My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin,we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1-3).
These words come from the apostle John’s first letter. John had started his letter with a lot of excitement, tripping over his phrases with his joy in sharing about Jesus, the “Word of Life” who existed from the beginning, and who enables him to have fellowship with God, and that also provides the basis of fellowship with all others who also believe in Jesus (1 John 1:1-3). He then proceeded to make an assertion: God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:4). By this he is referring to God’s absolute holiness and purity. In contrast, none of us are without sin. In fact, if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves (1 John 1:8). As such it is impossible for us sinners to have fellowship with God. However, if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
This forms a background to the verses quoted above, because as John writes this he recognizes that this has posed a serious problem that demands an explanation.
John and all the early Christians were not troubled by the question “How can a loving God send people to hell?” at all. In fact he needed to grapple with exactly the opposite issue. When he said that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, it begs the question: “How can a just God forgive sin and take anyone to heaven at all?”
You see, how would God who is light respond to sin? The Bible says: the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom 1:18). Even Jesus asserted that by default every person is under the wrath of God (see John 3:36). Paul says that we all are children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3), and are as such storing up wrath for [ourselves] on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed (Rom 2:5). The Bible says that when Jesus comes again, He will tread the wine-press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty (Rev 19:15).
The following is a visual illustration of this truth. The lightning represents God’s wrath, that is directed towards each one of us.
The problem is, that if God is just, He cannot simply push our sins under the “rug of the universe” so to speak, and pretend they did not happen. So here John begins by addressing this problem, and telling us the solution in two parts.
First part of the answer: We have an Advocate: Jesus Christ the Righteous
Since the question has been raised regarding the justice of God, John creates a word picture of a law court where we are on trial, and God is the Judge. He then goes on to assert that we have an amazing Defense Lawyer who is none other than Jesus Christ Himself! In fact, this Defense Lawyer is Jesus Christ the Righteous. Being righteous, He can stand before the Judge – God who is Light – and defend our case.
However while this is great to have the best Attorney defending our case, it does not really solve our problem because we actually are guilty. On what basis can Jesus – however brilliant a Lawyer He may be – make a defense for us? Let us consider some possible arguments:
1. “They do not know what they is doing”
Jesus prayed for his tormentors when He hung on the cross, and asked His Father to forgive them because they did not know what they were doing. However ignorance on its own is not a valid excuse (there is another reason why Jesus could pray this way, as we will see). Jesus Himself has taught that: the servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. (Luke 12:47-48). In fact, the Bible says unequivocally that we are without excuse (Rom 1:20)
2. “He/she is a good person”
Jesus told someone once: No one is good except God alone (Mark 10:18). So Jesus will not even take this line of argument to court.
3. “His/her heart is in the right place”
This argument falls even before it is proposed, because the Bible teaches that: the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9).
4. “He has done a lot of good in his life”
The problem with such an argument is that it does not look at our heart and our motives when we “do good”. But God who does see all this declares that: all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isa 64:6).
5. “Let us be nice and let him off the hook”
This kind of argument in the highest court of the universe poses a horrific assault on justice. If God is a good and just, it is inconceivable that He would do this. Confidence in the justice of God was the basis of Abraham’s appeal for his nephew Lot: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just? (Gen 18:25).
So we see, there is no defense of this type which can stand in the divine courtroom! We are in a really desperate situation, and there is nothing we can do about it. Even if we try to work our way to heaven, all that we can do appears only like a filthy garment to God who is Light.
Every religion needs to face up to this truth. No human being from any religion is exempt from having to face the reality of the wrath of our holy God, and the predicament it puts us all in!
Second part of the answer: He is the Propitiation for our Sins
The amazing truth is that Jesus our Defense Lawyer had died on the cross for exactly this reason. He died in order to bear the wrath of God that we deserved, and to be punished in our stead. When Jesus died on the cross, He bore the unleashed cumulative fury of God against all of our sin. The Bible says that for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
According to Paul, the reason God did this was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:16). This particular verse shows that that God the Son was not pitted against God the Father in this, but rather, it was all an unfolding of a plan that had been conceived by the Triune God from eternity past.
As one hymn writer puts it:
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the Just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
The following picture illustrates this visually.
For those of us who do put our trust in Jesus, we have the best possible Defense Lawyer, who has the best possible defense – that the penalty for the guilt of our crimes has already been paid by Him. What tremendous good news! No illustration can be stretched too far, and this one also breaks down when we think of those who do not believe in Jesus. According to the Bible they will continue to remain under the wrath of God.
There are some thing that we will never fully understand:
How much did Jesus really suffer? Though we will never fully comprehend this, we know that it was enough to satisfy the justice of God regarding the sins of every single person in the world who goes to Him for refuge (see 1 John 2:2). Isaiah described His sufferings with prophetic foresight thus: He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace (Isa 53:5). It was the will of the Lord to crush Him; He has put Him to grief (Isa 53:10). His repeated use of the word “crush” causes me to suspect that Jesus suffered far more than I can ever imagine. Moreover, this was Satan’s last chance to defeat Jesus, so it is likely that he faced a barrage of temptations with a ferocity that any other man would have crumbled well before Satan had unleashed his entire arsenal (see John 14:30-31). For example, we know from some of the Messianic Psalms that Jesus would have had to face the temptation to succumb to total despair. This is why we are encouraged to boldly approach Jesus for help whenever we are tempted. We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15)
Yet there are many things we do understand!
We can understand why Jesus so desperately did not want to drink this terrible “cup” of God’s wrath if at all it were possible. We can understand why there was darkness for three hours while Jesus hung on the cross. I am amazed that the wrath of God unleashed against Him did not completely obliterate Him! We can understand why Jesus cried out from the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? We can understand why Jesus could pray for the forgiveness of His tormentors! In doing so He was offering Himself as a substitute to bear the punishment for their blasphemous rants. For this same reason, Jesus could grant salvation to the criminal who died next to Him. We can also understand why the veil within the temple separating the Most Holy Place was rent. Access into God’s presence has been thrown wide open through the cross.
This is the message John is so excited about. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ that is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.
- God is Light. He is perfect in His purity and holiness (1:4)
- We are sinners (1:8,10).
- Yet we can have fellowship with God because God will forgive our sins if we confess them to Him (1:9).
- This is only possible because Jesus Christ is our Defense Lawyer (2:1), and in defending us His rock-solid case rests on the stupendous fact that He Himself is the propitiation for our sins (2:2)
- This motivates us not to sin (2:1), yet Jesus’ blood purifies us when we do (1:7)
- These truths form the basis of our fellowship with others who believe in Jesus (1:3).
What an amazing God we have. Have you been saved from the wrath of God by taking refuge in Jesus Christ who died and became sin for you, so that you can stand upright and righteous in God’s presence?
Applying these Truths
Here are some things we can think bout, as we ponder the consequences of these tremendous truths.
- We will be able to understand how much Jesus suffered on the cross, only to the extent we understand how much God hates sin! Do we hate sin? Are we at war against our own sins?
- The reason people in today’s society seem to struggle with the question: “How can a loving God send people to hell”?, comes from a failure to understand the terrible state we are all in by default – we are all by nature “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Have we understood this truth?
- Are we “narrow-minded” or “arrogant” when we proclaim that Jesus is the only way, or do we realize that this is the only loving thing we can do if we really care for the people around us who do not know Jesus?
- Would we be really sharing the total gospel if we only talk about the love of God, and neglect to talk about His holiness, wrath against sin, and His justice?
- Do we have a desire like John, to share this amazing message with others?