This statement, “Jesus did not come to save us from God,” has been a kind of mantra of the so-called “Progressive Christians” over the last few years. In a way, it’s a kind of clever statement, and accomplishes the emotive purpose of the statement. However, it is only clever by way of a caricature of what those who are not so “progressive” actually believe. In particular, it has been aimed at those of us who believe in Penal Substitutionary Atonement. In this post, I would like to show how wrong this statement actually is. In order to do this—and perhaps I shouldn’t, but I am going to anyway—I am going to bracket out the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. In other words, what am I going to show is that, regardless what “theory” of the atonement one adopts, it is actually quite true to say, “Jesus came to save us from God.” Before I begin, I want to say that there are two things that are actually quite surprising about this whole issue.
(1) The first surprise is how so many people have been absolutely duped by this statement. It only demonstrates how so many sectors of the modern church can be so easily persuaded of something that is so completely illogical and unbiblical. The soundbite, the mantra, the poorly-thought-out cliché takes precedence over logical thinking, sound doctrine, and, frankly, just the ability to read.
(2) The second surprise is how absolutely easy it is to demonstrate the falsehood of the statement. To borrow a slogan from the past, “Thankfully, the task is not a difficult one.”
We will be looking at a number of New Testament texts to examine this issue; but before we do, it would be good to start this off by looking at one Old Testament passage. In Ezekiel 3 we have one of the better known passages in the book, the famous “watchman” text. The Lord tells Ezekiel that he is to be a watchman for the Israelites. He says to Ezekiel,
Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. (Ezek 3:17)
Several commentators on this passage have argued that the Hebrew preposition translated “from” in this verse should rather be translated “against.” So the verse should actually read, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning against me.” Now, the preposition can actually be translated either way, so, linguistically and grammatically, one cannot be dogmatic on the actual translation. However, both conceptually and contextually, this understanding is exactly correct. Ezekiel’s task is to provide warning of the enemy who is going to come against them. That enemy is the Babylonians; but Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians are but the sword in the Lord’s hand. Ultimately, the Lord is the enemy at the gate. Ezekiel’s task is to warn the Israelites against Yahweh. In essence, all the prophetic books in which Israel is warned of impending disaster are warnings against Yahweh. The importance of this understanding is that we should be prepared to realize that when Jesus comes as the ultimate prophet of the Lord, this is going to be his message as well. Now, on to the New Testament.
(1) First, we need to look at the preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus’s forerunner. Here are some excerpts from John’s preaching in Matthew 3:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? (v. 7)
The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (v. 10)
Speaking about Jesus, John says:
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (v. 12)
John is delivering a message in which he warns against the “coming wrath.” It is quite clear in the passage that the wrath against which he is warning is God’s wrath. And not only that, but this wrath is in fact the wrath of Jesus himself (more about that later). John the Baptist came preaching, and warning against God’s coming wrath. He came to save his hearers from God.
(2) Now, there are those who would argue that Jesus’s message was not the same as that of his forerunner and cousin, John. However, there is very little (actually, nothing) to support that argument. So, note this passage in Matthew 23:33-36, where Jesus takes up John’s phrase, “Brood of vipers.”
You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.
Jesus takes up John’s language and refers to his hearers as a “Brood of vipers.” Then he lets them know that they are in danger of being condemned to hell. He even tells them that their generation is going to suffer for the accumulated sin of previous generations, as well as for their own sins. Jesus goes on in the passage to tell them that he had longed to gather them under his wings, to save them from this judgment, but they would not accept that offered protection. Therefore he tells them, “Your house is left unto you desolate.” Jesus came to save them, to protect them from the coming wrath, the very wrath of God.
Now, there are those who would argue that Jesus is not warning them against God’s wrath, but against the wrath of the Romans and the destruction that would come from their armies. The simple answer to this objection is that it is not an either/or. It is a both/and. It is no different at all from the message of Ezekiel and the other OT prophets who told the people that the Assyrians and Babylonians who were going to come against them are actually swords in the hand of the Lord. I would add here as well, that N. T. Wright, who, as much as anybody in our generation, has demonstrated that the actions of the Jews in Jesus’s day were going to bring the Roman armies down on their heads, nevertheless also argues quite clearly that we cannot simply regard Jesus here as a political prognosticator. Rather, Wright argues that we must see Jesus as a prophet, one who warns the people of the coming judgment, and that the wrath of the Romans is really the wrath of God.
(3) In a similar passage in Luke 21:20-24, Jesus again fulfills the role of prophet, and says the following:
When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
The word “punishment” in this passage could be translated even more appropriately as “vengeance.” It will not do to argue that this is simply Roman punishment or vengeance. By context, and by the phrase “in fulfillment of all that has been written,” it is abundantly clear that this is not merely a human Roman punishment or vengeance, but a theological one, a divine one, in fulfillment of the curse of the covenant. Jesus came to save the people from this judgment, this wrath of God.
(4) Of course, we have the famous John 3:16, but also the not-so-well-examined verses that follow.
For 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.
It is important to note that John 3:16 is not simply a verse reference to put on a large piece of cardboard and hold up at a baseball game. No, it is a matter of life and death, or more precisely, a matter of eternal life or death. Jesus, as the passage says, did not come to condemn us. But that is because there is already a condemnation in place. And that condemnation, if not reversed, will result in destruction; they will “perish.” And whether the person perishes or lives depends on their belief in, and relationship to, God’s one and only Son. Jesus came to save us from a condemnation that already exists, and in context, that condemnation is from God. But to make that even more clear, we go on to the next passage.
(5) Later in this same chapter we come to v. 36:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.
Again, just as in the earlier verses in John 3, this verse has to do with issues of life and death—eternal life and eternal death. And if it was not completely explicit in v. 18 that the condemnation is God’s condemnation, it is explicit here. The two passages, in the same chapter, have to be read in the light of each other. The condemnation in v. 18 is, in v. 36, “God’s wrath.” Jesus has come to save us from that condemnation, that wrath. Jesus came to save us from God.
(6) In Romans 5:9-11, the apostle Paul says the following:
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Christ died for us, and we have been justified by his blood. Because he died for us, we shall be saved from God’s wrath. Note that, in accord with the teaching in the rest of this chapter as well as in the entirety of the book of Romans and the rest of the New Testament, this salvation from God’s wrath is not an automatic; it must be appropriated through faith in Christ and his blood. Only those who believe are saved from wrath and given eternal life. But, again, we are taught here that through the death of Christ, through faith in his blood, we will saved from God’s wrath. Jesus came to save us from God.
(7) Paul says this in Ephesians 2:1-7:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh m and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
Paul, at first apparently addressing the Gentile believers among the Ephesians, nevertheless goes on to include himself, and apparently all believers, as those who can be characterized as “by nature deserving of wrath.” But God, by his great love and mercy saved us from that wrath through what he did in Christ Jesus. Of course, that wrath is God’s wrath, and God saves us from that wrath through Jesus; as a result we become trophies of God’s grace.
With this passage, though there a quite a few more we could look at, I am going to bring this examination of texts to an end. However, I need to make two more points.
The first one is this. Those who brandish this caricaturish cliché, “Jesus did not come to save us from God,” also go on to a further caricature and argue that the ones against whom they use this cliché believe that God is angry at us, and then Jesus, in love and compassion, comes to change God’s mind and persuade God to love us. But this is so far from the truth that it’s absolutely mind-boggling how they ever came up with such a silly accusation. Christ does not have to change God’s attitude toward us, to persuade him to love us, to get him to reluctantly pull back his wrath. No, not at all! We believe that God loved us so much that he sent his Son to die for us. Christ was not trying to persuade God. God did not need any persuading. As our last passage in Ephesians says, “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” There was no opposition between the Father and the Son on this. What Christ did to save us, God was doing in Christ to save us. God’s anger at us was real, God’s wrath was real, and there was indeed a death sentence hanging over our head. But God is also rich in mercy, and in Christ he worked to provide redemption for us. Jesus did not have to persuade God to do this.
But the second thing that is important to note is this. Jesus is God. Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity. Whatever is true of God the Father, is also true of God the Son. Therefore, whenever we say, “Jesus came to save us from God,” we are also saying that Jesus came to save us from himself. Again, Jesus and the Father are not at odds on this. It is not just the wrath of the Father, it is also the wrath of the Son. That is what Jesus came to save us from. Remember that John the Baptist said of Jesus, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And this is why the book of Revelation, though it puts the words in the mouth of the wicked, speaks not only of the wrath of the one who sits on the throne, but also of the “wrath of the Lamb” and then, collectively, of “their wrath” (Rev 6:16). The wrath of God from which we are rescued is Jesus’s own wrath as well.
I have done nothing in this post to argue for the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. And usually, that “Jesus did not come to save us from God,” cliché is used specifically against that teaching. I am absolutely convinced that this doctrine is true, but this post is not about Penal Substitutionary Atonement. It really doesn’t matter which one of the so-called theories of Atonement you hold to. Whichever one you hold, it is still true—yes, Jesus came to save us from God. And that is not a bad thing. That is a good thing. Praise be to God!
May 19, 2020