New Word Alive: Don Carson on the Cross and Propitiation

Here are my notes on Don Carson’s morning Bible reading on 1 John 1:1-2:2. Without directly addressing recent debates, it was an excellent defence of the content and significance of substitutionary atonement. (Remember: these are my notes of Don’s talk and I may not always rightly convey what he intended.)

It’s all too easy to present the gospel message and omit the relationship between our sin and God. We might talk of God creating a good world that we have messed up, but which God sorts it out. But this misses what is chiefly out of line in history and therefore misses out what the cross chiefly achieves. Understanding sin and understanding the cross go hand in hand. Miss out the wrath of God against sin and the story distorts. You do not simply minimise something; you change the whole picture.

This is not new. The Apostle John addresses an early form of Gnosticism in his first letter. Gnosticism said that matter was bad. From this apparently small error everything unravels: creation (a bad act by a lesser god), incarnation (an illusion), ethics (either extreme aestheticism or indulgence), the cross (meaningless).

John longs that Christians might experience joy through the apostolic testimony of God’s invasion of history as a human being (1 John 1:1-4). What prevents this is human sin (1:5-10). God is light = purity, goodness, holiness. He is light without shadow! How can darkness (us) walk in such light? Verse 7b is a hint (prefiguring 2:1-2). The blood = Christ’s life violently and sacrificially ended. Our only hope is the cross.

Not many today claim to be without sin, but it is common to treat sin lightly. ‘I’m not that bad,’ we say. But the more we see the light of God – light inapproachable – the more we see our darkness. We cannot deny it. Instead we confess it. God responds to our confession with forgiveness because he is ‘faithful and just’. But how does God’s justice lead to forgiveness? Because God has judged sin in Christ on the cross and he will not condemn sin twice – once in Christ and again in me.

A relationship between God and his people is achieved through ‘propitiation’ – the act which makes God propitious = favourable. C. H. Dodd in the 1930s rejected this, arguing that God is already propitious since he sends his Son. But the Scriptures repeatedly assert that God not only stands for us in his love, but that he also stands against us in his wrath. When I tell my wife, ‘I love you’, I am also saying in effect, ‘I think you are lovely.’ But when God says he loves the world, he is not saying, ‘World, you’re lovely, your ethics are a delight, your relationships always beautiful and so on.’ God loves us because that is the kind of God he is. He loves us despite who we are. So God sends his Son in love to die in our place to satisfy his justice. In the New Testament the cross is said to do a lot of things (reconcile us to one another, defeat death, free us from Satan, cancel sin in us and so on). But at its heart it reconciles us to God by dealing with his holy wrath against our sin.

John says Jesus is our advocate with the Father. We must not think of a Western law court in which the judge is impartial. God is not impartial. He is the most wounded party as well as being the all-knowing, ever-just Judge. So Jesus is not a lawyer persuading a reluctant or undecided judge. The wounded, risen Son is an eternal, perpetual reminder of something God has always known and planned: that he would express his love towards us in the propitiation of his wrath against us through substitutionary death of his Son.