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Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Closer Look At Christ's Atonement

On his Theology Musings blog, Gordon Feil recently posted "The Atonement:  Was It Penal Substitution?" --http://gordon-feil-theology.blogspot.com/2017/08/the-atonement-was-it-penal-substitution.html#comment-form  This post generated an interesting discussion between its author and myself. The short version of my answer to the question Gordon posed was:  NO, the atonement was not penal substitution. This post will serve to represent the longer version of my response to that question and will employ my comments on Gordon's blog, previous posts regarding the subject on this blog, and some additional thoughts on the subject generated by Gordon's responses to my comments.

In one of my comments on Gordon's blog, I wrote:  "To me, the atonement is all about reconciliation. Our sins have alienated us from God - not that "He" has turned "His" back on us, but that we have turned our backs on "Him." Our sins blind us to God and "His" love."

This is consistent with what I previously published on this blog as part of the post entitled "To be at one with God." --http://godcannotbecontained.blogspot.com/2014/05/to-be-at-one-with-god.html  I wrote:

"In the theology of the Old Testament, it is a common theme that the people's sins separated them from their God. This concept is apparent from the very beginning of the story of mankind's interaction with the Divine. Notice that Adam's and Eve's sins resulted in their expulsion from the garden and God's presence. (Genesis 3) By violating God's commandment, they effectively rejected God's offer to reveal/define right and wrong and decided to usurp that prerogative for themselves. In other words, they turned their backs on God, and their sins separated them from God.

If the Israelites followed God's instructions and obeyed "His" commandments, God promised to live among them and be their God. (Exodus 29:45) When Moses outlined the blessings associated with obeying the terms of the covenant, it was implicit in everything he said that God would be actively blessing the people in all aspects of their life. (Deuteronomy 28:1-14) Likewise, when he outlined the curses associated with disobedience, Moses made clear that the people would not enjoy God's favor, protection and blessings. (Deuteronomy 28:15-68) In other words, their sins would separate them from their God.

When David sinned with Bathsheba, he understood that his sins could separate him from his God. He prayed: "Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me." (Psalm 51:11)

The prophets were also very familiar with this concept. Isaiah wrote: "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear." (Isaiah 59:1-2) When the Israelites persisted in their sins throughout the kingdom period, God's glory (presence) eventually departed from the Temple in Jerusalem. Ezekiel 8-10) When the prophets looked to the future, they often spoke of a time when God would actually live among "His" people. (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:20, 37:23, 27; Zechariah 8:8) The clear implication being that God was currently separated from them.

In addition to this understanding, Old Testament theology clearly anticipated the need for a reconciliation between the sinner and his God. David wrote: "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin." (Psalm 51:1-2) He continued: "Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me." (Psalm 51:9-10) David clearly understood that the sins were the problem in his relationship with God, and that those sins had to be removed to effect a complete reconciliation with the Divine. Indeed, he praised God for removing our sins from us "as far as the east is from the west."

In this connection, one could also say that the entire sacrificial system (such an integral part of the Old Covenant) looked to the removal and forgiveness of the people's sins. This was nowhere more apparent than in the ceremony prescribed for the Day of Atonement. (Leviticus 16)"

Regarding that day (Atonement), in a post entitled "The New Testament perspective on the Day of Atonement" --http://godcannotbecontained.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-new-testament-perspective-on-day-of.html, I quoted the book of Hebrews:

“For there was a tabernacle made, the first…which is called the sanctuary. And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all…Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God. BUT INTO THE SECOND WENT THE HIGH PRIEST ALONE ONCE EVERY YEAR (ON THE DAY OF ATONEMENT), not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people: The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing: Which was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience…But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building; Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.” –Hebrews 9:2-12

Clearly, Aaron was symbolic of Jesus Christ in this ceremony. Nevertheless, the symbolism was not perfect. For obvious reasons, Aaron was unable to offer his own blood to sprinkle on the altar to make atonement for the people. He had to use the blood of a goat.

“And he shall take the two goats, and present THEM before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.” –Leviticus 16:7 Notice that these goats are paired in the ceremony, and BOTH of them are presented before the Lord. Hence, it is obvious that these goats are RELATED to each other. “And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot FOR the Lord, and the other lot FOR the scapegoat.” –Leviticus 16:8 In context, it is clear that one of the goats was chosen to be presented to God as a sacrifice/offering (Leviticus 16:9), and Aaron (who was the type of Christ) was to use that goat’s blood to sprinkle on the altar to make atonement for the people. (Leviticus 16:15) Likewise, the other goat was to be used for the scapegoat, or goat of removal. “But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:10)

It is clear that Aaron (THE TYPE OF CHRIST) needed blood to complete the symbolism of the ceremony. Continuing in Hebrews, we read: “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. IT WAS THEREFOR NECESSARY THAT THE PATTERNS OF THINGS IN THE HEAVENS SHOULD BE PURIFIED WITH THESE; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. FOR CHRIST IS NOT ENTERED INTO THE HOLY PLACES MADE WITH HANDS, WHICH ARE THE FIGURES OF THE TRUE; BUT INTO HEAVEN ITSELF, NOW TO APPEAR IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD FOR US: Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year WITH BLOOD OF OTHERS; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared TO PUT AWAY SIN BY THE SACRIFICE OF HIMSELF.” –Hebrews 9:22-26

Clearly, Aaron was symbolically playing the role of Jesus Christ in the Old Testament ceremony. In that ceremony, there were two goats which were presented before the Lord. One of those goats was designated to be used as a sacrifice/offering to God, and Aaron used the blood of that goat (since he could not use his own) to take before the mercy seat of God and use to symbolically make an atonement for the sins of the people. The other goat was designated to bear the sins of the people into the wilderness. “And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat, and shall send him away by the hand of a fit man into the wilderness: And the goat shall bear upon him all their iniquities unto a land not inhabited: and he shall let go the goat in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:21-22)

Hence, NEITHER GOAT WAS DESIGNATED TO REPRESENT GOD OR JESUS CHRIST IN THIS CEREMONY!!!!!!! Remember, Aaron represented Christ. The Holy of Holies represented heaven. The mercy seat above the Ark of the Covenant represented Almighty God’s presence. One of the goats was used to represent Christ’s blood, and the other goat was used to represent the removal of the people’s sins from the camp and from the presence of Almighty God! The very thing that Christ’s shed blood accomplished! “So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.” –Hebrews 9:28"

In that first post (To be at one with God), I went on to say:

"This is where Jesus Christ comes into the equation. Isaiah wrote of the Messiah: "He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:3-6)

When John the Baptist saw Christ approaching him, he said, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." (John 1:29) In other words, he saw Jesus Christ as the one who would remove our sins - the very things that had separated us from our God. Hence, this act would effect our reconciliation to God.

Interestingly, this conclusion finds overwhelming support in the theology of the New Testament. Paul wrote to the Romans: "But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement." (Romans 5:8-11) Likewise, Paul wrote the saints at Corinth that God had reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ (II Corinthians 5:18)

How did he reconcile us to God? The answer should be obvious at this point: Christ reconciled us to the Father by removing the things that had separated us from Him - our sins! Paul said that Christ died for our sins. (I Corinthians 15:3) He told the Galatians that Christ gave himself for our sins. (Galatians 1:4) The author of the epistle to the Hebrews wrote that Christ had purged our sins. (Hebrews 1:3) Peter said that Christ had borne our sins in his body. (I Peter 2:24) John called Christ the propitiation for our sins (I John 2:2), and that Christ "was manifested to take away our sins." (I John 3:5)"

Finally, in Gordon's responses to my comments on his blog, he disagreed with my assertion that “We simply cannot imagine forgiveness without something/someone paying for the sin.” He went on to say:  "If someone slights me and then pays for it, what need is there for forgiveness? Forgiveness is letting them off the hook. And I have often forgiven people with no need that anyone pay for their sin."

First, I think that there is ample scriptural evidence to suggest that WE are the ones who harbor these harsh notions about forgiveness. It is asserted over and over again in the New Testament that Jesus Christ instructed his followers to forgive each other (Matthew 6:14-15, Matthew 18:21-35, Mark 11:25-26, Luke 6:37, Luke 17:3-4). Sure sounds to me like Christ believed that we (humans) have a problem with the concept of forgiveness!

And I strongly disagree that forgiveness is letting anyone "off the hook." Forgiveness doesn't necessarily remove the consequences of bad behavior. At its core, forgiveness is about giving someone a second chance. If someone does something horrible to me and is arrested and imprisoned for it, I still need to forgive them. The fact that they have paid for the offense has little or no bearing on my willingness to forgive them, their willingness to forgive themselves or their willingness to accept my forgiveness!

Hence, I stand by my original statement on Gordon's blog:

"Sacrifices aren't for God - they're for us. God doesn't need sacrifices - we do. It is our psyche that needs to appease. We simply cannot imagine forgiveness without something/someone paying for the sin. It is our notions about justice that demand this (Thank God that we aren't judging each other!).
As for how the sacrifice cleanses our consciences, read Hebrews 9 and 10 again. However, this single verse provides a good summary: "How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" (9:14)"

For this blogger, Christ's sacrifice removes the very thing that separates us from our God:  OUR SINS. In accepting the wages that our works have earned (death), he satisfied our demand that someone/something must pay the "penalty" for the wrongs that were committed. In other words, God used Christ to remove the obstacles that we have placed in the way of a good relationship with "Him." God used Jesus Christ to defeat our own psychology on the subject and reconcile us to himself. What do you think?


  1. Though you have presented a cogent and unified argument, I have a few digressing thoughts.

    At Psalm 51:11 David pleads “Cast me not away from your presence…” Looks to me like he attributes possible separation to God’s decision. God can choose union or separation. He is not bound by a man’s sin. Likewise with Dt 28. Yes, if they sinned, God could choose to separate them from him, but he could also do that if they didn’t sin, and he could choose union if they sinned. It isn’t the sin that brings the separation. It’s the choice God makes. He is sovereign and he decides with whom he will have union. At least, I see nothing in your foregoing citations to say otherwise. Now, it may be that God decides to separate when there has been sin, as you showed from Is 59:1-2 and Ps 51:9, but it is still God’s decision. He isn’t bound by our sins. Yes, he may decide to separate when there is sin, but that is his own choice. That doesn’t sound like us setting our sins as an obstacle to union with God. Union is in his power, not ours.

    I think it is hard to read Hb 13:11-12 without thinking that the atonement goat represents Y’shuah.

    If I understand your argument, the choice to separate is ours, we have chosen to separate from God on account of our sins, and Jesus removed these sins so we won’t give ourselves an excuse to separate. Did he do this by paying the penalty of sin? Or did he do this by showing us that our sins are no reason to separate from God?

    In case you think I have the answers, I have to say that I am baffled by scriptures that seem that blood removes sin. I need to understand why that is so. For, as I said about Hebrews at http://gordon-feil-theology.blogspot.ca/2017/08/the-atonement-was-it-penal-substitution.html, “In chapter 10, Paul explains that sacrifices don’t remove sin. What removes sin is to not be doing it (verses 16-17) and receiving forgiveness (verse 18).”

    1. As you know, Psalm 51 is attributed to David as a response to his sin with Bathsheba. God hasn't told him that he is going to abandon him - that's what DAVID fears. David believes that it is possible/probable that God will cast him away because of his sin. He pleads: "Wash me thoroughly from nine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: AND MY SIN IS EVER BEFORE ME." The sin is obviously weighing on David's mind - he desperately needs God to remove it. He continues: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow...HIDE THY FACE from my sins, and BLOT OUT all mine iniquities." He begs God to "deliver me from blood-guiltiness..." David is clearly the one with the problem! Notice also that when God forgave David for this sin HE DID NOT REMOVE THE CONSEQUENCES OF IT. Just like us, David saw those consequences as punishment; but the real question is: Did God view them that way?
      Deuteronomy 28 enumerates the consequences the Israelites would experience for obeying/disobeying the terms of God's covenant with them. The choice was theirs. They could obey and receive blessings or disobey and separate themselves from God and suffer the consequences for doing so.
      In Isaiah, we read: "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear..." In other words, God isn't the one with the problem. Your sins haven't negated God's power to save you, and he still has the ability to hear you! "But your iniquities have separated between you and your God..." The sins make us believe that we are separated from God. If we continue reading, it becomes very clear that WE ARE THE ONES WITH THE PROBLEM (that we are the ones creating the separation in our minds). Notice: "Therefore is judgment far from us, neither doth justice overtake us: we wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in the darkness. We grope for the wall like the blind and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noon day as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men. We roar all like bears, and mourn sore like doves: we look for judgment, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far off from us. For our transgressions are multiplied before thee, AND OUR SINS TESTIFY AGAINST US: FOR OUR TRANSGRESSIONS ARE WITH US; AND AS FOR OUR INIQUITIES, WE KNOW THEM." We are the ones who desperately need for our sins to be removed - We can't stand to have them in front of us, and we can't stand the thought that God can see them. The only solution for us is their complete removal - that is the only path to reconciliation available TO US.
      The book of Hebrews makes very clear that the high priest was a type of Christ. One goat was for the Lord - it provided the blood that the high priest used to take into the Holy of Holies (Christ used his own blood). The other goat was designated for removal of the sins - it was driven away from God's presence (the Tabernacle) and outside of the camp into the wilderness (away from the presence of the people).
      As I have noted in one of my previous posts, it is interesting to remember in this connection that the Hebrew word for atonement (Kaphar) means to cover over or coat with pitch. In other words, the objective is to make it where we and God can't see the sins anymore! The blood figuratively covers the sins. Make any sense?

  2. Miller, you make some very good points, I have never heard this proposed before but it makes sense. I will have to mull this one over for some time :-) regards Toby