Thursday, May 19, 2016

On Substitutionary Atonement

Karl Barth once made the observation that, in his judgment, the single most important Greek word in the New Testament is huper, which means “on behalf of.” Among the titles given to Jesus in the New Testament is “the last Adam,” or “the second Adam,” which communicate that Christ became a representative for us in a way analogous to Adam, who was our first representative. At the fall of one man, Adam, ruin and death came on the world, and through the other Man’s obedience, redemption and eternal life came. Jesus was the successful Adam, who did on behalf of His people what the first Adam failed to do.

There is a story that one night Martin Luther went to sleep troubled about his sin. In a dream he saw an angel standing by a blackboard, and at the top of the board was Luther’s name. The angel, chalk in hand, was listing all of Luther’s sins, and the list filled the blackboard. Luther shuddered in despair, feeling that his sins were so many that he could never be forgiven. But suddenly in his dream he saw a pierced hand writing above the list these words: “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” As Luther gazed in amazement, the blood flowed from the wounded hand and washed the record clean.

Many people deal with guilt by drowning it. Some drown it in alcohol and drug abuse. Marijuana use among teenagers has increased. The use of other hallucinogens has increased. And the use of cocaine increased. Over fourteen million Americans are in 12-step programs. Why are Americans drinking and drugging themselves to death? We’re trying to escape ourselves and drown the pangs of our own guilt. 

Other people deal with guilt by denying it. As our society has become increasingly secular, it has lost respect for the authority of the Word of God, and that has led to a dangerous and destructive moral and spiritual chain reaction. If there is no authoritative Word of God, then there are no moral absolutes. If there are no moral absolutes, there are no ultimate standards of right and wrong. If there are no ultimate standards of right and wrong, then we can base our rules and standards on societal consensus. If we base our rules on societal consensus, then we can adjust them to our own shape and size. We can adjust them downward. We can live any way we want to, and there is no such thing as genuine guilt before God. Guilt is just a nagging relic of Puritanism, a Victorian antique, a psychosis to be denied.

Some people deal with guilt by deflecting it. They blame other people for their failures and faults and shortcoming. They blame their parents or their environments. This technique goes all the way back to the garden of Eden when Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent.

But sooner or later, all these techniques fail, and we find we can’t escape the consequences of our own sinfulness and guilt. Jeremiah 2:22 says, “ ‘Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abundance of soap, the stain of your guilt is before me,’ declares the Sovereign Lord.”

Guilt is the corrosion of the soul. How can we get rid of it? We can’t drown it, deny it, or deflect it. We can only dissolve it in the blood of Jesus Christ. John Calvin once said,
The only haven of safety is in the mercy of God, as manifested in Christ, in whom every part of our salvation is complete. As all mankind are, in the sight of God, lost sinners, we hold that Christ is their only righteousness, since, by his obedience, he has wiped off our transgressions; by his sacrifice, appeased the divine anger; by his blood, washed away our stains; by his cross, borne our curse; and by his death, made satisfaction for us. We maintain that in this way man is reconciled in Christ to God the Father, by no merit of his own, by no value of works, but by gratuitous mercy.

Atonement in the OT

The Old Testament laid down complex regulations by which the guilt of sin could be removed through the sacrificial system. Particular emphasis was placed upon the role of the high priest, who was required to make annual atonement for the sins of the people. On the annual Day of Atonement, several animals were involved, as detailed in Leviticus 16. After the high priest sacrificed a bull to atone for his own sin, two goats were brought, and lots cast over them. The procedure for one of the goats gives us the concept of the word scapegoat; the high priest laid his hands on the head of the goat, symbolizing the transfer or imputation of the sins of the people to the goat. Then the goat was driven out into the wilderness, outside of the presence of God’s blessing; it bore the people’s sins and carried them away. Yet that was only part of the atonement; the other part was the slaying of the second goat. The blood of the second goat was sprinkled upon the mercy seat, the lid of the ark of the covenant. The mercy seat was called “the atonement cover,” because the blood spilled on it indicated the means by which the people’s sins were atoned for, and the people reconciled to God.

Atonement in the NT

In dying for the sins of the world, Jesus Christ fulfilled and replaced the OT sacrificial system, so that all who believe in Him are restored to fellowship with God. Christ is the true high priest, who finally liberates His people from the guilt of sin, by offering Himself as the supreme sacrifice.

In the New Testament, we are reminded that the substitute animals used on the Day of Atonement were but shadows of a reality that would come later. The author of Hebrews writes:
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (10:1–4)
The value of those atoning sacrifices in the Old Testament was in the way they dramatized the authentic atonement yet to come. In other words, people were justified by believing in the promise of God, by seeing those rites as shadows of a future reality. They received real atonement only from Christ. In the Old Testament ceremony, the concept of substitution was central.

The Scriptures speak of two distinct aspects of this substitutionary action: expiation and propitiation

Expiation, which contains the prefix ex-, meaning “from” or “out of,” is the removal of guilt from someone. This is the horizontal dimension of atonement. This aspect is seen in the drama of the scapegoat. The sin of the people was transferred to the goat, and then the goat carried away the sins as it was removed from the presence of God into the outer wilderness. The psalmist uses the language of expiation: “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). In reality, of course, our sins are transferred not to a scapegoat but to Christ, who as the Lamb of God took our guilt upon Himself. He became the sin-bearer, thereby fulfilling the prophecies related to the Servant of the Lord, found chiefly in Isaiah 53: “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (v. 5).

Propitiation involves the vertical dimension of atonement. In the act of propitiation, God’s righteous wrath is appeased, and His justice is satisfied. The moral obligation that we owe for our sins is paid to God, who is thereby placated. He is fully satisfied with the price that is paid by our substitute. If we do not have a substitute, then there can be no expiation and no propitiation, because we are not capable of satisfying the demands of God’s justice. If we were, there would be no need for an atonement, but since we cannot pay our moral debt, there is an absolute need for a substitute.

Covenantal Structure

The Bible’s explanation of atonement is found in its covenantal structure. The covenant stipulations God set forth—His commandments—were to be obeyed. The covenants had dual sanctions: rewards for keeping the law and punishments for violating it. The language used in Scripture to express those dual sanctions is blessing and curse. In Deuteronomy, for example, God said to the people:
Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground and the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. (Deut. 28:3–6)
But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. (Deut. 28:15–19)
The motif of the curse is central to the concept of covenant. We read in the Old Testament that the Israelites broke the covenant both corporately and individually. All of us are covenant breakers, which means all of us stand under the curse. The world is cursed; our labor is cursed; the Serpent is cursed; the man is cursed; the woman is cursed. To be cursed of God is to be cut off from His presence and blessing.

Conversely, to be blessed of God in the Old Testament was to be drawn close to Him, to have the light of His countenance. Christ fulfilled this in a substitutionary way, which is dramatically taught by the Apostle Paul: “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed” (Gal. 3:8). That is the old gospel, the promise of divine blessing:

So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” (Gal. 9–13)
That is the crux of the matter—Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.

When Paul probes the depths of the atonement, he goes to the concept of the curse. The price for sin is to experience the curse of God. Christ became a curse. He was delivered into the hands of the Gentiles. It is significant that He was not killed by His own people but by Gentiles, who were considered to be “unclean people” who dwelt “outside the camp.” Jesus died outside the city of Jerusalem (Golgotha was outside the city limits). He had to be taken outside the camp, numbered among the Gentiles, and considered unclean, and God plunged the world into darkness while Christ was being crucified, indicating that the light of God’s countenance had turned away. Christ cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). He had to be forsaken because the penalty for sin is divine forsakenness. Jesus was cut off from the land of the living on our behalf, so that we would not be cut off.