Have you ever stopped to think about the difficulty of our forgiveness? God is holy. God is good. God is just. God is merciful. God agreed within the trinity to save a people for himself before time began. What are his options when dealing with our sin?
Understand, by the way, that when I speak of God’s “options” for dealing with our sin that I am not at all suggesting that any external force or morality imposes upon God restrictions. I am simply suggesting that God, because of exactly who he is, will only do that which is perfectly in keeping with his holy nature. God is not forced to be just by some external principle of justice that restricts him. Rather, God does justice because God is just. Justice is just because of the nature of God who is perfect justice. Understand the same thing if you apply love, goodness, mercy, kindness, or even wrathfulness to the character of God. These things are true of God because they are who God is, not because they impose themselves upon him or measure him from outside of himself.
Keep some other thoughts in mind. It is good and right for God to have wrath for sin. We all know that good people are rightly angry when evil is perpetrated. You have certainly watched the news, perceived a wrong, and been angry. And you have likely known a person who has been hurt by another person and felt genuinely and rightly furious. But even the best of people is sinful; our anger tainted. We have no idea of the intensity of the white-hot burning fury of totally righteous anger.
It is also good and right for God to have a heart of compassion. God loves to show mercy. God is kind and gracious. We know a little of what that feels like. WE know what it is like to have compassion on the ones we love. But our compassion is tainted by our sin too. We only have a tiny glimpse of the depths of the love and compassion of the Lord for us.
These issues come together in the glorious plan of the Lord. God chose to save a people for himself. At the same time, God would appropriately punish with infinite fury every sin that has ever been committed. For those who persist in hating and rejecting God, the wrath of God in hell will be just and perfect.
But what about the forgiven? We deserve infinite wrath too. How can God forgive us and still be just? He cannot simply overlook our sin and still be a God perfect in justice. If he fails to punish our sin, something is wrong in his love. Something is wrong in his treasuring of all that is good if the wrong against the good can simply be ignored.
Hence the perfect and eternal plan of God. God would take upon himself the just penalty for our sin so that it is properly punished while he simultaneously grants us mercy. Jesus would die in our place, a sacrificial lamb, to carry out the justice of God. Jesus would take to himself the infinite fury of God for the sins of the forgiven even as he, in his infinite worth, covers our sin and satisfies the anger of God for the evil we have done. This is precisely what Paul was pointing us to in Romans 3 when he spoke of the death of Jesus as something done so that God could be just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Christ (Romans 3:25-26).
Now, here is the question that got my attention to cause me to write this down: Was there any other way? Could God have chosen some other plan? Could God have forgiven us in any way that would not require the death of his Son and the outpouring of wrath on Jesus to perfectly do justice for our sin?
The answer to the question is unequivocally no. God could not have saved our souls in any other way.
How do I know? Consider Jesus in the garden the night of his arrest. Jesus prayed to his Father with a very simple request.
Matthew 26:42 – Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
Jesus asked his Father to remove the cup of wrath from him if there was any other way (c.f. Matthew 26:39). Jesus asked if there might be any other way for the cup of wrath to be properly handled without him drinking it. Could God still rescue the chosen without Jesus having to take their sins upon himself and suffer in their place? And the rest of the book shows us that the answer from the Father is that this in fact cannot be done. The only way that our souls can be saved is if Jesus is directly punished by the Father for every last one of our sins.
Analytically this is not super difficult to understand. God, in his perfection, will properly punish every sin. If he does not do so, his love and his perfection and his justice and his holiness are all called into question. God lays upon Jesus the proper punishment for every person he will forgive, and Jesus bears their sins in his body on the cross. For those who will not be forgiven, their sins are properly punished as they spend eternity in hell under the wrath of the Almighty.
Stepping back from the analytical, this is emotionally stunning. God wants to save a people for himself. God rejoices in showing mercy. God rejoices in, as the holy trinity, gifting a people from the Father to the Son. We receive the infinite mercy of God because that fits perfectly who God is. And there was no other way for this plan to be accomplished than through the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Friends, the gospel is glorious. Never lose that wonder. God is just. God is merciful. Jesus proves both. And we who know him receive that glorious benefit. Praise be to our Lord!