This is the fourth of this attempt to capture the essence of the Wesleyan tradition...
A Generous Tradition
God is Love
When we say that God is just, we are saying there is a certain order to things. God gives us freedom to choose our path, but some paths are destructive to ourselves and others. God's justice is his protection of others, his attempt to steer us in the right direction, and at times, his abandonment of us to our own self-destructive freedom. It is more formative than summative. Its primary goal is to shape us more than to punish us. It is discipline more than punishment.
Some Christian traditions emphasize God's justice as punitive, as penalty for offending God himself. Their sense is that someone must pay when God's sovereignty has been undermined. The best of the Wesleyan tradition questions the mechanical tone of this logic. For example, it is not the logic of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, where the father has the authority simply to forgive his wayward son. It is not the logic of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18, where the master has the authority simply to write off the servant's debt with no repayment whatsoever. It is not the message of the prophets in Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Micah, who argue that God is ultimately uninterested in their countless animal sacrifices.
The cross does satisfy the order of things. It is the ultimate embodiment of the cost of human freedom gone amok. It embodies the pain of our alienation from God. It is the most powerful picture of God's justice. It is the fulfillment of one stream of biblical pictures about God and humanity.
Could God, for his part, have reconciled humanity simply by his divine command? The parables and prophets say yes, which ultimately makes the cross even more an embodiment of his love than his justice. The cross is God making a choice to reconcile humanity. The cross is God showing his willingness to identify with us, to enter into our pain and alienation. The cross is God's invitation to us.
These are not the only valid pictures of the cross, but they are the ones most significant for the best of the Wesleyan tradition. The cross is God's love, his reaching out to us. "[R]arely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:7-8).