Friday, January 4, 2019

Infinite Forgiveness Requires an Infinite Savior


Following up on a concept mentioned last week, it is important to realize that the infinite forgiveness offered through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is only possible because He is Himself infinite. It is not enough for Him to have been sinless, though that was also necessary. But His existence and power must also be without beginning or end in order for God to keep His promises of unlimited love.

Last week, I published an article on God’s infinite forgiveness that you can find here. I became slightly sidetracked by a related issue while writing. God’s grace is infinite because Jesus Christ, the sacrifice that provides the grace, is also infinite. This was mentioned in passing in that earlier post because the topic of forgiveness would have been incomplete otherwise. However, there is enough to say about it that I wanted to go back and cover it on its own.

The Deity of Christ

I suppose it can be stated simply enough. Jesus is God. That is the real start and end point for what I want to say. As is so often the case, however, simple does not mean easy. In the first place, it requires a bit of inference to reach this conclusion. Jesus in no place in the gospels specifically, explicitly says “I am God.” People who deny the deity of Jesus make much of this fact, but Jesus being God the Son is really the only way to make sense of what we find in the Scriptures. At least, it is the only way if we want to take the Scriptures seriously.

This could be another topic in its own right, but a couple of examples suffice to make my point now. In Matt. 16:13–17, Jesus asks His disciples who they think He is. When Peter replied that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus affirmed Peter’s confession rather than correcting him. Then, in John 8:52–59, Jesus made an unmistakable declaration to His enemies. In this passage, He claims to have known Abraham and says, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” In so doing, He referenced the personal name of God given to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:14). The connection was so obvious that the people attempted to stone Jesus for blasphemy. If the gospels do not have an explicit statement from Jesus about His own nature, they certainly have more than enough to be sure of it.

That, of course, is without making any mention of the rest of the New Testament that follows. Passages like Phil. 2:6–11, Col. 1:15–17, and Heb. 1:1–3, along with many others, make the point of Jesus’ equality with God and call for worship to be directed to Him, which is something only God should receive.

Perhaps the clearest of these identifications, or at least my favorite, is found in Rev. 1:8, 1:17, 2:8, and 21:5–6. In each of these passages, the speaker refers to Himself using synonymous descriptive terms. He is either “The Alpha and the Omega,” “The Beginning and the End, or “The First and the Last.” These phrases all mean the same thing. They describe God’s eternal nature and priority over all things. However, it is not entirely clear who the first one is referencing. It is written in a context where it could be either the Father or the Son. The next two are unquestionably about Jesus. And the last one is about God the Father. These terms are a concept that can only belong to the nature of God. So taken together, they can only logically be understood as saying that Jesus is equal to God.

The Trinity

Of course, that leads to another confusing topic. Jesus is equal to, and distinct from, the Father. Christianity worships one God, but God lives as three Persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are inseparable, and yet somehow distinguishable both to each other and to us.

I do not really think it is possible to make this doctrine of the Trinity anything more than a mystery. All explanations fall short. We have to accept it on faith just because that is what the Bible presents as the truth of the matter, and the Bible has shown itself to be a reliable record of God’s revelation to mankind.

My favorite attempt is the analogy of the human being. First, as the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27), that is the best place in creation to look. And second, it seems to me that we have at least a version of triune existence. Each of us has a unique mind, body, and spirit. We direct ourselves through the first, express ourselves through the second, and are animated by the third. A human is all of these things, but also each of these things. You are your mind, you are your body, you are your soul, and you are you because the three are present together. The parts are equally important to defining you.

It is not a perfect example, obviously. For one, our parts do not work in perfect unity as the members of the Godhead do. For another, we are limited. And for a third, the sum is at least to some extent greater than the parts. But again, I do not mean to say it is a complete comparison. It is simply a serviceable one that gives us a small glimpse into a truth that ultimately remains beyond us. And the real issue is that Jesus is somehow a part of this mystery. The Scriptures do not allow for an easier answer.

The Limited Savior of the Cults

Which brings me to the point I really wanted to make, but could not without laying out the rest of this first. There have been plenty of attempts to make things easier by denying the deity of Jesus. Some attempts are straightforward. Muslims, Jews, atheists, and a number of others just deny Jesus’ salvific work outright. They do not recognize the authority of the NT, so there is no difficulty for them (in regard to this topic).

There are, however, a few groups that believe Jesus is Savior but do not believe He is God. Some would quibble over this, but my point is that they do not believe Jesus is eternal and equal to God the Father. The two most influential of these groups are the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. While there are certainly a number of insuperable incompatibilities between them, what they share in common is a belief that Jesus was the greatest creation—but still only a creation—of God, and that He offered atonement for sin.

My question is, how? Members of either group could give a partial answer. Jesus’ sacrifice was acceptable because He was perfect, never having sinned. That is an orthodox answer, and obviously I would not deny it (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 7:26–28). However, I would argue that it is incomplete.

I accept the doctrine of original sin, or at least a version of it. I do not believe it is possible for anyone to live an entirely sinless life. At some point, we all make selfish decisions. However, for the sake of argument, let’s say it can be done. If someone else lived without sin, they would not need Jesus’ help. But would they also be equal to Jesus? Would they also be able to offer to pay the price for sin?

I do not know how a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness would answer that. I do know what logic demands. It is not enough that the sacrifice is spotless. That is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one on its own. The sacrifice must also have a value great enough that it can pay for the entire price. A single human life, even a flawless one, could not have enough in it to outweigh all the sins of all other lives. It is simply not enduring enough.

“Well,” they would say, “that is not a problem because Jesus did not just live a human life. He had a previous existence.” I believe that, too, but with a crucial difference. If they are right and Jesus existed as some type of created spirit being before being born as a man, then He still would not be sufficient to make the payment.

The Infinity of Jesus

It all goes back to the concept of infinity. If Jesus were any sort of created thing before His incarnation, then He would be limited. His original generation, by definition, would make Him finite. And if He were finite, then He could not offer infinite forgiveness. At some point, the grace He could offer would run out.

That is why Jesus has to be God, at least as long as the Bible is taken to be in any way true. He cannot be some angel or lesser god, but must be God Himself, or God’s promises of endless love become lies. They would be dependent on a price worth less than the guarantee. But God cannot come up lacking. The best way to make sure perfect justice was met by perfect mercy was to pay the price Himself, and so He did (Heb. 7:23–28).

Beliefs in a lesser Christ come in part from a difficulty with the Trinity. Either, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses say, there must really be one God and Jesus must not be Him; or, like the Mormons say, there must be many gods. However, I believe that is only one part. I think it also has to do with a strange but all-too-human mixture of shame and pride. It comes from people hating to believe that their sins would require God to give up His life, and also from refusing to believe their sins are really so bad as to need such an inexhaustible payment.

Biblical Christianity, however, does not allow for these easy escapes. It presents Jesus as the eternal God, equal with and submissive to the Father, empowered by and yet also authorizing the Spirit, who gave His life as the final ransom for the rebellion of humanity. His infinite life was the only price that could guarantee full payment. There is ultimately no way around that. We can struggle with the concepts. We can struggle with their implications. But they are true. The best thing for us to do is to accept them, accept Him, and be comforted we do not have to rely on anything less than the infinite.

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