There is only one way to reconcile justice and mercy.
The notion of substitutionary sacrifice is written deep into our hearts. During the widespread Queensland floods of January 2011, a mother, Donna Rice, and her two sons, Blake (10) and Jordan (13), were caught in the family car as it was pummelled by a wall of water.
In the terrible mayhem of an attempted rescue, Jordan passed up an opportunity to be rescued in order that his younger brother go first. It was a decision that cost him his life.
The fast moving water claimed the lives of both Jordan and his mother. Although we knew little about the young teenager, we all admired greatly his sacrifice. He died that his brother might live.
A crucial part of the gospel declaration is that ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:3) and that ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8). What does this mean exactly?
Liberal theologians have often dressed up unbiblical ideas in biblical clothing in dealing with the crucifixion of Jesus. Dr Hastings Rashdall, for example, wrote that ‘the death of Christ justifies us, inasmuch as through it charity is stirred up in our hearts’.
No doubt the contemplation of Christ crucified is meant to stir us and make us more loving, but that is hardly the main point. There are many ways that God could stir up charity in our hearts. The birth of a baby granddaughter can do this!
Unless there is something achieved at the cross, it does not stir up charity but pity. Crucifixion in itself is not something that any sane person would boast in, yet the apostle Paul did so (Galatians 6:14).
The key word is ‘propitiation’ — a word which has become rather uncommon in modern parlance and is even missing from many Bible translations. Here, then, are the words of the apostle John: ‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.
‘In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:9-10).
Clearly, the death of Christ cannot gain us the love of God because the love of God is already present. It is the love of God that is the impetus behind the sending of his Son into the world, in order to die for sinners.
What the cross does achieve is that it satisfies the justice of God. To depart from God is to depart from life; it is to die (Genesis 2:16-17; Ezekiel 18:4). Unlike many modern parents, God does not make idle threats.
C. H. Dodd claimed that, in the teaching of Jesus, ‘anger as an attitude of God to men disappears and his love and mercy become all-embracing’. This is a common view, but wildly off-beam. It is because God is just that he must be angry with sinners. There is a justice that needs to be satisfied.
Naturally, there is a tension here and, as Robert Haldane put it, ‘Mercy and justice are irreconcilable except in Christ’. The cross reveals the love of God and also the justice of God.
At the cross, God is just and the justifier of sinners who trust in Jesus (Romans 3:25-26). Sin is paid for in full, so that sinners who deserve only his justice can experience his mercy. This is good news — in fact, in the end, the only good news.
In the second century, a Christian whose name we do not know wrote to a man called Diognetus. This unknown believer writes: ‘How surpassing is the love and tenderness of God! In that hour instead of hating us and rejecting us and remembering our wickednesses against us, he showed how long-suffering he is.
‘He bore with us, and in pity he took our sins upon himself and gave his own Son as a ransom for us — the Holy for the wicked, the Sinless for sinners, the Just for the unjust, the Incorrupt for the corrupt, the Immortal for the mortal.
‘For was there indeed anything except his righteousness that could have availed to cover our sins? In whom could we, in our lawlessness and ungodliness, have been made holy, but in the Son of God alone? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable working!’
So the cross has proved to Christians down through the ages.
Jordan Rice was a substitute for his brother, Blake. For those with faith (and in an infinitely more significant way), Christ is our substitute, so that we may appear as those who are in Christ before God at the judgement.
We are unrighteous but Christ is righteous. When he is our substitute by faith, we may say as John Newton said, ‘I may my fierce accuser face, and tell him thou hast died.’
Is it enough? Yes, indeed. To add to perfection is to detract from it. By substitution, his righteousness is mine and my unrighteousness is his.
This article previously appeared in Australian Presbyterian