Next week I plan to begin a series of posts on the thorny process of making ethical decisions in the gray areas as a Christian. For now, here’s an oldie but a goodie from one of the leading British evangelical pastors and theologians of the 20th century, John Stott:
“God must ‘satisfy himself,’ responding to the realities of human rebellion in a way that is perfectly consonant with his character. This internal necessity is our fixed starting point. In consequence, it would be impossible for us sinners to remain eternally the sole objects of his holy love, since he cannot both punish and pardon us at the same time. Hence the second necessity, namely substitution. The only way for God’s holy love to be satisfied is for his holiness to be directed in judgment upon his appointed substitute, in order that his love may be directed toward us in forgiveness. The substitute bears the penalty that we sinners may receive the pardon…
It is the Judge himself who in holy love assumed the role of the innocent victim, for in and through the person of his Son he himself bore the penalty that he himself inflicted…For in order to save us in such a way as to satisfy himself, God through Christ substituted himself for us. Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice. The cross was an act simultaneously of punishment and amnesty, severity and grace, justice and mercy. We strongly reject, therefore, every explanation of the death of Christ that does not have at its center the principle of ‘satisfaction through substitution,’ indeed divine self-satisfaction through divine self-substitution.
The cross was not a commercial bargain with the devil, let alone one that tricked and trapped him; nor an exact equivalent, a quid pro quo to satisfy a code of honor or technical point of law; nor a compulsory submission by God to some moral authority above him from which he could not otherwise escape; nor a punishment of a meek Christ by a harsh and punitive Father; nor an action of the Father which bypassed Christ as Mediator. Instead, the righteous, loving Father humbled himself to become in and through his only Son flesh, sin and a curse for us, in order to redeem us without compromising his own character. The theological words satisfaction and substitution need to be carefully defined and safeguarded, but they cannot in any circumstances be given up. The biblical gospel of atonement is of God satisfying himself by substituting himself for us.
The concept of substitution may be said, then, to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone; God accepts penalties that belong to man alone.” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 157-59)