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Chapter 11Many efforts have been made to distill Christianity to its irreducible essence. Can we find the one or two things to point to that are essential? Of course, there has been no consensus on the conclusions of such searches. I can’t speak for everyone’s motives who have taken up the task, but I am suspicious of the effort. No one has a moist and beautifully iced piece of cake set before them and wants to know the one essential ingredient and just have that instead of the whole piece. The whole piece has many ingredients that have been mixed together, baked, cooled, and iced. To speak of the essence of the cake is to make no sense, for it all put together and on the plate is the point. Just as there is no getting the spilt milk back in the jug, there is no breaking down the baked cake and just getting the salt out. It all hangs together.
So, when I speak of breaking down the atonement into four parts and considering them, I’m not making an effort at finding irreducible essence. I’m not making a case for any one of the parts standing alone. In keeping with the confectionary analogy, I’m not trying to get the salt out of the baked cake but rather trying to explain the part the salt plays, or the reason it’s mixed in to begin with. I don’t know why I’m talking about cake so much. Perhaps I’m hungry. Nevertheless, I better leave off this analogy because I don’t know what part salt plays in baking a cake and am frankly surprised that it’s an ingredient at all in something that is supposed to be sweet.
At the heart of salvation is the truth of substitution, by which I mean the voluntary sacrifice of Jesus Christ in the place of the sinner. Though it is a hard truth, it is also a beautiful truth. Various cultures throughout history have recognized the beauty of sacrifice—one laying down his life for another. Oral and literature traditions celebrate it as noble. Not all see it this way. Well known atheist and writer, the late Christopher Hitchens, used to denounce what he called “vicarious redemption” as immoral and evil[ref]Hitchens, C. & Wilson, D., Is Christianity good for the world? (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2009), 22-23.[/ref]. He had an uphill battle to convince people that the concept of sacrifice for another was ugly as an immoral evil and his charge petered out before he made the first bench.
The early teaching of the law in Scripture was the necessity of sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. The author of Hebrews emphasized this when he wrote, “without shedding of blood is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22). He pointed out the necessity of sacrifice, such that without it there is no remission or forgiveness. The law identified different kinds of sins and the sacrifices that had to be made for them.
And it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that he hath sinned in that thing; And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the LORD for his sin which he hath sinned, a female from the flock, a lamb or a kid of the goats, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for him concerning his sin.
– Leviticus 5:5-6
And the priest shall make an atonement for him as touching his sin that he hath sinned in one of these, and it shall be forgiven him: and the remnant shall be the priest’s, as a meat offering.
– Leviticus 5:13
The Levitical system was a repetitive system of sacrifice with all the regular sacrifices and the Day of Atonement sacrifices, which were repeated annually. The author of Hebrews pointed out that the Levitical system made a remembrance of sins and did not do away with sins since the sacrifices had to be continually repeated.
For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? because that the worshippers once purged should have had no more conscience of sins. But in those sacrifices there is a remembrance again made of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins.
– Hebrews 10:1-4
He went to say that if sins were actually forgiven by these substitutionary sacrifices, then there would be no more need of sacrifices (Hebrews 10:18). The blood of bulls and goats was not an acceptable substitution for men and women. Therefore, the law shows the need for a better substitute and a better sacrifice.
The prophets foretold of the coming Messiah who is the perfect substitute and who would make the perfect substitutionary sacrifice. Isaiah wrote of him as being the one who could bear sins in the place of people to secure actual forgiveness of sins and the blessing of the new covenant that sins are done away completely and remembered “no more” (Jeremiah 31:34; Hebrews 8:12; 10:17).
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth. He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
– Isaiah 53:3-11
Jesus made clear he was the promised Messiah and substitute for sinners. He said, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). He went to say more explicitly, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). All those whom Jesus laid down his life for will have “eternal life; and they shall never perish” (John 10:28). He is the perfect substitute and only needed to make one sacrifice to secure eternal salvation (Hebrews 10:12, 14).
The substitution of Jesus Christ in the place of sinners is at the heart of the Gospel. Paul wrote, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Paul further explained this substitution, “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). There is no greater news than that there is a Savior who is able to take our place by bearing our sins and satisfying the wrath God that through believing in him we have forgiveness of sins and eternal life with God (Colossians 1:14; John 3:36).
This is a portion of a book that I have been writing. I have decided to post it here in serial form. It is intended to be evangelistic. If the book has merit, I may seek to publish it in some form. Please feel free to share it and I welcome any feedback.
If you wish to read all the chapters in order you may do so here.