The picture—the image—of what occurs in the Day of Atonement sacrifice informs our understanding of Christ’s sacrifice. The goat upon which sins are placed is not scorned or punished. In fact, nothing is done to the goat (indicating that the goat’s body and blood are not the focus of the symbol. Rather, the goat is led away into the wilderness, symbolizing the forever removal of sin. And that is exactly what Jesus accomplished for us—the forever removal of sin. And it is in that sense that Peter tells us Jesus bore our sin (1 Peter 2:24). Just as the goat carried the sin away, Jesus carried our sin away—without becoming guilty of that sin and paying for that sin. The goat in the Day of Atonement sacrifice that was killed pictured the separation of pure spirit (blood) from corrupted flesh (the rest of the animal that was to be burned outside the camp). The blood sprinkled to cleanse the Holy of Holies images the spirit of Jesus returning to the physical creation (his body) to cleanse it and resurrect it to life. That is the redemption part of the atonement picture. Thus, the Day of Atonement sacrifice of the goats present both aspects of Christ’s atonement victory—forgiveness and redemption.
Settled with this understanding, we can look around the OT at other pictures to see the same ideas involved. Abel’s offering of a lamb was accepted while Cain’s fruit-of-the-ground offering was not precisely because it was Abel’s offering that fit the picture of sacrifice—reflecting the giving up in death of the physical essence to embrace God. The point is not so much whether Abel knew what he was doing at the time. It was not so much a matter of obedience (that we must understand God had to have previously given a command to offer a blood sacrifice so that it was on the basis of obedience that Abel’s offering was accepted while Cain’s was not). Rather, it was a teaching moment by God showing the importance of death to cursed creation and the disassociated offering of mind and will to God that would eventually lead to the cleansing (redemption) of the flesh so that the whole person could stand justified before God.
Facing God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac, Abraham faced the exact same decision that Adam faced: choose for God or choose for creation (earthly relationship). Abraham succeeded where Adam failed because he believed in God as source of TGB, trusting that God would ensure relationship.
And again, we see aspects of the same death-to-cursed-creation idea in Elijah’s offering on Mt. Carmel. God showed the importance of basing relationship on his essence and not our own essence by burning up every physical aspect of that sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the water that drenched it.
We have one more step to take before summing up everything we’ve learned in regard to the atonement. That one more step is a deeper understanding of sin and the curse in relation to forgiveness and redemption. We have discussed how Christ’s death and resurrection overcame the curse of sin on our physical essence. But it leads us to a question of which answer we want to be sure: Could God have forgiven without the cross if there had been no curse on our flesh? While our Christian devotion may bristle at the mere suggestion that the cross was not important, let me assure you that my intent is not to champion that thought. I believe the cross was absolutely necessary for our restored relationship with God. It was no mere image of hatred of sin or simply a symbol of devotion to a higher cause; without the cross, we would be forever lost—separated eternally from God in death and destruction.
However, from our discussion pointing to the purpose of the cross (which was the means for redemption to free our essence from the curse of sin, rather than as a means for guilt payment), we may wonder whether, had there been no curse on our essence, God could have forgiven our guilty activity in sin without the cross.
The question of forgiveness for sin (without cross) seems to say that while sin does carry a penalty to be paid, God may forego that penalty on the basis of his forgiveness. In other words, I can sin, but God, in viewing my repentance, can choose to forgive, foregoing the penalty he would otherwise have required. So then, is that understanding correct? Would it be justfor God (or, would justice be served) to extend mercy without requiring the payment of penalty?
In considering justice, just as in considering sacrifice, the world may offer us a bit of confusion. When we talk about justice being done within the American court system, we have been conditioned to understand it simply as the assignment of penalty (punishment) to those who are guilty, requiring them to pay that penalty. And in a sense, that is true, but it is only part of the fuller concept of justice. (And when I say “fuller concept,” I mean the biblical understanding.) Two Hebrew words are often translated justor justice. One of these words we can think of as primary justiceand the other as rectifying justice. (I am using labels I got from Tim Keller in his book Generous Justice.)
Primary justicehas to do with living justly, in other words, living based on God’s essence of truth, goodness, and beauty. If I live faithful to our covenant of life with God, I will be just—I will act in accordance with God’s TGB. And acting in TGB means I will do so in relation to others around me. Therefore, my relationship with God can very much be seen in my relationship with others. Acting in TGB means that when I see the hurting, the needy, and the weak, I will respond with my abilities to assist their vulnerabilities. The lack of this attitude was God’s complaint throughout the prophets in the way that the leaders of the Jews treated the people. It is also exactly how Jesus acted through his earthly life as he lived it based on God’s TGB. And it is what is meant by James when he tells us, “Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27a). James is not promoting some watered-down social gospel. As Christ sits on his judgment throne in Matthew 25 and separates the sheep from the goats, the way he does this dispensing of justiceis by drawing a distinction as to whether the people gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, shelter for the homeless, clothing for the naked, care for the sick, and comfort for the suffering. Therefore, our helping the vulnerable is not simply some good deed, some kindness; it is necessary; it is living justly—it is doing justice.
The second kind of justice is rectifying justice. When someone fails in doing justice, in other words, fails in primary justice, there comes a need for rectifying justice to return that one who failed to primary justice as well as restoring the victim of failed justice to the state of primary justice. It is making things right. That calls for implementing a punishment or penalty on those who fail. But the goal of rectifying justice is not the punishment. The goal is returning to the activity of primary justice. Therefore, if that goal is accomplished apart from implementing a penalty, justice is still served.
Therefore, there is no real conflict between justice and mercy so that God cannot be merciful because he is required by justice to punish someone. God’s work—his whole restoration plan—is to return his fallen image bearers to the primary justice of relationship with him. If that is accomplished through repentance, faith, and forgiveness, justice is served. If there is no repentance and faith, penalty (separation to destruction) rather than forgiveness is extended, and justice is also served.
So, then, why did God curse our physical essence if he knew simple repentance and forgiveness could turn everything around? It was not a choice of cursing physical essence or not. Sin was committed, and the sinner became guilty in both spirit and body as soon as that act occurred, not later when God pronounced the resultant curse. So while the spirit’s plea for forgiveness can move the spirit toward restored relationship, the body remains corrupted. Thus, redemption had to be planned and accomplished to overcome that obstacle.
Of course, and importantly, therefore, the situation just posed (sin without curse on physical essence) is purely hypothetical and presented only for the point of discussion of justice. The question cannot be legitimate for any other purpose because it simply could not have happened that the curse on our essence could have been avoided.
We have now covered nine issues (what I called steps) to understanding the Atonement. But I presented them only halfway in sequence. Mostly I presented them as sort of separate issues. I want to briefly go through it all again in a more logical and chronological progression to ensure our understanding of how this whole restoration plan of God unfolded. With each point, I am going to list portions of Romans that support these ideas.
First, the basis: God’s creative purpose was for everlasting relationship. (Romans 1:20) Everything—everything—we know from the Bible rests on this point. If you believe something in your Christianity that can’t be worked back to this point, you are believing wrongly. This is our basis, and therefore, this creative purpose is the basis upon which the atonement rests.
Aligned with this basis is that, at creation, God established the Covenant of Life relationship between God and us. According to it, our relationship with him is based on his essence of truth, goodness, and beauty. That relationship includes God’s loving care for his image bearers by providing (revealing) his truth, goodness, and beauty to them while his image bearers trust in and depend on him for that loving care. (Romans 1:17; 3:21–22; 5:8; 8:38–39)
The problem came about when Adam and Eve were faced with choices. Eve was deceived into thinking she could maintain relationship with God while taking over control of decisions regarding truth, goodness, and beauty. Adam, not deceived, intentionally chose to look to physical creation for TGB rather than to God. With that choice, Adam as a person became guilty of sin, and physical creation (his essence) was corrupted as well. The corruption—the curse—was death, turning our spirits’ control over our physical essence to subservience, which condition is shared by all image bearers. (Romans 1:25; 5:12, 17, 19)
Rectifying justice demands either the return to righteousness in relationship with God or expulsion from the community. (Romans 2:6–8; 3:21–26) Because relationship with God occurs within our physical essence, it is required that our physical essence be holy. (Romans 1:18–32; 7:24–25) To achieve the holiness of our created essence, while God required repentance and faith in order to forgive his image bearers, his forgiveness would need to completely restore relationship, which included not only the need to pardon sin but to remove the obstacle of corrupted essence as well. (Romans 5:1; 8:23; 9:30; 10:11–13)
God revealed the path of forgiveness through the sacrificial process, which depicts an uncorrupt spirit released from the corrupted body through physical death—thus manifesting its worth and empowering its return to the body to cleanse and, thus, resurrect it to life, i.e., relationship with God. (Romans 3:25; 5:9) The solution to the problem—the realization of the sacrificial process’s forgiveness path—was introduced in the advent of Christ. God actuated his forgiveness picture beginning with becoming Jesus—Godin perfect spirit power and humanin representative qualification. (Romans 1:2–4; 5:8) Jesus demonstrated his spirit’s adherence to the Covenant of Life in that, although in sin-corrupted flesh (Romans 8:3), he lived a perfect (sinless) life. (Romans 5:19b) Jesus gave up his physical life, marking (as all physical deaths do) the end of God’s interaction with him in this life for relationship purpose as a son of Adam. (Romans 5:8; 6:3–4)
In his sacrificial death, Jesus showed his qualification as the Kinsman Redeemer, the one who could bring atonement. Though his physical body died, being of sin-cursed flesh (Romans 8:3), Jesus’s spirit was pure and undefiled, having not committed sin and having not become guilty of our sin. (Romans 5:19b) Because he was holy in spirit, Jesus took up his physical life again, cleansing his sin-cursed flesh of its curse of sin, in actuality accomplishing what the blood-sprinkling of the OT sacrificed animal did for the Holy of Holies meeting place with God. (Romans 3:25)
As an image bearer comes to God in recognition of and repentance for his or her own sin and in faith believing in God’s atoning work through Jesus, pardon for sins is given (Romans 3:26; 8:1), his or her body of sin from Adam is considered by God and by the image bearer as dead (Romans 6:4, 11; 8:9a, 10b), and new life is provided based on being IN the resurrected body of Jesus. (Romans 5:10; 6:11; 8:1) When Christ returns (the second advent), he will complete his cleansing atonement, just as the blood of the OT sacrificed animal did in image, ridding all physical creation—the meeting place of God—of sin and giving us resurrected bodies like his. (Romans 6:5; 8:19, 21, 23)
Our side discussion on the Atonement is complete, and it has showcased a significant difference from the current majority opinion (especially in America) of the penal substitution theory of atonement. Particularly, in our Kinship theology understanding, no guilt for sin is placed on Jesus so that his death is justified as paying the penalty for sin imputed to him. Rather, Jesus’s necessary death though his spirit is pure provides the way for him through the power of his pure spirit return to the dead body, igniting it to resurrected life, cleansing it of its sin curse and providing the firstfruits of his second advent refining and redeeming activity for all of physical creation.
Thus, this discussion would be difficult to present to someone who, on the fly, asks your opinion of the atonement. To simply answer that you don’t believe our sins were imputed to Jesus who, then being guilty, died to pay their penalty flies in the face of presumed orthodoxy. Shock and charges of heresy could easily result (if you don’t have the few hours to explain yourself). To avoid such shock, it is always helpful to offer a couple of questions to cause the other Christian to consider rather than to accuse. One question is this: If God cannot resurrect me to life because I have the guilt of sin charged against my spirit, why could God resurrect Jesus when he had that same guilt of sin imputed to him? When I have posed this question to others, they have sometimes answered me stating that Jesus could be raised because he was sinless. But, of course, that is the whole point. If guilt for my sins are imputed to him, he is not sinless; he bears the guilt for my sins. Only if he does not bear the guilt for my sins can he be sinless and then qualify for resurrection.
A second question to make the accuser reconsider his or her own conviction is this: Based on what occurred on the cross, did Jesus pay the guilt penalty for your sins or did God forgive you for your sins? Again, the answer may come back that both occurred. But both can occur only if you change the definition of either forgiveor pay. If sin is paid for, it is not forgiven. Likewise, if a sin is forgiven, there is no need to pay for it. Therefore, you can’t answer that both occurred. It has to be one or the other. Only understanding the atonement in the way we have presented it over the past seven sessions provides a way to see that payment is needed for our sin-cursed flesh so that the forgiveness for our spirits can be fully realized.