The Biblical Revelation of the Cross, Part 1

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.

McIlwain begins by pointing out how odd it is that while theologians have tended to see the cross as revealing the justice of God, in that Jesus bore the penalty for our sin, the New Testament authors tend to think of the cross as revealing instead the injustice of man. This is especially apparent in Luke-Acts. Luke has the centurion in charge of the crucifixion declare, "Certainly this man was innocent!" (Luke 23:47) In Peter's speeches in Acts, which most scholars would agree give the substance of early Christian proclamation, we find no hint that Jesus suffered the just penalty for anyone's sins, but what we do find stressed is that Jesus was "disowned" by His people and wrongfully executed in the place of a murderer (Acts 3:15). When Philip discusses Isaiah 53 with the Ethiopian eunuch, the following passage is emphasized:

He was led like a sheep to slaughter,
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In humiliation justice was taken from him,
Who can describe his posterity?
For his life was taken away from the earth. (Acts 8:32-33; Isaiah 53:7-8)

The injustice of Jesus' death is also stressed by Peter in his letter to persecuted believers: "For this finds God’s favor, if because of conscience toward God someone endures hardships in suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if you sin and are mistreated and endure it? But if you do good and suffer and so endure, this finds favor with God. For to this you were called, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps. He committed no sin nor was deceit found in his mouth. When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly." (1 Peter 2:19-23) According to Peter, what was pleasing to God about Jesus' death was that he endured injustice without sinning in return, either by striking back or by lying to get out of it. Jesus held back, confident that God, as opposed to men, would render a just verdict. And indeed, God did overturn that verdict by raising Jesus from the dead and seating him at the right hand of God.

McIlwain argues that it would have been exceedingly unjust of God to punish an innocent man instead of the guilty. This principle is expressly stated many times in Scripture, most clearly in Proverbs: "The one who acquits the guilty and the one who condemns the innocent-both are an abomination to the Lord...It is terrible to punish a righteous person, and to flog honorable men is wrong." (17:15, 26) We see this principle dramatically illustrated in Exodus, when the Lord was furious with the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf. Moses goes up the mountain to intercede for the people: "Alas," he says, "this people has committed a very serious sin, and they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin…, but if not, wipe me out from your book that you have written." (Exodus 32:31-32) In solidarity with his people, Moses insists on being punished along with them, even though he himself had not committed the crime, perhaps hoping that God would spare the Israelites in exchange for his own punishment. But the Lord will have none of it: "Whoever has sinned against me-that person I will wipe out of my book." (32:33) This principle is given its clearest expression in Ezekiel 18. In exile, the people were complaining that they were suffering unjustly because of the sins of their ancestors (a proverb was apparently circulating: "The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth become numb," Ezekiel 18:2). In response, God makes it very clear that each person is accountable for his own sins: "The person who sins is the one who will die. A son will not suffer for his father’s iniquity, and a father will not suffer for his son’s iniquity; the righteous person will be judged according to his righteousness, and the wicked person according to his wickedness." (Ezekiel 18:20) God is clear that they have no right to complain that God is being unjust: they will live or die by their own conduct.

In light of the injustice of punishing an innocent person instead of the guilty, McIlwain suggests another way of understanding what Christ did for us:

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.

McIlwain finds his hermeneutical key to what the New Testament authors understood as Jesus' sacrifice in Ephesians: "Therefore, be imitators of God as dearly loved children and live in love, just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God." (5:1-2) Now it is customary to read that 'gave himself for us' as a reference to his death, but it is interesting that here in this passage it is connected to a life of love, not death. This understanding is further verified in two other passages that use the same or a similar phrase. Paul praises the Philippians for sending him sustenance in a time of need: "For I have received everything, and I have plenty. I have all I need because I received from Epaphroditus what you sent – a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, very pleasing to God." (Philippians 4:18) The acceptable sacrifice here is one of service. Also in Romans we have Paul urging the believers to "present your bodies as a sacrifice-alive, holy, and pleasing to God-which is your reasonable service." (Romans 12:1)

According to McIlwain, Jesus' entire life of self-sacrificial love for others in complete obedience to God was the sacrifice he offered. God was pleased with his offering, not because his wrath had been vented on a hapless victim, but because Jesus was completely righteous. God's wrath toward us because of our sin was turned aside, not because he saw Jesus' endurance of punishment and was satisfied, but because he saw the perfect life he lived in complete obedience, even to the point of dying an unjust death without striking back. God is placated not by punishment, but by righteousness, as is clear in the prophet Micah: "Will the Lord accept a thousand rams, or ten thousand streams of olive oil? Should I give him my firstborn child as payment for my rebellion, my offspring – my own flesh and blood – for my sin? He has told you, o man, what is good, and what the Lord really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, and be faithful, and to live obediently before your God." (Micah 6:7-8) God is clear with regard to the payment he wants because of the Israelites' rebellion: to promote justice, be faithful, and live obediently.

That God is placated by righteousness is also clear from the story of Noah. After the flood Noah makes an offering of clean animals, and the Lord smells "the soothing aroma" and promises never again to the destroy the entire Earth (Genesis 8:21). What was so pleasing about this aroma? Rather than concluding that God, like the deities of the surrounding regions, actually got hungry and thought the sacrifice smelled tasty, we should rather interpret the soothing aroma, just as it was in the New Testament, as evidence that he found Noah's righteousness pleasing. Remember, Noah was "a godly man; he was blameless among his contemporaries. He walked with God." (Genesis 6:9) Thus we should not understand this offering as a sin-offering, but rather as an expression of Noah's faithfulness to God. And God was pleased with the offering.

(Addendum, 08/23/2010: We also have direct confirmation of this principle in Proverbs 16:6: "Through loyal love and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, through fearing the Lord one avoids evil.")

Under this aspect we can understanding the significance of the OT sacrificial systems in a new light: the sacrifices were pleasing to God, not because they involved the slaughter (and hence punishment) of animals, but because they were done in obedience to the instructions that He had given. This is clear from the harsh punishments prescribed in case of deviation from these instructions: what God really wants is for the Israelites to follow them to the letter, thus showing their complete obedience and allegiance to Him. There is some evidence that very close to Jesus' time the rabbis were thinking along similar lines. A near contemporary of Jesus, Yohanan ben Zakkai, in commenting on the efficacy of the red heifer ritual described in Numbers 19 says "God has Decreed. A Statute I have ordained and an institution I have established and it is not permitted to transgress the Law." (Numbers Rabbah 19:8) In other words, it's nothing in the heifer itself that is particularly salvific: what is important is that the Israelites obey the Law.

McIlwain comments on the significance of the OT sacrifices for the sacrifice that Jesus made:

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)

McIlwain stresses that forgiveness is not the problem when it comes to dealing with human sin:

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.
McIlwain explains further how it is that Jesus' offering of his life to God is efficacious for our salvation:

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.
On this reading, we are saved from God's wrath, and Christ's blood covers our sins, not because that blood is evidence that the punishment for sin has been paid, but rather it is evidence of the perfect sacrifice of a righteous life. God looks at those of us who trust in Jesus and sees nothing but Jesus' own righteousness, which is pleasing to Him.

But why was it necessary for Christ to suffer for our sins? One reason that Hebrews gives is that it was necessary in order for Jesus to be able to sympathize with those who suffer, and thus to be able to effectively intercede for them (Hebrews 2:10). We also read that the suffering was necessary in order for Jesus to learn obedience (Hebrews 5:8). We should not of course read this as indicating that Jesus was rebellious and needed to be punished and brought back in line, but rather that true obedience can only be demonstrated in hardship. Anyone can be obedient when it doesn't cost them anything, but perfect obedience is demonstrated when one endures the most intense suffering while remaining faithful. This is the promise the martyrs were given in Revelation: "Remain faithful even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown that is life itself." (Revelation 2:10) Of course the martyrs' obedience could not have brought about life for everyone, because they themselves were only righteous under the covering of Christ's righteousness. But when Jesus was faithful unto death, he not only provided a model for his followers but he secured a crown of life for himself and for everyone who believes in him.

McIlwain also gives another reason for Jesus' suffering, and ultimately for his incarnation:

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.
So to sum up: the sacrifice Christ offered to God on our behalf was a life in complete obedience to God, even to the point of death (Paul stresses that it was the obedience of Christ, not his suffering, that made many righteous; Romans 5:19). God's wrath is placated, not by punishment, but by righteousness: the life Christ lived on our behalf was received as a fragrant offering which covers up our sins: God no longer sees them, he only sees Christ's righteousness. Jesus suffered and died because of our injustice. We thought that God had stricken and afflicted him, but he was really suffering because of our sins. He himself was innocent. The suffering and death were necessary so that Christ could perfect his obedience (because true obedience will endure anything, even death) and be an effective advocate for those who suffer. Also, as we will see in the next post, Christ had to die in order to destroy the power of death and to remove its sting (see the analogy with the healthy person infecting himself with a deadly disease in the previous post).

Securing forgiveness, i.e. canceling the penalty for past sins, was not the problem. The problem was securing our righteousness, i.e. the complete destruction of our sin nature and the satisfaction of the debt of a perfect life that we owe to God.


Morrison said…
JD, given your comments on other blogs, I have a question.

Do you believe "Jesus is Lord" and can you say it?
Ken Pulliam said…
McIlwain's theory of the atonement is interesting and it does avoid the serious logical, moral and theological problems created by Penal Substitution, However, I still see some problems:

1. His theory puts the emphasis on the life of Christ whereas the NT, especially Paul, makes the death of Christ the focal point in which redemption is accomplished.

2. Following from point #1, his theory does not make the death of Christ an essential ingredient in redemption. Based on his theory, there is no reason why Jesus could not save man without dying such a violent and cruel death.

3. His theory does not adequately deal with the passages which would indicate that the Father was the one who smote and crushed Christ on the cross (Isa. 53:10; Matt. 26:31) nor the ones that indicate that it was the Father's plan for Jesus to die (Acts 2:23; Rom. 8:32), which plan Jesus struggled with fulfilling (Matt. 26:39).

4. His theory still has the problem of how the righteousness of Christ comes to belong to man. It would seem that the doctrine of imputation would come into play here and his theory would suffer from the problem of a "legal fiction," God regarding man as righteous, without man actually being righteous, which it seems a God of truth could not do (i.e., say something is true when it is not really true).
Anonymous said…

Of course I affirm that Jesus is Lord, but a facile question like that shows that you have not bothered to think through any of my previous posts.


1. It's true Paul focuses a lot on Jesus' death. I'll have to look into this some more, but one reason might have to do with his Gentile audience, and the problem of how the Gentiles could be included in the covenant community. Their justification is patterned after that of Abraham before circumcision, which involved believing that God would provide him an heir, even when Abraham and Sarah were basically 'as good as dead'. It was Abraham's faith that God would provide life out of death that was accounted to him as righteousness and ensured that his spiritual progeny would also be justified. Paul sees Jesus as fulfilling that motif of Scripture (trusting God to bring life out of death, i.e. resurrection).

2. Salvation is a complex thing, and every part of Christ's life, death and resurrection played an essential role in accomplishing it. It seems that you're thinking of 'save' in a very limited sense here. Even if Jesus' death wasn't necessary to take away the punishment for our sins, it was still necessary in order to destroy its power, which is definitely part of salvation, as Hebrews makes clear.

3. If Jesus' death was necessary as laid out in 2, then of course the Father would want Jesus to suffer and die and would arrange for it to happen. But we must keep in mind the difference between the idea that a) the Father would bring about something evil for the greater good, i.e. whether he is just in bringing about an atrocity and b) whether the death itself was an expression of God's justice, i.e. a punishment.

4. It seems that in some of your posts you agreed that imputed righteousness is less objectionable than imputed guilt? But in any case, we can understand imputation as the proleptic verdict of the final judgment. Those who trust in Christ receive the Holy Spirit, who will make sure that they are able to stand blameless at the final judgment, and in the meantime Christ's righteousness covers them.
Ken Pulliam said…

Thanks for the dialogue.

1. I am not sure that one can say that Paul's emphasis on the death of Jesus as salvific is intended primarily for his Gentile audience. He interprets the death, in my opinion, primarily utilizing Hebraic concepts of sacrifice. I do think he "tweaks" these ideas so that they will also resonate with his Gentile audience. The cross stands at the center of Christian theology and that is because historically Christians have associated what Jesus did on the cross as somehow effecting man's salvation. That is not to say that the cross is seen in isolation from either his life or his (supposed) resurrection but the atonement is at the heart.

2. Why was Jesus' death necessary to destroy the power of sin? and exactly how did it do so?

3. It seems to me that it is problematic to say that "the Father would bring about something evil for the greater good" . That seems to be a relativistic ethic, i.e., the end justifies the means. How can a perfectly holy God in any way be party to an evil act? I realize this has implications for any theodicy. I guess the standard answer is that God allows but does not cause the evil. That raises some interesting philosophical questions which there is not space to develop here.

4. I think there are problems with either imputed guilt or imputed righteousness. Both require that somehow the moral qualities of one individual become the moral qualities of another. It doesn't seem to me that there is any way to transfer moral qualities anymore than one can transfer an experience. You say that Christ's righteousness covers believers. I would be interested in how you develop this. Is it due to a mystical union or is it a legal fiction or something else?

Again, I think McIlwain's view, and others that are similar to it, escape some of the serious problems associated with penal sub. but there still seems to be the connecting link between all the theories that somehow the death of Jesus does something that allows God now to forgive sin. Which brings us back to this question: "Why does someone (or something) have to die before God can forgive? What is it about the death that effects God in such a way that he is now free to forgive? Anselm said it was his "honor" that had to be requited. Calvin and the defenders of penal sub. said it was his "justice" that required it. Grotius said it was the moral government of the universe. What is it in your theory that the death of Jesus satisfies or fulfills that now enables God to forgive?
Layman said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Layman said…
Just focusing on the point about whether God can punish the innocent to help the guilty, a few thoughts.

The Provers 17 references are, IMO, unhelpful because they seem directed to man-on-man actions and directions. Certainly God doesn't want earthly justice systems to reward evil and punish good.

The Exodus references are more interesting because they deal with God's actions and Moses' offer of accepting punishment despite being innocent of the explicit sin. God declines Moses' offer (apparently), but this does not mean that Jesus' offer would be declined. First, Moses does not offer to accept punishment in substitution for his people. He is clear that if God decides to go ahead and punish them, he wants to be punished as well because he was their leader. I'm not sure this is a showing of "solidarity" or Moses accepting some part of the failure since he failed -- as their God-appointed leader -- to lead them better. If the latter, the text could be suggesting Moses will have to face his own failures.

Next, we agree that Moses is an inferior sacrifice to Jesus. It wasn't even in the ballpark of what might be acceptable, at the least because Jesus was sinless and fully righteous. Additionally, God may be more reluctant to inflict punishment on one of His creations who is innocent of the sin than he would be to accept that punishment on Himself. So even if Moses had offered to be a substitutionary sacrifice, we have no reason to believe God would have found it worthy or desirable of acceptance -- whether he was open to the concept in the abstract of not.

Finally, another problem with the analysis of Exod 32 is shared by that of Ezek. 18. That God generally will visit justice upon the sinner and not the innocent is not a point I would dispute. But as I pointed out above, that is a different matter than whether God Himself can volunteer to bear the punishment on the behalf of others. Sometimes taking categorical statements beyond their context can lead to misleading results. For example, Ezek. 18:20, "The person who sins is the one who will die." But you would argue that there is an exception to this rule, correct? That exception would be when the person repents and asks forgiveness. If you can supply an exception without betraying the text, then why can their be no others? Such as, "except when God Himself accepts the punishment on the person's behalf"? Both exceptions, IMO, do no damage to the statement itself as understood by its context.

A more extended discussion could be had as to whether Exodus is referring to the final judgment or the experiences of our earthly life and how in light of our conclusions in that regard we should apply these passages to eschatological issues.
Layman said…
Regarding Jesus' death being portrayed as unjust,

I agree that New Testament writers were concerned with portraying the injustice of Jesus' execution. I not think that it necessarily follows, however, that this is driven by a theory of the atonement inconsistent with penal substitution. Rather, it is likely driven in part by their concern with combating the otherwise reasonable conclusion that Jesus' death on the cross at the hands of the governing authorities – both Jewish and Roman - meant that he was a criminal or offender of some sort. This was of added importance because the penal substitution theory – and the theory you are furthering, as I understand it – require that Jesus have lived a life of perfect righteousness. Accordingly, this characterization is consistent with either theory, as well as the Christus Victor approach.

What better way to mitigate the implication of the stamp of Roman execution than to have the Roman centurion who was involved in it to proclaim his innocence? As for 1 Peter 2, Peter clearly sets up Jesus as an example to the likely suffering Christians he was writing to, but I don't think this makes a case against penal substitution. Indeed, I think 1 Peter 2:24 is one of the stronger penal-substitution supporting verses: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed." The penal substitution theory recognizes that Jesus did not deserve to die, but also recognizes that having done so God ultimately judged Him worthy by resurrecting Him. The Christus Victor understanding of the atonement also is predicated to a large extent that Jesus' death was unjust and that his perfect live and undeserving punishment lead directly to the subjugation of the evil powers.
Anonymous said…

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