Early in the twentieth century, theologian H. Reinhold Niebuhr accused so-called Christian liberals of preaching that a “God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” Though evangelicals today have not yet abandoned the cross, it seems to me that it has become commonplace to us and the work of Christ as a result is not really appreciated as it ought to be with us. If this seems a bit overblown, ask yourself the following questions. Do we really rejoice as the apostle Paul does in Ephesians 1:7 over the redemption that we have through the blood of Christ? Does it thrill our hearts and does it affect our outlook on life and the way we process the difficulties of life? More to the point: what is more pressing, the problems of this life or your relationship with God?
Your answer to the last question is the real test of whether you truly value the cross of or not. Even though there is a lot of emphasis among evangelicals upon being “gospel-centered,” I wonder if we really understand what that means. The focus on being gospel-centered today seems to be how we should use the gospel to solve everyday problems like marriage difficulties or traversing decision-making or how to face trials and stay happy. Although I don’t deny that the gospel does speak to every aspect of our life, the main problem that the gospel solves has little to do with this life.
Another way to put it is that we tend to focus upon the victory that Christ brings us: victory over addiction, victory over lust, victory over anger, victory over depression, and so on. Again, I’m not saying that Christ does not give us victory over these problems. He can and he does. But if the main reason we stand before the cross of Christ is to get deliverance from the misery that sin has brought upon us through addiction or lust or whatever, then we have not come for the right reason.
The main problem that the cross of Christ solves is our alienation from God. The fact that God has hidden his face from us is the real reason we need the cross. Above all else, we need to be forgiven of our sins and received back into his fellowship. It is precisely this that the apostle Paul addresses and rejoices in here in the text: “In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace” (7).
Why does this not thrill us? I suspect it is because our view of God is too low. Modernity has killed our ability to truly grasp the reality of a God with wrath or a Kingdom with judgment as well as mercy. But this is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible is not weak. He is not beholden to man. His hands are not tied. He is holy and unwilling to have fellowship with the unholy. In contrast, to modern man God is just love and mercy and the last thing he wants to do is to punish rebels. This low view of God inevitably results in a corresponding low view of sin. Forgiveness then turns out to be no problem. The horror of sin that is the backdrop of the cross is totally lost on us.
Compare this with Luther’s saner and more Biblical view of God: “Do you not know that God dwells in light inaccessible? We weak and ignorant creatures want to probe and understand the incomprehensible majesty of the unfathomable light of the wonder of God. We approach; we prepare ourselves to approach. What wonder then that his majesty overpowers us and shatters!” This attitude toward God is so foreign to our modern categories of thinking that we are apt, as Bainton appears to do of Luther, to strike such comments down to a more primitive mindset. However, could it be that our modern mindset is wrong and Luther’s is right? I believe it is. At least if you believe that the Bible is God’s word, there is no way to avoid the reality that our view of God and sin and forgiveness often comes far short of the Biblical view of these things. And even if our minds are right on this issue, sadly our hearts beat to the tune of the culture more easily than to the realities of God’s word.
To appreciate this text, then, we need to have a Biblical view of the majesty and holiness of God. This is why it is important to pay attention to Paul’s order here. He does not begin with the work of our Lord upon the cross. Rather, he begins with the will of God the Father. The picture of God that we saw in verses 4-6 is not of a God that needs man or must forgive him. Rather, we see the picture of a God who saves “according to the good pleasure of his will” (5). God does not have to save you and me; indeed, he did not have to save anybody. Salvation is not something that God must do, it is something that he has chosen to do because it pleases him to do so. And the redemption and rescue of any person is not ultimately due to God having to accept their good deeds; rather, salvation is ultimately due to the sovereign choice of God who before the foundation of the world chose unconditionally to save sinful men and women. God does not need us; we need God.
God is not beholden to us. We have no reason to expect that God will forgive us. Instead, we have every reason to believe that he will not. The Bible teaches, and experience confirms, that all men are sinners. This does not mean that we are all as bad as we can be but it does mean that we have within our hearts a disposition that is fundamentally opposed to God. We are not thankful for what he has given us; we complain when bad things happen and when good things happen we chalk them up to our own cleverness and skill. We ignore God’s commandments and when we sin we don’t think it’s a big deal. As a result, we essentially ignore God in this life, though we may give lip service to him every now and then. We may not even do that. Despite all this, we think we are big stuff. We think that we deserve the best out of this life, and if there is a next, of it too. We definitely don’t think that we deserve hell and that if God judges people, well, we don’t like that kind of God anyway. So, why would God forgive us? Why would he want to have fellowship with us? God, who is the ultimate reality, we ignore for video games and Facebook and Pinterest. Why would he want to save us?
We have exalted ourselves, ignored God, and expect God to forget all that and forgive us? Here is what God has to say to people who ignore him, to those who “regard not the work of the LORD, neither consider the operation of his hands” (Isa. 5:12): “Therefore hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure: and their glory, and their multitude, and their pomp, and he that rejoiceth, shall descend into it. . . But the LORD of hosts shall be exalted in judgment, and God that is holy shall be sanctified in righteousness” (Isa. 5:14, 16). Or, as the Psalmist put it, “Now consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver” (Ps. 50:22). Or as the apostle puts it in this very epistle: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:5-6, ESV). In other words, in the revelation of God’s word, we are told that God’s wrath is upon those who ignore and forget him as well as upon those who despise him; it comes down upon those who refuse to repent of respectable sins as well as upon those whom society condemns.
If we think this is unjust, it is because we have too high a view of ourselves, when the reality is that we are nothing. God is everything. He alone dwells in light inaccessible whereas we are creatures of a moment. Yes, we are God’s creation. But we have willingly sinned against him, and having done that we have forfeited any right to receive good from him. The view we have of ourselves is not just; it is distorted and warped. We shrug off the fact that we have replaced God the fountain of all good with the broken cisterns of this world; whereas God and heaven are appalled: “Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the LORD” (Jer. 2:12). We may be respectable in the eyes of the world, but the angels in heaven with clearer eyes shudder in horror at our idolatry. No, we should not expect God to save us.
The church desperately needs to reclaim a sense of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness. The gospel will never be meaningful to us until we are amazed by God’s transcendence as well as convicted by our own sinfulness. In fact, no one can ever really take the gospel seriously or appreciate the seriousness of its claims until they are convicted of sin and convinced of their own helplessness to remedy their situation. And no one will ever get there until they have first come face to face with the awesome majesty of God. All the apologetics in the world will never make the gospel desirable unless it is accompanied by these convictions. And when we get to this place, we will recognize that we do not deserve to be saved. We will say with the hymn-writer, “And if my soul were sent to hell, thy righteous law approves it well.” Can you say that?
The fact that God is holy and we are not means that it is not an easy thing for God to forgive treason, which is what sin is. It’s interesting that we should think that forgiveness is so easy for God when we have such a difficult time forgiving those who sin against us. But consider why forgiveness is so hard for us. I think that one of the problems is that we think we are such a big deal. What makes forgiveness almost impossible is that we put ourselves in the place of God. We think of ourselves in ways that would be appropriate only if we were God. But God is God! If someone sins against me, it may be a truly terrible and tragic thing, but sin against me is trivial in comparison to my sin against God. So, the difficulty that I have extending forgiveness to other actually speaks against the idea that forgiveness is cheap and easy for God.
The fact that it is not easy is demonstrated by the cross. Lloyd-Jones observed in a sermon on this text that God created the universe simply by speaking it into existence, but he could not just speak forgiveness into existence. His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has to become incarnate, had to become a man and take our place before the throne of his justice and to bear our sins on the cross. The awful punishment upon the cross was necessary for forgiveness to become a reality for sinful men and women.
Now we can see why the apostle would marvel at the cross. Salvation is not something that we have a right to expect, and yet this is the very thing that God has done. In Christ, God has accomplished redemption. In Christ, now forgiveness becomes possible. In Christ, God extends to us the riches of his grace.
But what was the apostle marveling at? It is important to see what is given to us at such expense: “the forgiveness of sins.” Now I think this is very important. Here the apostle underlines what the main problem is which is solved by the cross. It is the forgiveness of sin. What problem does this solve? I don’t think we should read into this that Jesus came to solve some psychological need that we have for a guilt-free life. Our Lord didn’t die on the cross so we could feel good about ourselves. The problem here is that sin separates us from God: “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you and your God and our sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:1-2).
Here again we see why modern man sees little need for the gospel. The gospel is not mainly about this world. It is about restoring man’s fellowship with God. Most people see very little need for that. To most people, the concerns of this life are paramount. Education or social and economic mobility or social justice are the concerns. Or perhaps something more prosaic like how to pay off a mortgage or fix the leak under the bathroom sink. Fellowship and acceptance with God are not seen to be that important, if they are seen to be real at all.
The fact of the matter is, if this present world is all there is to it, then they are right. But it this life isn’t all there is, then this is not only wrong, it is a fatal delusion. The Bible teaches us that this life is only a preparation for the next. We are to live in the present by laying hold on eternal life (1 Tim. 6:12). This is because according to our Lord and his apostles, past the door of death there are only two possibilities: eternal punishment or eternal life in the presence of God (Mt. 25:48). On the one hand, all the possibilities and pleasures of this world will not make up for the future judgment of God. On the other hand, one moment in heaven is only the beginning of an eternal journey of increasing, never-ending fulness of joy. “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.”
But to enter eternal life in the presence of God – and it is God’s presence which makes heaven what it is – we must be first reconciled to God. We must have our sins forgiven. The breach that sin has opened up must be mended. And this is what the apostle says happened at the cross: “the forgiveness of sins.” This is why the ministry of the gospel is called “the ministry of reconciliation.” Paul writes that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-19).
Of course, reconciliation with God brings with it innumerable blessings both in this life and in the life to come. Joy, peace, not only in the world to come but in this life as well, all flow from the cross. Fellowship with God is not merely a future blessing, it is a present reality. This is why Paul puts it: “in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.” We have it now, we are not simply waiting for it to come, although redemption in its fullest manifestation is yet to come. However, we must start here, for without reconciliation to God, without the forgiveness of sins, we cannot be saved.
Thus, as important as all the benefits of redemption are, we can see why the apostle starts with forgiveness. It is our main need. And we cannot have any lasting blessing from God apart from this. All the blessings of victory over sin spring from the forgiveness of sins. All the joy and peace that comes from a relationship with God have their beginnings in being reconciled with God through the blood of Christ.
On the other hand, the forgiveness of sins secures an infinite ocean of everlasting blessing from God. Or, as the apostle puts it, “the riches of his grace.” Thank God that he does not practice “trickle-down economics” in the economy of salvation. Rather, he lavishes us with the wealth of his grace. This reality ought to change the way we look at the world and the things that happen to us. Because our sins have been forgiven, we have been granted the riches of his grace. We have been reconciled to God; whereas before we were under the wrath of God, now God is everlastingly for us. Can you imagine anything better than that? As the apostle reasons, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Not that people are not against us. The world in rebellion against God, Satan and his legions, are against the Christian. There are plenty of foes against the believer. The question is not whether anyone is against us; the question is whether they can be successfully against us. And the answer is no: “Nay, in all these things [persecutions, among other things] we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.”
Either this is true, or it isn’t. There isn’t a middle ground. God is either for you or against you. He is not somewhere in between. And if you are in Christ, he is for you. There is therefore nothing that can happen to you that can even remotely threaten or imperil your eternal joy. Regardless of who is against you, God is for you. Regardless of what men may do to you, God is for you. There is never a moment when the forgiven saint is not loved and cared for by God. There is not a path that the forgiven saint walks down but that it leads to holiness and heaven and the Father’s eternal embrace. Because we are forgiven, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear (Ps. 46).
How does this happen? It happens solely through Christ, and the redemption that he accomplished on the cross: “in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins.” Redemption is a word which means deliverance through the payment of a ransom. The deliverance that is obtained is deliverance from the guilt of sin and its eternal consequences. The price is the blood of Christ, shed on the cross.
Now the fact that the apostle mentions the blood of Christ is important, because by this he is not only pointing to the cross, but he is pointing to the OT ritual that provides the language by which are to meant to understand what transpired on Calvary. In the OT, blood sacrifices were offered for the forgiveness of sins, and this transaction was always understood to be substitutionary. In other words, it was understood that the animal took the place of the worshipper, and died in his or her place. This was often signified by the worshipper or the priest placing their hands upon the sacrifice, symbolizing the transfer of the worshipper’s guilt to the sacrifice.
A great illustration of this is given to us in the sacrifice that God called Abraham to give in Genesis 22. There God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. We all know the story: he dutifully goes, bounds Isaac upon the altar and just as he is about to plunge the knife into his son, God stays the execution. But then Abraham looks over and sees a ram whose horns are caught in a thicket, and the ram takes the place of Isaac. In the same way, Paul is indicating to us that on the cross, Jesus became our substitute. He died, not merely as an example, but as the only one who can take away our sin. “He became sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
The redemption that Christ accomplishes is complete. There is nothing that we can do to add to what he has already done. No amount of fasting, or crying, or punishing yourself can add to the infinite value of our Lord’s saving work. If we think that we must do something to make us worthy of Christ, then we have misunderstood what he came to do. He did not come so that you could make yourself worthy for him. He came to take your unworthiness upon himself so that you could have his worthiness. For us to offer Christ our efforts toward repairing our fallen image is to mock what he has done. It is to question his finished work. Paul does not say that we have a partial redemption through his blood or that we have the forgiveness of most of our sins through Christ and that we have to make up for the rest. No, we have full redemption through his blood and the forgiveness of all our sins. It is because of this that the apostle can confidently say to the Romans, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ” (Rom. 8:1).
Moreover, Christ is the only one in whom we have redemption. The only way we can be saved, the only way we can obtain the forgiveness of our sins, is by being connected to the death that Jesus died upon the cross. There is no other way of salvation. If your sins are not forgiven on the basis of what Jesus did on the cross, then they are not forgiven. It is only as we are in him that we can be saved.
How then do we become connected to Christ? How is it that we come to be in him? Our Lord himself tells us in John 6:35, in response to those who asked him to give them the bread that comes down from heaven (see Jn. 6:32-34): “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” The way to be connected to our Lord the bread of life is to believe in him. Or, as the apostle Paul puts it so thoroughly in his epistle to the Romans, we are justified by faith. This of course means more than mere intellectual assent that he is Lord and Savior. The demons believe that. True faith involves not only mental assent but also the trust of the will and the affection of the heart. It means that we understand our need of him, that we are sinners and that we cannot save ourselves. It means that we understand the depth of our need and that Christ is the only one who can save us. It means that we willingly place ourselves under his command, recognizing him as Lord as well as Savior. It means that we trust in him and follow him. Those who do so are given eternal life; they are saved. It is not about bringing anything to the table. It is about receiving what Christ has accomplished already on the Christ. It is about resting in him and in his work, not in our own. According to the Scripture, those who do so are saved, once and for all, finally and completely. Praise God for the riches of his grace in Christ!