Many people who object to the biblical doctrine of the atonement do so because they do not understand who God is. They reason within themselves: “Why doesn’t God simply forgive and forget? Wouldn’t God forgive people as long as they say they are sorry and endeavor to be a better person? Isn’t the idea that only the death and shed blood of Christ can remove sin extreme and fanatical?” The reason God cannot simply let sin slide or sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist is because He is righteous and just.

“The LORD is righteous, He is in her midst, He will do no unrighteousness” (Zeph. 3:5). “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Your throne” (Ps. 89:14). “He is the Rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He” (Dt. 32:4). When the Bible speaks of God’s ethical perfection and justice, it does not refer to a standard or realm of ideals outside of God but to God’s very being itself. “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5). Therefore, Abraham, who knew God’s character, could ask Jehovah: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). Likewise, the apostle Paul could say, “Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!” (Rom. 9:14). God can only do what is right. Because of His nature, He can only do what is just.  

God’s nature demands that sin be punished. If God refused to give sin its full measure of punishment then He could not claim to be perfectly just. God’s infinite holiness, justice and righteousness of necessity demand the infliction of punishment on the sinner himself or on an appropriate substitute. The Bible contains many passages that declare that God has to punish sin. Jehovah said, “I will not justify [i.e. declare righteous] the wicked” (Ex. 23:7). “We are told repeatedly that He will by no means clear the guilty, Ex. 34:7; Num. 14:18; Nah. 1:3. He hates sin with a divine hatred; His whole being reacts against it, Ps. 5:4-6; Nah. 1:2; Rom. 1:18. Paul argues in Romans 3:25-26, that it was necessary that Christ should be offered as an atoning sacrifice for sin, in order that God might be just while justifying the sinner. The important thing was that the justice of God should be maintained.”  

 A common objection against the biblical teaching that God must punish sin is that it makes God less charitable than many people who are willing to forgive offenses without any sort of satisfaction. While it is true that many people can and do forgive personal offenses against them, the comparison between God and a private individual is totally illegitimate. God is the Creator, Sovereign Lord over all, Supreme Lawgiver and Judge of all men; therefore, He must maintain His veracity, law and justice. A private individual does not have to contradict his own nature, law and justice to forgive an offense. The Bible repeatedly affirms that as the Supreme Judge over the whole earth, God will only render just judgment. “But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each one according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:5-6; cf. Rev. 20:12).

Another aspect of God’s character that necessitates the atonement is His holiness. “The nature of God is perfect and complete holiness. This is not an optional or arbitrary matter; it is the way God is by nature. He has always been absolutely holy. Nothing more need or can be said. It is useless to ask, Why is God this way? He simply is. Being contrary to God’s nature, sin is repulsive to Him. He is allergic to sin, so to speak. He cannot look upon it. He is compelled to turn away from it.” God’s infinite holiness causes Him to hate sin with a perfect hatred. God is so holy that before sinful men can come into His presence and have fellowship with Him the guilt of their sin must be removed and they must be clothed with perfect righteousness.  

 The attribute of God that is emphasized by Scripture above all other attributes (including love) is His holiness. God’s holiness refers to His absolute distinctness from all His creatures and to His glorious exalted existence above His creation in infinite majesty as well as His infinite moral purity. The God of the Bible is not like the pagan deities who fornicate, get drunk and commit lewd acts because He really exists (they do not) and He is holy. “Who is like You, O LORD among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness” (Ex. 15:11). Jehovah is so holy that the mighty seraphim continually cry out before Him, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3; cf. Rev. 4:8).  

God demands a perfect holiness in people not arbitrarily but because His own perfect holiness requires it. To the Israelite He said: “you shall be holy; for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). Because God is holy, He hates sin and cannot dwell with sinners. “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look on wickedness” (Hab. 1:13). “You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, nor shall evil dwell with You. The boastful shall not stand in Your sight; You hate all workers of iniquity” (Ps. 5:4-5).  

When God created Adam and Eve, He made them in His own image (Gen. 1:27). Before they ate the forbidden fruit and fell into sin, they were holy and righteous. They were without any ethical spot or blemish. What happened to Adam and Eve when they disobeyed God’s command and sinned against Him? They were cast out of God’s presence. Why? Because a thrice holy God cannot have fellowship with people who are not holy. God is so infinitely holy that every sin that an individual commits merits death: physical, spiritual and eternal. God had warned Adam that the day that he disobeyed Him, he would certainly die (Gen. 2:17). God’s holiness of intrinsic necessity set up a separation between Jehovah and all sinners. “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isa. 59:1-2).  

Once we understand the holiness of God then we can understand the severe penalty that sin deserves. When God demands that “the soul who sins must die” (Ezek. 18:4), He is not setting forth an arbitrary penalty but is penalizing sinners exactly as His holy and righteous nature requires. Thus Paul writes: “knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death” (Rom. 1:32). Sin is wicked. It is a moral evil that is the very opposite of holiness. God hates all workers of iniquity (Ps. 5:5) and is angry with the wicked every day (Ps. 7:11). Sin in thought, word or deed is an abomination to the Lord. God is determined because of the immutable holiness of His nature to punish all sin with death. “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). “Then when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (Jas. 1:15). “The soul who sins must die” (Ezek. 18:4). John Murray writes: “Sin is the contradiction of God and He must react against it with holy wrath. Wherever sin is, the wrath of God rests upon it (cf. Rom. 1:18).

Otherwise, God would be denying Himself, particularly His holiness, justice, and truth. But wrath must be removed if we are to enjoy the favor of God which salvation implies. And the only provision for the removal of wrath is propitiation. This is surely the import of Romans 3:25, 26, that God set forth Christ a propitiation to declare His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the ungodly.”4 Because of who God is (He is holy, righteous and just), and because of what sinners are (they are unholy, unrighteous and guilty), people have only two choices. They can remain in their sin and unholiness and thus be forever cast away from God’s presence into hell or they can trust in Christ who as a substitute paid the penalty in full by His death and provided a perfect holiness or righteousness by His life… (The Atonement of Jesus Christ)

Brian M. Schwertley

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