What is man’s chief problem and what is the solution?
People have a plethora of ideas and theories, but most are based simply on “fluff” and “I think…” Both Catholics and Christians will agree that it is sin, which separates us from God, and Scripture is the basis. On the solution to our sin we disagree.
This was the question that split the Western world in the days of Martin Luther and John Calvin (1500’s). The Catholic Church taught, “Christ paid the debt to justice, and taught us by His example, and drew all things to Himself” (Kent; emphasis mine). This is the view held today as Catholic dogma, and it follows in the footsteps of Peter Abelard, who believed that Christ’s death was mostly an example to us of how to die and how to live rightly before God. Luther and Calvin taught this was absolutely incorrect, because they believed the center of man’s salvation rests on Christ’s death on the cross as the full payment of our sins. They saw the main problem being man’s inability to do what is good, as Saint Augustine taught by defining Total Depravity. This led to the teaching from Scripture on Predestination and Election, also taught heavily by Augustine, denoting the absolute need for God to do the freeing from sin, not man.
Mark Dever, in an essay on the atonement, states clearly that “the Cross has become the symbol of our faith,” that is for Evangelicals, who follow the footsteps of Calvin and Luther in this crucial area (although Lutherans no longer hold to the original view of Substitutionary Atonement). And in defining the atonement, what the solution is to man’s problem of sin, he writes: “Christ’s perfect sacrifice for our sins is necessary to satisfy God’s righteousness.” The argument, which is based specifically on Paul’s writing in Romans, but found throughout Scripture, states that man cannot please God by doing “good works”. Isaiah states that “all our righteous deeds (a.k.a “good works”) are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (64:6). Sin cannot be tolerated by God, the Bible clearly states, and in this the division arises.
The Catholics make little use of the idea of the atonement. For them Christ’s death, while of value, is not central to salvation. Some say his death simply gives us a model on how to suffer and how to please God by humility. It ignores the fact that Isaiah says we can do absolutely nothing good of our own doing. Instead people are left with a moralistic kind of Christianity, to do good things in order to attain God’s favor. But God is perfect, and he cannot tolerate any thing “good” we do if it is even partly stained by evil. This is the dividing line between Catholics and Christians. One says it can appease God through good works and the “grace” given piece-by-piece through worship of the saints, prayer, confession, the Eucharist, etc. The other says it is by faith alone, believing that Christ’s death on the cross completely satisfied God’s wrath on the sinner, and that repentance from sin and belief in Christ’s work will gift us eternal life.
Ephesians 2:8-10 teach that: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” In this passage Paul clearly addresses Christians, and reminds them of how they were saved, and calls them to good works. Salvation is by faith alone in the grace given us as a gift from God. But what is this gift? Paul tells the Corinthians, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (I Cor. 15:1-4; emphasis mine). Then, and only then, can we do truly “good works”, because Christ makes us perfect before his Father, through his death on the cross. To this, Mark Dever concurs, “At stake is nothing less than the essence of Christianity.”
The atonement is the central doctrine to the Christian faith, and simply explained it is the work that Christ did on the Cross. He willingly gave up his life on the cross in order to have imputed on himself the sins of the entire world, as Isaiah 53 clearly prophesied, unleashing the full wrath of God upon his own Son.
But not only does this separate Evangelical Christians from Catholics, it also separates us from every other religion ever known to man. Every major religion realizes that there is a God, and that there is a need to be restored to him. All but Christianity teach that it is up to us to make things right with God. We must appease him through prayers, pilgrimages, alms, baptism, ancestor worship, etc. Christianity is the only that can state this, as C.J. Mahaney said about his son, that “the hope of his life [was that] Jesus, God’s perfect, righteous Son, died in his place for his sins. Jesus took all the punishment; Jesus received all the wrath as he hung on the Cross, so people like [his son] and his sinful daddy could be completely forgiven.”
And why did Christ Jesus, as a man yet being fully God, choose to die in our place, to take away our sins and promise us eternal life? As Peter tells us: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18). Christ died on the cross for my sins in order to reconcile me to God, the Creator of the world, and to legally make me perfect before him because Christ paid fully for all of my sins, and of yours too.
Kent, William. “Doctrine of the Atonement.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 11 Apr. 2010 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/ 02055a.htm>. Web.
Turner, William. “Peter Abelard.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 12 Apr. 2010 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01036b.htm>. Web.
Dever, M. (2006, May). “Nothing But the Blood.” Christianity Today.