Martin L. Carey grew up as an Adventist in many different places, including Tacoma Park, Maryland, Missouri, and Guam, USA. During daylight hours he works as a psychologist for a high school in San Bernardino, California. He is also a licensed family therapist. He is married to Sharon and has two sons, Matthew, 10, and Nick, 24. He continues to pine for clear, dark skies with eight different telescopes up to 20”. Biblical research and classical piano take up his remaining energy. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jesus was born to die for you
“You are the man!” Those words struck the king like a club and brought him to his knees. He knew this was coming, but now the truth had finally caught him. Uriah the Hittite had been as brave and loyal a soldier as any army could ever hope to have, and he had been under David's command. Uriah's wife was so beautiful, and how easily she had been called into David's chamber. It had also been easy for him to end her loyal soldier-husband's life with just a few words. These cascading events came about through David's power both to fulfill his desires, and to destroy.
When Bathsheba heard that her husband was dead, she lamented over him.
"And when the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord" (2 Sam. 11:27).
In Israel it was the custom for citizens to bring grievances before the king to receive his judgment. It was not a surprise, then, when Nathan the prophet came to visit the king and told him about a wealthy farmer who had stolen and eaten his poor neighbor's pet sheep. This small crime kindled David's wrath, and he delivered a scathing rebuke of the offender. "As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!" (2 Sam. 2:5). Thus David pronounced judgment against himself, the guilty defendant.
"How can I deal with my guilt?" is the eternal question that has always plagued kings and commoners. The stakes are very high, for guilt destroys from within, and a life of guilt tends to finish badly. Guilt can be triggered by small mistakes, erroneous beliefs, as well as by real evil. We can usually get over our guilt generated by eating desserts or lying about our age, but when we cause others severe pain, we take guilt to another level. At that point, we need to look for help. In today's moral environment, we think of guilt in subjective terms: what it feels like, what it does to our relationships, and how it affects our happiness.1 Guilt is therefore a mental health issue that is best handled in therapy.
For mental health professionals, guilt is associated with depression,2 bipolar disorder,3 and post-traumatic stress disorder.4 Therapy clients are generally encouraged to avoid punishing themselves, and are guided through behavior modification, cognitive adjustment, or feelings exploration until the guilt subsides.5 Popular among therapists and their clients, Buddhism teaches that guilt is a negative focus on the self that keeps us in a state of "self-deprecating laziness." The Buddhist antidotes for guilt are to forgive yourself, take responsibility, and change what you can.6 This approach to subduing guilt has great appeal to the more educated, self-reliant person. Buddhism distrusts strong passions and looks for internal "balance," making it very compatible with mental health models. It knows nothing about God or any cosmic moral authority.7
What if guilt, however, is more than just a subjective experience of our feelings? Most of us sense that it is also a moral response that touches our deepest convictions of right and wrong. Even when our guilt-feelings come from a badly distorted conscience or pathological self-loathing, our sense of rightness feels violated. Guilty feelings have an objective reference point; they arise when we believe we have violated some specified, objective standard we hold, something greater than ourselves, although we are not always explicitly aware of that external standard.8 This sense of violating something greater than ourselves differentiates guilt from shame, in which social expectations are the reference point.
If we treat guilt as merely a psychological problem, we will neglect the moral and spiritual aspects that underlie those feelings. Moreover, when we take those feelings to therapy for treatment, we place them before a therapist who is often agnostic about absolute moral standards. Getting "help" often amounts to finding an accomplice in the weakening of our consciences. We are most satisfied as therapy clients when we "discover" that nothing was our fault. On reflection, however, we often find that our guilt lies deeply and stubbornly out of reach, anchored to that greater "something". Inducing others to validate our innocence may quiet the voice of conscience but will never satisfy our deeper hunger.
The broken heart
These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you (Ps. 50:21).
The charge against David has been laid. Now he stops running from the truth, and in Psalm 51, he pours out all his guilt before God, the One against whom he has sinned. This is a psalm where one doesn't find clever psychotherapy techniques or the wisdom of the Buddha. David does not practice the detached, accepting attitude of "mindfulness." Here is passionate conviction and all the anguish of a broken heart. His contrite spirit takes full responsibility for what he has done by calling it "sin," for he knows he cannot minimize his actions. A righteous forgiveness must have a full accounting of the costs. David strips his guilty soul bare for all of history to see, with no hint of self-justification. He doesn't just feel guilty; he knows he is guilty.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me (Ps. 51:3).
He has one goal: to cast himself on the mercy of a loving, faithful God. Psalms 51 is not about forgiving the self, being "strong," or shopping for validation. David didn't want good advice on how to do better next time. His goals are much loftier. This murderer and adulterer would only be satisfied by "abundant mercy" from the highest court in the universe. He could only be justified by faith alone and nothing less.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions (Ps. 51:1).
David understood that the most important problem with sin is its offense against God Himself. Sin always damages God's creation, to be sure, but its first insult is to the Creator. The first and greatest commandment is to love Him with all one's heart, soul, and might. When we love something else more than Him, we have committed treason. Thus the size of a sin is not measured by our feelings about it but by the greatness of the Owner of the universe against whom we have sinned. In other words, when we injure one of His creatures, we injure Him; it is personal, and it is remembered. That is why David said,
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment (Ps. 51:4).
David had no right to put God on trial or to question God's justice. Here he accepts that God would be justified in carrying out the law's penalty of death for David's sins. If God took his life, He would be blameless. God is merciful and just, so He does not forgive cheaply.
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty (Ex. 34:6-7).
David's repentance is total. Compared to his deep confession, our modern, therapeutic forgiveness looks cheap and tawdry. When guilt makes us feel bad, we want relief now. Everyone should just get over it and move on. We think forgiveness should be cost-free. As pastor Gary Inrig has said, we give and take forgiveness too easily, while the real work of forgiveness is expensive and difficult.9 Nothing will ever be set right inside us without first making peace with the God outside of us. David desperately craved an "alien" grace, a grace found only in a supremely moral Being. Only God knew how much damage would result from David's sins, and only He could pay the cost of that damage. Divine forgiveness is very precious indeed, the most costly thing in the universe.
How much does it cost?
"For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life" (Lev. 17:11).
In the Old Testament, blood was considered the life in both animals and man, because its shedding caused death. In Leviticus Moses was not describing some mystical property of blood that made it especially suitable for sacrifice and atonement. There was no mysterious "life essence" released at the altar when an animal was slain, as many pagan religions believed. Rather, blood is a universal symbol of life that God ordained to prepare the Israelites to receive atonement.
The sight of blood stirs our emotions that spring from a deep place in our souls. When my son Matthew was four years old, we were renting a vacation house with a polished wooden floor in Yosemite. One afternoon he got the urge to gallop across that shiny floor in his socks—and quickly lost his footing. His face thumped hard against the floor and opened up a gash over his eye. My wife rushed over to save him, but when she saw the blood she suddenly said to me, "Honey, you'll have to take over," grew limp, and slowly fainted to the floor. Even a mother's love couldn't overcome her helpless reaction to the sight of blood. Today, Matthew's little scar decorates his eyebrow as an emblem of that moment.
Our Creator gave us all an aversion to blood so we could share His love of life and hatred of death. When we see blood we feel our own mortality. When an Israelite had to cut the throat of his own lamb, he felt some of the real cost of his own sin as he took the life of that animal. The lamb didn't deserve such treatment, but its short little life was accepted as payment for sin in the conscience of the Israelite. God requires blood because death is the price that He has fixed for sin, as He is the owner of all life (Rom. 6:23). God's universe is not a moral free market where the value of life is negotiated. Life is by Him alone; it's not for sale, and if it were, we couldn't afford it.
Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice… But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me (Ps. 49:7, 8, 15).
No sparrow falls outside of God's rule, and no human life was ever brought into the world without His design. He doesn't decide a child is valuable after the mother has demonstrated she will provide a minimal "quality of life." Not even the most disabled or horribly neglected child is an accident. As David said,
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139:13, 14).
The fact that only God can give and take life is the reason human justice is so limited in its power to make things right. Under human justice, crimes against human life cannot be reversed. Dr. Karl Menninger's 1969 book The Crime of Punishment argues against our justice system using pain and suffering as a part of criminal penalties. Punishing someone for their deeds, he argues, serves no purpose except to satisfy the revenge needs of society. No penalty can undo past wrongs, and prison sentences never reverse the victim's losses and pain.10 Menninger was right that no penalty can ever undo sins already committed—in our human courts of justice. However, undreamt of in his philosophy was an eternal Creator who "works all things according to the council of his will" (Eph. 1:11). He can blot out sins, give life to the dead, and declare things that are not as though they were (Rom. 4:17). In his hands, evil has already been undone, and any wrong can be redeemed.
A shadow gospel
Just as the bloody sacrifices of the Old Testament worship system feel barbaric to us, one man suffering for our sins seems foolish. Surely a loving God does not actually need a violent death to forgive sinners. The very idea of Jesus dying like a butchered animal to satisfy God's anger at sin does not feel loving to many people. They protest that this doctrine denies the power of forgiveness and encourages our revenge lust. They ask, "Can't God just forgive us without needing to vent His anger on anyone?"
Best-selling author and pastor Rob Bell, in his book Love Wins, speaks for the feelings of many about sacrifice and blood: "Those are powerful metaphors. But we don't live any longer in a culture in which people offer animal sacrifices to the gods." Those metaphors of sacrifice are only necessary for the unenlightened, he says, for "…there are pockets of primitive cultures around the world that do continue to understand sin, guilt, and atonement in those ways. But most of us don't."11
Why does the Bible speak of Jesus' death as a sacrifice with words like "propitiation" and "precious blood"? Bell offers an explanation: "What the first Christians did was look around them and put the Jesus story in language their listeners would understand."12 Those early Christians, says Bell, were "brilliant and creative" in choosing metaphors that communicated an epic event in ways their listeners could understand. The New Testament writers knew that their symbols were not objectively "true", but they had to create a good story for their primitive audiences. In other words, the original gospel story is only as powerful as our ignorance.
The late Adventist theologian A. Graham Maxwell also posed as a creative story-teller for enlightened audiences. He rejected the doctrine of Christ's sacrificial substitution for sinners, replacing it with a "trust-healing" gospel. We are alienated from God because we have believed Satan's lies that God is arbitrary, cruel, and angry. Christ and Satan are embroiled in a universal war for the loyalties of all citizens of the cosmos, and God's essential goodness is on trial. Great controversy doctrine holds that because Satan rules the world, all the pain and suffering in the world comes from him.13 Gregory Boyd tends to agree: "The New Testament everywhere assumes that the ultimate reason behind all evil in the world is found in Satan, not God." 14
Maxwell taught that the classical Christian doctrines of the atonement have misrepresented God's character. When we understand that He never has anger or needs to punish anyone, we are able to trust Him and find healing. God does not require any payment for sin. The Cross did not change God's loving attitude towards us, Maxwell taught, for He can simply forgive sins without needing anyone to suffer the cost. Our sin problem is really a misunderstanding of a kindly God. When we see God's demonstration of love for us on the cross, how Jesus was willing to suffer a martyr's death, we become God's friends. Our hostility and distrust will change into love and friendship.15 By any meaningful definition, that is a moral influence gospel.
For Maxwell and Bell, no act of divine justice was accomplished on the Cross, for the work of the atonement is only something that happens inside us. The Cross was purely for show, an impressive work of moral influence theater. All that talk in the Bible about wrath, sacrifice, and reconciliation really is just language designed to move our hearts. It is only appearance and shadow, not the substance of reality. However, one might wonder, "How can that story effectively move our hearts when we know it is fiction?" Once we have been enlightened, we can "see through" the symbols. What lasting power can any symbol have if we know it is a mere stage prop to manipulate our feelings?
The ancient citizens of Athens had a sophisticated solution to the excessive emotions of guilt, fear, and anger. Greek theater provided drama for the audience to safely experience their strongest feelings while enjoying a good story. Intense drama raised the negative emotions to a conscious level, then allowed safe expression and release. This was to restore their internal balance and renewal. Aristotle called the purging benefit of theater "catharsis,"16 an idea later adopted by Sigmund Freud. Of course, the delicate sense of balance brought about by catharsis was only temporary. To maintain that equilibrium, theater lovers needed new plays written after the excitement of the old stories faded away.
The catharsis psychology of ancient Greek theater resembles our contemporary moral influence gospel. When the cross of Christ becomes mere drama for our psychological benefit, we empty it of its power. We may even like the story of Jesus' death, and experience warm feelings toward God—or we may not. As the lead actor of moral influence drama, Jesus does not actually bear our sin and weakness, he just wants our appreciation. The drama gospel has limited power over our hearts and habits, for it is only a shadow of reality. Like the Athenians in Paul's day who would "spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new," our spiritual appetites will never be filled. In the past, God was able to overlook that kind of ignorance about Him (Acts 17:30). But the real Jesus has come, not as a pretender, but as our substitute.
Who has believed our report?
Isaiah 52 and 53 directly address unbelief in the Messiah's mission and contains the most detailed and poignant description of him in the Old Testament. Both Jews and Gentiles are given an intimate view into the soul of the Messiah. When we see the Suffering Servant, He is not at all what we wanted or expected, and we are shocked by His pathetic appearance. This was the Jewish reaction, and it is very much our postmodern reaction. We cannot believe the reports because we prefer our own stories about Him. Standing before us He is an ordinary, even homely man who seems mysteriously troubled. People tell us lots of strange, even unbelievable stories about Him. He calls himself the "Son of Man" and says that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no life in us. He doesn't look like a Messiah, certainly not the pretty one in the pictures.
Troubled people are troubling to us; we don't want their problems to become our problems. In the Servant's presence, we might use our best manners to politely dismiss him (vs. 4) or refer him for therapy. Probably most disturbing about this Servant is the sheer intensity of His suffering. This passage in Isaiah describes a level of torment so excruciating that the sufferer no longer resembles a human being (52:14). Such pain makes no sense to us, and who in his right mind would want to believe it? Why should the Messiah suffer like that? If God can just forgive us anyway, Jesus' extreme suffering and death seem unnecessary.
When I was an agnostic, the terrible death of Jesus was one of the most annoying things about Christianity. I could "see through" the attempt to make me feel bad and force this "Catholic" symbol of guilt onto my conscience. This cross felt gratuitous, and I looked for healthier ways to resolve my guilt and find self esteem. However, what is described here goes far beyond dramatic license used to provoke us. Isaiah 53 takes the greatest theme of the entire Bible and encapsulates it—the glory of God in the suffering of Christ to show grace to the lost. He told us His suffering had a purpose:
Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory? (Luke 24:26).
John the Baptist saw Jesus approaching and cried, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" He is, and always was, the Lamb slain, not merely a hasty solution for sin that the Godhead threw together after Adam and Eve's fall. Jesus was the slaughtered Lamb, marked for death before any sin had ever been committed (Rev 13:8). The cross did not change God's mind about mankind, for Jesus' sacrifice was always the divine plan. The crucifixion was preordained and predestined from before time:
For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place (Acts 4:27).
Behold the Man!
In John 19, we are transported down into the noisy crowd as a witness at the Servant's trial. There ahead of us, we can see a man standing quietly before His judge, the Roman governor (vs. 9). Pilate believes He is innocent, but to appease the crowd, he has Him taken out back and scourged by his guards. These men carry a load of anger from dealing with many criminals, and they relish the task of unloading it all on Him. After they scourge Him, they throw on an old robe, a crown of thorns, and beat Him up with their fists.
Now Jesus is ready for display. Pilate calls him out, and He lurches forward to show Himself to the mob. Standing near Jesus is Barabbas the robber and two other nameless convicts. Barabbas has been hardened by years of crime and defies anyone to break him. He has a covenant with death, and he welcomes it. But the crowd only screams for Jesus to die. Pilate wants them to see how pathetic their most-wanted suspect really is,17 so he sarcastically calls out, "Behold, the man!" There stands the Son of Man in all His glory, and what a sight to behold!
As many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance…(Is. 52:14).
He is draped in an old purple robe, filthy and spattered with blood, beard torn out, eyes swelling shut. His face shows He is obviously in a lot of pain; this is no stoic, tough guy. Everyone is startled by this tragic, damaged figure, and so are we. None of the great paintings of Christ have dared to portray His real appearance.
He came out to stand before the crowd so He could be jeered, hooted at, and cursed.18 The crowd really wants His blood, sending waves of their wrath to roll over Him. But pressing down on Him is a much greater wrath against evil, and this man has to drink that cup to the dregs. This was not an act; for this reason He came. He came to take what we had coming, so He could bear our condemnation and reproach. He came to feel our hurt: all our sorrows, our afflictions, and take them on his shoulders (Is. 53:6). This was not a generic suffering for anonymous individuals that God hoped to save some day. These were actual griefs and hurts felt by real people, individuals with names. On that day He also knew you and suffered for you personally. He did not turn away; He made your problems His problems.
But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed (Is. 53:5).
He was made to be sin for us (2 Cor. 5:19), a most hated, accursed thing (Gal. 3:13), so that we can be blessed and comforted. Our sins lashed and wounded Him, so that we can be forgiven and adopted. Although this, the greatest of all crimes, was carried out by men, the ultimate cause of this horror is the Father himself. Christ suffered by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). The Father was there in His Son, reconciling the world to Himself.
This was not a tragedy. This was the afternoon of pain for which the universe was created. God's primary purpose for creating His cosmos was not to give us a perfect utopia, or to produce perfect law-keepers to showcase His character. God's glory does not find its best expression in His creation, but in His display of grace. The creation was very good, but the extreme suffering of Christ in the place of sinners was the greatest demonstration of God's glory that will ever be.19 He said,
When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am (Jn. 8:28).
Pilate finally gave up arguing with the crowd and said with resignation, "Behold your king!" The crowd had rejected their messiah, for they had no king but Caesar. Away with this man who troubled them! Then they took Him out, lifted Him up, and crucified Him. In those few hours on the cross, He became a most detestable object of evil that deserved eternal hell. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" was the scream of the damned.20 He was alone when He carried the curse of our sins to the cross, and there was none to help Him. When men and demons put God on trial that day, the tables were turned; God put all of mankind on trial in the person of Jesus and condemned him to hell. We cannot put God on trial; we can only accept his verdict.
Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted (Is. 52:13).
In all the stories, there is no mythical hero like Jesus. Isaiah 63 portrays a mighty warrior returning from battle, striding across the land in his crimsoned garments. We inquire, "Who is this glorious figure?" He answers, "It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save." We ask, "Why are your garments red?" He replies, "I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me." The day of vengeance was in His heart, and there was no one to help Him—or stop him. He crushed all His enemies in His wrath until blood spattered His garments. Now, the battle is over, and His salvation is complete. The blood on His garments is His own.
I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord (Jn. 10:18).
From "undead" to alive
The story of Jesus' crucifixion is grotesque and disturbing, even after two thousand years of creative distortion. His words still shock us, words that would be stark, raving mad coming from anyone else:
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (Jn. 6:53).
If this were just an invitation to eat a little wafer with magical properties, it would be an easy command to obey. Even if He were asking us to eat dead human flesh, that would be far simpler to do than what He asks. If Jesus' words evoke for you scary Halloween images of "the undead," of walking zombies, groaning with desperation for living flesh to devour, you're actually not far from the truth. We are that desperate because we are the spiritually "undead" (Eph. 2:1). Without real life, we wander the night, biting and devouring one another (Gal. 5:15), craving relief from pain and guilty regrets. We find no relief because we are born spiritually dead with no life in us. We may have a strong pulse and low cholesterol, but we are spiritual corpses. Ghoulish as the above passage sounds, there's no use trying to soften Jesus' words; He knew what He had to say. Without His blood, there can be no life in us.
The "undead", sinful nature prefers a less outrageous gospel, a bloodless one that validates us. We have invented a moral influence gospel without the living intensity of the real one, and substituted God's intense holiness for bland abstractions about God's "friendship." The real flesh and blood gospel yanks us from our timid banalities about love and into the passionate fury and joy of the cross. Any theology that is offended by the bloody cross of the Son of God is a lifeless invention of men. The bold spirit of Christ's blood gives us the courage to love and trust like a little child.
Until we see our morbid condition and repent, we remain creatures of the night. Devouring Christ means we believe in His death as a sacrifice for our sin, and His life will become literally, truly ours. By eating and drinking Jesus, He will give us a new spirit and a tender heart of flesh (Ez. 36:26). He asks us to repent of our predatory, rebellious ways, and to trust Him with our very lives. In giving all of ourselves, we receive all of Him. His death and resurrection become part of us, just as if we ourselves had done the dying and rising (Rom. 6:8).
Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him (Jn. 6:54-56).
In the Christian life, we never advance beyond our helpless dependence on the sacrifice at the cross. Through the rent veil of Jesus' body, we can enter into the holy of holies with boldness, but never without His blood (Heb. 9:7). In abandoning ourselves to the severity and mercy of God, we find the answer to our deepest pangs of guilt. After we have finally become weary of all our games to justify ourselves, the offer of strong relief remains. Because He poured out His soul unto death, and was numbered with you, me, and Barabbas, there is nothing left for us to prove. It is time to stop pretending. We can stop haggling with God over our debts and declare bankruptcy.
Martin Luther began his 95 Theses with this: "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,' he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance."21
Among all the gifts we will receive from the Spirit, nothing will ever surpass the sweet intimacy with God when with broken heart we plead, "Have mercy on me, oh God, according to your steadfast love!" †
Copyright 2011 Life Assurance Ministries, Inc., Casa Grande, Arizona, USA. All rights reserved. Revised December 3, 2011. Contact email: email@example.com
God requires blood because death is the price that He has fixed for sin, as He is the owner of all life.
Although this, the greatest of all crimes, was carried out by men, the ultimate cause of this horror is the Father himself. Christ suffered by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God. The Father was there in His Son, reconciling the world to Himself.
When men and demons put God on trial that day, the tables were turned; God put all of mankind on trial in the person of Jesus and condemned him to hell. We cannot put God on trial; we can only accept his verdict.
We find no relief because we are born spiritually dead with no life in us. We may have a strong pulse and low cholesterol, but we are spiritual corpses. Ghoulish as the above passage sounds, there's no use trying to soften Jesus' words; He knew what He had to say. Without His blood, there can be no life in us.
Any theology that is offended by the bloody cross of the Son of God is a lifeless invention of men. The bold spirit of Christ's blood gives us the courage to love and trust like a little child.