Did Jesus Really Die to Pay the Penalty for our Sins?!?

One day some years ago, a fundamentalist Christian tract came through the mail slot. I almost tossed it out. But out of curiosity, I gave it a read-through.

It’s a typical piece. And it pushes an old “Christian belief” that the Bible doesn’t teach. You may be surprised to discover that some the most basic claims of evangelical Christians simply aren’t found in the Bible.

In this case, it’s the idea that Jesus “paid the price” or the “penalty” for our sins. Believe it or not, the Bible simply doesn’t say this! The Bible does say that Jesus died for our sins, and that Jesus takes away our sins. But it never says that he paid the price or the penalty for our sins.

It may seem like a nitpicky point. But in fact, it is very important for understanding what salvation is all about from a Christian perspective.

Let’s take a closer look at the tract, and see exactly where it goes off course.

Was this death really to pay the penalty for our sins?

Was this death really to pay the penalty for our sins?

How to get to heaven?

The cover of the tract asks the question:

Are You 100% Sure?

Sure of what? We are not left in suspense. Here is the very first line once you open up the tract:

Here is how you can be 100% sure that you are going to Heaven . . .

Let’s take a look at how the fundamentalist Christians who published the tract think we can be 100% sure we are going to heaven.

Along the way, perhaps you’ll see how we can gain . . . well . . . perhaps a 95% assurance that we are going to heaven. That 5% uncertainty ought to keep us on our toes and growing spiritually!

All have sinned

The tract offers us six steps to be sure we are going to heaven. Let’s consider them one by one. (All the italics in the quotes are in the tract itself.)

Step 1:

Realize and acknowledge: “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” Romans 3:23.

Yes, all men, including you, have come short of Heaven because of sin.

I don’t have a problem with this statement. All men have sinned. Even all women have sinned!

However, some people might recoil from this statement because “sin” is such a loaded word these days. So let’s put it in common language.

Can you, dear reader, honestly say that you have never in your entire life said or done anything that you knew was wrong—something that was hurtful to someone else or to yourself?

We have all said and done things that we knew were wrong and hurtful. This is the most basic definition of “sin.” And as the tract says, we have all done it.

“The wages of sin is death”

Step 2:

Realize and acknowledge: “the wages of sin is death,” Romans 6:23.

All men die physically, but all men do not die spiritually. You can be born again through Jesus Christ and be saved from the penalty of sin which is an eternal hell, a place of “fire and brimstone, which is the second death,” Revelation 21:8.

Now we have some problems. No, not with the statement from Paul’s letter to the Romans that “the wages of sin is death.” The problem is where the tract goes from there.

First, the Biblical “fire and brimstone” is not meant to be taken literally. Instead, it is a visual image of the fire of hatred, and the brimstone of self-centered love fueling that fire, when we turn away from God and toward our own selfishness and greed. Brimstone is an old word for sulfur, which, as in a match head, ignites with the slightest provocation, and then burns fast and hot.

Saved from the penalty, or saved from the sin?

But there is another, more subtle problem in the tract’s statement. After quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans that “the wages of sin is death,” instead of telling us how we can get rid of the sin so that we no longer draw that wage of death, it tells us that through Jesus Christ we can be saved from the penalty of sin.

At first glance, there may not seem to be much of a difference. An example should make the difference clearer.

Let’s say you or I go bad one day, and we decide that in addition to our day job, we’re going to moonlight as a burglar in order to supplement our income. We study up on the techniques of housebreaking, and soon we have a lucrative side business in stolen electronics, jewelry, and such.

Now, this would be an obvious case of sin. We know that breaking into people’s houses and stealing their belongings is wrong.

For the first few months, nobody finds out who is doing it. The papers are reporting a string of break-ins with a similar modus operandi, but the police have no suspects yet.

However, eventually our crimes catch up with us. One night the police get a tip-off. As we are running from a house, bag in hand, we are arrested, booked, and put into a cell.

The next day, two people visit us in our cell.

One of them says, “I can save you from the penalty for your sin!”

The other says, “I can save you from your sin!”

No. That’s what they would have said if they had been reading religious tracts lately.

Actually, one of them says, “Hey, I can help you beat the rap for this! You won’t have to go to jail, and you won’t have to pay one dime in restitution!”

The other one says, “Look, you have a real problem. I can get you help or counseling for whatever it is that is causing you to resort to crime. You’ll still have to pay the price for the crimes you have committed, but you won’t get into any more trouble because you will get the help you need to straighten out your life.”

This is the difference between being saved from the penalty of sin and being saved from the sin itself.

Consider how the community that was the target of the crimes would react to each. If a skilled lawyer managed to get us off the hook, how would the community feel? It would feel not only cheated, but apprehensive that a known criminal is unpunished and on the loose.

But what if we went through a rehabilitation program that actually worked for us? What if we changed our mind and once again became an honest, hard-working member of our community? Then the community could begin to relax, and even to rejoice that someone who was headed in the wrong direction has turned around.

What the tract says vs. what the Bible says

Is the tract really saying that Christ came to pay for the penalty of our sin, rather than what the Bible says—that Christ died for the sins themselves?

Now that we’ve looked at the difference between taking away sin and taking away the penalty for sin, the difference between the quotations from the Bible and the tract’s explanation of them should be clearer.

Step 3:

Realize and acknowledge: “Christ died for our sins,” 1 Corinthians 15:3.

Jesus Christ paid the entire price on the cross for your sin. God set the price on sin, which was a perfect sacrifice, and then God himself gave his own Son to pay the price.

Notice that the quote from 1 Corinthians says that Christ died for our sins. Not to pay the penalty or price for our sin.

  • What Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians is like the person who wanted to take away the criminal’s “sin” (criminal offenses) by helping the criminal to reform and start a new life, free of dishonesty and crime.
  • The tract’s commentary focuses on the price of sin, stating that God set that price, and then gave his Son to pay it—something that the Bible never says.

By now, the difference between the tract and the Bible should be clear:

  1. The tract focuses on the penalty for sin.
  2. The Bible focuses on correcting the sin itself, thus taking it away.

The fact of the matter is, the Bible never says that Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins. I once spent several hours searching for such a passage with every keyword I could think of, and it simply wasn’t there. Read the entire New Testament for yourself. You will not find a single passage saying that Jesus paid the penalty or the price for our sins.

Instead, the Bible says that Jesus came to take away our sins (John 1:29), so that we would no longer be sinners. And of course, if we stop sinning, the price of sin becomes irrelevant because we are no longer buying.

Saved by mere belief, or saved by belief and action?

The next two steps are similar, so we will consider them together. We are now coming to a focus on what actually does lead us toward heaven. As you read these next two steps, consider this question: Are we saved by what we believe or by what we do?

Step 4:

Realize and acknowledge: “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord,” Romans 6:23.

God offers you freely His gift of eternal life. This gift is yours by believing in a risen Christ who arose on the third day and is alive forever more.

Step 5:

Realize and acknowledge: “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” Romans 10:13.

Whosoever means you. If you by simple faith will trust in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for your soul’s salvation, you can be 100% sure that you are going to Heaven. Nothing else will do . . . not church membership, not baptism, not confirmation, not communion. None of these things can save us from sin. Only Jesus Christ.

(Step 6 is a prayer for salvation, which we will pass over.)

The focus in the tract’s commentary is on belief—even though the passages quoted from the Bible do not particularly specify belief as the way to be saved. One passage simply says, “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It does not say how we receive that eternal life. The other passage says, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” This sounds more like prayer than simple belief.

Now, just to give the writers of the tract a bit of slack, belief is the first step toward being saved. It’s just that we can’t stop there. As is clear from many statements in the Bible, belief is only the beginning of the life that leads to heaven. The rest requires us to love God and love our fellow human beings (“the neighbor,” in Bible terms), and show that love by doing good things for other people according to our belief and our conscience.

What does the Lord require of us?

This is put beautifully in Micah 6:6–8.

First, Micah puts to rest the idea that what God wants from us is piety and religious rituals:

With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil? (Micah 6:6–7)

Then the Lord through Micah asks a question that should forever lay to rest the idea that Christ’s death on the cross could, in itself, save us from sin:

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:7)

No physical death—even the physical death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ—can take away our sin. Only showing our belief in Jesus Christ through our life can do that.

How do we show our belief in Jesus?

By following what he taught.

First, in the traditional language of the Bible, we must repent from our sins. (See, for example, Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:4.) In other words, we must stop doing the wrong, hurtful, selfish, and greedy things that cause so much harm to others and to ourselves.

Second, Jesus teaches us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36–40). This doesn’t mean just having loving feelings toward others. It means actively serving their needs and taking care of­ them. See Matthew 25:31–46, where Jesus himself tells us that this, and not mere belief, is how we reach the eternal life of heaven.

Yes, those of us who are Christians must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. But that is so that we will follow the teachings of Jesus Christ in our lives. In the words of Jesus himself:

Whoever breaks the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

Or, to finish Micah’s beautiful speech,

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

This article is edited from a talk titled “The Life that Leads to Heaven” that was originally delivered on October 6, 1996.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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84 comments on “Did Jesus Really Die to Pay the Penalty for our Sins?!?
  1. Lee, I spent many years in the evangelical black and white world of biblical interpretation, and left it behind because it was too confining, and didn’t resonate with my heart. I really enjoyed reading your perspective, which confirms much of what I have come to believe. Thanks for visiting my blog- looking forward to following yours.
    Blessings, Danese

    • Lee says:

      Hi Danese,

      You’re welcome! And thanks for stopping by. I hope what you find here will be helpful to you.

      So much of what Evangelicals say is in the Bible isn’t actually there. It comes from human theologians such as Tertullian, Athanasius, Luther, and Calvin. These Christian leaders may have been quite sincere, but they missed key points of the Bible’s message, and substituted their own ideas instead. Unfortunately, some of those ideas have become so deeply ingrained in such large numbers of Christians that they “see” them in the Bible even though they aren’t actually there.

      • Jay says:

        I have my disagreements w/ many Evangelical doctrines, including once saved always saved. Nevertheless, it seems you are advocating a saved by works theology which is an equivalent error from the opposite spectrum. Every religion in the world has a saved by works theology.. this is what separates Christianity from the religions of the world.

        Therefore, let me ask you.. why did God have to give his only begotten son?

        What does the statement “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy he saved us” Titus 3:5

        God Bless,
        Jay

        • Lee says:

          Hi Jay,

          Thanks for your comment and question.

          This is what distinguishes Christianity from all other religions:

          Christianity has a visible, present God, whereas other religions have a distant, invisible God. In philosophical language, other religions worship a God who is transcendent, whereas Christians worship a God who is both transcendent (“the Father”) and immanent (“the Son”). Jesus Christ is “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

          When the veil of the temple was torn in two at the time of Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:50-51; Mark 15:37-38; Luke 23:44-46), this meant that there would no longer be a separation between the people and God. There would no longer be priests standing in between God and the people, representing the people to God and God to the people. Instead, all people would have a direct relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

          This is also the meaning of “You shall be for me a kingdom of priests” in Exodus 19:6. And it is the meaning of Jesus replacing the Jewish priesthood and sacrifices as expounded in the letter to the Hebrews, especially chapters 7 and 8. There would be no more need for human intermediaries, because God is his own intermediary in Christ, and we share in the priesthood of all believers (see 1 Peter 2:4-5, 9).

          This direct relationship with God in human form, present with us as Jesus Christ, is what distinguishes Christianity from all other religions.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Jay,

          Now about Titus 3:5, it is highly ironic that this verse is commonly used by believers in a faith-alone theology to reject good works and establish faith only as saving.

          Why ironic?

          Because almost the entire letter of Paul to Titus is taken up with clear and detailed exhortations and instructions to the faithful to do good works.

          Believers in a faith-alone theology take Titus 3:5 out of the context not only of the whole letter, but of the verses immediately before it. In verse 3 Paul says:

          For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another.

          It is in this context that he goes on to say:

          But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (verses 4-5)

          The force of Paul’s statement in Titus 3:5, then, is that Christ did not save us because of any works of righteousness, because we weren’t doing any works of righteousness. In other words, Christ saved us despite the fact that we were evil in word and deed, and deserving of damnation.

          In short, Paul’s point in Titus 3:5 is not that good works don’t save us. It’s that Jesus Christ saved us even though we were engaged in all sorts of evil works.

          Christ did this “according to his mercy”–meaning that he took pity on us because we were wallowing in sin and death. It was “the goodness and loving kindness” of God our Savior that appeared to us and saved us (verse 4).

          To look at another verse commonly quoted to support a faith-alone theology, Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” It does not say we are saved by faith. It says we are saved by grace. And the Greek word translated “grace” here is xaris, meaning active favor and goodwill toward us on God’s part.

          In other words, it is God’s love and kindness toward us that saves us.

          Short version: It is neither our faith nor our good works that saves us. Both of those theologies are in error if they are taken literally, by themselves. Rather, it is God’s love, mercy, and kindness that saves us.

        • Lee says:

          Where do faith and good works on our part come in? If we do not have both, then we reject the salvation that God offers us.

          Having faith and doing good works are necessary conditions in us to render us receptive of the salvation that comes to us purely from God’s love, through no merit at all on our part.

          God’s salvation is universal, and available to all. But those who reject faith in God and reject active love for the neighbor through good works reject that salvation, and turn their backs on it.

          The salvation itself is a pure gift from God. We do nothing of our own to cause it, earn it, or bring it about. So we can take no credit whatsoever for God’s salvation of us. But if we reject faith and good works as taught by the Lord in the Bible, we also reject God’s salvation, which is freely offered to us even when we are still sinners.

          Keep in mind that our ability to do good works does not come from ourselves. It comes from God. Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). So the good works we do have nothing to do with boasting or with meriting salvation by our own efforts. Rather, they have to do with accepting the love of God into our hearts, and expressing it toward our neighbor in acts of love, as God himself has commanded us to do.

          Please read Matthew 25:31-46, and you can be assured by the Lord’s own words that only those who do good works will receive eternal life.

          I realize that understanding these things requires questioning closely held doctrines that have been taught and ingrained in the minds of Protestants ever since Martin Luther first promulgated them over 500 years ago.

          Letting go of old beliefs is hard to do.

          However, if you are able to release from your mind the non-Biblical, human-originated doctrine of salvation by faith alone, then the things I am saying here will become so clear to you that you will wonder how you ever embraced the shade of salvation by faith alone when there exists the far greater light of the free gift of salvation by the love and grace of God for all who are willing to accept that love by believing in God and doing his commandments.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Jay,

          About why God gave his only-begotten Son, please see the article:
          Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?

          It may help to understand that one of the philosophical currents that existed in Palestine in Jesus’ day involved the divine “Son” as an emanation of the divine “Father.” There is far more to Jesus’ Sonship than our material-world concepts of fathers and sons.

          Consider, for example, Wordsworth’s famous line, “The Child is father of the Man.” If we take this statement literally, it makes no sense. Literally, a man is the father of a child.

          What the line means is that the man develops from the child, and the imprint of the child remains in the man–who is the same being as the child, only now grown up.

          If you are able to lift your mind above literal and material concepts of Father and Son, it will be easier to understand what the Bible means by these terms.

          The Bible says that “God is spirit” (John 4:24). Those whose minds are stuck on material things and the flesh will never understand what the Bible says about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself said, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).

          If we try to understand what the Bible teaches us about God with a mind stuck in the materialistic things of the flesh, we will wander off into all kinds of doctrinal error and darkness. This is exactly what the Christian Church has done for most of the last two thousand years with its human-invented doctrines of a Trinity of Persons in God and salvation by faith alone–neither of which is taught anywhere in the Bible.

          For more on how the Lord speaks to us in the Bible, and how we must lift up our minds up from material to spiritual things in order to understand what God teaches us there, please see these two articles:

          Eat My Flesh, Drink My Blood

          How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads

          Thanks again, Jay, for your comments and questions. I hope these answers are helpful to you.

        • Doug Webber says:

          Hello Jay – the Orthodox view is similar to the New Church view, which is this: in order to save humanity, God had to become incarnate in human flesh, and fight against the sinful tendencies of that human body he inherited from the human mother. For while his soul was Divine, through the humanity he could be tempted by all of hell. A spiritual war then arose between Jehovah and all of hell, and all of hell was conquered when he made his human Divine. This saved humanity, as our free will originates from a balance between heaven and hell. When we repent, his Holy Spirit is now available to us to help us conquer as He did.

          The other concept that is different in the New Church is by “only begotten Son” it is understood to be the son born in time to the virgin Mary, not a Son born from eternity. The latter view was invented by the Nicene Creed, which had modified the older aposte’s creed.

          So that’s it in a very, very small nutshell.

      • allen says:

        From the KJV if u want to know how to receive salvation look at romans 10:9,10

        • Lee says:

          Hi allen,

          Thanks for your comment. Here is Romans 10:9-10 in the King James Version:

          That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

          And for a more modern translation, here it is in the New International Version:

          If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

          Notice that Paul does not say that all you have to do is believe in your head, and say with your lips. No, he says that you must believe in your heart, leading to righteousness, or justification. Anything we believe in our heart, we also live by. So as James said, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), and “we are saved by our works, and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

          Paul teaches the same thing as James. The Bible does not contradict itself on this point. When Paul speaks of faith, he means faith in the heart, not mere faith in the head and of the lips. That’s why he didn’t say only to “confess with the mouth,” but also to “believe in the heart.” One without the other is dead faith.

          And notice that this passage does not say that if you don’t do this, you will be damned. Rather, it says that if you do do it, you will be saved. In Romans 2:1-16 Paul explains how people of other religions besides Christianity are saved—but still through Jesus Christ, who is the Savior of people of all religions, not only of Christians. See my article, Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?

  2. David says:

    HI Lee thanks.for this clarification. I do have another question for ya. Not sure if you’ve seen Ralph Jensen’s account of his NDE. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjg0wBBTlMA my question is that he says two very important things about us and Jesus. 1) Jesus was the first created being. The implication of this is if Jesus is created he can not be God–I’m not talking about the Trinity but Swedenborg’s belief that Jesus is God himself. 2) Jensen also states that we were also created shortly after Jesus. This echos Origin and other religions which teach our pre-existence and could be used to support reincarnation.

    Also if you have any other thoughts about Jensen’s adventure on the other side I’d love to hear them. Thanks for your time.

    David

    • Lee says:

      Hi David,

      I watched the video. Thanks for the link.

      About the two beliefs you mention that he says were confirmed by his NDE, it’s important to understand that as with spirit contact, though the experience of the reality of spirits and of the spiritual world is important and comforting, any specific teachings given through NDEs are not actually revealed, divine truth. They are highly dependent both on the spirits or angels encountered and on the beliefs of the person having the experience. For more on this in relation to spirit contact, see my article:

      What about Spiritualism? Is it a Good Idea to Contact Spirits?

      A quick bit of Internet research revealed that Jensen himself is a lifelong Mormon, and the interviewer in this video converted to Mormonism as an adult. So Jensen went into the NDE with a set of clear, firm, and settled beliefs, and the interviewer shares those beliefs. Swedenborg tells us that angels do not desire to teach us, since they want us to be taught by the Lord alone. They will often simply affirm the beliefs that we already have, since those are the beliefs that our spiritual life is based on and that give us strength and direction in life. Angels do not want to harm our spiritual life by taking those beliefs away from us.

      Jensen’s NDE gave him great faith and confidence in his beliefs and in his spiritual path. And he is obviously a good and humble man. The important thing for the angels he encountered was to strengthen his faith and send him back to the world with a renewed sense of the Lord’s presence with him and the knowledge that he was deeply loved despite his sins and his flaws. They did this by using Jensen’s already established beliefs. That way he would accept what they really wanted to convey to him (God’s powerful love) rather than rejecting it afterwards because the things they taught him conflicted with his settled beliefs.

      So although his NDE was indeed a wonderful experience, and, I think, a real one, the specific beliefs “taught” were not taught at all. They were his already existing beliefs, which the angels who provided him with the “spiritual movies” that he witnessed there of events in Christ’s life (something that is quite common in the spiritual world) used in order to convey God’s love to him.

      The beliefs are not so important. What’s important is the experience of God’s love.

      Short version:

      NDEs are wonderful for strengthening our faith in the reality of the spiritual world and of God’s infinite, unconditional love for us.

      However, they are not a reliable source of teachings, or doctrine. Any “teachings” given most likely are simply reflections of what the NDEer already believes, or is inclined to believe.

      About reincarnation, I have in mind to write a post on that subject in response to several readers’ queries, so I’ll defer that subject for now. I hope to have the article on reincarnation written and posted within the next month.

  3. Y. Prior says:

    great post – I need to read it more in depth later (sorry, just checking a bunch of emails and posts) but great points – and you seem to have such insight. And I like your point about defining “sin” – but I always thought that the basic definition was “missing the mark” and well, again, I look forward to reading this more in depth later –

    thanks for taking the time to dissect the error in this tract. and praise the Lord for this refreshing take on the sad situation of “Christian beliefs that the Bible doesn’t teach.”

    • Lee says:

      Hi Y. Prior,

      Thank you. Yes, I understand about looking things over first. It’s a lot to digest! I’m glad you’re finding some helpful thoughts here. If you have any questions as you read, don’t hesitate to ask. If it’s something that would require a more involved reply, you’re welcome to submit a “Spiritual Conundrum.”

      About sin, there are various definitions. “Missing the mark” works too! I was going for the one embodied in Jesus’ statement in John 9:41: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” In other words, we aren’t held spiritually accountable for things we say or do that didn’t realize were wrong. But if we know right from wrong, and do what is wrong anyway, then we are held accountable for it.

  4. Teela Hart says:

    Lee,
    This is a very simple “real” explanation/correction of something I’ve been taught for years. Thank you. Since my experience with domestic violence God has been to blame, in my mind, for the battles I faced and lost. It seemed my prayers fell on deaf ears and my church was more or less indifferent to my plight. I have purposely avoided any hint of God in posts I have seen here but yours, I read. Thank you again. It would appear God has something to say to me and I am inclined, though tentatively, to listen.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Teela,

      Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad this post was helpful to you. It breaks my heart that so many “Christian” churches and “Christian” leaders turn a blind eye to abusers as long as they’re “good Christians.” I put all of those in quotes because I don’t think those churches, leaders, or abusers are Christian at all. Jesus Christ defended the innocent and powerless against those who would condemn and abuse them. That’s not what’s happening in far too many churches that have usurped Christ’s name, but do not live by his teachings or follow his example.

  5. Doug Webber says:

    Good post Lee. I think another part of the problem is that there is some symbolism in the New Testament which does state that we are delivered from sin by the “blood of the lamb” or by the blood of Jesus. Without understanding that blood is a symbol of truth, and that it is by living by the truth is what delivers us from sin, people will misunderstand how Jesus saved humanity. For once we start living by the truth, the Divine Truth – the Holy Spirit – will begin to dwell within us. I spoke a bit on the symbolism of these passages in the blog post “What is Blood Atonement or Vicarious Atonement?” a while back ago. Also Christian denominations will point to the example of animal sacrifices as supporting their doctrine of vicarious atonement. When one understands the symbolism of the Jewish rituals, that the burning of the flesh is rejection of lower desires and repentance from sin, then one arrives at a better understanding.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Doug,

      Thanks for your thoughts. I do agree that understanding the symbolism helps a lot. However, I also think that even in the literal meaning, interpreting the ancient Jewish sacrifices as supporting the Vicarious Atonement involves a misunderstanding of what the sacrifices were all about. But that will be a subject for a future article here, God willing.

  6. Lara says:

    Hello, just thinking that a lot of bible verses do talk about Jesus being the payment for our sins:

    1 Timothy 2:6

    “Who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”

    Does the word ransom not mean a payment?

    Its very definition is:

    ‘a sum of money demanded or paid for the release of a captive.’

    Also:

    1 John 4:10

    “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

    ‘propitiation’ is defined as : something that propitiates or pays the way; specifically : an atoning sacrifice

    Also I have a question: I was wondering why so much of your site and the large majority of your beliefs about God, heaven and hell and Jesus are based on the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg? Why do you think that he holds special precedence in knowing the mind of God? after all he was just one man who believed he had undergone a spiritual experience from God, which many many other people throughout history have also claimed. I was just wondering why your site and theology weigh so heavily on his thoughts, even almost more than what the Bible has to say? If you could give me some points on why you take his ideas and experiences as unquestionable truth that would be much appreciated! 🙂 Thanks again

    • Lee says:

      Hi Lara,

      Thanks again for your comments.

      About why I turn to Swedenborg, that’s a big topic. I hope to post an article offering a full-fledged reply some time soon. For now, I’ll simply make a few brief points:

      1. I don’t actually take Swedenborg’s ideas and experiences as unquestionable truth. In fact, I disagree with some of the things he said. But overall, I find his understanding and interpretation of the Bible to be more enlightened and more true to the entire Bible, and to the spirit (rather than merely to the letter) of the Bible, than anything else I have encountered so far.

      2. All Christians depend upon human theologians and interpretations for their understanding of the Bible, whether or not they are aware of that fact. For example, the idea that we are saved by faith, and faith only, commonly known as “salvation by faith alone,” was originally promulgated by Martin Luther (1483-1546), one of the major figures of the Protestant Reformation. For over 1,400 years before Luther, salvation by faith alone wasn’t a major part of Christian belief in any part of Christianity. Many Protestant Christians think that salvation by faith alone is just what the Bible teaches. But it is actually a human interpretation of the Bible that we can trace to a particular human being at a particular time in history. It’s just that those who believe in it are usually not aware that their beliefs originally came from Luther’s interpretation of the Bible.

      3. The Bible is God’s Word. However, we cannot understand it by ourselves, any more than we can understand all by ourselves the infinite mind of God from which the Bible comes. We need other enlightened people to help us–teachers, ministers, theologians, Bible scholars, and so on. The question is not whether we rely on human interpretations. All of us do. The question is which human interpretations best reflect the love and wisdom of God. And of course, for Christians, the Bible itself must be the final written source for our beliefs about God and salvation.

      (Note: I have now written and published a much more extensive response to this question: “Do the Teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg take Precedence over the Bible?”)

    • Lee says:

      Hi Lara,

      About 1 Timothy 2:6:

      A ransom is indeed a payment to release someone from captivity. However, that is not the same thing as paying the penalty for someone’s sins.

      Rather than getting into a long theological discussion, let’s look at what a ransom is by example, and how it is different from paying the penalty for sins–or in secular language, doing away with the punishment for crimes.

      Consider the situation of a U.S. citizen who has been taken captive by terrorists who are demanding a ransom for his return. Regardless of official U.S. policy, there’s a fairly good chance that someone will pay the ransom to get him free.

      What, exactly, does the ransom pay for?

      It pays for the hostage to be released by the terrorists.

      What if the hostage happens to be a criminal under U.S. law? Will the ransom do away with the guilt and punishment for the hostage’s crimes once he is released?

      No, it will not. Once he is free and back on U.S. soil, he will still have to deal with U.S. law. If, for example, he is guilty of murder, he may still be tried for that crime, and punished for it by being put into prison.

      Paying ransom for someone’s release is an entirely different thing than taking the punishment for that person’s crimes–or in religious language, paying the penalty for our sins.

      In the same way, when Christ paid the ransom for all, he released us all from captivity to Satan’s power. That is an entirely different thing than paying the penalty for our sins. We must still repent and stop sinning in order to accept the Good News of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.

      Short version:

      Payment of ransom releases us from captivity to Satan’s power. It does not pay the penalty for our sins.

      The Bible simply doesn’t say that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. However, the Bible does say that Christ saves us from our sins if we will accept that salvation from him by believing in him, repenting from our sins, following his commandments, and becoming new creations in Christ.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Lara,

      You say, “Hello, just thinking that a lot of bible verses do talk about Jesus being the payment for our sins:”

      Though it’s not exactly what you’re saying, it’s important to understand that paying for others’ sins is not the same thing as paying the penalty for others’ sins.

      Children pay for their parents’ sins in many ways. If their parents are abusive, for example, they suffer in many ways due to the sins of their parents. And yet, the parents are still guilty of their sins. The children’s suffering does not take away the penalty due to the parents for their sins.

      Similarly, Christ suffered mightily due to our sins. Having never sinned himself, he took upon himself the suffering caused by all of our sins. Among other things, he allowed himself to be mocked, whipped, and crucified not because of anything evil he had done, but because of the evils we humans have done.

      And yet, even after Jesus paid for our sins by suffering because of them, those who sinned against him–and those who still sin against him today–are still guilty of their sins, and will still reap the penalty for those sins if they do not repent.

      Paying the penalty is allowing people to continue to sin and be guilty of sin while taking their punishment, or paying their fines, for them. In general, the law does not allow other people to pay a criminal’s fines or to do a criminal’s jail time for him or her because it is unjust. This is according to the Biblical principle that “the one who sins is the one who shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20).

      Once again, the Bible never says that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins. However, it does say that Jesus suffered for our sins, took the burden of our sins upon him, and other similar things.

      The penalty for our sins can be removed only through repentance, just as Jesus preached to all the people (Matthew 4:17; Luke 13:1-5).

    • Lee says:

      Hi Lara,

      Finally, about 1 John 4:10:

      I really can’t do justice to this verse in a brief reply. It involves the whole concept of sacrifice and atonement, which is a vast subject.

      But just to say a few words, yes, Jesus Christ is presented in the New Testament as a propitiation, or atoning sacrifice, for our sins. This draws on a very complex history of human religions in which animal sacrifice was considered necessary to atone for our sins.

      The simplest point to understand is that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross did away with the need for continual animal sacrifice that had been practiced not only in ancient Judaism, but in practically every other religion that existed at the time of Jesus.

      It is no coincidence that in 70 AD, just four decades after Jesus’ death, the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, ending for all time the ancient Jewish practice of animal sacrifice, along with all the other ritual offerings that were performed at the temple. They were simply no longer necessary now that Jesus had been offered as a sacrifice for all of humanity. From that time onward, the practice of animal sacrifice began dying out to the point where it is rarely practiced anywhere on earth today.

      It is important to understand, though, that even in ancient Judaism, sacrifices did not do away with the need for those who broke God’s law to stop breaking God’s laws–or in Christian terms, to repent from their sins. Certain sacrifices did make atonement for past sins. But those who continued to sin after offering the sacrifice were still held guilty, and were still punished under the law.

      So a simple way to think of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for our sins is that if we accept Christ as our Savior, repent from our sins, and cease being sinners by living according to his commandments, then we will no longer have to bear the eternal punishment for all of our previous sins.

      However, if we say that we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior, but continue to sin, we will not be saved any more than an ancient Jew who offered the proper sacrifice for his infraction against the law would be saved from punishment if he then turned around and committed the same sin all over again.

      The atonement that Christ brings for us is not some magic wand that Jesus waves over all of our sins to make them instantly and magically vanish. It involves our accepting Jesus Christ into our lives, repenting, and becoming new people filled with the love and spirit of Christ. If we do this, none of our former sins will be remembered against us, according to the Biblical principle stated in Ezekiel 18:21-22.

      We do not have the power to do that by ourselves. We can only achieve it by accepting God into our lives. For Christians, this means accepting Jesus Christ into our lives, and living by his teachings.

      Thanks again for your thoughts and comments. I hope my responses have shed some light on these Bible verses for you.

    • Doug Webber says:

      Hello Lara,
      In one of your quotes the word “propitiation” can also be translated as “expiation” which essentially means removal of sin. See Did Jesus Die to Appease an Angry God? Is Vicarious Atonement True or False?. Jesus first removed sin by making his human Divine, and now he does the same through us when we repent. But there is no such thing as an automatic “transfer” of punishment as declared by the vicarious atonement theory.

  7. Per Andre says:

    Thanks for your well written criticism of this widely held atonement theory. Theologically put, you seem to favor a mix of the (probably older) Christus Victor and Moral influence view.

    There is one often cited verse I wished you would comment on, namely Isaiah 53,5-6. Here the term “punishment” is used. Any thoughts?

    Thanks, keep it up!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Per Andre,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

      Yes, my views are compatible with Christus Victor–especially if it is seen as saying that Jesus Christ fought and overcame the forces of evil (the Devil) on our behalf.

      If Christus Victor is equated with Ransom Theory, it is more problematic. Christ certainly didn’t pay a literal ransom to the Devil, and there was no need to pay a ransom to the Father. The “ransom” Jesus spoke of was more figurative, in that he willingly faced the full onslaught of the Devil, up to and including the throes of death, on our behalf. More on that in my next comment.

      My views are also compatible with Moral Influence, which is the very basic idea that by his teaching and by the example of his life Jesus Christ showed us how to live a good, moral, and spiritual life. That’s pretty much a no-brainer. Like Christus Victor, it is one piece of a larger picture.

      That larger picture also includes God taking on a human nature in Jesus Christ, and becoming not only fully divine but also fully human on all levels. Because God became human as Jesus Christ, we are now able to have a direct, personal relationship with God in a way that was not possible before the Incarnation (God becoming flesh and blood). For more on this, see the article, “How does Jesus Appear to Us? Can We See God Face to Face?

      The Incarnation and the taking on of a divine humanity also made it possible for God to directly and personally rule over everything in the spiritual world, including both heaven and hell (which is the same as the Devil), and over all humans and all human society on earth, without the need for angel intermediaries as before. This is what Jesus was referring to when he said, “All power is given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). The power God took through the Incarnation is an eternal power. There is no need for any further incarnation or physical intervention in human history.

      Both Christus Victor and Moral Influence have been part of Christian belief right from the start, because they are present in the Bible itself.

      By contrast, Satisfaction Theory (the idea that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins) took hold in Christianity only after it was developed and articulated by Anselm in his book Cur Deus Homo over a thousand years after Christ lived and the New Testament was written. It is not present in the Bible, which is why it was not part of Christian teaching for the first thousand years of Christian history.

      In short, unlike Satisfaction Theory, the main ideas embodied in the Christus Victor and Moral Influence view are soundly based on the Bible, and they do form part of the theology I hold to, though they are not the whole of it.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Per Andre,

      Here is Isaiah 53:5-6:

      But he was wounded for our transgressions,
      crushed for our iniquities;
      upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
      and by his bruises we are healed.
      All we like sheep have gone astray;
      we have all turned to our own way,
      and the Lord has laid on him
      the iniquity of us all.

      First, notice what it does not say.

      It does not say that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, as claimed by Satisfaction Theory.

      What it does say is that it was due to our transgressions and our iniquities that he was wounded and crushed, and that the punishment he took and the bruises he suffered made us whole and healed us.

      It goes on to say that all of us humans have gone astray, and that God (“the Lord” here is the Hebrew tetragrammaton, meaning Jehovah or the Almighty God) laid on him all of our iniquity.

      Here is the same idea in more modern and less poetic language:

      We humans had all gone astray into our own ways rather than God’s ways. Our own ways generally involve acting from materialism, selfishness, greed, desire for power and pleasure, and so on. Because of this, humanity as a whole had become corrupt and evil. That evil and corruption was threatening to overwhelm what little good was left. It not only reigned on earth, but it had become an overwhelming spiritual power in the form of a rampant Devil, which is another name for hell or the combined power of human evil.

      All of God’s previous actions to stem the tide of evil through sending priests and prophets, while temporarily helpful, had run their course. No human or angel intermediary was powerful enough to face the growing onslaught of evil.

      Because of this, God came himself as a human being, Jesus Christ, to face and overcome the full power of evil, the Devil, and hell.

      Now, there is no separately created Devil. The Devil, as I said, is simply another name for hell, which consists of all humans who have chosen evil over good in their lifetime on earth, and gone on to live in hell to eternity. In other words, the Devil that Jesus had to overcome consisted of our transgressions and our iniquities, as Isaiah 53:5 says.

      It was the combined power of human iniquity and evil that crushed down upon Jesus and wounded him during his lifetime on earth. The punishment he took and the bruises he suffered were due to human selfishness, greed, and lust for power. In practical terms, it was the power-hungry religious and political leaders of his day who attacked, tortured, and crucified him. That was an outward, physical version of far stronger and deeper spiritual assaults upon him that were taking place throughout his life, culminating at the time of his crucifixion.

      In the poetic words of Isaiah 53:6, the Lord (God) laid on him the iniquity of us all. If we think of Jesus Christ as God himself come to earth, what this really means is that God willingly took on all of human evil in the life and person of Jesus Christ.

      Through facing, being bruised and punished by, and overcoming all of that human evil, Jesus Christ made it possible for us to be healed.

      How did he do this? By overcoming and subduing that massive buildup of human evil, and putting it back in its place.

      You see, it had gotten to the point where if the Devil, or human evil, were allowed to rise up any further, no one would be able to resist it. All people, and even all angels, would be overwhelmed and sucked down to hell. Human society on earth would become nothing but evil, greed, and selfishness. As a result, we would attack and annihilate one another until no one was left alive and breathing. Think post-apocalyptic movie with no hero to save the day.

      To prevent this from happening, Jesus took his stand between the remaining good and innocent of humanity and that onrushing onslaught of evil. He took the full force of its attack, which was intended to destroy what remained of good and truth in human society. He neutralized its force by absorbing its fury in his own person–suffering great pain and anguish in the process–and thereby gained eternal power over it.

      To use a human image, what he did was like an army marching out in front of a city to face an impending assault by a foreign army before it can reach the city. The army takes the force of the enemy attack, suffering many casualties. Through its pain, suffering, and the deaths of many of its soldiers, the army saves the people of the city from the invader.

      Ever since that ultimate battle, the Lord God Jesus Christ has kept the power of the Devil, hell, and evil under control, and kept it in balance with the power of God, heaven, and good. This means that we are no longer enslaved to spiritual evil against our will, but are in spiritual freedom and able to choose good over evil. If we choose evil, we will still suffer eternal death, which is hell. But if we choose good, we will be healed by the power of God in Jesus Christ, and we will find our place in the eternal human community of heaven, where God’s love, wisdom, and power reign.

      I hope this helps you to understand the meaning of Isaiah 53:5-6, and many similar statements elsewhere in the Bible. For another poetic telling of the same story, start reading at Isaiah 63. If you read the surrounding chapters in Isaiah with these ideas in mind, you will be amazed at their beauty and power.

      For a somewhat more organized overview of what God accomplished by coming to earth as Jesus Christ, see the article, “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?

      • perandre says:

        Thanks for clarifying your view, and for lots of good points.
        Regarding Is 53, I still wonder though: What do you make of “the Lord has laid on him
        the iniquity of us all”; is that the same as the “punishment that made us whole”?
        If that is the case, the punishment indeed comes from God, meaning God punished Jesus on the cross. This aspect doesn’t really fit into Christus Victor; why would God the Father punish? On any account, the verse clearly states that God is the one who put the iniquities on Jesus.
        Another good read on this topic, is Greg Boyd’s blog here: http://reknew.org/2014/06/atonement-what-is-the-christus-victor-view (you seem to have some overlapping interests, btw)
        Thanks so far!

        • Lee says:

          Hi perandre,

          Do you believe that God punished Jesus on the cross? Is that belief satisfying and helpful to you?

          If so, I’d rather not engage in theological debate with you about it. The last thing I want to do is attempt to rip away from you beliefs that inspire you and motivate you to live a Christian life.

          However, if it’s a genuine question, and that belief and interpretation is not satisfying to you, here is how I would respond:

          First, the primary purpose of the Bible is not to teach doctrine, but to lead people to live good and loving lives.

          The language of these passages in Isaiah, in particular, is not doctrinal or expository, but poetic and prophetic. It is a mistake to read Isaiah as if the purpose of the prophet–and of God behind the prophet–were to teach correct doctrine and ensure that the people believe correctly. Rather, the book of Isaiah is a passionate and poetic appeal not only to the Israelites of Isaiah’s time, but to all succeeding generations, to leave behind their wicked and godless ways and turn, or return, to God. As such, it speaks to the people in their language, according to their views, in the context of their culture, seeking to move them away from their wickedness and closer to God.

          To reduce that passion to some sort of theological, doctrinal statement is not only to misread the text, but to completely miss the ardent, passionate love of God for all people that drives the text.

          In short, the purpose of Isaiah is not to inculcate correct belief, but to powerfully touch the hearts and minds of its hearers, and move them to return to God and embrace God.

          For more on how the Bible speaks to us, and why it speaks in the type of language it does, see my article, How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads

          (continued . . .)

        • Lee says:

          (. . . continued)

          Having said that:

          Second, our understanding of the Bible and the particular statements in it is heavily influenced by our understanding of God.

          The main problem I have with the idea that God punished Jesus is that it contains within it the idea that God the Father is a different person, and is of a different mind, than God the Son. For it to even make sense, it requires a belief in a Trinity of Persons in God–which is something that the Bible does not teach. (See my article, “Christian Beliefs” that the Bible Doesn’t Teach.)

          Jesus made it clear, especially in the Gospel of John, that his own will was one with the Father’s will, and also that those who see him are seeing the Father. He said that it was the Father within him who did the works. Therefore, whatever Jesus was doing, and whatever happened to Jesus, God was not “doing it” to Jesus. Rather, (to stick with the Trinitarian language for now), it was both he and the Father who were doing it as one.

          So the very idea that God was punishing Jesus violates what the Gospels say about the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son.

          Beyond that, even if there were separate Persons of God–which there are not–what purpose would God have for punishing Jesus? Does God really require punishment to satisfy God’s wrath or God’s justice? The picture of God that this paints is of a harsh, judgmental, unloving God, who requires an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth in exactly the way Jesus said we should not act.

          Is that really the God you want to believe in?

          Also, I would point out that the passage does not say that God punished Jesus. That is a human interpretation. And as the story is actually told in the Gospels, it was not, in fact, God who punished Jesus. God did not arrest, torture, and kill Jesus. It was human beings who did that: the religious and political authorities of the day.

          (continued . . .)

        • Lee says:

          (. . . continued)

          So that brings us to:

          Third: If we look at Isaiah 53 from the perspective of God being one, and of one will, and of an infinitely loving will rather than a harshly “just” or angry will, a very different picture emerges.

          If we think that whatever is the will of the Father is also the will of the Son, then we must consider that everything Jesus said, did, and suffered happened because God–the one God–had a purpose that involved love and reconciliation, not anger or harsh, retributive justice.

          This is in accordance with the statement in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that:

          In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

          Notice that it does not say “reconciling God to the world,” but “reconciling the world to himself [God].” There was no need to change God’s attitude toward the world. God already loved everyone in the world, saint and sinner alike (see Matthew 5:44-45). Rather, there was a need to change the world’s attitude toward God.

          It also specifically says that God was not counting our trespasses against us. The idea that God required some sort of punishment for our sins contradicts this plain statement in the Christian Scriptures.

          With this in mind, consider what it means that Jesus, who was and is God With Us, took on pain, punishment, bruising, and crushing on our behalf. It was not to change anything about God. It was not to satisfy any need in God for “justice” or punishment. It was to protect and defend us against the evil that would have overwhelmed us.

          God willingly came to earth as Jesus Christ and laid upon himself the evil, destruction, punishment, bruising, crushing, and iniquity of us all in order to stand between us and the evil that would overwhelm us. God in Jesus Christ took blows, punishment, and crushing that was meant for us, and died the death of a malefactor (yet without sinning) in order to face and overcome all of that evil–which was far too strong for us finite and fallen human beings to resist.

          This was not an act of paying the penalty for our sin. It was an act of bearing the full brunt of our sin, and neutralizing its overwhelming power.

          It remains just as true today as it ever was for us human beings that “it is only the person who sins that shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4), and “the person who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). If we sin, believing in Jesus will not take away the penalty for that sin. Rather, believing in Jesus, if it is a true, heartfelt belief that leads to action, will cause us to sin less and less, until we are no longer sinners, but new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

          What Jesus did by taking all of our iniquity and punishment upon himself was to overcome the overwhelming evil that gripped the world, and make it possible for us to choose God, goodness, and love rather than being overwhelmed and enslaved by the Devil, evil, and hatred.

          The Bible never says that God punished Jesus. What it does say is that Jesus took upon himself the evil of the world, including all of its iniquity and punishment, and overcame it.

          I hope this give you a better sense of what these verses in Isaiah are talking about.

  8. perandre says:

    The question is genuine, as these verses seems to be among the few who hints about this kind of atonement. I haven’t studied the issue much, but I’m familiar with the views of main stream theologians claiming penal subst is a newer invention.

    Is should mention, that regarding the judgement, I have like you concluded that we will be judged based on how we live our lives, and that grace enables us to live a life in love. We are not judged based on the life of Jesus, as most Lutherans would claim (I have a degree in Lutheran theology).

    I agree that the NT writers and a lot of the early Christian literature is not mainly about doctrine; it’s mostly about following Jesus and living in love. We should learn from that.

    I also agree that Isaiah is not about correct doctrine. But it is indeed used by NT writers to establish some important points (Matt in particular). And of course you (and I) use these texts to establish other theological points 🙂

    It’s interesting however that Matt sees parts of the Is 53 prophecy fulfilled in an early chapter (8?) related to healings, not the cross. Guess it shows some theological flexibility.

    To be clear: I don’t disagree with your conclusion (though I want to spend much more time studying the subject), I just think we need to accept that Is 53 portrays God who puts something negative on Jesus on the cross, and this CAN be interpreted as a punishment.

    I would be more satisfied if we could reconcile your view of atonement with ALL prophecies etc, as that that would make the discussion easier. We do indeed agree on the essentials here.

    For a relevant discussion/movement, Google “New perspective on Paul”.

    Thanks again!

    • Lee says:

      Hi perandre,

      I should mention that I did follow and read the link you provided to that article about Christus Victor. While I was there, I read a few of the other foundational pieces by Greg Boyd. While I don’t agree with everything he says, I do think he’s closer to a genuine understanding of Christ and salvation than most of traditional Christian theology.

      I agree that that doctrine can be drawn from Isaiah and the other prophets. But this should not be done by reading them as doctrinal, theological treatises. Much of the language is poetic and symbolic, and was never meant to be taken literally even by the original writers.

      In fact, the entire Christian practice of reading the ancient prophets as speaking of Jesus Christ is itself a huge departure from the original intent of the prophets. They were prophesying about events and issues of their time, and results and future events that were expected to flow from those present events, and from the actions of God. The very act of interpreting their writings as applying throughout to Jesus Christ is a Christian innovation that is still utterly rejected by Jewish commentators and theologians.

      This is not to say it’s mistaken. I do believe, as Jesus said, that the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms speak of him. But in the very act of interpreting them that way, we are departing from any semblance of the sort of interpretation that was then and is now applied to those Scriptures by the people and culture in which they originated.

      In the NT, and especially in Matthew, many novel and clever reinterpretations are offered of various passages in the Hebrew scriptures in making them prophecies of Jesus. Some of them are quite fanciful, such as reading the prophecy that Samson would be a Nazirite to mean that the Messiah would be a Nazarene (i.e., from Nazareth). There is no justification for such an interpretation in the original prophecy. But Matthew did not limit himself to literal or historical interpretations of the Scriptures. He was open to the possibility of alternate and deeper meanings that did not appear on the surface.

      It is true that theology, or doctrine, can be drawn from the Prophets. But it is not necessarily going to be drawn in a literal or linear fashion. And without an understanding of how divine revelation works, and an understanding of the true nature of God as compared to the conceptions of God that existed in the cultures in which the Bible was written, we will misunderstand and misinterpret much of what is said in the often poetic and symbolic language used throughout the Scriptures, and especially in the Prophets and the Psalms.

      (continued . . .)

    • Lee says:

      (. . . continued)

      Specifically, the idea that God would punish or lay crushing burdens on “the servant” that was the original subject of Isaiah 53 was perfectly acceptable to people of that day and culture. God was sovereign, which to them meant that God could do whatever he wanted, and it was not up to humans to question it. In this, God was like a human king.

      The reality is that God does not punish anyone, nor does God lay burdens on anyone, or tempt anyone. See, for example, James 1:12-18.

      Many things in the Bible are said according to the limited and faulty understanding of the listeners in the original cultures in which those books were written. If we do not understand that infinite, eternal divine truth must be delivered in finite, time-bound human containers in order for us to understand it at all, then we will be constantly mistaking the container for the divine truth it contains.

      This is why it won’t do to try to draw doctrine from a wholly literal interpretation of the Scriptures.

      In general, there is enough in the literal meaning that people of good will who seek to love God above all and the neighbor as themselves can find basic guidance and understanding in the Bible. But beyond those basics, many of the deeper aspects of Christian understanding and belief require us to go beyond a literal interpretation to one that includes metaphorical and spiritual interpretations.

      (continued . . .)

    • Lee says:

      (. . . continued)

      With that in mind, let’s start one verse earlier in Isaiah 53:

      Surely he has borne our infirmities
      and carried our diseases;
      yet we accounted him stricken,
      struck down by God, and afflicted.
      But he was wounded for our transgressions,
      crushed for our iniquities;
      upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
      and by his bruises we are healed.
      All we like sheep have gone astray;
      we have all turned to our own way,
      and the Lord has laid on him
      the iniquity of us all.
      (Isaiah 53:4-6)

      The primary point being made here is that although it looks to us as if God is striking him down and afflicting him, in fact it is our transgressions and iniquities that crushed him. Only after saying this does it talk about the Lord laying on him the iniquity of us all. And in a later verse:

      Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
      When you make his life an offering for sin,
      he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
      through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
      (isaiah 53:10)

      So which is it? Is it our transgressions and iniquities that crush him, or is it God who crushes him? The text says both.

      That’s because in the ancient conception of God, for God to be all-powerful, God must be in control of both the good and the evil that befalls us. In the ancient conception of God, if God doesn’t send punishment and calamity upon us, then that is a weak God, not worthy of “fearing,” to use the ancient term for respecting God–which did, in fact, involve a healthy dose of actual fear.

      The prophecy thus includes both the actual truth–that it was our infirmities, diseases, transgressions, and iniquities that wounded, crushed, and bruised him–and the appearance of truth as it seemed to people of that culture, which is that the all-powerful God, who could do both good and evil as he pleased, brought these things upon the servant.

      Although correct doctrine is contained within the prophecy even in its literal sense, as I said previously, the purpose of the prophecy, and of the Bible in general, is not to teach correct doctrine. It is to move people toward repentance from their sins and the adoption of a new and more loving and righteous life. In pursuit of that goal, the Scriptures contain many things that are not in themselves true, but that were believed to be true in the cultures in which they were written (and are still believed to be true by many people today), and that can be used as if they were true in order to move the people away from sin and toward righteousness by using their own understanding of what God is like and how God operates.

      This is why it actually matters to say that the Bible’s primary goal is not to teach truth, but to lead people toward living a good life. If leading people toward a good life is primary, then correcting misconceptions is not so critical. Often people’s misconceptions can be used to move them forward. For example, reincarnation is a false belief. But for many who believe in it, it functions to assure them that there is ultimate justice in the world, and that they must act in good, righteous, and loving ways in order not to suffer or be punished in their next incarnation.

      (continued . . .)

    • Lee says:

      (. . . continued)

      Now about the Lord laying upon him the iniquity of us all, and it being the Lord’s will to crush him with pain, these need to be read not literally, as God in heaven bringing down crushing pain on Jesus, but rather as something that God was doing in Jesus in order to achieve a greater goal.

      An instructive parallel in the NT is Jesus’ attitude toward his upcoming crucifixion compared to the attitude of the disciples. When Jesus told the disciples that he would be handed over and crucified, they were horrified, and tried to talk him out of it. But the Gospels say that he himself steadfastly set his face toward Jerusalem. And they speak of the events that took place during Holy Week, including the Crucifixion, as something that “he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31, emphasis added).

      If we look deeper at the idea of God laying upon Jesus the iniquities of us all, and it being God’s will to crush him with pain, we can see that all of the struggles, suffering, temptation, pain, and agony that Jesus went through during his entire life was something that God the Father, who was Jesus’ own indwelling divine soul, was setting about to accomplish on behalf of the human race.

      It’s not that God in a literal sense wanted to punish and crush the Son Jesus. It’s that God knew that in order to accomplish the salvation that he had in mind for the human race, he had to come to earth and suffer all of those things, facing all of the combined iniquity and evil of humankind and overcoming it through great pain and agony, in order to save humankind.

      It was really we humans who laid all that pain, suffering, and agony on him. But God willingly faced it and suffered it because of the goal of saving us. And that means it was all done, not from any anger or harsh sense of justice, but from pure love, mercy, and compassion for every human being that ever has and ever will live on the earth.

      In that sense, God (“the Father”) did lay that punishment and suffering upon himself (as “the Son”). That “cup” could have “passed” from him (see Matthew 26:39). He did not have to undergo such suffering from a purely objective point of view. But from the point of view of infinite, divine love, which could not bear to see the humans he had created and loved with a powerful, tender love to be crushed and destroyed under the weight of rampant evil, he did have to take on that “cup” of suffering, pain, anguish, and punishment meted out by both corrupt humans on earth and by all the combined power of all the evil spirits in hell. He had to face all of that physical and spiritual pain and anguish in order to overcome it, gain the victory, and turn back the tide of evil that threatened to destroy the great mass of humans whom he loved deeply and fully, with a love more powerful than anything we humans can conceive of.

      This is the sense in which God “laid” those punishments and iniquities upon the Son.

      God had no need or desire to punish anyone for anything. God is pure love, and desires only to lift us up out of hell, suffering, pain, and punishment. But God had to face the destructive forces of human evil in person, as Jesus Christ, in order to save us from its power. And so he willingly took on, in his own human self, all of that pain and punishment that was really caused by us, from us, and intended for us.

      I hope this helps you to understand Isaiah 53 a little better.

  9. perandre says:

    I think you make some good points, and that we agree on some of the basics. I appriciate you took the time to check out the Boyd articles!

    We quickly get into how to interpret the Bible as a whole here, which is interesting (bit a bit out of scope here, I guess). I’ll get back with some quick comments on the relationship between Father/Son here: https://leewoof.org/2013/08/05/father-son-and-holy-spirit

    Thanks!

    • Lee says:

      Hi perandre,

      Yes, good discussion. I’ll continue also in the comments on other article. It will be easier not to split the discussion, since we’re covering the same general subjects in both places.

  10. Joshua says:

    If in fact Jesus really does in save us from our sins “turn our life around” and we end up in Heaven then did He not by extension save us from the penalty of the sin. When I think penalty I mean hell not just death. So has the penalty not been paid for if we don’t have to suffer it since we have been saved from our sins?

    I asked about this also a while ago in another post you had about salvation being through faith and works. I agree that genuine faith produces a heart that produces fruit.

    1. What works did the dying thief on the cross have in Luke where Jesus assures him of paradise?

    2. James 2:24 – uses the word “justified” This in the Greek is dikaioō which can mean
    a. to be declared righteous b. to be shown righteous. This doesn’t seem to be much of a difference but God declares us righteous Romans 3:20-26 but we are shown to be righteous by our works. I think that James main concern was a mere intellectual agreement with the gospel was not a faith at all. James says that a faith that has no results or works is not a real faith, that it is a death faith. We may be saying the same thing in a different way. I think I have a faith that whoever God draws to himself and genuinely saves and they make a choice to choose Him after God regenerates their heart then God will produce the works in that person. Paul certainly agrees with James in 2 Corinthians 13:5 and Galatians 5:19-24.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Joshua,

      To respond to your first question:

      It’s very true that if Jesus saves us from our sins, he also saves us from the penalty for our sins. But this is very different from saying that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins.

      When Jesus saves us from our sins, he also saves us from the penalty for our sins because we are punished only if we sin. If we don’t sin, there is no punishment because we have done nothing punishable. When we stop sinning, even past sins are forgiven and no longer punished, in accordance with the principles laid out in Ezekiel 18. It is the sin that Jesus saves us from. Being saved from the penalty is a fringe benefit.

      This is not to say that we are ever perfect, and perfectly sinless. However, God is not a harsh judge. If, through faith in Jesus Christ, we have repented from our sins, and have changed our lives from one of selfishness, greed, and sin to one of active love for God and love for our neighbor, that is what God is concerned with. If we occasionally sin by doing something we know is wrong, but this is not our regular pattern, and we later regret it and re-dedicate ourselves to living according to God’s commandments, God will not hold those occasional lapses against us. The important thing is that we have received from Christ a new heart that desires to follow God rather than follow the Devil, and that we do so to the best of our (limited and faulty) ability, from God’s power.

      Back to the point, Jesus paying the penalty for our sin would mean that even though we are sinners, we do not have to experience death or hell due to our sins because Jesus died and entered hell instead of us. Salvation through Jesus paying the penalty for our sins would not require us to stop being sinners. It would mean Christ getting us off the hook even though we remain sinners. It is a very legalistic view of salvation. And it assumes that God is a harsh and arbitrary judge who requires someone to pay for all offenses against him, even if it is the wrong person. It assumes that God must see someone suffer and die for all offenses committed against him. This is not a God that I could respect or admire. Such a harsh, judgmental, and unjust God would be worse than the worst human tyrants of history.

      The Bible never teaches any of this.

      The Bible says that God takes no pleasure in the death of anyone (Ezekiel 18:32). The Bible says that “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19, emphasis added).

      The Bible teaches that through faith in Jesus we can repent, stop our life of sin, and be filled with God’s grace and truth instead, so that we love the Lord our God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

      And once more, I will simply say: The Bible never says that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins.

      Why should we attempt to support and justify a human dogma about salvation that the Bible simply does not teach?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Joshua,

      About the thieves who were crucified with Jesus, we don’t know a lot about them. We get only brief mentions in Matthew and Mark, and a slightly longer vignette in Luke.

      Matthew and Mark say that both of the robbers who were crucified with Jesus heaped insults on him.

      Luke uses a different word to describe them–literally, “evildoer,” or criminal. He says that one of them insulted Jesus, challenging him to save himself and them also. The other one rebuked that one, saying that the two of them were being justly punished for their crimes, while Jesus had done nothing wrong.

      We don’t know what these two men had done to get themselves crucified. It is possible that their crimes were crimes against Rome–which is also likely for Barabbas who was pardoned in preference to Jesus at the insistence of the crowd. Or they might have been common criminals.

      Either way, one of them showed no remorse, and in his taunts showed that he had no regard for Jesus and was focused on saving his own skin.

      The other showed remorse, or perhaps was simply willing to take the consequences of his actions. This shows a different character. If he was an insurrectionist, he may have acted out of principle and conscience, knowing and accepting that his actions were punishable by death. If he was a common criminal, he at least recognized that what he had done was wrong, and he deserved to be punished. Perhaps he stole food or supplies out of desperation. We just don’t know.

      Jesus recognized the difference in character between the two men. He apparently saw that the one who defended him and took responsibility for his own actions was not an evil man, even if he had done things that brought crucifixion upon himself at the hands of the Romans. Remember, we humans look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).

    • Lee says:

      Hi Joshua,

      I think I agree with what you are saying about James and Paul on justification. At least, I agree that faith is not mere intellectual agreement with the Gospel. If we profess a faith but don’t live by it, then we neither believe nor have faith in what we claim to have faith in. Our real faith is the spiritual truth that we live by. If we don’t live by something, then we don’t really believe it, trust it, or have faith in it.

      One of the major fallacies of Protestant theology is the idea that either faith or works is something we do by ourselves. In fact, the power both to have faith and to do good works comes from God, not from us. And in fact, we are saved neither by faith nor by works. We are saved by God. Faith and works are simply necessary conditions for God to save us. If we reject faith and reject good works, we are rejecting God, from whom both faith and good works come. And rejecting and turning our backs on God is the very definition of being unsaved.

      Putting the primary emphasis on faith is really not justified by the Bible as a whole, nor by the Gospels and the Epistles. There is far more in the Bible about loving God, loving our neighbor, and doing good things for our fellow human beings than there is about having faith. Faith is important. But as James says, it is dead without good works.

      Faith does not save us. Instead, faith is the doorway to salvation. If we refuse to believe in and put our trust in God, or at least believe in the good and truth that comes from God, then we are refusing to have God, goodness, and truth in our lives. And when we reject these, we are under the influence of the Devil and hell, and are headed toward hell ourselves. We are engaged in evil instead of good, and falsity instead of truth.

      I can accept the idea that faith leads to good works. If we come to believe in Jesus, then we will listen to what he teaches, including his teachings about loving our neighbor as ourselves.

      However, faith is not the source of good works. God is the source of both faith and good works. And accepting them from God, while giving God all the credit and glory for them, is what salvation is all about. This is what turns us from being sinners to being righteous people–righteous not from ourselves, but from God.

  11. havau22 says:

    Time would fail me to quote the passages in which he plainly declares that He came to reveal the Divine truth to men, to bring the Divine life down to them, and to open their eyes to see it. He says nothing about satisfaction, about the payment of debt. He is the good Shepherd, the great Physician, the perfect Teacher, the faithful Exemplar in every work. He did come to make an atonement, to make us at one with Him and the Father who dwells within Him. He assumed a human Nature because He could not come to man in any other way. He did what a just, wise, and loving father would do. If one of your children had wandered from home, had spent all his living, was sick and dying, would you not do all in your power to save him? Would you not spend time, money, labor; would you not provide yourself with all the instrumentalities in your power that were necessary to reach him? And do you suppose that infinite love, compared with which your love is not so much as a drop of water to ,the ocean, would refuse to be reconciled to His lost and dying children until he had received full compensation for their sin; until there had been measured to Him, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe,” or an exact equivalent? It cannot be. Reason, Scripture, the perceptions of justice and mercy which the Lord has given us, and the deep, spontaneous yearnings of our own hearts, declare it to be impossible. No, the Lord did not come into the world to satisfy the demands of an inflexible and arbitrary justice. He came rather to satisfy the demands of infinite love; not to pay a debt, but to reach the dying soul, to cleanse it from its impurities; to heal its diseases; to mould it into His own image and likeness, and fill it with His own peace and blessedness.

  12. Eugeneus says:

    I’ve read all the comments you’ve made about your theology of Christ’s sacrifice very thought provoking, but I’m curious, what is your understanding of the soul of man is it mortal or immortal? What is your understanding about what happens after death?

    • Lee says:

      Hi Eugeneus,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and questions. My understanding of the human soul is that it is immortal. After our physical body dies, our spirit continues to live in the spiritual world, which feels just as real and solid to us then as the physical world does to us now. The sort of life we have there depends on the character we have built here on earth.

      For more on what happens after death, see this article:
      What Happens To Us When We Die?

  13. Gary griffith says:

    I understand Jesus come to save us from sin. But why do we say he died for our sin???

    • Lee says:

      Hi Gary,

      That is a great question, which really deserves its own post.

      That statement is based on 1 Corinthians 15:3. In Protestant circles it’s interpreted to mean that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sin. But as this article points out, there is no basis in the Bible for that interpretation.

      It is notoriously difficult to translate prepositions from one language into another, since their meanings are so broad and varied, all packed into a tiny little word. When it says Jesus died for our sins, what does it mean?

      The primary meaning in this passage seems to be that he died for the purpose of dealing with our sins.

      Our sins threatened to destroy us both physically and spiritually, and drag us down to eternal spiritual death in hell. Jesus died in order to face and deal with that deathblow that was aimed at us due to our own evil and sin.

      Through his life and death, Jesus defeated the power of human evil and sin, which was becoming so strong that none of us could have resisted it. Through his defeat of the power of evil, the devil, and hell, he saved us from inevitable spiritual death, and made it possible for us to be saved through believing in him and living according to his commandments.

      Another meaning is that he died due to our sins. It was our evil and sin that killed him on the cross. This is true not just in some abstract sense, but in the very basic and practical sense that a particular group evil humans (both Roman and Jewish, representing humanity as a whole, both secular and religious) in a long line of increasingly evil humans decreed the death penalty on him because he threatened their power and their beliefs. We do the same thing to him spiritually whenever we reject him and kill his presence within our own soul and in our life.

      There are still more ways that Jesus “dying for our sins” could be interpreted. But dying for the purpose of dealing with our sins, and saving us from them, is the primary meaning.

  14. David Gray says:

    Hi Lee! I recently became friends with someone who attends the church in Bryn Athyn, so I have been reading a lot about Swendenborgianism. Your site is the closet thing I have found with an apologetics approach. I am coming from an evangelical background, although I have my own doubts about penal substitution and such. Have you already commented on Romans 3:23-26

    “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” (NRSV)

    In addition to Isaiah 53, this seems to be the passage most often quote in support of the concept of penal substitution. It seems to teach that God did not punish the sins of the world until the sacrifice of Jesus.

    Although we would probably disagree on many things, I have to say that you are obviously very knowledgeable and put forth a great defense of your faith.

    • Lee says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for your comments, and for your kind words. Though I am affiliated with a different branch of Swedenborgians than the one headquartered in Bryn Athyn, I’m familiar with their views–which are generally more conservative than the ones I hold to. Anyway, to your question:

      I don’t see anything in Romans 3:23-26 that supports penal substitution. Penal substitution is about Christ paying the penalty for our sins. Romans 3 doesn’t say anything about that.

      It does say that God put forward Christ as a sacrifice of atonement. But atonement sacrifices were not penalties. They were offerings to make the people right with God after they had sinned. Through their willingness to make the proper sacrifice, they recognized their guilt and subjected themselves to God’s will in obeying God’s commandment of sacrifice. Yes, it did “cost” them. But the idea was not to pay a penalty. It was to bring themselves back into alignment with the will of God. After making the sacrifice, they were supposed to not continue sinning in the same way. If they did, they were to be cut off from the people, or executed, for their sin.

      Incidentally, the atonement sacrifices were for unintentional sin. People who knowingly sinned were to be punished severely, often with death, for their sin. The sacrifices were not intended to cover for sins knowingly committed.

      In the Jewish culture from which Paul came, animal sacrifice was the central act of worship. One simple way of interpreting Paul’s statements about Christ being a sacrifice for sin is to understand that he was taking all of that devotion toward the Temple and the sacrifices there, and redirecting it toward Christ, who was the proper object of worship, and who by his work of redemption made the sacrifices no longer necessary.

      But digging deeper, Christ’s sacrifice was not to satisfy any supposed anger and condemnation of God. I am aware that the Bible contains such language. But that is a human’s eye view, stated in a way accommodated to our faulty human minds so that we could have some understanding and appreciation of what God wanted to communicate to us. (See my article, “How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads.”) In reality, God is pure love. It’s just that when we’re bent on sin, God’s love looks like anger, wrath, and condemnation to us. (See Psalm 18:25-26.) In another article I used the example that to a snowman, the warmth of the sun (which represents God’s love) feels like a terrible and destructive force. But that is only because the snowman has a cold heart.

      The real sacrifice of Christ was to offer himself as a target and focus for the combined forces of human evil, the Devil, and hell (which are different words for the same thing) to attack instead of attacking us. Throughout his entire life on earth, Jesus took on the full force and fury of all human evil. Physically, he was attacked and crucified by evil humans. Spiritually he was tested to the depths of his soul by the Devil. But he overcame both the powers of this world and the spiritual principalities and powers, bringing them all under his personal control. This he did at the cost of great pain and suffering, including his own blood and death on the cross. And so he became a sacrifice for us by taking the spiritual deathblow that otherwise would have destroyed all of humanity. This intended deathblow did not come from God, but from the Devil.

      So yes, we were saved by the shedding of blood. But the “blood of the new covenant” that Christ commanded us to drink in remembrance of him is not the literal blood of his physical body. Rather, it is the lifeblood of life in Christ, which is living according to the truth that Christ teaches us. When Swedenborgians take communion, as we drink the wine (or grape juice), we don’t think of literal blood. We think of the divine truth that God continually offers us for the cleansing of our souls. (And when we eat the bread, we think of the divine love with which God continually feeds and sustains us.)

      About the previous sins that God passed over, this is a function of God’s general mercy for the human race. God knows that we are all sinners, and that none of us is pure. If we were judged only by divine truth, we would all be condemned to hell for not measuring up. But that is not how God looks at us. God’s truth is always tempered by God’s love, or mercy. So God looks at us in mercy, sees that we are sinners, and does not mete out the punishment we deserve, but instead takes every possible action–including coming personally and dying on the cross for us–to carry us out of sin and death, and bring us to eternal life.

      The idea that Christ did this to pay the penalty for our sins required by an angry and vengeful God makes a mockery of God’s infinite, eternal, deep, and tender love for us. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son. It was out of pure love, not wrath or anger, that God came to us as Jesus Christ, sacrificed himself by absorbing the stripes and blows of the Devil that were meant to kill us, and thus saved us from the Devil’s power. God stood between us and the Devil like a lone, heroic soldier protecting us from an invading enemy, vanquished that enemy through great power and great suffering, and thus saved us from the enemy’s power. For a poetic prophecy of this battle of salvation that was accomplished by Christ, see Isaiah 63:1-9.

      For more on how Christ redeemed us, please see my article, Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?

      I realize this may still leave you with many questions. It is a vast subject, to which I can in no way do justice even in this rather long comment. But I hope it opens your eyes to some of the depths of meaning in Paul’s statements about God in Christ becoming a sacrifice of atonement for us.

  15. David Gray says:

    Hi Lee,

    I have read critics of penal substitution make the claim that the theory developed with Anselm and was not held by the early Church fathers; however, I have also found articles that argue that the early Church fathers DID believe in penal substitution. Some quotes are referenced in the link below:
    http://www.reformationtheology.com/2012/05/penal_substitution_a_sixteenth.php
    Is it really that clear what the Church fathers believed on this subject?

    David

    • Lee says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment, and for the link.

      I’ve read similar articles before. Unfortunately, the authors usually don’t have a precise and clear idea of what penal substitution is, and therefore lump in with penal substitution statements related to other theories.

      This article is no exception. For example, it speaks of “countless scriptures which teach that Jesus suffered the penalty of sin, that is, God’s just wrath and punishment, on our behalf.” But suffering the penalty of sin is not the same as paying the penalty of sin. If an innocent person suffers the penalty that is normally meted out to sinners, the sinners themselves are still guilty, and still subject to the penalty of their sins. Jesus suffered penalties that he did not deserve to suffer, since he was sinless. But not a single scripture says that he paid the penalty of sin for sinners.

      On this point, the article is just flat out wrong. Nowhere in the entire Bible does it say that Jesus paid the penalty for our sin. It just isn’t there.

      Now, as for some early church fathers making some statements supporting penal substitution, that may be true. I would want to study those statements in their original languages, and in their contexts, to see if any of them really supported penal substitution, or if these are translations made by Protestants and bent toward their own doctrinal stance in favor of penal substitution. This phenomena is more common than you might think. Even translations of the Bible are commonly bent toward the doctrinal stances of the translators, when the original text gives nowhere near the support to those doctrines that appears in those particular translations.

      Further, some of the quotes from early church fathers presented as supporting penal substitution aren’t about penal substitution at all. They’re being misread by Protestants who see penal substitution everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist. If they can claim that the Bible is full of passages stating the doctrine of penal substitution, when in fact there is not a single verse in the entire Bible that states that doctrine, how much more will they misread the church fathers, who were generally talking about ransom theory and Christus Victor, not about penal substitution?

      And even if it does turn out that a few of the early church fathers made a few statements supporting penal substitution, that doesn’t mean the church as a whole adopted those views. There is support in the early church fathers for all sorts of doctrines that were not ultimately adopted by Christianity, including support for reincarnation and various other doctrines that were completely rejected by the Christian church. So although there may have been some foreshadowings of penal substitution in a few of the early church fathers, it is quite clear that the church did not adopt such views, but instead, as many scholars of Christian history have pointed out, adopted ransom theory and Christus Victor as the reigning views of atonement for the first thousand years of Christianity.

      In short, these articles by Protestants attempting to show that penal substitution existed as church doctrine before the Protestant reformers adopted it as their theory of atonement in the 16th century are grasping at straws. The vast weight of Christian history and scholarship is against them. Their theory of atonement is non-biblical and wrong, and they are misreading Christian history in an attempt to find support for their false doctrine.

  16. David Gray says:

    Lee,

    Thanks for the thorough response. I agree with much of what you said. None of us read the Bible from some objective, neutral point of view. We all read it through the lens of our own traditions and human teachers. It is frustrating knowing that translations are probably biased towards a particular tradition. Obviously not all of us have the time or brains to become Greek scholars.

    I didn’t even know there were different theories of atonement until a couple years ago. It may be true that Protestants are reading penal substitution into verses that do not really teach it. I know you disagree that Romans 3:25 teaches penal substitution but I read J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God (popular evangelical book) and he has a chapter where he argues that the word *propitiation* below does have the meaning of wrath-absorbing:
    “whom God put forward as a PROPITIATION by his blood, to be received by faith”
    He also refers to the debate about this word possibly just meaning “take away sins.” And then I recently read an article by an apologist, Randal Rauser, who said that he believes that the word DOES mean wrath-absorbing, but the text was an accommodation to their ancient way of thinking.

    David

    • Lee says:

      Hi David,

      This all assumes that God is actually wrathful. And for those who believe that God really is angry at us humans, I would not attempt to argue that point.

      I recall sitting across from an evangelical minister some years ago, and when I said that I did not believe God is really angry at us, she got angry at me, and said that she could not believe in a God who did not get angry at all the people who do horrible things to women and children. At that point, I backed off, realizing that for her, it was very important to believe that God is angry at sinners.

      However, I believe that that idea is an accommodation to our limited, human ways of thinking. For a little more on this, see the section titled “Is a wrathful God angry at you?” in my article, “If You Think You’re Going to Hell, Please Read This First.”

      If God is not actually angry with us, but that belief is an accommodation to our limited human understanding of God, then propitiating God’s wrath could not possibly be the purpose of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

      As I’ve said elsewhere, the ancient Jewish sacrifices were not really about paying for sins, or about assuaging God’s wrath–though that language is sometimes used in reference to them. Rather, they were about making the sinner right with God by turning away from sin and ritually following God’s commandments and accepting God’s forgiveness for sin.

      That accepting of forgiveness must involve repentance on our part, and no longer sinning in the way that required a sacrifice to be offered. If an ancient Jew offered a sacrifice for sin, and then went out and committed the same sin again, that person was punishable by death.

      So although I would not attempt to argue with Evangelicals who are convinced that God is angry with sinners, I believe that is not a true and accurate understanding of the real nature of God. And that misunderstanding of God’s nature leads to a misunderstanding of the nature of Christ’s sacrifice, and of atonement in general.

      Still, for those who sincerely believe in it, it does serve as a means for a relationship with God, and a new life in Christ. And it is not good to rip away people’s faith, even if that faith may not be entirely true. People believe things according to their particular experience and their particular level of spiritual development. If a particular belief helps them to feel closer to God, and to live a better (meaning more moral and spiritual) life, then it is doing its job.

      • Richard Neer says:

        This was a very thoughtful reply, Lee, respectful of others’ viewpoints and positions in their faiths.

        Well worded!

      • David Gray says:

        Hi Lee,

        Thanks again for a great reply. I agree with Richard below.

        Your conversation with the evangelical minister reminds me of something I read that C.S. Lewis said (I think). He talks about a little boy walking with his dad. When the boy looks into his dad’s eyes, he wants to see warmth and love, but if a strange man comes up to the boy and starts making fun of him, he wants to see a very different look in his father’s eye. As I’m thinking about this topic, I sort of face a conundrum. One on hand, I don’t want God to be angry at MY sin, but if someone wrongs me, I tend to want God to be angry at the perpetrator. So in a certain sense, a God who never gets angry is not appealing to me but it would be inconsistent for Him to be angry at someone else’s sin but not mine.

        I was reading another article by a New Church minister who was explaining how the Bible has verses where God is said to be loving and verses where God is said to be angry. He also concluded that God is truly loving but the verses where he appears angry are just a human misperception. Not to be silly, but keeping just with the Bible and this approach, what’s to say that God is angry and the people who thought he was loving had the misperception? I assume that in Swedenborg’s writings, he clarifies that God is loving and not angry?

        If God’s goal is to get us to become better people, then that might explain why He does not intervene with people who have some incorrect beliefs. Like you said, if your beliefs are changing you in a good way, maybe that’s all He wants.

        David

        • Lee says:

          Hi David,

          Of course, each of us will have to decide for ourselves whether we think God is fundamentally loving or fundamentally angry. As for me, I’ll go with loving!

          Your final paragraph holds the key, I think, to why the Bible can be interpreted one way or another. God knows that we humans are in all different states of mind and heart. The Bible has to be able to reach us in all of those states of mind and heart. For those for whom parental or divine anger is an important belief and motivator, the Bible has passages to move them forward in their spiritual life based on their belief.

          The key is that the Bible’s primary purpose is not to teach correct doctrine (as important as that is), but to save our immortal souls. And it accomplishes that purpose by reaching us where we are mentally (in our conceptions and beliefs) and in our heart. So the Bible will use our very misconceptions to move us forward, toward God, spiritually.

          Beliefs can be sorted out all in good time. But if we never turn away from our old, evil life, and toward God and goodness, we’ll never even have the opportunity to learn the genuine truth about God because we will be in a state of opposition to God.

          So the Bible prioritizes what’s most important–changing our heart and our life–and leaves for later those things that have lower priority, among which is our particular beliefs and their ultimate correctness or incorrectness.

        • Lee says:

          Hi David,

          About Swedenborg, yes, he spends a great amount of time explaining the true nature of God, which one of love together with wisdom, behind the apparent nature of God as frequently seen by us finite, fallible human beings. That is the reigning theme of one of his more philosophical books, Divine Love and Wisdom.

  17. Tony says:

    you know people keep saying the words the eternity and forever but what do they really mean? these terms seems way too big to understand

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tony,

      Yes, if we really try to wrap our minds around concepts such as “eternity” and “forever,” we can go crazy trying to figure them out. But we can understand them in fairly simply ways, such as the idea that our life will never end, but will keep on going forever in the spiritual world.

  18. David Gray says:

    Hi Lee,

    I found the article by apologist Randal Rauser where he states the he agrees with the word propitiation being translated as “wrath absorbing” but compares it to the same kind of accommodation that occurs with the 1st century Jewish’s view of three-tired universe and the ascension:

    http://randalrauser.com/2012/06/what-is-the-atonement-at-least-lessons-from-the-ascension/

    David

    • Lee says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks for the link.

      Of course, those who believe in penal substitution will argue endlessly that it is the correct and Biblical position. And of course, the article is unconvincing to me.

      My problem with it starts out with the very first sentence:

      It is no secret that atonement theories abound, each one vying to be the account for how God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. (italics in the original)

      That last is a quote from 2 Corinthians 5:19. Here it is with the preceding verse:

      All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

      Notice that not once, but twice, this passage says that God was reconciling us (or the world) to himself.

      It does not say that Christ was reconciling God to us. But that is exactly what the penal substitution theory says. It says that God was angry at the human race because of the sin of Adam, and that God required payment, or propitiation, for that sin. By dying in our place, the theory goes, Christ assuaged God’s wrath and satisfied God’s justice.

      In other words, in penal substitution theory, it is God who has to be reconciled to us and not what the Bible says, that we had to be reconciled to God.

      This may seem at first like a small point, but in fact it is crucial. Penal substitution assumes that God has a problem that needs to be solved. But in reality, we and not God, are the ones who have a problem that needs to be solved.

      To use Biblical language, we are sinners, and steeped in sin. And as long as we remain sinners, we are turning our backs on God, and rejecting God’s love, truth, and salvation.

      God, meanwhile, so loved the world that he gave his only Son (John 3:16).

      Once again, the problem was not with God–God’s wrath, God’s justice, etc. Rather, the problem was with us. We were the ones who needed to be reconciled to God. And that happened by Christ “taking away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Not taking away the penalty. Taking away the sin.

      As long as we remained sinners, we could not be reconciled to God. Not because God had a problem with us, but because we had a problem with God. Sinners reject God, even while God still loves them. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, italics added).

      God was not angry with us while we were still sinners. God loved us while we were still sinners. So much so that God’s Christ died for us even while we were still sinners.

      Penal substitution theory completely reverses what the Bible teaches us about God’s love for us while we were still sinners, and God being in Christ reconciling us to God.

      That reconciliation happens by our believing in Christ, and repenting of our sins so that we may accept God’s forgiveness, and become “new creations in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17), and thus no longer sinners.

      No, we’re not perfectly sinless. Only Christ is. But Christ takes away our sinful nature piece by piece, and replaces it with his own divine presence in us. And when we live from Christ’s presence in us instead of from our old sinful nature, then we are reconciled to God, because we are no longer sinners, but are living according to Christ’s commandment, which is to love God above all, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

      For more on this from a somewhat different angle, please see my recent article, “The Logic of Love: Why God became Jesus.”

  19. David Gray says:

    Hi Lee,

    I think your argument flows well logically. I am a little confused by this response, though. Randal Rauser is not a proponent of penal substitution. I was just thinking about what he talks about in this article regarding the concept of accommodation — explaining spiritual truths according to the thinking of the people of that age. In other words, he seems to be arguing that certain passages DO appear to teach penal substitution but it is just an accommodation to the thinking of the people of that age, similar to Jesus referring to the three-tired universe which we now know to be false.

    David

    • Lee says:

      Hi David,

      Perhaps I didn’t read the article carefully enough. I did get stuck on that first sentence! At any rate, my argument is not really with Rauser or with any other theologian, but against the idea of penal substitution.

    • Lee says:

      Beyond that, I would say that the Bible itself does not teach penal substitution at all, or even hint at it. Rather, some people stuck in a particular mindset read it into the Bible because of pre-existing ideas about God and salvation. Those pre-existing ideas came from human theologians–especially Luther and Calvin–rather than from the Bible itself.

  20. David Gray says:

    I do find the following objections about penal substitution to have merit:
    1. How does the finite suffering of Jesus atone for many, many people suffering for eternity in hell?
    2. If Jesus paid the price, then why isn’t everyone saved?
    3. Punishing an innocent person is not justice.

  21. David Gray says:

    Hi Lee,

    I think I got most of them from Greg Boyd. I believe you mentioned him in a thread above. I definitely understand the objections to penal substitution. I have a harder time with the concept of God not being angry since the Bible is the only revelation that I have decided to trust at this point. As you have said elsewhere, there are so many verses in both the OT and NT where he *appears* to be angry and is said to bring judgement. Of course if Swedenborg did truly receive a new revelation from God that trumps this “angry God” then I could see the approach of attributing these verses to human misperception. But given the frequency of them I’d have to see something really convincing to believe that Swedenborg did truly have authority to make this correction. I think I would honestly have hard time continuing to trust the Bible if the writers really got it THAT wrong.

    Have a great weekend! 🙂

    David

    • Lee says:

      Hi David,

      Thanks! Of course, as I’ve said, it is your choice what to believe, according to what works best for your spiritual life.

      Consider, though, that the Bible also calls God “a rock,” “a fortress,” “the bright and morning star,” “the gate,” “the Lamb,” “a shield,” and many, many other things that we are obviously not meant to take literally. Consider the possibility what when the Bible calls God “angry,” that, too, may not be intended literally, but rather, may say something about how God appears to us when when we are in a state of opposition to God. See Psalm 18:25-26:

      With the merciful, you reveal yourself as merciful;
      With an upright person, you reveal yourself as upright;
      With the pure, you show yourself as pure;
      And with the crooked, you show yourself as perverse.

      Also, the Bible says plainly, "God is love" (1 John 4:8, 16). It never says “God is anger.”

      And finally, if you count all the times the Bible ascribes love to God, I think you’ll find that it is much more common than the Bible ascribing anger to God. I know that the Bible is not a democracy in which the majority of verses wins. 😉 However, I also think it’s important to pay the most attention to what the Bible emphasizes most.

      It really all depends on how you read the Bible.

  22. Jack says:

    Lee, if I may ask: why is my salvation dependent solely on my belief in Jesus being the Son of God and dying for my sins and resurrecting? When I did historical searches on the dating of the gospels, the secular historicity of Jesus, the resurrection, etc. I found no secular proof of Jesus at all outside of the New Testament. Thus all of this has to be taken on faith without separate corroborating evidence. So it’s not a conscious decision I make to refuse to believe; it’s just that I have no foundation upon which to build a belief. I’m open enough that if I knew that God wanted me to believe a certain thing then I’d believe it. But I have no way of reaching God to ask him. When I pray I feel no presence of the Holy Spirit imparting that warm glowy feeling in my heart that so many Christians speak of. I don’t sense any answer to my questions forthcoming. So I just leave it up to God. If he wants to reveal himself to me in a very real way I’m always open for it. But since the gospels were written by non-eyewitnesses to Jesus many many decades after his death everything in the gospels is 2nd and 3rd-hand information anyway. I simply don’t trust it tells us the real truth about Jesus. Mark, the earliest gospel says nothing of Jesus’ deity. By the time John comes along that’s all Jesus talks about: his deity. So am I saved if I just sort of take this agnostic attitude? By the way I used to be a staunch fundamentalist until I started reading the history of Christianity and learned about its deep dark underbelly and how it evolved into what it is today.

    Thanks for any feedback on this thorny issue.

    Jack

    • Lee says:

      Hi Jack,

      To make a long story short, your salvation is not dependent solely on your belief in Jesus being the Son of God and dying for your sins. That idea comes from a shallow and mistaken interpretation of the Bible. I could debate you about the Gospel evidence or lack thereof, but it probably wouldn’t accomplish much. Instead, I’ll invite you to read these articles, which offer a different perspective on what Jesus, the Gospels, and the Bible generally are all about:

      There are more along those lines here, but these should give you the general idea. The first one, in particular, will answer your question about whether you are saved if you take an agnostic attitude. If, after reading these articles, you have particular questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

      • Jack says:

        I read “Do Atheists Go to heaven” and I sincerely love your fresh approach to interpreting the scriptures. It’s a breath of fresh air to escape from the rigid wholly literal interpretation of Jesus’ words. Literalist fundamentalists don’t realize, however, that they paint Jesus into a corner when they quote “He that doesn’t believe in me is condemned already…” alongside “Inasmuch as you did this for the least of my brethren….” because the two verses clearly are in violation of each other, although many literalists are starting to wiggle around this contradiction (believe in me alone for salvation vs do good works for your neighbor alone for salvation) by claiming that when Jesus said brethren he was actually referring only to Christians (“my brethren=my Christian brothers and sisters), so this is their means of nullifying the idea that only doing good works to strangers saves you even if you don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God. The argument is that only a Christian who believes in Jesus as their savior would do good works for his “brethren” brothers and sisters in Christ. Atheists would not distinguish between a Christian and an atheist; they’d treat all—Christians AND non-Christians–equally far as lending a helping hand goes. It’s dogmatic “sleight of hand” frankly.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Jack,

          Glad you liked the article.

          If fundamentalists spent their time seeking out what the Bible actually says instead of concocting fancy arguments to “prove” that the Bible means what they think it means, they might actually get some idea of what the Bible is really all about.

          I’ve heard of the argument that “brothers” means “Christians.” But as you say, it’s a weak argument. Jesus didn’t make any such distinction when he taught us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. In this, the average atheist is more “righteous” than the average fundamentalist Christian.

          Also, even admitting that doing good deeds for fellow Christians gets us into heaven (according to Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46) is an admission that it is not only faith that saves us, but faith together with doing good works.

          No matter which way you slice it, the faith-alone fundamentalists are wrong.

  23. tenderelftown says:

    Yeah, I don’t care much for the term “sin,” myself. It sounds so creepy and primitive, like some sort of black spot on the very depths of your soul. I also don’t care for right vs. wrong, or moral vs. immoral, because there is so much subjectivity in them, which can cause confusion.

    I think it all boils down to selfishness vs. selflessness. And I think that’s what Jesus (and others) were (are) trying to show us, how to take the spiritual journey from selfishness to selflessness – in order to become “optimally loving beings,” like Jesus and others. (I also think this is a multi-lifetime task, perhaps even tens of thousands of lifetimes, because it is so challenging). For me, Jesus is a metaphor for that inner spark that motivates (some of) us to want to become better people, to want to grow, spiritually.

    I really appreciate your words, Lee. They make me not dislike Christianity nearly so much as traditional interpretations. Actually, I am deeply inspired by the love in the Bible. But I am equally appalled by all of the punitive brutality attributed to God and also the instructions by God, in the OT, for us to execute one another for all manner of offenses, some rather trivial.

    I have such a way, way, way higher opinion of our “Source Consciousness”/ God than these ancient stories paint of it/ him. And it makes me sad to see so many people holding onto this picture of the vengeful, punishing, genocidal, infantacidal monster portrayed in the old stories.

    I’m wondering if you think all of the slaughter by God in the OT is a real depiction of God, or just some old fear-driven stories by ancient, superstitions people. Because that is not a God of love. The God I “see” sends us only love in order to sustain us, like our lungs send oxygen to our bodies to sustain us and keep us in good health. I don’t see evidence of the dark side of the Abrahamic God in this reality at all. All the best!

    • Lee says:

      Hi tenderelftown,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your thoughtful comment. I’m glad this article is helpful in rehabilitating Christianity just a bit for you! 🙂 There’s more to your comment than I could do justice to in a comment of my own. But I’ll refer you to a few articles that take up some of your thoughts and questions a little more fully.

      Sin, really, is simply doing things that we know to be wrong, hurtful, and against the Divine will. That’s something we all do at least sometimes, even if only to learn the hard way that it represents the way of selfishness, and that we need to grow from there toward selflessness, as you say.

      About your main questions, no, I don’t think that the slaughter commanded by God in the Old Testament is a real depiction of God. It is, rather, what happens when God communicates with people in a spiritually dark and brutal time in human society. And the Bible, in order to reach us at all levels of spiritual development or lack thereof, must speak to us in our lowest, most materialist, and most crude and brutal states as well as in our highest, most spiritual, and most sublime states. Here are some articles that cover this in more detail:

      And to end on a positive note, you might also enjoy: Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth.

      I hope these articles help! If you have further thoughts or questions as you read, please feel free to leave more comments.

  24. thungabanda says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I just don’t see where it says christ paid for sins. Blessings

    • Lee says:

      Hi thungabanda,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. Glad you enjoyed the article!

      • thungabanda says:

        I am also doing my article regarding the same lines. I am just editing it now. I will let you know when it is up. Blessings

        • Lee says:

          Hi thungabanda,

          Post a link here when the article is up and available. I’ll be very interested to read it!

        • Lee says:

          Hi thungabanda,

          Thank you. I’ve made your comment into a link so that others can follow it and read your good article if they wish. While I see some things a little differently, I did enjoy your two-part article and gained some new thoughts and insights from reading it—which is always a good thing!

          In particular, I tend to avoid the “substitution” language because it can be so easily misunderstood to mean Jesus dying instead of us and thereby taking the punishment for our sins. I see it, rather, as Jesus standing in front of us and taking our place, so to speak, in the fight against evil and the Devil, and winning that battle for us so that we, too, can defeat evil and the devil in our lives through Jesus’ victorious power working in and through us. This, I think, is the meaning of our being “crucified with Christ.” Just as he crucified the sin nature by defeating the Devil, so we can be crucified with him when the sin nature is put to death in us.

          I would only add that I firmly believe 2 Corinthians 5:21 should be translated:

          He made the one who knew no sin to become a sin offering on our behalf, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (italics added)

          This is based on the Septuagint’s use of the Greek word hamartia, usually translated “sin” in the NT, as a translation for the Hebrew chatta’ath (which is also commonly translated “sin” in the OT) in its meaning of “a sin offering” in the various passages about sacrifices and offerings in the Hebrew Bible. In reading the New Testament, and especially the Epistles, it is important to understand that its authors relied heavily on the Septuagint for their reading of Scripture and their references to Scriptural concepts. And reading hamartia in 2 Corinthians 5:21 as meaning “a sin offering” instantly makes perfect sense of an otherwise odd and confusing passage, tying it in with major NT themes of Jesus being the fulfillment of all the sacrifices and offerings prescribed in the OT.

          What I do especially appreciate about your article is your focus on Jesus’ saving work as overcoming the sin nature within us rather than merely paying the penalty for our sins. If Jesus overcomes the sin nature in us so that we are no longer ruled by sin (even if we are still not perfect), then the wages of sin are no longer an issue because we are no longer drawing those wages.

          Thanks again for a thought-provoking article!

        • thungabanda says:

          Thanks Lee I think we are saying the same thing about the substation in that christ comes in our place not to receive punishment from the father or pay any legal penalty but to fight sin if you will and produce a perfect character for human kind. at the same time revealing the character of His father at the same time unmasking and destroying satans work.
          I agree with the sin being singular not plural thus making it sin offering. Blessings

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