Many modern people bristle at the Christian idea of sin, and they bristle even more at the idea that God would punish sinners. Frankly, I think many modern people simply don’t understand what sin is and who God is.
But, that aside, there is one critique of the Christian notion of sin and the justice of God that is troubling on its face. That key critique for anyone who claims that God demands justice for sin is that God is seemingly unjust to require justice of beings who can’t measure up.
Alongside the notion that the God of the Bible and demands judgment for not measuring up to God’s just standard is the notion that all people are sinners who don’t measure up. In fact, the New Testament is fairly read to say that people are incapable of living up to God’s standard.
The doctrine of original sin says that we are all corrupted because the sin of Adam and Eve has been passed down generation after generation. Even if we don’t believe in the doctrine of original sin, however, the Bible is clear from the Old Testament to the New Testament that human beings don’t measure up to God’s standard:
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.
They have all fallen away;
together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.
as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18 (NIV)) Yet, he says, “Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect?” (Matthew 5:48)
This is the dilemma: How can we be perfect?! “To err is human” the bard once said, and so it seems we are imperfect by our very nature.
Many people reject the idea that God can be just and demand justice from people incapable of measuring up to the standards God’s justice demands. They say it would be unjust for God to demand justice from beings who have no ability to act other than they do, and so fail to meet God’s standards.
God seems to be acting unfairly to demand that we meet His standards when we are 1) created beings, 2) born into sin, and 3) incapable of living up to the perfection God requires.
Other questions tumble after these thoughts: Why didn’t God create us perfect? If we are born sinful, how can God blame us for being sinful? If we are incapable of being perfect, how can God punish us for our imperfection?
The answer is pretty simple, really. God provides His a solution to that dilemma, and the solution is God, Himself. This is the essence of the Gospel (the good news).
If we read the Old Testament carefully, especially with the advantage of hindsight, we can see God setting us up for the the incarnation – the time in human history when God would become one of us!
Indeed, Jesus spent his time after rising from the dead doing just that – “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself”. (Luke 24:27) He spent 40 days with them explaining these things. (Acts 1:3)
I will get back to my point, but first we need to see some of the backstory.
Paul devotes time in his epistles to explaining that God attributed righteousness to Abraham because of his faith, not because Abraham was good, but because Abraham believed (trusted) God. (See for instance, Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:1-22; and Galatians 3:6)
But Abraham’s faith isn’t the full story. Because he Abraham believed God and trusted God, God was able to reveal Himself to Abraham to show that He is radical than the peoples’ concepts of God (or the gods) in that time.
All the gods Abraham knew all around him in the Ancient Middle East were arbitrary and capricious. Men could only appease them with fear, trembling, and great sacrifice.
The story of God’s relationship to Abraham is the unveiling of a revelation that the God of the universe is not like that! He is not like the gods that people all around Abraham believed in.
We tend to view the story of the sacrifice of Abraham’s son, Isaac, as unthinkably barbaric (though many of us don’t blink an eye at abortion in these modern times). Never mind, that Abraham did not actually sacrifice Isaac.
In the context of that time in the Ancient Near East, though, child sacrifice was ubiquitous. Abraham would not have been surprised that a God as great as the creator of the heavens and the earth, not just some lesser god, might demand such a sacrifice.
We tend to focus on Abraham’s faith in responding obediently to that demand, but his “faith” misses the ultimate point. God did not ultimately demand the sacrifice of Isaac. God provided a ram caught in the thicket to be sacrificed.
God, Himself, provided the sacrifice.
Abraham understood this even as he prepared to make the sacrifice of his son. When Isaac asked him on the way up the mountain, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” Abraham replied, “God Himself will provide the lamb.” (Genesis 22:8)
How did Abraham know this? He didn’t pull his confidence out of midair. Abraham had been learning of the character of God for decades up to this point. Abraham was learning that God is good; that He can be trusted; that He keeps His promises; and that He desires to bless, not to punish.
If we look for it, we see the foreshadowing of God’s demands and God’s provision to meet those demands, further back in Abraham’s life. I try to do the story justice in the piece on Abraham, Isaac, the Blood Path, Christ and Him Crucified. I encourage you to read it for a fuller understanding, but I will summarize here.
Abraham had been holding onto God’s promise for a son through which Abraham’s descendants would populate the earth like the stars in the sky for many, many years, but no son came. Abraham was anxious that the fulfillment of that promise would never come.
In Genesis 14, God had just blessed Abraham, but Abraham was fixated on the unfulfilled promise. The blessing of God paled in comparison to the unfulfilled promise. Abraham asked for a sign from God to assure him.
In Genesis 15, God responded by asking Abraham to set up a ritual covenant between God and Abraham. It is the kind of covenant Abraham would have known well in that culture. It was a covenant intended to solemnize mutual promises, as in the giving of a young woman by her father and the taking of her in marriage by the would be groom.
The parties would kill five specific types of animals, cut them in two, and lay them opposite each other on either side of a trough or depression in the ground. The blood of the animals pooled into the depression in the middle. The lesser party (the groom) would tromp first through the blood path to pledge his fidelity and care to the young woman. Then the greater party (the bride’s father) would tromp through the blood path to guaranty to the groom that his daughter was a virgin who would be devoted to the groom.
We tend to gloss over those details with our modern sensibilities about the rights of women, individual freedoms, and consensual marriage. These were the cultural realities of the times, however, and God worked with them to reveal Himself to be radically different than Abraham dared to expect. (Radically new ideas that would lead to the foundation of our modern sensibilities.)
Tromping through the blood path, the path made from the precious life blood of the sacrificed animals, sealed the vows and promises of each party. It was no insignificant accord they were making. They were saying, in effect, “May you do to me as I am doing to the blood of these animals if I don’t keep my side of the bargain!”
When God asked Abraham to set up a similar covenant making ritual by which God would provide assurance of His promise in exchange for Abraham’s pledge, Abraham faltered. He didn’t initiate the covenant he prepared with the animals. He waited so long, he had to fight off birds of prey trying to get to the carcasses, and then he fell asleep.
Maybe Abraham was uncertain what he was to pledge to God in exchange for God’s assurance. Maybe, Abraham knew that whatever pledge God required was too great for him, too much for Abraham to offer and deliver.
After all, what could a mere man pledge to God other than his very life, and soul and all that he is? And even that would not add up to the measure of God. Even that would not be enough.
As Abraham slept restlessly, he had a dream. In the dream, God appeared and gave Abraham the assurance he was seeking. He would have a son, and he would have descendants, though it would be 400 years before they actually populated the land God promised.
Some promise! Abraham wouldn’t live to see it’s fulfillment, if, indeed, God was who He represented Himself to be. Yet, Abraham believed.
Most significantly, though, before God made His part of the bargain by providing the assurance Abraham sought, God Himself initiated the ritual covenant. In his dream, this is what Abraham saw:
“When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land….’”
Abraham never did initiate his part of the ritual covenant, and he never did make a pledge to memorialize the covenant with God. God did what Abraham feared he could not do!
The smoking firepot and blazing torch was a demonstration that God did not ultimately require the pledge from Abraham; God imitated the covenant, Himself, and God sealed the covenant with his assurance.
God memorialized both sides of the bargain!
God initiated the covenant, and God concluded the covenant. God mage Abraham’s pledge for Him, and God sealed the deal.
This experience stuck with Abraham so that when he perceived that he must sacrifice his son Isaac, he had confidence that God would provide the ultimate sacrifice. Abraham sensed that God would provide the sacrifice that He demanding of Abraham.
Fast forward to the trek up the mountain where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac. Isaac asked his father, “Where is the is lamb for the sacrifice?” (Genesis 22:7) Abraham’s response was informed by his previous experience in setting up a covenant with God: “Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering….'” (Genesis 22:8)
These things (and many other verses and passages in the Old Testament) foreshadow the incarnation in which God became man, lived a perfect, sinless life, and offered Himself up – that perfect, human life – in our place.
This is the Gospel: that God substituted Himself in our place to take the punishment justice demanded.
Central to the Christian view is the incarnation: God who became a human being. If we fail to see Jesus as fully God and fully man, the key to the Gospel is lost on us. It makes no sense. If we accept the assertion that God became man in Jesus, it makes sense.
Here is the “kicker”. Even if we are only bystanders in that drama (as Abraham was only a bystander to that covenant God made with Abraham in the blood path), we fully experience the full weight of the consequences of our sin (the impending judgment), and we experience the complete joy and freedom from the great sacrifice of God on our behalf (His grace towards us, fulfilling the demands His justice requires).
As the Bible says, “We love because He first loved us.”
Even if we are completely incapable of meeting God’s demands, we feel the weight of God’s just requirement. So great, then, is the joy we experience when we realize that God has provided the sacrifice we could never offer, the fulfillment of the demands we could never meet!
Unless we feel the weight of the dilemma, we cannot appreciate what God does for us.
We circumvent the the experience God intends us to have when we dismiss God’s just demands. We fail to perceive the character of God when we assume that a just God would not demand justice from us, incapable as we are to meet those demands.
We also fail to know the love, the mercy, and the generosity towards us that God demonstrated in Jesus when we gloss over these things. When we do feel the full weight of God’s justice and the equally significant demonstration of His love and mercy, we cannot help but be forever changed.
Jesus died for us while we were yet sinners. (Romans 5:8) He initiated the covenant by which we might enter into a relationship with Him as a Father by satisfying the demands of justice. In doing this, God was demonstrating His love, His mercy, and what we call grace toward us.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Thus, now when confess our sins, he is faithful and JUST to forgive us. (1 John 1:9)
For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may have mercy on all.Romans 11:32 CSB