by Michael S. Horton
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life."
Undoubtedly the most familiar words in the English Bible, John 3:16 rightly holds the highest place in the Christian memory. For in one succinct sentence, it announces the center of biblical revelation.
First, it assures us that God was loving toward his fallen creatures even before the actual event of the Crucifixion, keeping us from the mistake (too often committed) of assuming that the Cross persuaded God to be merciful. Rather, it was because of his eternally merciful nature that he found a way to reconcile us without alienating himself. God's love comes before the Cross, eternally prior to it, as he established a covenant of redemption with Christ as the Mediator before the creation of the world (Eph 1:4-11; Jn 6:39; 1 Pt 1:20). Second, it reminds us that God the Father is not the "bad guy" in the drama who would like to condemn, with the Son stepping in to persuade him of the loving path. What could be clearer throughout John's Gospel than that the Father sent the Son on this loving mission? Too often, in our desire to defend the biblical doctrine of the substitutionary atonement, we risk envisioning the Father as the one who reluctantly saves sinners, as if he has to save them, after all, because the Son has offered the perfect sacrifice. Few actually state it in such stark terms, but often this is the message that people have heard as we explain the orthodox doctrine. The Son, not the Father, was the self-giving victim, but the Father was in Christ when his Son bore his wrath. Instead of confusing or separating the divine persons, let us simply wonder at the foot of the Cross at how God the Father, even in executing his just wrath, could be filled with such anguish and loathing that he would turn his eyes from his own Son (Mk 15:33-34).
But there is still more to this verse: God gave his only-begotten Son. As John's Gospel declared at the beginning, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God...No one has seen God but God the One and Only." Not only did God send a Savior, but the Savior he sent was himself God. Furthermore, he was and remains God's "only-begotten Son." There are no incarnations before or after the virginal conception of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, there is no other way to the Father but through this Son. He is not an idea or a principle, but a person. Redemption cannot come through other sons or daughters, through universal truths of human reason, experience, or morality that are somehow present in all major religions. There is only one God and one "only-begotten Son" who is capable of saving. All who are named God's children derive their sonship by adoption, but this Son is "eternally-begotten before all worlds." As the eleventh-century theologian Anselm expressed it, our Savior had to be God in order to pay an infinite debt and conquer sin and death. But he had to be Man, since it was humanity, after all, that had merited divine wrath through original and personal sin. So already we see that a high view of the work of Christ requires and rests upon a high view of the person of Christ.
But we still have not even sufficiently summarized John 3:16. Beyond the identity of the Sender and the One who is sent, we are given the reason and its effect: "...so that whosoever believes in him shall never perish, but have everlasting life." If Jesus had come merely to help us make our way through this world, or to give us helpful advice for daily living, or to demonstrate to the world what can be done if only we seek to do good, surely we would be over-shooting if we said that his work saves us from perishing. In other words, this announcement of good news assumes that the bad news is rather serious: Our very life is imperiled. But what does it mean to perish? In the same passage, we are told that it means that we "stand condemned." There is a legal verdict, as the defendant rises to hear the verdict read. In fact, "This is the verdict," comes next in the sentence. We are carried by John into the courtroom, where we are on trial--a familiar image throughout Scripture. The verdict is "guilty," and the sentence is death. This is the nature of the peril that forms the backdrop for John's good news.
If the bad news is something different (a broken marriage, wayward children, low self-esteem, loss of cultural values and personal morality), the good news would be something different as well. That is not to say that these other things are not serious, nor that they are not addressed in Christ's mission, but when the Gospel announcement is made, it is always pointing to this one answer to this one problem: We are born under the wrath of God and remain there until news of the Cross reaches us and we receive it with divinely-given faith. The result is that we are no longer in a state of perilous condemnation, but are reconciled to God forever. We will never perish.
But this is not just good news for us; it is good news for the world and everyone in it: "whosoever believes." Here is an announcement that the redeemed, like John, carry on their lips to a condemned and dying world, and it is meant for everyone with whom we come into contact. While hyper-Calvinists (and there are very few of them) have had trouble with this universal Gospel invitation, it has been the happy news that Reformed theology, with other Christian confessions, has insisted upon in theory and its missionaries and adherents have carried out in practice. The Holy Spirit has made every believer a priest, an agent of reconciliation, to bring the good news to the ends of the earth (2 Cor 5:19).
How could such a simple text become so divisive? How could such a wonderful, clear, warm invitation become a battleground for theology in our day? And yet, that is precisely what has happened. Of course, few who oppose the remarks I have just made in attempting to unfold this famous verse would directly attack a verse that is both so positive and hallowed in Christian piety, but nearly everything I have said thus far is being challenged today. Nobody is surprised to learn that this is the case in liberal circles, but the same objections that they have raised are now being advanced well within the evangelical camp.
Courtroom or Family Room?
In January, 1996, the Church of England made international news by announcing that there is no such thing as eternal judgment. Embracing "annihilation," the view that the unbelievers are simply non-existent in eternity, this perspective was championed by leading evangelicals as well as moderates and liberals in that church body. As an article in the Chicago Tribune (January 28, 1996) observes, the Anglican statement called the traditional doctrine of hell a distortion of "the revelation of God's love in Christ," but if we take John's good news of God's love in Christ seriously, how can we fail to see those who do not embrace it as "condemned already." In other words, if there really is no such thing as this peril of perishing, how can God's love in Christ mean anything beyond sentimentalism? Annihilationists like respected evangelical John Stott are quick to add that this position does insist on the reality of which John warns here, but "perishing," they believe, does not refer to eternal, conscious torment. According to the Anglican statement, the implication of the traditional view is that God is "a sadistic monster...who consigned millions to eternal torment."
But underneath this controversy seethes the real trouble with this biblical view of God's justice and love. As the Chicago Tribune article points out, it is increasingly difficult for Christians who are constantly brushing shoulders with fine people from other religions to conclude that their friends, co-workers, perhaps even family members, are really deserving of eternal death and that they are, in fact, already under divine wrath. In More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (Zondervan), edited by Wheaton professors Dennis Okholm and Timothy Phillips, various views are set forth as legitimate options for evangelicals. The traditional Christian view that there is no salvation apart from explicit faith in Christ is now at the center of controversy in evangelical circles. If, as recent surveys have concluded, 77% of America's evangelical Christians believe that man is "basically good by nature," surely in the minds of even conservative Protestants today the peril is not so great as John's announcement presupposes.
A few years ago, Christianity Today ran a cover story titled, "Evangelical Megashift," with Dr. Clark Pinnock, professor of theology at McMaster Divinity College in Canada, leading the proponents of the shift. After this article appeared, our organization sponsored a conference around these issues, with Dr. Pinnock and other representatives of the "megashift." What became increasingly apparent was that this "megashift" is chiefly represented by the metaphors of courtroom versus family room. But as the discussions progressed, it became clearer that it was the running debate between classical Christianity and the fifth-century Pelagian heresy that we know in our time as Protestant Liberalism.
For a long time, critics of classical Christian doctrines have been fond of suggesting that these themes emerged out of the context of Roman law and its emphasis on lex taliones--in other words, "Let the punishment fit the crime." (Evidently, such critics have forgotten that "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" comes from Hebrew law issued centuries earlier, Exodus 21 offering examples!) A strict, confining, precise system of penal codes and legal frameworks that governed the Roman Empire eventually came to dominate Christian thinking about the Cross, critics insist. Therefore, the image of a judge in a courtroom pronouncing a verdict and sentencing someone to condemnation is simply unavoidable in that particular context. However, they argue, Scripture is centered on a relational, familial paradigm, with the prodigal son as the most obvious parabolic example.
Surely we cannot deny the influence of our context. But what is so surprising is that in our day those who are so prepared to cheerfully consign classical views of Christ's work to the history books do not seem to recognize that they are themselves rooted in a particular time and place. How is it, for instance, that just at the time when relational psychology and the endless tinkering with the therapeutic well-being of the self dominate our culture, we are gravitating to a more relational view of the atonement? In our day, criminals are often viewed as victims themselves and treated as though their real problem were a dysfunctional background. In reality, they are no different from law-abiding citizens, we often hear, so what they need is to be reformed, not punished. Is it possible that the same judicial culture that tends to favor criminals over victims has affected our view of the atonement? The triumph of the therapeutic and relational, the persuasiveness of self-expression as a chief virtue (especially in evidence on TV talk shows and in small groups at church): Do these influences not have far more to do with the "new model" than Roman courts had to do with shaping classical Christian theology? Perhaps this is why Dr. Pinnock is happy to admit that he and his circle are "making peace with the culture of modernity."1
And yet, this business of making peace with alien world views that is precisely what we are warned against throughout biblical history. With what great frequency does God warn Israel against making peace with the nations, attracted to their gods and to their idolatrous beliefs and practices? Our Lord himself consistently reminded his flock that as long as they had the Word of Christ, the world would hate them, and when the Corinthian church was being tempted to soften the offense of the Cross by compromise with Greek philosophy and signs and wonders, Paul declared, "The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God and the wisdom of God." He determined to know nothing else among them besides "Christ and him crucified." Whenever our message ceases to be foolishness to those who are perishing, it ceases to be the message with which we are entrusted by Christ and his apostles. It is precisely its "foolishness" that was a stumbling block for the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians in the fifth century, the medieval church, moralistic Unitarians and deists during the Enlightenment, nineteenth-century liberals, and the adherents of the world's religions. While Paul insists, "By one man sin entered the world and death through sin," the world asks, "How can the guilt of one man, Adam, be charged to my account? And how can my guilt be charged to another man, Christ?", as Paul says in that same passage in Romans 5. How can one man bear the world's sin? It can't be that easy: God accepting the sacrifice of his Son in our place even though we are still sinful. Why, that would create a society of moral laxity just when we need people to take responsibility and pull themselves together! The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.
What is so troubling about this is that so much of the vanguard of contemporary radical theologies consists of men and women who were reared in fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. Oxford theologian Keith Ward, who has been moving steadily from his evangelical roots, finds in Christ a universal emblem of spiritual consciousness. As for the atonement,
Is it not a slightly odd view of a morally perfect God that the divine nature can be so slighted and offended by what human beings do?...Anselm's idea is that the penalty must be paid in full; but is this really compatible with belief in the mercy of God? Secondly, even if one can accept that the sinner must pay such a tremendous penalty, how can it be just for someone else to pay it for me?...God shows love by healing, forgiving, suffering for us. God gives us love by placing the Spirit in our hearts. God places before us the ideal of the Christ life, and forms it within us as we contemplate it. But there is here no substitutionary death, no vicarious justice, no literal death of one person in place of another.2
No wonder Ward regards the related doctrines of Christ's divinity, virgin conception and resurrection fabulous! "That the fifteen-billion-light-year large (and expanding) cosmos should be thought to be fulfilled in one human youth, sitting on a throne and surrounded by a chorus of doleful white-robed patriarchs, is too childish to contemplate seriously."3 For Baptist theologian Paul S. Fiddes, the orthodox view "promotes an unhealthy sense of human guilt and an image of a tyrant God."4 We are much better off with the medieval view popularized by Abelard, of God as an estranged lover. This view, Fiddes laments, was not recovered until the Romantic movement of the last century.5 While Enlightenment rationalism moved God outside of human experience, Romanticism made him virtually identical to it. "Jesus in my heart," whether articulated by liberals or evangelicals, is more appealing to Romantics than "Jesus on a cross." One can even see this shift in the songs evangelicals are most likely to sing on Sunday morning. Vanishing from the scene are the Cross-centered hymns of the period between the Reformation and the triumph of pietism, as personal experience and private, almost romantic, encounters with God become the great attraction of contemporary services.
The Cross as a Moral Lesson: Eradicating The Offense
In a dialogue with liberal theologian Delwin Brown, Clark Pinnock says he is "not surprised that liberals have turned away from it [evangelical emphasis on penal substitution] in disgust." It is a "troubling emphasis on substitution" that is "oriented to a one-sided vertical definition of salvation itself," although Pinnock observes broad movement away from this perspective. "Surely it would be better to say that God is love, everywhere and always, and that what we needed from Christ was a decisive presentation of it in history. What we needed once and for all was a representative act on the part of the Messiah that would deal with something in the holiness of God's nature that would open up the perfectly satisfactory basis of reconciliation." This act was an "expression of what God has always been like," but which had until then "been inadequately seen." I have added italics to point out the dominance of the subjective and moral understanding of the atonement here. It is not the effect of the atonement on God's ability to justly forgive, but its effect on me that really counts. Just as sentimentality in our judicial system leads judges to provide even dangerous criminals with lighter sentences calculated for psychological improvement over punishment, this same sentimentality disregards divine justice in the service of the criminal's potential. It is the sentence's effect on the criminal, not its justice, that counts.
It is interesting, however, to see how quickly some victims change their views of this sentimental orientation of the judicial system when they are wronged. Suddenly, they feel a desire for right to be done, for justice to be served. Of course, sometimes it is revenge they seek, but often it is a sense of vindication. We all know the public outrage that can be generated when a convicted murderer (or someone who is believed by many to be guilty) goes free. Suddenly, we become indignant, outraged that justice has not been served. It is different, however, when we or someone we love is the defendant. If we can all agree that a convicted murderer ought to receive justice, not mercy, then at least the principle is established that justice ought not to be held hostage by sentimental views of love and compassion. The only question left is whether we and those we love are, in fact, deserving of that justice. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reads the Law to us, convicting us of adultery if we have ever lusted and of murder if we have ever failed to love our neighbor perfectly. In the eyes of God, who is too pure to look upon sin, we are all convicted criminals whose crimes against an infinitely holy God demand an infinite penalty.
In our relation to God, the therapeutic view of justice assumes that the problem is not that I am perishing under divine condemnation, but occasionally ignorant of God's loving nature. To say that "what we needed once and for all was a representative act" or "presentation" of God's love is to say that our problem is different from the one assumed by John 3:16. Pinnock speaks further of the Cross as a divine "gesture," exposing "man's injustice while revealing the righteousness of God."6
When Brown asks Pinnock whether his views are actually "closer to most of twentieth century liberalism," Pinnock replies, "If you find some of my ideas more liberal than evangelical, then I will take that as a compliment."7 Getting rid of the classical doctrine of God,8 original sin9 and justification by faith alone,10 Pinnock has also abandoned the classical evangelical position on the nature of the atonement. He realizes the implications of his antecedent departures: "Obviously, it required me to reduce the precision in which I understood the substitution to take place," so that he now sees the atonement as "an act of judicial demonstration rather than a strict or quantitative substitution as such."11 The suffering of the Cross reminds us that God is "...with us on our journey..."12 This final comment leads us to consider another related diversion from the biblical doctrine of the Cross.
The Cross as Divine Suffering With Creation
Beyond these more subtle examples, our culture's way of viewing God these days is, in large measure, determined by the dominant forces within the culture itself. We have already touched briefly on the therapeutic orientation, and this is key in the dominance of the relational and subjective over the legal and objective understanding of Christ's work. Today, it is important to see God as a partner. Much of this has to do with the upheaval in the wake of the Holocaust. A lot of rethinking has taken place. How can we, in a sense, "justify" the Creator in the face of such obvious injustice? Is he powerless, capricious, vindictive, apathetic? How can we explain God's existence in the light of the bloodiest century in human history? In the sixties, TIME expressed the sentiment in the form of a fashionable theological trend with its famous cover, "God Is Dead." As far as our culture is concerned, God is dead. There may be a spiritual realm where impersonal forces reign, but the notion of a personal God who is both all-powerful and all-loving is something that deeply troubles our contemporaries when they bother with religion at all.
This is why many theologians have attempted to vindicate God by making him a victim along with the rest of us. Jurgen Moltmann is perhaps the most influential advocate of this perspective in our day, especially in The Crucified God and The Theology of Hope. "In the crucified Christ," he writes, "God himself is the victim among victims."13 There is enough truth in what Moltmann is saying to console even those of us who are wary of his doctrine of God:
People who cry out for God in their suffering can find that they are joining in Christ's death cry. They discover in the suffering Christ the God who understands them and suffers with them. Once we sense this, we perceive that God is not the cold, remote force of destiny whom we have to accuse and cry out against, but that in Christ he has become the human God who cries out with us and in us, and who intervenes on our behalf when torment makes us dumb.14
Do we not see God crying out in anger against death at the tomb of Lazarus in the person of Christ? We dare not separate the two natures of Christ (human and divine) in such a way as to leave half a Christ frozen in any moment of his life and times. He was and always will remain the God-Man. It is true that this insight is often missing in orthodox circles today, where either Christ's divinity or humanity is emphasized to the exclusion of the other. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself..." (2 Cor 5:18), so we cannot think as if the Father was sealed off in some Greek realm of Pure Idea, aloof from the events of Calvary. In fact, Isaiah speaks of this sacrifice pleasing the Father, just as he abandoned his Son on the Cross because he was so displeased with the horrifying depths of iniquity that had been heaped upon the Suffering Servant (Is 53).
And yet, this emphasis on God's suffering in the Cross is often simply one more way of setting the more offensive notion of sacrifice and satisfaction aside. Referring to the phrase, "substitutional suffering," Paul Tillich argues,
"It is a rather unfortunate term and should not be used in theology. God participates in the suffering of existential estrangement, but his suffering is not a substitute for the suffering of the creature. Neither is the suffering of the Christ a substitute for the suffering of man. But the suffering of God, universally and in the Christ, is the power which overcomes creaturely self-destruction by participation and transformation. Not substitution, but free participation, is the character of the divine suffering."15
In an age that feels a need to put God on trial, divine suffering makes sense, but in the biblical story, it is we who are on trial before a just and holy tribunal.
As helpful as some of these ideas may be, reminding us of important biblical themes that we have perhaps ignored, they fall far short of the preponderance of biblical evidence. But that is not where the problems end, for even our experience is failed by the shortcut provided by advocates of God's suffering because of rather than for sin. The problem is that when we make God a co-sufferer with the rest of creation, we end up leaving ourselves bereft of our only real comfort in suffering. If I had been trapped in an elevator due to a fire, it might be helpful to know that I have a fireman in there as well: someone to talk to, with whom to share my feelings about the great inferno that has the two of us trapped. But I have no trouble saying that I would prefer to be alone in the elevator and to have a fireman outside, blasting through concrete and steel, rescuing me from my precarious situation. If we "trap" God within this world, with its suffering, evil, and pain, we simply cut ourselves off from hope. It does not help to strip God of his power in favor of his love, for it ends up being of no consequence. Furthermore, love without justice is mere sentimentality. A God who would like to save everybody if he could, but cannot, will never give genuine comfort, still less can he be a suitable object of worship.
This is why the title for this article, and this issue, is "Saved From God." We may recoil from such a thought, but we should suspend immediate rejection for two reasons: first, because we cannot reject it without setting aside some of the clearest and most abundant biblical references for any doctrine in Scripture. Second, we should be careful not to hastily reject it because, at the end of the day, however offensive it may sound, it is the only final resolution to the great restlessness and anxiety of our conscience. If the Cross merely represents the fact that God is a victim of evil and suffering like us, how does it actually accomplish anything that might somehow secure a future beyond evil and suffering?
At last we are brought full-circle, back to our opening verse that has so captivated our thoughts and feelings. Those who would substitute a so-called "legal model" with a "relational model" of salvation do not seem to recognize that they cannot have the latter without the former. As the substitutionary view of the atonement is the only way to really secure even the benefits claimed by the other views, the only way to a secure relationship with a holy God in a family of love is by the legal satisfaction of God's glorious nature. How can we enter into joyful community with God and his people until we know that our guilt is remitted, that we are adopted legally into God's household and justified in spite of our ongoing sinfulness? Classical Christianity moves on from the legal demands to the heavenly table around which God's adopted children gather in filial delight. But the relational model begins and ends with itself. Unable to account for the full range of the biblical material, it simply opts for the family room over the courtroom, while the classical view is never faced with such a fork in the road.
Moved only by his own character, God sent his only Son into the world to save sinners from the judgment they deserve. At the end of the day, it was not the Jews who crucified Jesus or even the Romans. It was not even we who put him there, although it was because of our sin and guilt that he hung in derision. Ultimately, God crucified Jesus. "Yet it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer," not because God is sadistic, but because of his great love for those who would be rescued by this selfless act, "and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied" (Is 53:10-11). Although Jesus freely gave his life up to the Father as a sacrifice that he was not forced to give, it was a death penalty that God executed as the just judge of the universe. Turning his eyes from the mutilated body of his Son, now carrying the sins of us all, the Father abandoned Jesus Christ so that he would never have to abandon us in our deepest trial or most heinous sin. God saved us from himself in order to save us for himself forever. Praise to the Lamb!
1. Clark Pinnock, ed., Grace Unlimited (Bethany, 1975), p. 27.
2. Keith Ward, A Vision to Pursue: Beyond the Crisis in Christianity (SCM, 1991).
3. Ibid., p. 84.
4. Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1989), p. 935.
5. Ibid., p. 9.
6. Pinnock and Brown, Theological Crossfire: An Evangelical/Liberal Dialogue (Zondervan, 1990), pp. 148-9.
7. Ibid., p. 154.
8. Grace Unlimited, op. cit., p. 23; cf. The Openness of God, ed. by Clark Pinnock (IVP, 1994).
9. Grace Unlimited, p. 128.
10. William Crocket, ed., Four Views on Hell (Zondervan, 1992), pp. 127-31.
11. Grace Unlimited, p. 23.
12. Ibid., p. 25.
13. Jurgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today's World (Fortress, 1994), p. 41.
14. Ibid., p. 45.
15. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (University of Chicago), vol. 2, p. 176.