Looking back upon the first half of the twentieth century, H. Richard Niebuhr famously described liberal Christianity’s understanding of the gospel like this: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” Sadly, such a view is alive and well today in the twenty-first century. The reason we cannot begin to fathom a God who is holy and just, and the reason we are so hostile to a God who executives his wrath and judgment is because we do not truly understand two things: (1) Just how holy God is, and (2) just how sinful we are.
Because we do not understand how desperately wicked and depraved we are, nor how offensive and hideous our sin is to a righteous Judge, a God who pours out his wrath through a cross is offensive, foolish, detestable, and sour to our taste buds.
Unfortunately, many Christians today make the situation much worse. We simply approach the unbeliever and say, “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved.” But for the unbeliever who has absorbed this view, our words make little sense. Be saved? From what? In other words, because they do not first understand the gravity of their sin, they see no need for a Savior who dies for the forgiveness of sins. We often view salvation as receiving eternal life (and rightly so). But we cannot forget that we are saved from something as well, and that is the wrath of God and eternal condemnation.
The entire storyline of Scripture is one that presents us with a massive problem: we are sinners and the judgment of God is coming. As Paul says in his letter to the church at Ephesus, prior to Christ each one of us is “dead” in our “trespasses” and “by nature” we are “children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (2:1-2). We have a sin problem. Not only does our sin separate us from God, but we deserve the wrath of God to be brought down upon us for all eternity. The punishment for sin is death (Rom. 3:23). Adam discovered this in the garden, and as children of Adam, all of mankind is by nature under the wrath of God. This is the bad news.
But what makes Christianity Christianity is that this bad news is not the end of the story. While God would have been perfectly just to leave us in our sin and condemnation, he lovingly and graciously gave his only Son, Christ Jesus, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
What does John mean when he says God gave his only Son? This act of giving takes us back to Isaiah 53. Isaiah, prophesying about the Suffering Servant, the Messiah to come, says, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:4-6). Isaiah goes on to say that this suffering servant is like a “lamb that is led to the slaughter” (53:7).
When we come to the cross and we see the enormous amount of suffering Jesus underwent, we tend to focus solely on his physical suffering: the crown of thorns, the nails, and the crucifix. But as important as all of this is, we cannot miss the main thing: the most excruciating thing about the suffering servant’s cross is that he bore the very wrath of God that was ours. The Lord laid upon Christ our iniquities and Christ took the due penalty for those iniquities. We see this and we hear it when Christ cries out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mark 15:34). And then come three beautiful words, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
What is finished? Christ, as he says in the garden of Gethsamani, has drunk the cup of God’s wrath in full (Matt. 26:39), and by doing so, as Hebrews 1:3 reminds us, Christ “made purification for sins.” As our high priest Christ “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:11-12; cf. 9:13, 25-26).
Indeed, this is good news.