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The Substitutionary Atonement of Jesus Christ on the Cross

Penal Substitutionary Atonement has been the most difficult subject I have written on. There have been several versions of this page as I have wrestled my way through it.

Decoding Nicea is a captivating look at the true story of the Council of Nicea

What Substitutionary Atonement Is Not

I want to write on this difficult subject because of a false understanding that is rampant throughout Reformation Christianity (Protestantism). Jesus did not "pay the penalty" for all our future sins. 

The New Testament is filled with penalties for our future sins. If we live in the flesh on a regular basis, we will reap corruption (Gal. 6:7-8), we will not inherit God's kingdom (Gal. 5:19-21), and we will die (Rom. 8:12), and if we are completely entangled in the lusts of the world after believing the Gospel, then we are worse off than before we heard! (2 Pet. 2:20-21).

Those sins are not "paid for." We are going to pay for them if we commit them. Of course, they can be forgiven if we confess and repent (1 Jn. 1:9; Jas. 4:8-9), but they are not just "paid for," with no penalty to come from them. We can also get ongoing forgiveness for the more minor sins by walking in the light (1 Jn. 1:7). This means living a life that is open to God and righteous in our pattern of living. God says he will not impute sin to those living in faith like Abraham did (Rom. 4:1-8).

This, of course, does not mean that God won't impute sin when we commit willful sins. The person who first said that there are some to whom God will not impute sin was David (Ps. 32:1-2), yet God did impute sin when he committed adultery and had Bathsheba's husband killed (2 Sam. 1:1-12:23). In fact he imputed sin when David took a census of Israel against God's will! (2 Sam. 24:1-17).

The very fact that there are penalties for future sin in the New Testament fully establishes that Jesus did not "pay the penalty" for all our sins, past, present, and future.

So what did Jesus do on the cross?

What Substitutionary Atonement Is

There are one central problem with Protestant, and especially evangelical, understanding of the atonement. They diagnose the wrong problem and, therefore, propose the wrong solution.

Evangelicals tend to believe that our problem is that we need our sins forgiven. They believe that God will not forgive sins without sacrifice. This is not true. Not only does the Old Testament report that God forgives sin without sacrifice, but it says, over and over again, that sacrifice is the wrong way to get sins forgiven.

Any well-taught evangelical will be thinking about Hebrews 9:22 right now. If that is you, hang on. I will get to that.

The clearest passage is Psalm 51:16-17:

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, else I would have offered it. You do not delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken heart and a contrite spirit. These, O God, you will not despise.

There are many others like this. Isaiah 1:11-20 is a great example, but there is also Hosea 6:6: "I desired mercy and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." This probably brings to your mind "To obey is better than sacrifice" from 1 Samuel 15:22. 

Then there is the passage in Jeremiah that almost no one I meet knows about, but which is quoted by the early church fathers in regard to sacrifices repeatedly. It says:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: " ... I did not speak to your fathers, nor command them in the day they came out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. Instead, this is what I commanded them, saying, "Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people." (Jer. 7:21-23)

The point of the verse is obvious. It is the same as the first chapter of Isaiah. God does not want sacrifices from a wicked people, he wants repentance. He wants them to stop doing evil and do good instead.

The odd twist in the verse is God saying he did not command sacrifices when the Israelites came out of Egypt.

Both Exodus and Leviticus are full of commands about sacrifices. How can God possible say this?

The fact is, God also said this in Isaiah 1. In verse 12, God asks, "Who has required this of your hand?" in regard to the "multitude of sacrifices" mentioned in verse 11.

When Irenaeus (c. A.D. 185) brings up these passages, he says God was pointing out "it was not for this he led them out of Egypt, that they might offer sacrifice to him, but that, forgetting the idolatry of the Egyptians, they should be able to hear the voice of the Lord, which was to them salvation and glory" (Against Heresies, ch. 17, par. 3). In other words, the purpose of God was not to forgive their sins through sacrifice, but to get them to stop sinning!

A friend of mine once told me that one great way to test a teaching is to ask what that teaching commands in conclusion, then compare that with what the Bible commands. This page, so far, is teaching us that God wants us to stop sinning. Is there such a Bible command? Well, of course, that is commanded in the Bible everywhere, but directly, 1 Corinthians 15:34 says, "Awake to righteousness and stop sinning."

Let's pause, though, to puzzle over God saying that he never commanded Israel about sacrifices when they left Egypt. 

Someone told me that there were two laws given by Moses, one before Aaron made the golden calf and one after. Sacrifices were not mandatory beforehand, but after the golden calf God made them mandatory.  The problem with this is that it is not true. Aaron made the calf in Exodus 32, and Exodus 29:42 mandates a continual burnt offering at the entrance of the tabernacle.

Thus, I have no answer but the one Irenaeus gives. Sacrifices were not God's purpose for Israel. He wanted them to hear and obey him. God said through Jeremiah, "But this thing I commanded them, 'Listen to my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the way I command you, that it may be well with you'" (Jer. 7:23).

So we see that under the Old Covenant it was not sacrifice that was necessary to forgive sin. Instead, it was repentance.

Repentance and the Forgiveness of Sins

To be continued ... (last work 8/13/2019)

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