A Price To Pay

From “The Mediator”
by Emil Brunner, 1889–1966

We can see whether guilt is regarded seriously or lightly by the kind of energy or “work” which is considered necessary in order to remove the separating obstacle from the path. The more this is supposed to be done “for nothing,” without anything happening, the more forgiveness becomes an “obvious,”“necessary” conception, the more it expresses the view that lies behind the mocking phrase, “It’s his job!” The more seriously guilt is regarded, the more it is realised that something must happen, just because forgiveness is not something which can in any way be taken absolutely for granted. The more real guilt is to us, the more real also is the gulf between us and God, the more real is the wrath of God, and the inviolable character of the law of penalty; the more real also the obstacle between God and man becomes, the more necessary becomes the particular transaction, by means of which the obstacle, in all its reality, is removed. The more serious our view of guilt, the more clearly we perceive the necessity for an objective, and not merely subjective, atonement. To deny this necessity means that we have not yet considered the true weight of sin.

The converse, however, is also true: only in Christ and not until then, has humanity been able to perceive this burden of guilt, this necessity for an objective act of atonement. The gulf of separation, all that blocks the way between man and God, did not become fully evident in its immensity until the actual Atonement had taken place, through the Cross. In the revelation of Christ, in this one event, question and answer, need and the knowledge of need, are present simultaneously.

Only at the Cross of Christ does man see fully what it is that separates him from God; yet it is here alone that he perceives that he is no longer separated from God. Nowhere else does the inviolable holiness of God, the impossibility of overlooking the guilt of man stand out more plainly; but nowhere else also does the limitless mercy of God, which utterly transcends all human standards, stand out more clearly and plainly. That God can be both at once, the One who “is not mocked,’’ and the One who “does not deal with us after our transgressions”; that neither aspect is sacrificed to the other, or can be subordinated to the other as a mere attribute; that God is equally the Holy One who asserts his unconditional claims, the One whose glory may not be given to another, and the Merciful One who gives himself to the very utmost limits of self-emptying; this fundamental theme of the whole Bible is the message of the Cross, the truth which is not to be separated from the fact, but in it alone, in this actual happening, is the truth.

That God comes, that he comes to us, means, that he himself really and actually meets us as we are. This is why he comes down to our level, that he may really meet with us. That it is God who really meets us, and that he really meets with us means the same thing. He meets us at the point where we become “real,” that is, where we stand before him naked, stripped of all illusions and coverings or masks, with nothing to shield us from his gaze.This only happens where our inmost soul is exposed, where, in the presence of God, we have no excuses to offer, nothing to say. Our humiliation is complete when we perceive that in ourselves we cannot possibly reach God. This illusion, the illusion of religious people, is only finally destroyed by the Mediator of the Atonement. Everything else which religious thought has invented, in order to mediate between God and man, is less humiliating for us, than the conviction that this atonement is necessary.

The humiliation coincides with the perception that fellowship with God is not something which we can take for granted, but something which is incomprehensible and amazing. The more we take it for granted, the more, properly speaking, we take our place by the side of God. The summit of this arrogance is reached in the doctrine of identity: Atma is Brahma (we are God).

At the opposite pole to all this stands the Cross. The doctrine of identity and the kindred systems of speculative idealism and mysticism, maintain that it is not necessary that any objective transaction should actually take place, for God’s attitude is eternally the same. There is no obstacle between us and God save our erroneous idea that it exists. Here guilt is denied. Its doctrine of redemption is not one of forgiveness, and still less of atonement, but this: it is the perception of the unity which was always there, the knowledge that this idea that there is some obstacle between us and God is an illusion; thus it is the assertion that fellowship with God is perfectly natural. This view fosters man’s pride; it humbles him less than any other view; it does more than anything to increase and intensify his arrogant illusions. This is a permanent illusion; it is, therefore, the very opposite of realism.

The truly realistic view, which therefore is just as much opposed to idealism as it is to naturalism, is the judgment man passes upon himself when he admits that he is guilty. The more realistic we are, the more knowledge of guilt we possess. The more real man becomes, the more he acknowledges himself to be guilty. The more clearly we see that fellowship with God is not something which can be taken completely for granted, the more we see that it is ‘costly. And the cost is not paid by man. For how can sinful man himself undertake to bear the cost of restoring the conditions of fellowship! Thus this restoration of communion costs God something; even on the part of God it is not taken for granted; even by him, it can only be achieved with labour as a particular event. The heavier the burden of guilt the heavier the cost, as Luther puts it; that is, forgiveness is the very opposite of something which is so natural that it costs no effort. The knowledge of the necessity for an objective atonement keeps pace with the progress of man in laying bare his soul to reality.

It is the same, therefore, with the knowledge of the real God. The real God is the personal God, the One who reveals himself. Knowledge of guilt, the personality of God and the reality of revelation necessarily belong together. The real God is the One who is absolutely holy, and absolutely merciful; the One, therefore, whom we can never reach by thought, who in this paradox, the highest paradox of all, is to us the mysterious, the impenetrable, the One whose attitude towards us is not governed by natural necessity, but is absolutely free, whom we can only know where he chooses to reveal himself to us freely. His free revelation and his revelation in the unity of holiness and mercy is one and the same thing. Hence the perfect revelation of God in the Cross of Christ means both the perfect revelation of the incomprehensibility and impenetrability of his being, of his majesty and of his freedom and generosity. He is the God who is to be feared and yet loved as no other being could be loved and feared. Because forgiveness is his free gift we are forced to depend upon it as a contingent, absolutely given, objective fact. Further, it is the vicarious endurance of the penalty of sin, because it is not merely the expression of the divine freedom, but also of the divine necessity and obedience to law. The Cross is the union of the divine freedom and necessity, and likewise the union of his holiness and mercy, of the infinite validity of the Law and the unlimited sovereignty of God, as the Lord of the Law.

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