The gospel is not a good cop/bad cop routine

Kevin DeYoung | June 16th 2020

We tend to repackage the word “sin,” because we know instinctively that people find the idea, and even the word itself, offensive. Everyone knows that the world is not as it’s supposed to be, and I’ve never met anyone who told me they’re perfect. But we have all sorts of euphemisms for speaking of sin, so that we can feel that it is not really our problem. We write it off as mere biological misfiring or we blame it on our education or on our parents. We say it’s just a “growth edge” or a “learning curve.” We try to shift the blame.

Perhaps that is why the current president of the USA has said that he has had no reason to repent of sin. It isn’t something that we think of as our problem. 

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The previous president, meanwhile, when asked to define sin, said that it is whatever is out of line with his own values. In that way of speaking, sin is our problem. It is a personal failing, a reason to be disappointed with oneself. But it is not really a serious problem, because it’s based on our own personal feelings of right and wrong, and those can change.

But in fact sin is what is out of line with God and his word. It is something for which each one of us is deeply responsible. And it cannot be written off as just a violation of our own personal values. To sin is to commit a deep injustice against God.

God justifies the guilty

When we sin, we are not just out of line with our own values, but with God’s. We fall short of God’s righteousness. We are guilty of breaking his holy law. And when you break the law, you deserve punishment. Judgment has to happen, and it has to happen not only because God is angry with sin but also simply because he is just.

Yet here is the tension: somehow, we manage to care deeply about justice being served on other people, and at the same time brush off our own wrongdoing as if it doesn’t really matter or isn’t really our fault. This is inconsistent. We have all done things that are unjust.

So God’s judgment is a good thing. Christ will one day come in judgment and make the world right. But at the same time, God’s judgment is also a terrifying thing, because we are sinners.

And yet Paul tells us that we are justified—declared completely innocent—in Christ. Though criminals, we experience no punishment because Jesus took it on himself instead:

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3 v 23-25)

But how can this be right? How can this be the action of a righteous and just God—to let sinners go free and to punish the innocent?

This is the tension that we find in Isaiah 53.

God's deliberate plan

The first thing we need to understand about the suffering of Jesus is that it was part of an eternal plan, made between the members of the Trinity. It was no accident.

The servant in Isaiah 53 suffers willingly. He voluntarily takes the punishment of the wicked. And therefore he endures the affliction silently:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
(Isaiah 53 v 7)

In the previous verse, sinners too are compared to sheep:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way.

(Isaiah 53 v 6a)

We are supposed to notice the contrast here. Sinners are like sheep in that we wander and go astray. But the servant is like a sheep in that he approaches his slaughter without a word. He does not go astray but knowingly embraces what has been determined for him.
Do not picture the Lord Jesus going to his death kicking and flailing and bemoaning his fate. In John 10 v 18 Jesus said that no one would take his life away: he would lay it down of his own accord. Yes, he asked the Father to remove this cup of suffering from him; but he also said, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22 v 42). We must not think that the Father punished the Son as a hapless victim of some cosmic child abuse. No, the Son went to the cross freely, willingly.

More importantly still, this was not simply Jesus’ own plan, but one which he conceived together with the Father:

It was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief.
(Isaiah 53 v 10)

This righteous servant suffered on our behalf because it was God’s will. This is the very heart of our good news. Because it was the Lord’s will to crush him, and no accident, we can behold the glory of our triune God in planning and procuring our salvation. The Son is not a divine good cop, appeasing a divine bad cop. He and the Father planned it together.

We must not think that the Father punished the Son as a hapless victim of some cosmic child abuse. No, the Son went to the cross freely, willingly.

The Father sent the Son, and the Son, in union of purpose with the Father and the Holy Spirit, agreed to be the agent of this salvation plan. On the cross Jesus did experience a kind of God-forsakenness, but that does not indicate any rift in the eternal internal dynamics of the Trinity. They were always at one.

Nor is it the case that Jesus’ death changed God’s mind about sinners. It is not that God hated us at first, and only after the cross did he begin to love us. Good Friday happened because God already loved those whom he had chosen in Christ. He had already set his affections upon us, already planned to make us his treasured possessions:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son. (John 3 v 16)

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4 v 10)

Don’t think that God’s love is just a result of the cross. God’s love is what led to the cross.

Moreover, the fact that it was the Lord’s will to crush his servant means that we can have full confidence in the cross: we can be certain that Jesus really did take the punishment for our sin.

If it had not been God’s will, then he would have been able to say, ‘Well, that wasn’t my doing. I didn’t sign up to this deal. I’m not sure that that really is enough.’ But since it was God’s plan from all eternity, then we can be confident of his intentions. This was the eternal agreement between the Father and the Son. This is how they were always going to solve the problem of sin. Jesus died “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2 v 23).

So this is the good news: that the Father did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, and that the Son willingly drank the bitter cup of God’s wrath for our sakes. It was no random injustice. It was the plan of the triune God all along.

Freedom, forgiveness, justice, and purpose. We long for them in our lives and in the world. The cross delivers them! The Cross in Four Words features contributions from Kevin DeYouyng, Richard Coekin and Yannick Christos-Wahab and looks at passages from both the Old and New Testaments to sum up the victory of the cross in four words: freedom, forgiveness, justice, and purpose, and what that means for us personally.

Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the Senior Pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. Kevin is married to Trisha and they have eight children. He is the author of a number of books including Just Do Something and What is the Mission of the Church?

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