Some claim that God essentially saves us from His wrath by sacrificing Himself solely to satisfy a rule that He created in the first place. They then ask, why make the rule? Why not lay aside wrath without a sacrifice? And how does it make sense to sacrifice Himself to Himself? These are good questions, but they are founded on several fundamental misunderstandings of God’s nature and character.
First, we’ll consider the idea that God sacrificed Himself to Himself. This is a misunderstanding of God’s triune nature, as it conflates the Father and the Son. The Father sent the Son (John 7:33), the Son accomplished the Father’s will (John 17:4), and the Son died for sinners (Romans 5:8). The Father did not die; the Son laid down His life as a satisfaction for sin (1 John 4:10).
Second, God’s requirement that a sacrifice is necessary to atone for sin is not a rule that He simply “made up.” God’s Law is not something that He arbitrarily created; the Law is an extension of His holy nature. God did not invent morality; He revealed Himself to us, and that revelation of His person is what morality is. When God said, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), He was not concocting a rule or imposing a new punishment on us; rather, He was revealing to us an unalterable, eternal reality—if you depart from the Sustainer of life, then you logically cut yourself off from the possibility of a continued existence. Those who reject Life only have one other option, and that is Death.
Saying that God made the “rules” by which sin is atoned for is somewhat like saying that Isaac Newton wrote the law of gravity. Newton described the effects and nature of gravity, but the law of gravity preceded and transcended his description. In similar fashion, the Bible describes the nature of sin and righteousness, but the universal laws concerning sin and righteousness, death and life, and justice and mercy precede and transcend the writing. God’s laws flow eternally from the nature of God Himself.
Since God’s Law is an outflowing of His nature, the Law is unchanging. It is “firmly fixed in the heavens” (Psalm 119:89, ESV). God cannot set aside His wrath at sin any more than we can change our DNA. God’s justice is not a guideline that He chooses to follow; justice is part of His very character. Righteousness and justice are foundational to His sovereign rule of the universe (Psalm 97:2). Without justice—without wrath at sin—He is not God. Death follows sin not because “God says so” but because sin is rebellion against Life.
We should also define the nature of sin. Sin is much more than thoughts or actions that God “dislikes.” There is an objective standard by which sin is measured. Sin is any thought or action that does not measure up to God’s holiness and absolute perfection. It is that which opposes His nature. Lying is wrong—not because God chose to dislike it but because God is Truth, and lies oppose His nature. Murder is wrong—not due to an arbitrary rule God made but because God is Life, and murder opposes His eternal character.
As sinners before a holy God, we faced sure judgment: an eternal separation from Him, that is to say, an eternal death. Were God to lay aside His wrath at sin and not give us what sin required, He would cease to be just. But, in His great love and mercy, God provided a way for justice to be satisfied and salvation to be extended: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
At the cross of Christ, perfect justice and perfect mercy meet. Sin and injustice were punished on the cross, with the Son of God receiving the condemnation for sin. It’s because the penalty of sin was satisfied through Christ’s sacrifice that the Father can extend His mercy to undeserving sinners. God was just in punishing sin, and He can also justify sinners who receive Christ by faith (Romans 3:26). God’s justice and His mercy were demonstrated by Christ’s crucifixion. At the cross, God’s justice was meted out in full (upon Christ), and God’s mercy was extended in full (to all who believe). God’s perfect mercy was exercised through His perfect justice.
God did not sacrifice Himself to Himself to save us from Himself because of a rule He made Himself. No, there are spiritual realities as certain as any physical reality or law of nature that we can observe: one of those realities is that death follows sin. But the God who is Love (1 John 4:8) sent His Son to save us from our sin and the evil that naturally befalls those who reject the good. “Love was compressed for all history in that lonely figure on the cross, who said that he could call down angels at any moment on a rescue mission, but chose not to—because of us. At Calvary, God accepted his own unbreakable terms of justice” (Philip Yancy, from Where Is God When It Hurts?, Zondervan, 1990).