Sunday, 8 April 2018

How the Cross makes sense of the Justice of God




Over Easter I wrote a blog about why I prefer union or identification over the more traditional language of substitution when it comes to understanding how the death and resurrection of Jesus saves us. One question that came out of that post was around a comment I made distancing the atonement from the concept of it being a legal transaction made with God. I received several proof texts showing how judicial language is found throughout the Bible, terms like court, witness, judge, justice, advocate and so on are all found in scripture. this is a fair question and deserves a proper response, however, I felt, and still do, that simply addressing those passages would not have accomplished anything.

The problem I believe is that people interpret the Bible through different lenses. Some people believe that each and every word carries the same weight and authority. Others read it through the lenses of the law, or grace, most people read it through a 21st century Western lens which carries with it the influence and interpretations (both good and bad) of men like Augustine, Calvin, Piper and others. Personally, I believe that we should approach scripture through what some would call a Jesus lens with the ultimate revelation of who God is revealed most clearly through the cross. Included in this Jesus lens I would submit is the task of trying to understand the scriptures as a first century Easterner would have. For example, 1 Timothy 2:9 says that woman should dress in modest apparel. Today many would assume this means not to dress provocatively but that would not have been an issue for Pauls audience, what he was getting at is that woman should dress plainly. This leads us into today's topic and the penal substitutionary doctrine which reduces the gospel to a legal transfer of debt from one person to another. The main point that I want to make with this article is that I believe that, for the most part, the church has a false perception of Gods justice and my goal herein will be to try to offer a better perspective.

The gospel through 21st century Western eyes

The modern understanding of Christ’s sacrificial death looks something like this. People are sinners and we are all guilty before God. Because God is holy and just all sin must be punished, a single infraction of Gods perfect law is worthy of eternal conscious torment in hell. But God is also loving and doesn’t want people to go to hell. To solve this dilemma He sends His Son as an innocent substitute to incur our punishment on our behalf. Thus, Gods justice is satisfied as His wrath has an avenue of release, the blood of His Son releases His forgiveness toward us and His love is satisfied in that, as many as will believe in Christ, will avoid the punishment that He bore on our behalf and be saved.

Overcoming false concepts

Before moving forward let me clarify that I am not arguing against the idea that God is just. Neither am I saying that sin does not bear consequences or that Jesus did not need to die on our behalf. Scripture is clear that we were in need of a savior and that the blood of Christ redeems us. Before presenting a better way of understanding the atonement and dealing with some of the judicial sounding passages though, let me first highlight some of the problems with the modern approach to the gospel.  

1 – The legal transaction understanding of the atonement portrays God as one who is incapable of forgiving others. Let me explain, if you owed me a large sum of money that you could not pay but one of your friends stepped in and settled the debt and I came to you and said, “Hey, your friend paid me on your behalf so I am going to be the bigger man here and release you of your debt”, what would you think of me? I did not pardon you at all, I merely collected the money elsewhere and then proceeded to make myself look good by saying that I showed mercy and forgiveness toward you when in fact, I received my payment in full. But it gets worse because if God is bound by a legal duty to act justly as a judge would in a court of law; then really there is no room for forgiveness at all even if God was so inclined.

2 - The modern understanding of the atonement portrays the work of Christ as fixing a problem in God rather than with man. That is to say that the fundamental problem that the cross solves lies with Gods inability to forgive without the shedding of blood. Despite the examples of God forgiving several people, even whole cities like Ninevah in the Bible, without spilling any blood and the fact that Jesus did so constantly, even when hanging on the cross; and despite the fact that not all sin offerings in the Old Testament were done with blood and that even those that were, were only for unintentional sins, we have this idea that Jesus was appeasing God’s wrath in His death rather than accomplishing something else.

3 - The modern understanding of the atonement misrepresents the symbolism of blood in the Bible. Leviticus 17:11 tells us that blood represents life. Blood elsewhere, especially when it comes to scriptures about sacrifice is symbolic of cleansing and sanctification. Consider the language of Hebrews 9 and 10. “For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscious from dead works to serve the living God” (9:13-14). And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission (9:22). He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (9:26). Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for Me (10:5). Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin (10:18)...having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (10:22). Can we see that the idea behind blood is expiation rather than propitiation? That is to say that the blood makes amends rather than appeasement, the subject is us,not God.  Blood therefore should not be thought of in the pagan sense that the gods are angry and need a sacrifice in order to be appeased. Blood represents the life of Christ and our union and victory in Him and through Him.

4 - The modern understanding of the atonement downplays the resurrection. Yet the resurrection is central to Christianity, Paul said that were it false we would be the most pitiful of all men. If it were was no resurrection then we are not heirs with Abraham in Christ. But in a legal sense the death of Christ settled an outstanding debt and the resurrection gets reduced merely to a ‘happily ever after’ ending to the story. Not realizing that death has been conquered and is the final enemy that Christ destroys, many have assumed that the resurrection is nothing more than Gods validation of His Sons offering.

 5 – A legal transaction understanding of the atonement promotes cheap grace. Salvation becomes available for the unbelievable price of a quick prayer. No need to pick up your own cross and follow Jesus. Mental ascent to the idea that confession will buy you fire insurance for life is all you need, after all, when God looks at you, He only sees Jesus. This doctrine essentially means that how we live our life in the here and now is of little consequence, we are just sinners saved by grace. This theory says nothing of how Christ’s death changes us. It is no secret that the world views Christians as hypocrites, we speak of family values but our divorce rates are as high, if not higher than those of non-Christians, we speak of honesty but no one wants to do business with a Christian man. We speak of love but we devour our own. I cannot help but wonder if our faulty view of the atonement has contributed to the lackadaisical lifestyle of many in the church.

6 – The Judicial understanding of the atonement means that God is bound by ‘justice’. Unlike the old Hebraic law, the modern legal system is not ontological in nature. What I mean by that statement is that modern law is there to keep society running in a fairly orderly manner. The constitution has no place for relational interpretation. A judge would not be able to arbitrate in a case were he to have a personal connection to the accused, it would be unethical. It does not care about people or the nature of things, in fact, relationship and emotional attachment are seen as a hindrance to fair judgement. But when speaking of the death of Christ the Bible says “For God so loved the world...”, this is because God is a relational being and seeks connection with us.  Yet if we believe that God is bound by the modern the rules of a human justice system then we have to accept that mercy does not triumph over judgement. For a merciful judge is not a just judge, at least in the way that most would understand it.  

7 - The modern understanding of the atonement separates Father and Son. Jesus was called a friend of sinners, the Father has been said to be too holy to look upon sin. Jesus said if you have seen me you have seen the Father. The author of Hebrews said that Jesus is the express image of the Father. Not only does penal substitution teach that God actually forsook Jesus on the cross (please read Psalm 22 and John 16:32) but that they are driven by very different motives. Ones seeks to save, the other seeks vengeance, one seeks mercy, the other judgement. One forgave His enemies when He was beaten and executed, the other requires execution in order to forgive. If a different set of attributes pop into your head when you think of the Son than when you think of the Father then alarm bells should be ringing because if Jesus is not the image of God that one holds to then it means that we have created an image of our own in its place.

8 - The Judicial understanding of the atonement portrays God as unjust. Imagine for a moment that a serial killer has been captured but the judge lets him go free and executes a good man in his place. The world would be up in arms because this would be a great injustice and that is exactly how the Bible portrays Christs’ crucifixion. Isaiah 53 says that WE despised and rejected Him (not God), WE hid our face from Him (again, us not God), WE did not esteem Him (there again), yet WE esteemed Him stricken by God (which is what penal substitution still teaches). Every sermon in the book of Acts presents the cross as a great injustice.

“You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” –Acts 3:15

This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. -  Acts 2:23-24.

Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. - Acts 2:36.

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.  - Acts 3:15.

…Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead… Acts 4:10.

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross.  - Acts 5:30.

They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day.
 - Acts 10:39-40.

 I would like to highlight that the cross reveals a great injustice in that an innocent man died as a thief but Gods justice was revealed in that He used the travesty to overcome evil and make things right (which is the true meaning of justice). 

9 - The Judicial understanding of the atonement portrays God as a lousy mathematician. By the way,did you know that there are three kinds of people in the world? Those who are good at math and those who are not. Sorry I just had to throw that in there...What I mean by the statement that God is terrible at math is that if the just punishment for sin is eternal conscious torment in hell then how does a few hours of suffering on earth and three days in the grave equate to the same punishment of every unbeliever for all of eternity in hell? Many have tried unsatisfactorily to answer this question but this post is long enough as it is for me to go down this rabbit hole.

10 – I will end this section with one last question (just to make it a nice round figure). Forgive me for not referencing where I first read it, it is not my own question and I cannot recall where I first saw it. The question I mean to ask though is where do we find God on Good Friday? Is He found in Caiaphas or in Pontius Pilate or is He in Jesus? Perhaps He was with the chief priests and all the council that sought to bear false witness against Jesus. Does He stand over the Christ and shout ‘Guilty!” or was He “in Christ reconciling the world to Himself”?

What about Mercy

Through the lenses of the 21st century legal system God must execute retributive justice on people for us to consider Him just. Even though He desires that none would perish and that He wants mercy and not sacrifice, He is somehow bound by this legal code to do so. Mercy and forgiveness are a problem for a just God because justice, when we define it as tit-for-tat, eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth justice, is actually the opposite of mercy and forgiveness. You can either exact revenge or you can show mercy and forgiveness but you cannot do both because they are polar opposites and as we have already discussed. Playing Jesus as a substitute (condemning the innocent and pardoning the guilty) does not solve the problem it just creates more questions about His justness, mercy and forgiveness.

But what if Gods justice is not retributive but restorative? What if making things right is more about restoring both the victim and the perpetrator to a right standing with God and with each other? One of the things that struck me recently while reading through Exodus is how the law included a sense of making things right with the one who was harmed. In today's society if you steal someone’s sheep you go to jail but under the law you had to repay the owner double. Thus the victim was compensated and the perpetrator had the opportunity to make amends for his crime. Although justice required punishment and death was reserved for the more serious crimes this idea of restitution runs throughout the Law of Moses.

I’ll put my neck out here and suggest that the idea behind the “eye for an eye” concept in the law was not merely to limit retribution but to discourage it entirely. Ghandi rightly perceived that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Some people believe that Jesus was overturning the Law of Moses when He said in Matthew 5:38-39, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth but I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also”. I believe that Jesus was giving us the proper interpretation of the law. Isn't this what Paul is teaching us in Romans 12 as well, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing so you will heap coals of fire on his head. Do overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:20-21).  Coal here represents cleansing or healing as it does in Isaiah, “He touched my lips with the burning coal and said, "This has touched your lips, and now your guilt is gone, and your sins are forgiven” (Isaiah 6:7). So the bigger picture I believe is justice, whether it contains punishment or not, is ultimately meant to bring repentance and healing to both the victims and the perpetrators. Thus mercy is not the opposite of true justice but its companion.

In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity; and by the fear of the Lord one departs from iniquity – Proverbs 16:6.

Mercy and truth have met together; justice and peace have kissed – Psalm 85:10.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Execute true justice, show mercy and compassion everyone to his brother – Zechariah 7:9.

But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’. For I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. – Matthew 9:13.

See also Psalm 89:14, 1 Kings 3:6, Psalm 25:7, 101:1, 103:17, Isaiah 16:5, 30:18’ Hosea 12:6 and Micah 6:8.

A better way

I hope that it is clear that even though the Bible is full of judiciary language, reading it through a 21st century Western concept of justice which we have largely inherited from a 16th century lawyer named John Calvin, presents us with more questions than it does answers. It is time for me to offer a better perspective on justice that will allow us to see it at work in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Let’s start by considering the story of Mary and Joseph, I remember as a teenager being confused by this passage. One day Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant. The law required that she be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) but here is the catch, in Matthew 1:19 it says that “because Joseph was a just man”, rather than expose her, he sought to divorce her quietly. From a legal perspective (had she fallen pregnant the way people normally do), she was guilty, but Matthew considered Josephs actions, which circumvented the letter of the law to be just. Justice, according to Matthew and Joseph, had the well being of Mary in mind.

In Jesus, we are saved from our sins and from our burden of guilt for having participated in it. Communion, which is central to the story of fallen man is once again restored with God. His justice, which is true justice, is ontological in nature which means that it is not merely a set of rules devoid of relational values. To act justly is to be faithful to the people one is committed to by covenant or simply because it is who you are. To justify someone therefore includes a sense of making things right, of straightening or restoring a relationship. Atonement means to become At-one-ment yet again through the restoration of the relationship.

Sin therefore is not a crime that needs to be sentenced as much as it is a terminal disease that man carries with Him and that God seeks to heal us from. Jesus came as the great physician to heal, to save and to restore what was lost; thus showing us the true justice, the great mercy and the everlasting love of God. The cross therefore is not payment to a wrathful God but God in Christ, healing humanity, conquering death, defeating Satan and more. Jesus does not save us from God but reveals God as savior. It is not what God requires in order to forgive but what God endures in Christ while He forgives (John 23:34). In the penal model the resurrection, the central hope of believers, is hardly necessary because in murder God’s wrath was satisfied. A sounder picture reveals that those who deny themselves and follow Jesus will rise like Him and be united together forever in Him.

In Conclusion

Does the Bible use legal imagery? It sure does, verses with words like judge, law, accuser, justice and advocate are too many to respond to individually, but I hope that when reading them in future one  is better equipped to interpret them in light of the just God that has been revealed to us in Jesus. A God motivated by love, full of mercy and grace; One who is not bound and subject to a human concept of justice but faithful even when we are not. This is what is revealed through the cross of Christ. A debt has not being settled with God but rather the wage of sin has been taken into Himself and paid on our behalf that we may have restored life and relationship in Him.     

7 comments:

  1. God bless you for this. i am enlightened.

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    1. Thank you. It's encouraging to hear such comments. God bless you too.

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  2. "For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous." Rom. 2:13
    For substitutionary atonement to not be a falsehood that quoted statement of Paul has to be false, but it isn't. So then Rostoll you've got a very serious problem which can only be resolved by classifying Rom. 2:13 as a falsehood. Have a nice day.

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    1. Hello Theodore. I am struggling to follow your argument here or why Romans 2:13 should be a problem for me, could you perhaps elaborate? Thank you for taking the time to respond.

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  3. Isn't the soteriological assumption you have faith in articulated as Jesus having died in your place? I would think that just the existence of Paul's soteriological proposition is a direct refute of the soteriological belief you have faith in.

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  4. It is in an expiatory sense but I don't think that substitutionary language is the most helpful in the larger scheme of things. The authors of scripture avoided it completely and preferred the language of identification or union I believe because Christs blood does more than just provide forgiveness for us. It changes us and it brings us new life but we are crucified with Christ, we die with Him and are raised with Him in a metaphorical sense but in a quite literal sense as well which is my point. Christians do not avoid death or suffering but rather overcome through them (in Christ). Technically speaking, substitutionary language denies that we must carry our own cross by shifting the conversation away from union and toward a penal/legal view of the atonement.

    So yes, Jesus dies in our place but I see it more in the sense that He enters the game (humanity on earth) with us and changes the outcome for us. I'm not sure if I have articulated that properly?

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  5. I'm sure that your articulation is improper. The sin of murdering any man is not a direct benefit irrespective of whom the man is.

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