Category Archives: Theology

A Survey of the Cross: The Atonement, Part 1

Recently I finished a book written by Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence entitled, It is Well – Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement.  This book peaked my interest because nearly a year ago I began to think deeply about what the Bible has to say regarding Christ’s accomplishments on the cross, namely the work of Christ.  This interest came about as I wrestled with what many call the Doctrine of Limited Atonement, or perhaps more accurately described as Definite Atonement/Particular Redemption. 

Maybe you, like me, have always been taught a summarized version of what Jesus did on the cross, that He died for “our” sins and maybe even a common verse like Romans 5:8 or John 3:16 was used to express that idea.  While these passages are absolutely true in their assertions, we must remember their context and realize that there is more to the story.  To our discredit, many of us have developed what I call a “tract-theology”, sadly resulting in a truncated Gospel as well as a misunderstanding and misapplication of Scripture.    

Because of this, it seems to me that very few of us professing Christians are able to articulate the Gospel, much less talk intelligently about the cross of Christ, and I count myself among that number.  Since it is the central tenet of our faith, it seems reasonable to me that we should all be aware, at least on an introductory level, of what the Bible has to say about this.  When we biblically examine the nature, intent, and actuality of the work of Christ it magnifies God in our lives and opens up His glory to be put on display through us, essentially making Jesus a forethought instead of an afterthought.  Perhaps one reason why so many professing Christians have been classified as “nominal” is because they lack knowledge concerning the foundation of their faith and have become too comfortable worshipping a small God who saves through an even smaller cross than the ones most wear around their neck.

That being said, I’d like to devote several posts to these thoughts as we search through Scripture, to unfold the glorious nature of the cross.  Instead of just hearing “Jesus died on the cross for our sins” a saying most of us have heard since childhood and are likely numb to, maybe if we actually took the time to understand what the Bible said it would not only humble us, but magnify the Lord in our lives.

For today, let’s simply begin with the word Atonement.  The Oxford English dictionary defines it as, “as the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ.”  In Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, he prefers to define it as including the “life and death” of Jesus, which alludes to His obedience in life as well as on the cross.  Sufficient for our discussion today will be the ESV Study Bible definition of, “The making of enemies into friends by averting the punishment that their sin would otherwise incur.”  The Bible defines this punishment in a two-fold manner: 1) The wages of sin is death, primarily in an eternally spiritual sense (Romans 6:23), but also physical death as a consequence of the Fall. Genesis 2-3. 2) The wrath of God.  The Bible makes clear that unrepentant sinners will suffer in Hell under God’s wrath for all eternity. (Romans 2:5, Revelation 6:10-11, 14:10).  So there is something that Jesus did on the cross which provided an “atonement” or a turning away of the punishment, namely death and God’s wrath in hell for eternity, that somebody deserved.

No true biblical study of the atonement of Jesus would be complete without looking at the historical nature of this action, particularly as God defined for the Israelites in Leviticus 16.  As we’ll see, this liturgical practice was actually a foreshadowing of Christ’s atoning work on the cross.  The following passage is long, but take the time to read it carefully:

The Day of Atonement

 1 The LORD spoke to Moses after(A) the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the LORD and died, 2 and the LORD said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die. For I will appear in the cloud over the mercy seat. 3 But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments.  He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. 5 And he shall take from the congregation of the people of Israel two male goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering.

 6 “Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting. 8 And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel.  9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the LORD and use it as a sin offering, 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the LORD to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.

 11 “Aaron shall present the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall kill the bull as a sin offering for himself. 12 And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the LORD, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil 13 and put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. 14 And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times.

 15 “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. 16 Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses. 17 No one may be in the tent of meeting from the time he enters to make atonement in the Holy Place until he comes out and has made atonement for himself and for his house and for all the assembly of Israel. 18 Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. 19 And he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.

 20 “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. 21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.

 23 “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting and shall take off the linen garments that he put on when he went into the Holy Place and shall leave them there. 24 And he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place and put on his garments and come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people and make atonement for himself and for the people. 25 And the fat of the sin offering he shall burn on the altar. 26 And he who lets the goat go to Azazel shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. 27 And the bull for the sin offering and the goat for the sin offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the Holy Place, shall be carried outside the camp. Their skin and their flesh and their dung shall be burned up with fire. 28 And he who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp.

 29 “And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. 30 For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins. 31 It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever. 32 And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments. 33 He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. 34 And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Moses did as the LORD commanded him.”

If you’re like me, you may have either never read that passage before or never realized its significance, which is too often the case with Old Testament passages.  Nevertheless, there is a ton of information packed into this chapter.  First, let’s note that atonement shows up in verse 6, as Moses is instructed to tell the High Priest, Aaron (his brother) the very precise nature of his duties, beginning with the sacrifice of a bull for his own sins.  Next Moses is to tell Aaron to cast lots over 2 goats, essentially flip a coin, resulting in one being the sin offering and the other for Azazel, an unusual Hebrew word that can be thought of best as referring to the “scapegoat”.  The Oxford Dictionary defines this familiar term as, “a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency.”  In short, Aaron has two goats, one for a sin sacrifice and the other to be released upon the “transfer of sin” to it as the “scapegoat”.

While there is a lot of significance in verses 11-14, let’s skip ahead to verse 15-16 where we see Aaron’s duty was to sprinkle the blood of the bull (his offering) and the blood of the goat (sin offering for the people) on the mercy seat.  It’s likely this looked something like the picture to the right and we first learn of what the mercy seat is in the following passage from Exodus 25:17-22

17 “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold. Two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its breadth. 18 And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. 19 Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. 20 The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. 21 And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. 22 There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.”

Returning to our passage in Leviticus, we’ll next look at verses 20-22 as we see the fate of the second goat, which we’ve already identified as the “scapegoat”.  Here Aaron is instructed to lay his hands on the live goat in order to transfer or “impute” the sins of the people of Israel onto it.  Then the goat is sent off into the wilderness with the idea being that it has taken away the sins of the people to an area outside of the camp of Israel with the implication that it too will die.

Summarizing the biblical historicity which we’ve looked at so far we see that the atonement contains several components.  First, Aaron, the high priest, made atonement for himself and his house through the blood of a bull.  Next, he made atonement for the people of Israel through the blood of a goat sprinkled on the mercy seat.  Finally, we read of Aaron placing his hands on the scapegoat as a transfer or imputation of the sins of Israel onto the goat as it was lead outside of the camp into the wilderness.

Lord willing, next time we’ll look at how all of this relates to Christ’s own atonement.

Dead Men Tell No Tales

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Ephesians 2:1-3

Take a minute and read the passage from the Apostle Paul above, paying special attention to the language of death which he uses to describe the spiritual state of the unregenerate, unbeliever.  It seems as though many either misunderstand Paul’s use of “dead in the trespasses and sins” or refuse to recognize the extremely helpless condition of unbelievers that this imagery provides. 

In this passage, dead is the Greek word nekros.  Vine’s Expository Dictionary defines this word as 1) The death of the body 2) The actual spiritual condition of unsaved men.  Likewise, an outline of biblical usage would reveal the following:

  1. properly
    1. one that has breathed his last, lifeless
    2. deceased, departed, one whose soul is in heaven or hell
    3. destitute of life, without life, inanimate
  2. metaph.
    1. spiritually dead
      1. destitute of a life that recognises and is devoted to God, because given up to trespasses and sins
      2. inactive as respects doing right
    2. destitute of force or power, inactive, inoperative

Dear reader, let there be no confusion about this use of the word dead to describe unsaved man’s spiritual condition.  It means dead, in much the same way that we think of physical death.  A physically dead person is unable to do anything, much less make decisions that would reverse their condition.  Just as at death the physical body begins to decay, rot, and stink, so too does the spiritual carcass of the unbeliever.  Paul emphasizes this same state again in Ephesians 2:5, but also in Colossians 2:13, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh….”  In Romans 5:12 we read of Adam, the man through whom sin entered the world and by whom all of his posterity is now born in sin.  “Therefore,  just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”

With man’s spiritual condition in mind, we can now better realize what Jesus is saying to Nicodemas in John 3:3, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Friends think on these words from Jesus as He describes what is known as regeneration or rebirth.  Let them penetrate your heart.  What are the implications we can gather from the Savior?  First, there is no need to be born again, unless you are dead the first time around.  This is buttressed by Scriptures overwhelming use of death to describe the sinner and life to describe the regenerate.  Second, not one single person physically born ever chose to be, yet God showed His divine providence in bringing each one of us to life.  As David said in Psalm 22:9a, “Yet You are He who took me from the womb.”  This holds true for spiritual “rebirth” as well.  This is why Jesus concludes His lesson on rebirth by saying, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  Spiritual rebirth, or regeneration, comes from the Holy Spirit alone.  In 1 Peter 1:3 we read, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”   Again, it is by the almighty sovereign God that He brings forth life to the rotten, decaying carcass of the dead sinner.

What shall we say to these things?  Christian you have but one response: worship.  Worship God in thankfulness for His mercy, grace, love, and goodness that He has shown you in giving you new life.  Humbly recognize that He alone is responsible for your salvation and praise Him for it.  Then serve Him because He is worthy. 

Unbeliever, you too have but one response and that is to call out to God for mercy.  That He might likewise grant you repentance and the faith necessary to believe in His Son.  Just as the Apostle Paul points out the dead spiritual state of everyone, prior to salvation, he also includes one of the greatest phrases of hope in the Bible, “But God” in the very next verse of our passage above.  “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved.” Ephesians 2:4-5 

As we’ve discussed here in the past those who are not saved remain under the wrath of God and while this should seem scary to you, you need to equally feel hope because of the mercy and grace He has provided in Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, Who gave His life to remove the wrath of God from you, to cleanse you from your sins, and to regenerate your heart such that you would have the desire to live for Him.  Repent and turn from your sins.  Trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, who alone can provide you forgiveness for those sins. Then walk as a new creation in Christ.

 

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold the new has come.  All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” 1 Corinthians 5:17-18

The Danger of Isolating the Love of God

It has been an extremely busy few weeks for me and I’ve been unable to post blogs as regularly as I would like.  In addition to helping raise our 1-year old while also remodeling a house my wife and I recently bought, the Lord has placed me in an interim Youth Director position at my local church.  Between preparing for that and a Bible study that I’ve been fortunate to lead, much of my Bible preparation time goes toward that, rather than here.  I hope that once we get moved this month I can return to a more regular posting schedule.  I apologize to those of you who are regular readers, but I pray that you bear with me during this transition.  Having said that, I do have a backlog of posts prepared that I hope to begin publishing in the next few days, beginning with this one.

 “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:8

It’s likely that those of you reading this are familiar with the passage above.  If not with the Scripture passage from the Apostle John, then certainly with the statement “God is love”.  Perhaps second only to John 3:16, this statement has been frequently quoted, oft out of its original context in the passage and has been declared the final word the Bible has to offer about who God is.  Is the love of God all the Bible says about the character of God?  Is that all that the unbelieving world needs to hear?  As Christians, is God’s love our primary focus?  Similar questions like these are what J.I Packer tackles in a chapter from his book  Knowing God, entitled “The Love of God”, which we discussed in detail in Lady Gaga, Rob Bell and Misunderstanding the Love of God.  As we saw, Packer concludes that “God is love” is not the final word that the Bible offers concerning who God is, but that for believers it should be our primary focus.  As believers we should rejoice in the love of God, resulting in worship, praise, and adoration to the glory of God, for God is love. 

Here is where I think today’s modern evangelical world has become so confused.  Due primarily to a lack of biblical knowledge and an immature understanding of who God is, they simply take God is love in isolation and spread it like a blanket over everything and everyone regardless of sin, situation, or circumstance.  Instead of being properly placed as an attribute, among infinite others, intrinsic to God’s nature, God’s love is placed directly at the center and all other attributes must then be subordinate to love.  God’s justice, must follow God’s love.  His wrath, again subordinate to His love.  Is God first holy, no they would say God first is love.  What this view actually does is distort the character and nature of who the Bible tells us God is.  It creates a god who is unable to uphold His own righteousness and holiness because He must love.  It says that a god who is love cannot, nor would not, send any person to hell as punishment for offending His holiness.  The reality of this is that it actually strips away God is love and skews it to say “Love is god”.  As should be familiar to all of us, the LORD clearly states, “Thou shall have no other gods before Me”, to do so would be idolatry.  Yet this is precisely what so commonly happens when people take an attribute of God in isolation and fashion a god out of it, all the while rejecting the rest of what the Bible has to say about who God is.  In essence, an image of God is created in the mind that is inconsistent with the God of the Bible and this is idolatry.  This is not to say that we cannot individually study an attribute of God, nor does it say that we cannot meditate on or thank God for His love, mercy, grace, etc.  But it is certainly saying that biblical knowledge of God is of the utmost importance.  There is a reason why Jesus states in John 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom  you have sent.”

As we’ve seen the past couple of weeks with the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins, an improper view of the character of God leads to confusion and quite simply heretical beliefs.  God’s love does win, first for Himself and secondly for those who are His children.  But it is not the end of the matter, because God also must be just and as such His wrath must reign down on all those who have rejected Jesus as Savior.  Romans 3:25-26  It is a difficult truth, but nevertheless, God’s love for His children is complimented by His wrath towards unbelievers as He is glorified both in His giving of salvation to believers and in the eternal punishment of unbelievers. Romans 9:22-24

God is equal in all of His attributes.  If one were to be out of balance, then God would be less than perfect.  Because our minds are so finite, we have a limited understanding of the nature of God’s love.  We know of only a love that, let’s face it, is mushy and sentimental.    Human emotions generally run hot or cold, are imbalanced, and are usually dictated by situations.  This makes it difficult, nigh impossible, to love and hate at the same time or to grant mercy yet give justice simultaneously or to put our wrath on display and be justified and glorified for doing so.  Yet God can.  When Jesus died on the cross for the sins of all those who believe, God poured out His wrath on His Son, yet He didn’t stop loving Him.  He was perfectly capable of displaying both His wrath, in His punishment of sin, and His love by offering His only Son as a sacrifice for sinners.  Again, His love was complimented by His wrath, yet in His wrath His love was displayed.  This is why the Apostle John can say with confidence, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His son to be the propitiation for our sins.”  1 John 4:10 Simultaneously, the fulfillment of God’s love and the satisfaction of God’s wrath.

God is love on the surface is a simple, yet profound statement, the depth of which we will never know (Ephesians 3:19).  But unless we take the due diligence necessary to understand what the Apostle John is talking about in 1 John 4 and who he is talking to, then there is an imminent danger of isolating the love of God from His true nature.  If you are a believer in Christ, then rest firmly in the infinite depth and riches of God’s love.  But, dear friend, if you are yet without Christ, then you must know the “wrath of God remains” on you (John 3:36).  Repent of your sin and Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ!

Below are several follow up blog posts by Pastor/Teacher Dr. John MacArthur on the saga of Rob Bell’s new book Love Wins.  I introduced you to the first post in his series here:

Rob Bell: “Evangelical and orthodox to the bone?” Hardly

Rob Bell: A Brother to Embrace or a Wolf to Avoid

Bell’s Inferno

Rob Bell’s Unbelief in His Own Words