In the first installment, O Pyrophilus, I sketched out the course a Christian reader must take in harvesting the full, Divinely-intended value from the Old Testament. One must neither improve the text by inserting ideas inaccessibly alien to its human authors or readers, nor rob the text through denial of God's intended meaning.
I set as a challenging example the doctrine of penal, substitutionary atonement as pointed to by the book of Proverbs. The first of two signposts I found there was the frequent use of "Yahweh," the name of Israel's God, who must be approached by faith on the basis of penal, substitutionary atonement. To name Yahweh in the text of the OT is to name the God of penal, substitutionary atonement.
He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteousAt first blush, the intent of this text is plain: it sets the standard for forensic justice in the deportment of judges. Yahweh intends strict justice to be carried out. The judge may neither turn a blind eye to wrongs committed, nor falsely impute wrongs or crimes to the innocent, for the (Exodus 23:6-8; Deuteronomy 16:18-20; 25:1; Proverbs 17:26; 24:24).
are both alike an abomination to the LORD.
Failure to uphold justice in court was one of the crimes for which Yahweh indicted and punished Israel (Isaiah 5:7, 20; 10:1-2; Amos 5:7, 12-15; Micah 3:9-11; Malachi 2:17, etc.).
What does any of that have to do with penal, substitutionary atonement?
So glad you asked!
"No man"? No man. "Including, say, Abram?" Yes, of course: that would have to include Abram.
Uh-oh. In that case, we have a problem.
The problem is Genesis 15:6, where we read that Abram "believed [Yahweh], and he counted it to him as righteousness." Abram — wicked, sinful Abram — was counted righteous, when he believed Yahweh.
Yahweh justified the wicked — the very thing that Proverbs 17:15 says is an abomination to Yahweh. How can this be? Did Yahweh Himself do what was abominable in His own eyes?
Here is where taking an approach that respects the whole text of Scripture makes an immense difference.
In the short(er) run we know that Moses, who penned the problematic Genesis 15:6, was aware of the fundamental principle of Leviticus 17:11 — "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I [Yahweh] have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life." Moses knew that atonement for sin, for sins, for sins such as Abram's, can only be made by the shedding of blood. He knows that Abram had offered sacrifices (Genesis 12:7-8; 13:4, 18), and that Yahweh Himself had made bloody sacrifice on formalizing His covenant with Abram (chapter 15).
Yet there is a tension within the OT itself on the subject of sacrifice. For one thing, the sacrifices themselves had no transformative power, and so many writers deride individuals who looked on them as if they were magical box-checking, formalistic remedies for their unrepented moral crimes (Isaiah 66:3; Jeremiah 11:15). Solomon himself brought scorching barrages to bear on anyone who viewed sacrifice as being an externalistic "fix" for an unrepentant, unbelieving heart (Proverbs 15:8; 21:27).
Beyond all that there is the fact that, even in the case of those with repentant faith, the sacrifices had to be repeated over and over and over. The Day of Atonement occurred year in and year out, again and again. In expressing this, none can surpass the eloquence of Apoll... er, the writer of Hebrews, when he says:
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:1-4)Trace it out, then:
- God does in fact declare the wicked righteous
- He declares the wicked righteous through faith
- He declares the wicked righteous on the basis of penal, substitutionary atonement that deals with their sins and His just wrath...
- ...But the atonement provided within the OT itself was imperfect and insufficient.
The tension, then, is not resolved within the OT. It is only moved forward.
However, the whole OT itself does contain within itself signposts to the ultimate and satisfying resolution of this awesome dilemma.
Yahweh's ultimate and final answer is given in the jaw-dropping prophetic revelation of Isaiah 52:13 — 53:12. Though this isn't the place for a lengthy exposition, one can readily see the sacrificial imagery throughout this oracle. Isaiah depicts this human being, this Servant of Yahweh — who clearly is not Israel idealized nor otherwise (cf. v. 8, and the repeated contrasts of the one vs. the many, the we and the Him) — offering Himself up to bear the wrath of God for sins not His own, but His people's. This individual, Himself righteous (v. 11), dying as a penal, substitutionary sacrifice for the ungodly and wicked (cf. vv. 4-10).
The pivot, in connection with Proverbs 17:15, is found in Isaiah 53:11 — "Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities."
There it is:
- Many sinners...
- ...will be accounted righteous
- ...on the basis of the perfect and final penal, substitutionary atonement that the Servant of Yahweh would provide.
But it all makes the greatest sense of Paul's argument in Romans. Once again, on the face of it, these two verses stand in stark and obvious contradiction:
He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteousYet final and ultimate reconciliation is found in the penal substitutionary atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul opens this up in Romans 3:25-26, which speaks of Jesus Christ —
are both alike an abomination to the LORD (Proverbs 17:15)
And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness... (Romans 4:5)
...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. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just [δίκαιον, dikaion — righteous] and the justifier [δικαιοῦντα, dikaiounta — the one who declares righteous] of the one who has faith in Jesus.Jesus Christ is God's ἱλαστήριον [hilastērion], the sacrifice that absorbs and deflects His just wrath. His blood deals with our sin; our sin is imputed to Him, and His righteousness is imputed to us. In this way and in this way alone, God can be righteous, and declare wicked Abram righteous through faith alone. He can be righteous, and declare wicked Paul righteous through faith alone.
And He can be righteous, and declare wicked you, and wicked me, righteous through faith alone, by grace alone, on the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ alone.
And so you see, the principle of Proverbs 17:15 is the key to the necessity of penal, substitutionary atonement
- If God, with no cause nor reason, pronounces guilty people righteous, then He violates His own principle of justice, and un-Gods Himself. However,
- If God imputes our sin to Christ, and imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, with Christ making full atonement for our sin, then is He just and the justifier of believers
God’s mercy looked at us in our miserable and helpless estate, but how to do it without wronging the justice of God? It is a pity, says Mercy, that such a noble creature as man should be made to be undone; and yet God’s justice must not be a loser. What way then shall be found out? Angels cannot satisfy for the wrong done to God’s justice, nor is it fit that one nature should sin, and another nature suffer. What then? Shall man be for ever lost? Now, while Mercy was thus debating with itself, what to do for the recover of fallen man, the Wisdom of God stepped in; and thus the oracle spake: —Let God become man; let the Second Person in the Trinity be incarnate, and suffer; and so for fitness he shall be man, and for ability he shall be God; thus justice may be satisfied, and man saved. O the depth of the riches of the wisdom of God, thus to make justice and mercy to kiss each other! (Thomas Watson, Body of Divinity [Baker: 1979 (reprint of 1890 ed.)], 51.)Amen!