Did God sacrifice Himself to Himself to save us from Himself?
I just recently completed the Master of Theology (ThM) program at Dallas Theological Seminary. The capstone of the program is the Senior Research Project, sort of a mini-thesis. Essentially, I had to write a 25-ish page research paper. The emphasis for my ThM program was apologetics, so the topic needed to be theological and have an apologetics component. I requested to write it on a question we have received numerous times at GotQuestions.org. The paper is a refutation of an attack that has been employed by several atheists / critics of the Christian faith. So, with that introduction in place—here it is.
In the nearly 2,000 years of church history, atheists, critics, and skeptics have developed numerous arguments against the Christian faith. Some of the arguments are philosophical, such as the problem of evil. Others are more focused on history, such as denials of the resurrection of Jesus Christ due to the supposed lack of evidence outside of the Bible. Still others are more personal, such as pointing out the evil actions and/or attitudes of some who have claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ. And then there are arguments that attack Christian theology, such as pointing out the supposed illogic and/or incoherency of the Trinity or the hypostatic union.
In response, Christian philosophers, theologians, and apologists have developed refutations of these attacks and/or clarifications of Christian beliefs. The defense of the Christian faith is an unending process, however. As new attacks are formulated, new defenses must be developed in response. As 1 Peter 3:15 instructs, we are always to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…” (ESV). Equally important to being prepared is the need to give our defense of what and why we believe with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15b).
In recent years, a new arrow has appeared in the quiver of some atheists and critics of Christianity. The new projectile in the fiery salvo summarizes the Christian doctrine of salvation with a statement akin to “God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself.” In the forward to A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian, Michael Shermer writes, “God could just forgive the sin we never committed, but instead he sacrificed his son Jesus, who is actually just himself in the flesh because Christians believe in only one god…the only way to avoid eternal punishment for sins we never committed from this all-loving God is to accept his son—who is actually himself—as our savior. So…God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself. Barking mad!”1
Matt Dillahunty, host of The Atheist Experience, describes the Christian message as “God sacrificing himself to himself for a weekend.”2 T-shirts are readily available from multiple sellers with slogans like, “Atheist: Because God sending himself to sacrifice himself to himself to save us from himself is a little bit too much for any logical person.”3 Another option is “God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself because of a rule he made himself simply doesn’t work for me.”4
While “God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself,” henceforth referred to as “the summary,” is not, and never has been, what Christians believe about God’s provision of salvation, it is analogous enough to cause confusion in some and trepidation in others. And, because explaining how Christians do not believe any aspect of the summary is time-consuming and theologically complex, it is a difficult accusation to refute.
The summary is well worth a thorough response, however. The absurdity of the summary, in conjunction with its resemblance to what Christians actually believe, makes it extremely dangerous. If the Christian message of salvation is made to appear ridiculous, why embrace any aspect of the Christian faith? If the gospel itself is an incoherent and illogical mess, what’s the point of defending any other aspect of Christianity against attacks?
“God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself” mischaracterizes the Trinity, the identity and nature of Jesus Christ, the substitutionary atonement, and the nature of God’s justice and judgment. These are not trivial matters. They are the very core of the Christian faith. They absolutely qualify under Paul’s instruction that we “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5). “In response to Christ’s love for us manifested in his agonizing death, Christians should invest their lives living for him and his cause on earth. Christ’s death on our behalf shuts us up to this one eternal significant course of action.”5
God sacrificed himself…
The first three words of the summary communicate substantial theological inaccuracies. They convey misunderstandings of who died on the cross, in what way it was a sacrifice, and whether that sacrifice was ultimately even necessary. In just the first three words, several key aspects and implications of the doctrine of the Trinity are subtly, but at the same time tragically, misrepresented.
First Corinthians 15:3 states, “…Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” It is absolutely clear in Scripture that it was Jesus who died on the cross (Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19). At the same time, it has been the consistent teaching of the Church since the Council of Nicea in 325 AD that Jesus is God incarnate: “We believe in…one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, from the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father…who for us humans and for our salvation descended and became incarnate, becoming human…”6
The bishops at the Council of Nicea did not invent the deity of Christ, as some critics and conspiracy theorists have claimed. Rather, they affirmed what is the distinct teaching of Scripture. The Bible teaches the deity of Christ, and Christians believed in the deity of Christ prior to the Council of Nicea.7 The Council of Nicea simply made it “official” and elucidated precisely what Christians should believe about Jesus’ nature. Even after Nicea, “It took time to create a common theological vocabulary … more work was needed to set forth the personhood of the Son and the Spirit as distinct from the Father yet subsisting in the same identical nature.”8
The Bible is abundantly clear on the divinity of Jesus Christ. In John 10:30, Jesus declared, “I and the Father are one.” The Jews recognized this as a claim of deity (John 10:33). In John 8:58, Jesus used the divine name “I AM” from the Hebrew Scriptures of Himself. John 1:1, 14 describe Jesus as the Word, who is God, who became flesh. Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1 describe Jesus as “God and Savior.” The apostle Thomas exclaimed to Jesus “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). “Jesus is God” is the abundantly evident and consistently conveyed message of the New Testament.
If Jesus is God, why, then, is it inaccurate to say that God sacrificed himself? The problem is that when the term “God” is used, the being that most often comes to mind is God the Father, not Jesus Christ. If the statement was “Jesus sacrificed himself” there would be no issue. It has never been the teaching of historical/biblical Christianity that Jesus is God the Father. “By his words and works, then, Jesus identifies himself to be God the Son come in the flesh. Beginning with Jesus’s self-identification, the apostles reach the same conclusion by interpreting all that Jesus said and did in terms of the plotline developing out of the Old Testament. So the New Testament completes the entire metanarrative in such a way that the whole Bible on its own terms presents Jesus as God the Son incarnate.”9
The Bible teaches that the Father is God (John 6:27; Romans 1:7; 1 Peter 1:2), the Son is God (John 1:1, 14; Romans 9:5; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 1:8; 1 John 5:20), and the Spirit is God (Genesis 1:2; Acts 5:3-4; 1 Corinthians 3:16). The Bible also teaches that there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4; 1 Corinthians 8:4; Galatians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:5). The result of these seemingly contradictory tenets is the doctrine of the Trinity, which took centuries to fully clarify. It was often in response to false understandings of the Godhead that forced Trinitarianism to settle on precisely what it did and did not believe. The most common of all the false understandings of the doctrine of the Trinity is Modalistic Monarchianism.
Monarchianism “sought to preserve monotheism and thus the divine unity, or monarchia (monos, one; archos, ruler, source), but to the exclusion of the full and coequal deity of the Son (and Spirit).”10 Modalistic Monarchianism, also known as Modalism and Sabellianism, is by far the most popular form of Monarchianism. It preserved monotheism by advocating that the different Persons of the Trinity were actually the one true God manifesting in three different modes.
“It was suggested that God manifested himself differently in each of the three phases of world history—as Father in the Old Testament (Creator), as Son in the Gospel period (as Redeemer), and as Spirit since the time of Pentecost (role of Sanctifier). In this way they denied the personal distinctions between the Father, Son, and Spirit within the Godhead.”11 Essentially, modalists believe that Father, Son, and Spirit are different names or titles for the one divine being.
“While modalism offers a way to resolve the apparent paradox between God’s oneness and threeness, it does so at the expense of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being coequal, simultaneously existing persons.”12 Modalistic Monarchianism is the most popular Trinitarian heresy, but it was eventually soundly rejected by the early church. It has endured, though, to varying degrees, and still exists today, with Oneness Pentecostals being the most well-known modern adherents.13
A distinct implication of Modalism is that God the Father suffered and died on the cross. This is known as Patripassianism, from the Latin words for “father” and “suffering.” Patripassianism teaches that Jesus dying on the cross (along with the resurrection, of course) was the crowning act of God’s identity as God the Son. “This conclusion seemed inescapably to follow from belief in only one divine nature and in three ‘persons’ as nothing more than different names that designate different roles or activities played at one time and another.”14 Patripassianism was rejected alongside Modalistic Monarchianism and has never been a tenet of historical/biblical Christianity.
With the summary in mind, Modalistic Monarchianism, and its resulting implication of Patripassianism, does in fact teach that God sacrificed himself to himself. Some of the confusion over the “God sacrificed himself” misunderstanding has sparked conversations within the Christian faith for millennia. Just as the early church eventually became united over the fact that modalism and Patripassianism were unbiblical, so do we, today, need to make it clear that those misguided attempts to describe the Trinity are not what Christians believe.
The consistent teaching of historical/biblical Christianity is that Jesus, God the Son, died on the cross. Jesus, God the Son, is a distinct Person in the Trinity from God the Father (and God the Holy Spirit). The distinction between the Persons of the Trinity can be seen in numerous passages of Scripture. At the baptism of Jesus, Jesus is baptized, the Father speaks from heaven, and the Holy Spirit descends as a dove (Matthew 3:16-17). In Hebrews 1:8, God the Father says of God the Son, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.” The Son is seated at the right hand of the Father (Matthew 26:64). Jesus, the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, is God, and yet is distinct from God the Father.
Yes, Jesus is God, and Jesus died on the cross. So, in that sense, yes, God died on the cross. In the statement “God sacrificed himself,” if by “God” you mean “Jesus,” then yes, God sacrificed himself. But this is a vitally important distinction to make. Jesus, God the Son, sacrificed himself. God the Father did not die on the cross. God the Father was not sacrificed. God the Father was the one to whom the sacrifice was offered.
This also raises the matter of how Jesus Christ, who, as God, is eternal (Psalm 41:13; Revelation 1:8; 22:13), could die. How could the Creator (Colossians 1:16) of life itself die as a sacrifice? This is where the hypostatic union comes in. The hypostatic union is the theological explanation of how “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
The hypostatic union teaches that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, that there is no mixture or dilution of either nature, and that He is one united Person, forever. Jesus, God the Son, was fully human and fully God. As the God-man, Jesus was not part God and part man, like some sort of Greek demi-god. No, Jesus was 100 percent God and 100 percent man, true divinity and true humanity (1 John 4:3). “In Christ, then, we meet God the Son incarnate, fully God and fully man. As Paul describes him, the eternal Son is now ‘the man Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim. 2:5).”15
God cannot die. A human being can die. That is why Jesus had to be the God-man. He had to be man so he could die. He had to be God so his death would be sufficient to pay for the sins of the entire world (1 John 2:2). It is the hypostatic union that makes God the Son sacrificing himself possible. God the Father cannot die. God the Son, with a sinless human nature added to his divine nature, could die, and did die. Jesus Christ, the God-man, was the absolutely perfect and utterly complete sacrifice for our sins (John 1:29; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 10:10).
Stephen J. Wellum summarizes the theological and practical importance of the hypostatic union in the incarnation well: “A complete incarnation was the only way that the Son could: (1) rule as God’s obedient vice-regent over creation; (2) bring many disobedient sons into the glory of his own obedient vice-regency through sufferings that fit him for the vocation; (3) suffer the death penalty on behalf of the disobedient, releasing them from fear of death under divine judgment; (4) represent sinners before God as reconciled to him through the forgiveness of their sins.”16
How could Jesus be God the Son, a distinct Person from God the Father, and yet be equally God as God the Father? And, in what sense is Jesus God’s Son? Historically, Christians have answered the first question with the concept of the eternal generation of the Son. Eternal generation is the idea that God the Father eternally generates or “begets” God the Son (John 3:16) in such a way that God’s essence is not divided.
There is a communication of the whole, indivisible substance of the Godhead so that God the Son is the exact representation of God the Father (Hebrews 1:3). Theologian Louis Berkhof summarizes it well: “It is that eternal and necessary act of the first person in the Trinity, whereby He, within the divine Being, is the ground of a second personal subsistence like His own, and puts this second person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation, or change.”17
Why, then, is Jesus referred to as the Son of God and God the Son? Somehow, in the mystery of the Trinity, the eternal generation of the Son, and God the Father’s relationship with God the Son, resembles the relationship between a human father and son. Now, this resemblance should not be taken too far. Jesus is not God’s biological son. The miraculous conception of Jesus in Mary was not a sexual union between God and Mary (Luke 1:35). Further, with a human father and son, there is a time when the father existed and the son did not. Jesus, God the Son, is co-eternal with God the Father. Jesus has existed eternally alongside the Father and Holy Spirit.
However, there is some sense in which Jesus’ relationship with the Father truly resembles a father/son relationship. This is especially important when considering the sacrifice on the cross. The atonement was not God the Father dispassionately sacrificing himself. No, the atonement was God the Father allowing his beloved Son, with whom he had been in intimate fellowship for all of eternity, to be brutally murdered.
In some sense, Jesus dying on the cross caused Him to feel forsaken by God (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46). Something occurred within the Trinity that had never happened before and will never happen again. It was truly a sacrifice. It was truly God the Father watching his only begotten Son be sacrificed for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2). Any parent who has lost a child knows how painful it is. In some sense, that is how it felt for God the Father, as his relationship with God the Son is, to an extent, that of a father and a son.
It is also vital to clarify that Jesus sacrificed himself willingly. The atonement was not “cosmic child abuse” as some have suggested.18 The tense of “God sacrificed…” posits God as the one performing the action, as if God the Father is the one killing the object that is being sacrificed. Sadly, even some evangelical leaders make this mistake: “The ultimate answer to the question, who crucified Jesus? is: God did. It is a staggering thought. Jesus was his Son. But the whole Bible leads to this conclusion.”19 This could not be further from the truth.
In contrast to the idea that God the Father killed his Son, Jesus declares in John 10:17-18, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (emphasis added). Jesus could have prevented his death (Matthew 26:53). While Jesus did not desire the suffering he was going to experience, he submitted himself to it (Luke 22:42).
Without Jesus offering himself willingly, Romans 5:7-8 loses the power of its message, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus’ sacrifice is the ultimate example of love (John 15:13). That Christ would die for those who are imminently unworthy makes the sacrifice even greater. And, let’s not diminish the sacrifice God the Father made. He allowed his beloved Son to be murdered. “It was not God who killed Jesus. It was the murderers who killed Jesus. It was all humanity, all who are born in Adam. In short, we killed Jesus. The all-knowing, all-loving God knew that we would reject his Son, yet allowed his death in order for Jesus to become the ultimate once and for all sacrifice for our sake.”20
The opening clause “God sacrificed himself” is packed with theological implications. To whom is “God” referring? Was it a legitimate sacrifice? Who was actually sacrificed? Was the sacrifice active or passive? Christians have answers to these questions and have had those answers for nearly 2,000 years. The problem is that the answers are complicated. And to an extent, they are wrapped in mystery. Finite humanity is not capable of fully and perfectly understanding the Trinity. The eternal generation of the Son and the hypostatic union, while debated, settled, and clarified over the centuries, are still ultimately beyond our full comprehension.
That is what makes “God sacrificed himself,” and the entire summary, so difficult to refute. There are good, solid responses to each clause. However, the answers are long and complicated. That makes it difficult to give a cogent reply. This does not free us, though, from the responsibility to present the answers in a cohesive and comprehensible manner. We must humbly admit the mystery while also adamantly rejecting the distortions. “Theologically, a mystery (such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the transcendence of God) is something that does not go against reason, but beyond reason. In short, on the one hand, it does not violate the law of noncontradiction, and, on the other hand, it is something that, while we can apprehend it, we cannot completely comprehend it.”21
Like the first clause, the second clause “to himself” is packed with theological implications. To whom was the sacrifice of Jesus Christ offered? Why was a sacrifice necessary? How could the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, pay for the sins of the entire world (1 John 2:2)? Clarification as to the nature of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is crucial.
First, why was a sacrifice necessary? Romans 3:23 states that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin are death. Simply put, every human being who has ever lived has sinned, has committed acts that are offensive to a holy God. Because of this sin, we all deserve death. We not only deserve physical death, the separation of the soul from the body (Genesis 2:17), but also spiritual death, the eternal separation of the sinner from God (Matthew 25:46; John 3:18,36). This eternal separation in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15) is the just penalty for sin, which is ultimately committed against a holy, righteous, and consistently just God (Psalm 51:4).
Jesus, the God-man, who is sinless humanity combined with holy divinity, willingly sacrificed Himself on the cross. Jesus died for our sins. As man, Jesus could die. As God, His death had infinite value. Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for the sins of the entire world (1 John 2:2). With the debt of sin paid, God offers the gift of salvation and forgiveness to all who trust in Christ (John 3:16; Acts 16:31; Romans 6:23b). Jesus died in our place to save us from the penalty we deserve. Jesus died in our place as our substitute.
Second, how could the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, pay for the sins of the entire world? The substitutionary atonement is the biblical teaching that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross covers the punishment we deserve for our sins. Jesus Christ is the substitute, and the punishment He took on the cross, death, was ours due to our sin (1 Peter 2:24). This satisfies God’s justice, and those who trust in Christ have their sins forgiven and experience reconciliation with God. “As long as the verdict of condemnation prevails, sinners lack loving fellowship with the triune God. But since on the ground of Christ’s perfect sacrifice believers are declared free from sin and guilt, enmity is abolished and restoration to communion with the God of love becomes a new reality.”22
God’s perfect justice demands some form of atonement for sin. Humanity is completely incapable of atoning for our own sins. Humanity is spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). Jesus’ sacrifice propitiated, or satisfied, God’s requirement for justice. It is God’s mercy that allows the death of Jesus to atone for our sins. Jesus’ sacrifice serves as a substitute for anyone who accepts it, by grace alone, through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). It was God’s mercy that exchanged Jesus’ perfect life for us (2 Corinthians 5:21).
This “penal substitution” is explicitly clear in Scripture. The substitutionary atonement is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, described in the gospels, and explained in the New Testament epistles. In Genesis 3:21, after Adam and Eve sinned, God used animal skins to cover them. This is the first reference to a death being used to cover (atone for) sin. This is the first biblical example of God extending his mercy towards humanity.
Prior to the exodus from Egypt, God’s judgment passed over the homes that were covered (atoned) by the blood of a sacrifice (Exodus 12:13). The prophecy about the coming Messiah in Isaiah 53:4–6 describes him being “crushed for our iniquities.” We deserved to be crushed because of our sins, but Christ took that penalty in our place, as our substitute.
During His ministry, Jesus describes himself as the “good shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:10). Romans 3:25–26 declare that because of the sacrifice of Christ, we possess the righteousness of Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:21 describes it as the sinless Jesus taking on our sin so we could receive his righteousness. Hebrews 9:26 declares that our sins were removed by the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. First Peter 3:18 summarizes it well: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”
If we must pay the penalty for our sins ourselves, the result is eternal separation from God in hell. Instead, in our place, God the Son, Jesus Christ, paid the penalty for our sins. Because of his perfect and sufficient payment, we now have the opportunity for our sins to be forgiven and to spend eternity in heaven instead of hell (Matthew 25:46). “For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God [Jesus] sacrifices himself for man and puts himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives that belong to God alone; God accepts penalties that belong to man alone.”23
In order for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to be credited to our account, we must fully trust in what Christ did on the cross (Acts 16:31). We are utterly incapable of saving ourselves. We need a substitute, a Savior. The death of Jesus Christ is that substitutionary atonement.
William Lane Craig says of God’s justice: “God’s graciously accepting a substitute for what we by justice owed is an expression of God’s mercy toward us. We should not, in any case, think of our sinful condition primarily on the analogy of the debt owed by a debtor to a creditor, nor of God’s forgiveness in terms of remission of a debt; rather, our condition is like that of a condemned criminal before the court and divine forgiveness like a legal pardon…Penal substitution enables God to be both merciful and just. Because Christ is God Himself, the suffering of the Son in his human nature is ample to satisfy justice’s demands for humanity.”24
Third, to whom was the sacrifice of Jesus Christ offered? At first glance, the answer to this question seems simple: God. After all, the sacrifices the Old Testament Law required were offered to God. If those animal sacrifices prefigured the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross, and if the sacrifice of Christ is the fulfillment of those offerings, wouldn’t Jesus’ sacrifice also have to be an offering to God? The answer is yes, but it requires some clarification.
The necessity of somehow appeasing God’s wrath is something most religions have in common. The idea that humanity assuages God’s wrath by offering various gifts or sacrifices is a nearly universal aspect of ancient and modern religions. Unlike other religions, which have humanity offering sacrifices to a god or gods to somehow satisfy their wrath or curry their favor, the Bible teaches that, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God himself has provided for our salvation. “It was a sacrifice to end sacrificing, not a sacrifice to appease the appetite of some angry gods. It was not God who needed the sacrifice of Jesus, it was we who needed it. And this sacrifice is the means by which God provides us the hope of everlasting life.”25
In the New Testament, the act of propitiation (the satisfaction of God’s righteous demands) always refers to the work of God and not the sacrifices or gifts offered by man. Humanity is completely incapable of satisfying God’s justice except by being eternally separated from him in hell. There is no service, sacrifice, or gift we could offer to satisfy his perfect justice. In our fallen state, not even our sacrifices are acceptable to God. Even our righteous acts are filthy rags to God (Isaiah 64:6).
The only satisfaction, or propitiation, that could be acceptable to God and that could reconcile humanity to him had to be made by God. For this reason, God the Son, Jesus Christ, came into the world in human flesh to be the perfect sacrifice for sin and to make atonement or “propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
Jesus’ sacrifice being offered to God is not some sort of self-serving cosmic suicide. Jesus had to sacrifice himself to God because it was the only satisfactory offering. Only the death of the God-man could satisfy the righteous demands of a holy God. Everything we do is tainted by sin. Nothing we do is completely holy. We cannot save ourselves.
Only Jesus, the Son of God, can save us. While Jesus, the God-man, offering himself as the sacrifice to satisfy the righteous demands of God may sound peculiar to some, in light of our utterly sinful state, there was no alternative means of providing salvation. “It is God himself who in holy wrath needs to be propitiated, God himself who in holy love undertook to do the propitiating and God himself who in the person of his Son died for the propitiation of our sins. Thus God took his own loving initiative to appease his own righteous anger by bearing it in his own self in his own Son when he took our place and died for us. There is no cruelty here to evoke our ridicule, only the profundity of holy love to evoke our worship.”26
…to save us from himself.
The final clause in the summary, “to save us from himself,” is not as much unbiblical in what it explicitly says as it is in what it implies. If God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself, it all seems very arbitrary. Did God invent the rule himself that his death would be the only satisfactory payment for sin? Could he not have declared something else to be the necessary payment? Could he not have just decided to no longer be angry about our sins, thereby saving us from his wrath? He is God, after all.
Finally, how is the sacrifice of the innocent making payment for the sins of the guilty an example of justice? No court that is seeking justice would knowingly allow an innocent person to be put to death for the crimes of the guilty. For some, even the correct understanding of Christian justification seems more like a miscarriage of justice.
Could God have accomplished salvation another way? If God is saving us from himself, surely he could have saved us from himself some other way. After all, he is the one making all the rules. The first implication of “to save us from himself” is that God arbitrarily made up the rules in such a way that only he could fulfill them.
In response, it is crucial to remember both the relationship between God the Father and God the Son and the tremendous suffering Jesus endured. While the similarities should not be pushed too far, the relationship between God the Father and God the Son resembles that of a loving human father and his only son. What father would allow his son to be killed if there was another way to accomplish what was required? No, if there was some other way, God would not have sacrificed his beloved son (Matthew 3:17).
Theologian Bruce Demarest writes, “Having freely made the decision to save, God then acted in accord with his own intrinsic nature and perfections. He operated in harmony with his perfect wisdom, righteousness, holiness, mercy, and supremely his agapic love. In other words, given his own rules for how sin would be handled in a moral universe, the course of saving action God chose in light of the foreseen human situation was the wisest, most righteous, and most loving course possible. In sending his Son to be bruised and to bear our evils, God gave his highest and best.”27
Further, God did not arbitrarily invent the rules. The “rules” are inherently and inextricably attached to his nature. As a perfectly holy being, God cannot be in the presence of sin without being revolted by it and desiring to be separate from it (Isaiah 6:3; Habakkuk 1:13; Revelation 4:8). As a perfectly just being, God cannot allow evil to go unjudged and unpunished (Exodus 34:7; Proverbs 11:21).
With all sin ultimately committed against God (Psalm 51:5), who is infinite and eternal, only an eternal separation from God is a just penalty. God could not change this requirement, as he himself is unchanging and unchangeable (Numbers 23:19; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17). Even if God wanted to declare some other means to be sufficient for salvation, his holiness, justice, and immutability would prevent him from doing so.
This may sound strange, saying that an all-powerful God cannot do anything he wants. That is the result of a misunderstanding of God’s omnipotence. God being omnipotent means that he possesses infinite power. It does not mean that God can do anything. God’s power is limited by his nature. When the concept of God’s omnipotence is studied from a biblical perspective, “The picture that emerges is of a being with unlimited power to do all the things a being with God’s other perfections could possibly do. He cannot do everything whatsoever, nor is he required to do everything he can do, but anything we would want or expect a being of God’s character to do, he has power to do. The king who cares has power to show tangibly that he does care for us!”28
God can do anything that is in harmony with who he is. God can do anything that is holy, just, righteous, and loving. God cannot do anything that contradicts any of his attributes. That includes declaring a different means of salvation than what his perfect nature requires.
Finally, how can someone who is innocent pay the penalty for someone who is guilty? How can it be considered justice for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the God-man, God the Son, the innocent, perfect, and spotless One, to pay the penalty for the guilty, for sinners, for the ones who committed the crimes and therefore deserve the punishment?
The penal substitution nature of the atonement was discussed earlier. It describes how Jesus’ death pays the penalty for our sins. But, how is it just for Jesus to be punished for our sins, “wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5)? After all, Proverbs 17:15 says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.”
How, then, can it be just for God to accept the death of his innocent son as the payment for the sins of the guilty? God pouring out his wrath on Jesus, who was innocent, instead of on the sinners who deserve it, does not sound just. Even though Jesus willingly offered himself as our substitute, it is unjust to punish an innocent person for the crimes of the guilty.
Second Corinthians 5:21 is key: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Commentator George Guthrie superbly explains the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:21: “Christ the sinless One, through identification with us, took sin on himself and died, serving as our sin sacrifice. We the unrighteous, through relationship with Christ, take on God’s righteousness, are reconciled to God, and transformed as newly created, new-covenant people in the world. In other words, because of our identification with Christ, we as the new-covenant people of God are in right standing before God and are an expression of God’s righteousness before the world.”29
An analogy from the legal system is helpful. When a couple gets married, they assume each other’s debts. For example, suppose the husband had student debt and the wife had credit card debt before they got married. In that case, they both become responsible for each other’s debts when they get married, even though the wife did not incur the student debt and the husband was not responsible for the credit card charges.
Christ willingly attached himself to the sins of the world (1 John 2:2). If the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement is true, Jesus only died for the sins of the elect, the church, his bride (Ephesians 5:25-27). In that sense, the marriage analogy is complete. The sin debt of the wife, the church, is transferred to the husband, Christ. Jesus became responsible for our sin debt when he “married” us. Even without the doctrine of limited atonement, though, the analogy fits. The two became one. By attaching himself to humanity, Jesus became responsible for our sin debt and its penalty.
Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin for us. We, who knew no righteousness, received Christ’s righteousness. Jesus, though innocent, became guilty because of his union with us. We, though guilty, become innocent because of our union with him. How can God the Father place the sins of the world on his innocent Son and then punish his Son for those sins? By the Son’s willingness to be united to us, he was “made to be sin.” Even though he was entirely innocent of sin on his own, due to his union with sinful humanity, he was, in a mysterious but very real sense, no longer innocent.
Our sin and guilt were imputed to Christ. This is the only way that God’s justice could not be compromised when his innocent Son was paying the penalty for guilty sinners. Although Christ was sinless in himself (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22; 1 John 3:5), he took on the guilt of our sins. He became our sin. Therefore, it was not unjust for God to punish Jesus for our sins. It was not unrighteous for our sins to be transferred to Christ, and it was not unjust for his righteousness to be transferred to us.
Shortly before he died on the cross, Jesus cried out “tetelestai,” (John 19:30), which is usually translated “it is finished.” It is a Greek accounting term that essentially means “paid in full.” Jesus’ death on the cross paid our sin debt in full. He became sin for us, paid for that sin, and thereby freed us from it. Tetelestai is in the perfect tense, which indicates an action completed in the past but with continuing results in the present and into the future. Our sin debt being paid was accomplished in the past. It is done. It is finished. It is complete. The fact that our sin debt was paid has the continuing results that we continue to be free from debt, we continue to have access to Christ’s righteousness, and we continue to be justified in God’s sight.
This tension regarding the justice of God’s plan is not something that has been just recently discovered. The apostle Paul mentions it in Romans 3:25-26, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” How God can be both just and the justifier has been a struggle for believers, theologians, and skeptics alike.
How can God be righteous and at the same time declare righteous those who are not righteous? It would be righteous for God to pour out his wrath on sinners. It would be unrighteous for God to ignore that sinners deserve punishment. God could not have chosen the latter. He could have chosen the former. Instead, he chose to pour out his wrath on his beloved Son, who had become our substitute. “Paul’s point is that God can maintain his righteous character (‘his righteousness’ in vv. 25 and 26) even while he acts to justify sinful people (‘God’s righteousness’ in vv. 21 and 22) because Christ, in his propitiatory sacrifice, provides full satisfaction of the demands of God’s impartial, invariable justice.”30
Christ bore God’s wrath, thereby turning it away from us. “By juxtaposing the ‘unpunished,’ or ‘passed over’ sins of the past with the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross, it is natural to adopt a reading of Christ’s sacrifice that includes the idea of divine judgment poured out on human sin. If what was previously ‘passed over’ was punishment, then it would stand to reason that this penal judgment was not bypassed but ‘poured out’ at the cross. For this reason, God is both just and the one who justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5).”31
Christ is our propitiation. He perfectly satisfied God’s holy wrath against sin. Because of the Father’s love for us (John 3:16), and Christ’s love for us (John 15:13), Jesus absorbed the punishment that was rightfully ours, so that we can be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24). As a result, God is perfectly just and righteous in declaring righteous those who have faith in Jesus. “The problem is not outside of God; it is within his own being.. Because God never contradicts himself, he must be himself and ‘satisfy’ himself, acting in absolute consistency with the perfection of his character.”32
Conclusion and Application
Did God sacrifice himself to himself to save us from himself? The clear and consistent message from historical/biblical Christianity is a resounding “no.” Every clause in the summary has biblical, theological, and philosophical misunderstandings. Sometimes the errors are explicit, and at other times, they are implicit.
The difficulty with the summary is that it resembles what Christians believe, just enough to cause confusion. Each clause is, at least at first glance, sufficiently similar to what the Christian faith actually espouses to result in some people thinking, “Yes, that is what Christians believe, and yes, that sounds absurd.” If the gospel itself is absurd, the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:19 apply, “…we [Christians] are of all people most to be pitied.”
As was explained above, none of the clauses in the summary accurately represent what Christians believe or have ever believed about God’s means of providing salvation. Still, two issues remain. First, if the summary is not an accurate statement, what would be an accurate synopsis of what Christians believe about salvation? Second, how should Christians respond when the summary, or something similar to it, is brought into a conversation?
The difficulty in attempting to summarize something briefly is that important content almost always has to be withheld. Many truths simply cannot be condensed into a sound byte without doing a tremendous disservice to the original message. This is true with the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is simple enough that a child can understand it, yet it possesses enough theological depth to keep theologians pondering for their entire lifetimes. No one-sentence condensation of the gospel message is going to adequately cover all of the theologically richness and beauty that exists in God’s provision of salvation.
A biblically and theologically accurate revision of the summary would read something like, “Jesus, God in the flesh, sacrificed himself to pay the penalty we deserve for our sins, thereby saving us from ourselves.” This clarifies who was sacrificed, why a sacrifice was required, what the sacrifice covered, and what was the result of the sacrifice. It isn’t perfect or absolutely complete, but it is far more accurate than the summary.
How should Christians respond when the summary is employed by an atheist/critic or is presented by someone whose faith has been shaken? The first step would be a clear statement indicating that the summary is not what Christians believe or have ever believed. The summary may sound similar to what Christians believe, and to someone unfamiliar with the tenets of the Christian faith, it may even sound the same. In actuality, though, it is far removed from what Christians truly believe.
The second step would be an admission that there are some complicated and mysterious aspects of the Christian faith. As finite human beings, we should not expect to fully or perfectly understand the nature or activities of an infinite and eternal God. This is not an escape hatch or an encouragement to “turn off your brain and just believe.” Rather, it is a humble admission that we should not expect to understand everything about God and we must be willing to humbly accept that lack of perfect understanding.
The third step would be a point-by-point explanation of what Christians actually believe. Most atheists/critics will not be truly interested in hearing the tenets of Christian soteriology. Likely some who use the summary as an attack against the Christian faith already know it is not an accurate synopsis. They are employing the summary as an attack, an attempt to make Christians and Christianity look ridiculous. So, this third step requires discernment. Is the person legitimately interested in hearing the explanation? If not, attempting to clarify the core doctrines of the Christian faith will be akin to casting pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6).
If the person is genuinely interested, taking the time to clearly and carefully defend God’s provision of salvation is well worth the time and effort. Explaining the Trinity, while embracing the mystery therein, is key. Clarifying who Jesus is and why he needed to be fully God and fully man can be complex, but it is amazing when the full picture is grasped.
Describing why a sacrifice was necessary to atone for our sins and how Jesus was the only acceptable substitute is the very heart of the gospel. Expounding on why God’s provision of salvation is not arbitrary, but rather the only way a holy and righteous God could save unrighteous and helpless sinners, is an amazing journey into the mercy, grace, and love of God.
No, God did not sacrifice himself to himself to save us from himself. But yes, the challenges and opportunities the summary presents are well-worth the effort. It gives us an opening to declare the gospel in all its fullness. It provides us with an opportunity to strengthen our own understanding of some of the more complicated aspects of the Christian faith. It reminds us of the need to trust God even when his nature and/or plan seem unusual to our finite minds. It presents us with the tremendous privilege of worshiping the God who has provided so great a salvation (Hebrews 2:3) in such a sacrificial, loving, and beautiful way.
1Peter Boghossian, A Manual for Creating Atheists (Durham: Pitchstone, 2013), 12.
5Bruce DeMarest, The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation (Wheaton: Crossway, 1997), 198.
6Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 189.
7Numerous Ante-Nicene church fathers indicated belief in, or specifically argued for, the deity of Christ, including, but not limited to, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaus of Lyons, Tertulian, and Origen.
8Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 285.
9Wellum, God the Son Incarnate, 189.
10Wellum, God the Son Incarnate, 266.
11Wellum, God the Son Incarnate, 267.
12John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 476.
13https://www.upci.org/about/about-oneness-pentecostalism - “An Appreciation of God’s Identity.”
14Feinberg, No One Like Him, 476.
15Wellum, God the Son Incarnate, 216.
16Wellum, God the Son Incarnate, 224.
17Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 94.
18Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 182.
19John Piper, The Passion of Jesus Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), 11.
20Glenn Kreider and Eitan Bar, Who Killed the Son of God (Colleyville: One For Israel, 2020), 94.
21Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Bethany, 2003), 251.
22DeMarest, The Cross and Salvation, 377.
23John Stott, The Cross of Christ: Stott Centennial Edition (Downers Grove: IVP, 2021), 159.
24William Lane Craig, Atonement and the Death of Christ: An Exegetical, Historical, and Philosophical Exploration (Waco: Baylor, 2020), 214.
25Kreider and Bar, Who Killed the Son of God, 97.
26Stott, The Cross of Christ, 172-3.
27DeMarest, The Cross and Salvation, 188.
28Feinberg, No One Like Him, 294.
29George H. Guthrie, 2 Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 315.
30Douglas J. Moo, The Letter to the Romans, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 262-3.
31Joshua McNall, The Mosaic of Atonement: An Integrated Approach to Christ’s Work (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019), 147.
32Stott, The Cross of Christ, 133.
S. Michael Houdmann
Did God sacrifice Himself to Himself to save us from Himself?