John (Part 62): Limited Atonement? (ch 17)
The penal substitution theory of the atonement has significant faults that cannot be overlooked. However, what is the alternative? Can we say—and be in line with God’s Word—that the guilt of our sin was actually not placed on Christ at the cross so that Jesus’s death was not caused by God striking out at our guilt on him, resulting in transactional payment for that sin? Not only may we say that, but I believe we must say that. To say different accuses Jesus of justifiably dying for guilt of sin on him and God unjustifiably raising Jesus from the dead who is laden with sin’s guilt.
Rather, the sin offering pictured in the OT and in Jesus’s death is one in which death has occurred with no justifiable cause. But the picture does not include the taking of a life; rather, the picture emphasizes the giving of a life—a life that is completely unblemished and without reason for death. In the sacrificial system of animals that God had set up, an unblemished animal was chosen as sin offering. That unblemished animal was a true sacrifice of its owners. A blemished animal, say with leprosy, could not be use for food or clothing; it was worthless, good for nothing but discarding. However, an unblemished animal had purpose and use. But sending this animal to its death was a true sacrifice—a death without cause. Because there was no cause for its death, it could symbolically stand for the death that the Israelites, blemished with sin, were condemned with. But that was only a picture because the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away the sin condemnation.
Jesus was a human, like us, come to be our representative since he was like us. But Jesus had no blemish—no sin. He did not deserve death. Yet he offered his life (no one took it from him, including God in an unleash of punitive wrath) (John 10:17-18). This unblemished life that was given to death, therefore, was not a justifiable death. It was not deserved. Because it was not deserved, that death could be assigned or applied to those Jesus represented as satisfaction for their curse of sin—their own justified deaths. So, it is not the placement on Jesus of our sins so that he could die guilty, paying for them. Rather, it was Jesus’s death without guilt, without sin, freely and unblemished, that is efficacious as this free-from-guilt death is applied to us who are guilty. Thus, Jesus, without guilt and never having been guilty, could be raised by God. And we who were guilty, die in Jesus, and are born again apart from Adam’s curse to inherit the righteous life of our Messiah Savior.
Some objections may be raised. There are three. The first is that certain verses in the Bible seem to indicate that Jesus did indeed bear our sin. The idea of bearing sin does not necessarily mean becoming guilty of it. For example, a representative verse is I Peter 2:24: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; you have been healed by His wounds.” Certainly, we see translated here the word bore. However the Greek means to lead in the sense of caring for or taking care of. For example, Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the mountain (Matthew 17:1). The word led is the same as that translated bore in I Peter 2:24. We certainly do not have the picture that Jesus carried these three up the mountain. The three did not have to be placed on Jesus for Jesus to carry or bear or lead them. Likewise in Hebrews 7:27 we read that Jesus offered himself as sacrifice. The idea of bearing here is also that of a leading to take care of rather than to be physically afflicted with a burden.
Even reading Peters introduction to the I Peter 2:24 context helps clear the meaning. Above in verse 19-20, Peter explains, “For it brings favor if, mindful of God’s will, someone endures grief from suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if you sin and are punished, and you endure it? But when you do what is good and suffer, if you endure it, this brings favor with God.” Then to illustrate the point, he explains how this was true of Christ—the one unjustly suffering and then dying.
A second objection regards 2 Corinthians 5:21. Paul here states that God made Jesus, “the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Of course, no one can become sin. Sin is rebellion. You can rebel; you can sin. But you can’t become a rebellion; you become a rebel. Just so, you can’t become sin; you become a sinner. So Paul is using “sin” to stand for something here. It is either that Jesus became guilty of sin or Jesus became a sin offering. The Hebrew term sin offering is translated by the Septuagint with the one word sin. Paul quotes most often from the Septuagint. So here Paul is using the word sin to mean sin offering, a concept we discussed earlier that is not one in which guilt is placed on the offering.
That idea is often confused in this verse because some people see a transactional swap—Jesus gets our sin and we get his righteousness. That is not what is happening in this verse. If Jesus gives away his righteousness as we are supposed to give away our guilt, how then can Jesus be righteous anymore? Righteousness means faithfulness to the covenant. In this verse, “we” become God’s faithfulness to the covenant. What does Paul mean?
First, notice that in the letter comes from Paul and Timothy (2 Cor 1:1). Follow the pronouns throughout the book. In every single instance we find that Paul uses the 1st person plural to denote Timothy and himself. Thus, when we get to 5:21, there is no reason for us to understand the we to be anything but Paul and Timothy. How were Paul and Timothy made the righteousness of God? God promised that all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham. For God to be faithful to that covenant (righteous), there had to be a sin offering made (Jesus) and that good news (gospel) had to be delivered to those Gentiles. And Paul was the “apostle to the Gentiles.” So God’s salvation of and direction in ministry of Paul was how God would be faithful to the covenant—God’s righteousness. We see the verse then having nothing to do with a swap of sin for righteousness between Jesus and every believer, but rather Paul’s explanation of how God fulfilled his covenant promise to Abraham through the sin offering of Jesus and proclamation through his apostles.
One final objection may be raised to Jesus as the unblemished (and remaining unblemished) sin offering. In Leviticus 16:21 we read about the activity on the Day of Atonement. Two goats are selected. “Aaron will lay both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the Israelites’ wrongdoings and rebellious acts—all their sins. He is to put them on the goat’s head and send it away into the wilderness by the man appointed for the task.” Certainly we see the transference of sins by the laying on of hands. But two things are important to realize. First, the laying on of hands is an act of community consent and desire—not merely an act always of transferring guilt. In fact, this is the only place in the entire Bible that mentions a transference of sin with the laying on of hands. But there are dozens of other passages in which the laying on of hands—still means an act of community consent and desire—but with a variety of other reasons from care, to protection, to condemnation, to blessing (e.g., Psalm 139:5; Numbers 8:10; Leviticus 24:13-14; Genesis 48:14). Secondly, and significantly, in this one and only instance in Leviticus 16:21 in which sin is transferred to the goat—the goat is not killed! It’s blood is not shed! Thus, this transference does not depict a transference so that sin may be paid for. It shows only the removal of sin. That’s the point of the transference. It is the other goat—the actual sin offering (Lev 16:15)—that is sacrificed, whose blood sprinkles the veil—that goat which did NOT have sins laid on its head. Think carefully of this. Why did God use two goats? Why not simply one goat on which Aaron could have laid hands, transferring sin, and then that goat be slaughtered? It would appear that by using two goats God wanted them and us not to confuse the unblemished death sacrifice as having been corrupted by the people’s sin. The sin was not transferred to the sin offering for the Lord.
Thus, we must recognize in the atonement, a completely sin-free, unblemished, never-to-be-defiled offering of life. That sacrifice of life—that death—then, may be applied to us who do have sin and guilt and under condemnation. Through his death, we die. Through his life, we live.