(If you would prefer to listen, you can find the audio here)
We’ve recently spent five months covering some of the bigger topics recorded for us by the apostle John. John spent almost half of his book telling us about Jesus’ last days of life on earth. Why did he do this? Of course Jesus’ life and teachings were important, but John knew that Jesus’ final acts on earth were the primary reason he came. From day one, the cross was the point of the whole story. He even told us as much right at the beginning. In chapter one, he records John the Baptist saying of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” These men both knew that Jesus was the one who would fix humanity’s biggest problem. The alienation from God that they were all too familiar with was now something that could be dealt with because of what Jesus would do.
The big picture of scripture is that Jesus is God. That we must place our trust in him because he takes away sin. If we don’t, we will die in our sins. And dying in our sins isn’t merely losing our earthly life; it’s also an eternal death, or separation from God, as well. Sin is a big deal, and there’s only one way to escape its consequences. Blood must be shed for there to be any forgiveness of our sins. For the Israelites in the Old Testament, sacrificing animals was a temporary fix, but even that did not solve the problem. Our life will ultimately be required as penalty for our sins, unless we can find an acceptable substitute. The gospel was such good news because the alternative is very bad news.
Before we can understand the gospel, we need to fully appreciate sin for what it is. Sin is an affront to God. We don’t realize how offensive it is. We’ve heard that one act of rebellion damned the devil and his angels, that one single sin caused Adam and Eve to fall from grace, and yet we … I continually sin throughout the day.
Missing the gravity of sin will inevitably mean missing the gospel. If sin is not lethal, why would the death of Jesus be good news? The only way the gospel is good news is if we fully appreciate the bad news. We are born sinners, alienated from God. From the moment we are able to make choices, we run towards sin. The penalty for sin is death, but that’s not popular to believe any more. The Jews who believed heard about what Jesus had done and called it good news because they already knew the bad news. They knew they were required to follow the law but could not. And they knew that no number of animals sacrificed would wash them fully clean. Hearing that the lamb of God would take away all their sin was very good news.
In Search of Absolution
But what does God do with our sin? How does that work? One theory is that God simply absolves us of our sin. He sees what we have done, and simply wipes the slate clean. All the penalty for all our sin is simply erased and we are released from all guilt, obligation, and punishment. That sounds similar to what the bible says, but it’s missing something. If he could have just wiped it away, then why did Jesus have to die? Why were all the rams and bulls and other critters sacrificed in the Old Testament? The bible treats all these deaths as payment for sin, so this view must be incorrect. God absolutely can free us from the penalty of sin, but he doesn’t just pretend it never happened.
Consider the first sin. Knowing they were guilty, Adam and Eve attempted to “cover things up” with fig leaves and make like nothing had happened. In a bit of foreshadowing, God stepped in and pointed out that things were not ok. He saw them and he saw their sin. He saw that their attempts to cover it over were pathetic failures, and he made for them adequate coverings from animal skins. Even after the first sin, a life was required as a covering. As we saw before in Hebrews, someone must die to make payment for sins committed. So, while God can absolve us from sin, that’s far from the whole picture. Absolution comes after payment. And in this case, the payment is a life. Either Jesus’ death pays for our sins or our own death does.
Isn’t There Another Way?
This may seem extreme to us. Have you ever thought that God could have chosen another way? And seriously – if there was any way that didn’t involve Jesus dying, wouldn’t that be better?
If God is all-powerful, couldn’t he just wave his hand and wipe our slates clean? Or, if it requires something of us, maybe we should go through some sort of ritual to become righteous. Maybe circumcision? Or shaving our heads? Sackcloth and ashes for 40 days to prove we’re sorry? Maybe something harder like 100 push-ups or climbing a mountain?
You get the point, right? Doesn’t it seem like there could have been many other ways? And if so, shouldn’t God feel bad for requiring Jesus to die?
What is Atonement?
The dictionary defines atonement as essentially setting things right. Not just forgiving the offending party, but actually paying the tab for the damages. Let’s say you wreck a friend’s car and you pay to have it repaired. In that case, you are offering atonement. You caused a problem and you made things right.
Let’s complicate the situation a bit and introduce another term. Let’s say you damage my car in an accident and your insurance company pays to fix it. This is a case of substitutionary atonement, meaning that another party who was not responsible for the accident stepped in to foot the bill.
This gets us part of the way to understanding what Jesus did. He laid down his life to pay our debt. In this transaction, he is seen as the guilty party (which he does not deserve!) and we are seen as righteous (which we do not deserve!)
The doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement is a core doctrine of Christianity. In other words, rejecting this doctrine means misunderstanding Christianity altogether. In fact, the refusal to accept this teaching of scripture is one of the key causes for the movement called “liberal Christianity” (which I might add, is not Christianity at all). This word liberal has nothing to do with political affiliations. It has to do with how carefully you deal with scripture. Liberal churches are the ones you see in the news affirming everything, and refusing to see any behavior or belief as un-Christian because it would sound judgmental. This is the predominant brand of church in America these days. In 1934, Richard Niebuhr summed up the beliefs of liberal Christianity by saying “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” When the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer visited America in the 1930s, he accurately described our liberal form of Christianity as “Protestantism without the Reformation.” I could go on, but I won’t. The main takeaway here is that we must understand Substitutionary Atonement in order to understand the gospel, and missing Substitutionary Atonement means missing the heart of Christianity.
Some Failed Explanations
Many people have tried to explain atonement in other ways that just don’t work. We must use our discernment to evaluate the options. The preacher Charles Spurgeon famously said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.”
All of these errors will have a seed of truth to them, so their popularity is understandable. Doing proper theology often comes down to making distinctions that may seem like nit-picking to some, but in reality can make a world of difference.
I already mentioned absolution. This idea is that God could have just wiped away our sin without any payment. The truth here is that God can wipe away our sin. The problem comes when we say no payment is required. If that’s the case, then Jesus for no good reason, and we must ignore all of the talk in the bible about wrath and justice. Not a good idea.
The Ransom Theory was first popularized by a guy named Origen. The idea here was that at the fall, God lost control of humanity and it was won by Satan. From that point on, Satan called the shots – until Jesus came, that is. This belief says that Jesus made a deal with Satan that he would die and take the place of man kind of like how a police negotiator might offer himself to a kidnapper in exchange for the innocent hostages. But Jesus had a trick up his sleeve. He didn’t let on that he would later rise from the dead, leaving Satan without any hostages at all. Therefore, Jesus’ death on the cross was just a big trick played on the devil.
Again, we can see some truth here. The fall did shift mankind’s allegiance from good to evil. Jesus did suffer and die in our place. He did bear the penalty for our sins. But that’s where the similarities end. God has always been in control. He has never owed Satan anything. Mankind does owe a debt for sin, but it is due to God, not Satan. This view turns reality upside down and makes Satan an equal with God, if not having the upper hand in some way. This is heresy. And don’t think this is just an archaic view. I could name a dozen popular preachers today, primarily in the Word of Faith movement, who teach that Jesus did not finish his work on the cross, but went to hell to suffer under Satan’s control. This is messed up.
Moral Influence Theory
In the 12th century, Peter Abelard said that God’s love was his most important attribute, and that it was so strong that it overwhelmed his need for justice. He rejected the idea that Jesus had to die as payment, and instead said that Jesus was as an example for people to follow. We should model our lives after him, even to the point of death for our friends if necessary.
This too is still popular today. Many Open Theists see the cross as a first step that God took in our direction so that we would follow suit and step toward him. The cross was a good example, and little more. There was no wrath, no payment, no purchase.
Here too, we see nuggets of truth. God does love. And Jesus does call us to follow his example. But that’s it. When Abelard was declared a heretic, it was pointed out that if Christ’s death was merely an example, then the actual work of salvation is still the sinner’s task to perform. That means we’re on the hook to pay for our sins. This is not the biblical view.
There are many other views that people have taken on the atonement. We don’t have time to pursue them all, but I wanted you to have a few prominent examples in mind for comparison.
God’s Least Popular Attribute
Before I explain the proper view of atonement, we need to talk about God’s wrath for a moment. It’s not popular to talk about God’s wrath. Most people these days prefer to talk about God’s love. The phrase “Love Wins” has become incredibly popular, but it is a shallow and inaccurate representation of God. When it comes to love and wrath, the truth is that you cannot have one without the other. Timothy George explained it well.
"God's love is not sentimental; it is holy. It is tender, but not squishy. It involves not only compassion, kindness, and mercy beyond measure … but also indignation against injustice and unremitting opposition to all that is evil.”
God’s wrath is not like an angry outburst or childish tantrum. God’s wrath is a measured and controlled response to God’s sovereignty being violated. When God’s law is broken, his justice demands a response.
Thousands of years ago, God “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” His response was to destroy all of mankind except for Noah and his family. Later, he saw the rebellion against him at the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and wiped them out. He is known to call for the destruction of entire nations in payment for their horrendous offenses.
Many Christians deal with these uncomfortable passages by saying that God was cranky back in the Old Testament, but he has mellowed over time. This is actually an ancient heresy. God is the same forever; he does not change. He demands obedience, and the penalty for violation is death. These Old Testament examples I mentioned all had their root back in the garden. Adam and Eve doubted God and did what he told them not to do. The penalty for breaking God’s law was death. Why should we think that God takes our sin any less seriously today?
Now we’re ready to look at the Satisfaction View, also called Penal Substitutionary Atonement. And the best way to do that is to look at Anselm. But first, let’s define the words.
A couple years ago, this view got some national attention when a major denomination pulled a popular hymn from their hymnals. The song, “In Christ Alone” contains the following lines:
Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied -
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.
Not surprisingly, the hymnal committee was uncomfortable with the mention of God’s wrath. But even worse for them was the word “satisfied”. They recoiled at the idea that God could be satisfied in Jesus’ death.
The concept of satisfaction doesn’t mean pleasure. God’s justice requires death as payment, but he takes no pleasure in death. When used as a legal term, satisfaction means that a debt has been paid. When you make your last car payment, you have satisfied the terms of your loan, and only then do you truly own your car. Theologically speaking, satisfaction means that the requirements of God’s justice have been fulfilled, and no further sin debt remains. The lyrics of “In Christ Alone” were spot on.
Russell Moore says that “those who treat the wrath of God as taboo, whether in sermons or hymns, stand in a long lineage” of heresy. He quoted the church father Tertullian who said these people believe “a better god has been discovered, one who is neither offended nor angry nor inflicts punishment, who has no fire warming up in hell, and no outer darkness wherein there is shuddering and gnashing of teeth: he is merely kind.” But this is not the God of the bible.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement
The even more intimidating phrase, “penal substitutionary atonement” is easier to break down than it sounds. Let’s go backward. We already talked about atonement as meaning, “making things right”. The substitutionary part means that someone else is making things right. Someone is substituting themselves in our place. And penal just means punishment. Putting it all together, penal substitutionary atonement means that someone is stepping in to receive a legal punishment that we deserve in order to pay off a debt that we owe.
Cur Deus Homo
But I still haven’t explained why Jesus had to die. Why didn’t God do it another way?
One thousand years ago there was a theologian named Anselm of Canterbury, and he wrote a book called “Cur Deus Homo”. Since we don’t know much Latin, we’ll refer to it as “Why the God-Man”. His book is written as a dialog between a questioner and himself. It’s not a terribly long book, but the last time I taught on this it took 2 hours, so I’ll just hit the high points. Keep in mind that Anselm wrote this during the Middle Ages. So it may help to imagine the setting of King Arthur, or Robin Hood, or Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Anything that gets you thinking in terms of things like kings and subjects, and honor and dishonor.
God Requires Obedience
God, as ruler of the universe, demands that his creatures submit to him and obey. Everything we think and do is subject to the will of the king.
We Prefer Sin
Since the fall, all humans have chosen to follow their own will instead of God’s. We sugar coat it by saying we “messed up”, or had a “moral failing” or “poor judgment”, but the bible calls it sin against a holy God. And every time we sin, we dishonor God.
We Can’t Reverse Dishonor
The honor we have deprived from God by sinning is not something we are able to restore. The toothpaste is out of the tube. You can’t unring a bell. We have dishonored God, but we cannot give that honor back.
Necessity of Satisfaction
If everyone were given warnings rather than tickets, would anyone drive the speed limit? Would speed limits have any meaning? Where would the justice be? Every sin against God must be paid for. His justice demands it. If sinning brought no consequences, what would be the difference between a sinner and a non-sinner? If sin is not paid for or punished, then why does the law even exist? Justice requires that offenses to God’s honor must have consequences.
God’s Inability to Forgive
God can forgive if he chooses, but he cannot forgive someone who remains in opposition to him. Forgiveness cannot be granted until the debt has been satisfied.
Acceptable Forms of Payment
Think about a debt you owe – maybe to a credit card, a bank, a hospital, the IRS… They are able to forgive your debt, but only once it has been satisfied. It can be satisfied in cash, by seizing other assets you own, or by sending you to prison – Possibly all of the above! But it cannot simply be dismissed without satisfaction. If God has not been compensated for being dishonored, it is actually unjust for him to grant forgiveness. And his compensation must be either repayment of the debt or punishment of the sinner.
Our Inability to Pay
Humans are completely unable to fix the situation they find themselves in. It’s popular to say that we need to “make things right with God”, but the reality is we cannot. There is no payment we are able to offer that would compensate God for the debt we owe.
Consider you’re being tried in court for creating a website that slanders and threatens your boss. There is nothing you can do to “unslander” or “unthreaten” him. The deed has been done. The judge could certainly require you to take down the website, but that wouldn’t undo the damage it had already caused. You are required to do what is within your power, but true restoration is impossible.
So it is with God. You can give back something you stole, but you can’t change the fact that you are still a thief. You can try to make amends, but you are still a subject considered hostile to the kingdom.
Let’s go back to my hypothetical website. Now consider the slander and threats were against the governor. Or the president. Don’t think for a second that the Secret Service would not get involved. The higher the rank of the person offended, the higher the penalty will be. When it comes to sin, the issue is not only what you did wrong, but who was harmed. The greater the person harmed, the greater the penalty. An offense against God is infinitely more offensive than one against a human, so the penalty will be infinitely higher. There is no hope of payment. You can look forward to spending your life in prison, at best. We cannot make things right with God.
We’ve Completely Blown It
Let’s go back to my medieval scenario.
I’m a peasant. It is my duty to honor the king in everything I do. It comes to the king’s attention that I have betrayed him and brought dishonor. He calls me to his chamber and announces my crime. “You’ve committed treason against the crown! You’re a traitor! How do you answer this charge?”
Here’s my one shot to fix things. I approach him and say, “You’re right, good king. I’ve brought you shame. I’m a miserable toad. I promise from here on, I’ll never do it again!”
What is the king going to say to that? I suspect he’ll be unimpressed. “So, you’re telling me that from now on you’ll do what you were always supposed to do, and I should be impressed by that?”
“Well, yes”, I say.
This is the point where someone says “Off with his head”
You see, even if we could live without sinning, that wouldn’t matter. We were supposed to live without sinning in the first place. Promising to do what we were supposed to do is nothing at all. That’s our duty. If we want to fix the situation, we need to live perfectly, AND make some form of payment for our past mistakes. The trouble is, there is no payment we can make, and we’ve proven that we can’t go more than a few minutes without sinning. We’re in a pickle.
Only One Can Fix This
We’ve seen that satisfaction can sometimes be made by another. An insurance company can step in and clean up our mess. A benefactor can pay off our financial debt when we are unable. So, is there anyone out there who (a) has lived a sinless life, and (b) can make restitution? Well, the only sinless person is God, so that fits the first part. But how could God make restitution? We’ll come back to that.
Man Must Pay
God cannot provide satisfaction, because that would amount to absolution. It would be the same as if he just ignored the sin like it never happened. But God is just. He cannot overlook sin. Man has sinned, and man must pay.
Enter the God-Man
We saw a moment ago that God is the only sinless one, and therefore only he can pay this debt. But forgiveness requires death. God cannot die, and God cannot shed blood. Besides, man is the one who sinned. Therefore, God must become man. In doing so, he didn’t become any less God – he added humanity to himself. At the incarnation, Jesus – who was already fully God – became fully man as well. But this God-man’s life only fulfills part one of the equation. He lived a sinless life. His life only meets what was required in the first place. Therefore, the God-man’s death is what is necessary for satisfaction.
In the God-man, for the first time there existed someone who fulfilled both criteria: a sinless life and the ability to die. Jesus’ crucifixion was not an accident. It was not a bad turn of events. It was the very purpose for which he came. That’s why Christmas carols like “What Child is This?” can speak not only of his peaceful birth, but also his violent death. He came to purchase us. His death was a payment – the satisfaction of our debt – not to Satan, but to God.
This may be a new topic for some of you. I have an appreciation for theology and a love of old books, and this is where they converge. I’m also a question asker, so pat answers usually are not enough for me. The phrase “Jesus died for your sins” is a nice saying, but for me it brought up more questions than answers. Why did Jesus die? Couldn’t God choose another way? Because if there was another way, this seems like a monstrous thing for a good God to require. That’s a God I would have a difficult time understanding or worshiping.
On the other hand, if there was no way for man to be redeemed and Jesus stepped forward to give his life voluntarily, that seems fundamentally different to me. This can no longer be framed as a tyrannical God abusing his only son for no good reason. Rather, it must be seen as the highest form of love that anyone could express. We were destined for eternal separation from God without any hope – and that is what we deserved – but Jesus stepped in and did what no one required of him with absolutely nothing to gain. In studying the various theories and ultimately reading Anselm, my curiosity was finally satisfied – and hopefully someone here can be helped the same way. And perhaps, with me, you will see our only reasonable response to his sacrifice is worship.
So… can we make things right with God? Strictly speaking, no we cannot. However, Jesus made a way. He was (and is) the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We are no longer left to pay for our sin with our own death. If we belong to him, he has given us his righteousness in exchange for our filthy rags. He has taken our sin debt and paid it in full. Those of us who believe should be incredibly grateful! This truly is good news! But those who do not believe should be grateful too, because the invitation is open to you as well. Place your trust in Christ. Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.
On that note, I invite you to come back next week, when Scott Norris will be speaking on repentance. Also, we regularly offer baptism for those who have made a commitment to follow Jesus. Speak to Anthony or Scott if you are interested in learning more.
“…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” – Romans 3:23-26
 John 1:29
 John 1:29
 John 8:24
 2 Thessalonians 1:9
 Hebrews 9:22
 Leviticus 5:10; Hebrews 10:4
 Ezekiel 18:20; Romans 6:23
 Isaiah 1:11
 Genesis 3:21
 John 10:18
 Isaiah 53:5-6
 This is called “double imputation”. My sins are imputed to Christ, and his righteousness is imputed to me. Check out 2 Corinthians 5:21, Romans 5:12-21, and this article: http://www.ligonier.org/blog/doctrine-imputation-ligonier-statement-christology/
 The Kingdom of God in America – H. Richard Niebuhr
 Origen lived from ±185 – ±253 AD
 By Bernard of Clairvaux, a contemporary of Abelard
 Galatians 3:13
 Genesis 6:5
 Genesis 19
 Deuteronomy 20:16-18; Zephaniah 2; Jonah 1:2; among many others
 Marcionism, named after Marcion, pits the angry OT God against the loving NT Jesus.
 Genesis 2:17; 3:19
 Isaiah 53:10 raises some problems for this view
 Hebrews 9:22
 Ezekiel 18:32; Isaiah 1:11
 Isaiah 53:8-9,11
 Online free at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/anselm/basic_works.vi.html
 1 Samuel 15:22; Luke 6:46; Luke 11:28; 1 Peter 4:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:8 and many, many more
 1 John 1:8
 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 John 3:5; 1 Peter 2:22
 1 Peter 1:18-19
 The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) set out to establish this understanding. It’s worth reading to help understand what “fully God and fully man” means. – Find it here: http://www.theopedia.com/chalcedonian-creed
 Colossians 1:20, 22
 1 John 2:2
 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18
 Acts 2:38