Jonathan Gallagher has a good article over at Spectrum entitled: God’s Nature: The Basis for Atonement He goes over the English progression of the term “atonement” from the original “at-one-ment” to the now more popular in religious circles atonement as making up for a past wrong. One of the traditions that the Reformation laid down for us even though it makes little sense to modern Christianity with a view of unity of God and the love and acceptance of God.
One of the first comments after the article was by someone who clings to penal atonement, concluding by saying: "Covered by His Righteousness what more can we say: “Even so come Lord Jesus!” –Tom
I responded by asking what it means to be covered by His Righteousness. Most people don’t realize that this is not a Biblical concept…at least not the way it is usually used. The following is taken from one of my previous articles which hopefully will explain a little about the problem of teaching that we hide from God under the righteousness of Christ.
The doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement has very greatly changed the face of Christianity since it inception as Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement in the 1100’s. Not only has it changed the view of Christianity it has changed the way Christians view God.
I often use the following quote from the early 1900’s to illustrate the change in Christian philosophy introduced by the Satisfaction and Substitutionary Theories:
"In many of the popular sermons and hymns of the last two centuries Christ is set forth as mediator between an angry God and the condemned sinner, pleading with God for mercy, at the same time receiving the divine wrath into his own bosom and thus averting from the sinner the consequences of his sin." (The New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopedia, vol. 7 page 270)
In many ways the popular idea of Justification by Faith has also been modified by the Substitutionary theory. The Westminster Shorter Catechism describes justification by faith as: "Justification is an act of God's free grace, whereby he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (Q 33)
The idea as presented since the reformation is that Justification is a legal act whereby the sinner is declared by God to be righteous by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Imputation is not a word often seen outside of Theology anymore but the basic meaning is to “credit to a person or cause”, to “attribute” something to someone else. In the popular definition of Justification by Faith (often termed Righteousness by Faith in Adventist circles) there are two aspects of Christ’s work applied to our justification. Christ satisfied all the demands of God’s justice against sinners on the cross where Christ took the penalty due those who sinned. Christ also lived the perfect life of obedience and then Christ attributes that righteousness to us.
Central to the concept of this Justification by Faith is the idea of punishment for sin. God demanded Justice in this view as R.C. Sproul writes:
"The atonement is vicarious because it is accomplished via imputation. Christ is the sin-bearer for his people, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) who takes away (expiates) our sin and satisfies (propitiates) the demands of God's justice. The cross displays both God's justice (in that he truly punishes sin) and his grace (because he punishes sin by providing a substitute for us)" (Faith Alone, p. 104).
It may be that this type of view is related to the concept of justice as known in the middle ages in
The Substitutionary theory also demands that God punish sin in the person of Jesus Christ. Something the Bible does not say. It does not tell us that Jesus suffered a punishment of God or paid a penalty for sin. Those ideas are usually read into the Bible by those who have already accepted the Substitutionary theory as truth. Clearly Christ paid a price for His actions, but as the Bible says we were bought with a price (1 Corinthians ). But that was not paid to God or the Devil, it is the cost of God becoming a man and submitting to men ending in his death. The price paid was by God to man, in order to reconcile man back to God. No exchange but a sacrifice made by God to end man’s hostility toward God.
In the Reformation’s view of Justification by Faith Christ lived the perfect life and was subjected to the divine punishment for our sins thus God forgives us and we are now covered by Christ’s righteousness. What does it mean when they say that Jesus was our “sin bearer”? Again the Substitutionary theory provides us with its own language. By sin bearer they mean sins were placed upon Christ who was then punished for those sins so that they could be forgiven. But that is not the New Testament meaning of how Christ bore our sins. What it does say is that He suffered by the sins of others inflicted upon him and He forgave and took away our sins.
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 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. (1 Peter 2:22-4 NIV)
…so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Heb NIV)
The sins were those inflicted by a rebellious and self centered people. That is really the attitude that is sin. Sin is not something apart from the thinking individual. It is not something that can be moved here or there, it is the attitude of man that leads him to cause the hurt that we all see around us, ultimately caused by the broken relationship with our God. The Bible several places mentions dying to sin as mentioned above. But it usually combines that with living for God or righteousness. The implication is pretty clear the end of one way of life, sin, takes us to the new way of life, righteousness, through the change in allegiance that reconciliation to God brings in our lives.
John the Baptist declared:
"Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John NIV)
It does not matter which sacrificial lamb is referred to here. Whether it is the Passover lamb that symbolized protection from destruction, or the scapegoat (in Jewish language lamb can also mean goat) who symbolically carried the sins of the camp out into the desert where they were remembered no more. Or any of the other Jewish sacrificial animals. The point is that here is the sacrifice (the offering) of God who forgives us and changes us. The Old Testament is filled with the idea of forgiveness, but it is never more clearly demonstrated then by Jesus on the cross saying forgive them. (Luke 23:34) Jesus the perfect man was tortured and killed, treated as if He were the worst of sinners. Yet He did not ask that they be punished, He freely offered them forgiveness, this is how God takes away our sins. Not by punishment of the innocent but through forgiveness, no longer counting man’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:19) Jesus is not the substitute being punished by God for man’s sins, but the demonstration of the power, love and forgiveness of God that leads us to repentance and reconciliation (Romans 2:4)
We know that no one is righteous besides God (Romans ), we know that no one is made righteous by keeping the law (Romans ). So how is it, that God can say we are justified/righteous? The Substitutionary view is that God does some clever bookkeeping. The righteousness of God revealed in Christ is attributed to us and when God looks at his account book He sees not us but Christ. The reason I used “righteousness of God revealed in Christ” is because the Bible never uses the expression “righteousness of Christ”. Since as John chapter 1 tells us Christ is God, the very “Logos” became flesh and dwelt among us, there is no difference between Christ and God. In fact in Christ the full divinity of God is revealed (Colossians ). But is this really what we want to say about God, that He does not really see who we are but sees only Himself? If God is our friend, a friend who is closer then a brother (Proverbs , John ), how can we be content to hide from Him? Because of the Substitutionary view of the Atonement we view Christ as our friend but we have trouble seeing God as our friend. But in reality our Advocate is with the Father, and God is for us not against us (Jeremiah 29:11; Job 16:19; 1 John 2:1; Romans 8:31)
Well before anyone on earth knew of the mission of the coming Messiah, God had declared his friends to be righteous. They were declared righteous by their faith in God the same way all are justified. (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38; Hebrews 11). It is the faith in God that makes man righteous. Those who believe what God has said, those who trust God. It is the restored relationship built upon the trust in God, because those who trust in God have been reconciled to God and God no longer counts their sins against them (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). The love of God compels us to come to Him, the love that we see in Christ as He revealed to us God through His life, death and resurrection (2 Corinthians 5:14-17) Because of the one who died for us not as a substitute but as God revealing His very nature we no longer have to live for ourselves but for the one who died to reconcile us back to Him. Many often look at the paradox in the verse that says:
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians NIV)
Ignoring the verses just before it which tell of His love compelling us to be reconciled. As the one who died for all so that all can live for the one who died and rose again. Their old lives gone and the new creation here and living now for God. The sinless one tortured and murdered as a sinner, a curse by man on a cross, so that we can become right with God, reconciled and righteous by our faith in our God. But it was not God who treated Christ as a sinner, it was not God who killed Jesus, it was man in his rebellion who killed the author of life (Acts ). All this God knew well before it was to happen, even the worst sin man could do does not stop God from revealing His glory, His power, His love and His forgiveness.
We don’t have to hide from God, we don’t have to be clothed with substitute righteousness. We can have a right relationship with God and that is the righteousness that God desires. Far different from the idea of legal bookkeeping and fictional right doing. Our faith is in the God who loves, forgives and redeems, not a faith in the God of cosmic legal fiction. A relationship that changes us producing obedience to God as the product of growing in our relationship with God. We begin by following God’s most basic command:
And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:23-25 NIV)
It is the fruit of our relationship that reveals to others our life in God. But as human beings we are sin scarred and incompetent to fully live the life we desire to live as Paul declares in Romans Chapter 7. But our failures do not cause us to be cast aside as our God is not done with us. He is able to complete the good work started in us and He will not let us be snatched from His hand (Phil 1:6; John ). His love has reconciled us to Him and His mind is acting upon our minds (Philippians 2:5). Trust of God leads to the restoration of our relationship to God and ultimately to the healing of our minds and bodies and that is God’s goal. All this revealed to us by Christ (Hebrews 1:2).
The Spirit and the bride say, "Come!" And let him who hears say, "Come!" Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life. (Revelation NIV)