Heresy abounds. It always has and always will, until such time as Jesus returns and exposes the misguided theological fabrications of men and women and vindicates the truth of his Word. In our day, there are many heretical and deviant notions circulating within the professing evangelical church. But I am persuaded that the most serious and severe departure from biblical faith in our day is the repudiation of the truth of penal substitutionary atonement (together with the wicked, childish, inexcusable, or as J. I. Packer has put it, “the smarty-pants” caricature of penal substitution as “cosmic child abuse”).
There is much that could be said about this, but today I restrict my comments to the declaration of Revelation 1:5b where John predicates of Jesus Christ “glory and dominion forever and ever.” And what is the ground for this doxology? Why is Jesus deserving of such praise? It is because, among other things, he “loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood” (Rev. 1:5b).
This the only place in the NT where Christ’s love for us is in the present tense. John wants you to know that no matter what you endure, no matter how sorely you may be persecuted, no matter how badly circumstances may turn out for you and me, Jesus always has, does now, and always will love us. No matter what we face, he always has our best interests in view. His heart beats with passion for his people at all times.
And how do we know he loves us? What has he done to demonstrate that love? The last phrase in v. 5 tells us. The love of Christ for his people is demonstrated by his willingness to endure the judgment and wrath our sins deserved that we might be set free from the single most ominous threat to the eternal welfare of our souls: judgment in hell.
Here in v. 5 we see two motifs joined together: the love (motive) of Jesus for people and his voluntary expression of that love by freeing (action) us from our sins. This is an echo of what Paul said in Galatians 2:20 – “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Again we read in Ephesians 5:2 – “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
Perhaps your life is a shambles. Perhaps nothing has turned out as you hoped it would. Perhaps you are alone and financially destitute and your body suffers from chronic pain or a terminal disease, and all this stirs in your heart the question: “Does he really love me?” Hear the declaration of John: Yes! He loves you, and you can know this by turning your heart to the concrete, historical, tangible reality of Jesus on a cross for you, shedding his blood for you, and setting you free from death and condemnation.
To say that he has “freed us from our sins by his blood” means that the guilt of our sin that exposes us to divine justice and righteous wrath has been finally and forever removed. We are free from that guilt that puts our souls in eternal jeopardy. And please take note of how this happened. It isn’t because we are physically impressive or because of our good intentions or because of our eloquence, intelligence, or the many promises we have kept. And it certainly isn’t because we are sincere in our religious faith. We are liberated from guilt and divine judgment because our guilt was imputed to Jesus, our judgment fell upon him. His “blood” shed on the cross is what cleanses us from the stain of sin.
The shocking tragedy in our day is that professing evangelicals are attempting to speak meaningfully of God’s love, the death of Christ, and the forgiveness of our sins without reference to the righteous wrath of God which Jesus suffered and exhausted in himself on the cross. It was there that he died in our place, as our substitute, where we should have died. The reason why his death has delivered or set us free from the well-deserved consequences of our sins is that he shed “his blood” as a penal, sacrificial offering for sinners like you and me.
It was our “blood” that should have been shed. The punishment due unto our sin was eternal judgment and separation from the glorious presence of God. But Jesus made atonement for our transgressions by enduring in himself on the cross the penal consequences of our rebellion and idolatry.
Kathryn Tanner is not an evangelical. She is Professor of Theology at Yale University Divinity School. Many who claim to be evangelical Christians are embracing a view similar to hers. In Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, Tanner declares that “the sacrifice on the cross has nothing essentially to do with a blood sacrifice for the expiation of sin; Jesus’s death is the simple consequence of the life he led on behalf of others – his soteriological mission – in a sinful world” (29-30). Elsewhere she argues that “God’s forgiveness is a statement of fiat rather than a consequence of Christ’s passion.”
In other words, Jesus didn’t have to die in your place, suffering the judgment you deserved by shedding his blood on a Roman cross, in order that you might be forgiven. No, says Tanner, God forgave you by “fiat,” that is, by a simple, sovereign declaration that you are forgiven. “Christ’s passion” was not the necessary precondition for forgiveness. His blood need not have been shed at all for you and me to be “freed from our sins.”
If Jesus did not in fact voluntarily, lovingly, and freely take upon himself the guilt and condemnation that our sin deserved, thereby setting us free from the well-deserved consequences of our moral and spiritual rebellion against God, we have no hope. More than that, we have no “good news” (no “gospel”) to proclaim to a lost and dying world. To lose this is to lose Christianity. This denial of the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ is, in my opinion, the most serious and severe departure from the faith in our day.