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Jesus, Justification, and Justice

Answering Objections to the Justness of Jesus' Substitutionary Atonement

By Abdu Murray

Aletheia International, Embracethetruth.org

One day, the disciples of a wise teacher were arguing amongst themselves about the nature of God when the teacher approached them. "What are you arguing about, my students?"

One student replied, "Teacher, we have reached a dilemma that we cannot reconcile. We have heard it said that God, being purely Holy and Just, requires that sin be paid for. We have also heard that because God purely loves all people, who are sinners, He agreed that Jesus would pay for our sins so that our sins could be forgiven and God's Holy Justice be satisfied." The student then asked in desperation, "But how can God still be just if He allows Jesus to be punished for the sins of another?"

The teacher replied with a parable. "There was a certain man who had incurred many debts to a Lender that he could not repay. There also was a Rich Man who had no debts of his own to pay and who had compassion on the debtor. The Rich Man desired to personally guarantee to the Lender that He would pay the debtor's debt. The Lender knew the Rich Man well, that He had no debts of His own to pay, and could pay the debtor's debt. Having compassion on the debtor, and for the sake of the Rich Man's character, the Lender agreed that the Rich Man could guarantee payment.

 "A time came when the debt became due. The debtor could not pay the debt without becoming bankrupt and cast from his home. So the Lender turned to the Rich Man for payment. The Rich Man, having no debts of his own to pay, paid the debt in full. Because the debt had been paid and the lender was satisfied, the Lender and the Rich Man sealed the instrument of debt with the seal, 'Tetelastai', which being translated means 'paid in full'. With that, the teacher finished.

"Teacher, what does this parable mean?" his disciples asked.

"The debtor is every person who has sinned and therefore has incurred a debt to God. The Lender is God the Father, to whom the debts are owed. The Rich Man is God the Son, who, being sinless, has no debts of His own and who can repay. The debtor, like each of us, needs to be forgiven his debt. But God the Father must be just and requires that the debt be repaid in full; otherwise His standards mean nothing. The Son can pay the debt because he is sinless. Having love for us, He willingly offers to pay. The Father, also having love, agrees to allow the Son to pay the debt. So God is just because the Son was not forced to pay, and He is loving because He did not require us to pay the debt. Perfect justice and perfect love are expressed without compromise. And God is therefore just and the One who justifies."

"Teacher," his disciples said, "you have spoken true and we now understand."

Although the foregoing story is fictional, its central dilemma-the balancing of God's ultimate justice with His ultimate love-is very real and profoundly impacts how we perceive our relationship with God. The dilemma can be summed up in the question: "How can God be ultimately just, requiring punishment for sin yet be ultimately loving, wanting every sinner to be forgiven and be saved?" The Gospel's response is that God satisfies His justice and holiness through Jesus' payment for sin and that God expresses His love by allowing Jesus, and not us, to pay the penalty. The objection that follows in the minds of many, especially Muslims, is the same as the disciples' in the fictionalized parable above: "How is God just if an innocent is made to suffer the penalty that the guilty deserve?" He who does the crime should do the time, as the saying goes. 

But this dilemma must be addressed by any faith, not just Christianity. Only the Gospel's unique message provides a satisfactory response. Some faith traditions try to answer the dilemma by holding that because God is all-powerful, He can simply choose to forgive sin without requiring payment. This answer begs the question because it does not actually answer the dilemma at all. It amounts to saying that God can be so loving that He can compromise His sense of justice by ignoring sin. But these same religions also hold the view that God's attributes are immutable. Thus, this answer to the dilemma is internally inconsistent and ultimately unreasonable, being akin to saying that God is so all-powerful that He can make square circles.

Other faiths say that each person must make up for his bad deeds himself. Hindus and Buddhists, for instance, believe in the idea of karma, that our bad deeds in our past lives account for our unfortunate situations in the present life and that, if we do good deeds, we can work off our karma and eventually escape suffering once our negative karma has been paid off. Mainstream Islam teaches that each person can either make up for his bad deeds or outweigh them by doing good deeds. The difficulty in each of these ideas is that there is no good reason to believe that good deeds somehow make up for previous sins. Those sins are an affront to a purely Holy God, whose sense of pure justice demands that the sins be paid for. Good deeds cannot possibly "make up for" sins because the good deeds were things that the sinner is supposed to do anyway. Even supererogatory works (good deeds that are not strictly "required" by a particular religious code) cannot effect salvation because, logically and conceptually, good deeds do not cancel out bad ones. By analogy, obeying speed limits by traveling at 5 miles per hour beneath them and signaling at every turn will not be sufficient to pay for a prior speeding ticket. 

Christianity, on the other hand, deals with the dilemma in a unique way. God's absolute justice requires payment for sin. He cannot simply choose to overlook it, because to do so lowers God's absolute standard of justice. Since doing so is antithetical to the absolute nature of God, such arbitrary forgiveness is unreasonable and thus, not feasible. But because God is absolutely loving as well, He offers a substitute, Jesus Christ, who voluntarily chooses to pay the debt we have incurred. In this way, sin is paid for, and God's sense of justice is satisfied, but humans do not have to pay this penalty, and God's love is fully expressed. In no other worldview is the dilemma addressed as it is in Christianity.

 But how does this answer the objection that justice still is unsatisfied because the guilty go unpunished while an innocent is penalized? At first blush, it seems to be a formidable challenge. But the challenge falters when we see that it begins with a faulty assumption about the nature of sin-that sin is a "crime" that requires payment in the form of "retribution." Although sins may be viewed as crimes against God requiring retribution, this is not necessarily so.

 At the most fundamental level, sin can be seen as the incurring of debt. This view is not limited to Christianity. For example, implicit in the Hindu idea of karma is the idea of "payment" for past bad deeds until that karma is worked off. This sounds very much like the payment of a debt. Muslims must have their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds in order to attain heaven. Again, a transaction-a sort of accounting-is implied. In fact, Islam shares with Christianity and Judaism the story of Abraham's attempted sacrifice of his son by God's command. Common to the Qur'anic story and the Biblical story is the fact that God did not simply stop Abraham from killing his son, but also provided a ram, which was a substitutionary sacrifice that would pay for sin. Indeed, the Qur'an calls the ram "a momentous sacrifice" by which Abraham was "ransomed." (Qur'an, Surah 37:107).

In the Gospels, Jesus explicitly identifies sin with the incurring of debt and judgment as an accounting of the debt. (Matt. 18:23-25; Luke 7:43). In the Lord's Prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask God to forgive us our "debts." (Matt. 6:12). But most strikingly, at the most profound moment in history, Jesus, at the end of his ordeal on the cross and in reference to the work he has done in payment of our sins, utters the words "It is finished." (John 19:30). The original Greek word recorded in the Gospels is tetelestai, which literally means "paid in full." Significantly, in first century Palestine, this term was used to signify that a debt was paid in full and thus "forgiven."

 With this view of sin in mind, we can look to the modern legal arena to see the justness of Jesus substitionary payment for our sins. The law embraces the concept of a personal guarantor. It is commonplace for someone to apply for a loan to buy a house. But if that person's credit is poor, the lender has no assurance that the debtor will be able to repay the debt. In fact, given the debtor's poor credit, the lender has every assurance that the loan will go unpaid. The solution? Enter the personal guarantor. The guarantor whose credit is trustworthy assures the lender that he will personally repay the debt if the debtor defaults. The lender agrees, because the guarantor is not like the debtor in that he has good credit. Otherwise, if the guarantor had the same imperfect credit that the debtor has, the lender would have no real guaranty that the debt would be repaid by either of them. With such a guarantor willing to pay the debt, the loan is given. Many times, the debtor will default on the loan. But, instead of foreclosure or eviction, the lender looks to the guarantor for repayment. The guarantor pays, the debt is forgiven, and the debtor's home is saved.

 This is an everyday occurrence and one that we do not consider unjust. Because the guarantor voluntarily chooses to assume the liability for the debtor's debt, it is not unjust to hold the guarantor responsible. In fact, not only do we consider this just, but we encourage such transactions so that those who cannot normally obtain the favor of lenders can do so, even though they do not merit it.

 What is more remarkable about the Biblical doctrine of salvation is that it goes so much further than our earthly legal concept because the debtor does not get away so easily. Although the debtor is not required to repay his debt, another transaction occurs between Jesus and the sinner. The Son offers to pay for sin in exchange for something. That something is not good works, but a willingness to allow the Son, through the Holy Spirit, to invade the sinner's life to change the sinner's heart radically. In essence, Jesus says, "I will freely offer to pay your debt, but you must realize that the consequence of sincerely accepting this gift is that I will begin to change you, to sanctify you, every day." If the sinner agrees to that consequence of the Son's willingness to be a guarantor, the transaction is complete. Thus, the sinner does not get away without having some part in the process. That part is not to the sinner's credit. Rather, it is just yielding control, surrendering the will to Jesus. It is allowing Him, after having paid the debt with His very blood, to get something for his payment. He owns your heart and mine and transforms us into something better and more beautiful.

A more beautiful transaction man has not dreamed of, nor can he. Only in the heart of God can such amazing grace be conceived.