Romans (Part 44) – Atonement Part 5 (13:11)
In our last discussion, we learned that redemption and forgiveness have a close relationship. Regarding the former, as evidenced all through the biblical record, redemption rescues material possession. Therefore, because of the curse on our essence, our redemption involves rescuing our essence from its curse. Regarding the latter, forgiveness pardons wrongs in order to restore relationship. But since our wrongs create obstacles limiting relationship, biblical forgiveness doesn’t only pardon wrongs but also removes the obstacles in order to reach unobstructed relationship. We can then see how redemption and forgiveness work hand in hand to accomplish God’s restoration. Forgiveness, in a sense, powers redemption’s rescue so as to remove the obstacle of sin’s curse on our essence. And by removing that obstacle, redemption provides the way for complete forgiveness to be realized.
Last time I characterized the activity of forgiveness as the payment for redemption. While I still think that’s true, I think that the way I presented it may have made my meaning difficult to grasp. What I didn’t do was distance the payment concept from a strict transaction-like image. Yes, it is difficult to equate forgiveness with payment of a debt or penalty. Remember, my argument was that Jesus is not paying a penalty, although he is paying for sin. Think of it in this way: I am in a log cabin out in the northern woods in the middle of winter. I want to ensure that I have a nice warm fire roaring in the fireplace that evening. So I spend the afternoon chopping wood. At the end of the day, with my fireplace fire crackling away, I sit back and think, “I paid for this evening with my afternoon of work, but it was all worth it.” Now, I didn’t really pay anybody for the evening. I didn’t have a transaction in which an obligation I owed or a penalty I incurred was paid off. I just used the expression to explain a trade-off of sorts. I wanted that evening; I had a desire for that experience. And my desire motivated me to put into action the steps to realize my desire.
And that kind of thing is what I’m talking about in regard to forgiveness. The desire to forgive—to have relationship restored—motivated our God and our Savior to action. And that action—that forgiveness—is the redeeming work, removing the obstacle that keeps us from God so that relationship can be realized.
Not that I want to complicate matters (although we are examining a complicated process here), but I’m going to throw in another conceptual wrench into the works. It is not actually a wrench of the proverbial kind that will turn out disrupting things. It just does so for a moment. It should, in the long run, help tighten the gears that are still a little loose.
We talk about the cross as accomplishing redemption. However, as mentioned before, that redemption has to do with our physical essence—our bodies. And our bodies will not realize their refinement from sin’s curse until Christ’s return. Therefore, accomplished redemption is really not fully accomplished until Christ’s second advent. So . . . was the cross, then, where redemption was accomplished? Well, not exactly—that is, not completely. The cross was the first step. It was what Ruth’s metaphor depicted it as—the qualification of the Redeemer. In the story of Ruth, Boaz securing the status of redeemer at the city gate was the scene that images the cross and resurrection.
Now, not securing redemption but securing only the qualification to redeem may sit uneasily with us because it may seem as if we are discounting either the importance or necessity of the crucifixion-resurrection activity a bit. However, that is not at all the case. Just as it was necessary and important for Boaz to secure his place as redeemer at the judgment center of the city gate, so also was it absolutely necessary and important for Jesus to secure his place as redeemer at the judgment center of the cross and tomb. To understand this fully, let’s discuss what the sacrifice on the cross was all about.
Of course, to understand sacrifice, we need to start in the Old Testament. Sacrifice to the OT world (especially to those nations/peoples with whom Israel had most interaction like Egypt and the Canaanites) had three primary purposes imagined for the benefit of the worshippers: (1) to appease a god whom the people thought they had angered, (2) to seek support from a god for a military victory or for security from an enemy, and (3) to buy favorable conditions from a god for such life-dependent activity as crop growing. (Of course, from the more well-known gods of the Greek and Roman panoplies, we can find many other purposes, but the three mentioned were at the categorical head.)
Because these three categorical reasons encompass so much of our knowledge of gods and sacrificial activity with them, it is difficult to imagine other reasons involved in Israel’s sacrificial worship of our God, especially since security and life-dependency were surely involved (although not necessarily in exactly the same way). And so, we can imagine the Israelites themselves, being very close to surrounding nations’ practices, confusing purpose in their own worship, minding those ideas that were different from God’s intended purpose. And therefore, it is also not too surprising that we today misunderstand God’s sacrificial system, especially in regard to its purpose.
Of course, the non-Christian world of today will link sacrifices to the non-biblical categorical reasons mentioned earlier. But even Christians misunderstand. We tend to try to understand OT sacrifices by projecting back what we believe we understand of the sacrifice of Jesus. So then, when thinking of OT sacrifices, we tend to follow this line of thought:
1. Death is punishment for sin; persons sin; therefore, persons die.
2. God created the sacrificial system to illustrate that a substitute could pay the penalty for sin by dying.
3. But sacrifices were only illustrations of substitutional payment because animals can’t represent us—can’t take away sin (Hebrews 10:4).
4. So, unblemished, sinless Jesus had to come as human to be killed in our place since as human he could represent humans.
5. Our sin was, therefore, imputed to him, making him guilty of it so that God could punish him, instead of us, making him suffer the penalty of sin (death) in our place.
6. Since Jesus paid the penalty for my sin, my sin is gone; I may now have fellowship with God.
While this line of thought is generally accepted, I believe it contains gross errors that have swung us wide from the path of understanding true sacrificial purpose. First of all, it would be hard to believe this line and not be a Calvinist. Ending in point 6 with Jesus paying the penalty for all sins, it would surely seem unjust for God to have Jesus pay that penalty but then require the same penalty for the same sin from a person who by death had not accepted the atonement of Jesus. Whether accepting the atonement or not, how can God require both Jesus and the individual to pay for the same sin? As James A. Spurgeon (brother of Charles) said in a sermon on particular redemption, “Did he die for the sins of the whole world? Then justice cannot demand this again.”
But two points I’d bring to bear on the Calvinist. The first is an inconsistency. The Calvinist claims that at the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for all the sins of only the elect. Well and good. But thus it would seem to me that if Jesus’s death were indeed effectual in paying the penalty for all those sins, God could not, then, be just in treating the elect one—whose sins have been already paid—as not pardoned from birth to the point of conversion. In fact, how can we designate a “point of conversion” if there is no sin since it has been paid. No elect since the cross should be thought of (although Calvinists do) as being born in sin, since sin has already been paid.
Of course, the Calvinist may answer that the sin may have been paid for, but it is not effectual until effectively applied. But that is the very position of the Arminian who claims Jesus’s death paid for all the world’s sins but is not effectively applied until conversion. The Calvinist must admit in his own scheme the error that he charges to the Arminian—that the sacrifice of Jesus, after it has occurred, is not (for a time) effectual in removing sin.
The second (and more important) point is the one we spoke of in the previous summary—that Jesus could not have borne the penalty of sin because Jesus could not be guilty of sin and still accomplished redemption. Therefore, point 6 is problematic, and so is point 5, again for the reasons pointed out in the last summary.
However, there is another question for point 5 not yet discussed: by what means is sin imputed? How does it travel from the sinner to another person, making that other person then responsible for it and able to pay it? If I walk into the death row of some prison and tell the warden I wish to pay the penalty for someone set to be executed that day, by what justification could the warden agree? By what justification would a court not then condemn the warden for unjustly putting me to death? What reason could that warden give for believing the prisoner’s guilt floated across the room to rest on my? The fact is there is no justification for it, because no matter what I may say, I am not the guilty one.
Point 3 has its own problem. The Old Testament (Lev 19:22) tells us that the sacrifices took away sin. The New Testament (Heb 10:4) tells us that OT sacrifices did not take sin away. While we already brought a justification for this in our last summary, that justification doesn’t work if insisting (as points 2 and 3 do) that the OT sacrifice was merely illustration.
What we are left, then, with the six points in this line of thought is a decision to make: must we try to figure out unbelievable hoops through which to jump so as to cling to these points, or should we instead simply admit we are mistaken on point 2. Perhaps the purpose of the sacrificial system was not merely to illustrate that a substitute could pay the penalty of sin for us.
As I said earlier, I believe we came to the conclusion of this line of thought by projecting back a misunderstanding of the sacrifice of Jesus. One of the main contributors to our general misunderstanding is in the cry of Jesus himself on the cross. We read in Matthew 27:46 Jesus say, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” There is not a scholar nor even that many lay Christians who do not know this statement is a quote from Psalm 22. We all know David uttered that cry. But we can’t seem to stop to examine the circumstances of David. We are too caught up in the horrifying, overwhelming scene of the cross. The sky has turned dark. The wind whips a cold blast chilling the bones, as we hear those words of agony pouring out from Jesus’s torn body and parched lips. “Where is God?” our souls wonder along. And turning back to the OT, we get no farther than Habakkuk 1:13: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil.” And so we resign ourselves—God turned away from Jesus because of our sin imputed to his spirit, making him too evil for the purity of God to look upon. And thus Jesus died.
But . . . so when Jesus next cries out to God, “Father, into Your hands I entrust My spirit” (Lk 23:46), God obviously didn’t hear him, having already turned away. Wait a second. If Jesus knew God had turned away (and presumably he did based on him saying God had forsaken him), who was Jesus talking to? Could it be that God was still there? still listening? Still caring? Still loving?
Looking back through the Gospels, we see that, although the Pharisees wouldn’t associate with sinners, Jesus—who was also God—did! Perhaps Jesus could look on evil, although God could not. Perhaps Jesus must then not have been as pure in his spirit as the Father. But then, didn’t God talk with Adam, with Abraham, with Moses, who were all sinners, condemned by their sin (if Christ were not to have come) to an eternity of separation? Was God simply not that pure at that point? How could God say of David—the sinner—“My faithful love will never leave him” (2 Sam 7:15). Something crazy seems to be going on here!
This David, this one of whom God said his faithful love would never depart, is the very one who wrote those words in Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” Because of what God had said (and because of what David himself says later in the same Psalm), we understand that God had never left David. To David, it had seemed that God left because God was the one who protected and secured David. But just as Job had to learn that God’s silence doesn’t mean he has left, so David learned it. Jesus, in shouting this from the cross, I believe, is doing so not because he believes God was gone, but rather for the sake of those looking on, whose minds would immediately race to the Psalm (not an unfamiliar one for them). They would recall the Psalm’s finish: “I will give praise in the great congregation because of You; I will fulfill my vows before those who fear You,” and “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord. All the families of the nations will bow down before You for kingship belongs to the Lord. . . . They will come and tell a people yet to be born about His righteousness—what he has done.”
Therefore, if God had not left David, there is no reason to believe God had left Jesus. What of Habakkuk’s statement about God’s eyes being too pure to look on evil? That statement is not given as principled communication from God. Judah was in the midst of turmoil. Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon were in power plays for the world. Judah lay in the center of the triangle, trampled over by whichever army was on the move. They were made vassals—spurned, scorned, and afflicted. And Habakkuk could not understand how God would allow this to happen. Why did God let this happen! Habakkuk fairly screams to open the book: “How long, Lord, must I call for help and You do not listen!” In urging God to do something, Habakkuk reminds God of the evil of these nations, and in doing so, Habakkuk tells God that his eyes are too pure to look on evil. He tells him this to stir God up to destroy these nations. But God doesn’t react to the goading. God tells Habakkuk that he has purpose, and Habakkuk should trust him: “The righteous one will live by his faith” (2:4b; also quoted by Paul in Romans 1:17). Therefore, it is not that God must shield his eyes from evil. He inserts himself purely into this evil world to ensure his will is done.
God was not a whip-in-hand tormentor of Christ nor had he left the scene. Those ideas—the very idea of penal substitution, which is the paying of the penalty in our place—rest on the worldly, non-Christian idea of sacrifice as appeasement of the anger of a god. But that was not what was happening at the cross. God’s heart of love was breaking along with Christ’s as the horror of sin lashed out its worst. But this monstrous scene was necessary for love to win.
The confusion of Jesus’s sacrifice we’ve just discussed is a confusion held by generally biblically conservative Christians (whether called fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals). But confusion is not limited to them. The post-evangelical progressives seem hopelessly hung up in their own misunderstanding. Read through the following verses as background to the progressive thought:
Psalm 40:6, 8 “You do not delight in sacrifice and offering; You open my ears to listen. You do not ask for a whole burnt offering or a sin offering. . . . I delight to do Your will, my God; Your instruction lives within me.”
Hosea 6:6 “For I desire loyalty and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
Jeremiah 6:20 “What use to Me is frankincense from Sheba or sweet cane from a distant land? Your burnt offerings are not acceptable; your sacrifices do not please Me.”
Notice that these verses have a general theme: God is more pleased with his people knowing him and following him than he is with merely performing sacrifices. But now think as a progressive. Take a step beyond that statement to reach for the extreme. Actually, these verses appear not to be a comparison of which activity God prefers more, but rather a contrast of what he prefers to what he doesn’t prefer—doesn’t want. Therefore, the progressive thought is not only to concentrate on knowing and following God, but also that God does not even care for the whole sacrificial system; he has only bad thoughts about it. Consider the following:
Micah 6:6–8 “What should I bring before the Lord when I come to bow before God on high? Should I come before Him with burnt offerings, with year-old calves? Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or with ten thousand streams of oil? Should I give my firstborn for my transgression, the child of my body for my own sin? Mankind, He has told you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
These verses seem to spell out even more that God doesn’t want sacrifices; he wants a committed life. Perhaps, the progressive muses, God never ever wanted sacrifices. Perhaps it was not God who commanded the sacrificial system at all but rather Moses and other presumed writers of the books of Law who imagined the idea to be like the Egyptian culture that they had just left, and wrote it in as if coming from God just to satisfy the people—to get them to follow their new God rather than cling to the gods they had become used to worshipping in Egypt.
And the progressives (like all other wild-idea proponents) rush to Scripture to try to back up their claim:
Jeremiah 7:21–23a “This is what the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, says: ‘Add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices, and eat the meat yourselves, for when I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offering and sacrifice. However, I did give them this command: Obey Me, and then I will be your God, and you will be My people.”
Of course, the progressives have it wrong. But it is easy to disregard sacrifice as a heathen, contemptuous activity when you don’t understand its purpose—when you choose to believe sacrifice is for only those three categorical, non-Christian purposes of appeasement, military security, and pay-off for blessing. Just a closer inspection of context in Jeremiah 7 tells us that what God is upset about is exactly that the Jews didn’t understand why they were sacrificing. They had embraced the worldly non-Christian categorical purposes, actually sacrificing to other Gods. So God says to addthose meaningless, rote sacrifices that they supposedly did for God to those other sacrifices they did for other gods, because they weren’t impressing God with their sacrifices to him. Then God tells them why they weren’t impressing. The Jews mistakenly thought (as did the other nations) that the order was sacrifice for a favor and then the god grants the favor. But God points out that he didn’t ask for a sacrifice from the Israelites which they had to perform in order for him to free them from Egypt (“when I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not . . . command them concerning burnt offering and sacrifice”). Rather, God asked for obedience—for following him—and in that way obtain rescue and become his people. His command for sacrifice came later.
And that idea leads us to the real, biblical purpose for sacrifice. It was not a trade-off or transaction to buy a favor from a god. God's desire in OT sacrifice was to illustrate redemption and forgiveness that result in relationship..