“Totally depraved sinners, who had violated the honour and glory of God and had committed an infinite fault, could only hope for one way by which the honour and dignity of God could be restored—an infinite sacrifice. To provide the sacrifice, God had to become man and endure the punishment that would repair the damaged honour of God. So God became man in order to suffer, and his suffering was of infinite value because it was God who became man.” (Anselm)
Many Reformed Christians often face the charge that they place great emphasis on the divinity of Christ at the expense of His humanity. My experience in working with the poor and in council schemes/estates for the last 12 years, is that far too many who work in this field elevate do the exact opposite. That is, they elevate Christ’s humanity at the expense of his divinity.
“Jesus loves you” has become a tired, overused mantra, handed out without much theological thought behind it. John 3:16 is bandied about like the final word on the issue. When we at 20schemes get visiting students or teams who sometimes come to do short-term work with us, I will often get the locals to challenge anybody who tells them that “Jesus loves them” by asking in response: “Why and how does He love me?” Sadly—and shockingly—90% of them are unable to answer that question with any depth at all. But, biblically speaking, the answer is shockingly simple, is it not?
How We Know
1 John 3:16 is explicit: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” More amazing still is that He did it whilst we were His enemies. That’s Paul’s point in Romans 5:6–8. “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
So, it seems to me that Christ does love His elect, so much so that He loved us when we were His enemies. So, whenever we take the gospel into a scheme/estate (or anywhere for that matter), what we are doing is heading straight into enemy territory. Don’t come to us and patronise us with “Jesus loves you” when in reality God is opposed to unrepentant sinners at every point. They are separated from Him by their sinful rebellion.
What’s the ‘Good News’?
“Jesus loves you” isn’t the good news for the unconverted. It’s good news for those of us who have bowed the knee to Christ in repentance and faith. That’s why an understanding of penal substitutionary atonement is fundamental to the delivery of this good news. God became man in order to deal with the sin problem that infects us all. He did it because only He could appease God’s righteous wrath which currently rests upon the sinner.
I have many great friends who oppose me on this, but I just can’t get around it. I don’t know I would have lasted as long as I have in a ministry like this without holding dear to this doctrine. When I came to realise the enormity of what Christ had done for me, despite the fact that I was His enemy—separated by a huge chasm—I was (and still am!) stunned. That drives my evangelism despite the charge that, according to so many, my Reformed convictions are supposed to kill it.
For me, the atonement is an intensely pastoral doctrine, in that it offers great peace of mind and confidence that the work of redemption has been completed by God, for God. It is also immensely motivating for our evangelism because, in the gospel, we have the final solution to sinners’ eternal predicament. They don’t have to remain God’s enemies. They don’t have to remain in their sin. They don’t have to remain at war with God. Peace terms have been offered. All on His terms, of course. But God is so tremendously generous and gracious that it seems almost unbelievable. The atonement matters to us in so many ways.
But what about the saying, “God hates the sin and loves the sinner”? Very nice, but this is not written anywhere in the Bible. These words are allegedly attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, who, if true, seems to have done more to influence Christians in this type of thinking than God’s Word has!
On the contrary, I love the sinner by telling them how much God hates their sin and how they are His enemies destined for hell if they do not respond to His good offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. John 3:36 seems clear on this: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” What motivation is there for repentance if God somehow loves them but hates their sin?
God doesn’t get angry with people because they reject him. He is already angry with them. His wrath is already upon them. And that’s how it will remain so long as they reject Christ. That’s our starting point. The good news is that the God-Man took that wrath upon Himself, fully absorbed it, and averted that wrath from the repentant sinner. Where once there was this wrath and condemnation, now there is love.
Yes, God is love, but that love is not encapsulated in trite sayings, it is much deeper. It’s painful and self-sacrificial. That’s the good news the poor need. Let’s not keep it from them.