01 May 2008

Substitutionary atonement and Proverbs (part 2 of 2)

by Dan Phillips

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.

The second signpost
The second signpost I see is in Proverbs 17:15 —
He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous
are both alike an abomination to the LORD.
At 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).

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!

The problem...
It is a Biblical fact — not merely a NT fact — that all men are sinners by nature and by choice. Adam and Eve sinned and died spiritually (Genesis 2—3); and their children were conceived and born bearing that same broken, corrupted nature (Genesis 5:3). They still bear God's image, but that image is warped by a propensity to sin. God's universal assessment of mankind is not favorable (Genesis 6:5). David's depiction of mankind is similarly unsparing and stark (Psalm 53:1-3). And Solomon, author of Proverbs, echoes this same viewpoint: "there is no one who does not sin" (1 Kings 8:46). In fact, in that very book, he rhetorically asks, "Who can say, 'I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin'?" (Proverbs 20:9). Clearly the answer expected is, "No man."

"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 wickedthe 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:
  1. God does in fact declare the wicked righteous
  2. He declares the wicked righteous through faith
  3. He declares the wicked righteous on the basis of penal, substitutionary atonement that deals with their sins and His just wrath...
  4. ...But the atonement provided within the OT itself was imperfect and insufficient.
This was the state of affairs under which Solomon wrote Proverbs 17:15.

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.

....and the promise
A major prophetic promise comes in a book which, ironically, begins (in part) by a thunderous and devastating denunciation of Israel's abuse of ritual and sacrifice to cover over their unbelieving lives (Isaiah 1:10-15). Yet I've long envisioned a contemporary of Isaiah's reading those words and thinking, "Yahweh doesn't want sacrifice? What does that leave us?"

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.
Note: we have seen all this without citing one verse about Jesus from the New Testament.

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 righteous
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)
Yet 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 —
...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
  1. If God, with no cause nor reason, pronounces guilty people righteous, then He violates His own principle of justice, and un-Gods Himself. However,
  2. 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
It was well that Thomas Watson called redemption “the masterpiece of divine wisdom.” Watson envisions the counsels of eternity thus:
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.)

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Anonymous said...

Now that was superb. Thank you.

Mike Riccardi said...

Amen indeed.

James Scott Bell said...

Great stuff again, Dan.

David said...

He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous
are both alike an abomination to the LORD.

Wow. The implications are staggering. Where would we be without the "theological fiction [-Finney]" of imputation?

DJP said...

Amen. And, as you know, Finney was hardly the last to slander the Biblical doctrine of imputed righteousness as nonsensical fiction.

Kim said...

This is so cool. I just read Romans 3 and 4 this morning, and here you are commenting on it.

This was a great read this morning, DJP. Thanks!

Kim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colloquist said...

O Pyrophilus. Chuckle. :) There are some of us Pyrophilinas out here, too.

This reminds me of C. S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity (the chapter called "The Perfect Penitent"). Your post, Dan, is God's word and His wisdom describing the atonement to us; Lewis' description is more feeble man's attempt to analogize God's wisdom, but it helped this feeble one many years ago as a baby believer to understand substitutionary atonement.

After describing fallen man as a rebel who must lay down his arms and surrender, Lewis says: "Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. ... The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person - and he would not need it. ... But supposing God became a man - suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God's nature in one person - then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. ... That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all."

Thank you for some good, meaty stuff in this series!

Stefan Ewing said...

Wow. I'm awestruck.

Thank you, Dan.

Dawg said...


That was AWESOME!

Strong Tower said...


Is that friend of fire? Jesus a friend of little lambs flambe'; setting the world on fire...

Crazy little ministers of flame, a.k.a pyromaniacs

Solameanie said...

Well stated.

I find it interesting that so many in the EC find the substitutionary atonement so objectionable. Wonder why?

Rick Frueh said...

Dan - let me say I have been edified by your posts and that I personally am grateful for the depth of meditation that the Holy Spirit gave you on this subject.

When you announced an atonement/Proverbs study I was somewhat bewildered having never heard the core of Christianity addressed within Proverbs. Thank you, and may the Author of both Proverbs and The Atonement recieve the glory He deserves.

I may link to it in the future is that allowed?

DJP said...

Absolutely, Rick.

Actually, I had a hope the series would spark a lot more discussion than it has. But I'm always wrong about these things.

Rick Frueh said...

"I had a hope the series would spark a lot more discussion than it has."

Blatant envy! :) Thanks again.

Rick Frueh said...

One more thing, Dan, I believe the YHWH connection you made runs even deeper. The Jews sought to kill Christ because He used that name in a way they understood to refer to Himself as YHWH.

Jesus was a stumbling block (scandalon) because He claimed to be YHWH. But I never saw the Proverbs connection. Here is something along that same line:


Mike Riccardi said...


You know, I hadn't read your most recent comment before I clicked back over to the Pyro webpage. I was wondering if there were going to be a load of comments. When I saw that the number was 16, I immediately wondered if you would be disappointed, mainly because I remember you saying on occasion how you just can't predict what's going to happen on a meta.

So before I even clicked the comments section, I purposed to tell you that you shouldn't be discouraged by the lack of comments. Rather, you should be very encouraged. I had intended to post something lengthy and encouraging, but when I went to do that, all I could do was just admire the truth that God spoke through your post. It sounds corny, but for me it was very much a thing of "He said it all."

These were two rich devotionals, and you should be encouraged to the core that you've fed us to the point that we were satisfied to say nothing but, "Thanks," and "Amen."

Love you brother.

Anonymous said...

What about Richard Baxter's tomes against imputation in the rigid sense?

Baxter argued at length that the doctrine of imputation of Christ's active obedience led to antinomianism.

Imputation of Christ's active obedience to the elect seems to render faith and obedience of no use. If one of the elect still unborn, we'll call him Steve, has at this moment Christ's active obedience (Christ only died once and he either died for the sins of Steve or he didn't) then why does Steve need faith or obedience?

When God looks at Steve he sees Christ's record aye?

David said...

Ditto Mike Riccardi's comment.

Any time you just post a Biblical exposition, the comments will be much thinner than when you take on a controversy.

I'm still pondering Proverbs 17:15, and will be for some time, I'm sure. Thanks so much for that.

Strong Tower said...


What is left to discuss? You have done a really remarkable job here. And that is not just to try to get you to lend me your sword...

I have used Proverbs as an approach to the Gospel, but not like this.

When does the book come out?

You know it might take a few days for the EC and others to get what you're saying... I mean they're out there trying to build a high enough tower to socially sacrifice their burnt offerings of justice on when the just offering has already perfectly been made and that for us poor greedy corporate CEO's.

Geek- who's Baxter? Any relation to Ted?

Actually, no, how could it turn to antinomianism. We are made new in his image and are being conformed to that image. If in the incarnation Christ learned obedience by the things he suffered yet did only what he saw the Father doing, why should it have been necessary for him to have done so? Christ perfectly trusted in his Father did he not? But, he did not need faith did he? Psalms 22 is pretty explicit about the faith that Christ had which he has given to us. If his faith has been given to us, then why not the works that he did? Neither of these things were of necessity in Christ to make him what he was, so also they do not produce who we are but are necessary in who we are. By nature Christ fulfilled what he was, and so Scripture says that we were created to do good works, he the first fruit of that creation we the first fruits. That we are obedient is born necessarily out of the substance of what is the nature of our heart, and that not by our obedience or faith, but according to the new creation we am what we am by grace.

DJP said...

Thanks, everybody.

geekforgreek — thanks for asking. I guess I'd say three things, mainly, in reply:

1. There is no truth that can't be perverted into an error. "[U]ngodly people" can always "pervert the grace of our God into sensuality" (Jude 4).

2. However, as Augustine is supposed to have said, Abusus non tollit usus, meaning that abuse does not take away use. If we preach only doctrines that cannot be abused or misused, our sermons will be short and useless indeed.

3. What I'd say then is that if our Gospel cannot be perverted to licentiousness, we're not preaching the Gospel Paul preached, judging by Romans 6:1ff.

Imputed righteousness is what the Bible teaches, so I teach it. Since the Bible makes no less of the fact that a converted sinner, with Christ's righteousness imputed to him, will show the reality of his conversion in true faith, love, and righteous living (see 1 John), I will too.

Hope that helps.

Mike Riccardi said...

then why does Steve need faith or obedience?

I think that's a phenomenal question. Every time I try to answer it my mind tells me I didn't do it justice, but I'm going to try again, so bear with me.

The answer to why he needs faith is because that is how Christ's record is applied to him. His sins were paid for ca. 30 AD, but the application of justification and the imputation of Christ's righteousness happens in time at conversion, which is by faith. (We'll do well to remember, too, that faith itself is a gift from God, which can only be exercised by a heart that's been regenerated by the effectual grace of the Holy Spirit.)

The answer to why he needs obedience is that he doesn't need obedience. Christ has already done that for him. Now, he gets to obey. It's a joy obey. Even: he's now free to obey where he wasn't before. It's so simple that we want to muddle it up with our works, but God doesn't want our work, He wants the works of Christ, because it's only Christ's works that can ever be pleasing to Him. Consider the following:

Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. [Paraphrase: Because you're dead to sin, don't sin. Because you're alive in Christ, be in Christ.]

But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. [Paraphrase: Because you're not of the night, be of the day.]

that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth. [Paraphrase: Because you're new, don't be old.]

for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light. [This one doesn't even need a paraphrase. It says, You're Light. Walk as children of Light.]

So all of these passages (and there are more) are basically saying, You're X, so be X. Even in that last one, our union with Jesus is shown so intimate as to say we are Light (cf. 1Jn 1:5). Those who have been baptized into Christ (cf. Rom 6) have clothed ourselves with Christ Himself (Gal 3:27). We have put Him on, so because Christ righteousness clothes us, let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light (Rom 13:11-14).

Christ has lived that perfect life of obedience that we never could, and then -- wonder of wonders -- gives it to us! All we have to do is receive it joyfully! And when we do, just resting in that righteousness necessarily leads to delightful service and obedience! And not out of compulsion, or with an eye towards getting God's wink at us. But out of delight, and with an eye towards making much of Christ! Saying, "Oh no, make no mistake. I was given righteousness. Now, by even more grace, I'm just walking in it.

These truths are so close to my heart, and are such a burden for me that I pray the church would hear heralded from their pulpits till it's deep in their bones. So sorry if it wasn't as clear as possible... like I warned you above. But I hope it helps you.

For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.

Anonymous said...

DJP --

Baxter didn't deny imputation. He merely questioned the imputation of Christ's active obedience and even that only in the rigid sense.

Baxter sought to define imputation in such a way that was consistent with scripture's teaching that we are reckoned righteous by faith.

Perhaps I'm a cynic but it seems to me in order to rebuff Baxter one must provide an answer to my previous question. At least that is where I'm at currently.

Without an answer to Baxter's criticism from scripture, Baxter's own position appears to be more consistent with the voice of scripture.

DJP said...

Well then, Geek, I guess you put me in a difficult place.

I made a Biblical case for the imputation of Christ's righteousness which, of course, definitionally includes His active obedience. You challenge it, but provide no Biblical reasoning, just a "what if?" and an appeal to Baxter.

You reject the Biblical response I offer, again with no Scripture, and again appealing to Baxter.

So since I've no plans to read Baxter on this issue anytime soon, and if that's the only thing you seem to want to hear from me, I won't be able to help you. Wish I could; sorry.

Rick Frueh said...

Christ's imputed righteousness is akin to an earthly father imputing his genes to his offspring. But just because I am my father's son doesn't mean he desires my obedience, not to continually gain my sonship, that was secured at birth. My obedience and trust in my father is a direct result of my love for him which is a direct result for my lineage.

To question "Why does Steve need faith or obedience" is actually asking "What does faith and obedience do for Steve?" which is selfishness and a form of humanism. That is what the prosperity gospel is all about, only doing those things that we can see are beneficial in some way to us.

Distill it down to its lowest common denominator and you wind up with "Since I am going to heaven I no longer need to seek God's will".

Anonymous said...

DJP --

I'm not trying to argue apart from scripture or force you to do such. I merely wasn't able to see in the two posts any scriptural reference which would put forward the attribution of Christ's active obedience as the personal righteousness by which man is justified.

Gen. 15:6, echoed in Romans 4 states that it is faith that causes the believer to be reckoned righteous.

When I read most reformed folks on the atonement it sounds something like this:

On the cross --
A) The sinful record of the elect is imputed to Christ
B) Christ's perfect record of obedience is imputed to the elect

That leads to my original question -- this view seems to imply that the elect are justified by the atonement apart from faith. (aka contrary to Gen. 15 and Paul's argumentation in Rom. 4)

For the transaction either took place at that point in time or didn't. If "Steve" is of the elect then his sinful record was imputed to Christ and Christ's record was imputed to him. As such how is "Steve" justified by faith?

Baxter on the otherhand posited that from the fall of man to the consummation we live in the Kingdom of the Son. In a modified form of Grotius' governmental atonement Christ as King has made a new law that states thus, "Though you are sinner and deserve death for your sin, if you only repent and believe you will be forgiven and granted life in its stead."

As such God is just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Christ because the one who has faith has the right to be acquitted based upon the law of Christ. Christ by His death is the redeemer of all by paying the penalty of sin and instituting a new law by which all can be forgiven.

Again this may be beyond the scope of your intent -- it just seems to me that we read Gen. 15:6 and Romans 4 in light of traditional formulations of systematic theology rather than in light of what they say -- that somehow we are actually counted righteous by our faith.

Theophilus said...

You dug deep into the Word, cut, polished, and set a brilliant gem whose brilliance those of us presently using "lesser tools" can appreciate.

Thank you.