The following is a guest post by Rev. Dr. Paul Blackham. Paul was the Associate Minister for Theology at All Souls, Langham Place and did his doctorate on the Puritan Thomas Goodwin.
It is said that in ancient Rome a murderer was punished by having their victim’s body strapped to their back until it had rotted away. More relevantly, the Bible views us as already dead, already decaying into the darkness due to our rejection of the One who is our Light and Life.
Our offences – our selfishness and sin - are like death clinging to us and this kind of death never just falls away with the passage of time. We might wish these things would go away. We might regret them with every fibre of our being. We might weep away our sleepless nights aware of what we have done, of who we are. Yet, none of these regrets or tears can ever cut that body of death away from us. Or else we might laugh it off, filling our hearts and minds with the sights and sounds of work, friends, family and entertainment. When the stench of that body of death clinging to us gets too strong, we may simply turn up the volume on our work and entertainment. Yet, it never goes away.
Nothing we can ever do, nothing we can ever feel or resolve, no therapy or drug, no holiday or mid-life crisis or personal trainer or year out can ever take the corruption away. From the very beginning we were warned that sin means death, and we can never change that equation.
Clinging to us, rotting on us, polluting us at every point is our own moral and spiritual corruption. When, sooner or later, this corruption is also manifested in our physical flesh, then the process is complete: our sin has paid its wage and dragged us down to the eternal, burning rubbish tip in the outer darkness, far from the eternal home of righteousness, goodness and life.
We need to begin with these stark images because we cannot understand the Bible’s presentation of atonement as long as we see it in the superficial psychological terms that we are so used to. So many of the discussions of forgiveness or atonement in our modern culture are so self-centred and merely therapeutic – as if the purpose of forgiveness is a selfish thing, setting ourselves free from hatred or bitterness.
There is some truth in that. If we refuse to forgive, if we show no mercy, then we will be shown no mercy on the Day of Judgement. If we carry our hatred and bitterness around with us then the evils done to us carry on and grow with each passing day. Yes, all that has deep truth, but it is not taking us into the heart of atonement.
There are three aspects of justice or righteousness that we will focus on: two of them involve us and one of them completely excludes us.
First, the justice of God means that He is ready to forgive us, so we are to forgive those who do wrong to us. We share in God’s justice when we forgive and restore those who have sinned against us, when we forgive as we have been forgiven.
Isaiah 30:18 – “The LORD longs to be gracious to you; He rises to show you compassion. For the LORD is a God of justice.”
Psalm 33:5 – “The LORD loves justice: the earth is full of His unfailing love.”
Second, the justice of God means that He helps those who cry out to Him in need, so the local church is to be a haven for the widows and the orphans, the hungry and the broken, the sick and the imprisoned. Righteousness and justice flow out when the victims of sin are shown practical love and mercy.
Isaiah 1:17 – “Seek justice. Encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
Zechariah 7:9 - This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other."
Yet, the third level of justice belongs to the LORD God alone.
Micah 5:15 – “I will take vengeance in anger and wrath upon the nations that have not obeyed me.”
Nahum 1:2 – “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies.”
Romans 12:19 – “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.”
1 Samuel 24:12 – “May the LORD avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you.”
The LORD God alone can bring the destroying and final vengeance on evil. Jesus, as the Judge of the World, alone punishes sin and brings His terrible judgement on humanity. Yes, we might say that through governments and rulers He allows a small measure of this punishment to be meted out even in this present age, but He reserves to Himself the true Day of Justice when all our offences, all our corruption, the body of death that clings to us, is condemned and punished for all eternity.
The LORD’s justice cares for the needy and He longs to bring repentance and forgiveness to those who do evil… but there will finally be a day when He will bring vengeance against the wicked. Within the Bible itself the focus of atonement is on that third category of justice.
The terrible crisis that faces the world, far more than all the troubles we have with each other, is that we are sinners in the hands of an angry and Living God. As Jesus said, we do not need to fear those who can harm us only in this passing life, but our greatest fear needs to be of the One whose angry judgement can throw us into the eternal punishment of Hell. The most urgent need for the world is to find peace with the Most Holy God who we are at war with.
When atonement is made, when God’s own blood has taken away our offensive sin, then we forgive as we have been forgiven and the love of God in our hearts bubbles over into very practical compassion and justice for those in need.