Sunday, 5 April 2015

Good Friday- Atonement as sacrifice

Good Friday- atonement as sacrifice- directed to God[1]

Today and Easter I will be exploring what is called the Atonement. At the very center of our faith stands a cross. We wear crosses around our necks, and we put them on our walls. We emboss them on our Bibles and Prayer Books, some of us even tattoo them on our bodies. But what does the cross mean? What happened on the cross? The word “atonement” literally meant “at-one-ment”. It is to bring two things into unity. We are told that what happened on the cross brought what was divided (God and humanity), into unity.
There are a variety of ways to understand the Atonement. C. S. Lewis has said that understanding how it works is less important than understanding that it works. He says it is like nutrition. People were eating food and drinking long before there were any theory of nutrition. You don’t have to understand how your body breaks down food and makes use of it to nourish your cells. When you are hungry it is enough to eat and it still works even if the process seems somewhat mysterious. Jesus’ work on the cross is like this. We don’t have to dedicate ourselves to one particular theory about how this works. What we are assured of in Scripture and the experience of the Church is that it does work.
That being said, there are many ways of understanding the Atonement that fall into three basic categories. They basically answer the question “where was the work of Christ on the cross directed?” Was it directed to human beings? Was it directed to God? Or was it directed to Evil? Yesterday we considered the view that Jesus’ actions on the cross were directed towards humanity, which resulted in healing humanity, providing an example for them to follow, and expressing God’s amazing and unending love to draw alienated humanity back to Himself.
There are two other basic ways to view Atonement. The cross could be directed to God, so the actions of Jesus can be seen as the actions of a representative or a substitute for humanity that stands before a profoundly mysterious and holy God that is unable to have the corruption of sin in His presence. Jesus pays a debt we owe God, or receives a punishment we deserve as a part of offending a very holy justice. The third way to consider the atonement is as directed towards Evil.  In this view the work of Christ on the cross is about going to battle on our behalf to destroy the powers of Evil and rescue humanity that has been captured and oppressed.
Today I would like us to look at the work of Christ on the cross as directed towards God. The idea here is that something is owed God due to human sin. We are in debt, but we are unable to repay that debt. God’s holiness and justice is not able to overlook the corruption of sin. It has to be dealt with.    
 This way of looking at the atonement became popular in the 11th century especially as it was laid out by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109). This is the basic idea: Humanity’s sin is basically the failure to give God what He deserves. It is the responsibility of humanity to give God what is owed Him, as well as the necessary back payment for what we have robbed him of. As a good judge, God’s justice demands this restoration. For God to overlook this would make God a bad judge without a sense of justice.  The problem is that humanity us unable to repay this debt. Even if we stopped sinning entirely we would only be giving God what we owe Him already. The debt could not be paid down. And we continue to sin continuing to build a greater debt to God each time we deny God what we owe Him, which is our complete and utter love and service. God is left with two options- punish humanity as they deserve, or accept payment on their behalf. The tricky bit is that only a human being can make the payment because it is humanity that owes the debt. No human is able to make this kind of payment on behalf of humanity.  The solution is found in Jesus Christ, who is both God and human. As a human being he belongs to humanity who needs to make payment. As God, he has resources to make the payment.  
There are many biblical references that can be used to support this view. In Isaiah 53:5 we read that the suffering servant was “wounded for our transgressions”. St. Paul says in his letter to the Romans 4:25 that Christ was “delivered over to death for our sins”. And in his second letter to the Corinthians 5:21 he says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin”. And John writes in his first letter (2:2) that Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins”.
In his letter to the Romans Paul says that the penalty for sin is death (Rom 6:23). However, Christ died in our place. He took to himself the death we deserved and bore our sin (2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:10).  He bore what we deserved so that we could have forgiveness of sins made available for us.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). And “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10).  We owed to God 100% dedication and obedience. We have a covenant with God. To break one part of that covenant is to break the covenant. When you sign a contract if you violate a part of the contract, you have broken the contract. James writes 2:10 “for whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it”.
Ancient Israel was not able to keep the law perfectly and that gave rise to the sacrificial system.  The sacrifice system atoned for the sins committed. The temple sacrifices were necessary because of human sin. Paul says, the payment and wages for sin is death (Rom 6:23). And so the death of a sacrifice is the result of Sin.  
Not keeping the law perfectly violated the covenant and placed the people under a curse. Paul writes to the Galatians (Gal 3:10), “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’”. So now there is a need to deal with this curse. Paul Goes on to say that the curse can only be removed by the cross of Christ (Gal 3:13)- “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”.
Sometimes this view of the atonement is because we don’t have a very solid view of the mysterious holiness of God.  The Law we break isn’t something separate from God, but intricate to God’s character and holiness. Breaking the Law is to reject and rebel against God.
Because God is so holy it is dangerous for Sin infected human beings to enter into the presence of God. The sin within us cannot be in the same place as God’s holiness. The elaborate sacrifice system and purification rituals show there was a process humans had to enter into if they were to approach God safely. We see this spelled out in particular in the book of Leviticus.   
Judgement and wrath are the names we use for when God’s holiness comes into contact with Sin and injustice. John the Baptist and Jesus both call people to repentance and speak about a coming judgement (Mt 3:1-12; 23:1-36). St. Paul speaks about this judgement and wrath. For example, In Romans 2:5 he says “…because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.” In 1 Thessalonians 1:10 he says, “…wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” And in 5:9 he says, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ”. This judgement, or wrath, comes from the profound and mysterious holiness of God that cannot coexist with sin.
All human beings have sinned and the holy and just God doesn’t overlook sin. It has to be dealt with. In the Old Testament this gave rise to the sacrifice system. When someone offered an animal for a sin sacrifice in the Old Testament, the person laid their hands on the animal, which sort of made the animal a substitute for the person offering the sacrifice. The penalty for sin is death. This is expressed graphically through animal sacrifice. In a sense the animal received what the worshipper deserved. The spilling of blood and the death of the sacrifice is in place of the spilling of the blood and the death of the worshipper. (I should say that this is only one way to look at how sacrifice was understood) Viewed in this way the Old Testament sacrifices point towards Christ and his willing sacrifice on the cross. Isaiah 53 is full of sacrifice language and it was very soon attached to Jesus as describing his mission. John the Baptist calls Jesus the “lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). Referring to a lamb is likely a reference to a sacrificial lamb, like the one sacrificed at Passover whose blood protected the ancestors from the plague of death in Egypt.  
Paul seems to have the Old Testament sacrifices in mind when he writes in Romans 3:21-26 “… now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—  the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Christ, as our substitute, absorbs the full payment for sin. God’s holiness receives justice because the sin is dealt with rather than being merely overlooked. And the mercy and love of God is shown to humanity by allowing them to benefit from the self-sacrifice of Christ. Jesus says in Mark 10:45 that, “… the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”. He paid the ransom to set us free. He received the punishment we deserve. He received death to free us from the power of death. All of this was done to grant us access to God’s mysterious, holy, and powerful presence which sin has denied us.
This is countercultural. We don’t like to hear about this side of God. And to be really honest with you this version of the atonement makes me really uncomfortable. I’d don’t like it much at all. But I have to admit that perhaps it is countercultural because we don’t take sin and injustice seriously. It is routine, so we have a high tolerance for sin. We become used to it, then we start to think punishment is an inappropriate response. And maybe we don’t have a good grasp of the power and holiness of God. We like to make God nice and gentle, but maybe God is more complicated than that.
I also have a hard time with sacrifice in general. I have a hard time imagining myself offering a goat and then walking away from the temple feeling like my sins have been dealt with, but then I need to remind myself that I’m actually a bit of an oddball as far as human history is concerned. In most cultures (if not all) for a good portion of human history before Christ animal sacrifices and even human sacrifices were made. That was normal and it was pervasive. We who have a hard time understanding sacrifice are the odd ones in terms of human history. So we should be careful about dismissing this all too quickly.     
We serve a mysterious and holy God, who has justice as an intricate part of His character. He is powerful and dare we say frightening in his vastness and power. We also have a long history of sacrifice with our Hebrew spiritual ancestors and it seems like we need to take that seriously if we are to understand the cross as the early Christians understood it. This isn’t to say this is the only way to view the cross, but it is one way that is worth us seriously considering. 

[1] “The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views” by Gregory Boyd, Joel Green, Bruce Reichenbach, Thomas Schreiner

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