God is love. The greatest demonstration of his love for the world is that he gave his one and only son to rescue and redeem us. Even while we were yet in our sins, God’s love was toward us. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
God is holy. He is unique and incomparable. He is not like any other god that can be imagined. He transcends every category. His holiness is his otherness, but also his nearness. He is mystery, yet he is light, and by his light we can see. He is creator, and far beyond his creation in every way, yet not far away from his creation in any way. He is always present. Heaven and earth reveal his glory, and he has made humankind in his own image, to be like him.
The love of God and the holiness of God are not in contention. God’s holiness is not something that is separate and distinct from his love, but his love is holy and his holiness is revealed in his love. God is love, something that can be said only of God and of no other. We are created to reflect his love, through love for each other, but it cannot be properly said of us that we are love. But God himself is love, and there is nothing holier than that. There is nothing in God’s holiness that prevents him from being love, and nothing in his love that prevents him from being holy.
Atonement is about reconciliation between God and humankind. We rebelled and turned away from God, but God never turned away from us. God has never needed to be reconciled to us, for his love has always been toward us. We, however, needed to be reconciled to God, turned back toward him. But God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son in order to do just that.
The atonement resolves a problem, but it is not a problem between the love of God and the holiness of God. It is the problem between a God who is holy and a people who are not. The holiness of God is not a problem for the love of God, nor is the love of God a problem for the holiness of God.
There is nothing about the holiness of God that prevents the love of God from forgiving us our sins. Nor is there anything about the holiness of God that requires that God must first take retribution or have revenge on someone before he can forgive us our sins. God, in his holy love and his loving holiness, is free to forgive whomever he chooses.
The problem, however, is that forgiveness does not free us from our brokenness. It does not set us free from the power of the devil. It does not set us free from death. It does not produce a holy life in us. It does not turn us back to the Father. It is for this reason, then, that Jesus went to the cross.
It was at the cross that Jesus not only wiped out the list of charges that was against us but he also disarmed the principalities and powers, the malignant entities behind evil in kingdoms and cultures. He made an open spectacle of them and triumphed over them by the cross (Colossians 2:14-15).
It was at the cross that Jesus destroyed “the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil” and set free “those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
And it was at the cross the Jesus broke the power of death itself, for “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24).
So now the life and faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah himself is available to us, to dwell within us, to transform us, conforming us to God-likeness, to the image of Jesus himself, the image we were originally created to bear. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). This is the atonement (at onement) that not only forgives us but sets us free and changes us, turning us back to God and holiness. Not through retribution or wrath but through the holy love of God revealed in Christ.