This diagnosis of the human race has probably never been as out of favour as it is today; some professing Christians would prefer to deny it rather than challenge the viewpoint of our optimistic world. Yet, to deny these facts is to deny the authority of Scripture. As we said at the start, to have a proper view of the atonement we must begin with a proper view of sin, and how it is viewed by a just and holy God. If we err here, the consequences will be profound.
Second, what is the nature of God?
To understand the tragic consequences of the Fall for the human race is only half way to appreciating the way of the atonement. We must also understand something of the nature of God. What kind of God is he? No description can exhaust the qualities of the omnipotent Creator God, and it is almost presumptuous to try, but for our subject, we can establish four facts about God that were clearly taught in the Hebrew Scriptures and underlined by Jesus and the apostles: God is holy, God hates sin, God is just and must punish sin, God is merciful.
GOD IS SUPREMELY HOLY
It is one of the great errors of our modern age, and into which too many well-meaning Christians fall, that one of the attributes of God is singled out and placed above all others. It is almost always the attribute of love that is given pride of place. It has been claimed that love is the most important quality that we attribute to God, it is ‘the first and last word in the biblical portrait’ of God and that, as a consequence ‘The Bible never defines God as anger, power or judgement—in fact it never defines him as anything other than love.’4 This is simply not true. The Bible describes the character of God in a multitude of ways. He is ‘a consuming fire’ (Deuteronomy 4:24), ‘a righteous judge (Psalm 7:11), ‘righteous’ (Daniel 9:14), ‘truthful’ (John 3:33), ‘just’ (2 Thessalonians 1:6), ‘living and active’ (Hebrews 4:12) ‘light’ (1 John 1:5), ‘holy’ (Psalm 99:9), ‘merciful’ (Deuteronomy 4:31), ‘gracious and compassionate’ (2 Chronicles 30:9)—and much more besides.
To elevate one aspect of God above all others is both unbalanced and dangerous. Unlike us, who can be sometimes one thing and sometimes another, God is all that he is all the time; he is never one thing or another, he is always everything that he is. He described himself in this way: ‘I the Lord do not change’ (Malachi 3:6), and James referred to him as the ‘Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows’ (James 1:17). It is true that there are times when his love and mercy are seen most clearly, and other times when his anger and justice come to the fore, but when he is revealed as a God of judgement, he does not cease to be a God of love, and when he is seen in overwhelming mercy and compassion, he does not cease to be a Creator who is absolutely holy and pure and who insists on implicit obedience to his commands and who threatens serious consequences to those who defy him. This cannot be emphasised too much. Many false theologies today stem from this basic misunderstanding by allowing one characteristic of God to usurp all others. Thus, to declare the awesome holiness of God and his implacable hatred of sin in all its forms, does not in any way deny the overwhelming mercy and compassion of that same God.*
*Shaw, I. J., & Edwards, B. H. (2006). The Divine Substitute: The Atonement in the Bible and History (12–14). Leominster, UK: Day One Publications.