Friday, January 7

Substitutional Atonement: Romans 3:22b-26

I wrote yesterday that the next post in this series would be on Isaiah 53, but I've changed my mind. Wink has flung down the gauntlet with a specific challenge to those who believe that the penal aspect (the punishment or the carrying out of justice part) of the atonement is substitutionary, and so I'm heading straight for a passage of scripture that I believe answers this particular challenge more clearly than Isaiah 53 does.

Here is what Wink is asking from us:
....I feel that it is biblical to say that we are indeed punished in Christ. Prove me wrong. Either show where my reasoning is wrong by proving a) that we did not really die in Christ, or b) that such death is is not punishment, or else show that Penal Substitution is right by showing that the Bible says that we escape punishment.
In case you haven't been reading Wink's posts, I'll give you a short explanation of what I think he means. He believes that the punishment aspect of the atonement is worked out with us being in some way actually punished in Christ. We are not spared punishment because Christ was punished in our place, but we are in some real way (and by this I assume he means experientially) punished by being joined with Christ on the cross. In other words, our union with Christ on the cross includes experiencing the punishment that he endured, and that is the way that the atonement works for us.

I'm going straight for that last part of the challenge. I'm going to show that the Bible says that those of faith escape punishment. I've chosen to bypass points a and b for these reasons:
  • I agree that we really do die in Christ (point a), although I'm pretty sure that Wink wouldn't describe what I believe happened on the cross as our really dying. I believe that the nature of our real death is through our identification with the One who died in our stead. God counts Christ's death as our death, and that makes his death really our death. This isn't simply legal fiction. What God--who is truth himself--says, is really so. What God counts or reckons to be is real because he counts or reckons it.

  • I do agree that Christ's death is punishment (point b). It is the carrying out of God's judgment on sin--the expression of his righteous wrath.

Moving on, then, to doing what Wink asks of me in the last clause of his challenge: showing that the scripture teaches that those of faith (or those identified with Christ) escape punishment. The text I'm going to use is from Romans 3, starting at the end of verse 22 and going on through verse 26:
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. (ESV)
This is one of my favorite passages of scripture--in the top 5, I think--so I've already used it several times in things I've written here. It is probably one of the most important passages on the atonement, and I've used it in a few cases in regards to that, and also in regards to the nature of God, especially with respect to God's righteousness or justice. This just shows us, I guess, what a rich mine it is.

The passage starts out with a statement that there is no distinction because all have sinned. This is a summary statement, of sorts, of what Paul has proven in the section of Romans prior to this, starting in chapter 1 and moving through chapter 2, to the first half of chapter 3: All of us--Jews and gentiles alike--have sinned and stand together under the judgment (or wrath) of God.

Chapter 1 proves that the gentiles rightly stand under the sentence of death that is the revelation of God's wrath. Starting in verse 18, Paul begins this passage by telling us that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men," and he ends the chapter by saying that "those who practice such things deserve to die." Yep, the gentiles as a whole are in deep doo-doo.

And just in case the Jews were breathing a sigh of relief that Chapter 1 didn't include them, Paul moves on in Chapter 2 to say that the same thing that goes for those heathen Gentiles goes for the Jews as well, because God is not discriminatory in regards to people groups:
all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. (verse 12)
The whole world is rightly held accountable to God (3:19).

Since we are all sinners, being held accountable to God is not a pretty thing. However, if we move on in the passage from Romans 3 in the quote above, we see that the news is not all bad. The good news is that God has justified some by his grace as a gift, received by faith.

In fact, God had already, at the time of Paul, "passed over former sins" (v 25). The NIV translates this phrase like this: God "left the sins committed beforehand unpunished." Sins that God could rightly punish, or rather that he must rightly punish, he had overlooked. He had let them remain without punishment. He could do this justly (or rightly) because there was a means of propitiation in the blood of Christ Jesus. Christ's death gave God a righteous way to let sins remain unpunished.

What does it mean when it says that Christ was a propitiation? Leon Morris says that this should be translated as "means of propitiation," and that the idea conveyed in the word is that Christ is a way for God's wrath to be turned away. He spends several pages of The Atonement giving contextual and historical evidence that the word ought to be taken like this, but I'll just quote a bit in summary.
The plain fact is that hilasterion signifies 'the means of averting wrath' and the new translations miss this. And in missing it they pass over a very important biblical concept. The other words do not bring out the truth that in one aspect Christ's atoning work dealt with the wrath of God against sinners.*
In other words, to address Wink's challenge in particular, this passage says that Christ's death--his blood--was a way for us to escape the punishment of God. God left sins unpunished, and he could do this grounded upon Christ's propitiatory death, which was a way for this punishment--the expression of God's wrath--to be rightly turned away from us.

This is the way in which our justification was rightfully and truthfully accomplished. The whole deal--God's wrath being turned away based upon Christ's death as the proper means by which to do this--makes God's justifying forgiveness not "legal fiction." Instead, this particular way of justifying allows him to remain just and still be "the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus." Christ's death is the right way for God's wrath to be turned away from us--the right way for us to escape punishment.

*Leon Morris, The Atonement, pages 169-170.