What’s love got to do with it?
On Good Friday Christians around the world re-affirm the belief that lies at the heart of their faith, that God loves them and therefore sent his Son to die upon a Roman cross for their salvation. In the words of St. John: ‘In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10).
For many people today, however, the belief that God shows his love by sending his Son to die a humiliating and agonising death seems impossible to understand. They simply cannot see why love would require such a thing. If God loves us, they ask, why can’t he simply forgive our wrongdoing without requiring that Christ had to die?
In order to answer this question we have to understand properly the nature of love. We often tend to think of love in terms of benevolence or affirmation, but that does not get to the heart of the matter. True love is tough love. It is the unceasing and inexorable desire that the object of love be the best that they can be. In the words of the nineteenth century Scottish theologian George Macdonald:
‘Nothing is inexorable but love. Love which will yield to prayer is imperfect and poor. Nor is it then the love that yields, but its alloy…For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected – not in itself, but in the object…Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.’
In this quotation MacDonald connects the nature of love to the fact that ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ and he is quite correct to make this connection. This is because according to the Biblical witness the God who is love and the God whose judgement is as a consuming fire are one and the same. It is the same Lord described in Psalm 145:9: ‘The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made,’ who is described in Isaiah 10:17:
‘The light of Israel will become a fire, and his Holy One a flame; and it will burn and devour his thorns and briers in one day. The glory of his forest and his fruitful land the Lord will destroy, both soul and body, and it will be as when a sick man wastes away. The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down.’
The God who meets us in such terrible judgement is the God whose compassion is over all that He has made because the purpose of His acts of judgement is to further His purposes of love by removing all that stands in their way.
If we think of the Biblical story line, after Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden God makes a new start for humanity by calling Abraham and promising to make Him a great nation and a source of universal blessing (Genesis 12:3). In order to keep this promise God enacts terrible judgements upon the Egyptians and the peoples of Canaan and, when she strays from her calling, upon Israel herself. Finally, when God fulfils His promise to Abraham by coming to His people in the person of his Son all but a small remnant of Israel refuse to believe and thus come under God’s judgement – a judgement embodied in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. However, as St. Paul argues in Romans 9-11, even this judgement implements God’s loving purposes in that it gives the Gentiles opportunity to believe which will in turn eventually lead Israel back to God. Furthermore the salvation of Jews and Gentiles alike is not the end of the story for the full redemption of humanity will usher in the redemption of all of God’s creation (Romans 8:18-21).
Seen in this perspective, then, the story of God’s anger is good news. It is good news because it is the story of how God’s loving purpose is at work in history judging and overcoming all opposition and achieving the good end which God has intended from the beginning.
If we ask where the cross fits into this story of the outworking of God’s inexorable love the answer is that on the cross God enacts his most severe judgement. He enacts the sentence of death on sinful humanity in the person of his Son. We see this in Romans 6:6-7 where we are told: ‘We know that our old self was crucified with him that the sinful body might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin.’
What these verses tell us is that our fallen nature was slain in the death of Christ in order that we might have liberation from the domination by sin which our old nature necessarily entails. Christ’s death thus brings together God’s judgement and God’s love. The cross is an act of God’s judgement in that on the cross the penalty for sin, namely death (Genesis 3:3, Romans 6:23), is carried out on us as sinners. Our sinful existence has no right to exist before a holy God and is therefore brought to an end. It is at the same time an act of love since the purpose of this judgement is to destroy our enslavement to sin in order that we might become free to be the people God intends us to be.
This is a point made forcefully by Martin Luther in his Lectures on Romans. Commenting on Romans 6:3, Luther notes that in Scripture there is alongside the temporal death of the body, a form of eternal death which is a: ‘very great evil’ in which: ‘it is man that dies, while sin lives and remains for ever’. This is the eternal death suffered by the damned. However, there is also a form of eternal death that is a: ‘very great good’. This is the form of death that took place in Christ:
‘It is the death of sin and the death of death, by which the soul is freed and separated from sin and the body from corruption, and the soul is united by grace and glory with the living God. This is death in the strict and proper sense of the word (for in every other death some mixture of life remains, but not in this one, in which there is nothing but life itself: eternal life). It is only this death that the conditions of death fit absolutely and perfectly; whatever dies in it, and in it alone, vanishes entirely into everlasting nothingness, and nothing ever returns from it (indeed it inflicts death also upon eternal death). Thus sin dies, and also the sinner when he is justified, for sin does not ever return, as the apostle says here: ‘Christ dies no more,’ etc. (Romans 6:9). This is the principle theme of the Scripture. For God arranged to take away through Christ whatever the devil brought in through Adam. And the devil brought in sin and death. Therefore, God brought about the death of death and the sin of sin, the prison of prison and the captivity of captivity. As he says through Hosea: ‘O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite.’ (Hosea 13:14)
It was this death – the death of death and the death of sin – that was undertaken on our behalf by Christ through His death on the cross. Our sins are no longer a barrier between us and God, because in Christ our sinful existence has been brought to an end. It is a closed chapter. That is why in St. Matthew’s account of the death of Christ the curtain of the Temple is torn in two and the tombs of the saints are cracked open (Matthew 27:51-53). Sin and death, which barred access to God and kept the saints in their graves, have been done away with by the death of Christ.
However, there is more to the work of Christ than simply the termination of our existence as sinners. The work of God in Christ is not simply, or even primarily, a destructive work. It is primarily a work of re-creation. In the words of St. Peter in 1 Peter 2:24: ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree that we might die to sin and live to righteousness’.
This purpose was not achieved through the cross alone because if the cross was all there was then the story of God’s involvement with Mankind would have reached its terminus point on Calvary. If we were to have a future our old existence as sinners had to be replaced with a new kind of existence.
This new kind of existence is what has been made possible for us by Christ’s resurrection on the third day. The resurrection is an act of divine re-creation in which a new way of being human is opened up in which we are not only dead to sin but alive to God. That is why St. Paul declares in 2 Corinthians 5:17: ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come’ and why he writes in Romans 6:10-11 ‘The death he died he died to sin once and for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’ That is why Christ declares in John 11:25-26: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die’.
The cross and resurrection therefore go together. They are a twofold act of God in Christ in which, to quote John Stott, ‘We have died and risen with him, so that our old life of sin, guilt and shame has been terminated and an entirely new life of holiness, forgiveness and freedom has begun.’
Or, as Calvin puts it:
‘…our old man is destroyed by the death of Christ, so that His resurrection may restore our righteousness, and make us new creatures. And since Christ has been given to us for life, why should we die with Him, if not to rise to a better life? Christ, therefore, puts to death what is mortal in us in order that He may truly restore us to life.’
Good Friday and Easter Day thus force us to re-think our understanding of what it means to say that God loves us. God’s love involves far more than simply benevolent affirmation. It involves the death and resurrection of Christ so that we may die and rise with him to a new life with God which will last for ever.