There is a song by Jewel, "Who Will Save Your Soul," that has the line in it, "who will save your soul, all the lies that you told, boy." That's a great question that I'm not sure our generation has thought about very deeply, especially since so many today are rejecting Christ's vicarious, penal atonement on the cross (for non-theologians, that means Christ's sacrifice on the cross was our sacrifice as a punishment and satisfaction of justice toward God). But we ought to ask the serious question, If God is just, and there is no vicarious, penal atonement, who will save our souls?
I once had a conversation with a Muslim about forgiveness. She was talking about how God forgives people even for things like adultery. Now, if your not familiar with Islam, God arbitrarily forgives people. In fact, no one knows if he or she will be saved until they reach judgment. It's up to God at that point to decide to either give you heaven or hell. The question arises, however, given God's nature as just, how God actually forgives us for anything. If God is just, He must always give the appropriate response to a crime committed. Hence, in both the Bible and the Koran, adultery is a crime that gains one hell. God can supposedly forgive for this crime, but how does He accomplish this without destroying His own nature? Obviously, in Islam, God cannot. Hence, regardless of what certain Muslims believe, God cannot forgive anyone for adultery because God's justice does not allow Him to forgive, but rather causes Him to condemn a crime committed.
Christians, however, believe that God is also just. They also need to believe that God cannot just forgive someone arbitrarily due to His justice. He must always do what is right. He must always give the right response to a crime. Hence, if one commits a crime that is worthy of hell, He must give hell. He cannot do otherwise.
But there is another factor here. What if a person does both good and evil, as one can supposedly do in Islam? Does God not owe them both hell and heaven? One cannot cancel out the other, since both must be recompensed for what is done. Hence, one cannot make up an evil with a good performed, because each must receive its reward. This is quite a dilemma for Islam, as well as for Judaism (or universalism for that matter), since all believe that people do both good and evil in their lives.
The Bible tells us, however, that no one does good, not even one. All good works must glorify God as the root of them, and outside of a salvific relationship with Him, what seems as a good work only serves to exalt the false religion of the self, stealing glory from God and damning all to whom it convinces of its false religion. But this creates a problem for us. If none of us do good, and God, as a just God who cannot simply put away His nature, must always reward evil with its just punishment, we're doomed. This is an impossible dilemma to defeat. Yet, God is God of the impossible and has defeated it. Here's how:
God has damned all sinners who identify with Christ together with Christ on the cross. He has judged the person forever. That person will never go to heaven. That person had died and gone to hell. That person will never rise again. He has been crucified with Christ and he no longer lives. The just penalty has been dealt out. God is just. But God is also merciful and loving. He has also saved. How has He done this? By creating a new person in spiritual rebirth. You were made new when you believed. You are no longer the person you once were. You are someone different now. The person you were is a dead man. Now, you have been given new life, and are a person who does good and not evil.
Now, you may think to yourself, That doesn't sound like me. But that's because the old man lingers. We carry a corpse along with us still. The dead man is officially dead, but in our experience is still dying. But he still wants to live and rule. He wants to take over and do evil again. Hence, the Christian, within the justice and mercy God has enacted upon him, is two people, not one. He is both a dead man and a living man. The dead man can do nothing but evil, and the living man can do nothing but good. As John says, that "we know no one who is born of God sins" (1 John 5:18) and that "if we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and the truth is not in us" (1:10), but that "if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (v. 9). Hugh? Is John teaching us to be schizophrenic? Is he contradicting himself? No. He's talking about our two persons. The one we were that has been put to death with Christ, and still needs to get that message by our laying him to rest daily, and the one the has been created when we decided to follow Christ and have our old man punished with him. The old man will linger in our flesh until we die. Hence, this is why our bodies must still die or be transformed.
So the Christian can say with Paul that "I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the [life] which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me" (Gal 2:20) as well as, "O Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin" (Rom 7:24-25).
In other words, God has satisfied His justice and His mercy through Christ in order that all who are crucified with Him might both be damned and saved at the same time. Hence, this isn't merely God punishing someone else for my sins. That is a ridiculous caricature that sells liberals a lot of books, but does nothing to refute the genuine atonement. God is punishing me through Christ. He is putting me to death through Christ's death. He is condemning me to eternal punishment through Christ's eternal punishment (see earlier post on the exclusivity of Christ for how He eternally dies). The corpse I carry around and continues to plague me with his desire of self isn't the real me anymore. He is just seeking to reign in our own night of the living dead; but the me who is alive and living forever is the me I need to cultivate in a daily relationship with God. It is the true me. That's why our narcissistic culture is so bad for us. It indoctrinates us in the religion of self, which is the religion of the old man, a religion that exalts the self as the means to salvation. But the new man has life in his relationship with God. He breathes the Spirit of God through God's Word and prayer. He lives and reigns when he cultivates his love for God in daily communion with Him, and through doing so, daily puts his old man back on the cross where it belongs.
Hence, we are two people at the same time: one dead and learning to accept that reality and the other alive and learning to live in God through gospel. We have been linked with Christ in order for the punishment of God that was placed upon Him might also be our punishment, but we have been raised new creatures with Christ in His resurrection in order that we might also be saved with Him. This is how we are saved, and how God remains just and the justifier of the ungodly at the same time. He does not arbitrarily forgive, because He must remain God. There must be a basis for His forgiveness, and that basis is our damnation in Christ.
So don't give me an inconsistent religion that compromises the justice and righteousness of God, or one that pretends that supposedly "good" works can make up for bad ones, but one that upholds who He is, and yet, saves at the same time. Give me the religion that understands our fallen nature and the reality of our sinfulness and the judgment we know, down deep, that we deserve for it. Give me the one where I am destroyed and saved at the same time. And give me the one that shows the necessity of Christ's atoning death, rather than presenting it as a non-essential within a false theology that trusts in an arbitrarily forgiving God. For the religion that presents God as both just and the justifier of the ungodly is the religion of reality, and the only one that will truly save our souls.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as an appeasement of wrath in His blood through faith. [This was] to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed [in the Old Testament era]; for the demonstration, [I say,] of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:26-26)