On the meaning of Old Testament sacrifice
or goats from your sheepfolds.
For every wild animal in the forest belongs to me,
as well as the cattle that graze on a thousand hills.
I keep track of every bird in the hills,
and the insects of the field are mine.
Even if I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and all it contains belong to me.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls?
Do I drink the blood of goats?
Present to God a thank-offering!
Repay your vows to the sovereign One!
Pray to me when you are in trouble!
I will deliver you, and you will honor me!”
(Psalm 50:9-15 NET)
"The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God." (Psalm 51:17 NLT)
I have two main reservations about the traditional penal substitutionary theory of the atonement. The first is that it seems to clearly contradict a fundamental principle of biblical justice, that the only one who can be justly punished for wrongdoing is the wrongdoer himself. The second is that penal substitution seems to misread the meaning of the sacrificial practices which were the type for Christ's perfect sacrifice. It is the second reservation I want to develop in this post.
To ask after the meaning of sacrifice is to ask what it is for: what does it do for the person who offers it, or for the deity that receives it?
If the penal substitutionary theory is correct, the answer would go something like this: when people violate God's commandments whether in deed or in thought, they incur a punishment which they must suffer. That punishment must be inflicted on something, otherwise justice is not done. So God in his mercy decreed that He would demand the life of an innocent sacrificial animal instead of the life of the offender. So on this view, what is atoning about the sacrifice is the killing itself, which is the punishment which normally would have attached itself to the offender (the wages of sin is death), but is instead attached to an innocent animal.
The problem with this idea is that nowhere in the Bible is this view suggested for the significance of any sacrifice (if anyone knows of a passage where sacrifice does take this meaning, please let me know).
We can start with the very first recorded sacrifices, those of Abel and Cain. The Bible says that "At the designated time Cain brought some of the fruit of the ground for an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought some of the firstborn of his flock-even of the fattest of them. And the Lord was pleased with Abel and his offering, but with Cain and his offering the Lord was not pleased." (Genesis 4:3-5) It seems clear why the Lord preferred one offering over the other: whereas Cain only brought 'some of the fruit of the ground', Abel brought 'some of the firstborn of his flock, even of the fattest of them'. There is a clear difference in the value or costliness of what was offered to the giver: Cain could easily afford to spare a few vegetables for a sacrifice, whereas for Abel to give up some of his fattest, healthiest animals was a significantly costlier gesture to him personally. Notice also that the difference in quality between the two sacrifices was not that the one involved killing or punishment and the other didn't. It's all about the value of what was offered to giver. And it is also not a sacrifice of atonement for sins: it is simply an offering, a worshipper giving up something of value to God in order to show thanks and appreciation.
We see this kind of sacrifice again in the famous 'Akedah' story of Genesis 22. There is no indication that Abraham had done something wrong for which the death of Isaac would atone. No, the point of the sacrifice was for God to see if Abraham loved God so much that he would be willing to give up that which was most precious to him, his beloved son, the son of the promise. The point of this kind of offering (the 'burnt offering') was not to atone for wrongdoing, but to show one's acknowledgment of the debt of gratitude one owed to God by giving up a valued possession. This sentiment is reinforced in 2 Samuel 24, the famous incident when David went and bought a threshing floor from a landowner in order to offer burnt offerings. The landowner insisted on giving him both the floor and the burnt offerings, but David in turn insisted on paying the full price, saying "I will not offer to the Lord my God sacrifices that cost me nothing." (2 Samuel 24:24)
So we see that generally in the Bible what matters most about a sacrifice is not the killing itself but the value of that which is given up. Sacrifice is a ritual that allows a person to demonstrate before God and man that he is very serious about wanting to give God his due, and to acknowledge his absolute dependence on God for everything he has.
But what about those atoning sacrifices in Leviticus, which do involve the slaughtering of animals after laying one's hands forcefully upon the sacrifice as a gesture of identification with it? Doesn't the necessity of slaughter indicate that here indeed we have penal substitution, the infliction upon an innocent animal the punishment which should rightly have befallen the worshipper?
Actually, no. In Leviticus 17 we read that what is actually atoning about the whole process is not the killing itself, but the blood of the sacrificial animal: "for the life of every living thing is in the blood. So I myself have assigned it to you on the altar to make atonement for your lives, for the blood makes atonement by means of the life." (Leviticus 17:11) Here we have a very clear statement that the blood is atoning, not because it represents the just punishment suffered for sin, but because it carries the life of that which was offered. What the worshipper is really offering here is life itself.
Recall from my previous post that what we properly owe to God, our sacrifice, is nothing less than a life lived in perfect obedience to Him, a life of perfect righteousness. That is the only way we can discharge our obligation to God, stand justified before Him and claim life and blessings from Him. The problem, however, is that in our sinful state we cannot give this perfect offering. No matter how sincere or strenuous our efforts, we find it impossible to fully and perfectly obey God in thought and deed. As such, we find ourselves in danger of having to forfeit the life God gave us. But God does not want to extract this penalty from us. He does not want to take away our life, so that we would perish. So in his mercy, he gives us a way to 'redeem' our life by offering up the life of a spotless substitute.
Now here we must be careful to take the symbolic nature of this act seriously. It is not as if the Israelites believed that the blood was like a currency for buying off God's wrath. There is no indication that God consumes blood (see the opening quotation) or that he has any need of it. Its value in God's eyes is that it symbolizes the worshipper's sincere repentance and acknowledgement of what he owes to God. Precisely because blood is such a costly, precious substance, spilling it before God indicates that there is nothing the worshipper would withhold from God, just as Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac showed that there was nothing Abraham would not withhold, even his beloved son. Also, that the blood comes from a spotless sacrifice symbolizes the worshipper's wish to offer God, not just a life, but a perfect and blameless life. The spotlessness of the sacrifice does NOT however mean that the sacrifice is an 'innocent' substitute which bears the punishment of the sinner. There is no sense in which animals are innocent or guilty, because they do not sin. And like I said earlier, the significance of the sacrifice is not the killing itself as representing punishment, but the value of what is offered.
If we read the texts carefully we will see that even in the cases where sacrifices are offered with the hope of appeasing God's wrath (of which the above story of David is one example), the value of the sacrifice is showing to God that one really has the requisite repentant attitude necessary for God to grant mercy and forgiveness. For the ancient Israelites it was not enough just to feel really sorry on the inside, but go on in everyday life showing no indication of having repented of anything. No, repentance had to be enacted, before God and before the assembly, through the offering of sacrifices. Even in the parable of the self-righteous Pharisee and the tax collector, the latter's repentance was enacted through the beating of his chest and keeping his head lowered towards the ground. What really matters to God, the real sacrifice he desires of sinners, is a broken and repentant heart. And when God responds to genuine repentance, he wipes out their transgressions completely. He doesn't say, "Well yeah, I'd like to forgive you, but first you gotta pay up." No, when God blots out sins he erases them from his books entirely and no one will ever have to pay the punishment due for those sins.
Now when Jesus came along, he did not offer a sacrifice of repentance, because he didn't need to, having never sinned. What he did was live his whole life in perfect obedience to God, which obviates the need for sacrifices. We see in Jesus that the spilling of the blood under the Old Covenant represented the offering of life to God. Of course Jesus actually did shed his blood upon the cross, but I think that when the NT authors talk of Jesus' blood cleansing us from sin they are referring to the way his entire self-sacrificial life, even to the point of death, was an offering pleasing and acceptable to God, so that God counts our obligation to offer him a sinless life discharged. As I explained in the last post, Jesus' suffering and death had a different role to play in the divine economy of salvation. Insofar as one of the barriers to our reconciliation with God was that we cannot discharge our debt of a perfect life to God, that barrier crumbled in the face of Jesus' life of perfect obedience.