Some of you are thinking "that's obvious!".
First, a little bit of background for those of you from other countries who are fortunate enough to have missed this one. Until last Monday, 4th February, Chris Huhne was Member of Parliament for the constituency of Eastleigh. He was also the Energy Minister in the 2010-2015 Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition government. He resigned on the day his criminal trial opened. He was on trial for perverting the course of justice, after allegedly asking his former wife to claim she was driving their car when it was detected speeding. She therefore took responsibility, and received the points on her license and other consequences. His resignation was triggered when Mr Huhne changed his plea to guilty on the morning of his trial.
There are a lot more details to the case, but interested readers can find those online. The key detail here is that for Vicky Pryce (his former wife) to take the consequences for Chris Huhne breaking the laws of the road is a miscarriage of justice. Hence the trial for attempting to pervert the course of justice. If I break the law, it is I who must be tried according the law, and if I am found guilty it is I who must serve the sentence. Somebody else cannot do it for me.
And yet, mainstream Christian teaching about the death of Jesus says different. A sinner, like me, breaks the law of God. Jesus died on the cross to take the consequences for the sins of each and every one of his people. Because of this, I am justified - acquitted before the heavenly court. My verdict on the last day is pronounced as "not guilty", because Jesus has already received a guilty verdict on my behalf, and paid the sentence in full, on the cross.
When Jesus does this, we say it's mainstream Christian teaching. When Chris Huhne does this, we say it's a miscarriage of justice. So what's the difference?
Thank you for asking. This gives us the chance to drill a little deeper. What exactly do we mean when we say Christ died for our sins?
There are two key differences. If you'd like to share others, please leave a comment below.
The law defines justice
Why is it a miscarriage of justice for Ms Pryce to be punished for Mr Huhne's wrongdoing? Because the law says it is. English law says that individuals need to face these consequences themselves; one's husband or wife cannot act as your representative and substitute in a court of law.
What about God's law; what does that say?
Well, with regards to crimes where the state has the authority to punish, Deuteronomy 24:16 says explicitly: "Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin." The punishment being discused here is the death penalty, which means the text is assuming capital crimes are in view. The Old Testament never assumes that all crimes are capital crimes, and this is certainly not the place to discuss whether the death penalty might be appropriate in English law today. The principle carries across from this to whatever sentences the state might pass: If a child (of responsible age) breaks the law, they must face the consequences for that - whatever the law demands (which will, of course, take into account their age). If a father breaks the law, he must face the consequences of that. Children and parents cannot stand in for one another. I take it the reason parent / child relations are in view here is because this is where one person would be most tempted to take the rap for someone else, but it extends to other family relations too. Deuteronomy 24 says that what Chris Huhne has admitted to doing is not just.
But with regards to sins commited against God, the principle is established fairly early on that God will accept an animal as a substitute for the sinner. This comes out in the Passover, in Exodus 12, and even more clearly in the annual day of atonement, in Leviticus 16. However the fact these animal sacrifices had to be repeated daily and annually underlined that they didn't really "work". "Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered?" (Hebrews 10:2). They set out the principle that God's plan to deal with our sin involved a flawless substitute bearing those sins for us. They didn't work because an animal is not a like-for-like substitute for a human being. "It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." (Hebrews 10:4). What was specifically missing was a will. Animals cannot willingly take the place of a human being before God. Contrast Jesus, who said "I have come to do your will, O God." (Hebrews 10:7).
Which means that Jesus, as perfectly flawless and totally willing, is able to take the sin of others on himself. Far from being unjust, this proves just how perfect God's justice is. The Old Testament ended with a problem - lots of sinners had been told that God forgave them, but that meant their wrongdoing was simply unpunished. It's lovely that God can be so forgiving, but how can he be so unjust? And so, talking about the death of Jesus, Paul says that it "was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over sins" (Romans 3:25). Jesus dying in our place shows how perfectly just God is. This isn't a miscarriage of justice; it's exemplary justice.
So what makes Chris Huhne different from Jesus Christ is that God explicitly says differently. He says that regarding crimes, the state is not to allow someone to accept the blame for something a family member did. He says that regarding sins, God is just to allow his own son to accept the blame for something that one of his people does. Which is OK, because God is the law-giver. God's laws in his word are not arbitrary regulations, but an expression of God's perfect character. So if God says something is just or unjust, he is correct.
Too Tightly Joined
There is a second reason why these two cases are very different. This is to drill down even deeper: Why can God be correct to say that Jesus can pay for his people's sins, but someone's wife cannot pay for their speeding offences?
The relationship between the believer and Jesus Christ is a much closer relationship than that between a man and his wife. The relationship between man and wife is very close: God joins them, until death parts them. Jesus taught this plainly in Matthew 19:5-6, where he quotes Genesis 2:24 to establish that marriage is God's gift in creation, not something that the state or the church invented later.
But the relationship between Christ and his church is closer still. One is patterned on the other; Jesus is frequently called "the bridegroom" in Scripture, and the church is called "his bride". But we have to be clear which is patterned on which. After a discussion on how husbands and wives should relate in Ephesians 5:22-33, Paul concludes by saying "This is a profound mystery - but I am talking about Christ and the church." (Ephesians 5:32, NIV) The real marriage relationship is the one between Christ and his church. Individual marriages between husband and wife are so important because they are patterned on that.
Another way to see the relative closeness of Christ and his church is to realise that death parts husband and wife. It's a bond only for this life. Jesus was explicit that there will be no marriage of this kind at the resurrection (see Mark 12:25). But the marriage between Christ and his people will survive into eternity (see Revelation 21:2). It's too simplistic to say that there's no marriage at the resurrection. Better is to say that the real marriage, the relationship between Christ and his church, will have reached its climax, and will be visible for all to see. So the marriages between two human beings - a man and a woman - will no longer be necessary. To say otherwise would be similar to using a torch to see around your house once daylight has come and the curtains are wide-open, with the sunshine streaming in.
So it's quite plausible that Christ and his people can pass their guit and their innocence between one another, even if human husband and wife cannot.
But it's more than plausible. Christ is more than bridegroom for his people, he is also our representative head. Romans 5 draws out how just as Adam's one-off sin has been passed on to all the rest of us, so that we all have to live with the consequences, so Jesus' one-off act of righteousness has been passed on to everyone descended from him, so that his people can live with the consequences. There is not space to show this here, but there are many other examples in the Bible of God regarding the wrongdoing of a people, and the wrongdoing of their properly appointed representative head - such as their king - to be interchangeable. Jesus is the best example of this their is.
So Jesus Christ is very different from Chris Huhne. When a sinner trusts in Jesus Christ, they become part of his bride, the church. That makes Jesus the one God has appointed to represent them. That joins them to Jesus in the tighest bond any human being will ever experience. The bond is tight enough for guilt and innocence to pass between them, and this to be quite just. Jesus' role as representative is God-ordained to the extent that he can bear our guilt with perfect justice.
"He did this to demonstrate his justice."
A husband and wife cannot and should not claim responsibility for crimes the other one has committed. To do so, is to attempt to pervert the cause of justice. God says this is unjust. The relationship of husband and wife is not designed by God to allow such transfer.
Jesus Christ can, and did, claim responsibility for the sins committed by his people. To do so is the most exemplary demonstration of justice. God says this is just. The relationship between Bridegroom and Bride is designed by God to allow such transfer.