Good paintings tell stories.
Think of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. It tells the story of Jesus and his disciples sitting down for the final meal before the crucifixion. Jesus would drink the Passover cup before being sacrificed as the Passover lamb.
The good news of Jesus is more than a story. But it’s not less. It is the most important story on the planet. And it is the truest of true stories. Many have attempted to paint pictures that rightly tell the story of the gospel. Sometimes these paintings are painted with words, instead of paint and a canvas.
These gospel paintings are often necessary because the gospel must be explained. It is a message made of propositional truth. That means it must be understood. John Piper writes, “The gospel is not only news. It is first news, and then it is doctrine. Doctrine means teaching, explaining, clarifying. Doctrine is part of the gospel because news can’t be just declared by the mouth of a herald—it has to be understood in the mind of the hearer.”
1. John Piper, God is the Gospel, 21.
People paint a number of different word pictures trying to help a hearer to understand the gospel. Some compare believing the gospel to Jesus paying your speeding ticket or serving your prison sentence. Like creation itself, the word-pictures available are gloriously endless.
One such picture offered is that of amnesty. The good news of Jesus is compared to a government, possibly a king, declaring amnesty to those who have committed a crime against the state. The question is whether or not the picture of amnesty has all the colors and contours of the gospel painting.
Most often this term is applied when the group declaring amnesty is a form of government. Accordingly, Merriam-Webster defines amnesty as “the act of an authority (such as a government) by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” The government forgets the crime and offers absolution.
The Encyclopedia Britannica further develops the picture:
Amnesty. In criminal law, sovereign act of oblivion or forgetfulness (from Greek amnēsia) for past acts, granted by a government to persons who have been guilty of crimes . . . Technically . . . amnesty differs from a general pardon in that the latter simply relieves from punishment whereas the former declares innocence or abolishes the crime.
Amnesty, as commonly understood, is a declaration by an authoritative body (e.g., Congress, or King, or President) to abolish a crime (or crimes) and forget that it had ever occurred. There are no penalties or punishments or justice to be meted out for crimes committed.
If amnesty means that there is no punishment, penalty, or justice meted out, can we assume that this word-picture is a good explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Well, it is a picture, and it paints a partial truth. But, as with all attempts to paint the gospel-picture in words, it is an incomplete picture at best.
There are positive elements to the amnesty picture. The gospel is news that the Great King of the universe has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12). God has declared that rebels will roam free. He has mercifully decreed that his people will not be punished. God has spoken the verdict of “not guilty” over law-breakers in his realm. As far as amnesty helps us to see these gracious truths, then it’s a good picture and tells a good story.
However, amnesty supplies an unfinished painting because it doesn’t tell the whole story; more paint needs to hit the canvas. What is missing from the picture is the concept of justice. When the government offers amnesty, they offer absolution without the exercise of justice. No payment is rendered, no punishment experienced. The crime is simply not addressed. If justice is red, then the amnesty painting lacks this deep and costly color.
The gospel, however, is stunningly different on exactly this count. The picture of the gospel includes both absolution and justice. In the gospel, mercy and justice come together. Our Sovereign Lord has taken our sins and placed them on his shoulders (Isa. 53:4, 5; Matt. 8:17; 1 Pet. 2:24). The substitute bears the penalty for our crimes (i.e., sins). Justice is upheld.
Do you see the difference? The gospel is a fuller, brighter picture than amnesty. Amnesty lacks color because it fails to include the deep red of divine justice. The redness of justice makes its way onto the canvas in a true and complete picture of the gospel. This is why Paul can write that God is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).
In the gospel, we announce to the world that freedom and full forgiveness for crimes committed against the King of the Cosmos is available in Christ. We declare to the prodigal son and the proud older brother that they can both find grace and mercy with no cost to them if they turn and believe in Jesus.
This forgiveness, however, comes at a high price. A price the Great King has paid. He set forth his own Son to pay the penalty by dying in our place. Our wrath-inducing guilt cannot simply be whisked away as amnesty may lead some to believe; it must be propitiated. And on the cross, this is exactly what Jesus did.
We are all sinners (Rom 3:23) and the wages of our sin is death (Rom 6:23). Someone must pay the debt of sin by dying. But God shows his love for us when he sends his Son to die in our place. At the cross, where Jesus dies in the stead of those who would believe in him, we see the red of God’s judgment in the blood of our Savior.
To put this another way, when Jesus cried, “It is finished,” he did not have the idea of amnesty in view. Instead, Jesus meant that he had drunk the whole cup of God’s wrath (cf. Is 51:17; Jer 25:15–17; Rev 14:10) on behalf of sinners.
In the end, the gospel is the good news that Jesus satisfied the justice of God by dying in the place of sinners. That’s a fuller and brighter picture of the gospel.
It is a picture that includes colors of absolution and justice.
And it is a picture worth painting in ten thousand words.