Those looking for a good Christmas present can find it in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Consider Abraham’s question after God unveiled His intentions regarding those wicked cities: Will You “not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?” (Genesis 18:24). The Lord answers, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes” (Genesis 18:26).

Notice what the Lord is not saying. He’s not saying, I will destroy the place but spare the 50 righteous within it. No, He’s saying, for the sake of the 50 righteous, I will spare the whole place, including the wicked. Because of the righteous, God will spare the wicked their just fate. This scenario progresses as Abraham intensifies his negotiation. For the sake of 45, of 40, of 30, of 20, of 10, the Lord would do the same.

However much the idea was foreshadowed in the sacrifices, this is the first time in the entire Bible where God explicitly says that the wicked can be exempted from condemnation, not because of anything they deserve, but through someone else’s righteousness.

Sound familiar? Of course, this is the gospel, the gospel of God’s amazing grace many centuries before the cross.

It gets even more dramatic. In verse 26, the Lord says of the 50 righteous that “I will spare the whole place for their sakes.” The verb translated “spare” comes from a common Hebrew root word, nasa, which means “to bear” or “to carry.” The word can also be translated “forgive,” as in Exodus 32:32. After the children of Israel sinned with the golden calf, Moses stood before the Lord and begged, “Yet now, if You will forgive their sin—but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written.”

This word “forgive” again is nasa: bearing or carrying sin. Thus the verse could have been translated: “Yet now, if You will bear their sin— but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written.”

Moses is asking the Lord Himself to bear the iniquity of the children of Israel?

Exactly! That’s the whole point. God Himself, in the person of Jesus, bore the penalty of our sins. Only in this way can He spare us our deserved punishment as sinners.

Thus when the Lord says, “If I find in Sodom 50 righteous within the city, then I will ‘bear’ the entire place for their sakes,” He’s expressing the principle of salvation through substitution. In the immediate context, it would be the righteousness of 10 that would lead to their being spared. But this is merely a symbol, a metaphor, for the whole plan of salvation. Therein we are spared condemnation, not because we deserve it, but because of the righteousness of another: Jesus Christ.

What’s even more amazing is that Jesus’ righteousness is enough to cover the sins of the whole world, which is just like Sodom and Gomorrah in that none have the righteousness needed for salvation. The great difference, however, is that the Lord is willing to spare us—the whole world— the condemnation we deserve, not because of the righteousness of 50, or 45, or 40, or 30, or 20, or 10, but because of just one, Jesus Christ.

And that’s the gospel. Christ’s righteousness alone is enough for all of us.

“For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17).

Merry Christmas.

Clifford Goldstein, author of many books and articles, is editor of the Adult Bible Study Guide at the General Conference.  This article first appeared in the December 2005 edition of Outlook magazine.