Our Need for Atonement and God’s Gracious Provision in Christ
Central to the why our triune God created humans is that he created us to know him in covenant relationship and to display his glory in the world as his kings and queens (Gen. 1:26–28; Ps. 8). But given human sin, how does God’s purpose still stand? In our sin, we—who were created to know, love, and obey the God of all glory—stand guilty and condemned before him; we cannot save ourselves. How will God forgive us, especially since “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Rom. 3:10)? Adam’s sin turned the created order upside down and brought on all of humanity the sentence of death (Rom. 3:23; Rom. 6:23). Humans, who were made for covenant relationship with God and for each other, are now under God’s righteous judgment as his enemies and objects of his wrath (Eph. 2:1–3). What hope is there for us? Our only hope is that our triune God, who does not need us, takes the initiative in grace to redeem, justify, and transform us (Eph. 2:4–7).
Contrary to non-Christian thought, we cannot save ourselves. We must never forget that the gospel message is not about self-help or our doing good for the betterment of society. No doubt, as a result of the gospel, our lives are transformed and we begin to act properly towards God and one another. But, first and foremost, the gospel is about the majesty, glory, and beauty of our triune God and what he has done to redeem, justify, and reconcile moral rebels against him—who deserve nothing but judgment—and to make all things new. Apart from God’s acting in sovereign grace, the human race is completely lost and without hope. This point is especially reinforced when we remember who we have sinned against.
In this addition to the Short Studies in Systematic Theology, Stephen J. Wellum examines the divinity and humanity of Christ, focusing on who Jesus is from Scripture and historical theology, showing readers why Jesus is unique and how they should think about the incarnation.
Given that our triune Creator and Lord is holy and just (Isa. 6:1–4; Rev. 4:8–11), the moral standard of the universe, he cannot simply overlook our sin. Think of God’s holy justice (Gen. 18:25). God is not like a human judge, who adjudicates laws external to himself; God is the law. What is true, good, and beautiful is measured against the standard of God’s own perfect nature and will. This is why our sin is no small matter! In our willful rebellion against God, we have not sinned against an abstract force or an impersonal law, nor is our sin only viewed horizontally, that is, against one another. Above all, our sin is against God. David, for example, sinned against many people in his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and all that resulted from it, but David also rightly knew that his sin was first against God (Ps. 51:4). For this reason, Scripture reminds us that God’s forgiveness of our sin is not cheap. Instead, for God to forgive us, given who he is as the holy and just one, he must remain true to himself. He must act to satisfy his own righteous demand against us (Rom. 3:25–26).
But this raises a crucial question that runs from Genesis 3 throughout the entire Bible: In the forgiveness of our sin, how will God demonstrate his holy justice, covenant love, remain true to himself, and justify the ungodly (Rom. 4:5)? Scripture is clear: it is only in Christ alone, the eternal Son made flesh (John 1:1, 14) that our triune God has satisfied his own righteous demand against sinners and secured our reconciliation, justification, and redemption by his obedient life and substitutionary death (Rom. 5:1; Rom. 8:1). To undo, reverse, and pay for Adam’s sin, our Lord Jesus Christ is the only one who can do this for us. In his humanity, he is the only one who can obey for us as our covenant head. As the divine Son, he is the only one able to satisfy God’s own demand against us by paying the penalty for our sin (Rom. 6:23). Apart from his obedient life and atoning death, we have no Savior (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Rom. 5:12–21; Heb. 2:5–18). But, thankfully and gloriously, because of the divine Son’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, we have an all-sufficient Redeemer who meets our every need (Heb. 7:23–28).
There is no greater news than this: Christ Jesus, as God the Son incarnate, perfectly meets our need before God by his obedient life and substitutionary death. In Christ, the triune love of God is gloriously revealed because in Christ, we receive the gift of righteousness which is now ours by faith in him. In covenant union with his people, Christ, as our covenant representative and head, obeys in our place, dies our death, and satisfies divine justice—indeed, his own justice—which is evidenced in his glorious resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2). As a result, by faith alone, in Christ alone, his righteousness is ours, now and forever (Rom 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). By faith-union in Christ, we stand complete: justified before God by the forgiveness of our sins and clothed in his righteousness (Rom. 4:1–8; 5:1–2).
All of this is to say that in fully understanding who Jesus is and what he has done for us, we see anew how God is at the center of his universe, not us. By thinking about Christ’s atoning work for us, we are reminded that our triune God of grace has planned our redemption from eternity and achieved it on the stage of human history. From beginning to end, God alone acted in majestic power and grace to provide, achieve, and accomplish our salvation by the Father’s initiative, in and through the Son, and the Spirit’s work to unite us to Christ so that his entire work is now ours (Eph. 1:3–14).
Living as Justified and Reconciled People in Christ
In light of what our triune God has done for us in Christ, what practical effect does this have on our lives? Many applications could be made, but my focus is on one specific one. As we think of God’s forgiveness of our sin in Christ and our justification before God, this puts into perspective people’s sin against us, as horrendous as they may be, and it allows us to forgive one another.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we are told to petition God for the forgiveness of our sins and to forgive others who have sinned against us (Matt. 6:12). Jesus makes it even stronger when he says: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:14–15). Many have struggled with this statement as if Jesus is giving us a tit for tat relationship, but this is not what he means. Instead, we have to set the Lord’s Prayer in light of its context in Matthew, and in light of the achievement of Christ’s cross.
Because of the divine Son’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection, we have an all-sufficient Redeemer who meets our every need.
When we do this, we realize that our Lord is teaching his people about how we rightly relate to one another and the relationship between God’s forgiveness of our sin and our forgiveness of others. We could say it this way: since, in Christ, we have been forgiven of our horrendous sin against the God of all glory, and that, in Christ, everything we have received is by grace, then if God has forgiven us of our treason against him, then we can certainly forgive others of their sin against us! God has done the greater thing in our forgiveness, and human sin against us is not the same as our rebellion against God. In other words, what is assumed is that all of us have the same sin problem; namely, we stand equally under God’s wrath and judgment. Thus, before we consider what others have done to us, we must never forget what we have done to God! Furthermore, as we consider our justification in Christ: our sin has been fully atoned and we stand clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness—which we have received by grace! (Eph. 2:8–10) As we relate to others, we must learn to forgive them because of what God, in Christ, has done for us.
Think of how this point is reinforced later in Matthew’s gospel. As Peter comes to Jesus and asks him how often he should forgive his brother who has sinned against him, Jesus answers: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:22), thus underscoring our need to forgive our brother’s sin against us over and over again. Why? Because first, God has forgiven us of the greater sin—namely, our sin before him—and we are to reciprocate in the forgiveness of the lesser—namely, human sin against us. This is not to minimize the awful nature of human sin against us. Instead, it is to remember that our greatest problem as humans is first our sin before God, our Creator and Lord, who is worthy of all our love, devotion, and obedience.
Another way we can think of this is by asking ourselves the question: If we have difficulty forgiving those who have sinned against us, do we first think of our sin before God and God’s glorious and gracious justification of our sin in Christ Jesus? Unless we see that our problem is first against God and that we have been forgiven much, we will always struggle to forgive others. Sadly, today in the church, it seems that we can focus on what someone has done against us—either in the past or present—and not first focus on our sin before God and our justification in Christ. If you are struggling with forgiving others, first think of what God has done for you!
For Further Study and Reflection
Texts that focus on Christ’s work and justification of us: Rom. 3:21–31; 5:1–11; 6:1–14; 8:1–17; 2 Cor. 5:16–21.
Texts that focus on our response: Matt. 6:14–15; 18:15–35; Rom. 13:9–21; Phil. 2:1–11; Col. 4:12–17; 1 John 1:8–10; 2:9–11; 4:7–12.
Stephen Wellum is the author of The Person of Christ: An Introduction.
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