Through the Bible: Luke 1:76-80, Repentance and Atonement

Note: This is a very long post. I think it the subject is worth the length of the post. Therefore, I will wait at least three days to post the next one. If you are going through the Bible with me, please take the next two to three days to get through this post. It is very,
very important.

Once again, I remind you we are going through Tatian’s Diatessaron, a harmony of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John that was put together in the second century. Today we are covering just one small passage, Luke 1:76-80.

As for you, O child, you will be called prophet of the Most High. You shall go forth before the face of the Lord to prepare his way, to give the knowledge of salvation to his people for the forgiveness of their sins, through the mercy of the compassion of our God, with which he cares for us. [He will] appear from on high to give light to them that sit in darkness and under the shadow of death and to set straight our feet in the way of peace.

In the last post, I said that the phrase “to give the knowledge of salvation to his people for the forgiveness of their sins” was filled with meaning for me. Today we will be focusing primarily on that phrase.

John the Baptist, of whom this prophecy is given, is known for one main message: “Repent!”

In Luke 3:3 we read, “He went into all the region around Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (ESV). In the passage I quote above, we read that he going to give knowledge of salvation to his people for the forgiveness of their sins. Both those statements talk about the forgiveness of sins, but they start differently. One says that he is going to give knowledge of salvation for the forgiveness of sins, and the other says that what he did is bring a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

To me, this obviously says that repentance is the knowledge of salvation you need if you want to have the forgiveness of sins. If you don’t follow the logic there, ask me in the comments. The idea is that if a + c = d and b + c = d, then a must equal b.

Because of Protestant teachings over the last couple centuries, you probably don’t know that repentance can be the knowledge of salvation. You may, and that is fantastic. But you may not, so I am going to correct that for you.

To begin with let’s remember how much John the Baptist emphasized repentance. You’ll find in Matthew 3:1-6 and Luke 3:3-8 that his whole message was repentance. He was continuing a long tradition.

Cain

Let’s begin with Cain. At the start of Genesis 4 we find that God had no regard for Cain’s offering of grain, while he did have regard for Abel’s offering of sheep. It is commonly said that the problem with Cain’s offering is that it had no blood. That made sense to me since Hebrews 9:22 says that in the offerings of the Law, almost everything is purified with blood and without blood there is no release from sins.

Then I began to read the early Christian writings. I was surprised to find that they gave a different reason. They said that Cain’s offering was rejected because he did evil, not because it was a grain offering lacking blood. They thought this because the Bible directly says it: “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 Jn. 3:12).

Now I know this says he murdered his brother because his deeds were evil, not that his sacrifice was rejected because his deeds were evil. But if you look at Genesis 4:4-5, you will see that the reason Cain was angry with Abel was because his sacrifice was rejected. So Moses (author of Genesis) says that Cain killed Abel because his sacrifice was rejected, and the apostle John says Cain killed Abel because his deeds were evil. This ties the rejection of his sacrifice to his evil deeds. But there’s more!

In Genesis 4:6, God comes to help Cain with his problem. He asks him why he’s angry, and then he tells Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7, ESV).

The problem Cain had was sin. Doing good would have resolved his problem. The issue with Cain was not a bloodless sacrifice. Leviticus 2:1-10 and 6:14-18 gives the rules for grain offerings. Those were acceptable even under the Law. Cain’s problem was not a bloodless sacrifice. Instead it was a lack of repentance. Without repentance, offerings—whether for sin or not—are not accepted.

David

Again, the Bible explicitly states that the problem with an offering is always repentance, this time through David. In Psalm 51, David says God is not delighted with sacrifice (v. 16), but the true sacrifices of God are a broken spirit and contrite heart (v. 17). He then says that he will offer sacrifices (v. 19), but that is only after offering a broken spirit and contrite heart, which is about the best definition of repentance that can be found in the Bible.

Isaiah

Isaiah 1:1-20 is a much stronger repeat of what David said in Psalm 51:16-19. In the Isaiah passage God detests all the rituals and offerings of the Jews (1:11-15), and he lets them know what he wants is repentance and the doing of good (1:16-20).

Jeremiah

One of the oddest passages in the Bible is God’s statement in Jeremiah 7:22 that he didn’t talk to the Israelites about animal sacrifices when he took them out of Egypt. In 35 years as a Christian, I have never heard anyone quote that verse. The earliest Christians, however, quoted it regularly (e.g., Letter of Barnabas, ch. 2, early second century; Dialogue with Trypo, ch. 22, mid-second century; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. IV, ch. 17, par. 3).

The point is obvious. God doesn’t really care about sacrifices, he cares about obedience. If you read everything God says through Jeremiah from 7:1-23, you will see that he cares about “amend your ways and your deeds” (v. 5) and obedience (v. 23). Why he says he never mentioned sacrifices or burnt offerings throws me, but the point is clear, and it is the same thing we have found God saying through all those who preceded Jeremiah.

Ezekiel

In Ezekiel 18:21-23 we find a clear assertion of the same principle that we are seeing above and that is stated directly by Samuel the prophet in 1 Samuel 15:22, to obey is better than sacrifice. Ezekiel, however, gives us some explanation to go with it:

But if a wicked person turns away from all his sins that he has committed and keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions that he has committed shall be remembered against him; for the righteousness that he has done he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (ESV)

In all these passages we find that God is not looking for sacrifices that will cover sin, but he is looking for repentance that will allow him to forgive sin. Over and over he cries, “Forget about your repulsive sacrifices. They are repulsive because you are disobeying me. Repent instead, and I will forget all the sins you have ever committed, and you will live because of your righteousness. Please, repent and live. I take no pleasure in the punishment of the wicked.”

The New Testament

We think that Jesus’ sacrifice of himself is the perfect sacrifice that covers all sin. The purpose of sacrifice, however, has never been to cover sin. Sacrifice has always been tied to repentance and obedience, and it has always been useless, and even offensive, without repentance. Surely the passages above are enough to convince us of this, but I could quadruple the passages above without much effort.

We look at Romans 3 and Romans 7, which speak of how we all have sinned and all continue to sin, and we conclude that Jesus needed to pay for sins so that God wouldn’t be angry with us. We have the whole idea backwards. Jesus’ death was not for God. God was perfect already. He was merciful already. He promised to forgive the repentant already. We have seen that above.

We saw above that God wasn’t worried about sacrifices, he was worried about us, that we would repent. If we would repent, he said, then he would forget all of our wicked living and he would only look at our new righteous life (Ezek. 18:20-23). What a great system! What a merciful and kind God!

What is it that is missing from that great system in which we repent, then follow through in obedience, and God mercifully forgets all the wickedness we have ever done?

What is missing from that system is humans continuing in repentance. Over and over and over Israel broke the covenant God. They broke the covenant so much that God said one day he would make a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-34).

The problem with the system is us. The missing ingredient is repentance and following through on repentance. Paul spends two whole chapters discussing why we don’t continue in repentance. Those two chapters are Romans 3 and Romans 7. At the end of Romans 7, he cries out for all of us, “Who shall rescue me from my body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).

He then answers his question with “… through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:25).

Jesus is the answer to a problem. The problem is that we do not continue in repentance. According to everything we looked at throughout the Old Testament, God would forgive our sins if we would just continue in repentance. As Romans 7 describes, the problem is that we had no power to live in repentance. We had no power to obey.

The Atonement

Romans 8 then tells us how God offered his Son to cure that problem.

There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. The Law of the Spirit of Life has set us free from the Law of Sin and Death. (Rom. 8:1-2)

God made a new law that would deliver us from the Law of Sin and Death that he had just described in Romans 7. How would this new law overcome the old one?

For what the Law could not do, God did. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, as an offering for 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. 8:3-4)

In some way, whether we understand it or not, Jesus broke the power of sin by becoming flesh and then becoming an offering for sin. We certainly know that one way he would do this is by giving us the Spirit. That every person in Christ would receive the Holy Spirit is the mark of the New Covenant, and it is the first thing that was announced to the Jews after the apostles received the Holy Spirit themselves (Acts 2:15-18).

Receiving the Holy Spirit allows us to walk in the Law of the Spirit of Life. The Spirit is given to us as a free gift for those who not only repent, but also believe in Jesus. It is one thing to repent as a powerless human being. That will never last. But to repent and be baptized into Jesus, now that is powerful. To be baptized into Christ is to put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). To be baptized into Christ means that you will received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). To be baptized into Christ is to be baptized into his death, so that you can rise up into newness of life (Rom. 6:3-4).

Thus, once Jesus offered himself, and once we repented and were baptized into Christ, he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit and newness of life, so that if we walk by the Spirit the righteous requirement of the Law will be fulfilled in us.

This is why Paul repeatedly tells us that Jesus died so that we would obey him:

  • For this purpose Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. (Rom. 14:9)
  • He died for all so that those who live would live no longer for themselves, but for him who died for them and lived again. (2 Cor. 5:14)
  • … who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all unlawlessness and purify for himself his own special people zealous for good works. (Tit. 2:14)

As I point out these passages, I am not trying to tell you that Jesus died so that we would feel guilty and struggle and strive to do good better than the Jews did under the Old Covenant. No, I mean he died so that we could have a power to obey God that could not be obtained under the Old Covenant.

Romans 5:19 describes that power this way: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19, ESV). In other words, just as Adam made you a sinner, cutting off your power to obey, so Jesus makes those who believe in him to be obeyers, not only returning to you the power to obey, but granting you the Holy Spirit to guide you through this life.

This gift of new life and new power to obey is a free gift. It is called grace. Paul says that because of that grace, sin will no longer have power over you (Rom. 6:14). He tells us in the letter to the Ephesians that this free gift of grace, obtained through simply repenting and believing, would recreate us in Christ Jesus to do good works (Eph. 2:8-10). The gift is so powerful that it let us partake of God’s divine nature, give us everything that has to do with life and godliness, and rescue us from the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Pet. 1:3-4).

Repentance

The next thing to do is to get back to the spot in our text that got me started on this long teaching. I think it is important to understand the role of repentance and the things we get now that Jesus has given so much more than the forgiveness of sins in return for repentance. We get much more than what Old Testament believers received, as I just described.

I want to go through New Testament descriptions of the importance of repentance because that is what we were originally talking about, the “knowledge of salvation” that John the Baptist gave to prepare for Jesus’ coming.

  • Jesus message specifically and carefully begins with repentance. It is “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Mark 1:14-15)
  • The first command given to the first people to receive the Gospel from the apostles is “Repent.” (Acts 2:38)
  • The Gospel to the Jews is summed up as “the gift of repentance leading to life” (Acts 11:18)
  • Paul sums up his ministry among the Gentiles by telling King Agrippa that he went to Damascus, Jerusalem, Judea, and the Gentiles telling them to repent and do works befitting repentance. (Acts 26:20)

That last verse is distressing to most evangelicals. Why would Paul sum up his Gospel of faith (Rom. 1:16-17) as “repent and do works befitting repentance”?

The reason is that faith, repentance, baptism, and the atonement are all tied up in a simple story. Our merciful God has always taught us how to live, then asked us to obey his teachings. We repeatedly broke his laws, but kept calling us to repentance and offering us mercy if we would repent. Finally, when enough time had passed that we could be sure that we would never attain to the kingdom of God in our own power, “the power of God would make us able” (Letter to Diognetus, ch. 9).

Justifying This Long Post

One of the most common statements among Protestants is that Jesus “paid the penalty” for our sins. This statement, however, cannot be found in Scripture. Instead, the only thing the Scriptures say that Jesus paid for was us (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; 1 Pet. 1:18-19).

Jesus’ death was a sacrifice. It was an offering for sin. However, it was not a payment in the sense of, say, going to jail in the place of someone who robbed a bank. No it was a redemption price, purchasing us out of our slavery to sin and making us his own so that he could empower us to live the life of repentance and obedience that Jesus has always called us to.

The atonement is a lot more complicated than could be described in one post, even if it is three thousand words. The basic story I have told, however, is clearly described in Scripture and easy to understand. The “penal substitution theory of the atonement,” the title given to the more typical Protestant version of the atonement, falls apart as soon as one thinks through it.

  • “Paid the penalty” is never used in Scripture, even though a payment price is mentioned several times.
  • If Jesus paid the penalty for all sins, then how can Jesus judge us for sins on the last day? (Matt. 7:21-23; 25:31-46; 2 Cor. 5:10; etc.).
  • If Jesus paid the penalty for all our sins, then why are there so many warnings, written to Christians, about dying or not entering the Kingdom of God because of sins? (Matt. 7:21-23; Rom. 8:12-13; 1 Corinthians 10:1-12; Gal. 5:19-21; 6:7-9; 2 Pet. 2:20; all of Hebrews).

The “paid penalty” theory of the atonement has a clear history of development, starting with St. Anselm in the eleventh century (c. 1095). How likely is a theory that is new to this millennium to be true?

I am hoping that was enough to cure you of the penal substitutionary atonement and its consequent errors so that it is easier, as we go through the Scriptures, to just read them for what they say.

Back to John the Baptist

I hope I have convinced you that repentance is the “knowledge of salvation” that John the Baptist would bring in accordance with the prophecy of his father Zecharias. With that, let’s move on to the next section of Tatian’s Diatessaron by briefly finishing this one.

Moving On

The child grew and became strong in the spirit, and abode in the desert until the time of his appearing unto the children of Israel.

This verse is Luke’s transition from the birth of John to the birth of Jesus. He sort of sets John aside with a “he’s growing, and we’ll get back to him when he begins preaching to the children of Israel.”

Because this through the Bible was so long and so important, I am hoping you will spend some of your devotion time the next couple days considering these things. It will be three or four days until the next post.

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