Biblical Redemption/Atonement Part II |

Hunt, Dave

Before man was created Satan had already rebelled and taken countless angels with him. How many angels and how long before, we don't know. Tragically, the insurrection spread from heaven to earth. At Satan's enticement, the first man and woman defied their Maker, bringing destruction and death upon this new race which God had created in His image.

This mutiny had not caught God by surprise but was proceeding exactly as He had foreknown. He was still on the throne of the universe. How could man rebel against God's absolute authority? Clearly, God had sovereignly given man the ability to submit to Him willingly in love. The ability to say yes, however, was meaningless without the equal ability to say no. Thus the door God opened to loving submission could be slammed shut in willful revolt—as Adam and Eve had done.

Some Christians suggest that God willed for Adam and Eve to break His commandment not to eat of the tree of knowledge. Yet sin of any kind is contrary to God's will. He must therefore have allowed sin to enter this world in order to further His ultimate purpose for mankind, all of whom He loves with an infinite love—the only kind of love that God, who is love, bestows.

The anarchy that began with one seemingly small act of disobedience quickly led to Cain's murder of his brother Abel, and rapidly grew to such monstrous proportions that "every imagination of the thoughts of [man's] heart was only evil continually." That God had neither decreed nor caused man's sin is clear: "And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; repenteth me that I have made them...but Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord" (Gen:6:5-8).

Couldn't God simply have forgiven Adam and Eve and given them a fresh start? No. There were several reasons why that could not be done. First of all, to do so God would have had to go back on His word. He had sworn that the penalty for disobedience would be death—i.e., eternal separation from Him, the source of life. God's perfect justice demanded the payment of that penalty. For God to set the penalty aside would undermine His integrity, put everything else He said in question, and make Him a partner in man's sin. No matter how much God loved man and desired to forgive him, His infinite love could not nullify His equally infinite justice.

Right here in the first chapters of the Bible we are confronted with key issues that have been debated among philosophers and theologians for thousands of years. Why would God create creatures whom He knew would rebel against Him and who would thereby be doomed by His holiness to eternal punishment? There was no other way because the rebels would be parents, children, aunts, uncles, etc., of the billions of redeemed who would blissfully dwell in God's loving presence forever. The latter could not exist without the former and all would be given equal opportunity to believe the gospel.

But being all-powerful, why couldn't God have kept Adam and Eve and all of their descendants from sinning? Atheists argue, "If God is too weak to stop evil and suffering, then he isn't God. And if he is powerful enough to stop it and doesn't do so, then he is a monster. Thus evil and suffering disprove the existence of God."

That argument becomes nonsense in view of the obvious fact demonstrated by everyday experience: man's Creator has given him the intelligence to come to his own conclusions and the prerogative to make his own choices. Without those abilities, humans could neither love God nor one another. For God to stop all evil, He would have to override the will He gave mankind; but that would turn man into a robot programmed to live a meaningless life. Such "well-behaved" puppets would not be to God's glory. Only creatures with a will could truly glorify God with voluntary worship, obedience and love coming from the heart.

"Power" could not abolish sin and the suffering it produces without destroying the sinner, because the heart cannot be changed by force. Neither the will nor love can be coerced. If God caused man to do either good or evil, then the "choice" to do so would not be man's but God's. It is axiomatic that, in spite of His infinite power, God could not cause man to cease from evil, but must seek to persuade him in love and mercy.

Yet there is an entire school of Christianity which declares that God could stop all evil and suffering but it pleases Him not to do so. How do they justify attributing to God this grave lack of love and compassion toward those He could rescue but instead predestines to damnation? They argue that 1) He is sovereign and can thus do as He pleases; 2) He is not obligated to save anyone; and 3) we cannot judge Him by our standards.

None of these defenses speaks to the issue. A sovereign can "do as he pleases" in some respects, but not morally. In fact, the more absolute a sovereign's power, the greater his moral responsibility to show compassion to those whose destiny he controls. Sovereignty cannot excuse a lack of love—nor could or would God who is love hide behind His sovereignty for such an end. We are commanded by Christ, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you,...That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven..." (Mat:5:44,45). One neither loves, blesses nor does good by leaving to suffer those whom one could rescue, much less predestines them to eternal torment. Such behavior by a man would be condemned, so it surely cannot be attributed to our "Father which is in heaven," whom we are to emulate.

Nor is mercy motivated by obligation but by compassion; and it is "according to his mercy he saved us..." (Titus:3:5). God told Moses, "I gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy" (Ex 33:19). Far from limiting His mercy, which "is over all his works" (Ps:145:9), God is simply saying that no one can demand His mercy. It flows without constraint from His love.

As for judging Him by "our standards," the very standards of love and kindness to which we hold one another are written in every human conscience by God who is more loving, not less, than we could ever be. First Corinthians 13, the "love chapter," presents a love so far beyond man's ability that it could only be God's love. And it is a denigration of that perfect and infinite love to suggest that God would act toward anyone with less kindness, compassion and love than He expects of us, His creatures.

If a doctor had a sure cure for a plague that was wiping out the human race, yet supplied it only to a select few, leaving multitudes to die needlessly, he would be justly condemned. Jesus said, "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful" (Lk 6:36). Surely God is no less merciful than we are commanded to be. Therefore, any theological system is false which presents God as less loving, kind and compassionate than man's God-given conscience and biblical commands tell him he ought to be.

We have already noted (TBC, Feb '01 ) much which a sovereign God cannot do—and not in spite of who He is but because of who He is. He cannot lie, go back on His Word, or deny Himself; He cannot sin, be wrong, ungracious, unmerciful or unloving. Nor can He be unjust. Therefore, He cannot forgive sinners without the full penalty demanded by His justice having been paid. And that is where redemption and atonement enter.

Simply to forgive Adam and Eve for their sedition would not only have been unjust but it would not have solved the basic problem. To give man a fresh start would change nothing. The rebellion would merely recur again and again as often as God forgave.

The willful disobedience of Adam and Eve had contaminated beyond repair the entire human race. God would have to start all over again. But for Him to create another Adam and Eve would only result in the same failure being repeated. The race of man already in existence had to be rescued. But how?

God must become a man—infinite God and perfect, sinless man in one Person—and Himself pay for all mankind that infinite penalty which His justice demanded for sin. And for God to become a man and die in our place would be possible only because God is a triune Being: "The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world" (1 Jn:4:14). The Son, not the Father or Holy Spirit, would die in our place.

The Messiah-Redeemer could not be born on earth until "the fulness of the time was come..." (Gal:4:4). His miraculous virgin birth could come only after a long period of preparation. That preparation would involve revealing the awfulness of sin, establishing a system of sacrifices that would point to the redemption the Messiah would accomplish, and providing many prophecies concerning the Messiah and His ministry which would identify Him beyond question when at last He came.

The first prophecy of the One who would redeem mankind was pronounced as doom upon the deceiving serpent in the hearing of Adam and Eve immediately following their sin: "the woman...her seed [i.e., virgin-born]...shall bruise thy head [a mortal wound]..." (Gen:3:15). Further prophecies will be considered next month.

The first picture of redemption was given when God killed animals, shedding their blood that their skins might cover the nakedness of Adam and Eve. The penalty of death had to be exacted: "...without shedding of blood is no remission [of sins]" (Heb:9:22); "For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul" (Lev:17:11). Ingesting blood would perpetuate the forfeited life, denying both the penalty and solution, and was therefore forbidden to Jew (Lev:17:14, etc.) and Christian (Acts:15:20). That prohibition is defied by Roman Catholicism's claim that her priests change the Eucharistic wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ to be ingested by the faithful. Christ's blood was poured out in death at Calvary, never to be taken up again. His resurrected body is of "flesh and bones" (Lk 24:39), without blood.

Old Testament sacrifices and examples pictured the coming sacrifice of the Messiah. Christ explained that even the brass serpent on the pole in the wilderness (Num:21:6-9) pictured his death upon the Cross (Jn:3:14). Of the first primitive altar, God commanded, "...thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar" (Ex 20:24-26). No human effort was acceptable. The blood of the sacrifice alone could temporarily cover sin before the Cross. Babel was the ultimate rejection of God's plan of redemption: instead of a blood sacrifice, steps of man's own making were the path to heaven.

We can only mention a few of the major Old Testament offerings which pictured the sacrifice of the coming Messiah. The most frequently sacrificed animal was the lamb, always a type of the Messiah: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (Jn:1:29). There was the "ram caught in a thicket by his horns [i.e., Christ alone had the power to pay sin's penalty]" which God provided to Abraham in the place of Isaac (Gen:22:8-13). There was the passover lamb sacrificed to deliver Israel from Egypt. It had to be "without blemish, a male of the first year" (Ex 12:5), picturing Christ's perfection and sinlessness. Its blood was applied "to the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein" the children of Israel were sheltered, eating the lamb (v. 7): "And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt" (v. 13). The lamb was to be eaten "roast with fire" (v. 9), picturing the full heat of God's wrath against sin which Christ would bear in our place.

The entire book of Leviticus is devoted to instructions regarding the various sacrifices that temporarily covered sin until the Messiah came. All foreshadowed Christ's once-for-all sacrifice which alone could redeem mankind. The tabernacle (and later the temple) in which these sacrifices were offered "was a figure for the time then present, in which were offered both gifts, and sacrifices...meats and drinks, and divers washings...until the time of reformation [i.e., the advent and sacrifice of Christ]" (Heb:9:9,10).

As we noted last month, the foundation for biblical teaching concerning redemption and atonement is laid in the Old Testament. There the word "redeemer" is found each of the 18 times it appears in the Bible; "atonement" is found 80 of the 81 times and "redeemed" is found 55 of 62 times. Not one of the Old Testament pictures of redemption or atonement was effective for only a select group. Every sacrifice and feast day picturing Christ under the old covenant was for all Israel (even though most rejected the provision). This is true from the observance of the sabbath ("There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God" - Heb:4:9), to the passover ("For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us" - 1 Cor:5:7), to the day of atonement (Lev:23:27), including every sacrifice in the tabernacle and temple.

This background helps us to see that, exactly like the Old Testament sacrifices which looked forward to the Cross, so Christ's sacrifice on Calvary was not limited to a select group but was efficacious for all who would believe. TBC