I meet on Thursday mornings at a local coffee house with a group of guys. We’re reading through Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Not always the most exciting reading, but I’ve found it good in my life to always be reading something that’s not easy to read. Kind of like exercise for the brain.
This morning I was driving down the hill from my house toward the highway. We’re at that time of year that I leave before sunrise on Thursdays. A woman was walking up the hill on the sidewalk. I watched as a coyote crossed the road just behind her. She stopped, suddenly realizing that something was behind her. Looking, but not seeing it, she looked back to me and waved. Always good to have company when you suspect something’s stalking you in the twilight. She kept walking. I stopped just past her and watched the coyote for a few moments before heading on to the coffee house. Something ghost-like about a coyote's ability to disappear into the dusk. I thought about the thousands of miles I have run on the trails near our house. I’ve seen several coyotes and snakes and javelina...I wonder what I haven’t seen that has crossed the path just behind me?
This morning we discussed Christ’s atonement for our sins. When we talk about our sin being an offense to a holy God and Christ dying for our sin, sometimes people get the idea that the Father’s an angry old grump and Jesus forced Him to like us. That’s not scriptural.
Berkhof says: “According to Scripture the moving cause of the atonement is found in the good pleasure of God to save sinners by a substitutionary atonement. Christ Himself is the fruit of this good pleasure of God. It was predicted that He would come into the world to carry out the good pleasure of God, ‘and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand,’ Isaiah 53:10. At His birth the angels sang, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom He is well pleased,’ Luke 2:14. The glorious message of John 3:16 is that ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life.’ Paul says that Christ ‘gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil world, according to the will of our God and Father,’ Galatians 1:4. And again, ‘For it was the good pleasure of the Father that in Him should all the fullness dwell; and through Him to reconcile all things unto Himself, Colossians 1:19,20” (italics original).
All those Scripture verses the old Dutchman mentions show us that God the Father loved us and therefore sent His Son to atone for our sins.
More Berkhof...this time his “proofs” for the necessity of the atonement:
1. It would seem to be the clear teaching of Scripture that God, in virtue of His divine righteousness and holiness, cannot simply overlook defiance to His infinite majesty, but must needs visit sin with punishment. We are told repeatedly that He will by no means clear the guilty, Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18; Nahum 1:3. He hates sin with a divine hatred; His whole being reacts against it, Psalm 5:4-6; Nahum 1:2; Romans 1:18...the justice of God should be maintained.
2. This leads right on to the second argument. The majesty and absolute immutability of the divine law as inherent in the very nature of God made it necessary for Him to demand satisfaction of the sinner. The transgression of the law inevitably carries with it a penalty.
3. The necessity of the atonement also follows from the veracity of God, who is a God of truth and cannot lie. “God is not a man, that He should lie; neither the son of man, that He should repent; hath He said it, and shall He not do it? or hath He spoken, and shall He not make it good?” Numbers 23:19. “Let God be found true,” says Paul, “but every man a liar.” Romans 3:4. When He entered into the covenant of works with man, He decreed that death would be the penalty of disobedience. That principle finds expression in many other words of Scripture, such as Ezekiel 18:4; Romans 6:23. The veracity of God demanded that the penalty should be executed, and if sinners were to be saved, should be executed in the life of a substitute.
4. The same conclusion may be drawn from the nature of sin as guilt...negatively, it is lawlessness, and positively, transgression of the law of God, and therefore guilt, 1 John 3:4; Romans 2:25,27, and guilt makes one a debtor to the law and requires either a personal or a vicarious atonement.
5. The amazing greatness of the sacrifice which God Himself provided also implies the necessity of the atonement. God gave His only-begotten Son, to be subjected to bitter sufferings and to a shameful death.
These are all worthy proofs. Concerning #4, it strikes me if people don’t “feel” like sinners, they don’t think they are sinners. “Sin” is determined by a purely horizontal standard, and the horizon these days is as shifty as a mirage. Berkhof reminds us in his fourth proof that God’s Law (as revealed in Scripture) is the standard, not the culture or mass opinion of humanity.
Proof #5 is the most profound. Who, looking at the Son of God on the cross, can feel self-righteous and pure? Despite the foolish “the cross shows our worthiness,” it shows just the opposite. This is why the Gospel of the cross of Jesus Christ is so offensive. You and I were so sinful and unable to save ourselves that it took the giving of the sinless, glorious, beloved, and eternal Son of God in our place to save us. He Who had done no wrong had to entire into our sinful separation from God, crying out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46//Mark 15:34).
The atonement exalts the Trinity’s great justice and love at the same time.
Berkhof gives this example that highlights both at the same time: “...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness...for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:23-26).
I’ve always preferred a verse a few chapters later to illustrate this same point: “...God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him” (Romans 5:8,9). Love and wrath. Together. No contradiction. No paradox. Both held together in the cross of Christ.
Through the eyes of the Law, the Prophets, and the Apostles, stop and take a good look at the cross. Often. Don’t get so busy in your schedule that the scriptural depths of its meaning become just a whisper of a ghost behind you while you’re about your daily business.