(The following is the conclusion of the previous two posts.)
Jesus Our Judge
It should fill us with great joy and assurance to know that this same compassionate Savior, the one whose mercy never fails, even in the face of utter brutality, will be our Judge on the last day. Our loving Father has entrusted his Son with our eternal destinies by turning all judgment and authority over to Jesus himself. According to both scriptural and creedal teaching, none other than Jesus Christ, the friend of sinners who freely offered himself for the sins of the world, will return to judge the living and the dead. As incredible as it may seem, the very one who hung on the cross and prayed, "Father forgive them," is the one who will judge us at the end of our lives, for Jesus tells us that all judgment has been given to him (John 5:22; 3:35; Matt 28:18). In the trenchant words of T. F. Torrance, "The voice of divine forgiveness and the voice of divine judgment are one and the same."(2)
To understand that our Judge is the one who poured out his blood for the sins of all humanity should profoundly move us at the deepest levels of our souls, freeing us from the fear, dread, and anxiety that too often have been heaped wrongfully upon Christians in the name of Christ. We may rest in the assurance that "God does not and will not act toward any one in life or death in any other way than he has done, does do, and will do in Jesus."(3) None other than our loving, compassionate Savior is our Judge. There is no God hidden behind the back of Jesus before whom we, in our guilty consciences, must shake with dread and terror. When Jesus tells us that he who has seen him has seen the Father, he leaves no room for fear and dread, for the hearts of the Father and Son are one. Our lives, our deaths, our final destinies are in the hands of God, and the hands of God and the hands of Jesus are the same. (4)
The Judge Judged in Our Place
Moreover, at the cross God not only judges our sins; he takes upon himself the verdict and judgment that should have been ours. As such, to borrow another phrase from the great Karl Barth, he is "the Judge judged in our place."(5) As shocking as it may seem, we human beings no longer occupy the place of sinners in the sight of God. Jesus himself has stood in our place and made our just punishment his own. The Bible says that "God made him who knew no sin to become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God" (2Cor 5:21). "The verdict that ought to have been ours was pronounced and executed on him, so that an end was made with us as sinners so that as such we have no more future. We are no longer in the place we occupied when we were sinners. This place is now occupied by him."(6) In short, Jesus Christ has taken away the sin of the world, long before you or I made a decision to believe and recited the sinner's prayer. Thus when we stand before the judgment seat of God, we no longer stand before him as condemned sinners, for our sin is no longer or own; it is his, for Jesus has made it his own.(7) He has borne our judgment upon the cross and has taken our sin upon himself (2Cor 5:21).
I do not believe that the primary purpose of the cross is the punishment of sin or even the forgiveness of sin. I think what Jesus has done on the cross is far more basic and fundamental than merely taking upon himself the punishment that might have been ours. What Jesus has done at the cross is to overcome human sin by finally laying Adam to rest so that the human race no longer stands condemned under Adam, but stands as pardoned, redeemed and reconciled under Jesus. The Bible tells us that as in Adam all die, in Jesus all are made alive (1Cor 15:22). If you look at Romans 5:12ff, you will see an ongoing contrast between Adam and Jesus. Scripture portrays Adam as somehow representing all humanity. There are different theories as to how we are all implicated in Adam's act, yet the theories assert that we are all connected to Adam in a very real way. The disobedience, condemnation and death that came as a result of Adam's sin have fallen upon us all. Because we are all somehow implicated in the sin of Adam, we are all subject to death as a result of that one primordial sin. At the same time, just as all are implicated in the disobedience of Adam, so all are implicated in the obedience, justification and life that are brought by Jesus. To be sure, Jesus is greater than Adam. All that was lost in Adam has been restored in Jesus―and more!
How is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross related to Adam? In his unbounding love for humanity, the Word of God takes on human flesh at Bethlehem (John 1:14). Jesus takes on real flesh, not some pristine immaculately conceived flesh. Jesus becomes a human being in every way that we are human. In more technical terms, he assumes fallen Adamic flesh. Then on behalf of all humanity, Jesus lives the life of perfect faith and obedience that you and I have failed to live. He does for us all the things we have failed to do, and he refuses to do the sinful things we have done. In his life of unrelenting obedience to the Father, Jesus lives vicariously for us in the sinful flesh of Adam, converting our rebellious hearts and minds and bending our twisted sinful flesh back to the Father. When Jesus dies on the cross, he puts the flesh of Adam to death; Adam is finally laid to rest and buried. Then Jesus rises from the dead as the new Adam. Now Jesus, not the old Adam, is the head of the human race. In the same way that all humanity was implicated in the sin and disobedience of the first Adam, now all humanity is implicated in the obedience and life of the second Adam. Just as all die in the first Adam, all are made alive in him (Rom 5:12-20). In Christ, God has reconciled the world to himself (2Cor 5:19).
Free to Forgive
What would happen if we could truly and fully realize that all humanity is included in the loving embrace of the Triune God? To bring it closer to home, what would happen if each one of us could truly believe that we no longer stand as sinners in the sight of God? We have all made Adam greater than Jesus. We have been unwilling to take seriously the biblical truth that Jesus, the Lamb of God, has taken away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Therefore, for centuries, the free salvation garnered us by the incarnate Son who died and the loving Father who gave him up for us in the Spirit has been buried under human-imposed conditions for salvation, so that we are heavily laden with rules, regulations, and other requirements for entrance through the gates of heaven. Furthermore, we have been willingly complicit, for, like the laborers in the field (Matt 20:1-16), we are offended by the sheer gratuitousness of grace. Apparently many think God's gift of salvation should be offered only to those who conform and comply with the rules, however they may be variously defined. Thus, we have burdened ourselves and our fellows with ethical prescriptions, rules, and regulations designed to set us apart and mark us as the chosen.
It is, therefore, precisely because we do not realize we no longer occupy the place of sinners in the sight of God that we expend so much energy trying to improve our standing before our heavenly Father. Our failure to realize we are forgiven compels us to perform to gain God's approval and is at the root of the "works" mentality of legalism that drives not only many individuals, but whole churches and denominations. Failing to realize we know longer stand before God as sinners, we are unable to enjoy the peace that transcends all understanding (Phil 4:7), choosing instead to pursue the frenetic path of performance in hopes of pleasing God.
Yet, paradoxically, as soon as we accept God's forgiveness and realize we no longer stand before God as sinners, we are free to accept ourselves as the sinners we are. When we understand that God has, in fact, confronted, named, and judged our sin on our behalf at the cross, we are free to stop denying and repressing our sin, to drop our masks (especially our smiley church faces), and to walk in the immeasurable freedom of the forgiveness provided us nearly two thousand years ago. When we realize that God accepts us as we are, we are free to accept ourselves as we are.
In addition, when we realize that we no longer stand as sinners in God's sight, we are free to step down from the judgment seat that rightfully belongs only to Jesus and to accept others as the sinners they are. Because we have not seen that we no longer occupy the place of sinners, we too readily judge those who values and lifestyles fail to meet our approval. Nonetheless, while it may be shocking to realize that we Christians no longer occupy the place of sinners, it is even more shocking, perhaps intolerable for many, to realize that all the "worldly" people around us also no longer stand before God as sinners. The Lamb of God has taken away the sin of the world―even the sins we do not approve.
Our job, as Christians, is to announce the Good News that "in Christ, God has reconciled all things to himself." That is the passionate assertion that empowered the early Church and enabled them to spread the Good News about Jesus all over the known world.
That brings us to the important matter of our "witness" for Christ. How does it affect our witness to know that all those "worldly" people out there no longer occupy the place of sinners in the sight of God? How does it affect our witness to know that we will never meet another human being who is not already reconciled to God in Christ? Surely it will allow us to throw away all our "repent or burn" tracts because we no longer feel compelled to proclaim a "bad news" gospel that God is outraged at the world and is looking for every chance to throw as many as possible into hell unless we repent and behave.
Yet to know that in Christ God has reconciled all things to himself does not free us from the responsibility as the Church to proclaim the Good News of universal reconciliation in Christ, for though all are reconciled in Christ, not all live reconciled lives. Many continue to live un-reconciled lives; they live in darkness and confusion, not knowing they are embraced by the Father; thus, they suffer all the heartache and pain that living an un-reconciled life brings. Our job as the Church is to proclaim to everyone that they are free in Christ, so act like it!
Let's end now on a more personal note. God's gracious condescension to humble himself, to bear scorn and humiliation for us at the cross, demands a response on our part. We are summoned to a life of faith in Jesus Christ. Yet our faith is not a precondition for our reconciliation with the Father; our faith is the conscious, joyful acceptance of our reconciliation.(9) We respond to God's immeasurable graciousness on our behalf, when in humble gratitude we place our faith in our Savior, bow to his Lordship, and live according to his commandment of love. Our repentance, faith and obedience, however, are never conditions for our forgiveness; our repentance, faith and obedience are the consequence of our forgiveness. In short, we do not obey to be saved; we obey because we are saved! What more sane response could there be to the salvation that is already ours than a humble willingness to obey our Lord, not out of fear of punishment nor dread of awful judgment, but from a heart filled with gratitude for the immeasurable self-giving of God for all humanity.
At the cross we see God's righteous "No" to sin and God's gracious "Yes" to us, for real judgment is rendered at the cross, and real pardon is rendered to us. In his unfailing love for humanity, God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. In the determined love wherein he wills to share his Triune life with us, the Father sent his Son to bring us home in the Spirit. In the words of the Apostle Paul, "If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" (Rom 8:31, 32).
1. T. F. Torrance, A Passion for Christ: The Vision That Ignites Ministry (Edinburgh: Handel Press, 1999), p. 14.
2. Ibid., p. 15.
3. Ibid., p. 16.
4. Ibid., p. 17.
5. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, translation edited by G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957-75), 4/1, pp. 211ff.
6. Eberhard Busch, The Great Passion: An Introduction to Karl Barth's Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 208.
7. Barth, p. 238.
8. Busch, p. 207.
9. Ibid., p. 216.