Isaiah (Part 43): Atonement Understanding (Prep for Ch 40-66)
The Penal Substitution theory of the atonement refers to the doctrine that Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners. God imputed the guilt of our sins to Christ, and he, in our place, bore the punishment that we deserve. This was a full payment for sins, which satisfied both the wrath and the righteousness of God, so that He could forgive sinners without compromising His own holy standard.
That definition contains elements that bring a bit of problem or difficulty to understanding the atonement. Briefly, those problems touch on the following topics:
- Forgiveness – Forgiveness implies a letting go of the guilt or not requiring payment. Yet, P-S insists that the debt must be paid first (by Christ) before forgiveness can occur. But how can we classify it as forgiveness if the debt payment is still required?
- Satisfaction (or, conversely, the wrath of God) – Scripture speaks of God’s wrath against sin. If sin transfers to Christ, he becomes the object of God’s wrath. But then is the sacrifice of Christ propitiatory? In other words, does the sacrifice appease God’s wrath or merely allow him to vent his wrath? P-Ss depict God venting his wrath, casting it full force on Jesus on the cross. But the OT shows sacrifices as offering a sweet-smelling aroma that rises to God appeasing his wrath. It would seem that if God fully vents his wrath, we cannot characterize the cross as appeasement and, therefore, are unable to say that Christ was the propitiation for our sin.
- Justice - According to Penal Substitution, God must satisfy justice before mercy may be shown. But how is this justice satisfied? The Penal Substitution theorists contend that justice is satisfied through punishment. However, retributive justice (a Roman emphasis) is quite different from justice in the Hebrew sense in which making whole or making right is the focus.
- Double Penalty – This is a difficulty for the non-Calvinist only. The belief of unlimited atonement faces the charge that those who die unrepentant make a second payment for sin. If Jesus paid for the sin of all, it seems less than just that God would also require payment from the unrepentant for the same sin.
The atonement, by definition, refers to the restoration of relationship—a relationship that was broken back in the Garden. Relationship was the purpose for God creating us. That is why we are an image-bearing creation. And the creation accounts showcase this relationship purpose. God creates his image bearers and sets them in a garden eastward in Eden. Eden means pleasure. God doesn’t simply make the earth and dump his human creation there to fend for themselves. The name of the place is Eden—pleasure—indicating that here is the place of God’s pleasure. And so God does not simply leave them alone to find food to make their way in life. Rather, God plants a garden—a garden that will provide for his image bearers. Through this picture God ensures that Adam and Eve understand (1) that he wants relationship with them and (2) that in the relationship, he is the caregiver-provider and his people would be recipients of that care. They were to look to their God for care. They were to trust in their God to provide that care.
I want to make sure that we understand the importance—the necessity—of this relationship. God created for relationship. But God was not missing relationship or lonely or needing a friend. Relationship emerges from the very essence of God. That truth, love, and beauty that is God exists within him as relationship. God is Trinity, meaning that relationship is intrinsic to our one God. So when God creates image bearers, he necessarily creates for relationship. His image bearers necessarily reflect right relationship because that’s who he is. And looking throughout the Bible, we find that one theme—right relationship with God brings blessing; without right relationship there is judgment.
It is not just that we should have right relationship with God, but our very existence—life—demands right relationship with God. Right relationship means understanding God as caregiver-provider. God is everything. For humanity—his image bearers—to have truth, love, and beauty, they must receive them from God. God provides. Humanity depends on God—trusts in God. That is right relationship with God. Adam and Eve were given this understanding of right relationship with God. And they were given that understanding in the Garden—from the Garden.
God planted a tree in the middle of the Garden, and God told them to avoid it. Why not just not make the tree? Did he just want to tempt them? No. The tree was an objective teaching tool designed to provide understanding concerning right relationship. It was no mere test or some legalistic rule set in place simply to teach slavish obedience. This was a large picture point by which Adam and Eve could understand the necessary relationship trust. The tree was beautiful and good for food. But, based on God’s command, taking its fruit would mean that Adam and Eve looked for care from elsewhere besides God.
That’s the whole point of the tree. And as we read what passed through Eve’s mind as she considered the fruit, we see that exact understanding of gaining care apart from God uppermost in her mind. Likewise, as Adam chose relationship with Eve, he removed his trust for care from God.
As God first told Adam of this tree, we can imagine the earnestness of his presentation. God offered Adam his care. God needed Adam to trust in God as caregiver if relationship were to continue. Relationship with someone requires knowing that someone. So Adam needed to know God as caregiver in their relationship. God tells Adam, “If you eat of the tree, you are choosing care apart from me. If you eat of the tree, then, it destroys our relationship that is founded on you trusting me for care. If you look elsewhere for care, our relationship is broken. This is death—of the relationship and, therefore, of you because your very survival depends on my constant care.”
Right relationship was not just something that would be nice to have. Right relationship with God was necessary for life. Without it there is death. This is absolutely necessary to understand. Death is not merely a punishment God gives for disobedience. Death is the necessary curse that follows broken relationship. If God is life, without God is death. God is life, and life for his image bearers comes through right relationship with the God of life. Therefore, if right relationship dies, the image bearer must die. Death is the curse of lost relationship.
What we see in this transaction—the placing of Adam & Eve in the Garden and planting that tree—is the establishment of a covenant—an agreement with terms and conditions that results in death for the one who breaks the covenant. As we look throughout the Bible we see that that is always what death represents—a breaking of a covenant. That’s one reason that keeps me from ever considering the claims of old earth Christianity. Old earth Christianity requires death of the animal world prior to Adam’s sin. But death is always shown as the result of the breaking of covenant, and no covenant was broken prior to Adam’s and Eve’s sin.
When Adam, the head (source) of humanity, ate of the forbidden tree, the covenant of life and relationship was broken. He was driven from the Garden of Eden—the place of God’s care and good pleasure. Of course without God’s care, humanity would be instantly destroyed. Yet although the covenant was broken, Adam and Eve did not immediately pass from existence. They did not because of God’s plan for redemption—for restoration of relationship—for a New Covenant of life and relationship. But understand the problem now. Satisfaction of the terms of the original covenant meant death—separation. How could you have a New Covenant of relationship at the same time as you satisfy the original covenant of separation? And besides, sinful humanity would succeed in a New Covenant no better than they did in the original. So God decided to become human, to satisfy that curse of broken covenant—death—though without guilt of himself breaking covenant, and, then, because of the holy perfection of his Spirit, to rise from death, finishing the curse of and therefore the hold of death for broken covenant. In satisfying the requirements of broken covenant, God could then establish a New Covenant of life and relationship.
Our conclusion, then, is that the atonement is not about placing sin on Jesus so that he can pay the punishment of each individual sin. The atonement is about Jesus sacrificing himself to conquer the curse of sin and death so that we may be forgiven and inherit new relationship.
In Christ, we have died. Romans 6:4a “Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death.” And in Christ we enter into a New Covenant of relationship and life. Romans 6:4b “…just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life.”
Leviticus 16 gives a good picture of what the atonement accomplishes. Two goats are involved. One unblemished goat is sacrificed as a sin offering. This corresponds to Christ—unblemished as he is killed—as a sacrifice of perfect life for the broken. The priest places his hands on the second goat, which symbolizes the sins of the people placed there. This goat is not killed. In other words, the sin placed on the goat is not to symbolize dying or taking the punishment for sin. Rather, the goat is driven to the wilderness, symbolizing the removal of sin.
Hebrews 9 also gives us insight as to the purpose of Christ’s death for the New Covenant. The author connects his death to the testament/covenant condition by which we may inherit. So, Christ’s death not only satisfies and completes the original covenant requirement, but it also establishes the means by which we inherit Christ’s righteousness that results in perfect, eternal life and relationship.
Thus, while each of the atonement theories contains some good point of emphasis, each also runs errant in extrapolating too much or ignoring other necessities. I would submit a new (or old combination) of elements as a better understanding of the atonement. That theory—what I will call the covenant theory of the atonement is this: Christ satisfied the curse of death laid on humanity for breaking the original covenant of life with God by his unblemished sacrifice on the cross, by which he also offers a New Covenant through which we share in the satisfaction of his death, receive the forgiveness of sins, and inherit his life of righteousness.