In my last blog post I shared some of my difficulties with the doctrine of penal substitution. In this post I sketch how I articulate the biblical story of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. In this I am heavily indebted to Tom Wright, The Day the Revolution Began and Darrin Belousek Atonement, Justice and Peace.
The story begins with the creation of the world….
Genesis 1 sees the cosmos as the temple of God (John Walton), a place inhabited by its Creator. Reflecting the unrivalled power of God, the earth takes shape in response to the Creator’s command; reflecting the creativity and imagination of its Creator, the earth is filled with living creatures of all kinds; reflecting the kindness, generosity and grace of its Creator the earth is a place of abundant provision for its creatures.
Humankind has a particularly important place. Of all the creatures we alone are the image of the Creator. Although this has been subject to a wide variety of interpretations, the most convincing is that humankind is created to represent God (Middleton, The Imago Dei). To be fully human is to be loving, just, generous, kind, faithful, compassionate and cultivate communities that share these qualities. We also have a unique calling to rule the animals and subdue the earth. Our subduing of creation is to reflect God’s subduing of creation, which occurs on days 1-3 of the creation narrative when God forms the earth into an environment in which the living creatures of days 4-6 are able to flourish. Likewise our rule is to reflect God’s, which is to ensure provision is made for all living creatures.
Yet the story of hope becomes a narrative of tragedy. Genesis 2-11 shows humankind spreading across the planet not as those imaging God and promoting the flourishing of all creatures, but as those who greedily compete for control of the earth’s resources and of each other, filled with hubris and violence. We become increasingly alienated from God, from each other, from the earth, and from what it means to be human. God exiles Adam and Eve from the Garden, Cain from his land, and eventually humankind from the earth. Yet even after starting over with Noah and Noah’s family, the descent into debased and abusive behaviour sets in once more.
God however is determined to restore blessing to all the creatures of the earth. Abraham is called to be the father of a nation through whom God will restore blessing (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham’s descendants are the people of Israel, whom God rescues from brutal oppression as slaves to the Egyptians. Brought to God’s land, they are to be the human community imagined in the creation story, which will see them enjoy the blessing of God, which in turn will lead the nations to return to Yawheh (Exodus 19:4-6).
Israel fails in this vocation. The people chase after false gods and their life is typically marked by idolatry, inequity, violence, greed, oppression of the vulnerable. In Israel’s story the pattern of Genesis 2-11 is repeated over and over again. God sends prophets to confront Israel and call the people back to their vocation, but the message falls on deaf ears and the pattern of exile is repeated.
The prophets warn of this fate, but remind the people that God will always be faithful to the covenant between them, even if they do not reciprocate. A time is coming when their sins will be forgiven, their hearts will turn to God and they will be the vehicle to restore blessing to the earth.
That time arrives in the form of Jesus, who perfectly reflects the heart and character of God and perfectly reflects what it means to be human. He fulfils the calling of Israel to faithfully exhibit the love, grace, kindness, compassion, and justice of God, and will become the vehicle of restoring Israelites and the nations to God as they witness the possibilities of life under the reign of God.
His followers expect his ministry to issue in a triumphant visit to Jerusalem where he will set up a new government from which the empire of God will stretch across the earth. Jesus knows it will be different, that just as the people mocked, abused, opposed and even murdered prophets who preceded him, that they will do the same to him. He knows that his call for the formation of communities and lives grounded in faith, love, compassion, generosity, equity, etc will fall on deaf ears; that the rich will not bear to let go of their greed; the proud will not bear to let go of their pride; the anxious to trust God. We watch with despair as the elites of Israel conspire with the Roman state to physically and emotionally destroy him, and goad the masses into a bloodlust. Even his own disciples abandon him.
Yet through it all Jesus remains true to his vocation. He does not waver from the calling to image God, to be loving, compassionate, generous, kind, and graceful even as he writhes in agony on the ancient world’s most awful instrument of torture. “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they do.” Even in the midst of his abandonment he maintains faith, taking for himself the prayer of the Psalm writer – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
On that bloodied, rough hewn cross the lone figure in all of human history who had been fully and completely human died. There the only Israelite who ever fulfilled Israel’s calling to be fully and completely given over to imaging God was murdered. And there on that awful instrument of torture faith, hope and love were broken, Christ’s lifeless body witness to our worst nightmare – the triumph of greed, hubris, violence and evil.
Two days later the nightmare ended. God raised Jesus from the dead! Love, compassion, generosity, grace and kindness had triumphed. The final word of history would not be death but life. In the risen Christ the nations could finally see the possibilities of life under the reign of God, that the final word in their lives need not be death but life; that the way to life and peace was through grace, love, generosity, servanthood.
Jesus commissioned his followers to take this message to the ends of the earth. That God is not against humanity, but for us. That the time of forgiveness, the pouring out of the Spirit, the resurrection of the dead and the renewal of creation has begun. That life under the reign of God is life indeed and will issue in life eternal.
On this reading:
• Jesus’s life, death and resurrection are read against the background of the Old Testament story.
• It is not God who has to be changed but us. God remains as always committed to our good, ready to forgive, and ready to contain evil through acts of judgement. It is we who have turned away from God and need to be turned back.
• Jesus’s death does not constitute God turning against Christ and punishing him, but humanity and the shadowy forces of spiritual evil turning against God and pouring their evil out on him;
• Jesus’s death shows us the extraordinary grace and love of God, whose response to the evil expended upon him is to offer forgiveness and reconciliation;
• Jesus’s death is “for us/for our sins”, in that the very purpose of living out the vocation of Israel was that people would turn away from idolatry, greed, etc and turn back to God. It was “because of our sin” in that it was human wickedness that crucified Christ.
• Jesus’ death becomes the place we experience God’s great mercy. In Romans 3:23 for example, Paul says God presented Jesus as hilasterion. Some translations give this as “propitiation”, which refers to a sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath; and others as “expiation”, which refers to sin being wiped away. The term is used in the Old Testament for the lid of the ark of the covenant, which was designated as the place God meets with the people, and was ritually cleansed (atoned for) through sprinkling with blood on the annual Day of Atonement. I think Paul it likely Paul is saying that Jesus is God’s meeting place with us, made possible by the wiping away of our sins through forgiveness.
Finally, the fact that different theories of the mechanics of salvation have long existed in the Christian church should not blind us to the reality that each is seeking to point us to the incredibly gracious, overwhelmingly generous, and exceedingly glorious work of God to rescue humankind and creation from captivity to greed, pride, idolatry and other forms of turning away from God in order that we might be restored being everything we were created to be.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are central to the Christian faith. Christians have long understood that God was “reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”
The earliest preaching, as it comes to us from the book of Acts, had a relatively straightforward take on this. Jesus came with the good news that God was gathering Israelites together to be the community they were always meant to be – good, compassionate, just, faithful, kind, loving, generous. It was a community in which adulterers were forgiven, the possessed were restored to their right minds, the rich shared with the poor, the lame and the blind were healed, the unclean were rendered permanently clean, and God was trusted to lead and provide. Awake to this calling, Israel could then fulfil its mission of being the vehicle for reconciliation between God and all the nations. The people however, prodded and goaded by powerful political and religious elites, who in turn were tools in the hands of shadowy and malevolent spiritual forces, conspired together to execute God’s Messiah. They stripped him bare, subjected him to shame and humiliation, then drained the life from his veins. God met their evil, not with retribution, but by raising Jesus from the dead and investing Jesus as Lord over all. Given this, the prudent course of action for any human being is to turn away from idolatry, injustice, violence, greed and abuse of others to follow Jesus into his new community of love, grace, peace, and hope.
In the centuries that followed our theologians turned their attention to this narrative. What did it mean for humankind that God had taken on humanity? What did it mean for God? When Jesus died was there something happening beyond his simply absorbing the evil smeared upon him? And what are the implications of his resurrection?
As these kind of questions were debated, the cultural frames of each generation were both a help and a hindrance. On the one hand, new cultural frames allowed fresh insights and interpretations and enabled the core themes of the good news to be articulated in ways that spoke to the deepest longings and needs of their age. On the other hand, each new theory was in danger of making the good news captive to thought structures succeeding generations could not embrace.
For a long time the dominant theory was that Jesus gave his life as a ransom to the devil, only for God to snatch it back in a daring move (the resurrection). By this means God rescued humankind from slavery to the devil.
In the 13th century Anselm shifted the dialogue. Informed by feudal notions of offended lords who required satisfaction for their wounded honour, Anselm argued that Jesus’s death was not a ransom paid to the Devil but an act that satisfied God’s honour.
Two centuries later the Reformers seized on Anselm’s theory. They replaced the idea of satisfaction with that of justice, God the offended noble with God the holy lawgiver. Jesus bore the penalty for our sin in order that we might be declared righteous. This understanding has proven dominant for the last 500 years and is deemed by many to be the very essence of the gospel. Indeed, for most of my life this is what I meant when I talked about the good news.
Yet it seems to me that the notion of penal substitution is fundamentally flawed. It speaks the language of a bygone era, employs tortured logic and to many people pictures a monstrous God.
It is not taught in the Bible.
There’s not enough space to get into all the relevant texts, but take those texts that speak of Christ dying for us:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
1 Corinthians 15:3-5
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:14-20
It is commonly assumed that in these passages Paul speaks of Christ dying to pay the penalty for our sin. This is so widely assumed, that many cannot see how the passages can refer to anything other than “penal substitution”.
Yet we use this type of language all the time without invoking ideas of a person paying a penalty for us. For example, a police officer might swap places with somebody being held hostage; a firefighter might give her life to rescue a child from a burning building; a football fan might say that a particular player scored the winning goal “for us”. When we say that the police officer took the place of the hostage there is clearly a substitution, but it is not penal. There is no sense in which we would say the police officer was paying a penalty for the sins of the hostage. In the case of the fire fighter there is no notion of penalty or substitution. The firefighter hasn’t swapped places with the child, but succumbed to injuries while seeking to get the child and herself to safety. And in the case of the sports fan the primary idea is the sense of solidarity and identification.
Nor will it do to say that the New Testament describes Jesus’s death as a sacrifice for sin and that just as the Old Testament sees sacrificial animals taking the place of the worshipper, so Jesus as a sacrifice bore the penalty we deserve. This simply misrepresents the Old Testament sacrificial system (you might like to read my post on this).
Some of Paul’s language is difficult to explain if he had in mind the idea that Jesus was paying the penalty for our sins. For example, “Christ died for our sins” cannot mean that Christ died instead of our sin or as the substitute for our sin. “Christ died for our sins” seems more likely to mean something like Christ died because of our sins. Or consider 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul speaks of Christ as dying and rising for us. In this instance it doesn’t make much sense to think in terms of substitution. Paul believed that Jesus’s resurrection opened the way for all of his followers to be raised from the dead. He is not saying “Christ rose from the dead in order that we need not rise from the dead”.
Logical and moral difficulties
There are some significant moral and logical difficulties with PST. It contains internal contradictions. For example, it declares that the just penalty for our sin is eternal separation from God and that Jesus bore the penalty for us. Really? Then why aren’t his bones still rattling around in a tomb in Palestine. Jesus clearly did not suffer eternal death. Or consider the fact that Jesus is understood to have paid the penalty for humankind’s sin. This means that either everyone’s sin has been paid for and therefore all will find salvation (which most of those in the traditional camp deny), or that Jesus only paid the penalty for some of us (which some Reformed Christians hold to but which many others consider appalling).
Penal substitutionary theory (PST) pushes us to imagine God in ways that are inconsistent with God as revealed to us by Jesus. For example, Jesus identified Yahweh as One who freely forgives our sin. Yet PST gives us a God who cannot forgive. At the heart of penal substitution is the idea that sin must be punished and that God cannot engage with us unless satisfaction has been made. This means the relationship is not established on the basis of forgiveness but on the basis that full satisfaction for wrongdoing has been made.
And what of the notion that God is estranged from us, burning with wrath against us, and that our sin is so offensive to God that God cannot bear our presence? Yet the Old Testament assures us God is slow to anger, and Jesus, whom we understand to the truest revelation of God, seemed to quite enjoy the company of sinners. He was marked not by a fury to punish but by compassion, generosity and grace and told parables that emphasised God’s kindness and compassion.
Faulty Conception of Justice
Or consider the grave problems with justice within the doctrine of penal substitution. If justice demands the guilty be punished and the innocent freed, PST can never be considered just, for God punishes the innocent . And what of the notion that a just penalty is proportionate to the crime committed? Can an eternity of unthinkable, never-ending torment possibly be considered a proportionate response to the harm and damage we cause during 60-80 years on earth, or for not worshipping a God who is somewhat hidden?
The idea that Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins and that his righteous status might be transferred to us was a brilliant response to the terror that gripped the hearts and minds of Europeans in the mediaeval period. It provided a powerful way of showing how God’s wrath against humankind, stoked to ferocity by our wickedness, could be averted; how God could both punish sin as required by God’s justice and forgive sin as required by God’s love. But it was fundamentally flawed.
The reason I raise questions about penal substitution is not because I want to undermine the gospel, but because I love it. The gospel of the crucified and risen Christ is the power of God for the salvation of the world (Romans 1:16-17). The problem is that when we equate PST with that liberating gospel it gives us a God who is incapable of forgiveness, who has a disturbing need for vengeance, acts in a horrifically unjust way and declares it justice, and who resorts to a bizarre technicality to save us. I find myself increasingly drawn into the earliest layer of interpretation, in which Jesus gently calls to recognise ourselves as loved by God and to join God’s movement for justice, peace, love, faith and offers us a way out of our idolatries; who is crucified by humankind, but who rises to lead us into a new world.
Grab a cuppa and give yourself some time. This is a longer than usual piece
When I was a teenager I remember being both excited and fearful when one of my non-Christian school friends came to church. I was excited because they were expressing an interest in faith. I was fearful lest they take communion, for it had been drummed into me that “anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup unworthily, eats and drinks damnation on himself”. Looking back on it now it seems so odd. How could it be that the very ritual that signified grace and love could simultaneously be an object of fear and terror?
The answer was centuries in the making. The fourth century theologian, Augustine, gave us the doctrine of “original sin”, which held that not only do human beings sin, but that they possess a sinful nature that makes it impossible for them not to sin and renders them unable to do anything truly good. Although Augustine recognised the doctrine could not be demonstrated from Scripture it became the orthodoxy of the Church for centuries to come. For example, I was encouraged to take up this view as a teenager when I read Holiness, a book first published in 1877, written by Anglican bishop, JC Ryle, and considered a classic. Reflecting the theology of original sin Ryle says
I ask my readers to observe what deep reasons we all have for humiliation and self- abasement. Let us sit down before the picture of sin displayed to us in the Bible, and consider what guilty, vile, corrupt creatures we all are in the sight of God.
Even babies were afflicted with this despised nature.
The fairest babe that has entered life this year, and become the sunbeam of a family, is not, as its mother perhaps fondly calls it, a little “angel,” or a little “innocent,” but a little “sinner.” Alas! as it lies smiling and crowing in its cradle, that little creature carries in its heart the seeds of every kind of wickedness! Only watch it carefully, as it grows in stature and its mind developes, and you will soon detect in it an incessant tendency to that which is bad, and a backwardness to that which is good. You will see in it the buds and germs of deceit, evil temper, selfishness, self-will, obstinacy, greediness, envy, jealousy, passion – which, if indulged and let alone, will shoot up with painful rapidity.
JC Ryle, Holiness
According to this narrative the essential truth about us was that we are vile and loathsome creatures. So why would we expect God to do anything other than reinforce this notion? And so theologians declared God is actively seeking to bring us to a place of brokenness where we see who we are. Take, for example, the famous Puritan Thomas Hooker:
The Puritan minister and Connecticut founder Thomas Hooker frequently compared the relationship between God and human beings to a king who has discovered traitors plotting against him. What would the king do? He would torture them. The traitor would be “brought upon the rack, and then one joynt is broken, and then he roares by reason of the extremity of the payne.” Perhaps then the accused would confess to some wrongdoing, but the king would not be satisfied. Instead, he would be “hoysed uponteh rack the second time, and then another joynt is broken, and then he roares againe.” The king would keep at it until he “discovered and layed open the whole reason.” God tortured the human soul so that men and women would cry and roar and eventually mourn for their sins.
John Turner, Thomas Hooker & the Terror of God
This teaching continues to find a place in the Church today, albeit in less violent forms. The website of an evangelical church near where I live describes the “good news” that “we are more flawed and rebellious against God than we ever realised, yet in Jesus are more loved and forgiven than we ever thought possible” (Maitland Evangelical Church).
The wretchedness of humanity may have been an unwelcome “truth”, but it was made a terrifying concept when coupled with the notion of God’s holiness as an offence against God’s honour. To disobey the will of a human king was serious enough. To disobey the will of the heavenly King was infinitely more serious. God was thought to be so pristine, pure and good that evil and sin could not survive in God’s presence. God would break out against evil, and in the fury of his wrath strike it dead. Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” is a frightening example of this type of thinking. He sermon includes this piece
The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince…
Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
To the wretchedness of humankind due to original sin and the nature of sin as an offence against an infinitely holy God, theologians added the assertion that God seeks his glory. In a disturbing piece of writing on hell, British Evangelist John Blanchard reflected this tradition when he wrote
In his eternal punishment of the wicked God is not aiming at their good but at his glory. The time for correction and discipline will be over. What matters then, is that God’s justice is satisfied, his majesty vindicated
John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell (Evangelical Press, 1993) p147
Who wouldn’t be terrified of such a God? The genius of the Reformation was that it took these twisted notions of God and humankind and crafted them into a theology of atonement that reconciled them with claim that God is love and provided relief from the emotional breakdown anyone who took the teaching seriously would be liable to suffer. Martin Luther spoke of the anxiety and despair he felt when recognising that God was filled with wrath and anger against him that was entirely justified, but which he could do nothing to evade. Although he was a monk who dedicated himself to worship of God, Martin Luther found himself hating God and despairing of a future in a hell torment. In the throes of his crisis he had an aha moment that would change the world: that the just shall live by faith. Our works might condemn us but our faith in Christ saves us.
The Reformers went on to expound a new way of understanding the death of Jesus by placing their own novel twist on the theory of satisfaction first reported by Anselm in the 13th century. At the cross God poured out his wrath upon Jesus, which met the demand for justice and satisfied God’s offended honour. Because God-in-Christ bore the penalty for sin, the righteous standing of Jesus could now be credited to the wretched sinner. God could now look upon sinners who embraced faith as though they were Jesus.
And so for the last 400 years the heart of gospel proclamation in the evangelical, reformed at Pentecostal churches has followed the pattern set by the Reformers.
Something however does not seem right. For one thing, it never made much sense to me to say that sin could be transferred to Christ and his righteousness transferred to me. It might be a neat legal manoeuvre, and it may be profoundly moving to say that God took our punishment upon Godself, but it is hardly justice for God to punish the innocent and acquit the guilty. Moreover I remained a sinful human being. God knew it. I knew it . We all knew it. I love the thought that Christ’s righteousness is credited to me, but I struggle to escape the conclusion that it is God getting us off the hook of punishment on the basis of a legal technicality that in any other context would be decried as a travesty of justice. And even if we accept it as true, it didn’t change the fact that I was a filthy, rotten sinner. There may no longer be a penalty to pay but surely God was still perpetually furious with me.
But it seems to me that by far the strongest objection to the Reformation narrative is that it just bears no resemblance to the life and ministry of Jesus. If Jesus was God incarnate among us (and I think he was), then he didn’t behave anything like the God of my theology. Sinners didn’t combust when they came into his holy presence. Jesus didn’t resile from contact with them, nor did he express feelings of disgust and abhorrence at being plunged into this great heaving cesspool of sin.
Far from abhorrence, repulsion and disgust, Jesus is described as filled with compassion for humankind, went out of his way to touch lepers and shared meals with prostitutes. He didn’t applaud the righteous instincts of a crowd ready to enact the demand of God’s law that an adulteress be executed, but intervened to heap shame on her would-be accusers and deliver her from them. He got angry, but it wasn’t an indiscriminate outrage against “sin” but was targeted at those who spiritually and financially oppressed the vulnerable.
So I’m wondering if the problem is that the Reformation didn’t go far enough. The Reformers took on board the assumptions of that time about original sin and the nature of God’s holiness, and crafted a powerful narrative from that. With the benefit of hindsight I think we can argue that they should have questioned the assumptions about sin and holiness that they held.
The doctrine of original sin, which even Augustine recognised could not be found in the Bible, ironically falls short of what the Bible has to say about human beings. Yes, human beings have a propensity to greed, violence, selfishness, pride and the like, but we also have the glory and beauty of being those were created in the image and likeness of God and are capable of extraordinary acts of generosity, kindness, compassion and justice. Standing on its own, the construction of human sinfulness that was held in the church for so long tells us that we are worthless. In my youth we would often say that God loves the unlovely and God values the unworthy. Yet we are not unlovely and we are not unworthy. The Bible directly ascribes worth to us because created in God’s image (eg Genesis 9, Psalm 8). It seems that in order to magnify the glory of God, theologians and preachers past felt it necessary to reduce human beings to worthless abhorrent creatures. I don’t accept this is true to the biblical teaching on human beings, true to the way Jesus treated human beings, or true to our own experience life.
Alongside the disaster that the doctrine of original sin has proven to be, I wonder if we have not badly misconstrued the nature of God’s holiness. Yes, God is fiercely opposed to sin, but we have falsely located the origin of that opposition in the notion that our sin offends God both objectively (ie it violates God’s will) and subjectively (ie it arouses God’s anger, revulsion and abhorrence).
In my experience two Biblical passages above all are cited to support this: Psalm 51 and Habbakuk 1. Reputedly composed by King David after his sexual assault of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, Psalm 51 contains David’s heartfelt but misguided prayer that “Against you , you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Ah…no. As the prophet Nathan made clear when he confronted David, David had sinned against Uriah, and I would add against Bathsheba. If Psalm 51 was a prayer of repentance after the sorry episode with Bathsheba and Uriah (and it’s only tradition that says it is) then we must conclude that like many of the psalms, David’s prayer does note represent textbook theology but the cry of a broken human being, and in this case, the hubris of a king.
Likewise, when read in context, the prophet Habakkuk’s statement that “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing” does not mean that God is literally not able to gaze upon evil, but that God opposes evil.
Where the traditional narrative sees history as the outworking of the great tension between God’s holiness and God’s love, it is a narrative that is strikingly absent absent from the teaching of Jesus. Jesus rather seems to reframe the notion of holiness within a framework of love. “Be holy as I am holy” is cast in Luke’s gospel as “be merciful as I am merciful”. Jesus did not tell parables of a God who can’t abide the presence of sinners, but of a God who loves people and goes out searching for those who are particularly wayward – God is the shepherd seeking a lost sheep, a woman seeking a lost coin, a father seeking a lost son, a king who forgives a great debt, a rich man who gives his workers more than they deserve. Over against the Pharisees who had a spirituality grounded in purity, Jesus had a spirituality grounded in love for others. For him the demands of the law were summed up in two commands: love God and love your neighbour. His followers would have a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees, not by outdoing them at their own game, but by expressing holiness in an entirely different manner – loving others. Where the Pharisees identified God’s people by their maintenance of purity standards, Jesus said that they would be identified by their love for one another and those around them (eg Matthew 25 parable of sheep and goats). Holiness in Jesus’s teaching seems to be the unwavering commitment of God to proactively seek the good of all creation.
It makes sense then to see God’s abhorrence of sin deriving not from some impugning of his honour ( as if human beings could do that!) but from the damage it does to people and to the planet. Could it be that the dismay of God is not the pique of an offended noble, but the broken heart of a creator who witnesses the very people he loves and values destroying themselves, each other, and the planet on which he placed them. This brokenheartedness can issue in anger at the damage we do to one another, compassion for the ways we have been damaged by others, and wisdom to prevent us damaging ourselves.
And by the same token, God can rejoice in the love we show each other, the justice we enact and the care we show for creation.
Moreover, if love is at the heart of God’s holiness and God’s opposition to sin, we are relieved of the idea that God’s highest good is to seek God’s own glory. The gospel defines love for us as laying down one’s life for the other and putting the interests of the other above oneself. We know this is what love is because this is how God has loved us. The suggestion that a day will come when God will cease to love people or subordinates their best interests to pursue self glorification, overturns the very centre of the gospel message.
Is it not time to lay aside the blemishes and distortions of the Reformation narrative and share with our world the glorious truth that there is a Creator who values us more deeply than we can imagine; who longs for our flourishing; who is filled with empathy at our brokenness; who is deeply angered by the damage we inflict upon others and the planet; who grieves the damage others have done to us; who has wisdom to share that will lead us down the often counterintuitive path of flourishing; who is working to bring peace where there is conflict, love where there is hate, hope where there is despair; who is willing to forgive and to restore; who was revealed to us in Jesus; who laid down his life in order to win us back; and who raised Jesus from the dead to bring humankind and creation to the place where healing and peace will be complete.