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“[W]hen classic justification, based on the propitiatory work of Christ, is absent, human beings will grasp for substitutes, often grotesque ones. . . . We have here [in the French Revolution], among much else, a case of secular atonement.  One of the central rituals within the drama of the French Revolution was meant to achieve expiation.  It was important to be cleansed from the past, while at the same time holding up revolutionary ideals. . . . Thus, the guillotine was a counterfeit for Calvary.”

William Edgar, “Justification and Violence,” in K. Scott Oliphant, editor, Justified in Christ (Fearn, 2007), pages 131-134.

Moral fervor and violence go together well. We sinners know we cannot bear our own guilt, so we look for a substitute. If we are not believing and revering and savoring Jesus as our atoning substitute, we will find someone else to whom we must transfer our shame. We will make ourselves into God. We will decide who will live and who will die. And we will feel completely right about it all, because it is, after all, our religion at work.

Only the biblical gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from all our works--and that doctrine not merely as a formal position, but as a moment-by-moment resource deep in the heart--can save us from our self-invented rituals of substitutionary atonement. Gospel doctrine, gospel culture!

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”  Colossians 3:15


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Ray Ortlund


Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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