The Love of God in the Atonement
In 1 John 4:16, the Holy Spirit tells us that “God is love.” Sadly, this biblical truth is often perverted. It’s perverted by those who believe they can live however they want and at the end, God will still receive them into heaven. After all, if “God is love,” why would he send anyone to hell?
Sometimes 1 John 4:16 is also misunderstood by well-meaning Christians. For example, it’s often said that “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner.” There’s some truth in that, but like many slogans, it falls short of the full truth of the matter. There is no separating the sin which God hates from the sinner. The sinner is personally responsible for his or her actions and will be accountable to God for them. In his book The Doctrine of God, Gerald Bray writes:
We cannot imagine a judge excusing a murderer who says he is sorry and offers to clean up the mess, as if the crime were all that mattered. However sincere his repentance might be, the murderer would still be held responsible for his sin, just as we are held responsible before God.
But curiously, there are many people who for some reason fail to make this equation. Although they might agree in the case of the murderer, they do not accept that this principle can be applied directly to sins against God. (p.222)
Bray goes on to write that such people have no understanding of the heavy penalty attached to sin, a penalty reflective of the infinite majesty against which sin is committed.
Once we understand that, however, then we also can see the great depth of love that God has shown by rescuing us from what we justly deserve. Bray writes:
It is impossible to have any understanding of the love of God apart from the message of the atoning power of the cross of Christ, not only because this is the only way in which we can come to experience his love, but because this was the way God chose to demonstrate his love, even within the Godhead. This is the great truth discovered by Anselm of Canterbury, when he wrote that the sacrifice and death of the Son was above all a sacrifice made to the Father, on behalf of sinful human beings. Christ is our representative, or Mediator, at the judgment seat of God, where his sacrifice remains as our plea for forgiveness. Without the love of the Son for the Father, which impelled him to make the sacrifice in the first place, without the corresponding love of the Father for the Son, by which he accepted the Son’s work and pronounced the word of forgiveness for us, our salvation could not have occurred. Furthermore, without the love of the Holy Spirit for both the Father and the Son, by which he brings this message to us and sounds the very depth of our hearts, Christ’s work of love would have no practical meaning in our lives. The inner love of the persons of the Trinity is the very ground of our redemption, and at the heart of this love we meet both the wrath and the mercy of God. (pp.222-223)
Seeing the love of God in this Trinitarian light changes everything. It allows us to understand how affronts to God’s justice cannot be taken lightly – the love that each person has for the other in the Trinity will not allow it. But it also allows us to understand how this great love within the Trinity has overflowed for our salvation. God’s love is not contradictory to his justice or mercy – rather, it’s the foundation of both.
Have you praised God today for his fathomless love?