Sin Defines the Cross
My four-month-old baby girl Siena fell ill whilst on holidays in Asia. We were about to fly home the next day so I thought we should get her checked over by a doctor before we left.
We went to the local hospital where doctors began to diagnose what was wrong with her. “She has pneumonia! We need to start treatment immediately!” They took our child away from us. Siena screamed.
They began treatment by placing pipes down her throat to drain her lungs. We could hear Siena screaming 50 meters away!
I was very concerned about the treatment. So I called a couple of my doctor friends in Sydney. They all agreed that Siena was misdiagnosed! No tests were carried out. I took Siena away. We came home the next day only to find out that all she had was a throat infection.
Wrong diagnosis; wrong conclusion and treatment. Simple.
Assumptions determine our responses and conclusions.
The same is true when it comes to religion.
How we diagnose and define sin will determine how we understand why Jesus died! Let me explain.
There are various ideas about why Jesus died. Each one is directly connected with a particular understanding of sin. Why? The bible says that the death of Jesus was God’s remedy for sin.
This means how we define sin will determine how we understand the meaning of the death of Jesus. Remember: Diagnosis determines treatment. Romans 5:12-21 directly connects the death of Jesus with the undoing of the sin of Adam. The meaning of the latter determines the meaning of the former.
In other words, how we understand the sin of Adam will determine how we understand the meaning of the death of Jesus to deal with that sin. If the sin of Adam was purely a legal matter, that is he broke a law and deserves to be punished by death, then the remedy to the sin problem will be legal: Jesus must die as a legal act of punishment! But what if this diagnosis is wrong? Then the remedy will also be wrong.
Let’s go deeper … So what really happened in Eden? The bible says: “And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:16, 17). Christianity as a whole, East and West, is basically agreed that the text is saying that man turned away from God, and as a result fell to a state of confusion and death. This is called “The Fall.”
Sin, mortality, and death, were the direct result of man’s disobedience. But the next assumption we make will determine everything we will believe about God and the purpose of the death of Jesus. Divine death-threat or statement of fact? Here is the crux of the issue: is the death spoken about in this statement the direct result of a punitive sentence by God? In other words, is this declaration a rigid law? “You shall not eat the fruit, for if you do you will surely die”.
If we see this as a law from God then we will conclude that given they broke this law that the death sentence was directly imposed by God as well! That is, God himself made them die since in his justice he had to uphold his holy law. In this view God Himself was bound— he had to uphold his law. But let’s look at these verses again. Are they a threat from God to Adam and Eve – that should they break his law that he would have to impose death on them?
Or maybe these verses are simply a statement of fact?! Nowhere did God ever say: “I will kill you!” The text says “You will die!” For example if I say: “If you drive on the other side of the road you will die!” In saying this am I making a law and threatening to kill the person? No! This is simply a statement of fact and even an imperative! Remember the text nowhere says: “If you eat this fruit I will kill you!” Read in context the words mean: “If you eat from this tree you will cut yourself off from me, your only source of life and in doing so you will die by default!” God is warning of suicide; not divine execution. In turning away from God, the source of life, man turned towards death. In eating of the fruit, Adam and Eve ceased depending on God and sought to have life independent of him. Sin resulted in brokenness. Sin was not about breaking laws: but breaking intimacy with God and seeking the way of the autonomous self-sufficient self! Sin in Eden was about absolute autonomy apart from God. Man’s sin in Eden was not about man offending God’s honor [Catholic] or Law [Protestant]. To be sure God does hate sin, but not because of what it does to Him but what it does to us! The key turning point is this: did sin do something to God and offend him or did it impact us? If it impacts God in some way then the death of Jesus, God’s remedy for sin will be for God’s benefit. If sin affects us then the death of Jesus will be about us. In western Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, the death in Eden is seen as a direct retributive judgment on mankind from God for having broken a direct command. But as we have seen this is not the case! Death was a consequence that man created simply by choosing to cut himself off from the source of life: the Creator-Father! The death was an act of suicide: not execution!
The fatal error of western religion. Western Christianity errs in seeing death in Eden as coming directly from God. With this assumption clearly set in place, the death of Jesus is understood in terms of overcoming this God-imposed death sentence in order to gain life and salvation. The goal of the Cross then, becomes the appeasement of an angry God by satisfying the rigid demands of his holy law. So God sends Jesus to incur all his holy wrath and punishment and in this way make provision to forgive humanity. We are told that God is offended by our sin. We are the guilty party. God forgives by punishing Jesus with death instead of us. The premise has determined the conclusion. The faulty diagnose of sin and death and necessitated a faulty view of the Cross. Given the bible says that death is a direct consequence created by man and not God, then how does the death of Jesus rectify the sin problem? Christians are generally agreed that the death of Jesus resulted in salvation. In the western idea man is saved from God’s wrath which for them is an unending burning hell or instant annihilation. In Protestantism, salvation essentially means to flee from hell and go to heaven. In the bible, salvation means being saved not from God’s wrath in hell, but from the power, the control, the sting of the three great enemies: sin, death, and the devil. Hebrews 2:10-15; Colossians 2:13-15; Matthew 1:21. Remember: how a problem is defined determines what type of solution is sought. That is, if we have a legal problem, a broken law, we go to a lawyer. If, on the other hand, we have a medical problem, we go to a doctor! So is sin a sickness that results in brokenness – body soul and spirit? Or is sin about broken laws? The former requires healing and restoration; the latter punishment! So was the death of Jesus a legal act or a healing one? “For by his stripes we have been HEALED”! 1 Peter 2:24. Because death is not viewed as a legal issue, neither is its cure. If sin results in sickness and brokenness, then the Cross is about healing and restoration.
The Western Domino Effect and theories of Salvation. Western religion views death as a direct curse or judgment from God and has resulted in the development of various theories of satisfaction and appeasement or atonement which are not biblically based. These distorted views of salvation present the Christian God as a vengeful, vindictive God whose honor or wrath and justice must be appeased or satisfied in order to extend mercy. Based on this false idea, the western church has developed salvation solutions to problems that don’t exist! The Western Church is made up of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Augustine sets the scene. 5th Century. Augustine, in the west, Bishop of Hippo, was a trained Roman Lawyer and imported his Roman views of justice into the church in the west. Although he held to the idea that God’s justice was basically restorative, he also asserted that some forms of retributive justice were needful in the community in order to maintain peace in the family and in the Empire and ultimately lead to God’s restorative justice!
Augustine, unknowingly, sowed seeds for future views of the death of Jesus.
1. The Satisfaction Theory – Roman Catholic
Anselm – 11th Century – the crucial missing link.
Augustine used his model of retributive justice in the arena of ethics. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the West, took this retributive model and applied it to the death of Jesus on the Cross. This was a major step which paved the way for subsequent Catholic and Protestant beliefs!
Anselm began to look at the death of Jesus through the lenses of retributive justice as expressed in the feudal system of his day. His society was governed by feudal laws – how Lord and servants related to one another and he wrote of the death of Jesus in these terms. Servants and the lower classes were to render honor to their “lords”. To refuse to do so was an insult and “sin”. He applied this to God and man. He then read this through the lenses of retributive justice and came up with the “Satisfaction Theory” of the death of Jesus.
Man owed God honor. They disobeyed their “Lord’s” will and so insulted his honour. This honor-debt had to be repaid according to the laws of retributive justice. Man was incapable of restoring the damage done to God’s honour. So God had two choices: punish man by exterminating him or make a way available that his wounded honour could be satisfied. Anselm never considered punishment through extermination as an option for God. So he developed the “Satisfaction Theory” of the death of Jesus.
Man had to repay this honor-debt to God. He could not. God could, but he need not. So God becomes man in the person of Jesus, lives a perfect life of obedience to the will of God, suffered and as a result created a bank of credits that humanity could use to make retributive payment and so make satisfaction for God’s honor. See Anselm, Why God became Man, [I], pp. 11,19,.283;  p. 303
According to Anselm, what Jesus did had nothing to do with punishment but the restitution of God’s honor through retribution: Jesus repays God back. These credits are obtained by penance, indulgences and good works.
The Protestant position inherited the idea of satisfaction and retribution but applied it not to God’s offended honor but to God’s broken Law.
2. The Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement – Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal-Charismatic.
Calvin – 15TH Century. Luther and later Calvin took their stand against the Latin Church in the West. They insisted that no good works by penance on our behalf earned anything from God. Calvin [followed by Beza] insisted that God’s justice was still retributive. But instead of God punishing us for our sins he instead transferred this punishment from us onto Jesus and so achieved retribution and payback! In suffering and dying on the Cross, Christ received God’s punishment for us so that we no longer need to be punished.
Where Calvin differed from Anselm was this: for Anselm Jesus obeys, suffers and dies to repay (retribute) a debt of honor to God on account of sin; Calvin says that the problem is not God’s wounded honor but his broken law. Anselm’s retributive theory is about repaying God back but it is about “satisfaction of divine honor”. For Calvin and Protestantism, it is about “appeasing and satisfying divine wrath on account of a broken law”. Anselm does not talk about Jesus being punished by God on the Cross on our behalf. He saw Jesus earning credits with God through his obedience and suffering. Calvin saw that punishment was the only option: either we or Jesus had to die!
Herein is the way the penal substitution theory was birthed – not in the biblical idea of restorative justice – but in the Greco-Roman notion of retributive justice – via Augustine!
So what does the bible really say about the nature of salvation? The Biblical Understanding of Salvation. The biblical message of salvation through Jesus has as its basis, not the law or the courtroom, not the feudal system of honor, but God’s unconditional love, grace, and Fatherhood. The bible begins with the understanding that salvation is not essentially a legal concept. Salvation is about liberation, healing, and restoration; not upholding laws through punishment! In fact, the Greek noun translated as “salvation” is soterias, whose root meaning is “health.” The Greek verb translated “save” is sozo and actually means to “make whole, to heal”! Since we are saved from sin and since to save means to heal and restore, then this means that sin at its core level is really about sickness and brokenness and salvation about healing and restoration! The Greek word “sin” hamartia means “to fall short, to miss the mark”. That is we are less than what God intended for us. We are broken and salvation requires that we be rescued from the power, control, and effects of sin and be healed, delivered; restored.
When Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50), He means, “Your faith has healed you,” or “Your faith has made you whole.” Salvation is about bringing humanity to wholeness. To be healed, we don’t go to a lawyer or to a judge. To be healed, we go to a physician—and Jesus is the Great Physician. The original biblical Gospel often speaks of salvation in pre-eminently non-legal ways and speaks in terms of restoration and union with God through Jesus. The words and phrases The New Testament uses include: being crucified with, dying with, being buried, resurrected, and living with Christ and in Him, being united with and together with Him, as well as putting on Christ. They also include abiding in Him and He in us, being one with, married to, members of His Body, and of one flesh with Christ. See Romans 6; Ephesians 2; Galatians 3. To be sure it also speaks about Jesus dying for us and for our sins but this goes beyond mere legal substitution. A substitute is about one person committing a crime and another paying for their crime instead of them! But Paul is clear to say that “if one died FOR all then ALL died”. 2 Corinthians 5:14. We were with Jesus on the Cross. He died for us and we died with him. To speak in terms of substitution is clearly misleading and therefore compromises the Gospel that saves. But there is more. Sin is not just a sickness that needs healing, but a personified controlling power from which we need to be liberated. We were “slaves of Sin” and have been “set free from sin”. Romans 7:15-21; Romans 6.
Healing and Liberation then are central to the Gospel that saves. To be sure Paul speaks of the Gospel in terms of being “justified by faith”. I agree that the word “justify” is a legal term. But what is missed is this: the legal system of the bible and the legal system of our day don’t share much in common. Our legal system is based on upholding rules and punishing the breaking of these rules. The legal system in the bible is covenantal and relational and is focussed on rescuing and restoring broken people and relationships! The Gospel of Justification by Faith Revisited.
In Romans 1:15-17 Paul defined the gospel that saves in terms of the “righteousness of God”. Paul also noted that there were two kinds of righteousness; that of the law in contrast with that through faith in the righteousness of God. Romans 9:30-32. He made it clear that the “righteousness of God is apart from the law.” Romans 3:19-22. These two different kinds of righteousness were mutually exclusive. Romans 11:5-6. In fact, Paul says that God never enforced the punishment that the righteousness of the law demanded! Romans 2:13; 1:32; 3:10; 3:25. God had another way of dealing with sin through the demonstration of his own righteousness on the Cross – through an act of mercy and peace; a blood covenant through which he ratified his relationship with mankind forever.
In all this talk against the righteousness of the law, Paul should not be understood as being opposed to the Old Testament itself. He makes it clear that the gospel of the righteousness of God demonstrated through the blood of Jesus is apart from the law but it is testified to in the Law and the prophets.
He says right at the beginning of his book that his Gospel of the righteousness of God is contained within the writings of the Holy Scriptures, the Old Testament. Romans 1:1-2. This means that if we really want to understand what Paul means when he speaks about the righteousness of God that we need to study what the Old Testament says about this most important subject. So let’s consider what the Old Testament says about the righteousness of God and see how Paul incorporated this idea in Romans.
How does God reveal his righteousness in the Old Testament to save people?
The Legal system in the Old Testament.
1 Endow the king with your justice O God, the royal son with your righteousness. 2 May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.
From these verses, we can see that the role of a judge was to show justice which means the same thing as to show righteousness. These words overlap.
New International Version 1984 (NIV1984)
7 The LORD reigns forever; he has established his throne for judgment. 8 He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice. 9 The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.
When God acts as judge he manifests justice so that the oppressed find refuge in him. God’s role as a judge is clearly relational and acts to rescue the oppressed; that is the broken and down-trodden! This is foundational for what Paul will say about the Gospel of justification in Romans!
David says the same thing again.
New International Version 1984 (NIV1984)
6 The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed.
New International Version (NIV)
5 My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.
God as Judge manifests justice by liberating people which results in their salvation! How different is this from the modern notion of a judge? Justice is about restoration!
When God demonstrates his justice we read about his actions rather than his personal inner attributes!
Isaiah 5:16 NIV
16 But the LORD Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will show himself holy by his righteousness.
Isaiah 5:16 NIV
16 But the LORD Almighty will be exalted by his justice, and the holy God will be proved holy by his righteous acts.
As we compare this verse in both versions of the NIV we can see that the word “righteousness” is later translated as “righteous acts”. Did you notice that the words justice and righteousness or righteous acts are a demonstration not only of the righteousness of God but also of his holiness? It is very hard to separate all these ideas in the bible. But we have seen is that all these words have been given a retributive flavor in the western church – but they don’t imply this at all in the bible.
Anyway, for now, we can see that the righteousness of God in the Old Testament is about his “righteous acts”.
Righteousness is not about God’s inner quality of sinless purity. Righteousness is about what he does and not about inner qualities. God’s actions are in view when his righteousness is being described! Now, this is absolutely important to understand as Paul has this, particularly in mind in Romans. Sadly many evangelical teachers and preachers start off with the idea that the righteousness of God is about his inner quality that is repulsed by sin and punishes it. But straight away we can see that the righteousness of God is not about something inside of God that is repulsed by sin; righteousness is about actions rather than inner qualities.
In the Old Testament, we have this unique phrase that the KJV translated literally but has been avoided by all other translations because it didn’t seem to make any sense in English.
Daniel 9:18 KJV
18 O my God, incline thine ear, and hear; open thine eyes, and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by thy name: for we do not present our supplications before thee for our righteousnesses, but for thy great mercies.
Did you notice that the highlighted word is in the plural – righteousnesses? What is happening here? The original word is indeed in the plural form. All modern translations have the words “righteous acts”. In the Old Testament righteousness is about ACTIONS, not inner qualities! So “righteousnesses” means righteous acts.
This same Hebrew word is described in various places in the Old Testament when speaking about the righteousness of God. It appears at times in the plural – but we don’t see it anymore in modern English translations.
For now, we need to remember that righteousness in the bible is about ACTIONS rather than inner sinless qualities.
Micah 6:4-5 NKJV
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage; And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5 O My people, remember now What Balak king of Moab counseled, And what Balaam the son of Beor answered him, From Acacia Grove to Gilgal, That you may know the righteousness of the LORD.”
This passage is important for a number of reasons. First of all the word translated “righteousness” in the singular actually appears in the plural in the Hebrew: righteousnesses! Secondly, the NIV has translated this word as “righteous acts” again demonstrating that the righteousness of God is about his actions and not his inner sinless qualities. Finally and most importantly we are reading an Old Testament definition of what the righteousness of God is about. We are studying to see how Paul understood this most important idea in the whole bible! Did you notice the context in which the phrase “the righteousness of God” is found?
Micah refers to the redemption or rescuing of Israel and then says that this act of rescue was a demonstration of the righteousness of God. Now, this sounds very different from what we have been led to believe. The righteousness of God demands that broken people be rescued and redeemed!
Righteousness is about rescuing broken people not damning people for breaking laws!
1 In you, LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. 2 In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me; turn your ear to me and save me.
Righteousness and justice are about rescuing, delivering and saving – nothing here about demanding that sin be punished!
How does this fit in with what Paul has said about the righteousness of God as defining the Gospel in Romans? Paul has said that the gospel is about the righteousness and justice of God as he intervenes to “justify” people. He has also informed us that God’s righteousness was in harmony with what the Old Testament has said about righteousness. In the Old Testament, the righteousness of God was not about some inner sinless quality of God that demanded that sin be punished. In the Old Testament, we read that the righteousness of God does not demand that sin be punished but that sinners be rescued and restored!
The Cross was the ultimate and supreme demonstration of the righteousness of God. It was God’s ultimate revelation of him stepping into history and rescuing, saving and delivering those broken in their sins. Through the blood of Jesus God demonstrated his climactic act of righteousness. When Jesus shed his blood, he rescued, saved and delivered us from sin that was keeping us captive. The Cross was the supreme manifestation of the righteousness of God. It was God’s ultimate rescue mission whereby he totally liberated us from the power and control of sin, death, and Satan. Hebrews 2. The Cross was the manifestation of the righteousness of God in that God acted to rescue us from sin and its originator sin; triumphing over both by the Cross. As Peter says: “By his stripes, we have been healed” 1 Peter 2:24. Conclusion. The way we define sin determines how we will understand the Cross. If sin is about breaking laws then the Cross is seen as God’s supreme act of punishment for sin. Sadly the western church has adopted this latter understanding of sin and as a result, has developed theories of the death of Jesus that match their definition of sin. Both sectors of the western church – Catholic and Protestant – define the Gospel that saves in terms of satisfaction. The death of Jesus then acts to move and satisfy God in some way. It deals with his wounded honor [Catholic] or his broken law [Protestant] and in some way satisfies both and in so doing opens the door to mercy.
But this is not the biblical picture. When God said to our first parents: “the day you eat from this tree you will die” – he was not making an absolute law and then threatening death as a punishment. God is simply stating a fact: should we sever ourselves from the very source of life we choose by default to die. Simple. Man chose the way of self-reliance instead of communion with and reliance on God as the only source of life. As a result, he was broken physically, emotionally and spiritually. God’s response was not an act of punishing but an act of healing and restoration. He sent Jesus. Jesus actually means “Jehovah heals”. The Greek word “salvation” actually means “health”. The Greek word to save means “to make whole”. Sin is both a sickness and a power; the Gospel acts to liberate us from the power of Sin and to heal us from its sickness. The Gospel does not placate or satisfy God’s honor or the law; it restores man.