And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. 1 John 2:2NKJV
This morning we continue to study Westminster Larger Catechism Question 194, which asks, “What do we pray for in the fifth petition?” We will look at the third part of the answer, which is the italicized portion of the following, “In the fifth petition (which is, Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,) acknowledging, that we and all others are guilty both of original and actual sin, and thereby become debtors to the justice of God; and that neither we, nor any other creature, can make the least satisfaction for that debt…” Last time we saw how the Catechism focuses our attention not on the painful suffering of sin but on the rebellious guilt of it. Today we consider how there is nothing in all of creation that can deliver us from the slightest degree of this guilt.
Sin, both original and actual, makes us debtors to the justice of God. In other words, when we sin we violate God’s justice by not giving to Him what we owe to Him. Therefore, in order for God’s justice to prevail and be re-established we must remove or correct the thing that is not giving to God His full desert. But that is not enough. The specific violation of His justice must not only be made to fully cease, but now a further payment must be rendered to God in order to make up for that period in which there was a lack. Otherwise God, the most honorable being, is dishonored by not being given His due. Accordingly, once he has violated God’s justice, the sinner now owes God more than just a cessation of sin, he owes God satisfaction for his dishonorable violation of God’s Law. Suppose you took a train from Pittsburgh to Johnstown, and the train advertised a one hour guaranteed arrival time because it traveled nonstop at its top speed of 60 mph for the entire sixty mile trip. Now what happens to the guarantee if the engineer malevolently forces a one minute stop in Saltsburg? Would it be enough for a new engineer to immediately take the train back up to 60 mph? Because the train was once again traveling at its optimal speed, would it now do justice to its guaranteed travel time of precisely one hour? Moreover, seeing that the top speed of the train is 60 mph, is there any way for the train to make up for the lost time during the stop in Saltsburg?
Of course it cannot, and in a sense this is the situation we are in regarding our sin debt towards God. God is perfect. He created us perfect. And He commanded us to live forever before Him being perfect. It is easy to see in this situation that even the slightest transgression of God’s law cannot be made good. Even as converted Christians with new natures, we are not perfect, but even if we could be continually perfect after just one sin, we still have not made up for the debt. The point here is not to consider perfection but to show how an eternity of perfection – being what we already owe to God anyway – does not and cannot make up the smallest part of the debt of a single sin. God’s justice already demands perfection from us. To give Him what we already owe to Him does not address any debt we may have accrued towards Him. This is also why no other creature can help us make up for even a single sin against God. For all the creatures also owe perfection to God, and since they cannot be more than perfect (which is a contradiction), nothing they do can go towards paying off our sin debt to God. Our sin debt puts us in an unjust state before God, whose justice demands that we be punished until the debt is made good. But as we have already seen, no amount of punishment can make good the debt and satisfy God’s justice. So, as sinful creatures, all that we can expect from God’s justice is endless punishment.
This fact is the reason why the gospel text at the head of this article is such good news. Jesus Christ, the man who is also God, is the propitiation for our sins. Propitiation means satisfaction. Jesus satisfies the justice of God on our behalf. How can Jesus do this if all creation cannot help us to make up for our sin debt? The simple answer is because Jesus is not a mere creature but has a human nature indissolubly joined to God’s nature in one person. His limited-finite nature is one person with his unlimited-infinite nature. Therefore, whatever good Jesus does or whatever suffering Jesus undergoes by definition has infinite weight and value in the sight of God. It is not just a man who perfectly obeys in our place, but it is the God-man. It is not just a man who suffers God’s wrath on the cross for us, but the God-man. In this way we can see that Jesus and Jesus alone, as an infinite person, can bear God’s infinite wrath on the cross in our place and satisfy God’s justice on our behalf.