Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Penalty of our Sins

Today, in church, I heard a commonplace of Reformed preaching:

"Jesus paid the penalty of our sins on the Cross."

I've heard this innumerable times in my ecclesial existence, and taken it as face value, for doesn't St Paul say in Romans that "the wages of sin are death" (6:23)?  The "penalty," as understood under the constraints of the "Penal Substitution Atonement" theory (PSA) is eternal hell (even though St Paul says that it is death.  The argument that Jesus suffered the "second death" of Revelation on the Cross or in the grave fails to have any Scriptural or Patristic support, being rather a theological necessity of the Reformed tradition instead of biblically based.  Sola Scriptura, again, fails in practice).  There are some assumptions being brought into this text that need to be examined, however.

One of the assumptions is that the relationship between God and humankind is basically legal: as long as the right things are done, and the wrong things left undone, everything is copacetic.  If not, an appropriate punishment is meted out to set things right or restore the upended balance.  Humans were created by God with capacity to sin, but not the necessity; after the Fall, we necessarily sin.  Since we necessarily sin (enshrined in that most unfortunate translation of sarx as "sinful nature"), God necessarily must mete out punishment to redress the wrong: anything less would be unjust and God is, essentially, just (since, as St Augustine taught, God's simple essence must be His attributes).  However, since God loves (and, to take back what I just said, His love is antithetical to His justice...somehow this does not upset the divine nature), He must satisfy His justice not on us (unless we are not of the elect), but on His Son (who, according to the Reformed tradition, is the elect one).  God the Father, then, punishes God the Son to eternally restore the balance (only for the elect): since Christ's divine nature is eternal, the satisfaction is eternal as well, meaning we are free of the "wrath of God" in perpetuity.  The wrath, paradoxically, only lasts for (at most) three days, hardly eternal, but the effect of it is eternal.  (A quick side-bar question: since God's justice needs infinite satisfaction, is God the Son eternally/infinitely judged/punished by the Father?  How does one accomplish the necessarily infinite in an extremely finite space of time?)  All this to say that our relationship to God is basically legal.  Christ is our mediator, to be sure, but He mediates between the demands of God's Law and us -- it is only if we make the assumption that God's Law is Himself that we actually have a relationship with the Father.  Our relationship necessarily has a double mediation: Christ Himself and the Law, with Christ taking on a decidedly secondary character (this gets even more confusing when we realize that Christ is the Word of God to which the Law acts iconically).  Is this assumption legitimate?  Is it biblical?  Does it reveal Christ Himself?

This is not to say that there isn't a legal element to our relationship with God -- the question of what legality would be to the ancient Hebrews and the later Greco-Roman society needs to be probed, as it seems that their understandings of legality would not necessarily be so dispassionate and detached as ours are (supposed to be).  However, to say that "Jesus paid the penalty of our sins" is to place not the possibility of juridicial understandings of atonement on the table, but rather to say that they are the main (if not only) course.  We've sinned; God is angry and requires justice (understood rather narrowly as satisfaction from wrongs); Christ placates the Father.  Then what?  It is at this point that most of the preaching and teaching I've heard stumbles: we Reformed have no great emphasis on union with Christ (no matter if it does appear prominently in Calvin), we have no theosis, we have no beatific vision.  In fact, we stumble as to the place of sanctification or even if it is possible.  If the primary relation between God and man is legal and not ontological, then once the legal problem is solved we have reached the nature climax of the relationship.  This may explain why some evangelical churches have folks go up week after week for altar calls: during the week the relationship is broken and so must be amended using the prescribed formula.  Holiness is looked at as "good works," since, as a pastor friend of mine recently said, "We are naturally legalists, looking to gain our own salvation."

The second assumption concerns the use of the word "penalty."  I had trouble, listening to the sermon, determining which Hebrew and Greeks words might be translated as such.  (This isn't saying much, of course; my training in the languages is now over a decade old).  I went for some research this afternoon to find out.  I tried the NKJV and came up basically empty-handed, so I turned to that evangelical standby, the NIV.  Since translations act as silent Magisteria, it makes sense to see how they use English to convey Hebrew and Greek concepts.  Some of the instances I'm leaving to the side (such as the ones in Proverbs, where the word could easily be translated as "consequence"), if you have the urge to look through those, I'd be happy to hear your thoughts.

The first significant instance comes in Leviticus 5, where sacrifice for sin is discussed.  In verse 6, the NIV has: "as a penalty for the sin they have committed..." and then lists what is necessary to affect their atonement.  However, the word used for "penalty" is a technical word in Leviticus that does not mean "penalty" -- it means "guilt" or "guilt-offering."  A better translation, starting from verse 5, would be: "And it shall be, when he is guilty [asham] in any of these [sins listed in 5:1-4], that he shall confess that he has sinned in that matter and he shall bring his guilt [asham] to the Lord for his sin which he has committed: a female from the flock, a lamb, or a kid of the goats as a sin offering [chattat]."  Here the awkwardness of older translations (where asham is translated as "guilt-" or "trespass-" offering) is avoided (there is only one, not two distinct types of offerings being required), plus the action of the sinner is made clear: he is to formally repent in the presence of the Lord at the Temple.  He could "confess that he has sinned in that matter" without the cultus, but if he wants atonement he must make the trek to Shiloh or Jerusalem (depending on time in history) and make the public confession and sacrifice -- he must "bring his guilt" to the Lord.  To translate asham as "penalty" here misses the point, especially as it is reaching back to Genesis 3, where God calls Adam and Eve before Him to confess their guilt and so find some measure of restoration (which, as is well known, they fail miserably at, falling into recrimination of the other and of God: yet still here God acts in mercy, providing for them "skins," the first chattat, or animal sacrifice for sins).  Leviticus uses the word asham many times, either as guilt itself or possibly as a "guilt offering," usually reserved for atonment of sacrilege.  While it would take much more space and time than I have here, this is one of the clues that should show us that the Temple itself is not primarily a legal institution, but rather a participatory-sacramental one: the whole point of the Temple cultus is theotic, the dwelling of God with and in man, as St Paul starts to unpack throughout his epistles.

Job 8:4 is another example: "When your children sinned against Him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin."  The word here for "penalty" is not asham, but "yad" which means "hand" and, by extension, "power."  There is an Exodus motif (if I might be a bit anachronistic) at work here: Bildad is arguing that when Job's children sinned, God gave them into the power of that sin.  Or, in other words, the argument in Romans 1:18-32.  In that chapter, St Paul is showing how the "wrath of God" works: God gives people what they want, which leads to death since they have detached themselves from the Source of Life.  This does reveal an important, and often neglected, part of biblical atonement theology: sin is not just something we do, but a mode of existence from which we cannot extricate ourselves.  Once we are in bondage to sin, and we are born into said bondage, we need a Deliverer to redeem us and overlook our actions during that time period of bondage (for how could we do anything but act out that mode of existence?): in other words, we need an Exodus.  God did give Adam and Eve over to the power of their sin, over to the Devil, as was their acted-out wish.  He even warned them what would happen: "on the day you eat of it, you will be liable to death" (the construction of "you shall surely die" in Hebrew is "dying you shall die," which in cases of warning or legal sanction imply liability, not necessity).  Since then, we have all shared in the corruption of Adam (mortality and bondage to the power of sin), needing to be rescued from it.  This is exactly what has happened on the Cross.  The death of the Firstborn allows us to escape, with our past sins and corruptions being deluged in the Red Sea/font of baptism.  Whenever the concept of the "power of sin/death/the Devil" is introduced, it is never accompanied by punishment of those needing redemption, or their Redeemer.

Ezekiel 23:49, however, might be the verse we've been waiting for: "You will suffer the penalty for your lewdness and bear the consequences of your sins of idolatry."  However, a more literal translation calls this into question: "And they shall give to you your lewdness and you shall bear the sins of your idols."  Again, the meaning is less juridicial (although here it does in fact occur as a lawsuit) and more along the lines of what was just discussed concerning Job 8:4.  The prophet, bearing God's word, is telling the people what the natural consequences are for turning away from Life: death.  What they sow, in this case "lewdness," they shall also reap: as sexual sins turn the process of life-creation into degradation and humiliation, so their lives shall be degraded through conquest (here metaphorically imaged as stoning -- an interest use by Ezekiel, which brings out the point of capital punishment in the Torah: it is an eschatological enactment at the present time of the inevitable consequences of private and communal turning from God).  The image of "bearing" is also vital, as humankind is imagined as beings who bear something, whether the "name of God" (Ex. 20:7 -- the word "take" is "bear") or the "sins of your idols."  I need to do more work on this, as the importance of the concept is not fully fleshed out yet in my understanding.

The point, I think, is becoming clear: if our atonement theories do not have at their root the Exodus, they are most likely out of sync with what is revealed -- as powerful as the readings of Anselm, Augustine, and Calvin can be, they are not necessarily accurate interpretations of the Bible or the Faith.

This takes us, again, to Romans 1.  When St Paul is discussing the consequences of turning from God ("being given over" further to the power of sin), he says that the active homosexual (not necessarily one who suffers from a distorted passion, but a practicer) "received in themselves the due penalty for their error" (v. 27).  The word here for "due penalty" is antimisthia, a word St Paul uses only twice in his whole corpus (in fact, it is only in Paul that the word appears in the NT): the other being chapter 4:4 ("Now to him who works, the antimisthia are not counted as grace, but as debt.")  Douglas Campbell, in The Deliverance of God, proposes an alternate translation that makes better sense of the context: "when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation" (327).  This hearkens back to 1:27 rather strikingly: if righteousness is something that is procured by ways of "works of Torah" as an obligation, as an effect from a cause, then they are not grace but necessity, just as a person's paycheck comes necessarily from their labor at a shop.  What those in chapter 1 receive is the "obligation" or "paycheck" of their error, the natural consequence, which again is death, "those who practice such things are deserving of death" (1:32).  The legal concept of penalty is strikingly absent once again.


When we says something like "Jesus paid the penalty of our sins on the Cross" we must exercise great caution: the assumptions under such a statement are freighted and not necessarily biblical.  Certainly, there is a very real sense in which the statement is true: sin leads inexoriably to death, Jesus died so that death might not claim any more, therefore Jesus "paid the penalty."  However, this does not "satisfy the demands of justice" (a phrase, and concept, absent from the Scriptures), rather it shows the justice of God who delivers those who call on His Name.  He delivers and sets right (justifies) those who place their allegiance (faith) in Him, not holding any of their past against them, but calling them to a different mode of existence (holiness, which is not a 'moral' state, but a sacremental state of God indwelling us -- Rom. 5:5).  This is, I would argue, the controlling atonement metaphor in Scripture through which all legal and juridical language must be understood.  Applying this to, say, Romans, produces a very different picture of God as Judge: He is not judging us generally, but sin/death/the Devil who have illicitly laid claim to us and enslaved us.  Those who cling to Christ and share in His death through faith and baptism are freed/redeemed from their pharonic power, which those who reject this Exodus share in the "wrath" and "condemnation" meted out against the oppressors by the Cross and the Resurrection.

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