“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
- A.W. Tozer
How can we know what God is really like? Human inquiry into the divine has produced a vast pantheon of gods — from Ares to Zeus. And even if we restrict our inquiry into the nature of God to the Bible, we are likely to find just the kind of God that we want to find. If we want a God of peace, he’s there. If we want a God of war, he’s there. If we want a compassionate God, he’s there. If we want an angry, vindictive God, he’s there too. Sometimes the Bible is like a Rorschach test— it reveals more about the reader than the eternal I AM.
So how are we to discover God as God is?
This is the good news of Christianity! God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. We haven’t always know this, but now we do! Jesus announced, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." (John 14v9)
Jesus is the message of God.
Jesus is what God has to say.
And if Jesus’ life is the definition of God, the defining moment of Jesus’ life is the Cross. As John Cihak observed, “being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, the Christform upon the Cross is the clearest revelation of who God is.”
Every picture we have of God other than Jesus on the cross is a mistaken image.
Good News or Bad News?
The primary symbol of Christianity has always been the cross. The death of Jesus for our sins is at the heart of the gospel, the good news. Increasingly, however, what the church has considered good news is now considered by the rest of the culture to be bad news. What do I mean?
Scripture teaches that Jesus dies so that God can forgive sins. But for many that seems ludicrous or even sinister. Why would Jesus have to die? Why would God demand that? This doesn’t sound like a God of love, this sounds like the vengeful gods of primitive times that needed to be appeased by human sacrifice? Why can’t God just accept everyone or at least those who are sorry for their wrongdoings? Many liberal theologians reject the cross altogether because it looks to them like “divine child abuse”
So Why did Jesus have to Die?
There are two primary ways in which Christians answer this question. There is the more modern, Western, judicial version known as the penal substitution theory. Then there is the more ancient, patristic, restorative view.
Penal Substitutionary Theory
The penal substitution theory is the gospel story most familiar to Evangelicals today. But it was originally composed in Geneva circa 1536 by John Calvin when he was perhaps 27 years old. It was made popular in America through the revival preaching of Jonathan Edwards and evangelists ever since. Twentieth century popular adaptations included ‘the Four Spiritual Laws’ (Campus Crusade) and the ‘crusade’ preaching of Rev. Billy Graham. This is the version which most Evangelicals were raised on.
This approach imagines the story of Jesus as a courtroom drama, where sin is law-breaking that needs to be punished. God is the Judge whose justice must be satisfied.
Since our sin is against an eternal God, the punishment must also be eternal (everlasting) or an eternal person (Jesus Christ) must step in to be punished or sacrificed in our place. Once the eternal substitute has been punished, the Judge is then free to pardon the repentant sinner since that debt has been paid in full.
The story goes like this… God created humankind (male and female) in his image, to reflect his glory and to have fellowship. God placed man in the Garden of Eden to care for the animals, steward the garden and represent him in the world.
But then the unthinkable happened: Adam and Eve sinned, and in sinning became ‘sinners.’ They turn from God. Because God is holy, pure and righteous, he cannot look on sin so God turns away from man.
Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden, bearing the curse of sin and passing it on to their offspring. Every effort we make to try to please God, to justify ourselves, to be righteous or to rid ourselves of guilt, is as filthy rags. We are ‘totally depraved’ and deceitfully wicked. Thus, God’s disposition toward us is ‘enmity’— anger and wrath that needs to be placated.
But thanks be to God, in his love for humanity, he sends his Son to occupy our place, live in our stead, in perfect obedience and right relationship to God. Unlike us, Jesus continually turned toward God and God was always turned toward him.
At end of his life, Jesus is put to death and the Father lays all of our sin and our guilt upon Jesus. Then God, because he is too righteous, holy and pure to look on sin, turns his face away / turns his back, forsaking his Son, and pours out the full wrath of God upon him. He sacrifices his Son to appease his own wrath, to satisfy his anger against sin by punishing it perfectly in Jesus.
But because Jesus endured all of this punishment faithfully and without sin, God raised him from the dead and restored his place at the Father’s right hand. Now if we turn to God, if we believe Jesus did this for us— has borne our sin and endured the full wrath of God in our stead— we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
Luther says, we are ‘snow-covered dung.’ R.C. Sproul says, Christ becomes our ‘asbestos suit from the white hot wrath of God against sinners.’ Because we are hidden in Christ’s righteousness, God can finally turn toward us. But if we don’t believe Jesus has done this for us, we remain in our sin, alienated from God. The wrath of God continues to be on us. If we don’t turn toward God in repentance by the time we die, we sinners are condemned to hell, bearing the wrath of God in ourselves for all eternity. God’s favor is forever turned from us. Therefore, it is urgent that we repent and turn to Christ so we can be released from guilt and experience eternal life.
That is the modern, western, judicial understanding of the gospel or the penal substitution theory The overall flow of this gospel is this: when you turn from God, God turns from you. If you turn back to God, God will turn back to you.
But is the consequence of turning from God really that God will turn from me? Is God only facing me when I decide to face him? Who seeks whom? Who finds whom? Who saves whom? Is a grace that depends on my capacity to turn the right way really grace at all?
Where did we ever get the idea that God is too holy, righteous and pure to look on sin? Did it somehow escape our notice that God is everywhere and sees all things? If God was too holy to look on sin, would he know anything about anyone? In fact, did not Jesus walk, talk and eat with sinners every day of his life? Are we saying that Jesus was not God incarnate, fully God and fully man throughout every moment of his life? What Jesus saw, God saw— sin stains and all.
And on the cross did God the Father really unleash his vengeance against God the Son? That is, even though the Father loves the Son, on the cross is he really turning his face from the Son, forsaking the Son, striking and punishing and tormenting the Son, pouring out all his wrath against sin upon the Son?
The problem is we can’t find one instance in the four Gospels where Jesus describes the Father as the principle conspirator and punisher on Good Friday. And if you examine every instance of the gospel being preached in Acts (25% of the book!) you won’t spot even a single hint that God the Father was the culprit in the crucifixion.
“This Jesus…you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” – Acts 2v23
“You killed the author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” – Acts 3v15
“God raised up Jesus whom you killed by hanging him on a tree.” – Acts 5v30
“The Righteous One you have now betrayed and murdered.” – Acts 7v52
The Bible is clear, God did not kill Jesus, we did! God is not the one who demanded crucifixion, God is the one who was crucified. God did orchestrate our salvation through the cross, sending his Son as an ‘atoning sacrifice.’ But this is a far cry from the picture of a retributive God turning from or lashing out against Jesus in order to fully satiate his wrath.
So what about God’s wrath? What do we do with that?
"As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, … gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath." - Ephesians 2v1,3
But what if the judgment for turning from God is nothing other than turning from God? Turning away is itself the disaster that bears horrid and painful results. God knows very well that no one is justified (righteous) before him. All of us are law-breakers and all of us are both experiencing and facing wrath. But wrath according to Paul is not the seething malice of an angry God, but rather, the deadly consequences of our own sin, namely death or perishing.
What if wrath is not as the active vengeance of an angry God, but the process of perishing under the curse and decay of sin. And what if God’s response to our turning away is not to turn away also, but to launch the rescue mission that will save us from ourselves?
The Restorative Theory
I believe there is a more ancient, more accurate, more biblical account of the gospel; one established by the apostles and the early church fathers in the first three centuries after Christ.
In this version, sin is not merely law-breaking behavior but, rather, a fatal disease.
The sin condition is a suffering of the soul that is rooted much deeper than our thoughts OR behaviors. This disease— this condition— makes us subject to futility and death. God comes not as a punishing judge, but as the Great physician who would heal our brokenness and rescue us from the curse of death.
Those are our two analogies:
We are criminals or patients.
We are in a courtroom or a hospital.
We are facing a judge or a doctor.
The restorative version has a similar beginning to the first.
In the beginning God created humankind (male and female) in his image, to reflect his glory and to have fellowship with him. God placed mankind in the Garden of Eden to care for the animals, steward the garden and represent him in the world.
But then the unthinkable happened: Adam and Eve turn from God in sin. In sinning, they (and all of creation) became subject to futility and death. So the great problem the gospel addresses is not primarily your legal guilt or God’s need to punish it. Rather, it is about saving us from death and the fear of death through which the devil held us in bondage all our lives.
So because God loves humanity and does not want his creation to be subject to futility and death God takes on himself humanity. He becomes a human so that he may heal humanity.
Go back to the Garden. Enslaved by fear, the couple turned from God, they fled into the shadows of the garden and tried to hide. And what does God do? He comes looking for them!
This drama is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament. With Abraham, Moses, David… God makes a promise, someone turns from him, they experience the tragic results, but God comes to find them and rescue them.
The nation of Israel itself was chosen by God to enjoy his favor and reflect his glory for the world to see. But instead, they become corrupt and unjust. They exploit the poor and oppress the marginalized. And their moral and spiritual decline lead to exile and slavery…
What does God do? He turns toward them. He hears their cry. And ultimately because God loves humanity so much and doesn’t want creation to be spoiled by sin and subject to death, God becomes human, that he might find and heal humanity.
God takes on our nature so that he may heal our nature.
Look back at the Gospels.
Here is a woman, whose heart has been broken again and again. A marriage, a divorce. A second marriage, it doesn’t work out. A third, a fourth, a fifth— by now we’re getting the picture. “Damaged goods,” they mutter behind her back. And now the man she’s with isn’t her husband. She is never able to find the love she’s looking for.
And what does God do?
God comes and sits with her beside a well and says, “I know who you are, what you’ve done and why. Your problem is not promiscuity; your problem is that your soul is withering of thirst for real love. Well, I’m the water of life and I will love you and I will install a fountain of life and love in your spirit that will gush up and you will never thirst again.”
Here is a man, who for the sake of greed and ambition became a tax collector, colluding with the Roman occupiers, participating in the system as an oppressor of his own people, ostracized, rejected, without friends.
And what does God do?
God walks beneath a tree, looks up and says, “Zacchaeus, come down from there. I will do what no one else will do. I’m going to come to your house, eat at your table and become your friend.” That day, Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house.” Zacchaeus was so touched that he paid back anyone he had defrauded 400%, and of his remaining wealth, 50% went to the poor. Jesus had not only restored him to his family and his community, but had broken the chains of obsessive greed that had ruined his life. He was transformed into the most generous man in town!
Here is a woman caught in the act of adultery, dragged to the Temple where the religious leadership has condemned her and wants to stone her.
And what does God do?
God kneels beside her and begins scribbling in the dust. One by one, from oldest to youngest, the accusers disperse. Jesus asks, “Where are your accusers?” The woman replies, “They’re gone my Lord.” And Jesus answers, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more. The slate is clean. You get a fresh start. You’re completely forgiven Even the adultery you were just caught in, don’t give it another thought! In fact, whatever pain or loneliness or addiction was in your heart that drove you there. All that pain goes now too. Welcome to your new life!”
Finally, here is the whole human race, chosen and dearly loved by the God who is always for us, always toward us and always in pursuit of us. But driven by fear and pride, our need to maintain our systems of power, enforced by violence— we arrest, and condemn, torture and crucify this God. We conspired to murder the Lord of Glory, who had only come to seek and to save and to love the world.
And what does God do?
He says, “I forgive you. While you hated me, I loved. You who took my life, I give you my life. While you were my enemies, I made you my friends.” This is truly the God who never turns from us, never abandons us and will walk with us through the mess of life.
There are two foundational truths of Christian theology.
- God is immutable. He does not change.
- God is perfectly revealed in Christ.
Therefore Christ did not come to change the Father, or to appease the wrath of an angry judge, but to reveal the Father. God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known that, but now we do.
Paul said God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. In other words it’s not the Father that needed to be reconciled to the world, it is the world that needed to be reconciled to the Father.
Jesus, perfectly revealing the heart of the Father, confronts the sin of the world this way: I forgive you. Even when we turn away from God, he is always there, confronting us with his love. God is always toward us. Always for us. And He comes, not as a condemning judge, but as a great physician.
Jesus was not saving us from God,
Jesus was saving us from Satan, sin and death.
Jesus didn’t come to save us from God,
Jesus came to reveal God as Savior.
Jesus didn’t come to enable God to love us,
Jesus came to reveal God as love.
Jesus didn’t come to reconcile God to the world,
Jesus came to reconcile the world to God.
One final question. When did Jesus ever turn away from sinful humanity and say, “I am too holy and perfect to look on your sin?” Did Jesus ever do anything like that?
The Pharisees did that. They were too holy and turned away. May I submit to you that God is like Jesus, not like a Pharisee. God is not like Caiaphas needing a scapegoat to take the blame. God is not like Pilate requiring an execution to satisfy justice. God is like Jesus, absorbing, forgiving and taking away the sins of the world.
The gospel is this:
When we turn away, God turns toward us.
When we run away, God confronts us with his love.
When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness and cries out "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."