 2:13-15; Rom. 5:18).
Remember the way God corporately forgave the Israelite nation after the rebellion at Kadesh. Instead of wholesale destruction, God gave them a new opportunity (Num. 14:20). This corporate legal amnesty does not mean that everyone will be saved. Rather, it is conditional in the sense that God offers to a group terms that individuals must accept and keep on accepting in order to enjoy the benefits.
By bearing the penalty of all human sin, Christ has demonstrated that God justly gives mercy to all humans (Rom. 3:24-26; 5:15-18; compare Ps. 85:10). So the “gold” of Christ’s justifying sacrifice is behind the “currency” of His merciful corporate forgiveness. In this sense Christ’s sacrifice legally justified the human race as a group, showing the universe that God is justified in allowing the race to continue. This gift of corporate justification is the first step in a process. Individual salvation depends upon a second step at which people personally accept the justification that is already available for them.
The two steps of justification were symbolized at the Israelite sanctuary. Regular public sacrifices (Num. 28; 29) accomplished corporate justification that maintained God’s life-giving Presence with them, but individuals also needed to offer their atoning sacrifices in order to receive the benefits of belonging to the covenant community (Lev. 4; 5; etc.; Num. 15:22-29; contrast verses 30, 31).
At a further stage, represented at the sanctuary by the Day of Atonement service, God vindicates His own decisions to forgive or not forgive individuals, depending on whether they have loyally accepted and continued to accept His gift of forgiveness (Lev. 16; 23:26-32; Dan. 7:9-14; 8:14). Through God’s vindication, the loyal are morally “clean” (Lev. 16:30) in the sense that their sins are now eternally irrelevant (Jer. 31:34).
The effect of Christ’s provision for the human race to continue began at the Fall into sin (Gen. 3), long before the cross. The penalty for rebelling against God was immediate death (Gen. 2:17; compare Rom. 6:23), which He justly could have administered the same day to make humans extinct. Adam and Eve could live on only because God provided for their redemption through the future sacrifice of Christ (Gen. 3:15; 1 Peter 1:18-20; Rev. 13:8; 17:8). By continuing to live on probation, humans have the opportunity to see through Satan’s deception and make a fair choice between him and God.
By giving His Son to be born, live, and die to save us, God has supremely demonstrated His love and goodwill toward all humanity (Luke 2:14; John 3:16; Rom. 2:4; 5:6-8). So we can trust that the amnesty He offers is genuine and not a trick. By being lifted up on the cross, Christ draws all people to Himself (John 12:32) so that they can individually experience peace with God through justification that they receive by accepting His gift of amnesty (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:8; compare John 3:16).
Christians who point to the Savior “are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20; NRSV). The appeal is to accept the corporate amnesty described in the previous verse: God “was reconciling the world to himself” (verse 19). The message of these verses is: Because you are alive by virtue of corporate reconciliation to God, live accordingly (as individuals).
The divine Christ made Himself vulnerable to the temptations that assail all humanity. He did this by becoming a descendant of many generations of sinners (Matt. 1), taking weakened human nature on His sinless divine nature (Luke 1:30, 31, 35). But He remained morally unblemished (Heb. 4:15) and therefore qualified to be our representative sacrifice (compare Lev. 22).
Having overcome where we have failed, Christ enables our inadequate will (Rom. 7) to choose God and His way of love. He does this by serving as our example (Phil. 2:5-8; 1 Peter 2:21), uniting our lives with His (Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27), and empowering our moral transformation through the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 3; 16:8; Rom. 5:5; 8:1-4; Titus 3:5-7). This transformation is a journey, not a single stop. It is not enough for us to accept amnesty/justification on one occasion (compare 1 Kings 1, 2); we need an ongoing relationship with Christ that continues to loyally accept His gift by faith (John 8:11; Col. 1:21-23; 1 John 5:12) and extends it to others (compare Matt. 10:8; 18:23-35).
By making amazingly graceful provision for our eternal salvation, Christ’s sacrifice removes any excuse to continue rebelling against God. Therefore God is fully justified in letting those who reject Him suffer eternal extinction (Rev. 20) that would have been the fate of all humanity if Christ had not died. If people reject His corporate amnesty as applying to them, they are on their own and must bear their own penalty for rebellion. Amnesty for all has the goal of making peace, so it can benefit only those who accept peace on the victor’s terms.
It was normal for a Roman execution to be nauseatingly brutal and gory, a far cry from the tame and sanitized scenes in our passion plays. But it wasn’t business as usual on the hill of death that day. When the tortured Jewish carpenter breathed His last, “then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened. . . . So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’ ” (Matt. 27:51-54, NKJV).2
Roman soldiers recognized that in doing their job, they had unwittingly committed a crime of cosmic significance. But the full, vast scope of what was accomplished that day would have stunned them much more: The world had just changed hands forever, and the Son of God would rise to call for their allegiance.