‘With God all things are possible’ (Matthew 19:26). ‘Nothing is impossible with God’ (Luke 1:37)
So why doesn’t God simply forgive sinners, without need of any atonement? Why can’t he just let bygones be bygones?
After all, he can do anything, can’t he?
Well, setting aside the obviously absurd (God cannot create a two-sided triangle), we note with Puritan Thomas Brooks that there are three things that God cannot do:- he cannot die; he cannot lie; and he cannot deny himself.
Is that scriptural? Yes, absolutely. Consider the following:-
- “It is impossible for God to lie.” Hebrews 6:18
- “He cannot deny Himself.” 2 Timothy 2:13 (God must remain true to himself!)
- “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” James 1:13 (NIV)
- “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29 (God cannot break his word!)
- “God…who alone has immortality.” 1 Timothy 6:16 (God cannot die!)
OK so far? Let’s move beyond what should be blatantly obvious to consider the following question:-
Can God set aside his own moral law?
Now, if that law were some arbitrary standard imposed from outside, then, yes, of course, God could decide to set the law aside. He could forgive the penitent sinner by simple fiat.
But supposing the moral law were an expression of God’s own moral character? As indeed it is! To set it aside would be to deny himself. And that’s impossible.
Steve Holmes illustrates:-
‘A short walk from where I live is Runnymede, and the memorials to the signing of the still-celebrated Magna Carta. It is still celebrated, because it codifies the revolutionary idea that there are some things that even kings cannot do: there is a law that is not merely the decree of fiat of whoever happens to hold sovereignty, but which is somehow, within the nature of things, binding on all human beings. In modern parlance, certain people – only, in Magna Carta – have rights that are inalienable: ‘At Runnymede, at Runnymede, your rights were won at Runnymede. No freeman may be fined or bound, or dispossessed of freehold ground, except by lawful judgement found, and passed upon him by his peers – forget not, after all these years the charter signed at Runnymede’, to quote Kipling’s doggerel summary.’ (My emphasis)
‘The penal tradition of talking about the atonement must be understood as assuming this basic intuition. God cannot just waive the law because it is the essence of law that it cannot just be waived…the law that God cannot set aside is an aspect of his own nature; for God to set aside the law would be equivalent to God choosing not to be good; both are inconceivable’
Hence the need for satisfaction. It is not God’s wrath alone that needed to be satisfied. Nor his love. It is God’s entire indivisible nature, including his antagonism towards sin and his love towards the ungodly.
That’s why the cross of Jesus is a ‘trysting place where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet’ (Elizabeth C. Clephane)
That why we confess, with Scripture that ‘[God] loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.’
J.I. Packer writes:-
‘Penal substitution…will not be focused properly till it is recognized that God’s redemptive love must not be conceived – misconceived, rather – as somehow triumphing and displacing God’s retributive justice, as if the Creator-Judge simply decided to let bygones be bygones. The measure of God’s holy love for us is that ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ and that ‘he…did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all’ (Romans 5:8, 8:32). Evidently there was no alternative to paying that price if we were to be saved, so the Son, at the Father’s behest ‘through the eternal Spirit’ (Hebrews 9:14), paid it. Thus God ‘set aside…the record of debt that stood against us…nailing it to the cross’ (Colossians 2:14). Had we been among the watchers at Calvary, we should have seen, nailed to the cross, Pilate’s notice of Jesus’ alleged crime. But if, by faith, we look back to Calvary from where we now are, what we see is the list of our own unpaid debts of obedience to God, for which Christ paid the penalty in our place. Paul, having himself learned to do this, testified: ‘the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20).’