If Christ Did Not Die, God Would Not Be Righteous

We don’t have to choose between God’s honor and his righteousness.

Christ_at_the_Cross_-_Cristo_en_la_CruzThat idea, however, contradicts some evangelical thinking. Here’s a quote from my book Saving God’s Face.

[Bruce] Demarest is representative in characterizing God’s righteousness as that which justification overcomes. He says, “The biblical doctrine of justification deals with the fundamental issue of how guilty sinners can be acquitted and restored to favor with an infinitely righteous and just God.” Therefore, one of the “obstacles” to acquitting sinners is the “holy and righteous character of God.” (See his The Cross and Salvation, 345, 362–63).

In contrast, I argue  in the book, “People are not saved despite God’s righteousness but rather because of his righteousness.”

God does what is right in that he glorifies himself through keeping his covenant promises to Abraham. Otherwise, if God does not keep justify the nations through Christ (cf. Gal 3:8), then God would be a liar. In that case, God would be unrighteous.

What then can we say about the atonement? Again, I’ll quote Saving God’s Face….

The atonement is necessary and not merely for the sake of human salvation. This claim says more than just God wants to glorify himself. Rather, it states that if Christ did not die, God would not be righteous. In that case, God lacks honor. God is shameful. The atonement is a God-centered act. It is true that Christ’s death vindicates God’s justice so that he is able to save his people. Yet, one must not get the order backwards. God’s glory is not an obstacle to his main goal, i.e. saving sinners. Saving sinners is a means to his main goal. Therefore, atonement theology does not terminate simply on human salvation. That is not the end for which God does all things.

We must be careful that we don’t merely exalt God as the supreme means of our salvation when in fact he is the supreme end of our salvation. The shift between a God-centered theology to a man-oriented theology is subtle. It begins with the way we define terms and the perspective we use to describe truth.

For example, we should not separate glory and honor from words like “righteousness” and “justice,” as is often done.

The Unrighteousness of Dishonoring God

Here is the problem as I see it: I don’t see why we have to set God’s honor up against his justice. Isn’t God angry when people dishonor him? Is it not the epitome of unrighteousness to dishonor God. Paul says exactly this in Romans 1:18–23.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. . . . For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

In addition, God’s justice (“righteousness” in Greek) is far from limited to his wrath against sin. God’s righteousness is overwhelming presented in positive terms. To overemphasize punitive sense of God’s righteousness/justice  grossly misrepresents the way the Bible most often presents God’s righteousness.

Some people might object that this sounds too “New Perspective.” Yet, even Mark Seifrid, who is no fan of the New Perspective, estimates that “references to God’s saving righteousness appear[s] roughly four times as frequently as those to his retributive justice” (Christ, Our Righteousness, 44).

If we wanted to connect God’s honor/glory, his saving righteousness and his punitive righteousness, what could we say? One could use Jim Hamilton’s phraseology: The atonement involves “God’s glory in salvation through judgment.”


Photo Credit: wikimedia

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  • I love this. I was writing about John 12:27–32 tonight. These verses beautifully confirm what you have said in this blog about this truth. Jesus looks forward to the Passion of the Cross and the work of the atonement saying, “Father, glorify your name.” So amazing.

    By the way, I want to quote your paragraph in the book I am writing. (I have your book, but I am being lazy.) It’s the paragraph which begins, “The atonement is necessary and not merely for the sake of human salvation.” On what page is that?

    By the way, my two presentations on Slideshare which include references to Jackson Wu have been viewed 644 times since being uploaded 3 weeks ago.

    Thanks so much,


    • Thank you Werner. I know this post may unsettle some people, so I appreciate your comments. Glad to hear about the slideshow as well! i think people are increasingly becoming aware of these themes. I look forward to reading your book. When do you think it will be ready? The quote comes from page 197, bottom paragraph of the page.