God is Not Mad at You…unless He is.

I took my son to the store on Sunday night to buy some trading cards for a game he plays. As we were walking around the store, a book caught my eye.

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The title: “God is Not Mad at You.” To be fair, I haven’t read this book, however, I did take the time to go and read some reviews of it online to see if my initial assumptions about the message of this book would turn out to be mistaken. It would seem from these reviews that they were not.

Here’s the thing: the author is correct, God is not mad at you…that is unless, of course, He is.

What do I mean?  What I mean is that God is mad at some people – and rightly so! The Bible makes it very clear that God “opposes” some people, and that God considers some people “enemies.”  In fact, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18) and the objects of His wrath are in fact people (Ephesians 2:1-3)!

After all, isn’t it only right that God should be mad about some things AND at some people?  The Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, makes it explicitly clear that there are things which God abhors, and which we should also abhor, for example: injustice, deceit, abuse. God is mad about these things, and more than that: God is mad at the people who do these things. God is mad at the person who exploits another or takes advantage of them from a position of power. God is mad when children are abused, when women are raped, when racial injustice occurs, and God is mad at the people who do these things.

Here’s the thing: it’s easy for us to say, “Well, yeah, okay, I get what you’re saying: God is mad at the bad guys who do bad things. That makes sense… But aside from those guys, who need to know that what they are doing is wrong and that divine justice is promised, the rest of us need to be comforted and encouraged that God isn’t mad at us – after all, most of us aren’t that bad.” 

The question is: who defines “bad”? And how bad do you have to be to be “bad.”  The Bible says this: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10) Furthermore, Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount and the Bible says elsewhere that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and that “there is none who is good, no not one.”

What this all means that you and I are more sinful than we even realize, and therefore more deserving of God’s wrath than we even know.

But here’s the message of the Gospel: it’s not that you are a good person and therefore God isn’t mad at you – it’s that God LOVES you in spite of your sins and failures and shortcomings so much that He sent Jesus, the Divine Son, to die in your place, and absorb the wrath which you deserved.

What that means is that if you are in Christ, then indeed God is not mad at you – because Jesus became the “propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2), which means that he absorbed not only the legal judgment for our sins, but the righteous anger of God toward our sin.

If you are in Christ, then indeed: the message of the Gospel is that God is not mad at you

However, if you are not in Christ, then the Bible says that you are still in your sins. Jesus himself said this: “Unless you believe that I am He (the Messiah, the Savior), you will die in your sins.” (John 8:24). And if you are still in your sins, then the wrath of God remains on you!  Again, Jesus himself said this very thing: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” (John 3:36)

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. – JESUS (John 3:36)

Here’s the point: God is not mad at you IF you are in Christ, because God’s wrath was poured out on Him in place of you – the undeserving in place of the deserving.  Apart from Jesus, however, there is no such promise and no such hope.

The reason I take issue with this book is because it declares something to all people as a blanket statement, a broad generalization, which does indeed apply to some, but only some! To others, therefore, it gives a false sense of comfort and security, which actually does them a disservice.

The false prophets in the day of Jeremiah did the same thing. God had called Jeremiah to call the people of Judah to radical repentance, to turn away from sin and wickedness and turn with their whole hearts to God, and if they did that they would experience blessing. Jeremiah preached this message, which turned out to be radically unpopular, despite the fact that it was from God.  At the same time, another group of prophets came with a message which was wildly popular, despite the fact that it wasn’t from God! Their message? “Don’t worry; be happy. God’s not mad at you. God just wants you to be happy, so just do your thing and don’t bother yourself with feelings of guilt or needing to repent.” About these false prophets, God said:  “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14)

“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14)

The message of the Gospel is that Jesus died on the cross, so that God could end sin without ending us.

No matter who you are or what you’ve done, that is how much God loves you. If you are in Christ, if you have put your faith in Jesus as your Savior, as your righteousness, as the propitiation for your sins and as your Redeemer – then indeed, take comfort: God is not mad at you!

The Importance of Old Testament Ideas of Sacrifice in a Christian Understanding of Atonement

This is an article I wrote for a seminary class on Christology and Atonement, which I have found to be particularly relevant in many discussions – especially the part towards the end about “expiation” vs. “propitiation”.
Feel free to leave feedback in the comments section below.

The Christian doctrine of atonement is an attempt to achieve an understanding of the event of the crucifixion of Christ and the benefits of Christ gained for believers by his death. Atonement theories deal with the question of how an historical even in a specific place and time – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – can somehow constitute universal saving power in perpetuity, as the New Testament claims that it does (1 Jn 2:2, Heb. 10:10-14). Unarguably, it is from the sacrificial system of ancient Israel that we have inherited the framework and terminology of the Christian idea of atonement. A consideration, therefore, of the Old Testament ideas of sacrifice gives insight into and shapes our view of what was accomplished through the crucifixion.

The Christian claim from scripture and tradition is that Christ’s action constituted God’s gift of salvation, and was not merely illustrative of it. Gunton points out that sacrifice is the primary New Testament metaphor regarding the crucifixion. The early church interpreted Jesus’ death in sacrificial terms, which developed out of a context of the temple cult. It is important to remember that the setting in which Jesus and the early Christians lived was one in which the Old Testament sacrifices were still being offered; in fact, these sacrifices were being offered during practically the whole period of the composition of the New Testament. The antecedents of New Testament ideas of atonement are found in the Old Testament sacrificial system. The book of Leviticus, therefore, gives some of the clearest insights into biblical religion and is fundamental to the New Testament’s understanding of atonement.

In the Old Testament, sacrifice is the divinely appointed way of securing atonement, and the need for atonement exists because humankind is estranged from God by sin, hence the need for reconciliation or ‘at-one-ment’ between humans and God. An important understanding in the Old Testament is the distinction between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean. One of the duties of the priest was to distinguish between these (Lev. 10:10). Cleanness in the Old Testament understanding has little to do with hygiene; it has to do with imperfection, a distortion of existence. Examples of what would make someone unclean were things like contact with a dead body, a bodily excretion, and committing acts of sin or lawbreaking – either intentionally or unintentionally. God is the super-holy and should anyone unclean come near God, they are liable to be destroyed. Sacrifice was God’s way of removing human uncleanness, so that people could be restored to fellowship with God.

Leviticus lists five main sacrifices: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering. Each of these, besides the grain offering, included the shedding of the blood of animals. Each was a sacrifice in the metaphorical sense, in that they were of significant cost to the person who presented the sacrifice, which drives home the idea that atonement has a high price and sin is never to be taken lightly. The sin offering and the guilt offering were for the purpose of atonement for committed sins. The sin offering was particularly focused on purification, whereas the guilt offering carried more of the metaphor of compensation for wrongdoing.

In each of the animal sacrifices, the blood of the animal is shed, and the animal dies. Thus, it is clear that in the Old Testament it was recognised that death was the penalty for sin (Ezek. 18:20), but that God graciously permitted the death of a sacrificial victim to substitute or ransom for the death of the unclean person. Herein we have the basis for the substitutional and representative death of Jesus as a sacrifice on behalf of humankind. This same understanding of substitutional sacrificial death which results in atonement can be found elsewhere in the Old Testament, e.g. in Ex. 32, where Moses seeks to make atonement for the sin of the people by asking God to blot him out of the book which he has written. However, in the Old Testament sacrifices, it is not the death of the animal which is the climax of the rite, but rather what is done with its blood. The blood of the sin offering acts as a spiritual cleanser. Jesus’ blood is also spoken of as that which cleanses from sin, e.g. 1 Jn 1:7. In the Old Testament sacrificial system, the sacrificed creature was required to be unblemished, representing perfection, hence the importance in the New Testament that Jesus was without sin (2 Cor. 5:21, Heb. 4:15, 7:26, 9:14, 1 Pet. 2:22, 1 Jn 3:5); otherwise he would not have been qualified to be an atoning sacrifice.

God says in Leviticus 17:11 of the atoning blood ‘I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.’ From this we learn that although human estrangement from God is because of human shortcomings, God took the initiative to provided the means for atonement. This idea carried into the New Testament view of atonement, in which, once again, God is the one who provides the means for our atonement by sending Jesus to be our atoning sacrifice.

Furthermore, the greatest day in the Old Testament calendar was the Day of Atonement, which was so significant that it became simply referred to as ‘the Day’. On this day, special sin offerings were made by the high priest for himself and for the whole nation. One of the elements of the Day of Atonement was the scapegoat ceremony in which the high priest laid his hands on the goat and confessed all the sins of the people, thereby symbolising the transferring of the nation’s sins onto the goat. Herein we have the basis for the understanding of making atonement for a large group of people at one time, rather than only for individuals, as well as the idea of transference of sin and guilt onto an innocent party – both of which are central to the Christian concept of atonement, in which our sins are transferred onto Jesus, and he who knew no sin becomes sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21, Is. 53:6, Jn 1:29, 1 Pet. 2:24).

The importance of Old Testament ideas of sacrifice in the Christian account of atonement are perhaps nowhere more greatly pronounced than in the letter to the Hebrews, which David Ford calls ‘the most fully developed theology of the death of Jesus in the New Testament’. The great concern of the letter to the Hebrews is to show that the Old Testament sacrifices were inadequate except as types, which foreshadowed and pointed to Christ. This is proven by the fact that they cannot provide entrance into the holy of holies, nor free the conscience from guilt. Rather than remedies for sin, they are reminders of sin, imposed until a time of reformation. (Heb. 9:6-10, 10:3), which has now come in Christ, who was the true and final sacrifice, after which no more sacrifices for atonement are needed (Heb. 10:11-14).

Furthermore, according to Hebrews, Jesus is not only the atoning sacrifice, but he is also the fulfilment of the high priest, who enters heaven (the reality of which the holy of holies was merely a representation), not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own blood. (Heb. 9:23-26). Thus, Jesus’ death is not simply seen as having been the result of wicked men rising up against him and overcoming him because he was not able to resist them, but as an intentional sacrifice, which Jesus came to present, in order to make atonement for humankind (Mk 10:45).

However, it is not only the letter to the Hebrews which reflects this understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion as being an atoning sacrifice. References to atoning sacrifice, which use the language and imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system are found throughout the New Testament. He is spoken of as the true passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:6-8) and as a sin offering (Rom. 8:3). Jesus spoke of his blood as the blood of the covenant which was poured out for the forgiveness of many (Matt. 26:28).

Historically, Christian accounts of atonement have been culturally mediated, deriving from their socio-political contexts, and reflective of prevailing philosophical ideas. In this sense, it is understandable why Christianity, born in a Jewish context, would have drawn so heavily on Old Testament ideas and imagery of sacrifice. In modern times, the idea of a sacrificial cult in which blood has to be shed in order for forgiveness of sins to take place is generally considered crude, primitive and unsophisticated, and it has been suggested that Christians should take on different views of the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, for example an exemplarist view, in which we learn from Christ the virtue of self-sacrifice, and are moved by his act of self-sacrifice to repentance and faith and are motivated to live a life of holiness. Wellhausen’s moral evolution account has contributed to this line of thinking, in which he claimed to see a critique of cultic practices present in the prophets. However, since most of the prophets were also priests, they were involved with sacrifice and were rather criticising the practice of making offerings in the wrong spirit rather than critiquing the cultic practice of sacrifice itself. Another modern emphasis on sacrifice is that it be understood metaphorically in terms of a ‘gift’. Fiddes points out that this is a slippage form the ancient use of the term which formed the context for early Christian reflection on the death of Christ. Even in Old Testament times, there was precedent, e.g. in the Psalms, to speak of sacrifice in metaphorical terms (‘spiritual sacrifice’), but this was not a substitution of the literal animal sacrifices. In fact, early Christians drew on both the spiritual sacrifices and the literal sacrifices to provide a backdrop and meaning for the death of Jesus.

During the Reformation, one of the theories of atonement which became popular was that of penal substitution; that the law of God demanded punishment from those who breached it and that God, as a strategy of love, effectively propitiated himself in Christ, satisfying the demands of his own justice. The attraction of this theory has been that it does appear to explain how the death of Christ is a final and decisive event, and after his death the anger or truth of God needs not be propitiated again. However, the shortcoming of this theory of atonement is that when we consider the Old Testament sacrificial system, what we find is that atonement is centred around cleansing the unclean person from that which makes them unclean, rather than about dealing with the reaction of God against sin. If we are to claim that the Old Testament sacrificial system is the basis for the Christian understanding of atonement, then we must recognise that the Old Testament sacrificial system was not focused on dealing with God’s reaction to sin, but with removing sin and making the unclean clean. Fiddes contends that when Romans 3:25 says that Jesus was ‘propitiation by his blood’, that the word translated propitiation (‘hilasterion’) should rather be understood as ‘expiation’ (‘to wipe away’), because God is always the subject of the process of atonement, never the object. Although the word ‘hilasterion’ means ‘propitiation’ when it is used in other texts of the period, Fiddes claims that when the New Testament writers use it they are intentionally changing its meaning to mean expiation, which is what the Old Testament atoning sacrifices describe. Certainly the Bible does depict God being angry against sin (e.g. Rom. 1:18). But even though God does feel anger and wrath towards sin, when he acts to make atonement he is not acting to satisfy his anger, but to remove sin. Those who refuse to appropriate this atonement will remain unclean and estranged from God.

It is clear that the writers of the New Testament drew heavily on the imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system in regard to the significance of the life and death of Jesus. This imagery was not only used by the writer to the Hebrews, but is also found in the writings of Paul, Peter, John and the writers of the Gospels, who give us examples of Jesus speaking in such terms about himself. If then the Old Testament sacrifices are the basis of our Christian account of atonement, we can gain insight into what the crucifixion of Christ did and did not mean when we consider the purposes and effects of the Old Testament sacrifices.

Bibliography:
Beckwith, R.T., ‘Sacrifice and Offering’ , in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn, ed. by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 1035-1044
Carter, D., THY303 Christology and Atonement in Historical Perspective (Cheltenham: University of Gloucestershire, 2012)
Currid, J., K. Nobuyoshi and J.A. Sklar, ‘Leviticus’, in ESV Study Bible, ed. by L.T. Dennis, W. Grudem, J.I. Packer, C.J. Collins, T.R. Schreiner and J. Taylor (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2008), pp. 211-256
Fiddes, P.S., Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989)
Gunton, C.E., The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989)
Goldingay, J., ‘Old Testament Sacrifice and the Death of Christ’ in John Goldingay, (ed.) Atonement Today, a Symposium at St. John’s College, Nottingham (London: SPCK, 1995), pp. 3-20
Marshall, I.H., A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996)
McGrath, A.E., Christian Theology: An Introduction, 4th edn (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007)
Morris, L.L., ‘Atonement’, in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn, ed. by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 102-104
Morris, L.L., “Theories of the Atonement”, Monergism <http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/atonementmorris2.html&gt; [28/06/13]
Wenham, G.J., The Pentateuch, Exploring the Old Testament: Volume 1 (London: SPCK, 2003)