Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The redemption of Christ: was his death necessary? #2

In this second part of my paper on the redemption of Jesus Christ, I look at sacrifices in the Old Testament and how that relates to the Incarnation. It is really very basic but important before looking at the various views of atonement and how that relates to evil and religion.

The biblical view of atonement and Incarnation begin in the Old Testament. The sacrifices of the Old Testament are looking forward to the coming of Christ and to the work of Christ on the cross. They are incomplete without Him. We find in the first part of Hebrews 10 that the Old Testament sacrifices are a “shadow of the good things to come.” The author of Hebrews weaves the verses of Psalms 40:6-7 into the picture of Jesus’ body as sacrifice.

Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, ‘Sacrifice and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold I have come (In the scroll of the book it is written of me) to do your will, O God.’” (Heb. 10:5-7)
These verses, which seemingly deny the need for sacrifice as a means of salvation, really illustrate the need for the death of Jesus on the cross. F.F. Bruce, writing about these verses, sees the Old Testament sacrifices as requiring the “obedient heart” and Christ offers that “wholehearted obedience.” Quoting J. Denny’s The Death of Christ, Bruce writes, “Our author’s contrast is not between sacrifice and obedience, but between the involuntary sacrifice of dumb animals and ‘sacrifice into which obedience enters, the sacrifice of a rational and spiritual being, which is not passive in death, but in dying makes the will of God its own.’” [6]

Bruce goes on to explain that while it was the Father’s will for Jesus to die, “it was also His own spontaneous choice.”[7] Elaborating further and once again quoting Denny, he writes:
"It is the atonement which explains the incarnation: the incarnation takes place in order that the sin of the world may be put away by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ.” The offering of His body is simply the offering of Himself; if here sanctification and access to God are made available through His body, in verses 19 and 29 they are made available through His blood. Whether our author speaks of His body or His blood, it is His incarnate life that is meant, yielded to God in an obedience which was maintained even to death. So perfect a sacrifice was our Lord’s presentation of His life to God that no repetition of it is either necessary or possible: it was offered “once for all.[8]
Bruce and Denny’s commentary are important in light of the attacks occurring on the theology of atonement and in the context of religious evil. First, God’s desire for Old Testament people is not different than His desires for New Testament people.

His desire is that sacrifice be made with a willing heart; the desire to obey God is all-important. In the Old Testament the willing heart was bound-up with the sacrificial animal. However, only Jesus Christ could offer that perfect willing obedience. He made the perfect sacrifice and was the perfect sacrifice.

To eliminate Jesus as sacrifice on the cross is also to destroy the theology of the Old Testament. Christ’s death on the cross was not just the Father’s will it was the “spontaneous choice” of Jesus Christ. Atonement theology is infused with the doctrine of the Trinity. To redo or give up the meaning of the atonement tends to eliminate the Trinity.

The understanding that “the atonement explains the incarnation” clarifies the biblical understanding of God’s purpose in the incarnation. If a theologian says that for our salvation the incarnation “would be enough,” but fails to acknowledge the redemptive purpose of the cross he simply does not understand the biblical view of the incarnation. The biblical statements of the purposes of God concerning the incarnation are very clear.

Peter’s first sermon emphasizes the purpose and meaning of the incarnation in the death of Christ on the cross. “This Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” (Acts2: 23) Furthermore, Paul writes to the Colossians:
For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. (Colossians1: 19-20)
The final important note is that the sacrifice is “once for all.” This also speaks about the God of the Old Testament, who is of course the compassionate God of the New Testament. His grace of redemption covers all of the scripture, both old and new. The scripture confirms all of this:
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled we shall be saved by His life. (Romans 5:8-10)
In the next posting I will look at various theories of atonement and how they should work together. I will also explain why using only an "exampler" theory is damaging to Christian faith.
[6]J. Denny, The Death of Christ, (London: 1951), p131, in F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to The Hebrews, The New International Commentary On The New Testament, reprint, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing 1981) 234.
[7] Ibid, 235.
[8] Ibid. Denny, Death, 131. in, and Bruce, Hebrews, 236.

Picture by Stephen Larson

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