23 April 2007


by Phil Johnson

Too many Christians think of divine forgiveness as something that utterly overturns justice and sets it aside—as if God's mercy nullified His justice—as if God's love defeated and revoked His hatred of sin. That's not how forgiveness works.

s forgiveness from sin grounded only in the love and mercy and goodness of God—apart from his justice? Does love alone prompt the Almighty to forego the due penalty of sin, wipe out the record of our wrongdoing, and nullify the claims of justice against us, unconditionally?

Or must God Himself be propitiated? In other words, do His righteousness and His holy wrath against sin need to be satisfied before He can forgive?

It truly seems as if most people today—including multitudes who identify themselves as Christians—think God forgives merely because His love overwhelms His holy hatred of sin. Some go even further, rejecting the notion of propitiation altogether, claiming it makes God seem too harsh. The problem with every such view of the atonement is that mercy without propitiation turns forgiveness into an act of injustice.

That is a seriously erroneous view. As a matter of fact, that very idea was one of the main errors of Socinianism.

The original Socinians were 16th-century heretics who denied that God demands any payment for sin as a prerequisite to forgiveness. They insisted instead that He forgives our sin out of the sheer bounty of His kindness alone. They argued that if God demanded an atonement—an expiation, a payment, a reprisal, or a propitiation—for sin, then we shouldn't really call it "forgiveness" when He absolves us. They claimed that sin could either be paid for or forgiven, but not both.

In other words, they defined forgiveness in a way that contradicts and contravenes justice. They were essentially teaching that God could not maintain the demands of His justice and forgive sins at the same time. They thought of forgiveness and justice as two incompatible ideas.

Scripture expressly refutes that idea. One of the most glorious truths of the gospel is that God saved us in a way that upheld His justice. Justice was neither compromised nor set aside; it was completely satisfied. God Himself was thus fully propitiated. And our salvation is therefore grounded in the justice of God as well as His mercy.

That is what the apostle Paul meant when he said in Romans 1:17 that "the righteousness of God [is] revealed" in the gospel. It's also what the apostle John was saying in 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive." He doesn't set aside justice and grant us an unholy amnesty; He forgives because it is an act of justice to do so.

Now, there is a bit if a paradox in that idea. Justice is the moral quality that cries for the punishment of evildoers. Justice fairly screams for retribution whenever a wrong is done: "The wicked shall not be unpunished" (Proverbs 11:21). "[God] will by no means clear the guilty" (Exodus 34:7).

We understand instinctively that it is unjust to let evil go unpunished. The truly righteous long for God to deal with evildoers. Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the Temple featured this plea for justice: "Hear thou from heaven, and do, and judge thy servants, by requiting the wicked, by recompensing his way upon his own head" (1 Chronicles 6:23). According to Revelation 6:10, the souls of those martyred for their faith constantly cry to God, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?"

God will judge evil, and that is a good thing. We look forward to that day when the Judge of all the earth will judge the deeds of the wicked and purge evil from the universe. He will not compromise His own righteousness by allowing one sin to go unpunished. Jesus said, "There is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; and hid, that shall not be known" (Matt. 10:26). Every sin, even the secret ones, will be brought out in the open and judged. Justice screams for retribution of sin, and God is a God of perfect justice, so He will not let one sin go unpunished.

How then can He forgive sinners?

That's what the atonement is all about: Jesus paid the full penalty of sin on behalf of those who believe. Their sins have already been judged at the cross. "[Christ] Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree" (1 Peter 2:24). Redefine the atonement to remove the idea that Christ suffered the judgment for sin in our place, and you destroy the heart of all gospel truth: "Not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10).

One of the great mysteries not revealed in the Old Testament but fully revealed in the gospel is a clear answer to the age-old question of how forgiveness is possible without compromising the justice of God. Christ fully satisfied God's justice on behalf of those whom He saves. He bore the penalty of their sin when He died on the cross. The gospel declares "His righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus" (Romans 3:26).

Christ offered a full atonement that included payment in full for all the sins of every sinner who would ever believe. "[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21)—"whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness" (Romans 3:25). "He Himself is the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 2:2).

Our thoughts about such things are almost always too shallow. We take God's mercy for granted and ignore His holy justice. But a right view of God will always exalt His righteous hatred for sin as much as it magnifies His love and mercy. God's mercy is not some maudlin sentiment that causes Him to forget about His holiness and set aside His righteous anger against sin. The demands of righteousness must be fully and completely satisfied if God is ever going to forgive sin. He cannot and will not simply overlook sin as if it didn't really matter.

In other words, the gospel is not only a message about the love of God. It is that; but it is not only that. The true gospel magnifies His justice as much as it magnifies His love.

When was the last time you thought of the gospel as a message about divine justice?

We tend not to think in those terms. Invariably, when you hear the gospel presented these days, all the stress is on the love of God, and His righteous abhorrence of sin is rarely even mentioned. "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." We love to talk about forgiveness, but rarely is there any attention given to the fact that God demanded payment for sin in full, and if that payment had not been made, there would never have been any forgiveness whatsoever:

"Without shedding of blood there is no remission" (Hebrews 9:22).

Phil's signature


Touchstone said...


I was raised in a conservative Baptist home, and was always taught, from the pulpit and from the Sunday School felt board that our death sentence for our sins was... the *bad news*. Bad news for us sinners, anyway, because, well, God's justice demands our deaths, spiritual and physical.

The "Gospel", I was always told, was the *good* news, the part we might be happy about, and rejoice in, unceasingly: God's love for us was such that He sent His Son to die for our sins, if we would repent, believe and follow!

Now, I'm quite aware of the "no light without dark" duality; the "good news" doesn't mean anything in terms of "good" if there's no such thing as "bad news". But I'm thinking that one hand God's justice is a fearsome, holy part of His character, but it's just plain bad news for the unregenerated man -- the ultimate price must be paid.

Could there *be* any worse news? By the way, as you are son, unsaved, you are destined for an eternity of torment and suffering? It's hard to imagine what *would* be bad news if not that.

That was never presented as a negative feature of God -- far from it -- but it certainly was bad news for the lot of us sitting around the Sunday School table....

At any rate, there's really no cause for the kind of joy a condemned man feels when he's been spared the noose, if there was no threat of the noose in the first place.

But this sounds like you're frustrated that some Christians don't properly appreciate God's justice and it's damning consequences as part of the "good news"?

I suppose that's try, and reading your post, I'm part of the problem. I'm more than aware of the immutability and perfection of God's justice -- it's what demands a sacrifice such as Jesus gave, rather than simple clemency. But the *good news*, the part that gives the Gospel its name is not the divine justice that demands the eternal death/suffering of all man since Adam; it's precisely the elements you mention that Christians normally associate with the Gospel -- joyous, run-down-the-streets-singing-Alleluia! grace, love that conquers, mercy and salvation for the otherwise hopeless sinner.

Call me crazy, but it seems hard to *overstress* those features of the Gospel. We needn't and ought not ignore the *predicate*, the holiness that demands justice from us, but that's the *noose*, Phil. We deserve it, but it's still a noose.

Praise God for the whole of it, anyway, no matter how you slice it.


FX Turk said...

Yesterday in teaching Adult sunday night class, we were talking about who Christ is, and Heb 2:17 came up as a description of who Christ is -- "Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people."

So I asked the group who could tell me what propitiation means, and none of them knew. Not one -- which is, of course, why we are having that class.

Listen: the idea of God's justification is good -- eternally, judiciously good. But the propitiation of sin is better because it tells us that, in God's eyes, we have "shalom" -- that is, the question is not whether the debt has been paid (it has) but whether there can and will be peace with the party who was wronged, and there is.

In Christ we have peace with God. He has no wrath toward us. Peace with God.

The Gospel is -good- news, not just news or a declaration.. It is -good-, and propitiation is a large measure of why it is good.

donsands said...

Excellent teaching. Very thorough.

The mind set in our day is that sin isn't that big of a deal.

I believe it is imperative to explain that Christ drank the whole cup of His Father's wrath, which we deserved.

We deserve to be nailed to a cross, not the Lord, and not only that we deserve eternal damnation, which none of us really believes, though it is clearly the truth of Scripture.

"Before we understand what the Cross is for, we need to recognize what the Cross is of." -John Stott

It's because of us, our sin; we are the mockers crying, "Crucify Him!"

It's difficult to come to grips with this.
Our minds like to avoid this truth, and we much rather focus on what the has done "for" us.

But we need to focus on both.

donsands said...

"what the has done "for" us"

I forgot the word cross. "what the cross ..."

Al said...

This is why Charles Finney is NOT my homeboy.

In my sermon yesterday I spoke on God's command that we love one another. Our love for one another is rooted in the fact that God sent His Son. He did not just send Him to provide a model for living; He did not send Him to simply teach us a better way. He sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). It was not a cold, mechanistic dripping of blood on the mercy seat of Moses, it was love. Justice and mercy kissed on the cross.

Excellent post Phil!

al sends

James Scott Bell said...

Right on. It seems to me the central characteristic of God is holiness (Bible does not say God is "love, love, love" or "mercy, mercy, mercy" but it DOES say "holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty") which is why propitiation is necessarily central to divine justice.

5PointChristian said...

Excellent post, Phil.

When proclaiming the gospel to the lost, it is imperative that the Christian not give the impression that's God's love and mercy are superficial concepts that seemed steeped in shallow emotion. God's love and mercy are bourne out of His hatred of sin, his righeous judgment, and His holy standard of perfection; you cannot divorce one from the other.

So, the message to the unregenerate is they're NOT the "good person" they've always thought themselves to be...that according to God's holy standard they are guilty lawbreakers and that--as such--God will punish them. They absolutely need a payment for their sins.

Thanks again for sharing this glorious truth that is so foundational, we tend to trip over it.


- 5Point

wordsmith said...

Good message, Phil. It is too easy to fall into the trap of sentimental thinking about the Gospel, and we need to be reminded that the love of God makes absolutely no sense apart from the wrath of God. Take away the latter, and all you have is the image of a kindly old man who wouldn't hurt a fly, much less punish sinners, and then we start thinking that maybe our own sins really aren't *that* bad. God forgive us when we cheapen His love by downplaying His Wrath.

DJP said...

Very good point, very well-made, thought-provoking and informative. Thank you!

Larry Thompson said...

Great post. Thank you so much.

David Mohler said...

An outstanding Monday morning article.

Ben N said...

I loved your post... right on.

Propitiation is the key of the gospel. It is here where my Muslim friends stumble. Because for them, Allah just forgives; not only there is no payment for our sins, but there is none needed.
If God can forgive without payment for sins, then he's no god.
If God is not holy and just, then he does not deserve any worship.
That's why I think angels worship Him by saying "HOLY! HOLY! HOLY!"
A.W. Tozer once said that all the problems start with a wrong view of God. If you take one of God's attribute out ... he's no longer God.

mark pierson said...


John W. Lostus said...


According to Paul Owen at RefCath.com Christ was not punished for the sins of His people, but was turned over to the power of wicked men and the power of Satan. God did not punish Christ on the cross for the sins of His people though. He died to "propitiate" God's offended holiness, and He died as a sacrifice and in the place of sinners, but was not punished. In other words, Owen denies penal substitution. He holds to a "Christus Victor" position on the atonement. Apparently penal substitution did not gain prominence as the accepted view of the atonement until the 16th century. Anselm and others didn't hold to it. So, in light of this, would you consider the rejection of penal substitution to be heretical in nature, or just grave error, or would you say there is room among Christians for these kind of differences of opinion?


Jim Crigler said...

Re: One of the great mysteries not revealed in the Old Testament but fully revealed in the gospel is a clear answer to the age-old question of how forgiveness is possible without compromising the justice of God.

I wonder whether the OT gets any closer than Isaiah 53:10-11: [10] Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. [11] Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.

NB: There's an interesting couple of points in v.11a, and maybe they're not so peripheral as all that: In its context, that bit says, "Out of the anguish of Jesus' soul Jesus shall see and be satisfied." 1. Jesus' will is the same as the Father's. 2. Jesus has the same just requirement as the Father, and demands the same satisfaction.

Lee Shelton said...

Excellent post, Phil. God's love for me isn't shown merely in the forgiveness of my sin. His love is shown in that His son bore the penalty for my sin. That is what made it possible for my sins to be forgiven.

Not to go off on a tangent, but I can see a follow-up post about limited (or particular) atonement and how it relates to the "sufficient for all, efficient for some" argument people like to use.

Solameanie said...


Imagine it this way. We often hear of horrific events in the news where there has been some unspeakable cruelty. The John Couey case in Florida comes to mind, where this guy took little Jessica, had his way with her and then left her to suffocate. We wonder (especially when they manage to escape conviction somehow and are freed) when justice will come.

That is when rejoicing over God's justice comes into play. We have His promise that by no means will He leave the guilty unpunished. Think of the saints in Revelation who cried out, "How long, how long?"

Hope that helps.

Coram Deo said...

My heart soared as I read this excellent post about our Infinite Creator and Judge and His absolute and holy righteousness!

This was a great piece which built nicely upon the Spurgeon tidbit from Sunday.


Phil Johnson said...

John W. Lostus: "would you consider the rejection of penal substitution to be heretical in nature, or just grave error, or would you say there is room among Christians for these kind of differences of opinion?"

Not having time today to become embroiled in controversy, I'll give you my short answer and then invite anyone who wants to debate the question to go over to Adrian Warnock's blog, where the subject is already under discussion.

Here's my short answer:

1. "Rejection" of penal substitution is something completely different from ignorance of the doctrine or a hazy understanding of it.

2. My views on the vicarious, penal, and propitiatory aspects of the atonement (and my opinions about the historical pedigree of those views) are roughly the same as B. B. Warfield's. He acknowledged that no one from the post-apostolic Church Fathers to the Reformers articulated the idea of penal substitution particularly well or consistently. But all the elements of the doctrine were nonetheless present here and there from the earliest post-apostolic times, and the shifts in emphasis from Jerome to Anselm to Calvin reflect a clear line of development and increasing clarity, rather than a wholesale reinvention of a brand-new atonement-theory.

3. And, yes, I would consider a deliberate rejection of penal substitution (by someone who accurately understands the concept) to be heretical.

Meanwhile, the Right Reverend Bishop Tom Wright is worked up about this issue, too. He appears to be saying in one and the same piece that penal and propitiatory elements are indeed necessary to a right understanding of atonement, but that the perspective held by Steve Chalke's critics is "deeply, profoundly, and disturbingly unbiblical."

At least I think that's the idea. It's a really long article, and I need to take time (which I don't have today) to digest it properly.

You should get your buds over at Triablogue to do a post analyzing the Bishop's comments.

Touchstone said...


I think that does help. I take refuge (on many levels) in the assurance that all accounts are finally, ultimately, settled up. That *is* a good thing. It's just a *conflicted* thing, as the implications for me are clear; I've not killed any young girls, but I've certainly transgressed against God and man in plenty of other egregious ways.

I was in Fort Myers Beach (for MN Twins Spring Training!) when Couey was sentenced a few weeks ago down that way, so I know exactly what kinds of horrors you are referring to (shudder). But I have a hard time seeing myself as anything but just the "guy in the next cell" to Couey; his crimes were much more violent and dramatic than mine perhaps, but I'm no less condemned by own sins than he is by his.

So I accept your point, but will say that for each of us *justice* is a two edged sword. The blade that strikes down the most heinously wicked strikes down the most visibly pious among us as well; we are all heinously wicked at the core. If that's the case, justice is a "mixed bag" -- a good news/bad news thing.

Of course, if we avail ourselves of God's grace and realize the expiation of our sins and propitiation of ourselves through Jesus' sacrifice, then the picture is vastly improved: thanks for Jesus, we are spared, mercifully. God's justice won't mean eternal torment and suffering for us.

And the deeds of all will still be accounted for.

In that, I can definitely nod along with your reference to the cries for the avenging justice of God in Revelation.

To track this back to the original post, however, I note that that is a view *arrived* at through the process of repenting, belief and commitment to following Christ. It remains "bad news" for the unsaved to hear the facts about God's justice: they are condemned!

That "bad news" is what makes the "good news" good. As it should be.

But while I'd demand that the act of propitiation itself was the very center of the Gospel -- the supreme act of love and sacrifice -- I also assert that God's justice was very much *not* the Gospel, but rather a *predicate* for it.

Thanks for the feedback.


Daniel said...

Phil said: God's mercy is not some maudlin sentiment that causes Him to forget about His holiness and set aside His righteous anger against sin.


If a king declares that the penalty for some crime is death, and so offenders are thereafter put to death - we see justice in action - for in the just scenario, condemnation is only and always a consequence of the crime.

If the king were to arbitrarily forgive some offenders and condemn other offenders for the same crimes it would show that the condemnation meted out by the king was not given as a consequence of the crime, but rather was founded upon the king's fancy.

God cannot condemn and forgive arbitrarily because doing so makes condemnation arbitrary, and sin inconsequential (and God unjust).

Ben Stevenson said...

Phil, if you do get time, I would be interested in more of your thoughts on N.T. Wright's article The Cross and the Charicatures" - especially as I have not read much on the New Perspective, which seems to be relevant to his view.

As seen in his article "Redeeming the Cross", Steve Chalke believes that penal substitution was invented by Anselm, modified by Calvin and Hodge, and unknown in the early church. N.T. Wright calls this view "bizarre", but does not seem to comment on Steve Chalke's endorsement of this view.

Redeeming the Cross also makes it clear to me that Steve Chalke is rejecting penal substitution. N.T. Wright however, seems to think that Chalke's view "amounts to a form of penal substitution", which is "quite different from other forms of penal substitution such as the mediaeval model of a vengeful father being placated by an act of gratuitous violence against his innocent son." I have not read anything by Steve Chalke that suggests he accepts any form of penal substitution.

James Scott Bell said...

Yeesh. He should be named N. T. Writes...and writes...and writes...

A little more Pyro punchiness would do the Bishop some good.

lawrence said...

hVery good post...a proper understanding of God's holiness and justice makes the sacrifice that Jesus undertook on our behalf that much more amazing. We have a relatively old song that we sing in our church.

We see Your holiness most clearly
When we see You crucified
The slaughter of the innocent
To give the guilty life
Such severity such kindess
Lord we thank You that You died
Perfect justice, perfect mercy, side by side
Perfect justice, perfect mercy, side by side

Solameanie said...


Yes indeed, the justice of God is indeed a sobering thing. I suppose in one sense, it is true that it is "bad news." Jesus Himself said that those who do not believe are "condemned already." Also, the Apostle Paul talks about how those who believe are basically a stench in the nostrils of those who are perishing. The unregenerate are enemies of God according to Scripture. All of this becomes easier to understand and digest when we become saved and have our worldview conform to Scripture under the Holy Spirit's leading. And even then, there is a maturing process. I can remember in my Arminian days long ago, the idea of God choosing His elect was abhorrent to me. Now I can understand it, rejoice in it, and yet be endlessly awestricken with wonder as to how God could choose "a worm like me."

I can't even be tongue-in-cheek like Winston Churchill, who said, "We are all worms, but I do believe I am a glowworm." No, I have to see myself as the Lord sees me. Apart from the cleansing blood of Christ, I am nothing but worthy of His judgment.

Carla Rolfe said...

Every Monday the kids start a new 5 part lesson in their Bible course, and interestingly enough, this is their topic for this week, and Hebrews 9::22 is their memory verse also.

I love God's timing.


Morris Brooks said...

Not just a good post, Phil, but one of the best written I have read.

Hebrews 9 speaks of Christ's propitatory sacrifice, how He entered into the most holy place with His own blood to appear in the presence of God for us to sprinkle His blood on the true, heavenly mercy-seat. This is the blood that satisfies the justice of God and thereby turns God's rightful wrath away from us. According to I Peter 1:2, Hebrews 9:14, 10:22 this is also the same blood that we are sprinkled with that cleanses our both our heart and our conscience. This is truly a great salvation, a complete salvation.

Baptist Man said...

Nice rant. I've never met anybody who had exposure to the truths of redemption and God's holiness that denied the necessity for propitiation. If they're out there, they need to read this.

John W. Lostus said...

Baptist Man,

Yeah, but, they use the word "propitiation", however they don't mean what we mean by that term (or what the Bible means by it either). So, even those who deny penal substitution will affirm propitiation...

David A. Carlson said...

Have to agree with Phil on this (both post and comment).

Ever since becoming a believer I have really held no other view on propitiation. How can you truly be a christian and believe otherwise?

amysuz said...

Thank you for this very edifying post!

Unknown said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You

meangreen said...

Solameanie said:
"No, I have to see myself as the Lord sees me. Apart from the cleansing blood of Christ, I am nothing but worthy of His judgment."
If you believe that. You're nuts! Why did God create humans that he knew would sin and couldn't live up to his demands. Then when Adam and Eve sin, they receive a "sinful nature" they can't shake off which makes all their children worthy of hell. Why would God do this? Then there's the Calvinist God who is actually glorified in condeming the sinners he did not elect! What kind of pycho--deity is in control here? Someone answer!