But if we cannot atone for our own sins or mistakes, how can they be dealt with? Can someone else pay the price and redeem our lives for us? In fact, the Bible suggests that this is the only way sins can be atoned for.
But this issue raises a question about the character of God. Can he just take a pass on issues of justice and recompense? Must someone pay a price for sin, or can God overlook human faults?
God, both in the Old and New Testaments, is depicted as holy and loving. He is both righteous and the one who sets right the sinner. He is just and also compassionate. Some people have a hard time reconciling these two seemingly incompatible attributes. But we must understand that even though God acts in a loving and forgiving way, he does not check his righteousness or justice at the door. Indeed, the cross is that place where we see the harmonic convergence between the justice and the mercy of God, the holiness and the love of God, the righteousness and the compassion of God. If we emphasize only one side of the divine equation, we don't do justice to the character of God.
Let me put it more graphically. God sent Jesus to the cross to atone for the sins of the world as a substitutionary and propitiatory atonement. Jesus himself understood what was going on, and says so in Mark 10.45: He came to give his life as a ransom in the place of the many.
There are many aspects to this, but I will list just three: 1) If Jesus' death was not both the necessary and sufficient means for the atonement of human sin, then God, who sent him to this death, is not a loving father. Rather, God would be a sadist guilty of child abuse. But precisely because Jesus’ death is such an atoning sacrifice, his death is the most loving act that has ever happened on earth.
3) Propitiation entails the satisfaction of God's just demands in response to sins. The wrath of God against sin is assuaged or removed by the atoning death of Jesus. When I speak of God's wrath, I am not talking about an irrational passion or fit of rage. I am talking about God's righteous anger and indignation against evil, sin, wickedness--forces that destroy the very creatures God loves and sent his son to save. God's wrath is against sin, not against the sinner. Like a parent who loves a child but hates the cancer that is destroying the child, God resolved to act to rescue the child from its disease and its self-destroying behavior.
Some people say, "Why couldn't God just forgive sin without this elaborate sacrifice?" But that is the equivalent of asking God to cease being just, fair, righteous, holy--something God neither can nor will do. Forgiveness is not a matter of taking a pass on justice or righteousness or holiness. It is a matter of finding another way to resolve the problem, a way which serves both justice and mercy, both love and righteousness, both compassion and fairness. God’s act of forgiveness involves a way in which the sinner is spared and redeemed but the price is still paid. As Paul puts it in Romans 3, God has found a way to be both just and the justifier of sinful human beings. Frankly, I do not want to live in a world without a just as well as loving God. I do not want to live in a world in which wrongs will not ultimately be righted.
God is not like an infinitely indulgent parent who never holds anyone accountable for sins. But since the dominant trait in the divine character is love, God made a way where there seemed to be no way: he provided his son as the Lamb of God to take our place on the cross. John 3.16 is not just a cliché--it is a profound window on the divine character. God so loved that he gave his son... even unto death on the cross.
Some scholars have tried to argue that expiation or cleansing from sin can happen without actual atonement, as if feeling sorry or even apologizing for a sin could make everything all right. But this is not a biblical view. If one reads carefully what is said in Romans Chapter three or in the Book of Hebrews--never mind the Old Testament--it becomes perfectly clear that if God's righteous anger is not satisfied or propitiated, our sins cannot be expiated.
Sin is not just a mistake but rather a violation of the divine-human relationship. It can even destroy that relationship. Until the sin problem is dealt with, one cannot be reconciled to God.
Forgiveness is made possible by atonement, and atonement sets us right in our relationship with God. While it is true that propitiation and substitution are not the only aspects of Jesus' death we need to emphasize, or the only images of God we should embrace, they are essential ones. Isaac Watts, the great 18th-century hymn writer, understood this well in his great hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." He understood that Jesus' atoning death should inspire in us the awe and gratitude expressed in these two verses: "When I survey the wondrous cross/ On which the prince of glory died/ My richest gain I count but loss/ and pour contempt on all my pride. / Were the whole realm of nature mine/ that were an offering far too small/ Love so amazing, so divine/ demands my self, my life, my all."