In my last post I asked a couple of questions. First, where in the Bible does it actually say that Jesus paid for our sins? The second question was, if Jesus did pay for our sins, who did He pay, and how did He pay for them?
We did not find such a verse. But let me say up front that the Bible uses a lot of metaphors to describe how God saves us. Furthermore, it’s not necessarily wrong for us to use our own metaphors in our stories or songs to describe Jesus’ redemptive work that aren’t directly found in the Bible.
The problem I have with the “Jesus paid it all…a debt He didn’t owe…” story line is that there’s a terrible conclusion we must come to if we think it through.
I’m calling this series of posts, “Saving Easter.” The reason for the somewhat provocative, possibly even pretentious title is because I believe there are some things about the atonement that we’ve taught that are detrimental to our relationship with God–specifically, with our heavenly Father. Since this blog is all about living in the Father’s embrace, it’s a pretty important subject for me.
I’m also going to warn you up front that if you’ve never heard what I’m about to share before, your heart will probably shout “Hallelujah!” and your mind will rebel. That’s okay. Really. Just hang in there with me until you can get your mind and heart back in sync.
Are you ready to see how far this rabbit hole goes, Alice? We’ll take it slow… 🙂
The old story…
Here’s the story we’ve been taught for almost five centuries. See if it sounds familiar to you. It comes from the Penal Substitution theory of atonement. There are actually several theories, but this particular one has dominated evangelical Christianity since the Reformation. I will talk more about theories of atonement in a separate post. For now, here’s a loose summation:
- Man sinned and committed a crime against God.
- While God is love, He is also just…so someone must pay for our crimes (penal)
- Jesus, an innocent Man, takes our place and receives the full fury of God’s wrath upon Himself (substitution)
- Therefore, “Jesus paid a debt He didn’t owe but we could not pay”
What’s wrong with this story? Sounds like what the Bible teaches, right? Well…here are a few points to consider:
- If Jesus faced God’s wrath, it must mean that He paid His Father.
- If this is true, Jesus paid by being brutally beaten, tortured and killed.
- Therefore, we must conclude, Jesus saved us from God…by being killed by…God.
If we were really honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that this explanation is a bit embarrassing. Trying telling any thinking person that God is love and forgiving…that is, as long as He can kill someone first! (Not to mention, the God killing God thing.)
Their first response might be, why can’t God forgive unless He kills someone?
After all, what would you normally think of any father who must torture and kill His own child before he can forgive?
Furthermore, is this even how we were taught forgiveness in the Bible? Is this how Jesus taught forgiveness? We can only forgive if those who’ve offended us are punished? Huh?
Whatever we want to do with this, let’s please stop being in denial about this conundrum we’ve created.
Here’s the problem with our “love/justice” answer:
Retributive justice and forgiveness are mutually exclusive. If you pay for a crime, the debt was not forgiven (released) because justice was served.
Forgiveness, by definition, cannot be contingent on payment or punishment. Either God got justice or He forgave us–we can’t have both.
A popular evangelistic model used to get people to see our love-justice argument is the “courtroom” scenario. Briefly, the story goes like this. You are found guilty of a crime punishable by death, but an innocent man steps in and tells the judge he will take your punishment instead. They handcuff him and execute him in your stead.
While this story is a great way of showing Jesus’ sacrificial love, it’s equally terrible in what is says about our heavenly Father who’s obviously the Judge.
Again, the Father tortures His Son instead of us so that He can forgive us???
Let’s plug this idea into a Bible story, shall we? Many use the Parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-32) for evangelism. Jesus used the story to show us what His Father is like. So, according to the courtroom scenario, how would we tell Jesus’ story about His Father?
The prodigal Son squanders all his inheritance on sinful living. Finally comes to his senses and returns home…
PRODIGAL: “Oh father, forgive me! I’m not worthy to even be called your servant…”
FATHER: “I really want to forgive you, son, but first you must to pay for your crimes!”
ELDER BROTHER (steps in): “No dad! I’m innocent of his crimes. I will pay for my kid brother. Kill me instead!”
FATHER: “Well, okay, because somebody’s gonna pay!!!”
FATHER CONCLUDES: “The son I was so angry with and couldn’t even stand to look at has finally come home….kill the elder brother! Let’s have a feast!
Of course, this is ridiculous. But my point is valid because it’s not too far from the story we’ve been telling people about God for centuries.
Here’s another issue thinking people have with this story.
Why should anyone be punished for something they didn’t do? We would never be allowed to go to jail for someone else’s crimes in our own court systems.
This is not justice, it’s a travesty of justice! Why, then, do we think it’s okay for our heavenly Father? In fact, didn’t He Himself tell us that one should not be punished for the sins of another? (Ezek.18:19-20)
Do you see the inconsistencies in our popular story yet? Neither forgiveness nor real justice is served here.
I think we need better metaphors and stories, don’t you? Fortunately for us, our ancient fathers of the faith and, I believe, the Bible did just that. In fact, our relatively modern story wasn’t what the early church taught at all for over a thousand years, and it’s not what the Eastern church has ever embraced.
A better story…
What did Jesus actually do then? It will take the next several posts to unpack this but I will summarize here.
The early church (and I believe the Bible) never taught that Jesus paid for our sins but that He took them away (John 1:29; Rom.11:27; 1 John 3:5).
They saw sin more like a terminal spiritual disease. To give it a more modern spin, Adam contracted a deadly communicable virus from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It entered the world through him and became pandemic, infecting everyone (Rom.5:12). We inherited it through Adam’s spiritual DNA. This disease puts us in bondage and darkness, distorting our view of God and of ourselves. Furthermore, Satan can manipulate us and put us in his prison because of it.
Wherever it’s allowed to germinate and become full grown it always leads to death (James 1:15).
With this in mind, let’s step back and notice for a moment how Jesus describes His mission. Pay particular attention to the words I’ve capitalized:
“For God SO LOVED the world that He GAVE His only begotten Son,
that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
For God did NOT send His Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world THROUGH HIM might be SAVED.” (John 3:16-17 NKJV)
Kind of hard to fit this into the penal substitution model, isn’t it.
The word “saved” is the Greek word sōzō. It means to rescue; to preserve safe and unharmed, to cure, heal, restore to health, to deliver from, set free from.”
Notice the common theme here. Everything with salvation has to do with healing, restoration and wholeness. The motive is not punishment; it’s pure love!
So…if we’re going to make up scenarios and metaphors, I think the following would be a better one than our courtroom drama:
Our heavenly Father saw that His children were hopelessly infected with this terminal disease called sin. It was killing us and there was no way we could cure ourselves. Like any good papa, He couldn’t just stand idly by and see His kids being abused and dying from this sickness. No, He loved us too much for that. So He said, “We have to do something about this!”
Jesus, the eternal Son, who loves us just as much as the Father, steps in, “Father, I will become one of them. I will take all their deadly infection upon myself. Then, they will have my blood as an antidote to Adam’s blood disease. They will have my spiritual DNA (Rom.5:17).
The Father responds, “You know it will kill you, Son. As a human, you will die.”
Jesus responds resolutely, “Yes, that’s exactly my plan! I intend to take it to the grave and to bury it forever in the toxic waste dump of hell! It will never infect them or hold them in bondage again!”
The Father got a smile so big it shook the heavens. “Son, if you would do that, how could I help but raise you up from that grave!!! And I’ll even do one better…I’ll bring all of them up with You and we will be together forever! (2 Cor.5:21; Rom.6:3-11; Eph.2:6)
Conclusion: LOVE WINS!!! Hallelujah! Death, where is your sting now! Ha!
Beloved, Jesus didn’t pay it all, He took it all! The Father wasn’t against us, He was for us. Jesus wasn’t paying the Father anything, it was a rescue mission!
More next time.