All my life as a Christian I have heard the following: “Jesus Christ died for you,” “Christ took the punishment that you deserved,” and “Jesus gave you the greatest gift, a chance at freedom from sin, grace that you do not merit, and mercy that is beyond your comprehension.”
John Stott writes about Jesus in Chapter Five of his book, The Cross of Christ, the idea that Jesus was a substitute for man. That is very much in line with the opening quotes of this blog post. It is a common idea that you can hear discussed from many pulpits on Sunday morning. It is a common idea that gets discussed over and over in Christian writing. It is a common idea that is expressed in the New Testament.
But is it that common?
Stott discusses the sacrifice of Jesus in order to satisfy the devil. Especially in the early church, there was a notion that Satan had so much power over man that the devil “had to have his due.” Jesus was our substitute [see “Did The Devil Make God Do It?” on June 3rd]. Stott discusses the nature of law in Christ’s time; that certain laws were broken and Jesus had to go to the cross in order to satisfy the need for punishment [see “God and Man’s Law” on June 10th]. Stott discusses the need for God’s honor to be upheld. Man sinned against God and Jesus came to earth to die on God’s behalf; Jesus’ death was God’s way of showing the world how much respect He deserves [see Man’s Sin and God’s Honor on June 17th].
Now we are set to consider that God needs to satisfy Himself through the death of his own Son [before we begin, let me refer you to “Stott’s Statement on Satisfaction and Substitution” on June 9th]. That “statement” may give easier basic ideas about what we are dealing with here.
Stott writes that the methods of God’s “satisfaction” thus far discussed have a limitation in that the devil, the law and the notion of honor all deal with ideas external to God. Ronald Wallace writing in his book The Atoning Death of Christ states that “Atonement is a ‘necessity’ because ‘it arises from within God Himself’” [as quoted in Stott, 124]. Yet explaining that God needs to be self-satisfied has negative connotations because of human associations with the words “self-satisfied”. Human beings with self-satisfaction are often labeled as selfish, lacking self-control and full of pride [I am “satisfied with myself”]. Maybe there is a problem with the idea that God must satisfy Himself through the sacrifice of His only Son. God is perfect in His thoughts and desires so why does He have this need? Therefore the necessity of God’s need for self-satisfaction must come from His very nature, “not found in anything outside Himself but within Himself.” God does no wrong; He is not selfish, lacking self-control or prideful. God is also true to Himself, “He is invariably Himself” [Stott, 124-25].
Furthermore, God is self-consistent, not wrong, not selfish, not lacking self-control and not prideful.
Let’s turn to Scripture to find support for the idea that we worship a God who is what He says He is and does what He says He is going to do. Stott has four “languages” in Scripture that support his ideas, words which show God’s consistency.
First is the “language of provocation.” Any reader of the Old Testament will encounter passages where God is “provoked” by Israel’s idolatry. When this happened God was not only angry but also jealous. One need not attribute human qualities to God’s anger or jealousy; for God, the response is a perfect response to evil. God has a “holy intolerance” of idolatry, immorality and injustice. Unlike man, God is not unhinged; He is provoked for good reason. If He did not respond with anger and jealousy and uphold His Divine standards He would no longer be God.
Secondly is the “language of burning.” In the dry heat of the Palestinian summer, fire is easily kindled. When it is started, it burns with great heat and it is hard to put out. When God is ready to react with anger or jealousy, He is described as “He did not turn away from the heat of His fierce anger, which burned against Judah” [see 2nd Kings, 2nd Chronicles and Jeremiah]. Once kindled, God’s anger is not easily quenched, it burns against people, it consumes them. We all know fire can be destructive and in this case, God’s fire can consume anything that it touches.
Next is the “language of satisfaction” itself.” This concept may be difficult since I have used the word “satisfy” so much in the discussion of Chapter Five. What Stott refers to here is the nature of God Himself. What is characteristic of God must happen “the demands of His own nature and character must be met by appropriate action on His part” [Stott, 126]. The word that is used to describe this type of satisfaction is the Hebrew word kalah, which means complete, finished, at an end, accomplished and spent. In the Old Testament it is almost always used to indicate the end of something. In Lamentations 4: 11 “The Lord has given full vent [kalah] to His wrath; He has poured out His fierce anger. In summary, God is provoked to anger by His people, His anger burns and is not easily quenched and He unleashes, or pours it out and “spends it.” This is how God’s judgement “arises from within Him, out of His holy character, as wholly consonant with it and therefore as inevitable” [Stott, 127].
Stott writes that so far the picture has been “one-sided.” The threat of destruction against Israel happened against a background of God’s love for His people, His choice of them as His “chosen nation” and His covenant with them. As commented on earlier, the need for God to be satisfied arises out of His character, “for the sake of His name.” God loved His people because He loved them; He did not have to explain His love. He is God.
Could this same love just as easily be applied to us? It could.
God is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness [from Exodus, 34: 6]. It says in Ezekiel 20: 44 “You will know that I am the Lord, when I deal with you for My name’s sake and not according to your evil ways and your corrupt practices, O house of Israel, declares the sovereign Lord.” It is clear that God acts according to His nature, according to His name. This is God being consistent, a trait that humans seldom achieve. Christ commanded that we deny ourselves but God cannot deny Himself. Why can God not be inconsistent? Because God is God and not man, let alone fallen man. When we are commanded to deny ourselves by Jesus we have to work hard to do that because that is incompatible with our true nature. It is not incompatible with God’s true nature. Stott says “there is nothing in God that is incompatible with His true deity and therefore nothing to deny…God is never other than His true self that He cannot and will not deny Himself….He cannot contradict Himself” [127-28]. As humans we are constantly aware of our inconsistencies. We may even use phrases like “that is so uncharacteristic of him” or “I am not myself today.” Would we ever say something like this about God?
In summary we can say that the death of Christ for the satisfaction of sin is appropriate. It can also be appropriate to say that Jesus’ death occurred for God to satisfy Himself if we rid ourselves of anthropomorphism*. We may have times when we do things that are uncharacteristic but God never does. We may be made in His image, but that does not mean that God reflects our flaws. If God were to behave as inconsistently as man, the whole world would be thrown into chaos. God is God; “He never deviates one iota, even one tiny hair’s breadth” .
He is what He says He is and does what He says He is going to do.
If He feels the need to satisfy Himself by sacrificing His Son for us, He has His reasons. It is not for us to question His motives.
Just trust and obey…
*incorrectly attributing humans traits to God……