'Hark the voice of love and mercy sounds aloud from Calvary!'
Ultimate Realities 5: Human Need and God's Rescue
- Bob Horn (1933-2005) was General Secretary of UCCF. View all resources by Bob Horn
You would think that we ought to be able to understand people and their predicaments; after all, there are enough of them around us to observe and analyse. We may not be able to fathom the infinite God, but surely we can get to the bottom of what is wrong with people on our own. Right? Wrong!
Human nature is what we see every day on our TV screens, in our student residences, in the workplace, in our homes. Countless writers, artists, thinkers, teachers, psychiatrists, social workers, parents ... and even politicians ... have offered shrewd and true insights. Yet people constantly fail to put the whole picture together. Many theories have placed the undoubted trouble with human nature outside the person, claiming that people are essentially good, but that the problem comes from housing conditions, poverty, lack of education, and so on. Others place it inside the person: in some aspect of the psyche, of some neurosis or the legacy of some abuse. The prescriptions arising from all these diagnoses are singularly ineffective. The continuing civil wars and other conflicts around the world have exploded the myths of inherent goodness or self-help.
Before we unpack what is wrong with human nature we need to recall the fact of God as Creator. He made human beings in his image. They are a ‘ruined temple’ now, but were once a beautiful and ‘very good’ one. The Christian understanding of creation explains the greatness of human nature, its capacity for courage, bravery, and sacrifice: its abilities to create great art, compose great music, think great thoughts and be continually inventive. The great sculptors, painters, composers, physicists, engineers, space scientists, writers and explorers all use gifts which God has put into human beings, even though many do not acknowledge their source. All this comes from being made in God’s image: signs of that image are still visible, even amid its ruin.
The only coherent rationale
It is striking that non-Christians have difficulty in finding a coherent rationale for valuing all individuals, classes and races equally. Everyone accepts the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, but it is not easy to find a non-Christian basis for it. It is only in the Bible that we find such a reason and basis: that all are made in the image of God (James 3:9).
Some today who reject God also reject the idea that all humans share any common or universal characteristics. They contest any generalized reference to ‘the whole of humankind’. Without God as the reference point, ‘the self’ comes centre stage (they would argue); as each self is different, it is impossible any longer to discover basic characteristics that emerge in people everywhere. The Bible, however, does believe in truths that apply to every human being.
It is only God who highlights for us the full truth about people: who and what we are, what has gone wrong and what can put it right. The fourth clause of our Basis puts its finger explicitly on the problem, and implicitly raises the truth about our origin, nature and destiny as humans:
(d) Since the fall, the whole of humankind is sinful and guilty, so that everyone is subject to God’s wrath and condemnation.
It highlights the fact of a ‘fall’ — or, perhaps a better way of stating it, a mutiny or insurrection against God. Man and woman were created like God (in his image, Genesis 1:27), to be able to relate to him — to talk and listen, to love and be loved, to receive and share, to follow and obey. But out of misguided self interest they threw that away and rebelled, jettisoning any prospect of continued intimacy and fulfillment; instead, they came under judgment. That is the truth of human nature ever since. The true heart of sin is rebellion and we are naturally inclined to go our own way (Isaiah 53:6).
Explaining what is wrong
This explains what is wrong with the world. The essence of our rebellion is our self-centredness. Everybody is primarily self-centred rather than God-centred: we are all guilty of squeezing out the true God and setting ourselves up as God in our own lives. We all ‘play God’ to ourselves: we take over the decisions about right and wrong, about how we spend our lives, and what we think will bring us happiness. We are guilty of usurping the place that God alone deserves, and the fact that we constantly want to do that shows that we are sinful, self-absorbed.
This truth liberates us from false expectations of ourselves and society. We are freed from the ‘quick fix’ approach to problems, whether social, economic, psychological or spiritual. The trouble is deep inside and needs radical, long-term treatment. No experience, formula or technique can offer an instant way out. It is a great relief to be biblically realistic at this point, not least when many in the religious world become oppressive with their wonder cures.
At the same time this liberates us to have confidence that the God who made us knows how to bring us through; that his Spirit will be steadily working to renew us from the inside out, helping us to grow more like him each day and each year.
This revelation about humans also protects us from pride and smugness. We are all prone to boost our own egos, to think of ourselves more highly than we ought. This truth tells me the facts, not just about the world at large, but about myself in particular. I am inherently sinful and guilty, not merely failing to reach my potential or needing a new image. If there is anything good about me, it is only because God has done it. We need protection from the pervasive sin of pride. This truth mean that our sinfulness can surface distressingly at any time. We shall be perfect only in the life to come.
This also sends us out. What people need is to be delivered from them the self-twist of their natures and all its consequences in their lives, now and in the world to come. People do not have to go on in lostness, alienation and condemnation: they can come to God. This truth is a potent stimulus to evangelism and simply to caring for others.
The truth that this clause expresses is pivotal for life and eternity. The human race is not gradually moving upwards on some cosmic moral escalator. Humans rebelled and turned their backs on God. This has affected our whole character. We are not as bad as we could be, but every part of us is penetrated by sin or self-love — our minds, memories, wills, consciences, thoughts, words, deeds and relationships. Our motives are never 100% pure. We may or may not suffer from guilt feelings, but we are objectively guilty before God. We cannot come to him unless and until that guilt is removed.
This is why we are subject to ‘God’s wrath and condemnation’. God’s anger is pure and perfect, absolutely justified and entirely free of evil or vindictiveness. it is simply his holiness responding to arrogance and wrong (Romans 1:18ff.) God gave us our chance and we willfully blew it. How can he not be displeased? Sin is moral and cosmic vandalism, smashing up what God gave for our pleasure. It is as though we were given the freedom of a vast estate, but then - instead of enjoying it — went round removing the signposts, tearing up the fences and knocking down the buildings. We should be angry at sin's trail of evil and destruction; how can it be less offensive to the holy Creator of it all?
If God were not filled with holy anger against sin, we would be in an amoral universe, a world without meaning or consequence. If that were the case, nothing and no-one would have meaning. Nothing would matter. If God did not hate sin, he would neither be holy nor caring. What would we think of a ‘God’ who could simply sweep the world’s evil under the cosmic carpet? Who would seriously respect such a ‘God’?
The staggering truth, however, is that God did not let his wrath run on. To the very people who had rejected his rule and incurred his judgment he sent his Son, his one and only. Here is love, vast as the ocean ... Here is love in action, God himself, coming as the Son, taking human flesh and becoming fully human in order to turn away from us his own proper wrath on humanity. Here is the role reversal of all time. On the one hand, earth for the one from glory and death for the one who is life. On the other, heaven for the condemned and resurrection for the dead. The innocent was murdered while the guilty ran free.
So the next two clauses highlight for us who Jesus is and what be came to do:
(e) The Lord Jesus Christ, God’s incarnate Son, is fully God; he was born of a virgin; his humanity is real and sinless; he died on the cross, was raised bodily from death and is now reigning over heaven and earth.
(f) Sinful human beings are redeemed from the guilt, penalty and power of sin only through the sacrificial death once and for all time of our representative and substitute, Jesus Christ, the only mediator between them and God.
These clauses explain to us the person of Christ, why he came and what God is doing in history We need such an explanation, for a virgin birth and a resurrection are not part of everyday experience. Many have doubted them in the case of Jesus, not for lack of evidence, but because they were one offs, not susceptible to scientific testing by repetition. However, he was unique.
We urgently need a true explanation of Jesus. It is unthinkable to conclude that he was mad, suffering from delusions of grandeur. It is implausible to think him bad, trying to con people with his claims to deity. It is impossible to classify him merely as good, in the light of his claims. The evidence drives us to conclude that he was God come in the flesh. He stands there, the one totally unique figure of all history the only perfect and sinless human being, making staggering claims to be God and displaying the most self-sacrificing love the world has ever seen. We dare not ignore him, but how we ‘explain’ Jesus depends on our starting-point.
Some have argued that the supernatural cannot occur; if that were true, then obviously there could be no virgin birth or resurrection. If they could not happen, then they did not. That is to shut the mind to a possible explanation before looking at the evidence. If, by contrast, we allow that the supernatural could occur then it all fits. It is not in the least surprising that no less a person than the eternal Son of God should enter humanity by virgin birth and leave the grave by resurrection. It is not in the least surprising that he was raised; the shock would have been if death could have held the one who had the power of endless life (Acts 2:24). That is the only conceivable outcome for one who was not mad or bad, but God as a human being with a human body.
True liberation in Jesus
As such, Jesus is liberation itself. All of us as human beings want to be free. We feel instinctively that freedom will come only as we break with authority and do our own thing. So we look for space to be ourselves, away from the constraints of God or others. Paradoxically. however, the only truly free people are those who are the servants or slaves of Jesus. To serve him is to enjoy perfect freedom. To serve him is to be in touch with the one who gives meaning to life, to be in line with what God meant us to be. True freedom has at its centre this amazing person, who calls us friends and gives us our dignity and personhood.
This Jesus also protects us from going astray. If we are right about him, we will have the right orientation about everything else. We will be preserved from thinking that there is any other way to God apart from him. He, rather than any offered spiritual experiences, will be central in our Christian lives. The Spirit will be seen as focusing on Christ, not himself.
And he will send us out. After all, he gave the ‘everyone must go’ command in his great commission: ‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’ (John 20:21). As he was sent, so he sends us. We are witnesses to who he is and what he has done and can do. The heart that does not want to make him known has never met the Son of God.
Who Jesus is
So what precisely are the truths highlighted about Jesus? He is at once fully God and fully human 'in the flesh’ (incarnate). He was not the latest improved-model human, with a higher moral specification than the rest of us. He was altogether ‘other’ in his perfection, yet able altogether to identify with us in our humanity. He had full deity and came (from his divine preexistence) into this world, conceived supernaturally by the Holy Spirit, without a human father’s intervention, and born naturally to his human mother, Mary (Matthew 1:18, 20, 23; Luke 1:34-35). He was one person, at the same time divine and human. That is why prayer may be directed to him.
Totally genuine humanity
His humanity was totally genuine. He knew the human experiences of homelessness and hunger (Matthew 8:20; 25:35). He felt the human emotions of joy and sorrow (even tears), of anger and compassion (Luke 10:21; John 11:33-35; Mark 3:5; Matthew 9:36). He was genuinely tempted (Matthew 4:1). He plainly enjoyed human friends (Luke 15:1-2), and yet at times was left totally alone (Matthew 26:56).
He left glory, the environment of deity, laid aside his majesty and came incognito. Who, after all, would look for or recognize God on the gallows? But there he was, until he rose and ascended, to be crowned with glory and honour as the ruler (‘Lord’) of heaven and earth. The clause speaks of Christ ‘now reigning over heaven and earth’. What this does not mean is that now, on earth, everything is running according to God’s ideal moral order. Holiness and love, goodness and well-being obviously do not have the field to themselves at the moment; sin is clearly not yet banished and gone. Death and mourning, crying and pain are still part of ‘the old order of things’ in which we now live (Revelation 21:4). The whole creation is groaning right up to this present time, as we wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:22-23).
But the crucial question is: who is in control? It is not a contest in the balance between God and the devil (dualism), even though the latter is still blinding eyes to the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4). All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ (Matthew 28:18). His plan is moving to its climax. The cross was the decisive battle, the resurrection the turning-point; now he is pursuing his mopping-up operations until he has put all his enemies under his feet, the last enemy being death (1 Corinthians 15:25-26). He is in such complete control that he can and will choose the moment to return. He is now head over all things for the church (Colossians 1:18). There is only one absolute ruler in the universe.
Christ’s reign or kingship over everything does not mean that we can claim to have heaven fully here and now; God can do anything he pleases, but earth is earth and heaven is heaven. Earth is not heaven, but Christ is reigning. We pray that his kingship will come more and more, because we want an end to all that offends him. One day he will ‘begin to reign’ in the absolute and total sense, when there will be no more sin or death (Revelation 11:15, 17). Meanwhile, we live in hope. ‘At present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus ... now crowned with glory and honour’ (Hebrews 2:8-9).
What Jesus came to do is summarized in the term ‘redeemed’. To redeem means to deliver, release or set free, and to do so by facing and accepting whatever cost is involved. Jesus faced the need for a ‘sacrificial death’, knowing that we could not be liberated from our guilt unless he accepted the death penalty due to us. This is why he became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13).
The Bible itself gives us many angles on the death of Jesus. It is an example (1 Peter 2:21); it secures reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18); it is a victory (Colossians 2:15); and it turns away the wrath of God (Romans 3:25). It means we are ‘ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’.
But the understanding of the death of Christ that holds all these angles together is here in the clause: redemption through the death as a sacrifice of a representative and substitute (1 Peter 2:22-24).
Sometimes we are inclined simply to be content with saying: ‘Jesus died because he loved me.’ To wrestle with ‘theories of the atonement’ seems hard, pointless and very abstract. But we could not be more wrong. We need to see why the cross was necessary. If we do not grasp how the cross relates to our need and secures our salvation, we will not be able to answer the devil’s accusations (‘Who are you to think you’re accepted?’), or our own doubts (‘I know I’m not good enough’). Then our assurance of salvation and our witness are undermined.
Our assurance before God is directly related to our understanding of what happened on the cross. God has gone to great pains to show us how the cross saves. He has shown us our predicament (guilty and under wrath). He has shown us that we cannot rescue ourselves. And he shows us how Christ gets us out of that pit — how he takes our guilt and removes it by his sacrificial death.
A sacrificial death means an intended, chosen death, not death as an accident or as a hapless victim. God sent his Son to be a sin offering (Romans 8:3). It means a death that is in some way related to the holy character and requirement of God.
For him to die as a representative meant that Christ was on the cross, not for any sins of his own, but to act in our interests. As Adam represented or headed up those who follow his rebellion, so Christ represents or heads up those who trust him (Romans 5:12; 1 Corinthians 15:45, 47). We were not put to death on the cross, but Christ represented us there: we are not yet in heaven, but he represents us there. He is like an ambassador for us.
A substitute is a stand-in. No illustration is adequate, but one rather trivial example comes from many team sports: one player may come off during the course of a game and a substitute will take his place. A more serious example comes from the terrifying sphere of hostage-taking. A courageous person could offer to be the substitute hostage, so as to secure the release of the women and children. He puts himself in their place. Jesus took our place in death. We were under sentence, deserving to die. He came down to be our substitute, to stand in our place under God’s judgment, so that we could go free. This is how he gave his life as a ransom for many and bore our sins in his body on the cross (Mark 10:45; 1 Peter 2:24).
It is because, and only because, Jesus took our place and bore our penalty that all the other benefits of his grace come to us. Grace is his totally undeserved favour, bringing us rescue, reconciliation, pardon, acceptance, access, assurance. He turned away the wrath of God; he did something objectively in history in space and time, that alters for ever our standing with God. We are redeemed not by any change of heart inside us, but by something done outside and for us - the work of Christ on the cross.
Jesus did this freely, under no coercion. It was part of the Trinity’s plan of rescue, drawn up before time began, in which Father, Son and Spirit all worked as one (Hebrews 9:14). John Stott has written: ‘Substitution is not a “theory of the atonement”... it is rather the heart of the atonement ... The better people understand the glory of the divine substitution, the easier it will be to trust the substitute!’ (The Cross of Christ, IVP pp.202-203).
It is because of this that Jesus is the only mediator between sinners and God. As fully human, he can represent and act for men and women: he can, as it were, hold our hands. As fully God, he also holds the hand of the Father. He alone, by taking our condemnation, can put our hand into the hand of God and welcome us into his family. There was no other good or great enough to pay the price of sin. No other mediator can do that - no priest, no saint, no guru, no teacher, no scholar. They all have their own account to settle with God. Only Jesus can (and did) settle ours, and he settled it once and for all (1 Peter 3:18).
The focus of the New Testament is emphatically on the cross. But that means that the focus is on the one who died on the cross. The one who died there was the one born in Bethlehem; the one born there was the one destined for the cross. The work he did and the person he was belong together. He was who he was precisely in order to do what he did.
Facing the devil and the doubts
Armed with the Bible’s explanation of the death of Christ, we can face and rebuke the devil and all doubts. Christ did it, not I. He answered for me. He settled the charges against me. To any accuser we can say: ‘Put your accusation to him, he is my representative and proxy’. This is hugely liberating.
Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die,
Another’s life, another’s death
I stake my whole eternity.
This truth protects me against pride and self-righteousness and sends me out to say to others: ‘I’m not telling you about me - I’m no better than you. But I would like to tell you about him: he’s able to rescue you as well.'
So Jesus deals with our guilt and pays our penalty. It is also part of his work on the cross to deal with the power of sin. What Jesus did when he died is one comprehensive work to settle the whole question of sin and evil. Sin held power over us because it shuts us in the condemned cell and throws away the key. That bred in us a hopelessness, a sense that sinning is unavoidable.
But Christ has the key; when he releases us from condemnation, he brings us out to a new environment, a new companion and a new lifestyle. The environment is that of access to God and fellowship with his people; the companion is the Holy Spirit, who comes to indwell us; and the lifestyle is that of obedience to his directions.
This profoundly affects the power of sin in and over us. We are not yet in heaven, where the power of sin will not even be a memory; we are still on earth, in the arena of temptation and weakness. But Christ’s cross and empty tomb have broken the power of sin and we can live with resurrection power to help us in our times of need and failure.
1. How can we use the Bible’s realism about human nature to show others that God’s revelation fits the observed facts of life?
2. How do popular ideas of ‘sin’ compare with the Bible’s view? How can we communicate the latter?
3. Why is belief in the virgin birth important? What is the connection between Bethlehem and Calvary?
4. Look up the references to the emotions of Jesus (given earlier in this chapter). What do they show of his humanity? And what implications do they have for our being human?
5. Why are the biblical ‘theories of the atonement’ so important? Where would Christian devotion be without them?
6. How can we communicate the idea of ‘redemption’ or ‘substitution’ today?
7. What is liable to happen when CUs or churches cease to be cross-centred?