Last week I wrote about “transitioning” from John Stott’s basic book aptly titled Basic Christianity back to The Cross of Christ. The Cross is not a basic book, but a deep discussion of the meaning of the cross for the Christian faith.
Chapter Seven is entitled “The Salvation of Sinners” and it is the first of three chapters designed to sum up what Christ accomplished by His self-sacrifice. After seven, Stott discusses the idea that God reveals Himself to man through the cross. After eight, Stott argues that God overcomes evil though the cross.
Stott writes “It would be hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the changes that have taken place as a result of the cross, both in God and in us, especially in God’s dealing with us and in our relations with Him. Truly when Christ died and was raised from death, a new day dawned, a new age began” [Stott, 165].
In an effort to further explain Stott’s organization, Chapter Seven breaks down salvation with four words: propitiation, redemption, justification and reconciliation. In the upcoming posts, I will look at each word as it relates to the salvation of man.
Propitiation is something I have written about before.* It is a core idea in J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God . I have used the word in my adult Sunday school class and no one had heard of it before; it is not a word that is used by Christians in normal conversation. Stott says to “propitiate” someone is to appease or pacify their anger or wrath, which raises the question, why would our Father be angry? Propitiation and wrath don’t seem to go well together and it is that notion that has led some theologians to reexamine this word in regards to a purpose for Christ’s going to the cross. Stott does a “deep dive” into the writings of Professor C.H. Dodd, summarizing his objections to the notion of God’s wrath by looking at his objection as a linguistic interpretation.**
By refuting the work of Dodd and others, Stott makes the case that propitiation is the proper word for Christ’s sacrifice.
We think of wrath or anger in human terms and we know that our anger can burst forth in uncontrolled expressions. Stott says God’s anger is never “irascible, malicious, spiteful or vindictive. His anger is neither mysterious nor irrational. It is never unpredictable, but always predictable, because it is provoked by evil and evil alone” [italics, bolding and underlining mine]. God’s anger is “poles apart” from ours. What provokes human anger is most often injured vanity, but that never provokes God. Evil brings out the wrath of God.
If God’s wrath is an appropriate response to man’s evil, let’s get more particular about what man has done to appease that wrath. In the Old Testament, human beings used animal sacrifices mostly to satisfy God’s anger [sometimes a grain offering was required]. The idea is that God provided people all of the animals so the sacrifice of an unblemished animal was a divine gift to God to appease His wrath. Their intention was to get The Lord to act graciously toward His sinful people. With Jesus, the sacrifice was much more complicated because Christ died for us because God loves us. Of course, Jesus is God’s Son sitting at the right hand of God the Father. Stott describes this situation in these words: “God does not love us because Christ died for us. Christ died for us because God loved us. If it is God’s wrath that needed to be propitiated, it is God’s love that did the propitiating” [Stott, 172]. Theologian P.T. Forsyth writes “God’s feeling toward us never needed to be changed. But God’s treatment of us, God’s practical relationship to us—that had to change” [Forsyth in Stott, 172].
As we examine a Divine Human as sacrifice, it is much different that sacrificing an animal or some grain. Stott points out that God offered Himself in the sacrifice of His Son. The irony is [that in offering His Son] He was giving Himself. To pacify His own wrath, He gives Himself as a sacrifice.
That is profound and it is so complex that many Christians have problems understanding. It is at the heart of why many feel unworthy. God’s Son [God Himself] bore His own wrath on the cross at Golgotha and freed man from divine anger and judgement. We deserved to be on that cross, not Jesus and we know it. God, in His holy wrath, needed to be propitiated. God Himself chose to undertake the propitiation and God Himself in the person of His Son died for our sins. He took the initiative to change His relationship with man when He took our place and died for us. Stott writes “There is no crudity here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship” [172-73].
Only God could do this, stand in for us, stand in for Himself, take our place, suffer this death, and the consequences of our sin. We are left with awe that God put forth this perfect example of divine love [Stott refers to it as “holy love”].
If we could understand the mind of God we would understand how someone could do so much for us. Being human, we feel we have to repay the debt but it is a debt that is too big to be repaid, a standard of behavior that Jesus set that is too high for us to reach, so we wander through life trying to do the best we can, sinning and falling short of the glory of God. Knowing we need punishment but finding that He still loves us, He extends His grace to us when we don’t do what He expects us to do. He understands us and forgives us when we fall, asking us to get up and try again to live a life with Him. We don’t understand God. We try so hard to understand Him, but He is not of this world. Through our own understanding, we simply cannot comprehend God’s love.
The bottom line…our lack of understanding and sometimes failure to appreciate His sacrifice leads us to the feeling of unworthiness. God’s ways are not our ways and that is humbling. No matter how hard you try it is hard, to comprehend the sacrifice that God made for you and me. We could not do it and would not do it. After so many efforts in the Old Testament to make man understand that he should fear God [respect God], He chose to try another way.
We are left with questions about what to do when we begin our relationship with God. I have followed Him for twenty four years and know I will never reach an acceptable level of behavior. Does He expect that? He may hope for it but He knows me, all my flaws and all my shortcomings.
What am I left to do?
Walk in faith and do the best that I can do.
*see posts for Feb. 25, 2020; March 4, 202; March 17, 2020; April 1, 2020; April 8, 2020; May 21, 2020; May 22, 2020, September 2, 2021 and September 9, 2021.