Posts Tagged ‘substitutionary atonement’

Defending substitutionary atonement again

January 10, 2019

Just this morning, Roger Olson has a fine post called “The ‘Judge Judged in Our Place’: Substitutionary Atonement Reclaimed,” which I recommend to anyone who struggles to understand or believe that Jesus suffered God’s wrath in our place on the cross. Sadly, this would include many of my United Methodist clergy colleagues—certainly those who went to seminaries like the one I went to, the Candler School of Theology,[1] where substitutionary atonement[2] is practically verboten.

But plenty of evangelicals are questioning the doctrine, too, egged on by “exvangelicals” such as Steve Chalke and Brian Zahnd, both of whose ideas I’ve criticized in the past.

So I admire the clarity with which Dr. Olson defines and defends the doctrine. Here’s how he defines it:

Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, God the Son, voluntarily suffered the judgment of God on sin that we deserve and suffered it in our place. He did this in order that he, God, together with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, could forgive us and justify us righteously. Without his suffering he could not forgive righteously; without it forgiveness would be indulgence. The cross event is a work of love that includes a work of justice (and wrath).

Note his emphasis on God’s righteousness, or justice. It would be unjust of God to forgive sin without at the same time paying the cost—indeed, suffering the penalty—to do so.

Forgiveness is never free. To see this, I refer you to a thought experiment that I’ve used in sermons before, based on a sermon illustration from Tim Keller:

Suppose somebody steals your car. It’s missing for several days. Then one day the police call: the man who stole your car crashed it. But the good news is that the police arrived on the scene and arrested the man. But instead of taking the man to jail right away, they say to you, the owner of the car: “you get to choose. This man can either go to jail and face punishment… Or… you can just forgive him, and he can get off scot-free. What’s it going to be?” Now I know that’s not going to happen in real life, but just work with me…

Suppose you chose to forgive the man. He doesn’t have to serve jail time. He doesn’t have a black mark on his record. He’ll walk away from the crime and never see you again. Because you forgave him.

O.K., let me ask you: Is your forgiveness of this man free? Does your forgiveness cost nothing? Of course not! First of all, the car has to be repaired—which could be very expensive. And even if your insurance covers part of it, you still pay the deductible, not to mention you’re the one who’s been paying the premiums every month. Also, you’ve been without your car for a few days already, and it will be several more days before your car is back from the shop. So maybe you’ve had to pay for a rental car to get you back and forth from work or other places. Not to mention the emotional turmoil or the time away from work or whatever else it’s cost you just to deal with the hassle of having your car stolen.

Who’s going to pay for all that if you forgive the perpetrator and he goes free? You are. And I’m not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t forgive him; I only want you to see that forgiveness even in this trivial case isn’t free. It’s costly. Somebody must pay for the damaged car… Either the person who committed the crime. Or his family. Or the insurance. Or you. Regardless, the price must be paid.

And so it is for evildoing we commit against a holy God: in the interest of justice, someone must pay for it, either the perpetrator or God.

But in his recent debate on substitutionary atonement, for example, Brian Zahnd said that God doesn’t need to pay anything to forgive us: as he put it, “God forgives because God forgives.” In other words, Zahnd would say, it’s in God’s nature to forgive. While I agree that it’s in God’s nature to be merciful (“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” Exodus 34:6 and many parallel verses in the Old Testament), God’s mercy is costly. Otherwise, as Olson says, “forgiveness would be indulgence.”

Suppose, by contrast—as we proponents of substitutionary atonement believe—that justice is a part of God’s loving nature—that God cannot merely overlook sin because to do so would be to deny a part of himself. (Indeed, I don’t care whether you say that justice is a part of God’s nature or, as I believe, justice proceeds necessarily from God’s love, which, as the apostle John makes explicit in 1 John 4:8, characterizes God’s nature. Same difference.) The cross of God’s Son Jesus solves the problem of God’s justice, or resolves the tension (if you want to think of it that way) between mercy and justice, or love and justice. How so? On the cross, God’s commitment to perfect justice and God’s perfect love find their fullest expression: “Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10).

This is why I can live with N.T. Wright’s—ahem—substitution of “the love of God was satisfied” in place of “the wrath of God was satisfied” in the contemporary hymn “In Christ Alone”—so long as I footnote it to explain that God’s love is satisfied in part because God poured out his wrath on sin through his Son Jesus. (Wright, who believes in substitutionary atonement, would accept this explanation.) Don’t get me wrong: In the context in which I minister, I would prefer to keep the song the way its songwriters wrote it and explain why it’s theologically and biblically appropriate to speak of God’s wrath. (There are, I’m sure, some preachers who speak of God’s wrath too much, but I’ve never heard a contemporary Methodist preacher who had that problem!)

Getting back to Olson, he describes the satisfaction both of God’s love and justice (righteousness, holiness) succinctly as follows:

[I]n order to forgive sins righteously and maintain his holiness God himself had to suffer the punishment deserved by sinners—death as separation from God—and he did this out of a motive of love even though justice required it.

Notice he says that “God himself had to suffer the punishment deserved by sinners.” Remembering that Jesus is God incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, who wants the redemption of sinners exactly as much as his Father and the Holy Spirit, and willingly does what is necessary to make it happen, guards against popular caricatures of substitutionary atonement, all of which pit a vengeful, angry father against a loving, merciful son—as if a bloodthirsty God needed to torture and kill some innocent person to satisfy his wrath, and, behold, his Son would have to do. Or God’s wrath was going to be “fired at” human beings until this “second party,” God’s Son Jesus, stepped in to “take the bullet” on our behalf.

This is ridiculous! But watch this debate between Brian Zahnd and Michael Brown and tell me that Zahnd doesn’t caricature the doctrine in this way. It’s irresponsible and disingenuous, to say the least. Zahnd, a self-described fan of David Bentley Hart, reads some dense theology. I’m sure he’s capable of accurately describing the doctrine of substitutionary atonement even if he disagrees with it. When you’re in a debate, after all, you should always attack the best version of your opponent’s position. Otherwise, you’re guilty of committing the “straw man fallacy.”

As Olson puts it, “What many people miss when they ‘picture’ substitutionary atonement is that Jesus Christ was not just an ‘innocent man’ on whom God took out his wrath; he was God the judge judging himself in our place thereby judging our sin and making it possible to forgive without neglecting holiness.”

Amen.

In a future post, pastor John Piper will help me describe the way in which an allegedly “competing” theory of atonement, Christus Victor, fits hand-in-glove with substitutionary atonement.

1. I urge anyone interested in pursuing professional ministry to avoid the Candler School of Theology! It’s awful, and it’s caused great harm especially to the United Methodist Church. (I describe one example of harm in this post.) If you think think it’s impolite of me to say so, at least appreciate that I’ve paid for the privilege. Indeed, I continue to pay, both through student debt and in my spirit. Also, I write this as someone who graduated toward the top of my class. I’m not holding a grudge against Candler, for instance, because of my grades or its alleged academic rigor.

The alma mater that I love is the Georgia Institute of Technology. I have two undergraduate degrees from that fine institution, and I display these diplomas proudly on my office wall. Meanwhile, I literally have no idea where my Emory diploma is. I assume they keep records!

2. In this post, I’ve used used the term “substitutionary atonement” because Dr. Olson uses that term. Normally, I’m happy to say “penal substitutionary atonement” (PSA). Olson draws a distinction between the terms that I wouldn’t make. Whether I speak of PSA or substitutionary atonement, I want to affirm, alongside Olson, that Christ’s death on the cross was necessary to satisfy the demands of God’s justice, apart from which none of us can be saved. On the cross, God did something objective through his Son’s suffering and death to make forgiveness of sin possible.

Sermon 10-15-17: “Christ Alone, Part 1”

October 17, 2017

This sermon, the first of two on today’s scripture, is about an unpopular subject: the wrath of God. As I explain in this sermon, if God truly loves us, then that means that he will also have wrath toward sin. At the same time, God made a gracious provision to save us from his wrath. Every sin will be punished, scripture tells us, either through Christ on the cross or through us in hell for eternity. The choice is ours.

Sermon Text: Hebrews 2:5-18

My sermons are now being podcast! My podcast is available in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.

We don’t know who the author of Hebrews is. He’s anonymous. But we know why he’s writing this letter. He tells us at the beginning of chapter 2: He’s concerned that these Christians, who have undergone great persecution and suffering for their faith, are in danger of “drifting away from it.” Later, in chapter 6, verses 4 through 6, he issues the following warning:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

These people don’t sound so different from us: like us, they had “once been enlightened”; like us, they had “tasted the heavenly gift” of salvation; like us, they had “shared in the Holy Spirit.” Like most of us, they were genuine Christian believers. But they drifted away—they fell away—from the faith. And now they’re lost; it sounds like they’ve passed a point of no return and are beyond hope.

Could this happen to us… If we drift away?
Read the rest of this entry »

Adam Hamilton’s self-refuting “Jesus colander”

September 13, 2017

Hurricane Irma had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached my home south of Atlanta on Monday, but it was powerful enough to knock out our power. So, in preparation for my upcoming sermon on Sunday on sola scriptura, I spent the day reading a book by an author whose viewpoint I knew I wouldn’t share, United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton’s Making Sense of the Bible.

It was from this book that he articulated his “three buckets” approach to scripture, which caused great controversy a few years ago. Most of scripture, he says, belongs in Bucket #1: It reflects God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings. Other scripture belongs in Bucket #2: It expressed God’s will in a particular time, but is no longer binding. The ceremonial aspects of the Law of Moses, for example—including Jewish dietary law, circumcision, and purity laws—would fit within this bucket.

I would only qualify this by saying that there’s a sense in which none of us Christians is bound by any part of God’s law: Christ has fulfilled it all on our behalf. We are free from the law, although, as the Spirit writes the law on our hearts through sanctification (Heb. 10:16), we will naturally do works of the law out of love for God and neighbor. We are not antinomians.

Still, so far so good. The problem is with Hamilton’s Bucket #3: There is scripture, he says, that “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.”

He offers a few predictable examples of Bucket #3 scriptures, including the conquest of Canaan in Joshua.

In the last chapter [in which he discussed Noah’s Ark], we learned that God was “grieved to his heart” by the violence human beings were committing against one another, and for this reason he decides to bring an end to the human race. Now God is commanding the Israelites to slaughter entire towns, tribes, and nations, showing them no mercy and providing them with no escape. How can this be?[1]

When he was young, Hamilton was untroubled by these passages of scripture, but when he got older, he

began to think about the humanity of the Canaanites. These were human beings who lived, loved, and had families. Among them were babies and toddlers, mothers and fathers. Yet they were all put to the sword by “the Lord’s army.” Thirty-one cities slaughtered with not terms of surrender offered and no chance to relocate to another land. I came to see the moral and theological dilemmas posed by these stories.[2]

His solution to these dilemmas? The Israelites, he says, were mistaken about what they believed God told them. While there’s still value in reading the Book of Joshua (he especially likes the last chapter), here’s “the most important reason” (emphasis his): “to remind us of how easy it is for people of faith to invoke God’s name in pursuit of violence, bloodshed, and war.[3]

Hamilton says that we should filter everything in the Bible through the “words and great commandments” of Jesus Christ, who alone is the true Word of God (John 1:1). Jesus is not merely a “lens” by which we read the Bible; he is a “colander,”[4] through which we can filter the rest of scripture to determine what scriptures belong in Bucket #3.

I’m reminded of Andrew Wilson’s blog post on what he calls the “Jesus Tea-Strainer.” As Wilson argues, this colander or tea-strainer approach is self-refuting:

The strange thing about this, of course, is that Jesus himself seemed so comfortable with many of those passages, and affirmed stories about destroying floods, fire and sulphur falling from the sky, people being turned into pillars of salt, and so on. Not only that, but he actually added to them, by telling several stories that present God in ways that modern people are not inclined to warm to. Here’s a few examples of things Jesus said that wouldn’t fit through the Red Letter guys’ hermeneutical tea-strainer:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades.” (Luke 10:13-15)

“And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:12-14)

“But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.” (Luke 13:27-28)

He offers six more examples in his blog post, but you get the idea: to say the least, hell, about which we learn more from the red-letter words of Jesus than any apostle or Old Testament writer, is infinitely more violent than violence perpetrated by human beings. How would Christ’s own words pass through Hamilton’s colander? In which case, Hamilton’s “canon within the canon” wouldn’t even include all the red-letter words of Jesus himself!

Throughout the book, Hamilton argues that we can’t reconcile scripture’s depiction of God’s violence with the “forgiveness and mercy” demonstrated by Christ. In doing so, however, he underestimates the problem of sin—the way it makes us “enemies” of God (Rom. 5:10) who deserve God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18)—and the effects of Christ’s atoning death, through which forgiveness and mercy are made possible. By all means, throughout the gospels, Jesus tells people, “Your sins are forgiven,” the only condition of which is faith and repentance. But theologians would say (as the rest of the New Testament makes clear) that Christ’s forgiveness isn’t free: even before Good Friday, it looks forward to and is made possible by his substitutionary death on the cross, on which he suffered the penalty of our sins for us. The effects of the cross are applied retroactively to the people Jesus forgave in the gospels.

By the way, this is also the basis of forgiveness for Old Testament saints. Abraham, for example, was justified by faith alone, as Paul says in Romans and Galatians, but it was a faith that looked forward to the cross, however incomplete Abraham’s understanding was.

Hamilton fails to wrestle with the debt that we human beings owe God. The Bible’s clear teaching is that we all deserve God’s judgment, death, and hell because of our sins. And forgiveness is infinitely costly, because it requires the death of God’s Son Jesus.

I feel like these are the A-B-C’s of the gospel, about which a self-identified evangelical like Hamilton shouldn’t need a refresher. Yet, in his book, he doesn’t deal with the cruciform shape of God’s love—at all! Why? What a glaring omission from someone who is purporting to “make sense” of the Bible!

In a future blog post, I’ll talk about Hamilton’s view of scripture’s “inspiration” and the way in which it’s also self-refuting.

1. Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 211

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 216

4. Ibid., 213

We love you, Tom Wright, but haven’t you said this many times before?

October 27, 2016

No one on this blog will question my bona fides as an admirer of N.T. Wright. Heck, I just quoted him a couple of hours ago!

But I don’t think I need to read his new book on atonement. I feel like I’ve already read it, based on Scot McKnight’s blog posts about it, including this one. I had to reply to one commenter who said the following about Wright’s views on penal substitution:

He uses a lot of plural pronouns (as in “…we have paganized soteriology”) and hints at widespread distortions (as in “The danger with this kind of popular teaching, and examples of it are not hard to come by…”). As though he, and all the rest of us, have been doing it all wrong. Or is it maybe just us?

I’m a fan of his, even when I disagree, but he often does come off as being the guy who’s finally figured it all out. Most of the caricatures he tilts at are routinely spoken against by committed PSA advocates. So who and what exactly he is refuting?

To this I wrote:

Exactly! Very well said. Even Wright’s constant refrain against speaking of “heaven” as opposed to “new creation” rings a bit hollow to me—at least by the 348th time he’s labored to emphasize that distinction.

One of my eccentric hobbies is collecting sermons by Billy Graham on vinyl records. My point is, I’ve heard a lot of old sermons. Most of these are from the ’50s and ’60s. It’s true that Graham always referred to our eschatological future as “heaven,” but he never did so in a way that implied, as Wright would have us believe, that heaven was disembodied or independent of resurrection and new creation. On the contrary, he spoke of these things, too.

Wright’s “Yes, but…” approach regarding heaven also misses one important point: While I totally appreciate that Christ’s victory on the cross and his resurrection mean so much more than “heaven when I die,” I can’t escape the fact that, selfishly speaking, the best part of Christ’s victory is… ahem… heaven when I die. Say whatever you want about it, that’s incredibly good news!

That when I die, I don’t lose the best of this life, including my loved ones within it… How could that not be the best news of all?

I don’t think I’m wrong to feel that way, even as I appreciate the importance of new creation, victory over the principalities, etc.

The grace of Israel’s sacrificial system

September 22, 2016

rutledgeFor the sake of his contrarianism, my Old Testament professor in seminary, the late John Hayes, enjoyed telling his class of incredulous mainline Protestants—many of whom rarely used the word “sin,” or did so only in non-traditional ways—that Leviticus was his favorite book of the Bible. Why? Because it takes sin deadly seriously. It demonstrates the costliness of sin.

He had a point—and one with which Fleming Rutledge, author of Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, would sympathize. In one chapter, she examines the cross of Jesus Christ through the lens of blood sacrifice in the Old Testament. Of the sacrificial system described in Leviticus, she writes:

Basic to the ritual is the idea that atonement for sin costs something. Something valuable has to be offered in restitution. The life of the sacrificed animal, together with the sense of awe associated with the shedding of blood, represents this payment. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). The blood represents the ultimate cost to the giver. There is something powerful here that grips us in spite of ourselves. The use of the phrase “blood of Christ” in the New Testament carries with it this sacrificial, atoning significance in primordial sense; we cannot root out these connections even if we wanted to.

Leviticus 5:14 maintains that one who sins must bring a guilt offering to the Lord “valued… in shekels of silver.” Note the emphasis on assigning value to the offering. The suggestion is that there should be some correlation of the value of the offering with the gravity of the offense. If the supposed sacrifice is just something we are getting rid of, like those old clothes in the back of our closet that we haven’t worn for years, then restitution is not made. Anselm’s word “satisfaction” seems right here, wth its suggestion of comparable cost. We are familiar with this notion; we are infuriated when people who have committed great crimes get off with light sentences. The trouble is that there is no adequate punishment for a truly great crime. How could there be any offering valuable enough to compensate for the victims of just one bombing let alone genocides of millions? Anselm’s point is one again apposite: “You have not yet considered the weight of sin.” The obvious conclusion, explicitly drawn in Hebrews, is that the sacrificing of animals just isn’t enough. One of the simplest ways of understanding the death of Jesus is to say that when we look at the cross, we see what it cost God to secure our release from sin.[1]

The trouble is that there is no adequate punishment for a truly great crime. Indeed, as Rutledge points out in a footnote, blood sacrifices in the Bible cover only “unwitting sin.” There was no sacrificial provision for “high-handed” or deliberate sin. See Numbers 15:30-31: Israelites are to be “cut off.” Indeed, see Hebrews 10:26-31, where the author alludes to this scripture in a stern warning to potential backsliders. (By the way, isn’t this one of the most frightening passages of scripture in the New Testament? It should give pause to any of us who so easily presume upon God’s grace.)

Rutledge’s point is, as a matter of justice, anything less than the blood sacrifice of God’s Son Jesus would be inadequate to remedy the problem of sin’s guilt. We intuitively understand this, as she says, whenever we see “people who have committed great crimes get off with light sentences.”

And yet, as she points out, blood sacrifices and guilt offerings, no matter how costly, are also “light sentences.” They were never meant to be otherwise. They were meant to symbolize both the costliness of sin and the sheer graciousness of God—which itself prepares us for God’s sacrifice on the cross. Contrary to the widespread stereotype, God always related to God’s covenant people on the basis of grace.

None of this will be persuasive to anyone who does not already know himself to be within the sphere of God’s grace. In view of the widespread notion that the Old Testament is all about sin and judgment, there is an urgent need in the church for more intentional teaching of the enveloping grace in the First Testament. God’s redemptive purpose in electing a people (Gen. 12:1-3; 17:1-27) was put into effect long before the giving of commandments and ordinances. God has already told them, You are my people. God has ordained the means whereby we may draw near to him. The ordinances of the Torah are not a catalogue of tribal customs. They are gifts from the living God.[2]

If we miss this point, then we won’t understand, for example, Paul’s argument in Romans. We might wonder instead what was wrong with God’s original covenant with Israel, such that they, too, are under God’s judgment. Why couldn’t Israel have its means of atonement through the Law and we Gentiles ours through Christ, and both groups be fine?

Of course, many Christians already believe that, unfortunately. If so, they need to read Rutledge’s new book.

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 245-6.

2. Ibid., 246.

The cross of Christ in Numbers 21

February 1, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

Allan Bevere, a fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, has a nice reflection on different theories of atonement in this post. I largely agree with him, except I would make an important distinction between the different theories that he fails to make: between objective and subjective theories of atonement.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I do have a theological axe to grind when it comes to penal substitution: although I’m eager to distinguish the true theory from the caricature, I believe it’s the primary biblical motif of how atonement is accomplished.

But forget the label “penal substitution” for a moment. The main question, in my mind, is, “Do you believe that Christ’s death on the cross does something for us, objectively, to deal with our sins and reconcile us with God?” We can argue about the particulars all we want: if we agree on the answer to that question, we probably don’t have any important disagreement on the matter. As a sinner in desperate need of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness at every moment, I need to know that my saving relationship with God, at least to a very large extent, doesn’t depend on me.

If it mostly depends on me—on my response to the cross, my will, my efforts—I’m doomed. This is why Abelard’s “moral influence theory,” which seems to be the only classical theory that theological progressives are willing to embrace, is, for me, least important. Yes, the cross inspires love within me, but that love itself can’t save me apart from the fact that my sin is imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to me.

I talked about penal substitution in yesterday’s sermon, without using the term, when I talked about Jesus’ reference to Numbers 21:4-9 in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. I asked how it is that we experience the new birth that Christ talks about. I said:

Jesus gives Nicodemus an illustration from scripture to help him—and us—understand how it is that this new birth is accomplished. In verses 14 and 15, he says: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” “Moses’ lifting up this serpent” is a reference to something that happens in Numbers 21, beginning with verse 4. The Israelites have become impatient with Moses while wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. And they’re grumbling: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” They’re referring to manna, the miraculous bread from heaven that God has graciously provided them. They’re literally blaspheming against God.

“Then,” it says in verse 6, “the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

Get the picture? The Israelites would get bitten by these poisonous snakes, and when they did, they would look up at this bronze snake on a pole and their lives would be saved. Similarly, Jesus says, when he is “lifted up”—by which he means lifted up on the cross, on Calvary—it’s like Moses lifting up this bronze snake on a pole. Christ on the cross is like that snake on the pole. I know this sounds like a really strange comparison, but let’s think about it:

Because of their blasphemy, because of their unfaithfulness, because of their sin, Israel was facing God’s judgment and God’s wrath. God was justifiably angry because of his people’s sin. As punishment, he was sending these poisonous snakes to kill them—until the people repented and Moses intervened and prayed to God. The bronze snake, please notice, wasn’t preventative medicine; it was only needed by those who were already snake-bitten. Once they had been snake-bitten, their only hope for rescue was to look upon this image of a snake—a symbol of the very thing that was killing them. That’s how they would be saved.

In a similar way, Jesus is saying, we are all snake-bitten by sin. We’re all dying. Because of our sin, we’re all under God’s judgment, and, unless we’re rescued, we will all face God’s wrath for our sins. And what do we do to save ourselves? Just as the Israelites looked at a symbol for the very thing that was killing them, we, too, look to the symbol of the very thing that’s killing us—not a poisonous snake this time, but our sin. That’s exactly what Christ represents for us on the cross. When we look at the cross of Jesus Christ, the Bible says we are looking at our sin. Remember 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” On the cross, Christ became our sin—it’s as if he took within his own body the deadly venom that was killing us—and died in our place!

“Behold, the Lamb of God!”

January 4, 2016

I sometimes wish I were one of those megachurch pastors who was able to preach for 45 minutes or more, because yesterday would have been a good time to do so. My sermon text, John 1:19-34, was rich with meaning, to say the least. And I never got to the best part of the text: John 1:29, in which John the Baptist says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” 

The good news, since this is just the beginning of a sermon series on John’s gospel, is that I will have another crack at this “Lamb of God” metaphor in next week’s scripture (John 1:35-51). In verse 36, John says to two of his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God!”

I was surprised to learn in my research last week that there is some controversy surrounding the meaning of the “Lamb of God.” Some New Testament scholars doubt that it refers to Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. After all, in the Old Testament sacrificial system, goats and bulls were sacrificed for sins, not lambs.

This strikes me as a bizarre objection by scholars motivated by a refusal to believe in substitutionary atonement. There are at least three very clear atonement-related Old Testament passages that relate to John’s metaphor. The first is the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22.

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

After God stops Abraham from killing his son, scripture says:

And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

Can I confess with embarrassment that I only learned last week that a “ram” can be either a male goat (as I always pictured it) or a male sheep?

Regardless, here we have a lamb sacrificed in exchange for the Isaac’s life, just as Christ is sacrificed in exchange for ours. While this passage doesn’t mention propitiation for sins (which doesn’t necessarily mean that Abraham didn’t understand it that way), we have other scripture passages that point to propitiation: Exodus 12 and Isaiah 53.

In the Exodus passage, the blood of the lamb, sprinkled on the lentil and door posts, is a propitiation—for the sins of the Egyptians, obviously, but also for the sins of the Israelites.

I think we often miss this point. Although the occasion for the Passover was to punish Egypt, both Israel and Egypt are guilty before God and deserving of judgment, wrath, and death—as are all human beings (see Romans 3:23 and 6:23). So if the angel of death is going punish for sin, God is nothing if not fair: Israel isn’t exempt from this judgment, either. The only reason that Israel is spared is by the blood of the lamb.

In Isaiah 53, which prophesies Christ’s substitutionary death explicitly, we’re told that the Suffering Servant, who carries our iniquities, is “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent.”

Finally, if the John who wrote Revelation is the same author of the gospel (as tradition holds), we’re not surprised that atonement imagery for the Lamb of God returns (Revelation 5:12, among others).

Am I missing anything else?

Penal substitution and 2 Corinthians 5:21

July 8, 2015

esv_study_bibleMy workaday Bible is the ESV Study Bible, which I recommend to all serious students of the Bible. As I was reading 2 Corinthians 5 this morning, I came upon this helpful exposition of verse 21. The author refers to it as “substitutionary atonement.” I prefer penal substitution because one of the missions of this blog is to reclaim and rehabilitate that classic term from its cultural despisers:

2 Cor. 5:21 This verse is one of the most important in all of Scripture for understanding the meaning of the atonement and justification. Here we see that the one who knew no sin is Jesus Christ (v. 20) and that he (God) made him (Christ) to be sin (Gk. hamartia, “sin”). This means that God the Father made Christ to be regarded and treatedas “sin” even though Christ himself never sinned (Heb. 4:15; cf. Gal. 3:13). Further, we see that God did this for our sake—that is, God regarded and treated “our” sin (the sin of all who would believe in Christ) as if our sin belonged not to us but to Christ himself. Thus Christ “died for all” (2 Cor. 5:14) and, as Peter wrote, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). In becoming sin “for our sake,” Christ became our substitute—that is, Christ took our sin upon himself and, as our substitute, thereby bore the wrath of God (the punishment that we deserve) in our place (“for our sake”). Thus the technical term for this foundational doctrine of the Christian faith is the substitutionary atonement—that Christ has provided the atoning sacrifice as “our” substitute, for the sins of all who believe (cf. Rom. 3:23–25). The background for this is Isaiah 53 from the Greek (Septuagint) translation of the Hebrew OT, which includes the most lengthy and detailed OT prophecy of Christ’s death and which contains numerous parallels to 2 Cor. 5:21. Isaiah’s prophecy specifically uses the Greek word for “sin” (Gk. hamartia) five times (as indicated below in italics) with reference to the coming Savior (the suffering servant) in just a few verses—e.g., “surely he has born our griefs” (Isa. 53:4); “He was crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5); “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6); “he shall bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11); “he bore the sin of many” (Isa. 53:12). In a precise fulfillment of this prophecy, Christ became “sin” for those who believe in him, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. This means that just as God imputed our sin and guilt to Christ (“he made him to be sin”) so God also imputes the righteousness of Christ—a righteousness that is not our own—to all who believe in Christ. Because Christ bore the sins of those who believe, God regards and treatsbelievers as having the legal status of “righteousness” (Gk. dikaiosynē). This righteousness belongs to believers because they are “in him,” that is, “in Christ” (e.g., Rom. 3:22; 5:181 Cor. 1:302 Cor. 5:17, 19Phil. 3:9). Therefore “the righteousness of God” (which is imputed to believers) is also the righteousness of Christ—that is, the righteousness and the legal status that belongs to Christ as a result of Christ having lived as one who “knew no sin.” This then is the heart of the doctrine of justification: God regards (or counts) believers as forgiven and God declaresand treats them as forgiven, because God the Father has imputed the believer’s sin to Christ and because God the Father likewise imputes Christ’s righteousness to the believer. (See further notes on Rom. 4:6–85:1810:310:6–8; see also Isa. 53:11: “the righteous one, my servant, [shall] make many to be accounted righteous”).