Per Rob’s request
Could there not have been another way? Could God have saved us from our sins without sending Jesus? Why couldn’t God just forgive us without Jesus death? Why does death have to be the punishment for sin if God is merciful? Such questions are very common in Christian discussion and are indeed natural to our human curiosity.
It has been said that true Christian reformation always comes about by a renewed understanding of the doctrine of sin.
If sin is the way things are not supposed to be, perhaps we should seek to understand the way things are supposed to be. Humans were created to glorify God, to obey him, enjoy his creation, live in it, care for it, and give back to him all the praise for his marvelous gifts. This is living in God’s life; living in all that he creates and provides. God himself is life, so living is defined by being in him.
God foretold that should Adam and Eve eat of the tree they would die. Yet when they had eaten they did not die for many hundreds of years. But they were cast out of the garden, and this separation from God’s presence is the first definition of death. In God is life, so away from God is not life; is death. This is what scripture means by “the wages of sin is death.”
Physical death also follows. The cells of one’s body degenerate from the time they are first formed, and are replaced by new ones. But this whole process of replacement is a degenerating one so that over the years one’s entire body slows down until it can no longer keep up, and dies. Again, outside of the garden, without the Tree of Life to eat from, the body dies because it lacks the sustaining presence of its creator.
This is the two-fold death of sin: because of sin the body and the soul are separated from the author and sustainer of life. But why should sin bring this about? Sin is defined by the Apostle Paul as anything that does not proceed from faith. Faith relies in God’s providence, submitted to his will for all of creation and for the individual, trusting that his will is best. As is intended in Creation, all things live, move and have their being in the Creator, but if they rebel against this, they are rebelling against life; they are seeking death. The Creator is life and he gives life; to live in him is to live truly and to reject him is to reject life.
This life is characterized by its gift. In the Godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit we see the eternal society of life as it is given amongst three persons; life exists in giving it, in loving. So this is God’s desire for creation: that humans participate in this divine life-giving love, submit to it, receive it, and share it with one-another. This is the hope expressed by Christ’s prayer in John 17; that we might be one in him and share in the life that he shares with the Father. This is the creation restored.
But before creation restored we must realize why it needs to be restored. When humans rejected this God they rejected necessarily life itself. When a person acts out of selfishness, pride, negligence, carelessness, malice, etc., he places himself above and outside of this love in his own heart and leaves himself in the life-less domain that is outside the presence of God; east of Eden. Since creation was the scene in which God expressed his relationship with humanity, creation now naturally reflects the same death that humanity has desired upon itself by sinning. This is why a sinner rightly deserves death: sin is the demand to be excluded from life.
So then, on what basis does Jesus pray that we all may be one as he and the Father are one? Whence this hope? This prayer is called the high-priestly prayer because Jesus is filling his role as priest by interceding to the Father on behalf of sinners. But more importantly he is also priest because he is about to go to the cross to offer the sacrifice of his own blood for the sins of the world. If we do not understand sin, we must look again to the cross: there it is; separation from the Father, suffering, death. It is by the right of this sacrifice that he can look forward to the day when they will be “pure and blameless”. This day is referred to in the epistles as the day of Christ, or the day of the Lord. It is in view of the hope of this day that all Christians live because the death of sin will finally be no more when our bodies will be resurrected by him, just as he rose.
But until that day, humans remain in this sin ridden world and struggle against its temptations and the guilt of our own sin. This is why we must continue to hear the law and the gospel. The law is what told us that we have sinned. It said “You shall” and we didn’t. It said “You shall not” and we did. Indeed, outside of the supply of God’s life, we cannot but live according to this realm of sin. This is law: that we are only capable of sinning, if we do not dwell in God.
Is God then unjust to make such demands of us? Well let me ask you this: is it unjust for God to desire what is good? Indeed, to give us the law is to show us what is good. So the vision of what is good condemns us who are sinful. But the vision of what is good is not an end in itself; it points to the goodness revealed in Christ, when he gave himself to the last drop of his blood. Though the law could not save us, it points to the one who can and does. Jesus’ blood did cover all sins.
It would be wrong to say that God was obligated to provide a way for sins; if it were wrong for God to destroy all sinners, then it would certainly be wrong for him to kill his own perfect Son! No, he did so out of his desire to unite his creation with himself. And indeed, he will. Because of his work of death and resurrection for us, and because we have been baptized into his death “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly bodies to be like his heavenly body through the same power that enabled him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3).
So in our Christian walk we still need law and gospel. The Law reminds of our sin so that we do not comfortably begin to live in death again, it convicts us of when we do sin, and gives us the vision for goodness, the way we will live with God in eternity. But we live by the gospel: God was not obligated to save us yet he did out of love, so we also are set free from the law in the Spirit and are obligated to no nothing, yet we live according to the life given us and do all things that are beneficial to eternally life in Jesus. This is life defined by God’s love as seen in Jesus’ gift on the cross. So we see that the cross is where sin is best seen, alone, dying, and where love is best seen, giving life, to the last drop of blood.