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The Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus Christ on the Cross

Unless otherwise noted, all Bible verses are from the World English Bible (WEB). I use it because the WEB is in the public domain (not copyrighted).

Penal Substitutionary Atonement has been the most difficult subject I have written on. There have been several versions of this page as I have wrestled my way through it.

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The Common Evangelical Understanding of the Gospel and the Atonement

Almost every evangelical accepts the following outline of the atonement. Most also make the atonement the Gospel they preach to the lost. I got this outline from evangelismexplosion.org, which claims that more than 11 million people were saved by this presentation of the Gospel in 2017.

  • Heaven is a gift (Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9).
  • People are sinners (Rom. 3:23), and God's standard for entering heaven is perfection (Matt. 5:48). Thus, we cannot save ourselves.
  • God is merciful and does not want to punish us (1 Jn. 4:8; Jer. 31:3). He is also just and must punish sin (Ex. 34:7; Ezek. 18:4).
  • Jesus is God and man (Jn. 1:1,14). He lived a sinless life, and died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins (Isa. 53:6).
  • Saving faith is trusting in Jesus Christ alone for eternal life (Acts 16:31).
  • Take these steps to be saved:
    1. Transfer your trust from yourself to Jesus.
    2. Accept Jesus as Savior by opening the door to your heart and inviting him in Rev. 3:20.
    3. Receive Jesus as Lord.
    4. Repent. Be willing to turn from anything that is not pleasing to him (Rom. 10:10-13).

Comparing the Evangelic Gospel and Atonement to Scripture

Obviously, this must all be correct because EvangelismExplosion.org cites so many scriptures, right? But just to make sure, let's just compare this to the way Peter preached the Gospel in Acts 2:15-38. Here's the outline of Peter's preaching:

  • The languages you hear us speaking are not the result of our being drunk, but the result of the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy to give the Holy Spirit to everyone (vv. 14-21).
  • The result of this is that whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved (v. 21).
  • God did many wonderful things through Jesus, but you wickedly slew him anyway (vv. 22-23).
  • God raised him from the dead because it was not possible that death could hold him (v. 24).

Peter missed some important steps here! He forgot to tell them that Heaven is a gift. He did tell them they were sinners by saying their wicked hands put Jesus to death. But then he missed the most important step of all!

He did not tell them Jesus paid the penalty for their sins on the cross! He had a perfect opportunity. He had just said Jesus was "delivered by the determined purpose and counsel of God" (v. 23). Surely this was the time to introduce the idea that Jesus died to pay for sins. But no, Peter glosses right over it. In fact, if you want to do this with every other gospel sermon in the Book of Acts, you will find that all of them skip any mention of a payment for sins. Now, don't panic. Of course the apostles talked about the relationship between Jesus' death and deliverance from sin (the atonement). It is just that they taught about the atonement to the churches, to Christians. They did not preach it to the lost.

Let's go on.

  • David prophesied the resurrection of the Christ in Psalm 16 (vv. 25-31).
  • All of us here in the upper room are witnesses of his resurrection (v. 32).
  • It is Jesus, ascended into the heavens, who is responsible for this outpouring of the Spirit you are seeing (v. 33).
  • He quotes Psalm 110:1 to establish that the Christ is supposed to rule from God's right hand (vv. 34-35).
  • Peter concludes that everything he has said proves that Jesus is the Lord and the Christ (v. 36).

The Jews who were listening were cut to the heart, so Peter told them what they must do to be saved.

  • Repent.
  • Be baptized for the release of sins.

Then Peter promises that this will result in receiving the Spirit. The crowd was surely expecting that receiving the Spirit would be like what they saw in the apostles and what he quoted from Joel. They expected to prophesy, see visions, and dream dreams because that is what was prophesied by Joel.

While the Evangelism Explosion outline does not mention baptism, like Peter did, it does discuss repentance. This is a wonderful improvement. When I went through the Evangelism Explosion course in 1982, repentance was not in that last step, just trusting Jesus for the forgiveness of sins and a free entrance into heaven. You may have noticed that Peter did not talk about heaven when he preached the Gospel.

I want you to notice one extremely important thing: Peter focused on Jesus' resurrection, not his death. He gave one verse to Jesus' death and at least nine to his resurrection. His conclusion was that Jesus is Lord and Christ because of the resurrection. The Evangelism Explosion outline concludes that your sins can be forgiven because of his death. They do not even mention the resurrection.

Well, maybe the difference is because Peter was speaking to Jews. Providentially, we can check on that because Peter also preached the first Gospel sermon the Gentiles. You can read that sermon in Acts 10. Here's that outline:

  • Jesus was sent by God and did many wonderful things (vv. 36-38).
  • We (apostles) witnessed everything he did, but they killed him (v. 39).
  • God raised him from the dead, and appeared to certain witnesses (the apostles), who were to testify that he is ordained of God to be Judge of the living and the dead (vv. 40-42).
  • The prophets testify that those who believe in him will receive release from sins (v. 43).

The release of sins does come up in his preaching to Cornelius' family, but it is not tied to Jesus' death. Instead, release of sins is tied to the fact that Jesus rose and is Judge of all. Again, I am not denying that Jesus atoned for our sins by his death, though we evangelicals misunderstand even this (see below). The apostles taught atonement by Jesus' death and blood to the churches. They did not, however, preach the atonement to the lost. The book of Acts shows us that they preached the resurrection as proof that Jesus is Lord, Christ, and Judge. (Both Paul and Peter used "Judge" rather than "Christ" to Gentiles, who would not have understood "Christ" (Acts 10:42; 17:31).

With that, let's get to two things. Why didn't they preach the atonement to the lost, and why do I keep using "release" instead of "forgiveness"?

The Saving Confession

Protestants don't like talking about Matthew 16:14-19 because Roman Catholics have abused the passage so much. It is never, however, a good idea to ignore a passage of Scripture, especially if it talks about the foundation of Jesus' Church!

Roman Catholics can get no ground from Matthew 16. There is a long series of arguments and history that must be true in order for Matthew 16 to mean that the bishop of Rome (the pope) has "full, supreme, and universal authority over the whole Church" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 882). Except for the fact that Peter really was in Rome, none of those pieces fall into place. (See my book, Rome's Audacious Claim, which will be published before 2019 is done.)

In Matthew 16:16, Peter tells Jesus that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God." The import of that statement can best be seen in Psalm 2. You might want to pause and read that short Psalm before proceeding. By calling Jesus Christ and Son of God, Peter was speaking a mouthfull!

Jesus reacted to Peter's pronouncement with great joy! He told Peter that only the Father could have revealed this to him (v. 17). In fact, this is how Simon became Peter, which means "rock" (v. 18). Now when Jesus told Peter that he would build his church on "this rock," he was saying two things. Protestants and Catholics alike will agree with me on this (see these Protestant commentaries and paragraph 442 from the Catholic Catechism): He was saying that Peter was the rock, the first of the living stones with which Jesus would build the Church (1 Pet. 2:5). He was also saying that Peter's confession, that Jesus is Christ and Son of God, was the rock upon which Jesus would build his Church.

My point is simple. If Jesus wants to build his Church on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, then shouldn't we do the same?

Mark starts his Gospel by saying, "The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." The apostle John, near the conclusion of his Gospel, writes, "These things were written so that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" (Jn. 20:31).

This explains why Peter did not mention the atonement to unsaved Jews or Gentiles? He concludes his sermon in Acts 2 with, "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucifed, both Lord and Christ" (v. 36). Peter was not trying to get his hearers to believe that Jesus died for their sins. He wanted them to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

To Gentiles, Peter switched his terminology. Rather than saying that the resurrection proves Jesus is Lord and Christ, he says the resurrection proves Jesus is the Judge of the living and dead (Acts 10:42). The apostle Paul said the same to Gentiles in Athens: "[God] has appointed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom he has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:31, NKJV).

Gentiles were not necessarily familiar with Psalm 2 or the concept of a Jewish Messiah. Saying that Jesus was the Christ would have been meaningless to them. Peter and Paul used "Judge" of everyone instead.

I want to argue that we ought to follow Matthew, Mark, John, Peter and Paul rather than Evangelism Explosion. We ought to preach the resurrection as proof that Jesus is Christ, Lord, Son of God, and Judge of the living and the dead because the saving confession is "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God," not "Jesus died for my sins."

You can see this again in the very clear and precise Romans 10:9-10:

If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved, for with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (NKJV)

This aligns with what Paul says three verses later (Rom. 10:13) and what Peter began with in Acts 2:21: "Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." Paul gave warning he would be driving towards this idea in the first few verses of Romans, saying:

Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated to the gospel of God, which He promised before through His prophets in the Holy Scriptures, concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. (Rom. 1:1-4, NKJV)

Paul was separated to the Gospel of God, and that Gospel was centered on the idea that Jesus is "the Son of God" and it is established by the power of the Spirit that raised him from the dead.

There are a lot of things we can tell a lost person, but these should drive the lost person to hear and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God or that he is the Judge of the living and the dead. You can teach him or her that Jesus death was for our sins later.

The Release from Sins

The Greek word aphesis may be the most important word in the Bible. In Ephesians 1:7, we read, "... in [Jesus] we have our redemption through his blood, the aphesis of our trespasses." Whether aphhesis should be translated "forgiveness" or "release" in this passage is debated. Neither word gets across what matters. Let us take it one giant step forward.

The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) translated a century or two before Christ. The link at the start of this paragraph will give you more information about it, but for our purposes, we need only know that it is the translation most quoted in the New Testament and that it was "the" Bible of the Greek-speaking churches from the beginning. It is still used in Orthodox Churches. (The introduction is the most important part of that last link. See also Bible.ca)

The reason these facts are important is because they make it certain that the apostles, and especially Paul, were familiar with the Septuagint. Thus, when Paul wrote, "In whom we have redemption through his blood, the aphesis of our trespasses," he knew ...

  • That "Jubilee" in Leviticus 25 was translated aphesis every time it appeared.
  • That "scapegoat" in Leviticus 16:26 was translated aphesis.
  • That the forgiveness of all debt in Israel in Deuteronomy 15 is translated aphesis every time it appears.

Paul was well aware of the various uses of aphesis when he said that redemption through Jesus's blood not only produces but was the aphesis of sins.

Before I expound on this, we must look at two other uses of aphesis, this time by Luke in quoting Jesus:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim aphesis to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to set at aphesis those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

Obviously, Jesus' death accomplished amazing things. At Jubilee, Israelites had all their land returned to them (Lev. 25:10) and hired servants were set free (Lev. 25:39-41). The scapegoat was sent into the wilderness after the high priest confessed all the sins, iniquities, and transgressions of Israel while laying hands on its head (Lev. 16:21). "The goat shall carry all their iniquities on himself to a solitary land" (Lev. 16:22). At the aphesis that happened every seven years, all debts were forgiven (Deut. 15:2). If anyone had a Hebrews slave, he was to be released with a "liberal" gift from the flock and vineyard (Deut. 15:14).

Finally, as Jesus said, aphesis also included release for the captives and freedom for those who are "crushed."

We are minimizing Jesus' death if we think he only died for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus's death provided a complete release from our debt (probably to the Law rather than to sin), the sending away of our sins, but also a release from slavery to sin (cf. Rom. 6:14), and a return to the land that is rightfully ours by the gift of God. Obviously, our land as Christians is not an earthly place, but it is the heavenly country, in which God has prepared us a city (Heb. 11:16).

You Were Bought with a Price

As important as the word aphesis is, another word may be even more important: apolutrosis. This is the word translated "redemption" in Ephesians 1:7. We do not often think about it, but words like "redeem" and "ransom" are purchase words. They have to do with buying. Thayer's Lexicon defines apolutrosis as "a releasing effected by payment of ransom; redemption; deliverance."

More clearly, Paul wrote, "You were bought with a price: therefore, glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's" (1 Cor. 6:20)

We gloss over the words "redeem" and "redemption" as if they do not indicate that God bought us with the blood of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 6:20 drives it home, though. You were not redeemed so you could own yourself. You belong to God now.

IMPORTANT NOTE BEFORE YOU GO ON!

Good works from a biblical standpoint is new to most evangelicals and can be terrifying. Below I address the idea that God requires sinless perfection at the judgment. For now though, to remind you of an important truth that you must not forget as you read on, here are two paragraphs pulled from below for you to read in advance:

We may be trying to attain to sinless perfection, but God knows we will not achieve this (1 Jn. 1:8, 10; James 3:2). His mercy is new every morning (Lam. 3:22). If we run to him, he will "abundantly" pardon (Isa. 55:7; 1 Jn. 1:9-2:2).

For those of us who are denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily, and following him (Luke 9:23), we do not have to worry that we might accidentally lose our salvation. He has promised to keep us and carry us along (1 Cor. 1:8; Php. 1:6; Jude 1:24). Though works are necessary, and we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Php. 2:12), it is God who works in us both to do and to will of his good pleasure (Php. 2:13). We put the deeds of the flesh to death by setting our minds on the things of the Spirit, not by focusing our effort on our sins (Rom. 8:5-8). We must trust in the grace of God (Rom. 6:14; Tit. 2:11-12) and be led by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:14), regularly coming boldly to the throne of grace to obtain mercy and grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16).

Good Works

It is alarming that "good works" has gotten a negative connotation in some evangelical circles. Titus 2:14 says, "[Jesus] gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all inquity, and purify for himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good works." The next verse commands Titus to "say these things and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one despise you." Being zealous for good works is a central part of the Christian life, and Jesus died to make us zealous for good works. Just a few verses later, Paul writes, "This saying is faithful, and concerning these things I desire that you affirm confidently, so that those who have believed God may be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable to men" (Tit. 3:8). This is not a negative attitude toward works! These verses indicate that good works are a focus of our lives!

The Bible is clear about this. After saying that we are not saved by works and that our salvation is the gift of God, leaving us unable to boast about our salvation, Paul adds, "We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared before that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10).

Consider this list, which is, sadly, astonishing to many evangelicals.

  • The purpose, or at least the end, of our salvation is that we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Eph. 2:8-10).
  • Several uses are given for Scripture, such as teaching, admonishing, and correcting, but the purpose that is given is that the man of God be "thoroughly equipped for good works" (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
  • Grace delivers us from the power of sin (Rom. 6:14), and it teaches us that "denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we would live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age" (Tit. 2:11-12).
  • Sowing to the Spirit and reaping eternal life, rather than sowing to the flesh and reaping corruption, is followed by "therefore, do not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not faint" (Gal. 6:7-9). Sowing to the Spirit results in good works.
  • We will be judged by our works, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10), and we are to fear that day (1 Pet. 1:17).

Jesus died so that we would be zealous for good works; by grace we are created in Christ Jesus to do good works; the stated purpose of the Scriptures are to equip us for good works; sowing to the Spirit results in doing good works; and we are commanded to fear because we will be judged by our works. This makes it a bad idea for saved Christians to put any negative connotation on good works.

It is true that sinners cannot be save by good works, but must be born again by believing that God raised Jesus from the dead and confessing him as Lord (Rom. 3:28; Jn. 3:3; Rom. 10:9-10).

Misunderstanding "Not by Works"

This section will be by far the hardest to swallow for an evangelical, but there are two hard facts which have to be faced. Many years of pointing these two things out have taught me how difficult it is for evangelicals to face these facts. These are not Bible interpretations; they are facts that anyone who can read can see.

Pause and take a deep breath. The natural reaction of an evangelical who reads this is to think of every verse or argument that he or she can think of and rattle them off without even considering whether or not the statement is simply, factually ... true.

Ready?

1. Every time the apostle Paul says that we are saved apart from works, the sentence is in the past tense.

That one is less hard because you have not seen the second point yet. Do you want to check around and see if this first sentence is true first? Paul says that justification or salvation is apart from works in Romans 3:28; Ephesians 2:8; and Titus 3:5. He says salvation is by faith a lot of times, but that it is apart from works only a few times. Each time it is in the past tense. In other words, we "were" or "are" saved by faith. The apostle Paul never says, "We will be saved by faith," future tense.

Do you agree that is a fact?

2. The apostle Paul says, "[God] will pay back to everyone according to their works: to those who by perseverance in well-doing seek for glory, honor, and incorruptibility, eternal life" (Rom. 2:6-7). In the more clear words of the New International Version, Paul says, "God 'will repay each person according to what they have done.' To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honour and immortality, he will give eternal life." In my own wording, God is going to repay eternal life to those who pursue glory, honor, and immortaliy by patiently continuing to do good.

Do you agree this is a fact? Can you at least acknowledge that Romans 2:6-7 says what I said it says. I am not asking for an interpretation nor offering an interpretation. I am just stating more clearly what Romans 2:6-7 actually says.

Can we agree on that as a fact? Romans 2:6 says that those who seek glory, honor, and immortality by patiently continuing to do good will receive eternal life when God repays us all for our works?

If you cannot acknowledge those two things as facts—not my interpretation or my doctrine, or anything like that, but simple fact—then you should probably leave his article now. You will never tolerate the reasoning and Scripture interpretation that I am going to give you beginning with these facts if you cannot acknowledge them as facts.

Okay, for those of you who are willing, let's go on. The following is my argument based on the two facts just presented.

The apostle Paul does not say we will go to heaven by faith. He says we have been saved, past tense. We were born again by faith. We were delivered from captivity to sin by faith. We received grace by faith. Those are all true, but Paul never says we go to heaven by faith.

In fact, Paul specifically says that we will not enter the kingdom of heaven if we "practice" the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21). He says roughly the same in Ephesians 5:5 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. In fact, in Ephesians 5 he implies that if we live like the sons of disobedience, then we will be judged like the sons of disobedience (vv. 6-7).

Further, in Galatians he says something remarkably similar to Romans 2:6-7. He says that if we sow to the flesh, we will reap corruption, and if we sow to the Spirit, we will reap eternal life (Gal. 6:7-8). Then, without a break, he says, "Let's not grow weary in doing good, for we will reap in due season, if we do not give up" (Gal. 6:9).

Consider Galatians 6:9. Paul says if we do not grow weary in doing good, we will reap. What will we reap? Is it at all possible that he means anything else than reaping eternal life? The context demands that the reaping be eternal life. Thus, Paul tells us that if we do not give up doing good, we will reap eternal life. Romans 2:6 has already told us that God will reward eternal life to those who patiently continue to do good, and now Galatians 6:9 is telling that those who do not give up on doing good, continuing by sowing to the Spirit, will reap eternal life. These are very similar passages, both of which use the same wording. The only difference is that Galatians 6:7-9 lets us know that we need the Holy Spirit in order to do good without growing weary.

Let me state this plainly. The apostle Paul teaches that we are born again, made new creatures in Christ, and receive the grace that saves us by faith, apart from works. Now, forgiven for our past sins (2 Pet. 1:9), we can patiently continue to do good and receive eternal life. We can only do good because the Holy Spirit empowers us (Rom. 8:2-4, 13; Gal. 5:16). Paul calls this grace, and he tells us that because we are under grace, sin has no power over us (Rom. 6:14). In fact, grace teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age (Tit. 2:11-12).

This brings us to two unbiblical ideas that we must overthrow.

Eternal Life in Paul and John

I have been focusing on Paul's letters. Paul, as I hope you will agree, was the consummate theologian among the apostles. Being challenged for his emphasis on faith apart from the works of the law, he had to fight for it, explaining his Gospel carefully. Once we understand his careful dissecting of the Gospel of faith, it helps us understand the other apostles.

Take James, for example. He does not carefully distinguish between the faith apart from works that saved us in the past and the faith that produces works that marks our lives in the present. He just states that we are justified by both faith and works (James 2:24). No matter how much we play with his words, James does not say "faith alone." Instead, he says, "not only by faith." This does not contradict Paul. Paul says we "have been" saved by faith apart from works (Eph. 2:8-9), now we are producing works by faith (Gal. 2:20), and when we face the judgment we will receive eternal life because we patiently continued to do good by the power of the Spirit of God (Rom. 2:6; Gal. 2:8-9). James just lumps this all together into "You see then that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith."

Peter writes very much like Paul. The sequence I wrote in the last paragraph, based on Paul's writings, is repeated in 2 Peter 1:3-11. Verses 3 and 4 tell us about the amazing gifts and transformation that we have received by believing. Verses 5-7 tell us what we need to add to our faith, and verses 9 through 11 tell us the rewards we will receive if we diligently add those things.

John, however, writes completely differently. He did not write until late in life, several decades after Paul, and his writings focused on refuting gnostic teachers that were corrupting the church. (This article cites the evidence for 1 John and 2 John refuting gnosticism, and Irenaeus says John's Gospel was written specifically against the gnostic teacher Cerinthus in Against Heresies III:11.) He writes very spiritually (in my opinion), and he speaks of eternal life as a present possession of the Christian, received entirely by faith.

I am sure most of my readers agree with me that although the Bible was written through men, it was inspired by God. This means that no matter the differences in wording, all the apostles agree on the substance of the Gospel message and the Christiana faith. Yet Paul (and Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Jude) present eternal life as a reward given at the judgment, and John says we have it now. If they do not contradict, how do we reconcile this.

First, let's make it clear that this is not a matter of faith versus works. According to John, the people that have eternal life keep his commandments (1 Jn. 2:3-4), practice righteousness (1 Jn. 3:7), do not practice sin (1 Jn. 3:9), and love their brothers (1 Jn. 4:7-8). There is no way to escape the need for holy living if you want to live forever.

That said, here is my proposal for reconciling Paul and John. (Usually people are trying to reconcile Paul and James, but as seen above, I find no difference between Paul and James.)

John wrote, "The testimony is this, that God gave to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has the life. He who doesn’t have God’s Son doesn’t have the life" (1 Jn. 5:11-12). In fact, he practically equated the Son with eternal life in the first few two verses of 1 John: "That which was from the beginning, that which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, that which we saw, and our hands touched, concerning the Word of life (and the life was revealed, and we have seen, and testify, and declare to you the life, the eternal life, which was with the Father, and was revealed to us)."

John says that eternal life is in the Son. We have that life if, and only if, we have the Son. Paul agrees with this, often saying that we have the life of Christ in us (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 4:10-11), or even that Christ is our life (Col. 3:4). Paul does not call that life "eternal life" until we receive it at the judgment, but it is obvious that Jesus has only one kind of life to give. As said, John practically equates Jesus with eternal life in 1 John 1:1-2. Any life that we receive from Jesus is eternal life.

It is important to understand that "eternal" does not describe our possession of God's life; it describes the life itself. Our life is temporary. We will all die one day. God's life, however, is in and of itself eternal. He had no beginning, and he will have no end, so his life is intrinsically eternal.

This helps us to understand John's writing. Eternal life is in the Son, so anyone in whom the Son lives has eternal life. Paul tells us one day that we will have eternal life like the Son does. We will become immortal (Rom. 2:6-7; 1 Cor. 15:54). We will no longer have eternal life only because we have the Son. Instead, immortality will be given to us (2 Tim. 1:10). As the adopted children of God (Rom. 8:19-23), we will be like Jesus (Rom. 8:29; 1 Jn. 3:2), and we will have eternal life ourselves.

Progressive Action in John

One other thing that helps with John's writings is a good translation. Even a first year Greek student knows that the present tense in Greek indicates progressive action (see BlueLetterBible.org, "tense" section). The best example of this is 1 John 3:9. If the translator does not properly translate the present tense, we are left with the statement that "Whoever is born of God doesn't commit sin." (The World English Bible is one that translates this wrong.) A much better translation is "Whoever is born of God is not sinning" or "Whoever is born of God does not continue sinning" or "Whoever is born of God does not continually sin." The New American Standard Bible, which is more careful about Greek verb tenses, has "No one who is born of God practices sin."

1 John 3:9 is not the only place this is important. John uses the Greek present tense throughout his writing.

A good example of this is the well-known John 3:16. If we take into account the linear sense of the Greek perfect tense, it reads, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever is believing in him will not perish, but be having eternal life." It is those who are currently believing in him, proven by their obedience to his commandments (Jn. 3:36; 15:5; 1 Jn. 2:3-4), that have the Son and thus have eternal life.

Again, there is not a conflict between Paul and John on the matter of works. No one can read 1 John and think that they can be a Christian and continue sinning. Paul makes the distinction at the judgment; John makes the distinction here on earth in this life: Practice righteousness and you are righteous like Jesus is (1 Jn. 3:7); practice sin and you are of the devil (1 Jn. 3:8).

Despite John's focus on the now, he does not disregard the judgment. In John 5:28-29, he writes, "Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment."

No matter how it is worded, John and the other New Testament writers agree on this: there will be a judgment, and it will be according to works. Those who have patiently continued to do good (Rom. 2:6; Gal. 6:9) because they put the deads of the body to death by the Spirit (Rom. 8:13, Gal. 5:24) will have a resurrection of life (Jn. 5:29). Those who lived by the flesh will see their spiritual life die (Rom. 8:12), and they will reap corruption (Gal. 6:7).

Because of this truth, Paul said, "I beat my body, and bring it into submission, lest by any means, having preached to others, I myself should be rejected" (1 Cor. 9:27). He said he counted everything as loss to obtain a righteousness that comes through faith in Christ so that, among other things, he could attain to the resurrection of the dead (Php. 3:8-11). He immediately follows that with "Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect" (Php. 3:12). As a result of all this, he pressed on toward the goal (Php. 3:13). He tells us all to have this mindset in vers 15. Do we really think that we will attain to the resurrection of the dead if we do not follow in Paul's footsteps?

I do not really like presenting such a frightening message, but Peter said, "If you call on him as Father, who without respect of persons judges according to each man’s work, pass the time of your living as foreigners here in reverent fear" (1 Peter 1:17). "Reverent fear" is an addition by the WEB version; the verse should just read "fear" as in most other versions. The Greek word is "phobos," the word from which we get the English "phobia." It is the same word used in 2 Corinthians 5:10-11, where Paul says, "For we must all be revealed before the judgment seat of Christ that each one may receive the things in the body according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing therefore the fear of the Lord, we persuade men."

If this message, which is simply what the Bible says and what the apostles' churches believed (remember the quote from Polycarp above), takes your breath away, I can give you some relief. I cannot tell you that you do not have to pursue holiness because without it you will not see the Lord. I cannot tell you that you do not have to maintain good works because Paul told Titus to affirm constantly that we should. I can tell you, however, the picture that the New Testament gives of good works and God's standard for judgment.

Which Good Works?

I get asked often what good works God requires. The Bible is very clear about the most important ones. "Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this: to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (James 1:26). Jesus explained that loving God and loving others were the two greatest commandments (Matt. 22:35-40). Jesus gives us a sneak peek at the judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. There we find that we will be asked about how we took care of those in need.

On top of this, Jesus gave a thorough set of teachings and commandments in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7). At the end of it, he assured us that if we obeyed those teachings, we would be building the house of our lives on a rock (Matt. 7:24-27). Those three chapters are a great place to start.

God Does Not Require Perfection and Is Rich in Mercy

There is a common teaching that God requires sinless perfection to enter heaven. This is based on one verse in James that is taken out of context. James 2:10 says, "For whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all."

That verse is about judging one another. James wants us to understand that we are in place to judge our brothers and sisters, thinking we are more righteous than they because their sin was bigger than our sin. No, James says, you are all lawbreakers together. You have no place to judge them.

God, though, has never judged people on one little sin. In Romans 3, where Paul indicts us all as sinners, look at the verses he quotes. We have poison under our lips, our mouth is full of cursing and bitterness, and our feet are swift to shed blood. Because we are like that as a people, we need deliverance.

But then look at Hebrews 11. God is not ashamed to be called the God of those people (v. 16), yet not a single one of them was without sin (1 Kings 8:46; Prov. 20:9).

God had some words to say to Israel about his judgment. He stated that he was a just Judge, and he told them why. If a wicked man quit being wicked and started living righteously, then he would forget all that man's sins, and the man would live because of his righteousness. If a righteous man turned away from his righteousness and began to be wicked, then that man would perish for his wickedness. This judgment God called just (Ezek. 18:20-30).

When God said that he would give life to a wicked man who turned to righteousness, he certainly did not mean sinless perfection. "There is no one who does not sin" (1 Kings 8:46). He meant people who live a pattern of righteousness. As John said, those who "are doing righteousness" in contrast to those who "are sinning" (1 Jn. 3:7-8).

To those people he made a promise back in the Old Testament that carried forth to the new. There are those to whom the Lord will not impute iniquity (Ps. 32:2). Who are those people? Well, God answers that question too. Those people have no deceit in their spirit (Ps. 32:2 again). In the New Testament we see that they are those who practice righteousness. Those people, say John, are righteous just as he is righteous (1 Jn. 3:7). Obviously, then, those who practice righteousness are those to whom the Lord will not impute sin. Also, that righteousness is the product of faith because Paul applies Psalm 32:2 to those who have the faith of Abraham in Romans 4:1-18. Do not forget, though, that the faith of Abraham is a working faith. Not only does Paul use Abraham as an example of faith, James uses him as an example of works (James 2:21-23).

The Bible gives at least one more description of those to whom the Lord will not impute sin. In 1 John 1:7, we are told that those who walk in the light experience continual cleansing from sin by the blood of Jesus. Now that is a promise worth jumping up and down about! Paul explains that walking in the light has to do with being exposed and walking in goodness, righteousness, and truth by the Spirit (Eph. 5:8-14).

We may be trying to attain to sinless perfection, but God knows we will not achieve this (1 Jn. 1:8, 10; James 3:2). His mercy is new every morning (Lam. 3:22). If we run to him, he will "abundantly" pardon (Isa. 55:7; 1 Jn. 1:9-2:2).

For those of us who are denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily, and following him, we do not have to worry that we might accidentally lose our salvation. He has promised to keep us and carry us along (1 Cor. 1:8; Php. 1:6; Jude 1:24). Though works are necessary, and we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Php. 2:12), it is God who works in us both to do and to will of his good pleasure (Php. 2:13). We put the deeds of the flesh to death by setting our minds on the things of the Spirit, not by focusing our effort on our sins (Rom. 8:5-8). We must trust in the grace of God (Rom. 6:14; Tit. 2:11-12) and be led by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:14), regularly coming boldly to the throne of grace to obtain mercy and grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16).

A great teacher from the church in Alexandria once wrote:

As far, however, as we can, let us try to sin as little as possible. For nothing is so urgent in the first place as deliverance from passions and disorders, and then the checking of our liability to fall into sins that have become habitual. It is best, therefore, not to sin at all in any way, which we assert to be the prerogative of God alone; next to keep clear of voluntary transgressions, which is characteristic of the wise man; thirdly, not to fall into many involuntary offenses, which is peculiar to those who have been excellently trained. Not to continue long in sins, let that be ranked last. But this also is salutary to those who are called back to repentance, to renew the contest. (The Instructor, Bk. II, ch. 1).

Jesus Paid the Penalty for Future Sins

To be continued ... (posted September 24, 2019)

Yet to be addressed is the false idea that there is no penalty for sinning because Jesus paid the penalty. I should also cover more on the judgment. There are a number of verses directly on the atonement that should be addressed, and the whole matter of sacrifices is really important. That all is yet to come.

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