It is very hard to just step back and look at a doctrine so important to the faith as the atonement. I am always looking for ways to get my readers to hear what I am saying, to somehow not infuse the “paid penalty” theory into everything they hear.
If I haven’t been clear, the “paid penalty” or “penal substitution” theory of the atonement is false and sends thousands or millions of people to hell because they are never taught that unless they sow to the Spirit throughout their lives, not growing weary in doing good, they will perish … eternally.
Today, I read a post on the atonement that puzzled me. The first part of post sounded like an argument for my position and against penal substitution, yet he drew far different conclusions than I.
Then, in one of his paragraphs, I had an “aha” moment:
Sinners stand before God alone. They incur God’s wrath, God’s judgment. Unless someone or something comes along to make recompense for the misdeeds done by humanity, all face destruction at the hands of God.
Herein lies the real problem. Is it really true that the only remedy to sinners incurring God’s wrath is for someone to make recompense for the misdeeds done by humanity? Is that what God is like?
If that nation, against whom I have spoken, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil I thought to do to them. (Jer. 18:8)
Thus says the Lord, “Stand in the court of the Lord’s house and speak to all the cities of Judah which come to the Lord’s house. Of all the words that I command you to speak, do not diminish a single word. Perhaps they will listen, and every man will turn from his evil way, so that I may repent of the evil which I purposed toward them for the evil of their deeds. (Jer. 26:2-3)
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the righteous man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isa. 55:7)
Again, when I say to the wicked, “You shall surely die,” if he will turn from his sin and do what is lawful and right … he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of his sins that he committed will be mentioned to him. He has done what is right and good; he will surely live. (Ezek. 33:14-16)
Are we prepared to say the prophets were wrong or that God was lying? According to these passages, God didn’t need a sacrifice. A good dose of repentance and obedience was what he was looking for.
There is another alternative to making recompense for all of humanity’s evil deeds. The alternative is to repent and stop doing them!
I know what you’re going to say. Mankind, as a slave to sin, can’t repent and stop sinning. The whole world is silenced before God as sinners.
Thus, the whole world lies in need of the gift of repentance. Jesus died to change our end of the equation, not God’s.
Let us attend to what is good, pleasing, and acceptable in the sight of him who formed us. Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world. Let us turn to every age that has passed and learn that, from generation to generation, the Lord has granted a place of repentance to all who would be converted to him. (1 Clement 7. AD 95-96)
The purpose was that once we were convinced that we are unworthy to attain life through our own works, it would now, by the kindness of God, be bestowed on us. Once it became obvious that in ourselves we were unable to enter the kingdom of God, the power of God could then make us able. (Letter to Diognetus 9. AD 80-130)
Do you get it? God resolved the issue on our end, not on his. Let me help you with that idea.
The Wrath of God Is Still Upon ALL the Disobedient
If what was needed was a “recompense for the misdeeds done by humanity,” then there are two possible ways to do that. One, Jesus could have died for all the sins that were past, in which case all our sins are building up and Jesus’ sacrifice will have to be a continual one. I think there are people who believe this.
The other method would be for Jesus’ death to appease God’s wrath for all sins, or at least for Christians’ sins, whether past, present, and future. I think most evangelicals believe this.
As I’ve pointed out in the previous posts, that didn’t happen. We are still threatened with wrath. We can be barred from the Kingdom of God for certain sins if we continue in them (Gal. 5:19-21). In fact, Paul seems to be specifically warning us that if Christians behave like the sons of disobedience, then they will receive the wrath of God just like the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:5-8). He says not to be deceived about this.
If we walk in the flesh, we can inherit death rather than eternal life (Rom. 8:12-13; Gal. 6:7-9). I don’t see how the wrath of God can be said to be appeased for all past, present, and future sins if we are still threatened with eternal death for living in the flesh.
Instead, what the Scripture teach is what we saw the early church fathers teaching above. God provided for our end of the bargain. He made a way for us to live in repentance.
I’m going to give you a Scripture, but think about this a moment. Is it really possible for Jesus to have reconciled God and man without man being delivered from his sin and living righteously? God was suddenly going to be okay with sin because he got to vent his wrath on Jesus?
The Gift of Repentance
When Paul talks about the sin problem in Romans 7, he paints the same picture we addressed. Man is hopeless, unable to obey, and standing before the wrath of God. Paul’s answer, however, found in Romans 8, says nothing about appeasing God’s wrath. It says Jesus took care of our inability to do what is good.
For what the Law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did. By sending his own Son in the image of sinful flesh and because of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:2-4)
Paul also tells us in several places that Jesus, by his death, transformed us into righteous beings, not just because God imputes righteousness to them but because they live righteously. (1 Jn. 3:7 makes it clear that the two go hand in hand.)
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live sensibly, righteously, and godly in this present age, looking for that blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus the King, who gave himself for us so that he might purify for himself his own special people, zealous for good works. (Tit. 2:11-14)
Finally, did the apostles preach a message of belief that Jesus paid for our sins, or did they preach repentance?
Then Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the King for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
[Paul speaking] “I showed first to those of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout the coasts of Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and works suitable to repentance.” (Acts 26:20)
Perhaps the most conclusive verse on what was required to reconcile sinful man with an angry God is Acts 11:18:
So God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.
We evangelicals don’t like to put too much emphasis on the things Jesus taught because, well, he lived before he died. In other words, since his death and resurrection changed everything, maybe we should be nervous that the One who gave us the New Covenant did not teach from it.
I’m going to take the huge risk of pulling from Jesus’ teachings, though, and I will point out that Jesus used the word often. Matthew 4:17 says that “from that time forward” Jesus was preaching repentance because the kingdom of heaven had drawn near. He said that the very reason he came was to call sinners to repentance (Matt. 9:13).
So, with all that I have written above, I am going to suggest that God, collaborating with his Son, came up with an alternative to recompensing God for all the misdeeds of man. Instead, he found a way to give to mankind the grace of repentance so that they could lay hold of the promises of God’s mercy.
What about all the passages that tie the forgiveness of sins to Jesus’ blood? If repentance is all that was needed, then why did Jesus have to die?
These are good questions.
First, if repentance was all that was needed, Jesus would have to die to free us from death. His atonement involved completely cleaning up the human race, making it anew through faith in him, and breaking death’s power over us.
The passages that tie the forgiveness of sins to Jesus’ blood are a different story. They are important not to leave out because I have not told the whole story.
This post is a long post; it is 1628 words at this point. Nonetheless, it is nowhere long enough to really cover all Jesus did.
I am focused in this post on the problem we see: sinful man and wrathful God. That was corrected not by correcting the wrath of God, but by giving repentance to man.
Bestowing repentance and righteousness on man is no small task. To do it, he did not just vanquish sin, death, and the devil; he also instituted a new covenant between man and God. He gave the Holy Spirit to each and every member of that covenant. He allows them to partake of his death and resurrection.
Jesus started at the beginning. His death is tied to the forgiveness of sins, which is why the Scriptures say it over and over. We get to partake of his death, wash away our old sins, be delivered from the Law, and be set free to live as God’s child.
The atonement is huge. I am sure I will always be found lacking in trying to explain it.
When it comes to particulars, though, there are things we can know. When sinful man stood before wrathful God, God chose to send his Son to rescue sinful man and give him the gift of repentance. He did not choose to find a way to appease his own wrath, except insofar that bringing man to repentance has always appeased his wrath.