Part 1: ‘The Biblical Revelation’ Chapter 1: ‘It is not good to punish an innocent man’
(Proverbs 17:26, NIV)
‘In his humiliation he was deprived of justice,’ Acts 8:33. This is what the Bible says happened to Jesus at His trial. He was deprived of justice. Yet, so often, theologians try to explain the crucifixion in terms of God’s justice. Why is this? The Bible nowhere states that Jesus was justly executed. On the contrary, it is the contention of Scripture that He died as the Lamb without blemish and without spot, leaving an example of how to endure when suffering wrongfully (1 Pet.1:19; 2:19-23). Now, of course, the phrase: ‘without blemish and without spot’ is not a reference to the Lord’s human appearance at the time He died, for His body had been severely beaten, scourged and crucified. Indeed, according to the prophecy in Isaiah: ‘His visage was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men’ (Isa.52:14, NKJ). Rather, this phrase referred to the Lord’s own perfect righteousness and sinlessness. To the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul wrote that Christ’s offering and sacrifice was received by the Father as ‘a sweet-smelling aroma’ (Eph.5:2); that is, symbolically, an offering without any stench of the corruption of sin. The Lord Jesus Christ, in both life and death, was both spiritually pure and untainted by any transgression.
So, what is the reasoning that leads so many to believe today that Christ atoned for our sins by suffering the penalty of death according to God’s justice? Basically, it is this:
1. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom.3:23). Even newborn infants are born with a sinful nature (Ps.51:5). This is due to the corruption that entered into mankind through sin, as illustrated by the fall of Adam (Rom.5:19).
2. Death is the penalty for sin against God (Rom.6:23). God’s law demands satisfaction.
3. Mankind cannot earn salvation from sin by good works (Gal.2:16).
4. Only by faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ can we be saved (Acts 4:12; Rom.3:24-26).
5. Jesus died to pay the penalty of death in our place, that we might live (Rom.5:8; John 3:16). Physically, He became a substitute and suffered the punishment that was our due and just reward.
6. On the cross, Jesus took all our sins and guilt upon Himself, becoming legally responsible for all the sins of mankind (2 Cor.5:21; 1 Pet.2:24; Is.53:6-12). Spiritually, He became a substitute; and, as such, God the Father turned away and left Him derelict during the crucifixion (Mat.27:46). He suffered the penalty of separation from God the Father, which is a consequence and penalty of sin.
It sounds convincing, especially when we are led to read certain Bible verses with this view in mind; but we must examine the Scriptures in context and analyze this teaching carefully in the light of God’s Word, to know if it is true. It is possible to have faith in Christ and be in error. Trust can be genuine, but understanding can be flawed. It is possible to come to a belief in Christ as personal Saviour and Lord without a true understanding of the atonement. However, faith that has come through a flawed or false gospel will be limited in power and effect, according to the degree of accepted error. The Lord calls us by various means, but He expects us to overcome our errors as we mature in faith.
Surprising as it may seem, the above interpretation is not the only one given to these verses of Scripture—but it may be the only one you have heard so far. Now is the time to examine the Bible again, from a different point of view. Verses of Scripture never contradict each other. Too often, apparent conflicts are called ’mysteries’, when in fact they are simply problems of understanding that can be clearly resolved when the correct interpretations are applied.
Could God have done that which is not good?
Could God have punished an innocent Man? (Prov.17:26, NIV). If the argument is that God made Jesus guilty for our sins, then we have another problem to reconcile: It is written, ‘The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself’ (Ez.18:20, NKJ). The context of Ezekiel chapter 18 makes it clear that God’s justice does not allow for the transfer of guilt from one person to another. The responsibility for sin lies with the sinner. Even the conscience and reason testify that justice must be correctly applied and is not simply a matter of exacting a penalty—as though the issuing of the penalty is all that is important, even if it falls upon one who is innocent of the offence. True justice requires that the penalty for a crime be applied to the guilty alone, as it states in the Law: ‘Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall the children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin’ (Deut.24v16, NKJ; cf. 2 Chron. 25v4). In ancient times, it was a practice to also punish close relatives of the guilty for serious crimes. The Lord loathes all injustice. Prov.17:15: ‘Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the LORD detests them both’ (NIV).
Jesus gave His life for us as a perfect sacrifice, without sin. Yet, in His body He bore our sins—the sins of man. He was bruised, lacerated, torn and pierced. The sins of mankind were plainly visible in His flesh. He also bore the pain of man’s sins in His heart. He was burdened by those sins, but He was never the One responsible for them. The sins were the sins of mankind. Justice demands that the guilty must answer for their sins, not the innocent. How then are we set free from the penalty of death? It is through the offering Christ made of His life. This He gave willingly to God for us—as the perfect offering and covering for sin—sufficient for all who truly believe and repent.
Christ’s forsakenness at the time of His trial was physical—not spiritual. The Father removed His protection and permitted His Son to be delivered into the hands of sinful men. God did not resist, but allowed His love to shine forth in the midst of suffering. Jesus gave the sacrifice to God of a sinless perfect life for our sakes. He gave what mankind cannot give, because of sin. His offering avails for all who now trust in Him as Saviour and Lord. So, what of the penalty of death? Didn’t Jesus die for us? Yes.
In death, He made the perfect offering of His life to God for our salvation. This is why Peter emphasizes the purity of Christ’s blood and offering. Christ’s gift of Himself had to be without spot and blemish, as symbolized by the Old Testament sacrifices. These were instituted to foreshadow the purity of Christ’s own sacrifice. Jesus gave His life as an offering, holy and acceptable to God for our sakes. Now, as we put our trust in Him, we are accepted by God along with Him. Jesus did not die to pay (as is supposed) the penalty of death. It was not God’s punishment, although He allowed His Son to suffer because of the good that would ensue. The judgment upon Jesus at His trial was the justice of man. The justice of God was the justice of the resurrection, when the Father overturned the verdict of an earthly court and raised Jesus to a position of heavenly glory, giving Him a name that is above every name. It was to ‘Him who judges righteously’ that Jesus committed Himself (1 Pet.2:23), not to the justice of sinful man.
‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’
(John 1:29, NKJ)
When we talk of sin, we might think of it in terms of breaking God’s Law. This divine Law is written into the conscience and serves as a reminder that ultimately no one is without guilt before God: ‘All have sinned,’ as Paul in his letter to the Romans remarked, ‘and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom.3v23, NKJ). Sin is undoubtedly an act against God in heaven and one that demands our repentance if we are to seek God’s forgiveness and reconciliation. True repentance is accompanied by ‘godly sorrow’ (2 Cor.7v10) and requires not only that we acknowledge our guilt and seek to be forgiven, but also that we correct our ways and seek to atone for past wrongs. Repenting thus, we can be assured that God will forgive. However, the problem of sin is not dealt with simply through forgiveness – forgiveness does not cause sin to cease. Moreover, the Bible also speaks of man sinning against man:
If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times in a day returns to you, saying, ‘I repent,’ you shall forgive him (Luke 17v3-4, NKJ).
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother (Mat.18v15, NKJ).
One might consider Old Testament passages also:
If a man sin against his neighbour … (2 Ch. 6v22, NKJ).
If one man sin against another … (1 Sam. 2v25, NKJ).
Yes, sin is the breaking of God’s Law, but in sinning we sin against God and man. Humans, unlike animals, are rational creatures made in the image of God (Gen.1v26). We grieve not only God in heaven by our sins, but also mankind, of course, in countless ways. We need forgiveness for sins against both the nature of man and God to be totally free of the penal debt owed because of sin. Now, through the coming of Christ, there should be no doubt.
The incarnation of the Word of God, through the assumption of a body of flesh – as a second Adam and Head of all mankind – made possible the whole cleansing of man from sin. The Holy One of God, entering our world in the form of man through human birth and suffering the sins of man, even unto death, became the means of salvation for all humanity, enabling the complete forgiveness of all who truly repent and turn to God. Now, by the blood of Christ – signifying the righteous offering of His life poured out for our sakes – all who call upon His name can stand forgiven and cleansed of all guilt and shame. As followers of God’s Son, His offering is accepted for us – His life covers our own and all sin is forgiven. Moreover, by the grace of God, all who are accepted of God in Christ receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into their hearts – that they may walk in newness of life as His children (Acts 2:38; Rom.5:5; 8:15-16).
Often, our failings towards others cannot receive the forgiveness of those we have hurt or neglected to help. Loss of acquaintance through time, place or death can make this impossible for us to achieve. It can also be that those we have hurt refuse to forgive. Too late we realize our faults – too late to make amends. For the repentant, pangs of guilt can cause deep sorrow and pain for personal wrongs against others remembered with shame. How can we be forgiven for the neighbour we did not help, for the people we did not thank, for the many acts and thoughts of unkindness that are now mostly forgotten? – It is through Jesus Christ. The Creator took on the form of His creation and became the Head of all humanity – one person, having two natures, both human and divine. As such, all of man’s sins became acts of sin against Himself, Emmanuel. He empathized with the suffering of others caused as a result of sin, but also felt that suffering in kind, through all He endured at the cross. Now, through Him there should be no doubt – that as we repent, we will be forgiven all sin.
Recognizing that Jesus may be described as the head of all mankind has led some to argue that, as the ‘Federal Head’, He must also have become legally guilty and responsible for the sins of those for whom He is the Head.
No. Being the head of a family does not make one guilty for the sins of family members (see Ezek.18:20). However, a sin against one family member may indeed be considered a sin against all; especially, it may be said, against the family head. In this respect, John Donne’s meditation, ‘No Man is an Island’, comes to mind, expressing this sentiment with a ring of truth ‘no man’ should fail to hear:
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…”
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
The Word of God, as Head of the human family through the incarnation, is the One against whom all have sinned. As previously remarked, in God’s law, the father cannot be held guilty for sins of children. For this reason, Jesus cannot be held guilty or responsible for the sins of the world, nor for any of the perpetrators of evil in all its forms.
(* From the Addenda: The principle of Federal Headship in legal terms can easily be understood with reference to company law, where it is sometimes applied. The owners of a company are responsible for actions that happen within the company rules and consent of management. Corporate manslaughter is a good example. However, the company would need to be involved in the action. One employee murdering another in a fit of temper, for example, would not make the owners of the company guilty for the crime. It would have happened without their consent and certainly against company rules. However, drugs manufactured that later are found to cause death would make the company and its owners liable. Guilt would rightly be imputed – because of the company’s consent to the manufacture. Consent makes all the difference. God does not consent to sin. Mankind broke the rules – God is not implicated in our guilt. See also here:‘Penal Substitution and Justice’ and ‘God’s Character’)
At the cross, Jesus gave His life in complete righteousness and without any stain of sin whatsoever. Because of this, His offering was acceptable to God and so are we, whose sins are forgiven and whose lives are covered by His own.
The meaning of forgiveness
God’s law includes forgiveness. The command to forgive others from the heart when they repent is a command with serious consequences for those who disobey (Mat.6:14-15). True forgiveness entails the removal of all debts and penalties. One is not required to undergo punishment in order to be forgiven. We can clearly see this verified in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt.18:21-35):
The servant owed his master a great sum of money and was unable to repay, so he pleaded with his master to have mercy. The master had compassion, released him from punishment and forgave him the debt. The servant then went out and did the opposite. He found a fellow servant who owed him a very much smaller sum. He treated the man unkindly and even refused to listen to the man’s pleas for mercy. He had his fellow servant thrown into prison until the debt could be repaid. Notice, when the master forgave, no more was owing. He forgave all the debt (v32). Likewise, when God forgives, the total debt is cancelled and there is no more penalty. It is not that Jesus took our punishment upon Himself that we might be forgiven—forgiveness is not reliant upon the exacting of punishment. Only when there is no forgiveness does a penalty remain. Forgiveness cancels the debt that is owing and removes the penalty for sin. In this context, we could also cite the parable of the ‘prodigal son’ (Lk.15:11-32): A loving father is pictured as freely forgiving his wasteful repentant son.
God’s law allows for repentance and forgiveness. It is not that Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins—forgiveness is not dependent upon the paying of a penalty.
To be forgiven of God, one must sincerely repent. There needs to be an earnest desire for a change of heart—to bury the old-self to live life anew, in accordance with God’s will. One’s attitude should be that of godly sorrow for past misdeeds (2 Cor.2:10): ‘Godly sorrow produces repentance unto salvation.’ Merely asking to be forgiven is not enough. Words are not enough. Sorrow brought on only out of fear of punishment is not enough. One must be sorry for the hurt one has caused others. Also, one cannot expect forgiveness if one intends to continue as before. Repentance, if genuine, will also bear the fruit of an earnest desire to atone for past sins, as far as this is possible.
One should wish to atone for past wrongs – to willingly accept responsibility for any restitution and compensation required, according to what is just. – Recall such an example praised by Christ: ‘Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold”’ (Lk.19:8, NKJ).
When there is genuine repentance, acts of atonement can satisfy justice and bring reconciliation. – The offender seeks forgiveness and voluntarily seeks to atone for past misdeeds, making restitution when possible and compensating, as necessary. However, we cannot of ourselves atone for our ‘sinfulness’ – and, just as ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Rom.6:23), so the old self must be put to death if we are to be reconciled with God and have new life in Christ (signified through water baptism). By the gift of the Holy Spirit, this is the reality. ‘The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God’ (Rom.8:16, NKJ). ‘By the Spirit’ we ‘put to death the deeds of the body’ that we might live unto God (Rom.8:13).
Through repentance and faith, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and the covering grace of Christ’s righteousness that we, in union with Him, might be received of God, and reconciled to Him through the offering of the life of His Son, accepted for us as the atonement for our sins. Now, covered by His life and righteousness, all who repent in faith receive forgiveness, justification and fellowship with God, of the Holy Spirit. – As we walk in the Spirit, the ‘old self’ is put to death, as Paul wrote: ‘And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires’ (Gal.5:24, NKJ). If led of the Spirit, we are no longer under the law of sin and death (Gal.5:18) – no longer condemned, but forgiven and justified in Christ:
‘There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death’ (Rom.8:1-2, NKJ).
Punishment has value towards the reconciliation of an offender only if it has a remedial effect. Just as stated in the letter to the Hebrews:
‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives’ (Heb.12:5-6, NKJ).
Punishing someone in the place of another can neither serve justice nor help remedially. To be at-one with God, we must believe, repent and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus – through whom is new life and fellowship with God. In the life of Christ we have atonement. His offering of righteousness avails for all who are found in Him. But, where there is no repentance, a just punishment awaits – and none of the wicked will escape. Ultimately, the unrepentant will suffer the final death (Matt.10:28; Rev.20:14-15). Where there is no repentance, God’s wrath remains. Even in Old Testament times, sins were not forgiven and sacrifices were not accepted unless there was a genuine attitude of repentance
The sacrificial animals were required to be without spot or blemish—as a sign of purity, symbolizing the righteous life God demands of us. The blood of these animals was used for the ceremonial cleansing and sanctifying of the people and items used in worship (Ex.24:3-8; Heb.9:19-22). The blood was used to symbolically cover over past sins, ‘and without shedding of blood there is no remission’ (Heb.9:22, NKJ). However, without sincere and earnest repentance, the sacrifices were meaningless and unacceptable: ‘Bring no more futile sacrifices … I cannot endure iniquity and the sacred meeting’ (Is.1:13, NKJ, cf.1:10-15). ‘Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, nor your sacrifices sweet to Me’ (Jer.6:20, NKJ). What mattered to God was a change of heart: ‘Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit’ (Ezek.18:31, NKJ).
The sacrifices, offered as God intended, allowed the people a ritual demonstration of their seriousness before God. The offering of sacrifices acted as an expression of this desire for purity. Nevertheless, sacrifices had to be offered year by year, indicating that the problem of sin remained and could not be dealt with through the Mosaic law. The sacrifices foreshadowed the One who would deliver mankind from his sins. Now, by the one sacrifice of Himself, Jesus has prevailed for our complete forgiveness and justification: ‘Because by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’ (Heb.10:14, NIV).
For God’s people today, there is a new covenant: ‘”This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days,” says the Lord: “I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them,” then He adds, “There sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin’ (Heb.10:17, NKJ). Under this new covenant relationship, those with faith in the one sacrifice of Christ are promised forgiveness of sins and are covered by His blood—His life, His righteousness.
Forgiveness is not dependent on the payment of a penalty. With sins, there is condemnation, but with forgiveness, the condemnation for those sins is removed. When we truly repent and seek forgiveness, we are asking God to forgive our past sins. However, the forgiveness of past sins does not deal with our unrighteous spiritual condition—the fact that we will sin again and again, for a whole variety of reasons, sometimes in ignorance, sometimes unintentionally. God demands that we offer Him righteous lives. This is what we owe Him—this is what we cannot give of ourselves, because of our sinfulness. How then can we stand righteous before Him? It is through the righteousness of Christ. His sacrifice avails for all who repent and call upon Jesus as Saviour and Lord. In Him we have new life.
‘The righteousness of God … through faith in Jesus Christ’
The apostle Paul did not rely upon his own righteousness, but ‘that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God’ (Phil.3:9, NKJ). As it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’ (Rom.1:17, NKJ). By His grace, God freely justifies ‘the one who has faith in Jesus’— ‘whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith’ (Rom.3:24-26, NKJ). This means that the wrath and condemnation of God because of sin is turned away from those with faith in Christ, who are covered by His life—symbolized by the blood of the Lamb—and to those with faith in Christ is attributed His righteousness.
Jesus is the only one who made a pure and perfect sacrifice of His life—when He died for our sakes on the cross. This was the debt He paid on our behalf. It was not the penalty of death, He paid the debt of righteousness—the gift to God of a righteous life, which is our due. Christ’s righteousness is our covering if we are united in Him. The Father accepts us along with His Son. He has paid our due offering that we may be covered by His life and judged righteous. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom.8:1, NKJ). His righteous life is imputed to us who look to Him in the oneness of the Spirit. It is Jesus who is ‘THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS’ (Jer.23:6). Of ourselves, we can never be righteous. It is only through faith in Christ:
‘Just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin”‘ (Rom.4:6-8, NKJ).
The grace of God covers all who have faith in Christ as personal Saviour and Lord. As we turn to Christ in true repentance for sins, we are not only forgiven our past sins, but we become spiritually renewed through the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39; Titus 3:5-6). His perfect sacrifice avails for us and we are covered by His righteousness. There is no penalty of death for those who have truly repented with faith in Christ. Forgiveness cancels the penalty for sin, and Christ’s righteousness, imputed through faith, justifies and ensures that there is no more condemnation (Rom.8:1).
Jesus was set forth at the cross to declare the righteousness of God (Rom.3:25 & 26, NKJ). God’s Son was held aloft as God’s righteousness revealed. He is the One of whom Jeremiah prophesied: ‘Now this is His name by which He will be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS’ (Jer.23:6; 33:16, NKJ). God had said, ‘I will raise to David a branch of righteousness’ (Jer.23:5).
He was set forth as the ‘propitiation’ (Rom.3:25, Greek: hilasterion—Gk. Septuagint word for the cover over the ark). This word is translated ‘atonement cover’ in the NIV wherever it is used in the O.T. to describe the covering over the ark, as it is also used in Hebrews 9:5. The word is translated ‘mercy seat’ in the NKJ version of the Bible. From above this cover, described in detail in Exodus 25:17-22, between the cherubim, Yahweh spoke to Moses: ‘Now when Moses went into the tabernacle of meeting to speak with Him, he heard the voice of One speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the Testimony, from between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him’ (Num.7:89, NKJ). This was the cover that was sprinkled with the blood of atonement just once every year, on the Day of Atonement. It was placed in the innermost part of the sanctuary, behind the veil, in the ‘holy of holies’. Jesus, therefore, sprinkled with His own blood, is conveyed as the One in whom and by whom propitiation for us is made possible. The cover was placed above the receptacle of the ark of the covenant, which contained the tablets of the moral Law given by God to Moses, Aaron’s rod and a golden pot of manna (Heb.9:4). This covenant and the Law of the Ten Commandments is what man has violated. ‘All have sinned [Jew and Gentile alike] and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom.3:23, NKJ). ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’ (Rom.3:10, NKJ). Man’s unrighteousness is the cause of his separation from God (Isa.59:2, NKJ) and the reason for mankind’s need of a Saviour and Advocate: ‘Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world’ (1 John 2:1-2, NKJ).
Jesus was the Word of God made flesh (John 1v14). He embodied the righteousness of the commandments that were written on the tablets of stone placed within the ark. Aaron’s rod that budded and bore fruit (Num.17:8), symbolic in one sense of resurrection and new life, placed within the ark, foretold of the Holy One who would say of Himself: ‘I am the resurrection and the life‘ (John 11:25). Jesus is the prophesied Branch of righteousness (Jer.23:5; 33:15), with justice and righteousness as His sceptre (Ps.45:6; Heb.1:8). He is also ‘the true bread from heaven,’ as Jesus said: ‘Moses did not give you the bread from heaven [cf. 'manna', Ex.16:31-33], but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world’ (John 6:32-33, NKJ). Jesus was and is the Holy One of God (John 6:69, NIV; Acts 2:27) upon whom the authority of God rested and rests, symbolized by the mercy seat over the ark. ‘All authority has been given Me in heaven and on earth.’ Jesus said (Matt.28:18, NKJ). As prophesied in the book of Isaiah: ’… the government will be upon His shoulder’ (Isa.9:6, NKJ).
In a spiritual sense, therefore, the ark of God foreshadowed and typified Christ. When He gave His life as an atonement, His blood poured down over the true Mercy Seat of God’s Ark—Himself (Rom.3:25), who is the embodiment of the heavenly bread of God’s Word and Law, and who is the resurrection and the life. He did not do away with the Law, but fulfilled the Law through His own truly righteous life that He poured out in death—thus annulling and bringing to an end the Old Covenant with the physical nation of Israel; while, at the same time, ratifying the New Covenant by His blood with spiritual Israel (Rom.7:1-4; Mat.26:28; 2 Cor.3: 4-9). Paul described the spiritual ministry of the New Covenant as the ‘ministry of righteousness’ (2 Cor.3:9).
The life of Jesus, represented by His blood, was pure and holy. This He poured out for our sakes at the cross. The Father received the sweet-smelling aroma of His Son’s offering and sacrifice (Eph.5:2). Now, as we look to Him in faith, His offering is accepted for us and His life covers our own, cleansing us of sin. Through faith in Christ, we are forgiven our past and justified in the present.
The NKJ version accurately renders Romans 3:22-26 as follows:
‘For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation [marg. ref.: mercy seat ] by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God passed over the sins previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.’
The words of Paul speak of justification through faith in the sacrifice of Christ. In the Greek, the passage does not say that Jesus died ‘to demonstrate God’s justice’ (remember: ‘He was deprived of justice,’ Acts 8:33, NIV) ; nor does it speak of God’s punishment. This passage refers to the setting forth of the propitiation of Jesus to demonstrate God’s righteousness: ‘His righteousness’ as exhibited in Jesus at the cross. Paul went on to say that those with faith in the Son of God are ‘justified by His blood’ (Rom.5:9): symbolic of His sacrificial life (‘the life is in the blood,’ Lev.17:11-14). There is no suggestion of penal substitution. If Paul had meant this, he could have made it very plain. Rather, Jesus gave Himself as the Lamb without blemish and without spot to God that all with true faith may be accepted with Him, covered by His life in perfect atonement. The gift of righteousness—imputed to all who trust in Him—is the result of this one righteous act (Rom.5:17-18).
The true disciples of Christ are judged, not as sinners, but as righteous. As a way of life, they practise righteous living. They exercise both faith in Christ and a repentant attitude whenever sins occur. For these reasons, sin no longer condemns. By the biblical definition, sinners are those who practise sin, without repentance or faith in Christ. The Apostle John said: ‘Whoever abides in Him does not sin’ (1 Jn.3:6, NKJ). Now, having stated previously that anyone who claims to be without sin is being untruthful (1 Jn.1:8) and that we must confess our sins, he was obviously not contradicting himself but meaning that we cannot abide in Christ and go on practising sin. With the Bible, we must always seek to understand the context. ‘Whoever sins[practises sin] has neither seen Him nor known Him. Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practises righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil’ (1 Jn.3:6-7, NKJ). Before coming into faith, we were judged as sinners: ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom.5:8, NKJ). Paul, the apostle, claimed to have been the chief of sinners, because of his pre-conversion persecution of Christians. He certainly did not continue as such. (The translation of the Greek word eimi, in 1 Tim.1:15 can be misleading, for the same word can be translated either as am, have been or was, cf. Strong’s Concordance. It is a matter of interpretation, which should be based upon the context and logical reasoning: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I was chief’ – is how it should read. In verse 13 of the passage, Paul had previously stated that he had formerly been ‘a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man. He was not stating here that he still was. Also, for other examples, cf. Gal.1:22, Jn.21:12, 2 Cor.1:18, 8:9: ‘was’; Gal.3:21, Acts 4:13: ‘had been’; etc and John 9:24: ‘the man who was blind.’) Paul taught that, in Christ, we are judged righteous: ‘For just as through the disobedience of the one man [Adam] the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Christ] the many will be made righteous’ (Rom.5:19, NIV).
It may seem humbling for Christians to speak of themselves as sinners, but if you are truly a Christian, then you can’t also be a sinner. You are covered by Christ’s righteousness and must practise righteousness. Sinners are destined to be destroyed, unless they repent: ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ (1 Pet.4:18, NIV).
Not … ‘from a worldly point of view’
‘So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer’ (2 Cor.5:16, NIV). How the world sees us and judges us is different to the way God sees us and judges us. There is a worldly point of view, and there is a godly point of view. In the eyes of God, as true believers, we are righteous because Christ is our righteousness. The world looks upon us differently.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote: ‘For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of a procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe …’ (1 Cor.4:9, NIV). Who did this? … God. According to Paul, God had made the apostles to be viewed as foolish and weak: ‘the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world’ (1 Cor.4:9-13, NIV). There is an outward appearance and an inner reality. God allowed the apostles to go hungry and thirsty; to be in rags and brutally treated; to be homeless, cursed, persecuted and slandered. In the eyes of the world, the apostles were worthless scum. Paul said that they had once regarded Christ in this way—from a worldly point of view (2 Cor.5:16, NIV). Jesus was treated like a common criminal, spat upon, slandered, verbally and physically abused, mocked, scourged, nailed to a cross and left to die. In the eyes of the world, Jesus was sin. The mob had shouted for His death. He was regarded as one who had blasphemed God and who had worked miracles by the power of Satan (Mat.26:65; 9:34). To the Jews, He was despised as one who had wished to usurp authority and to destroy the law given to Moses. To the Romans, He was a cause of disorder. To the world, the apostles were ‘the smell of death’ (2 Cor.2:16, NIV), but to God ‘the aroma of Christ’ (2 Cor.2:15, NIV).
On the cross, ‘Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Eph.5:2, NIV). Jesus did this for us. This was how Christ presented Himself to God, but this was not how He appeared to the world.
We must not take a verse of scripture out of context. This verse: ‘God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor.5:21), is a verse which must be viewed in the context of the passage, the whole letter, and Paul’s related comments in his first letter to the Corinthians and other letters. When we do this, we will not take a worldly view of the cross. In the One whom the world judged as sin we have become the righteousness of God.
Amongst the Corinthians were those who were judging Paul by outward appearance: ‘You are looking only on the surface of things’ (2 Cor.10:7, NIV). Some people were saying that in person he was ‘unimpressive’, that his speaking ‘amounted to nothing’ (2 Cor.10:10, NIV) and demanded proof that he was speaking for Christ: ‘You are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me’ (2 Cor.13:3, NIV). As a way of confirming his calling, Paul chose not so much to speak of the signs of an apostle, which he had wrought amongst them: ‘miracles, signs and wonders’ (2 Cor.12:12), but of his sufferings in the likeness of Christ (2 Cor.6:4-10; 10:23-29). Paul’s concern was not for himself: ‘What we are is plain to God’ (2 Cor.5:11, NIV), but was for those who were forming worldly and divisive judgmental attitudes. Therefore, just as it is wrong to judge Christ by surface appearance, as He was judged by those without faith, so we must not judge each other.
Man had esteemed Christ as one accursed of God (Gal.3:13), smitten and afflicted by Him—but that was only the outward appearance, the view of the world. The Scriptures agree: Christ, ‘through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself unblemished to God’ (Heb.9:14, NIV). Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, told his accusers that they had murdered the ‘Righteous One’, predicted by the prophets (Acts 7:52).The One murdered was righteous. God’s vindication of His Son was the resurrection.
‘God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things … by making peace through His blood, shed on the cross’ (Col.1:19-20, NKJ). Paul said: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, (2 Cor.5:19, NKJ). How were we reconciled to God?… ‘We were reconciled to God through the death of His Son’ (Rom.5:10, NKJ). Therefore, we can conclude, God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself through the death of His Son—who offered Himself unblemished to God, through the eternal Spirit, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice. This is biblical and reveals that there was no spiritual separation of the Father and the Son at the time of the atonement.
‘For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us’
(2 Cor.5:21, NKJ)
An alternative reading of 2 Cor.5:21 renders the word for sin, Gk.: hamartian, as sin-offering (given as a marginal reference in modern translations). This dual interpretation is made possible due to the fact that there is ample precedent for such usage in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament (notably: Lev.4:32; 5:6, 7, 8, 9) and in the Hebrew, e.g. Hosea 4:8, ‘They eat up the sin of My people,’ where a single word is used for sin, Hb.: chatta’ah, which can be translated sin-offering. The Greek expression hamartias, meaning sins or sin-offerings, is used in the book of Hebrews in a direct quotation from the Septuagint of Psalm 40:6: ‘In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin you had no pleasure,’ Heb.10:6, NKJ. The word ‘sacrifices’ has been added for clarity of meaning by translators, but it does not occur in the Greek of either the passage from the psalm or from the letter to the Hebrews. There is no doubt, therefore, that the term was understood to have this application during New Testament times. A modern translation by David Stern renders 2 Cor. 5:21 as: “God made this sinless man be a sin offering on our behalf, so that in union with him we might fully share in God’s righteousness” (The Jewish New Testament).
The dual import of Paul’s words in this passage can be understood from the biblical context. It was not the view or judgement of the world that God accepted concerning the sacrifice of His Son. As a sin-offering, Jesus presented Himself as the untainted, pure and perfect offering to God for our sakes, that we, in union with Him, by God’s grace might share in His righteousness and thereby have our sins removed.
Notes on the translations of 2 Cor.5:21
God ‘made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him’ (2 Cor.5:21, NKJ).
Linguists could argue that the words ‘to be’ are necessary in English to avoid the suggestion that Jesus was made ‘to sin’ – ‘made Him sin’ – although no one would argue that this was intended in the Greek. The image of the crucified, bruised and bleeding body of Christ on the cross represented, on one hand, the fullness of man’s sin against God and, on the other, the fullness of God’s love for mankind personified. Nevertheless, the perspective of the world was different. Those who called for His crucifixion looked upon Him as one accursed of God. To the world, Jesus was Sin in person – someone to be reviled and despised. This was the worldly point of view that He had to endure. Jesus despised the shame for our sakes. He suffered the reproaches and the merciless cruelty of mankind. He bore all this for us that we might receive His peace.
An interpretation we cannot avoid in this passage, therefore, is the idea that Jesus was made to personify sin, but nor can we avoid the view that ‘sin’ here can also mean ‘sin-offering’ or ‘sacrifice for sin’. In one passage: Hebrews 10:6, translators have no doubt about the intended meaning. Here, ‘hamartias’ is translated ‘sacrifices for sin’ (NKJ) – the verse being a direct quotation from the Septuagint (the Bible most used by Greek speaking Christians and Jews at the time of the apostles). In 2 Corinthians 5:21, the context is that of the sacrifice of our Lord, so translators allow the possibility that the meaning can be ‘sin offering’ (as may be shown in a marginal reference).
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word, chata’aw’, which is translated ‘hamartia’ in the Greek LXX, is used over 170 times with the sense of ‘sin’. Nevertheless, this word is also given the meaning ‘sin offering’ in 115 places where the context makes this requirement. The word could also be used with both meanings in the same passage, as in Leviticus 5:6: ‘…for his sin which he has sinned, a female from the flock, a lamb or a kid of the goats as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin.‘ This makes possible the interpretation given to ‘hamartia’ in 2 Cor.5:21 in the translation by David Stern (The Jewish New Testament): ‘God made this sinless man be a sin offering on our behalf, so that in union with him we might fully share in God’s righteousness.’
Paul, of course, knew that his readers and those listening would have understood his words both ways. This, I believe, is what he intended. Speaking in metaphor was a typically Jewish mode of expressing ideas. If Paul had chosen another word to mean that Jesus was made to merely ‘seem like’ sin, then not only would the strength of metaphor be lost (instead of metaphor, we would have simile – which is weaker), but so would the idea that our Lord was made a sin offering.
There is another point to be considered. Paul here used two different words in Greek that are translated ‘made’ in English; these are: ‘poieo’ and ‘ginomai’. ‘Poieo’ correctly corresponds to the English word ‘made’ in this passage, but ‘ginomai’, although meaning ‘made’ carries the idea ‘to be generated’ – ‘to come into existence’ – ‘to receive being’. In Galatians 4:4, the word is twice used to convey the meaning ‘born’: ‘God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law’ (NKJ). The association with child birth should not be overlooked. We, as Christians, are brought into existence through the suffering that Jesus was made to bear. Our Lord was made to suffer the birth pangs of the crucifixion as ‘sin’ in order that we might be born again into the righteousness of God. The false impression that people had of Him was all part of the suffering that He had to endure.
Jesus was made ‘sin’ – this was how He was viewed by those who were against Him. It is a powerful metaphor, but not one to be taken to mean literally – in the eyes of God.
‘When He cried to Him, He heard’
(Psalm 22:24, NKJ)
Christ’s abandonment, from the time of His arrest to His death on the cross, was physical—not spiritual:
‘For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from Him; but when He cried to Him, He heard’ (Psalm 22:24, NKJ).
It is often stated that God the Father could not bear to look at His Son on the cross and had to turn away, leaving Him derelict. This verse, taken from the psalm that speaks more than any other of Christ’s sufferings, states the opposite. It is as though written with the prophetic knowledge that there would be those who would declare that God withdrew His Spirit and left His Son entirely alone: God did not regard the state of His Son with abhorrence, He did not hide His face from Him, and when His Son cried out He heard. The ‘afflicted one’ is the subject of this psalm, as can be understood in the context of the previous verses:
The cry of Jesus, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’ (Ps.22:1; Mat.27:46, NKJ) was a prophetic utterance that spoke of the Messiah’s abandonment to suffer physical and mental torment and pain. The cry is in the form of a question that is asked for our sakes. Christ already knew the answer; but we are meant to reflect upon it—He had been left without God’s shield of protection so that He could make the perfect offering of His life for us. He was delivered up to die so that we might live.
The Messianic suffering of Jesus was foretold by the psalmist:
‘All those who see Me laugh Me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, “He trusted in the Lord, let Him rescue Him; let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him”‘ (Ps.22:7, NKJ).
Compare Matthew 27:39-43: ‘Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads … In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. … “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said I am the Son of God”‘ (NIV).
‘They pierced My hands and My feet; I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me. They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots’ (Ps.22:16-18, NKJ).
Compare Matthew 27:35: ‘When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots’ (NIV).
Verse 22 is also applied to Christ: ‘I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise You’ – as quoted by the writer of Hebrews: ‘So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, “I will declare your name to My brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises”‘ (Heb.2:11-12, NKJ).
Thankfully, the relevance of verse 24 in the context of the psalm was not ignored by the translators of the NKJ version of the Bible, who capitalized the personal pronouns: ‘For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from Him; but when He cried to Him, He heard.’
Jesus constantly emphasized His spiritual unity with God the Father and the fact that He was not alone—although He prophesied that a time would come when His disciples would forsake Him: ‘But a time is coming, and has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me‘ (John 16:32, NIV). This happened when the disciples fled away at the time of His arrest: ‘Then all the disciples deserted him and fled’ (Mat.26:56, NIV). He said also: ‘The one who sent me is with me; for he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him’ (John 8:29, NIV). Jesus never ceased to do what pleased God and was never left spiritually alone. Jesus said, ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30, NIV). The unity of God cannot be broken.
Further evidence that God the Father did not turn away from His Son at the crucifixion is also provided by the accounts of Christ’s prayers:
‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34, NIV).
‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23:46, NIV).
To whom was Christ speaking, if the Father had turned away? One prayer was offered at the beginning of His ordeal on the cross, and the other was spoken just before His death. As the man who had been born blind said of Jesus: ‘We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will’ (John 9:31, NIV). Our Lord’s prayer for others was heard by God—likewise His final request. Here, again, is proof that God did not turn away from His Son.
Some commentators say that God turned away from His Son at the time of the cry: ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ (Mat.27:46, NKJ) …only to turn back again before Christ died. But, does this make sense? Now, to those who say this, Jesus had become the embodiment of sin upon the cross, as one spiritually held to be guilty and responsible for all the sins of mankind—the punishment for which was death and separation from God as the penalty and consequence of sin. According to those who present this view, Jesus had to be judged guilty and responsible for our sins at the time of death. So, by this reasoning, how could God turn back again before the penalty of death had been applied? Rather, the fact is, Jesus never ceased to do the Father’s will and was never left alone. But, let us consider something else: Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6). To say that Jesus became the embodiment of all our sins is to say that The Truth of God became the embodiment of all our lies and falsehood. No. ‘The Truth’ did not become ‘The Embodiment of All Our Lies’. Jesus remained ever The Truth of God: ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow’ (Heb.13:8). Christ’s offering on the cross did not become a despised and abhorrent unholy thing from which God had to hide His face (Ps.22:24). Jesus was accepted as ‘a fragrant offering and sacrifice’ (Eph.5:2).
Did God withdraw the Holy Spirit? No. We have read that Jesus ‘through the eternal Spirit, offered Himself without spot to God’ (Heb.9:14, NKJ). The Holy Spirit was very much involved in the offering Christ made of His life. God’s Son, ‘holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners’ …offered Himself ‘once for all’ (Heb.7:26-27, NIV). The Bible declares that Jesus was separate from sinners, innocent and pure, when He, as our High Priest, made a fragrant offering and sacrifice of His life to God.
Note on Romans 15:3
‘For even Christ pleased not Himself; but, as it is written, “The reproaches of those that reproached You fell on Me”’ (Rom.15:3, NKJ; cf. Ps.69:9, Ps.22:6-7). Jesus bore the reproaches of man against God at the cross. The crucified Lord – in one image – symbolized and symbolises both the summation of all the sins and enmity of man against God … and the glorious fullness of all the love and compassion of God for mankind.