I've been reflecting lately on the nature of the atonement. And the more I've done that, reading scripture and pondering the matter, the more I've felt very strongly that a lot of our preaching about the cross since the nineteenth century has missed the point in a crucial way. The content is certainly there (at least, among evangelicals; perhaps not so much among liberal protestants) - sin, judgment, wrath, love, mercy, hope. But it seems as though the arrangement and ordering of these things has been altered in such a way that it is the human individual that takes center stage. As J.I. Packer observed, we've come to believe that at Calvary, God simply constructed a big soteriological machine that we operate, basically in order to save ourselves. I'd like to share, humbly, some of my thoughts on this matter; I also have a feeling that some of my initial comments may seem perplexing to you who know me and probably suppose me to be a pretty orthodox guy. Just read on, and you'll see what I'm getting at eventually.
Anyway, as I was saying, I feel that our gospel has become too man-centered. This is reflected in our preaching, which runs something like this: you are sinful, but you would like to go to heaven (who wouldn't?). That can't happen though, because, you see, God feels wrath toward the sins you've committed, and he is (constitutionally) incapable of forgiving you unless somebody takes the blame. But alas, Jesus has taken the blame, and now by believing you can do what you had hoped to do all along - go to heaven.
The natural consequence of this way of putting it, of this misdirection, is that God looks rather immature. He is ultimately the one with the problem, not us. He has an anger-management issue, one that can only be solved if Jesus steps in and calms him down. 'Sinners have slapped me in the face; I'm not going to forgive anyone until I get to slap someone back.' (Here you have a moral conundrum in the fact that it seemingly doesn't matter who gets punished, so long as someone does, and the wrath in question obtains its cathartic release.) God appears quite weak here, helpless to save anyone until the condition is fulfilled. By believing in Jesus, then, we furnish God with the ability he does not have himself, with the capability he so longs to exercise but cannot. We enable him to forgive us by exercising saving faith. In short: we save ourselves.
This, of course, is dishonoring to God and self-exalting with respect to man. If the gospel reveals anything, it is that God is not constrained by us; rather, the opposite: "He chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4); "he works all things [therefore our salvation too] according to the counsel of his will" (v.11). It is not a question of whether or we will let God do as he desires with us or not.
Notice the change in our emphasis: when the emphasis shifts manward (we want something; we can only get it by means of Christ), the problem shifts Godward (God can't give us what we want, because he is angry about our sin). However, when we do the opposite of this - when we move our emphasis Godward, as I think we should (to his sovereign desire to save sinners, to defeat and destroy evil) - the problem becomes ours, not his. There is evil in this world, there is sin, and God righteously intends to destroy all of it (cf. Rom. 1:18 & 2:6-11). He does not have an anger-management problem; his temper is not the obstacle in question. The obstacle in question is sin, is evil. If he is truly good, God will destroy sin and end its hideous rule over this world; he has promised to do this, and his wrath is therefore a blessing toward that end. The wrath of God is nothing less than the love of God directed against sin, the goodness of God enacted upon evil. When this outpouring of wrath occurs, we are not to feel embarrassed for our Lord, but are to feel joyful (even as we find it awesome and frightful). This, surely, is the view of the authors of scripture. "Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness" (Ps. 96:12b-13). God hates evil, hates sin - yes; and, it may shock you, sinners too (cf. Ps. 5:5) - and in his perfect love will not allow either to persist indefinitely. If he did - if God continued to allow the greedy to oppress the poor, the lustful and controlling to molest children and rape women; if God continued to allow the powerful to commit genocide and the hungry to starve, adultery and abuse to destroy marriages and depression and addiction to consume people's lives - then he would not be a loving God. His wrath is his love directed against sin.
What, then, is the cross? Is it not a display of God's wrath as well as his love? Why yes, and also a satisfaction of his justice. "God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation" (i.e., an atoning sacrifice through which God's wrath is spent) "by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness" (or justice, Gk. dikaiosune) "because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins" (Rom. 3:25). We are dead-accurate to say that the wrath of God was poured out upon our sins, our individual sinful acts, at Calvary. There is, however, more to it than that, as we see simply by looking at other statements Paul makes later in Romans. "We know that our old self" (lit. "the old man") "was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free" (lit. "justified") "from sin" (Rom. 6:6-7). In these verses (and others such as Gal. 2:20), Paul's picture of the atonement is rounded out quite beautifully: the cross was not centrally a kind of divine catharsis; certainly it was not a means of enabling a weak God to forgive people with whom he really has no quarrel beyond the fact that they've done a few naughty things (but deep down are good enough really to want to know him). Rather, Christ's death is a condemnation and obliteration of the whole sin nature that brought about these transgressions in the first place. In other words, the cross does not merely forgive sins for people who are otherwise good; it destroys sin itself in those who share in Christ's death and resurrection.
In other words - to borrow Packer's language again - the cross actually saves...not potentially. (Here's where we get limited atonement, by the way.) It is not only sufficient to forgive sins as individual acts of wrongdoing, but for those who have saving faith it is also effective for the actual destroying of a whole sin-nature. So to believe in Christ is not merely to escape God's wrath by the cross but also to die to sin and walk in newness of life through the cross (cf. Rom. 6:1-11 & 20-23; 7:4-6; 8:1-4; 2 Cor. 5:14-21; Gal. 2:19-21; Col. 1:19-22; 2:11-15; 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18; 4:1-2; 1 John 1:7). The result of this is, shockingly, that we are no longer identified with our sins, or indeed with that old self (cf. Rom. 7:13-25), but as Christians walking in the new life of the Spirit, we, by faith, spend the rest of our lives putting off that old self, which is still resident in the flesh (cf. Rom. 8:3b-13), but is condemned, at the cross, to eternal destruction and oblivion.
Think about it! You do not merely watch from a distance as your savior bears the brunt of God's wrath so that you can save yourself by faith. No: your precious savior bears you in his loving arms with him, up onto that cross - all of your sins, yes, and also all of your weakness, your rebellion, your pride, your covetousness, your hatred for or indifference toward God and others, your coldness and dullness of heart, and everything else within you that enslaves you to sin and suffering and evil and death - and brings you through the cleansing, wrathful, redeeming love of God, and out the other side of that fiery crucible by his resurrection from the dead. By his wounds you are healed, as well as forgiven. He is not only displayed before you on that cross, but embraces you upon it, holds you upon it, carries you upon it. Christian, realize the true scope of the freedom that comes from the cross!
And here the wrath of God ceases to be a terror but becomes a friend, for it is, truly, his love for you - a love that loves you enough to hate your sin, enough to hate all within you that holds you from him, hinders you from loving and enjoying him forever; enough not to immolate you along with the sin-nature from which your identity would be otherwise indistinguishable. No - "he became sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Our God has prised the two of you apart, having condemned the one to death, and having raised the other (you!) to life everlasting!
"In this is love, not that we have loved God" - not that we have really been good enough deep down, have believed, and have allowed him to get over his anger toward us - "but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10). It is an act of love: to quench his burning anger against the sin and injustice found among his people by actually destroying it; not to excuse the sin of those he forgives by 'getting over himself,' but to condemn it for what it is while the forgiven remain unharmed. "You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Col. 3:3-4). Consider, Christian, with what love God has loved you in Christ - the God who willed that you should no longer be enslaved, who in Christ accomplished both the forgiveness of your sins and the destruction of your sin, who by the Holy Spirit raises you into the justified righteousness of new life in him, and who even now, as you read this, brings this great work of new creation in you ever closer to completion, brings you and many sons to glory in Christ, the lover of your soul.
Let's start sharing the good news of the cross differently. Let's start remembering that it is not 'God's problem' that put Jesus Christ on a bloody tree, but our problem, and it is by God's sheer love alone that he decided to deal with that problem without destroying us in the process. To be invited to faith in Jesus, then, is to be invited to cling to him as he mounts that cross, to trust in him all your life as he not only forgives you your sins but also destroys your old self and renews your whole character through his Holy Spirit; and then ultimately to to step with him out of that tomb into newness of life that will be made complete one day when we stand in glory. Friends, that's a gospel that preaches.