This is the second part in a blog series on why God came as man. You can read part 1 here.
Is the doctrine of the atonement central to the Scriptures? Why must Jesus, the God-Man, be the one to provide salvation?In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin argues that this is how God has chosen to do it and, therefore, it is impertinent of us to ask if there could not be some other way.
Salvation had to be achieved by God, for no one else could achieve it. Certainly men and women could not achieve it, for we are the ones who have gotten ourselves into trouble in the first place! We have done so by our rebellion against God’s righteous law and just decrees. We have suffered the effects of sin to such a degree that our will is bound, and therefore we cannot even choose to please God, let alone actually please Him. If we are to be saved, only God, who has power to save, must save us.
Take note of a these wonderful gospel truths:
First, it is God who initiates salvation for man. If this is forgotten, it is easy to think of God as somehow remote from the atonement and therefore merely requiring it as some abstract price paid to satisfy his justice. In that view God appears disinterested, legalistic and cruel. Actually, God’s nature is characterized by love, and it is out of love that he planned and carried out the atonement. In Christ God himself was satisfying his own justice. It’s easy to see why the Incarnation and the atonement must be considered together if each part is not to be distorted.
Secondly, there is no suggestion that human beings somehow placate the wrath of an angry God. Propitiation does refer to placating of wrath. It is not man who placates God. Rather it is God placating his own wrath so that his love might go out to embrace and fully save the sinner.
A proper recognition of the connection between the Incarnation and the atonement makes the Incarnation understandable. At the same time it eliminates the most common misunderstandings of, and objections to, Christ’s sacrifice of himself as the means of salvation.
The divine Son, one of the three persons of the one God, he through whom, from the beginning of the creation, the Father has revealed himself to man (John 1:18), took man’s nature upon him, and so became our representative. He offered himself as a sacrifice in our stead, bearing our sin in his own body on the tree. He suffered, not only awful physical anguish, but also the unthinkable spiritual horror of becoming identified with the sin to which he was infinitely opposed. He thereby came under the curse of sin, so that for a time even his perfect fellowship with his Father was broken.
Thus God proclaimed his infinite abhorrence of sin by being willing himself to suffer all that, in place of the guilty ones, in order that he might justly forgive. Thus the love of God found its perfect fulfillment because he did not hold back from even that uttermost sacrifice, in order that we might be saved from eternal death through what he endured. Thus it was possible for him to be just and to justify the believer, because as Lawgiver and as Substitute for the rebel race of man, he himself had suffered the penalty of the broken law.
The Centrality of the Cross
There are several explanations that follow from the foundation we have built on the doctrine of the Incarnation. First, according to the Scriptures Calvary is the center of Christianity. Many consider the Incarnation to be the most important thing. In other words, they consider God identifying himself with man important, and consider the atonement as something like an afterthought. According to the Bible, the reason for the God-man is that it required a God-man to die for our salvation. J.I. Packer said, “The crucial significance of the cradle at ..Bethlehem.. lies in its place in the sequence of steps down that led the Son of God to the cross of ..Calvary..,, and we do not understand it till we see it in this context.” To focus on the Incarnation apart from the cross leads to false sentimentality and neglect of the horror and magnitude of human sin.
Second, if the death of Christ on the cross is the true meaning of the Incarnation, then there is no gospel without the Cross. Christmas by itself is no gospel. The life of Christ is no gospel. Even the resurrection, important as it is in the total scheme of things, is no gospel by itself. Or the good news is not just that God became a man, nor that God has spoken to reveal a proper way of life to us. The good news is not even of our great triumph over that great enemy we call death. Rather, the good news is that sin has been dealt with (the resurrection is proof of this); that Jesus has suffered its penalty for us as our representative, so that we might never have to suffer it; and, therefore, all who believe in him can look forward to heaven. The other biblical themes must be seen in this context, as we have already seen of the Incarnation. Emulation of Christ’s life and teaching is only possible to those who enter into a new relationship with God through faith in Jesus as their substitute. The resurrection is not merely a victory over death, but a proof that the atonement was a satisfactory atonement in the sight of the Father (Romans 4:25); and that death, the result of sin, is abolished on that basis.
Any gospel that talks merely of the Christ-event, meaning the Incarnation without the atonement, is a false gospel. Any gospel that talks about the love of God without pointing out that his love led him to pay the ultimate price for sin in the person of his Son on the cross is a false gospel. The only true gospel is o the “one mediator” (1 Timothy 2:5-6), who gave himself for us.
Finally, just as there can be no gospel without the atonement as the reason for the Incarnation, so also there can be no Christian life without it. Without the atonement the Incarnation becomes a kind of deification of the human and leads to arrogance and self-advancement. With the atonement, the true message of the life of Christ, and therefore of the life of the Christian man or woman, is humility and self-sacrifice for the obvious needs of others. The Christian life is not indifference to those who are hungry or sick or suffering from some other lack. It is not contentment with our own abundance, neither the abundance of middle-class living with homes and cars and clothes and vacations, nor with the abundance of education nor even the spiritual abundance of good churches, Bibles, Bible teaching or Christian friends and acquaintances. Rather, it is the awareness that others lack these things and that we must therefore sacrifice many of our own interests in order to identify with them and thus bring them increasingly into the abundance we enjoy.
Paul writing on the Incarnation said in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”