Since it is crucial that one's view of the atonement be based on Scripture and not just abstract philosophical considerations, I've decided to blog through Norman McIlwain's book in which he lays out a substitutionary, but non-penal, model of the atonement. The heart of McIlwain's thesis is that the debt we owe to God is not death, but righteousness: we all owe God a perfectly righteous life, which debt however we cannot pay because of our sinful condition. So the debt that Jesus paid in our stead was the debt of righteousness: a life offered up to God in perfect obedience, even unto death. In this post I will summarize the Scriptural evidence discussed in Chapter 1 of his online book, The Biblical Revelation of the Cross, while adding some comments and additional evidence of my own.
Jesus gave His life for us as a perfect sacrifice, without sin. Yet, in His body He bore our sins—the sins of man. He was bruised, lacerated, torn and pierced. The sins of mankind were plainly visible in His flesh. He also bore the pain of man’s sins in His heart. He was burdened by those sins, but He was never the One responsible for them. The sins were the sins of mankind. Justice demands that the guilty must answer for their sins, not the innocent. How then are we set free from the penalty of death? It is through the offering Christ made of His life. This He gave willingly to God for us—as the perfect offering and covering for sin—sufficient for all who truly believe and repent.
The sacrificial animals were required to be without spot or blemish—as a sign of purity, symbolizing the righteous life God demands of us. The blood of these animals was used for the ceremonial cleansing and sanctifying of the people and items used in worship (Ex.24:3-8; Heb.9:19-22). The blood was used to symbolically cover over past sins, ‘and without shedding of blood there is no remission’ (Heb.9:22, NKJ). However, without sincere and earnest repentance, the sacrifices were meaningless and unacceptable: ‘Bring no more futile sacrifices … I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting’ (Is.1:13, NKJ, cf.1:10-15). ‘Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices sweet to Me’ (Jer.6:20, NKJ). What mattered to God was a change of heart: ‘Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit’ (Ezek.18:31, NKJ).
The sacrifices, offered as God intended, allowed the people a ritual demonstration of their seriousness before God. The offering of sacrifices acted as an expression of this desire for purity. Nevertheless, sacrifices had to be offered year by year, indicating that the problem of sin remained and could not be dealt with through the Mosaic law. The sacrifices foreshadowed the One who would deliver mankind from his sins. Now, by the one sacrifice of Himself, Jesus has prevailed for our complete forgiveness and justification: ‘Because by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’ (Heb.10:14, NIV)
Forgiveness is not dependent on the payment of a penalty or debt. With sins, there is condemnation, but with forgiveness, the condemnation for those sins is removed. When we truly repent and seek forgiveness, we are asking God to forgive our past sins. However, the forgiveness of past sins does not deal with our unrighteous spiritual condition—the fact that we will sin again and again, for a whole variety of reasons, sometimes in ignorance, sometimes unintentionally. God demands that we offer Him righteous lives. This is what we owe Him—this is what we cannot give of ourselves, because of our sinfulness. How then can we stand righteous before Him? It is through the righteousness of Christ. His sacrifice avails for all who repent and call upon Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
Jesus is the only one who made a pure and perfect sacrifice of His life—when He died for our sakes on the cross. This was the debt He paid on our behalf. It was not the penalty of death, He paid the debt of righteousness—the gift to God of a righteous life, which is our due. Christ’s righteousness is our covering if we are united in Him. The Father accepts us along with His Son. He has paid our due offering that we may be covered by His life and judged righteous. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom.8:1, NKJ). His righteous life is imputed to us who look to Him in the oneness of the Spirit. It is Jesus who is ‘THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS’ (Jer.23:6). Of ourselves, we can never be righteous. It is only through faith in Christ.
Sin cuts like a two-edged sword against man and God. Yet God’s nature is different. In essence, He is Spirit, while man is flesh and blood. When we sin, we sin against both the divine nature of God and the human nature of man...How, then, can God – who is Spirit and divine in nature – forgive that aspect of sin that is not against Himself, but against human nature? – It is because of the incarnation of the Word. Sometimes we speak of sins, in extreme cases, as ‘inhuman’ – as crimes against humanity. However, all sin is essentially againsthumanity – against what is human and intrinsically good in our nature, as God created us. Being Spirit, therefore, God took on human nature and so became able to forgive man all sin. He accepted upon Himself the sins of the world, as the Head of humanity, and now takes them away through the forgiveness He now offers. Moreover, He could not have come cocooned as One protected from the pain and anguish caused by sin. That would not have allowed Him to forgive sins as One truly sinned against. He had to endure the suffering of sin against His human person as the One delivered up to die as a result of those sins – sins that were representative of all the sins of all humanity throughout all the ages. Only by accepting the ultimate sacrifice unto death could God forgive and absolve repentant man of all guilt and sin. Through the incarnation, sacrifice and death of Jesus Christ, the way for our atonement was opened.