Why Does Salvation Require
by Philip Jones
At the very heart of the Gospel message lies the Cross. The Cross is not just an important part of the Gospel message, it is the essential part of it, because the message of the Cross explains the means by which God reconciles us (sinners) to Himself and saves us from the terrible judgement that would otherwise await us. Without the Cross, there is no Gospel at all (no good news), because there is no salvation. In view of its pivotal importance, you would expect that if there was one thing that the Church understood well, it would be the necessity and work of the Cross. We as Christians should know this subject intimately. But do we?
Try this test; suppose you had been persuaded to do a bit of outreach in your local town centre one Saturday afternoon and with some trepidation you approach a group of teens and ask them if they have any burning questions about God, Jesus, or salvation. After an embarrassingly long silence, one of the teens speaks up, “Yes, I do; How can God send good people, like my mother, to Hell, just because she doesn't go to church?" How readily could you provide a satisfying answer to this question? I ask this question in full confidence that very few of us actually could. The fact is that we in the Church do not, by and large, have a thorough grasp of the Cross and associated issues and this is a grave problem. The problem isn’t simply that our own faith is impoverished by our ignorance, it is also that if we can‘t explain the Cross to the unsaved, they will have no hope of ever understanding it. Because, let's be frank, the requirement for the Cross in salvation is not at all easy to understand, as the Apostle Paul acknowledged, way back in the First Century, in a letter to the church at Corinth.
'Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks (i.e. Gentiles) look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.’ 1 Corinthians 1: 22-23.
In the statement above Paul talks about the response of both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) to the message of the Cross. For Jews, the Cross ran counter to their understanding of Messianic prophecy, i.e. they accepted the prophecies that pointed to a conquering king and ignored the prophecies describing a suffering servant. In the First Century, just as they do today, they clung to the hope of a triumphal Messiah, who would come in power and overthrow God’s (and their) enemies and establish a new world order centred on Jerusalem. To them it makes no sense that Messiah would come in weakness and be subject to a humiliating death; this was not only unexpected, but unreasonable, if not blasphemous.
For the Gentiles of his day, Paul says that the Cross was foolishness, i.e. they were bewildered by it. This remains equally true for the world at large today. Reflecting this confusion, non-Christians, and even some Christians, ask questions about the Cross, and God’s justice, more generally, like these:
1. How can a just God punish good people?
2. If my good deeds outweigh the bad, why can’t I be accepted?
3. Why does anyone, or anything, need to die before God can forgive?
4. If I can forgive without having to punish someone first, why does God need to punish someone before he can forgive me?
5. If Jesus did need to die for my sins, why did he have to suffer such a horrible death, why couldn't he have had a quick and painless death?
6. Isn't it unfair that Jesus was punished by God for things he did not do?
How do we address such questions? In this set of two articles I will not attempt to provide a complete systematic theology of the Cross - time and ability preclude this. Rather, I shall set out to address some ‘of the questions that are being asked of the Cross in the hope of finding satisfying answers. I do not claim to capture all the questions that non-Christians might ask, but I hope I have captured the most common and the most challenging.
Non-Christians fire off challenging questions like these about the purpose and achievement of the Cross not in the main because they are hostile to the Gospel and want to ridicule it, but because they simply cannot understand how such a thing could work. They have their own understanding of how things like forgiveness and justice work, based on their own daily experience, and the Cross doesn't seem to fit into that framework. Why is this? Well, put simply, it is because their conception, and experience, of justice is not true justice (and therefore not God's justice), because they have a faulty understanding of a number of key issues:
- The nature of sin
- God's system of justice
- Righteous love (that combines love with justice)
- The requirement for a (sacrificial) substitute
- The purpose and achievement of Jesus’ suffering and death.
The true nature of sin
Ask the man or woman in the street about sin and some would likely say that there is no such thing. Sin, they would argue, is an archaic religious concept designed to control people's behaviour, with no place ina modern society. The less ‘progressive’ amongst us might say that sin is synonymous with crime, so that stealing would be a sin. Others might look beyond the statute book and add in a moral dimension, so that sin would be not only criminal acts, but also unacceptable moral behaviour, such as marital infidelity. These are partial truths, but nothing like the whole truth. A number of Hebrew and Greek words found in Scripture are translated as ‘sin’.
The most telling of these is the Greek word ‘anomia’, which means ‘lawlessness’, i.e. the disregard or violation of a known law. Scripture defines sin not as a list of unacceptable behaviours, but something much more pervasive, i.e. a general state of rebellion against God's law and so, against God himself. Sinful acts, therefore, are expressions, whether conscious or not, of a general spirit of rebellion against God. The American Psychiatrist Karl Menninger remarked that sin has a ‘wilful, defiant and disloyal quality’. That wilful disloyalty is an assertion of human independence from God. Here, then, we begin to see the depth of the failure of human understanding. Sin, as far as the man in the street concerned, is simply a behaviour that falls below a generally acceptable code of conduct. But the truth is that sin is so much more than this, it is a way of life, a world-view, a self- proclaimed state of independence from God. As a consequence, for many of us, our lives are riddled with sinful behaviours. We might not think so, but the truth is we are blind to many of our own sins because we have become habituated to them through repeated exposure, or worse, through repeated practice.
How can God punish good people?
Bearing this in mind, we need to ask ourselves, are we essentially good? Many people think we are. Many think (perhaps even the majority) that those of us who have committed no major crimes are essentially good, and that our sins are simply lapses in what is a normally acceptable standard of behaviour. This is, in fact, far from the truth. The truth is we are not good, but fundamentally and habitually corrupt. King David captured the reality of the human condition when he confessed:
‘Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.’ Psalm 53: 5.
This was David saying, using his own terminology, that at the very core of his being there was corruption and rebellion. It is precisely because there is lawlessness and rebellion at the very core of all of us, that we are not repulsed and angered by all sins. If this were not so, we would not be able to sin at all. Because God is not a sinner and so is not corrupted, he is repulsed and angered by all sins. So, in answer to the question, ‘how could God punish good people?' we can see that he never does, because there are no ‘good’ people, only rebellious people, corrupted by sin, who express more or less sinful behaviours. Jesus confirmed this when he said:
'“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good - except God alone.”' Mark 10: 17-18."
It is because there is sin (lawlessness) at the heart of every person, that Scripture says that:
‘ .. for all sin and fall short of the Glory of God’ Rom. 3:23.
The implication of this is clear: we have all transgressed God's law. So, what is God’s response to this?
Why must God be our judge?
Because people have such a faulty understanding of what sin is, they often believe that the injured party when a sin is perpetrated, is the one on the receiving end of the lies, cheating, stealing, unfaithfulness etc. The reality is that sin is the breaking of God's law, and so the offence is not just against our fellow man but also, and primarily, against God. King David understood this. He did some very sinful things during his life, such as committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging to have her husband killed to cover up the deed. However, he said of his sins“:
‘For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have | sinned and done what is evil in your sight.’ Psalm 51: 3-4.
If we break the laws of our nation, for example by stealing from a neighbour, and we are found out, we are not judged by the person we have stolen from, but by the state, because the state is the law maker and therefore responsible for enforcing the law. In the same way, if we sin, even if the sin hurts another person and is not directed against God, because we have broken God's Law, we are answerable directly to him. God cannot step aside and let us resolve matters between ourselves, because he is always the main offended party.
Must God punish all sins?
Two arguments are commonly used to support the notion that God might ‘turn a blind eye’ to some sins and not punish us for them. The first might be described as the ‘offsetting’ principle and the other, the ‘plea bargain’ principle. Let's look at both of these arguments in turn.
The offsetting principle states that if our good deeds outweigh our bad deeds, God will declare us ‘on balance’ good and accept us. Some religions, including Islam, teach some version of this argument. But this reasoning is misleading and dangerous. Our good deeds can't offset the bad, because any good deeds that we do, i.e. our sinless acts, do not go above and beyond God’s normal requirements for us, i.e. they are the every-day standard that is expected of us. Even in our own justice system, a person on trial for a crime cannot offset, or cancel out, the crime they are being prosecuted for by holding up previous good deeds. Each crime must be judged in its own right, with no account taken of how much good a person has done prior to, or since, committing that crime. This approach to the judgement of crimes finds its roots in Scripture, as illustrated by Ezekiel 18:24:
“But if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin and does the same detestable things the wicked man does, will he live? None of the righteous things he has done will be remembered. Because of the unfaithfulness he is guilty of and because of the sins he has committed, he will die.”
As the speaker in this instance is the Lord himself, we can be sure that offsetting plays no part in the way that God acts in judgement of our sins. It is quite common in our justice system for some crimes not to be prosecuted, even when a criminal has confessed to them. If a habitual criminal is caught and prosecuted for a certain crime, they are often offered a ‘plea bargain’ deal, i.e. they are invited to confess to other crimes on the basis that, not only will they not be charged with those crimes, they will receive leniency in sentencing as reward for their cooperation. This is done to reduce the complexity and cost of their prosecution, but also so that the police can artificially improve their statistics for crimes solved. Some people think that God can act in a similar way, limiting his retribution to the more serious offences, while ignoring more trivial ones. This misconception is based on a faulty understanding of God's system of justice. The truth is that God must punish all sins, no matter how small they might seem to us. Here's why.
What is God's relationship to his law?
Many of us understand God's law in the same way that we understand human laws, such as the laws of our nation. Parliament will devise a law designed to enforce an acceptable level of behaviour and then apply this to the populous. However, the law-makers themselves are also subject to this law because they are as flawed as the rest of us. God does not have this type of relationship with his law. He does not obey his law because he chooses to obey it, or because it has authority over him, or because he needs to have his behaviour moderated. His law is an expression of his own character and so his behaviour is always consistent with his law because he is simply being consistent with his own character. Scripture shows us this. For example, Hebrews 6:18 tells us that:
‘.. it is impossible for God to lie’. Hebrews 6:18.
The Law itself does not make lying impossible for God, what makes it impossible is his own nature. Everything we see in the Law, is a reflection of God’s own nature and so for God to lie he would have to act against his own nature and it is this which is impossible. We share this same principle with God, i.e. we also always act in accordance with our own nature, even though we struggle to accept this fact. When we see others committing crimes we happily assert that their true nature has been revealed. When we ourselves do things wrong we deny that this truly reflects us, so we say things like ‘that’s not the real me’. This is self-deception. The truth is that this is the real us. If we commit a sin, then it is in our nature that under certain circumstances we are prepared to commit that sin. Our nature is flawed and sinful and therefore, being consistent with that nature, we will at certain times do sinful things. The difference between ourselves and God is that his nature is perfect, and so his behaviour will always be perfect. To sum up then, God must uphold his law to the uttermost, because that law is a reflection of his own nature and (just as we are), he must at all times be consistent with his own nature.
God's perfect justice
Another reason why God must punish all sin is because his justice is perfect justice. Perfect justice is rather simple to understand. It has two basic principles. First, all breaches of the law receive fair punishment; and second, there is no punishment of the innocent - because that would be unfair (and therefore a sin). This sounds fine in principle, but when we apply it to ourselves it becomes a problem, because it means that all of our sins will have to come under judgement, without exception. Our problem becomes even bigger when we understand the nature of the punishment that is required for sin under God's law. Scripture tells us very clearly that the penalty (or just payment) for sin (any sin) is death.
‘For the wages of sin is death.’ Romans 6: 23.
‘Remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover a multitude of sins.’ James 5: 20.
When describing the nature of God's punishment for sin, Scripture uses a number of different terms, such as ‘death’, ‘destruction’ and ‘spiritual death’. The death/destruction being talked about here is not physical death or destruction, but a punishment administered to the eternal soul after natural physical death. Some in the church believe that this ‘death’ means annihilation of the soul, i.e. God takes the sinner out of existence, or that the punishment is time limited. However, Scripture actually shows us that the sinner's experience of God's punishment is eternal.
“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.” Matthew 18: 8 (ESV).
“Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgement.” Hebrews 6:1-2.
Taken together these Scriptures suggest that the punishment that awaits unrepentant sinners involves eternal separation from God; i.e. being cast out of God's presence and therefore eternally cut off from the source of all love, truth, hope and light. This sounds like a pretty extreme tariff, but we need to remember that the sins that we commit are not isolated lapses in normally sinless behaviour. The sins that an unrepentant sinner commits flow from a whole life lived in lawlessness and rebellion against God - it is this lawlessness and rebellion that God punishes. Some have even suggested, among them C.S. Lewis, that in removing unrepentant sinners from his presence, and depriving them of his love and provision, God is simply respecting the choices that these people have made in life, i.e. their choice to live as if God and his law do not exist. There would seem to be no half measures in this punishment, and indeed there cannot be half measures if the Law and its stated punishment for sin are to be upheld. Failure to do so would not be perfect justice. It is sobering to consider how many in the Church lack a true understanding of the eternal and uncompromising nature of God's judgement of sinners, especially in view of the pronouncement of the writer of Hebrews (see above) that this is very much ‘elementary’ teaching.
Reassurance in God's uncompromising attitude to sin
It is interesting to note how different this picture of God is from the one so often presented in the modern Church. These days the Church presents a picture of God as only ever loving, gentle and forgiving; a God who never gets angry with us and only does nice things to us and wouldn't dream of ever punishing us. But if we shy away from the truth, that God is always angered by sin and uncompromising in his response to it — preferring instead to think of God in distorted, sentimental terms — we not only neglect the dire warnings in Scripture about the consequences of sin and unrepentance, we also miss a hugely important message of reassurance.
The truth is, we actually need God to be totally uncompromising about sin because if he was not, we would be in big trouble. This may sound counter- intuitive, but it is not. As a young Christian my relationship with God was not as close and committed as it might have been. I couldn't give myself whole-heartedly to God, because I had a ‘trust’ issue. In my past I had known a number of authority figures, i.e. people who had power over me, who had been a source of pain and hurt. God was now the ultimate authority figure and the thought of spending eternity in the hands of a God of infinite power concerned me. This God had the power, with the most fleeting of thoughts, to cause me unimaginable suffering, or even snuff me out of existence. I think that many people have similar ‘trust’ issues with God. And it's a very real concern for us. Try to imagine how precarious and frightening our existence would be if God, with such power as he possesses, was capable of even the smallest indiscretion or injustice. For our own safety and wellbeing therefore, we need a God who is wholly incapable of acting unjustly towards us. Thankfully, we have just such a God — a God whose very nature makes it impossible for him to ever do wrong. We must rejoice and give thanks that God is like this, because there would be no peace or safety for us if we had a God who in any way fell short of this perfection. It is ironic then, that it is God's implacable hostility to sin, even our own, which provides us with such a great source of assurance.
A holy love
As I have intimated already, the modern church often presents an overly-sentimental view of God, one which portrays God's nature as being only loving and | have argued that this is an incomplete and unbalanced view of God. It is also an unscriptural view of God. Scripture, repeatedly, and with great clarity, characterises God in two contrasting ways:
i) a righteous God angry with human sin and wholly unwilling to suspend justice and withhold punishment; and
ii) a loving father who longs to save his children from his wrath.
Each of these representations captures one aspect of God's multi-faceted character. It is only when we combine these aspects together that we achieve a balanced view of God's character. Further, not only does God have these two seemingly conflicting sides to his character, he must express them both fully all of the time. He cannot express one part of his character, for example, his love, in a way that conflicts with any other part of his character, for example his holiness (i.e. right action). Neither can he express one part of his character at one time and another part at a different time. All aspects of God's character must be expressed fully and simultaneously, which means that when God expresses perfect love he must also at the same time express perfect justice. The result of this dual expression is ‘holy love’, or put another way, love always, expressed in right action. If God were to suspend justice in order to express love, his love would not be a holy love. Yes, he loves sinners and yearns to save them, but he cannot express his love to save them by suppressing that part of his character which demands justice for sin.
Reassurance from the law
Many people reject Christianity (and Judaism for that matter) because of the law, i.e. the rules that the Lord has given mankind to live by. When thinking about the God of the Bible, these people ask themselves, what kind of God is this? And their attention is immediately drawn to God's law. In their thinking, the God of the Bible is a God of the ‘No; of the ‘Do not’. This God is a complete kill-joy, a restrictive, demanding and controlling individual, whose mission in life seems to be to stifle personal freedom and prevent people from doing lots of things that they either don't think are wrong, or they do know are wrong but want to do anyway because they are enjoyable. And let's face it, there are quite a lot of ‘Thou shalt nots’ in Scripture. But there is another way of looking at God's law. The law that God has given to mankind has evolved over time. To Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, he gave only one rule (we all know what that was). But he was much more heavy-handed with later generations. The reason that Adam and Eve needed only one rule was because in their innocence they could be relied upon not to commit immoral acts like murder, because it was not in their natures to do that. After the fall, however, the nature and character of people became much more corrupt, so God added other proscriptions to his law to address the immoral, greedy and violent behaviour that mankind, by nature, was now capable of. But the important point is this, he did not institute these rules to control people for control's sake. He brought in these laws out of a sense of both justice and compassion. The fact that justice would have been a motivating factor for God is easy to see, but what role does compassion and love play? God looks into the hearts of people and he sees that some will happily steal the property of others, rape the vulnerable; destroy those who stand in their way, or derive satisfaction from being cruel to those who cannot defend themselves. Would a God of compassion not want to protect people whom he loves from being victimised in this way? God gave us the Law to protect the lives, rights and property of those that he loves. In addition, God also loves the would-be perpetrator. By constraining their actions by the Law, he works to prevent them from doing things which, ultimately, would have terrible repercussions for them. Thus, while God's law is a legal instrument flowing from his unshakable requirement for justice, the giving of the Law is also an act of compassion designed to protect those that he loves.
So, what have we learned? We have learned that we are all sinners, no matter now honest, caring and generous we might be. We have learned that the sins we commit are not momentary lapses in normally unimpeachable behaviour, but they arise from, and are made possible by,corruption at the core of our being. We are, as a race, corrupted by a general spirit of rebellion against God, which has us striving for autonomy from our creator. This means that there are no ‘good' people, only sinners deserving of punishment. We learned that legally, God must be our judge, because it is his law that we transgress. We have also learned that God cannot accept us on the basis that our good deeds outweighing the bad, because God's perfect nature requires him to punish all sin, because failure to do so would not be perfect justice. Finally, we learned that even though God loves us and longs to save us from destruction, his love is a holy love, which cannot be expressed in a way that subverts his perfect justice. In the next article, we will address more of these challenging questions and, in the process, we will see how God has overcome this terrible conflict within his very nature: the conflict between his great love for us, which demands that he save us, and his perfect justice, which demands that he punish us for our transgressions.
1 The word Gospel simply means 'good news’.
2 All cited Scriptures are taken from the NIV, Second
Impression, 1984, unless otherwise indicated.
3 Jesus said this in response to a question from the rich
ruler who, in Luke 18:18-19, called him 'good teacher’,
4 David wrote this statement in a Psalm (Psalm 51) after
being confronted about his adultery by the prophet
5 It is true that in British courts account is taken of an
offender's past behaviour, but this is only for the purpose
of determining the tariff for the crime, not the verdict of
Also in this edition of Prophetic Witness
Powerpoint from Colin Le Noury
Why Does Salvation Require The Cross? - Philip Jones
From Our Israel Desk
Thy Kingdom Come
Signs Of The Times
Introducing Myself / My Testimony - John Williams
Revelation 4 to 8
Scotland Report - Dr Charles Sommerville
Our Statement Of Belief
What In The World Is Happening?