Christ our Righteousness
Martin Luther recounts that when he realized the true nature of God's righteousness, he felt that he was "altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates." Now I sometimes get a bit too excited about a book I have read, or an idea that has struck me, and I generally try to curb my enthusiasm until I've had time to think more about the details and see where else such an idea has cropped up, and the reaction it has met with. But even though I just stumbled upon the following ideas yesterday (actually, I've been reading through the night), I feel that they have illuminated the Gospel for me in a way similar to what Martin Luther experienced. I feel such joy flooding my heart that I simply have to share what I have discovered, which is an understanding of the atonement which I think simply side-steps all of the problematic issues facing certain other models, particularly the penal substitution and satisfaction models. Now such a claim may sound too good to be true, and perhaps it is, in which case the sooner its deficiencies are exposed, the better. But the exegetical case for this understanding is laid out very clearly and in my mind convincingly in a free online book by Norman McIlwain called The Biblical Revelation of the Cross. Because all the pertinent Bible passages are discussed eloquently there, I will not give biblical references here but instead focus on the more philosophical issues involved. But I'm confident, based on my reading of McIlwain (who is by the way an evangelical committed to the inerrancy of Scripture, historical Adam and Eve and all), that the following argument is fully biblical and is indeed the only reasonable understanding of Jesus' atoning work on the cross.
The argument starts with a simple question: what do we owe to God?
In a word, the answer is simply everything. It is to him that we owe our very existence, and all the good things that sustain us and which give us joy. God has given us the greatest gift of all, the gift of life, and the greatest gift deserves the greatest gratitude. How do we show that gratitude? By keeping God's commandments: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves (there are also the creation stewardship mandate and the multiplication mandate, which I will not go into here). It is our entirely proper and reasonable duty to live a life of complete obedience to those commandments. But it is not an onerous duty (or it was not, in the condition we had prior to the Fall), but a delight, our desire to obey God's commands the result of the overwhelming joy we feel in response to the good gifts God has given us, just as we feel that it is not an onerous duty to please a parent or lover, when they have been so good to us, and because of the love that they show.
This was the creation ideal. This was how we were meant to live before God and others. This is also, importantly, how we are justified before God, how we can stand in His presence and truly claim that we are blameless before Him. There would be absolutely nothing God could or would indict us for, no sin of action and no sin of conscience. Again referring back to my previous post, the only way we can stand blameless before God, or better the only way God can be present to us and give us His perfect life, the only way we can claim that life as our right, is if we wholeheartedly and perfectly obey God's commandments. We must show perfect love in order to inherit God's perfect eternal life, because God is perfect love. As I said there:
God in His essence is the perfect, mutual, completely self-giving love shared between the Persons of the Trinity, and he means for us as image bearers to reflect that love. And while there is room in this love for the existence of something which is other than God (and indeed it is a marvelous manifestation of God's love that he 'withdraws' in order to make a space for creation), there is just no way God can give his unique kind of life to a creature not wholly oriented toward that kind of love, just as a radio broadcast cannot be received by a radio not tuned to that station...either we fully, completely and perfectly embody God's love...manifested in our love for him and for our fellows (and in a different yet still perfect way the rest of God's creation), or we can't share in God's life, which is the only truly incorruptible, non-frustrating, non-futile, everlasting kind of life there is.
So, going back to the question of what we owe to God, we see that what we owe Him, is a perfectly righteous life, a life lived in perfect obedience to God's commands. Such a life would embody our gratitude for all his good gifts and acknowledge His rightful sovereignty over us. This is the debt we owe to God, and keep it in mind because it is absolutely crucial to McIlwain's and my argument.
Of course we all know that the first human beings failed miserably to discharge that debt. Being seduced by the serpent into doubting God's love and goodness towards us and actively disobeying a direct commandment, they fell into a state of sin. They failed to discharge that obligation because they could no longer claim to love God with all their heart and soul, and they could no longer claim to have obeyed His commandments. As a result, they were no longer in good standing with God, no longer justified before Him, just as if, if I loan a friend money and he arrogantly refuses to pay it back, he is no longer in good standing with me. He can no longer claim to be blameless before me. Our relationship with God was ruined by that act of disobedience, and we can no longer legitimately claim anything from God. On the other hand, we still owe him the debt of a perfectly righteous life. Unless we discharge that debt, we cannot claim the eternal life that God wanted for us, or any of the good things we enjoy in this world. The problem is that, in our sinful state, we cannot even in principle discharge that debt. And sadly, because sin involves the 'curving in on ourselves', we don't even want to. This profound ingratitude justly provokes God's anger and grief, just as we would be justifiably angry and grieved if we gave our children fantastic toys at Christmas, but not only did they not thank us for it, but showed their ingratitude by trying to take the other children's toys, and instead of using them to play joyfully and in harmony with each other they used them to make each other miserable.
As a result of sin, due to the considerations I laid out above, God simply had to withdraw his blessings, including the ultimate blessing of eternal life. There is no way he would allow us to live forever in our sinful condition, and it is not just a matter of containing the damage we would otherwise cause as super-sinners, but again the simple fact that God's pure eternal life simply cannot abide in a being that exhibits anything less than perfect love. Humanity was driven from the garden, and would henceforth face environmental and interpersonal conditions appropriate to the kind of mistrust and self-centeredness he had exhibited in the garden: no eternal life, the labor that was previously a joy would become a drudgery, and human relationships would be characterized by domination rather than complementarity.
But here we must be very careful, for this is not vindictiveness on God's part: this is the natural consequence of our sin. God simply cannot entrust his greatest gifts to ungrateful creatures, who would only abuse them.
But here now we see the true greatness of God's love, and our true status not merely as creatures of God, but as children: God does not want to punish us for what we did. Out of his paternal love he does not want us to die. He does not simply discard us as defective machinery. What he really wants is for us to be restored to a right relationship with him. He wants to go back to the way it was supposed to be in the beginning, where human creatures freely and lovingly obey his commandments and wholeheartedly render Him the debt of a perfectly righteous life. Now he cannot actually annul this debt and still grant His creatures life, otherwise he would be going against His own perfect justice. Justice requires that the debt be discharged in order to enjoy the benefits of being God's children. That is simply and properly our due as His creatures. His predicament, however, is that, as noted above, because of our sinful nature we are unable to discharge this debt, and again because of that nature we don't want to. We are, in our natural state, hostile to God.
Now here is our predicament: we have wronged God by not paying our reasonable debt of a perfectly righteous life. As such, we deserve to have the privileges that come with discharging that debt taken away, i.e. we deserve death. That is the just penalty of not discharging our debt. The amazing thing, though, is that God does not want to exact the penalty from us. As I said above, because he loves us so much he does not want us to die. He wants to give us life anyway, just like any father wants to give good things to his children.
Here is the ultimate mystery of the divine Love: he wants to forgive us, us creatures in a state of rebellion against Him, who not only dishonor Him by not rendering our due of a perfect righteous life, but also by mistreating and violating His other children, and other creatures. He wants to cancel the penalty which we should justly pay, and enable us to discharge the obligation that we rightly owe, so that we can once again be justified before Him.
Here we must be careful to keep the radical nature of God's love in focus: he wants to cancel the penalty, not get somebody to pay it. That is the idea behind penal substitutionary atonement, which I am increasingly realizing is untenable both biblically and philosophically (for the biblical case against PSA, see McIlwain's book). We must be very clear: forgiveness does not involve paying the penalty. If the penalty is paid, we do not have forgiveness, we have satisfaction. To take the debt example again, if my friend owes me money, and somebody steps in to pay the debt for him, I have not forgiven my friend, I have been satisfied for the debt. Forgiveness involves canceling the debt altogether. The analogy with God is that God does not want anyone to pay the penalty of death. He wants to write it off completely, so that we start with a clean slate and he can get to the business of actually making us able (again) to discharge our rightful obligations.
So there are two components to the divine plan of redemption: 1) securing forgiveness from the just penalty of death, and 2) making us able and willing to discharge our rightful obligations to God.
Now due to the influence of penal substitutionary thinking, we might think that the first component is the costly one, while the second is relatively easy. In other words, we usually think that there was a 'price' to be paid to secure our forgiveness, and an infinitely high one at that (the death of God's Son), whereas once forgiveness is secured the next stage (justification) follows automatically. Actually the reverse is true: the hard thing is not forgiving, but justifying. Remember, the false assumption is that forgiveness had to be secured by someone first paying the just penalty for our sin. But as we saw above, that is not forgiveness, that is satisfaction, and God does not want anyone to pay that penalty.
Actually, the requirement for forgiveness is very simple, always has been and always will be: genuine repentance. That's it, nothing else to it. If the offended party is willing to forgive, and the offending party willing to repent, nothing else is required for forgiveness. Now that seems outrageous to us: how could a rape victim, for example, ever forgive the rapist, without the rapist undergoing some kind of penalty? But ideally, if the rape victim were genuinely willing to forgive, and the rapist was genuinely repentant, there is nothing morally offensive about the victim forgiving the offender, without the offender having to pay any penalty. Or rather, that it is offensive rather than praiseworthy reflects our fallen sense of justice, the only kind of justice that works in a fallen world of sinful creatures: retributive justice. In a fallen world, there is no place for real forgiveness. But God's love is stronger than our fallen sense of justice, and he really is after genuine forgiveness. He wants to blot out our sins and remember them no more, without exacting the just penalty.
Now what would be perverse is if he simply forgave us without us being repentant. That would indeed be a travesty of justice and would not be forgiveness, but rather letting us off the hook. That is not what forgiveness is all about. True forgiveness can only be granted when there is genuine repentance. God wants things to be made right, he doesn't just want to let us go free, without us returning to him to discharge our rightful obligations. He won't give us one without the other.
The Bible is very clear that God offers forgiveness to whoever genuinely repents: he forgives and does not hold their sin against them. It is as if they had never sinned. The problem is with the second requirement: God can easily forgive the sins of those who are genuinely repentant, but in their fallen, sinful state they cannot discharge their duty of offering a perfectly righteous life to God in gratitude. They may want to as a result of their repentant attitude, but as sinners they are simply incapable of it. And so, even though forgiveness may be granted, they still cannot be justified before God and cannot receive his blessings (including the blessing of his presence), because they still owe that perfectly righteous life. So that forgiveness would not really be complete, because without a way to discharge the positive duty the people would just incur the same penalty over and over again.
Here is where sacrifice comes into play. We may be puzzled by the significance of the requirement in Leviticus that a sin-offering be an animal 'without blemish' or 'spotless'. Why is that a requirement? Well, precisely because we cannot, even if we are repentant, discharge our duty of offering a perfectly righteous life, God in his mercy declared, that in order for people to be able to enjoy his presence and blessings anyway, that an animal without blemish could be substituted for our own lives. The biblical principle of sin-offerings is that the life of the body is the blood, so by spilling the blood of a spotless animal what the Israelites essentially did was offer up a perfectly righteous life (symbolized by the spotlessness of the sin-offering) in lieu of their own, which they could not offer up due to their sinful nature. So complete forgiveness for a sin requires both repentance and the 'covering over' of the sin by the representative sinlessness of the animal life.
So the sin-offering is a substitutionary sacrifice, but the substitution is not penal. We make a grave misunderstanding of the concept if we imagine that the animal is somehow vicariously suffering the penalty of our sins. It is not about the penalty at all (which was blotted out due to our repentance), but about the positive duty we have to discharge in order to be made right with God. We substitute the animal's sinless life, and offer it up to God by pouring out its blood, for our own sinful one which cannot be sinless as God demands. And the blood of the sin-offering which is poured out is cleansing or expiatory, precisely by fulfilling the requirement of having to offer up a perfectly righteous or sinless life. When we have both repented of our sins and offered up a sinless life in substitution, God (in the Old Covenant) accepts us as justified and gives us his blessings.
Except...we're not really justified, not completely. Why? Hebrews gives the answer: it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to completely purify a person's conscience, so that they always wholeheartedly love God and keep his commandments. We might say that the sinless life of the animal is not nearly sinless enough to completely and finally justify us. It was, at best, a kind of shadow or type of the real, perfect sacrifice that was to come, the one that could truly substitute for our lives.
Let's recall our basic argument so far: the problem God has is not that a price must be paid to secure our forgiveness. God wants to forgive us and grants that forgiveness to whoever is genuinely repentant. The problem is, without offering up to him a perfectly righteous life, which we owe, we cannot, in addition to being forgiven, actually be justified. And due to our sinful nature we just cannot offer that perfectly righteous life. Now God wants to genuinely save us from our sinful nature and wants for us to discharge that duty so we can once again enjoy eternal life. But it's a catch-22: only a righteous person can discharge that duty to God and thus be justified and saved from sin, but the only people who need to be justified cannot actually do so.
Enter Jesus Christ. He is the sword that cuts the Gordian knot of our predicament. What Christ does to save us is not to pay the penalty for our sins. It is not a penal substitution. What Christ does to justify us is offer, in our place, the perfectly righteous, obedient life that we could not. By living a life of complete and perfect obedience to God, he discharged our obligation to God and thus secured eternal life for us once again. From beginning to end he lived a life of complete obedience, even unto death, and God accepted his offering of his own perfect life as a substitute for the perfect life we could not offer. In other words, Jesus did not die in our place: Jesus lived in our place. He did not substitute his death for ours, but his life for ours.
Now at this point you may be wondering, if all that is true, why did Jesus actually have to die? Luke, for example, emphasizes the necessity of Christ dying. Paul is adamant that Christ died 'for our sins', and Isaiah 53 affirms that he was 'wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities'. What sense are we to make of that affirmation? Why did Christ have to be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and suffer such injustice?
Let's go back to the dynamic of forgiveness: remember the crucial dynamic is that in order for forgiveness to take place, the offended party has to be willing to offer forgiveness and the offending party has to be willing to repent. But one further condition has escaped our notice: only the offended party can really forgive. Just as it would be a travesty of justice to forgive without the offender repenting, it would also be a travesty for a person who is not the offended party to offer the offender forgiveness. Going back to the rape example, it would be absolutely horrifying for a random person to walk up to the rapist and say 'It's okay, I forgive you' without the rape victim's say-so. Only the victim can truly offer forgiveness.
Now when our offense is only directed against God, God is very much within his rights to show mercy and forgive. And in a sense, as David realized, all our sins are really sins against God, because even when we wrong our fellow human beings we really wrong God, because we are wronging a fellow child made in His image, and violating his command to love our neighbor as ourself. BUT, there is also a sense in which we have directly wronged our fellow human being, and in order for our sin against him to be blotted out, he has to forgive us also. And God commands us to forgive each other as a condition for his forgiving us. Because if our crime is against a fellow human being but really against God, to deny the (repentant) offender forgiveness when God has already forgiven him is to defy the mercy of God, and to suggest that God is unjust to forgive, which is a very seriously calumny indeed. If we will not forgive men their trespasses, neither will our heavenly Father forgive ours.
So in order for God to forgive our sins directed against other people, all those people also have to forgive them, since they were the offended party along with God. Again, though, the problem is that our sin nature won't let us do that. We don't forgive those who wrong us, we demand recompense. Tit for tat. An eye for an eye, and all that.
So what did God do? By becoming incarnated as a human being, and by quietly suffering all manner of injustice from sinful human beings, He put himself in the position of the offended party. He entered life and bore the weight of the sins of the world on his shoulders. One recalls C.S. Lewis's reminder of just how shocking Jesus' claims to forgive were. To those who did not know him for who he really was, it seemed as if he was that random person who walked up to the rapist and said that he was free to go if he repented, without consulting the rape victim. Jesus acted as if he was the chief party offended in each case, when pious Jews of his day would have said that the person would need to seek forgiveness from God himself. Of course, they were right, but what they didn't realize was that God was standing there, flesh and blood, quietly suffering the weight of all the sins of the world as if they had been all directed against him. That's why John tells us that God gave Jesus the authority to judge the world: because all human injustices were representatively directed against him, he had the right to forgive or withhold forgiveness, which is the proper prerogative of the offended party.
Bearing the weight of those offenses involved dying at the hands of sinners. It could not have been any other way, if Jesus was to truly be put in the position of the offended party, and truly empathize with our plight. Because he suffered the massive injustice of being falsely accused, led away by a lynch mob, convicted in a kangaroo court and executed in the most shameful way possible, he truly did experience the full weight of human sin, and consequently is able to be merciful, and give us a model of mercy and forgiveness to follow.
That is the sense in which Jesus died for our sins: in order to truly be able to forgive and have mercy, Jesus had to embody representatively all offended parties, all those who suffer injustice and oppression, and finally death. He had to endure all manner of injustice against himself. He surely did bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. Also, in suffering as he did, he is able to sympathize with all those who suffer, as Hebrews affirms.
As McIlwain forcefully argues, the death of Jesus was not the revelation of the justice of God. We are not supposed to look upon the cross and say within ourselves, "Wow, it should be me up there, that's the just punishment I was suppose to endure for my sins." No, we are not supposed to look upon the cross as anything other than a massive injustice, the judicial murder of an innocent victim. This is the constant affirmation of the New Testament, especially of Luke-Acts: while the apostles do say that it happened according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, they do not say that it was an act of God's justice. They always stress that it was the miscarriage of justice, which miscarriage God rectifies by vindicating Jesus through Resurrection. In the resurrection, not only did Jesus remove the sting of death for those who trust in him, but God also promises proleptically that ultimately all wrongs will be made right, all injustice accounted for. So not the cross, but the resurrection reveals the justice of God.
Let us review what we have learned so far of what Christ has done for us: by becoming incarnated as a human being, he suffered temptation so that he could sympathize with all those who are tempted, he made himself the chief offended party of all human sin so that he could then justly forgive the sins of all those who genuinely repent, and he offered through his perfect obedience the perfectly righteous life all of us owe to God, but which God deems fulfilled in the one perfectly righteous life of His Son, for all those who trust in him and manifest sincere repentance in their life. God imputes the righteousness or good-standing of the Son to those who accept his representative work on their behalf (we should point out here that while righteousness may be justly imputed, guilt cannot: the Old Testament makes very clear that each sinner is responsible for his or her own sin. Ezekiel says that the father cannot be punished for the sins of the son, and vice versa. See McIlwain's book for a discussion of how we can be said to suffer and die for Adam's sin, without Adam's guilt being imputed to us).
But that is not all: to those who repent and accept Christ's representative work, God sends the Holy Spirit which sanctifies them and makes them actually able to discharge their duty to God. We would say that, for those who persevere in Christ and continually manifest the fruit of repentance, God delivers a verdict of 'justified' in advance of the final judgment, knowing that the work of His spirit through the high priestly ministry of Christ will carry through to the end, when we will finally be once again wholly renewed and wholly oriented towards the love of God and of keeping his commandments, which we will demonstrate in the new heavens and the new earth.
Now so far our whole discussion (which is mercifully winding to a close) has centered around how God secures forgiveness and justification for sinful creatures, but we have not addressed how it is that people become repentant in the first place! Here surely the Spirit must be at work in order to revive our seared consciences and make us realize the full extent and tragedy of our rebellion, and the enormity of the debt we owe to God. In a sense it would be easier to owe a death to God: we just die and have done with it. But our debt is far greater than that: instead of owing a death, we owe a life, and a perfect life of obedience to God at that, and if we fail to offer that life the penalty is death. And our consciences are stricken all the more when see the evidence of the lengths God is willing to go to in order to redeem us: his dead son upon the cross. So that is another thing Jesus accomplishes in his death, unjust as it was: he demonstrates to the world how much God lives it. And the evidence of this love, through the work of the Spirit, will make us want to repent, turn our lives around and trust in Christ so we might be made justified before God once more, and discharge the duty we owe him as the obedient sons of a loving Father.
What a glorious vision of atonement this is! We see that one of the problems with most atonement theories is that they reductionistically focus only on the cross and Jesus' death. While these are important elements of the atonement (and we could add that Jesus' flowing blood is also the seal of the new Covenant), what we need to realize is that the atonement was primarily fulfilled in Jesus' life of perfect obedience to God, which obedience extended to death, of course. Ephesians says that Jesus' offering was a sweet-smelling savor to God, and was accepted on behalf of all those who trust in him.
We see also that this model is immune to any accusation of 'cosmic child abuse', or the extreme logical difficulties involved in the idea that an innocent person could justly be punished for sins he did not commit, or the moral difficulty of the idea that God is like a medieval feudal lord, who demands bloody satisfaction for any infraction of his (apparently fragile) honor. Jesus died at the hands of sinners and this death was necessary, but there was no punishment involved: God was not punishing Jesus instead of us in order that he might be free to forgive us. The forgiveness itself was already freely available. What was really needed was the perfect substitutionary sin-offering, a perfectly righteous life poured out for many.
I hope this post interests you in reading McIlwain's book, which as far as I'm concerned is now THE model of the atonement. It is simply remarkable how well supported this approach is by the biblical evidence. (I may do a separate post with a reading of some of the key evidence), and how easily it sidesteps all the standard objections to the atonement models. When I read this book my heart was filled with praise for the God who loved his wayward children so much that he gave his son. This is the God, not of the inconsistent demand that justice must be satisfied before he can forgive, not of the terrible wrath that must be appeased by redirecting it onto an innocent person, but the God is more willing to forgive than we are to repent, the God who seeks out the one lost sheep until he finds it. But He is also the God of justice, and it will surely be true that if we refuse God's offered forgiveness and insist on judging others by our own vindictive standards, we will be judged ourselves by that measure, and we will have to pay the full penalty of our transgressions, which is death. But how could anyone not embrace the love of the God who is Love Himself, who sought us out while we were still running from him himself fulfilled the terms of our peace?