Redemption from the guild, penalty and power of sin only through the shedding of the Blood in the sacrificial death (as our Substitute) of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God. (Ep 1:7)
VCF NUS Doctrinal Basis
…Isaiah interprets the Law, in order that we may know that the death of Christ is truly a satisfaction for our sins, or expiation, and that the ceremonies of the Law are not; wherefore he says, Is. 53:10: When Thou shalt make His soul an offering for sin, He will see His seed, etc. For the word employed here, asham (greek),signifies a victim for transgression; which signified in the Law that a certain Victim was to come to make satisfaction for our sins and reconcile God, in order that men might know that God wishes to be reconciled to us, not on account of our own righteousnesses, but on account of the merits of another, namely, of Christ.
The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, “Article XXIV (XII): Of the Mass.”
I realise that it has been some time since I last reflected upon the atonement being the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection.
But since it has been almost a year or two since I’ve reflected upon the work of Christ on the Cross, thought it would be good to pick up where I left off in my last reflections on this topic.
Critique of Penal Substitution: Taking our Punishment and Paying our Debt?
Let me rehearse again once more my arguments against penal substitute which is commonly considered to be the theory of the atonement amongst Evangelicals and conservative Protestants in general.
According to the theory of penal substitution, Christ is supposed to have suffered the punishment of our sins and propitiates or satisfies the wrath of God upon the Cross as our substitute. Christ suffers all that, so that we do not have to suffer it ourselves.
Now there would appear a very obvious objection to this as articulated by the Catholic philosopher Eleonore Stump. First, no matter how horrible and painful and tormenting Christ’s sufferings was, it is not everlasting damnation, which is supposed to be the punishment from which we are spared, if for no other reason than that Christ’s sufferings ended. So Christ didn’t suffer the punishment of our sins which is everlasting damnation.
But then the reply supposedly goes that what is required is not a strict equivalence of punishment, but merely that something of equivalent value or worth be given in it’s stead, in this case, Christ’s death and blood is such an equivalent worth or value in place of our punishment.
Whenever the discussion shifts to a metric of value and worth is when the discussion starts becoming incoherent. The problem is that while Christ’s death and blood is of infinite value or worth because Christ is God (let us for the sake of argument use this metrical language to speak of Christ’s life), but then again, anything which Christ does would be of infinite value by default of being God. Thus, why could not Christ live a normal life, and then ascend into heaven after thirty years and God considers Christ’s perfect obedience to his will as that infinite worth or value sufficient payment for the sins of the world? Thus, the shift from punishment to the metric of debt payment renders the Cross completely unnecessary and superfluous.
In fact, Peter Abelard in the 12th century had already pointed out the absurdity of applying a metric to the question of the atonement as he writes,
If [the] sin of Adam was so great that it could be expiated only by the death of Christ, what expiation will avail for the act of murder committed against Christ, and for the many great crimes committed against him or his followers? How did the death of his innocent Son so please God the Father that through it he should be reconciled to us—to us who by our sinful acts have done the very things for which our innocent Lord was put to death?
It is commonly assumed that only an infinitely valuable merit, i.e. Christ, could pay off the infinite sins of humanity against God. But why can’t we just turn this logic on it’s head and say, how can the infinite crime and sin of putting to death the Son of God possibly be repaid? Doesn’t the infinitely terrible crime of killing God outweigh whatever possible payment which can be rendered? Why assume that it is the infinite merit of Christ which can cancel out the infinite crime instead of the other way round? Unfortunately unlike set theory, there is simply no way to compare infinities. It would simply be better to abandon this strange metrical thinking about an infinite God.
Critique of Penal Substitution: Spared from the Punishment of Sin?
If on the transcendent level, at the level to do with eternal life and infinite crimes and merit, the penal substitution theory makes no sense, neither does it make any sense at the immanent or earthly level. First, the Scriptures are clear that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), however, we will still die anyway, even the believers. It is not as if those we put their faith in Christ will all be bodily assumed into heaven and will never taste death since Christ supposedly substitute us out of this wage of sin. So there is in fact no substitute for the wages of sin. We will still suffer this wage anyway and die, Christ didn’t suffer the wages of sin, death, so that we don’t have to.
Now, if it is alleged that this is an “eternal or everlasting death”, then we’ve already been through that in the previous section. Besides, the immediate context of Romans 6:23 doesn’t permit such a reading as the “death” of Romans 6 refers to the death of Christ (Romans 6:3), and Christ most certainly did not die an everlasting or eternal death!
Understanding the Wrath of God Rightly
So far we have dealt with those aspects of penal substitution which exists at a certain level of abstraction from the biblical text. But I have not dealt so far with the concept of the wrath of God, which is clearly a biblical concept used again and again throughout the New Testament, (never mind the Old Testament!). Thus, any serious understanding of the atonement will require an engagement with the Wrath of God as taught throughout the Scriptures, and in the course of my explanation I will be clarifying what is the biblical wrath of God in comparison with the penal substitution understanding of it.
Let us begin with the classic Biblical exposition of the wrath of God from Romans 1:18-32.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.
First, what is the wrath of God against? The answer is ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. What is so terrible about this unrighteousness? It suppresses the truth. What truth? The truth about God and his invisible nature as the Romans passage goes on to explain. Thus, men do not want to honour God as God or give thanks to him for their good (verse 21), but choose instead to create images and idols and worship these as God. So this is the reason for the wrath of God, how is the wrath of God revealed? “…since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness…” (verse 28-29) and “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (verse 24).
Now, the heart of the situation is mankind’s unrighteousness which suppresses the truth about God. The original sin, the root sin, is the sin against the first commandment, the refusal to have God as God, which leads to sin against the second commandment, the creation of our own gods and idols. This is of course not necessarily restricted to crude idols. Any object or entity of creation which we look to for the source of all our good, our life, our health, our meaning, etc, that thing effectively becomes a god and an idol. It could be a person, a loved one, the state, a cause, a group, material possessions, power, etc.
Thus, the wrath of God is the state of relationship which exists between God and man, it is a relation of alienation, whereby man does not have God as their God, does not trust or honour God or give thanks to God as the source of their good. Thus, the wrath of God is something which exists in us and paradoxically not in God! It is we who do not honour or have faith and worship God, it is our hearts and minds which are darkened (verse 21-22). To speak of the wrath of God is to speak of ourcondition and of our relation to God, or lack thereof, namely, the our refusal to trust God, to honour God from the heart, the refusal to acknowledge God and have God as God.
Thus, it is not that God has ceased to love mankind or to seek to be their God, it is that mankind has turned away from God, and the refusal to have God as God is to have God as Wrath. As the Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus explains,
The wrath of God then appears to be a figment of man’s imagination. Man sees not the true God but an idol, not God as he is in reality but only a dark cloud overing God’s face. This cloud, however, exists in man’s heart and is therefore not objectively but only subjectively present. It exists only in the false thinking about God to which Satan constantly seduces man.
Thus, this the heart of the fallen nature of man, the concupiscence or Original Sin whereby all mankind are born with, the darkness in our hearts which refuse to have God as God. All the other problems flow from this. The setting up the things of creation to be our god and our idol, from which follows the disorderly and inordinate lust and desire after the things of this world which we have exalted as our god and our determination to fulfil this lust and damn the righteous order which God has imposed on this world.
If the wrath of God is the darkness in the heart of man whereby we refuse to have God as God, and is not a problem with God himself, then clearly any understanding of propitiation or satisfaction of the wrath of God cannot have as its explanation the idea that the sacrifice of Christ is to change God as God. For God in himself is grace and love. The problem is in our hearts and our minds whereby we refuse that God of love and grace. That’s whereby God becomes to us the God of wrath, who “hides” himself, the deus absconditus of Luther whereby God becomes hidden from us and we are given up to our idols and lusts and wickedness. Besides, if it is true that somehow the sacrifice of Christ propitiates the wrath of God and puts an end to his wrath against us, then how can it still be true that the wrath of God today still comes upon us? (Ephesians 2:3, 5:6, 1 Thes 2:16, etc) Shouldn’t there be no more wrath after Christ “propitiated” God and appeased the wrath of God?
To be our God
The problem therefore is that God wants to be our God, God is absent from our hearts and our minds, God is not the object of our trusts and desire, but the creation and creature is. So how can God be our God, the God for us?
But here an objection maybe raised, if it is simply a matter of changing our minds and thinking about God, then why can’t we just… do it? It seemed so simple right?
But is it really? This corruption of our hearts is unfathomable in its depth, in fact, so great it is that it can even corrupt the very laws of God itself! St Paul’s critique of the Jew’s use of the law to boast in Romans 2 cannot be read apart from the exposition of the wrath of God in Romans 1:18-32. Instead obeying the law of God from the heart in submission to God, they have turned the law of God into an occasion of boasting, as if possession of it and a mere external conformity to it (circumcision) is the same as to have God in the heart, or to have God as God. Thus, the corruption or “wrath” under which mankind lies in is not merely that of the “overt” and obvious sins against civil and public righteousness, it is our “religious strivings”, our piety, our own good works and seeking after God, which is also itself sin, and perhaps even the deadlier sin than overt sinner. For the overt sinner is obvious to all and himself that he is a sinner, but the pharisee or subtle sinner’s pharisaical righteousness is the greater and more terrible sin, making a god out of one’s pious or zealous deeds.
Thus, God has over time send prophet after prophet, and they have killed them and rejected their message and the Word of God. God needs to “break through the wrath” under which mankind lies in, God needs to break through the darkness, the idolatry and lusts of the hearts of man and to be their God, to be their good. How to be a gracious God to man who lie under wrath and in the bondage of darkness in their hearts?
Atonement without our Righteousness and Merits
God has to come to us concretely, in sinful flesh, to be our God. He has to become like us, take on our sinful human flesh, to enter into the “heart of darkness” and be our God. Thus, Christ came precisely to show grace and mercy, to forgive and to heal, to be God to us. Again, the problem is that we don’t like that at all! We don’t want to retain God in our hearts, and we sure as hell don’t like God to come down amongst us to be our God. We would have thought that God coming to proclaim to us that our sins are forgiven is a good thing, but yet when Christ actually did that, we exclaim in outrage, this man is blaspheming! Who but God can forgive sins!
As sinners carrying the dark cloud of the wrath of God in our hearts, we do not want God to come and really be our God. We want God to remain far far away in heaven, while we invent god substitutes and idols on earth to be our God. Divine forgiveness is good… provided you do this and that and jump through hoops or do penance or obey a thousand laws, etc. But a God who just comes down and cuts through all our idols and our heart’s invention and declares without human works and righteousness that we are forgiven and are his child? That’s blasphemy!
But it is these people who do not want to have God whom God wants to be God to. What’s God to do? Give more laws? Tell them to start listening to him? Issue more commands? Stop making idols! Listen to me! Obey me! More law by God isn’t going to do anything in aid of being their God. God doesn’t want to burden them with more laws, or give their sinful hearts more ammunition for hypocrisy and idol making, he wants to be their God despite the idolatry of their hearts.
So what can Christ do? Keep forgiving, keep being their God, keep being the God for them… to the very bitter end, to the utmost extend of their wickedness. This is the meaning of Melanchthon’s curious phrase that, “a certain Victim was to come to make satisfaction for our sins and reconcile God, in order that men might know that God wishes to be reconciled to us, not on account of our own righteousnesses, but on account of the merits of another, namely, of Christ…” Christ came in order that men might know that God wants to be reconciled, wishes to be their God, not on account of their own righteousness, but on account of the merits of Christ. Thus, Christ went to his death and crucifixion, to reveal to mankind that he wants to be their God, not on account of our righteousness or human works. For our greatest and most glorious human works, the religious zeal and piety of the Jews for God’s honour, the “righteousness” of the Roman justice system, were the ones which crucified the Lord of glory, both religious piety and works, and civil righteousness and works, are but sins against God and crucified the Lord of glory. But yet despite the our sins against the Son of God, Christ continues to be our God, he prayed to the Father to forgive us even as we were putting him to death, God was determined to be our God, to press through the abyss of the darkness of our hearts, which would go to such lengths to reject God, that we would put him to death if it were possible, and we did. But yet God continues in his determination be our God, continues to love us, continues to pray for our forgiveness, until the very bitter end when God finally died upon the Cross, and even then, he remained God for us, for he descended to Hades to proclaim the Gospel to the dead, and be God to them who have died, and raised them with him to everlasting life. This is the meaning of God wants to let us know that he wants to be our God on account of Christ, on account of Christ’s deeds, not our deeds, which put the Son of God to death.
Death and Resurrection and Justification by Faith Alone
The problem with most atonement theories is that, it forgot the basic narrative. In an attempt to figure out what the atonement did “behind the scenes”, whether it is some transactions of merit between God the Father and God the Son, or some propitiation of wrath which occurs “up there”, it forgot what happened “down here”, on earth. The basic narrative is, Christ came to be our God, to forgive us our sins and give us his life, and in our sin we rejected him and killed him. However, Christ’s will to forgive and determination to be our God triumphs over our wickedness and sin and hypocritical human righteousness. He forgave us as we killed him, and after he rose again, he continued to forgive us and proclaimed peace to us.
Thus, when St Peter preached to the Jews, and pointed out that they had crucified the Lord and Christ Jesus, the Jews were cut to the heart. They were put to death. When the Holy Ghost convicts us of our sin, of our crucificing of the Lord of glory, it isn’t about some guilt trip or whatever, it is the revelation that no human works or righteousness can ever reconcile us to God or merit righteousness before God. Because the height of our human righteousness, whether religious or civil, crucified God. Thus, when it is revealed to us this truth, when we are convicted of the sinfulness of our own righteousness or any human works or deeds, we are put to death. We realise that there is nothing we can do or for us to do. This cessation of all activity, of all human righteousness, of all human works, of all human merit, is our death. There is nothing for us to do but simply die, simply be buried with Christ. No more striving after righteousness, no more striving to reconcile God by human work or merit, our human merit and righteousness killed God instead! We must do nothing! And simply die. Thus, we cease both our overt and subtle idol making of our hearts, and we let God be our God. Simply let this preaching put us to death, and let God himself forgive us purely by the word of absolution and raise us to new life by his Son’s resurrection.
This is the meaning of the curious phrase found in Romans 8:3 about God “condemned sin in the flesh”. God condemned our sins, whether it be overt sins or subtle sins of human righteousness, in his flesh. God condemned and put to death our sins by revealing that they are no longer a barrier between us and him, that despite our killing God in the sinfulness of our heart, he remains our God, he forgives us, thus no sin can stand between us and God now, for God has suffered the worse ravages which our sinful hearts are capable of, and yet remain our gracious forgiving God. Thus, there is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), because despite the worse which our sins could do to Christ, he continued to be our God and forgive us and rose in triumph against our wickedness!
When the Lutheran confessions speak of Christ’s merits and perfect righteousness and obedience which justifies us, they meant it in a literal sense. Christ’s meritorous obedience to the Father’s will, to continue to be our God, and continue to forgive us and absolve us, is our perfect righteousness. For that obedience triumph and overcame our own sinfulness and wickedness, and without any human merit or righteousness, Christ’s obedience to the Father’s will to be our God and to forgive us and justifies us is our perfect righteousness, a righteousness which remains perfect despite our human sin, because it is based only upon Christ’s determination to be our God and to justify us.
Incidentally, this would be a good place to explain the cry of dereliction of Christ upon the Cross. The traditional explanation has been legion as to being abandoned by God as sharing in our alienation from God, or as a sort of a taste of our eternal damnation, etc. But these speculations are seriously unnecessary for there is a very literal and simple explanation for it. When Christ cried out upon the Cross as to why has God abandoned him, he simply referred to God abandoning him to his murderers and executioners, to suffer at their hands. As Acts 2:23 puts it, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Thus, God “delievered up” Christ into our hands, and he abandoned Christ to our wickedness and unrighteousness, and it is this abandonment to our sin which Christ was lamenting upon the Cross.
Propitiating the Wrath of God
Since this note is becoming frighteningly long, I think I will simply make one final point before ending off. Since the wrath of God is not something which really exists in God but in the hearts of man, then the Cross does not by itself “propitiate” or satisfy the wrath of God. Even after the Cross, mankind still remained under wrath. So how is wrath turned away or propitiated? When Christ becomes our God, which is the same as, when we put our faith in Christ and let him be our God based on his merits and not based on ours and let him forgive us, then the wrath in our hearts is lifted and we are free from the wrath of God, the hidden God, for now we have the revealed God, the God for us in Christ in our hearts. As Luther himself puts it,
God’s majesty is greater than the blood of the whole world and the merits of all the angels are able to placate. The Body of Chist is given and his blood is shed and just so it is placted. Indeed it is given and shed for you, just as it is said, “for us”. Why “for us” except to placate the wrath of God which threatens our sins? Moreever, the wrath of God is placated when sins are forgiven. That is, as it is said, “Given and shed for the remissions of sins.” For unless it is given and poured out the wrath will be retained. So you see that the work of satisfaction or sacrificial placation are worth nothing except by faith alone.
Thus, when we believe that Christ forgives us by his blood, not on the basis of our works or human merits, which cannot stand up to God’s scrutiny and caused the death of the Lord, but that he forgives us despite our rejection of Him, despite our putting him to death in our hearts and participating in his crucifixion, then the wrath of God is placated, God declares himself satisfied, for he is our God in Christ Jesus!
I realise that there are a lot of loose strands to tie up, and an entire account of how the sacrificial system of the Bible in particular Hebrews, plays a role in my account here, but I think there should be sufficient stuff here for thought for now. If you remember nothing, simply remember Melanchthon’s premise. God delivered Christ into our murderous hands and rose again, in order that man may know, that God wishes to be our God, the God of grace, mercy and forgiveness, without human merit or works, but simply by the obedience of Christ to his Father’s will… to be our God and to forgive us of our sins.