"Christ took our sins and the sins of the whole world as well as the Father's wrath on his shoulders, and he has drowned them both in himself so that we are thereby reconciled to God and become completely righteous". - Martin Luther
As much as it is true that God is love, it is also true that God is justice and judgment. We may initially have a negative view of this quality, for it comes with the image of God high in the clouds, watching our every move and sending fire and brimstone to consume those who step out of line. In reality, justice is what makes it possible for there to be a sharp line between good and evil. It's what makes the distinction real, for without it, the two will blur and become meaningless. Without justice, we will fail to even comprehend what goodness is.
For me, the hardest part of understanding God's plan of salvation is simply this - why did Jesus have to die? If I cry out to God to be forgiven of my sins, why can that not simply be done and over with? Why did Jesus have to suffer and die? On the surface, it seems horribly unfair. Jesus was the most perfect person who ever lived, yet he suffered unimaginable pain and agony for my sins. Why did God allow this? Why not just make my sin vanish away?
Imagine this idea in your own home, if you have any young children. Every time your child does something wrong, let's pretend you will simply forgive them, clean up the mess and say nothing. There will be no punishment and no cleaning of their own mess so long as they ask for forgiveness. If they hurt you then say sorry, you must forgive and say nothing else. You must not hurt them or upset them in any way. If they destroy something but then apologize, you must replace it without saying another word. There will be no punishment or judgment for this child so long as they ask for your forgiveness. You will still have to try to do your best to teach them right and wrong, but there will never be a consequence for bad behavior. In this scenario, it's easy to see that your child will learn to do what feels best for them, for they cannot possibly have a sense of other people's needs and feelings. Without consequence and punishment, they will become ultimately selfish because it is impossible for them to know what it feels like to hurt another person - we have taken this away from them. There is no doubting that this child will become a terror and a monster, even though we have tried to teach them right from wrong in our own way. You see, it's justice and judgment that are missing from this example and without these, a sense of right and wrong can never fully develop. You can love a child all you want but if you take justice and discipline away from them, your love will not be able to save them.
And so it is with sin in our lives. If there is no consequence for sin, then how can we truly repent? If God redeems me for a time until I sin again, I am not truly forgiven, I am only forgiven until the next time I sin, which is sure to be very soon. But worse still, how could I ever really be sorry? Like the child who utters a quick, "sorry" with no thought or feeling, our cries for forgiveness will be hollow and automatic. We know that God will forgive us no matter what, so why bother getting all upset and emotional about it? Soon, it will not matter anyway. We will truly be bad and will seek forgiveness as a ritual for no other reason than to avoid punishment. We will not just do evil, we will be evil.
No, the consequences for sin must be real, and as much as it seems objectionable on the surface, the punishment must be real. It is consequence and punishment which makes good really good, and evil really evil. Without it, we could never hope to know the difference. As hard and potentially unfair as it may seem, the debt we incur for sin is death. If we have sinned, we can never be with God in Heaven. We will be eternally separated from Him unless the debt is paid.
And here we find yet another dilemma. We cannot pay the debt, for it is too much and we are not good enough. Yet no matter how much God loves us, He cannot simply ignore the debt, otherwise there will not be any justice in the universe. As we have seen, without justice there can be no appreciation of right and wrong and there can be no redemption. The answer, of course, is that another can pay that debt for us if we will permit Him to.
Jesus Took Your Place.
I am indebted to Pastor Leroy Pennell for the following illustration, which I have found incredibly helpful.
There was once a tribe where the chief was a wise and powerful man. He was respected for his physical strength as well as his tough and fair laws which everyone respected and obeyed. However, one day, it was discovered that someone was sneaking into the tents and stealing. The chief ordered that this person be found and that the punishment for this crime would be 40 lashes with the whip. "No one is exempt!" he declared. "This punishment must be served." The tribe agreed that it was a fair punishment. However, the chief was devastated when he discovered that it was his frail old mother who was the thief. "Surely in her old age, she will never survive 40 lashes," he thought, "but I cannot change the punishment, for it is fair and just and has already been announced." At the thought of losing his mother whom he loved, he was heart-broken. When the time came for the punishment to be administered, the chief gave the order to begin and at once, his mother cried out, "Save me my son!" Immediately, the chief ran and embraced his mother, shielding her entire body from the whips. As the whips came down upon his back again and again and the pain filled him, he quietly whispered to his mother that he loved her.
This is what Jesus Christ has done for us. As we cry out for mercy at the moment at which we understand that we cannot save ourselves, Jesus takes our place upon the cross and pays the debt on our behalf. It is a sacrifice that He alone can make, for He is God - he is perfect and has never sinned. Yet at the same time, Jesus was fully man and understood what it meant to live, to love, to truly feel pain and to freely and completely surrender his will to the Father. It was not a sacrifice which God demanded and took, rather, it was a loving and merciful gesture by Jesus as part of his Father's plan. Jesus freely gave himself to take your place, suffer on the cross and free you from your sin.
For those of us who have accepted Christ's sacrifice, we know that although we did not literally share his pain on the cross, this does not mean that it was not real for us. This is not the same as the parent who fixes the mess and replaces the broken furniture. Jesus' pain and death were a real event and His suffering will be felt for all time. Each of us will carry a piece of that memory with us as we understand that every time we sin, that sin was in part responsible for the agony he endured that day. We know that our sin has real consequence and knowing that this consequence was suffered by someone totally innocent makes it all the more real. As Christians we still stumble and sin from time to time, yet we know that the Holy Spirit is working to purify us and make us holy. Each time we sin, the Holy Spirit convicts us and reminds us of what Jesus did for us, so that we do not fall back into our old ways.
To be saved from sin, you must accept what He has done and express to Him that He is our Lord and Savior, for God will not force you to accept his offer of salvation. Once you have made this choice, when God looks upon you, he will no longer see the stain of your sin. He will see only the righteousness of His Son who clothes and surrounds you. With the holiness of Jesus in your life, you can stand before God and He will accept you because of the sacrifice His perfect Son has made. That is God's plan for salvation and that is how we can truly be saved.