WHY WAS THE INCARNATION of Jesus necessary? Did He have to die? Was it necessary for Him to die in such a way as to cause the shedding of His blood? Did atonement require the death of a divine being? Was His resurrection from the dead a necessary aspect of atonement, or was death alone sufficient? How did His death relate to the sacrificial system of the Old Testament? What is our part in atonement?
The Apostle Paul on the Crucifixion
Paul’s view of atonement is the substructure of his theology. He writes that he knew nothing among the Corinthians except “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). This, of course, includes Jesus’ burial and resurrection. Paul defines “the Gospel” as the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. Of course, the central focus of Paul’s ministry was atonement for all nations, Gentiles as well as Jews. As a rabbi, Paul understood the life and death of Jesus in the context of Israel, the Old Testament people of God who had been created and prepared for the purpose of bringing the Messianic Redeemer into the world.
What is Sin in the Old Testament?
Sin necessitates atonement. The Book of Hebrews is based on the concept of the conditional nature of atonement in the Old Testament. The fact that Jesus’ death redeemed people from transgressions committed under the first covenant (Hebrews 8:5) emphasizes the point that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4, NRSV). Of course, the Law made nothing perfect (see Hebrews 7:10). Priests under the old covenant system of sacrifice offered “repeatedly the same sacrifices which can never take away sins” (Hebrews 10:11).
Atonement in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament was primarily for the day-by-day violations of ritual and religious precepts described in Leviticus 1-5 and not for violations of conscience, sins of the heart and mind, as delineated by Jesus and the New Testament. These kinds of sins had no daily sacrificial offering for atonement. The specific purification and expiation sought under the old covenant applied almost solely to cases devoid of intrinsic moral quality. In other words, “sin offering” was not being made by the Old Testament priests for what we know today as sin.
This begs the question, What is sin? In order to address this matter, it is important to note that [and this came as a shock to me] the Old Testament has no general word for sin like the New Testament. Sin in the Old Testament is both a falling away from a relationship of faithfulness toward God and also disobedience to the commandments and the Law. The former is described as unfaithfulness to God’s covenant, the latter is a violation of God’s word and command. In both cases man shuts himself off from fellowship with God and becomes God-less. Although, in the Jewish use of the word, a man may “sin” without meaning to and even without knowing it, the “sinner” in the New Testament sense relates to the man who knowingly and willfully transgresses or ignores the revealed will of God persistently or habitually. Perhaps a good example of such willful sin is choosing to continue a life of theft and deception in order to support living a life of active addiction.
In the Old Testament sacrificial system, intentional sins were not atoned for by the regular sacrifices. Numbers 15:30-31 says, “But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the LORD and must be cut off from the people of Israel. Because they have despised the LORD’S word and broken His commands, they must surely be cut off; their guilt remains on them” (NKJV). It would seem that for such sins committed “with a high hand”—willfully and defiantly with arrogance—no expiation is provided. Such sins caused a person to be “utterly cut off, his guilt is upon him.” I think this helps put the wrath of God into perspective.
Consider the two classes of sin that hattath (the Hebrew term for “sin offering”) is prescribed for:
Ignorant or Inadvertent Transgression. Violation of certain prohibitions (“taboos”), including some in which we see a moral character—e.g., incest—but not all moral wrongs. This category does not include the commonest offenses against morals.
Purification of Various Kinds. The special sacrifices called sin offerings have a very limited range of employment. They are prescribed chiefly for unintentional ceremonial faults or as purification; the trespass offering is even more narrowly restricted. The great expiation for the whole people, at least in later times, was the scape-goat; not any usual form of sacrifice.
What is Sin in the New Testament?
When we look at the concept of sin in the New Testament, a different perspective emerges. Paul does not clearly define sin. It is clear, however, that he also does not see sin as primarily an offense against other people; for him sin is primarily an offense against God. The predominant conception of the nature of sin in the Bible is that of personal alienation from God. In Paul’s mind, the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament is that Jesus provides something which the saints of the Old Testament yearned for but could never find: Real and certain victory over sin. C.L. Mitton, in Atonement, writes, “It is sin which has created the need for atonement, because sin, besides corrupting the heart and deadening the conscience and making man increasingly prone to sin again, causes man to be estranged from God, separated from God by an unseen barrier, a dividing wall of hostility” (see Ephesians 2:14) [Emphasis added].
Words for Sin in the New Testament
Sin is a multifaceted concept expressed by many different terms in the New Testament. Leon Morris, in Sin, Guilt, writes, “There are more than thirty words in the New Testament that convey some notion of sin, and Paul employs at least twenty-four of them.”
Formal Terms Indicating Deviation from the Good
- Miss a mark (Greek, hamartia), miss one’s aim, a mistake; the idea of sin in the abstract (Romans 3:23; 5:12). It is the most frequent word in the New Testament for sin.
- Results of missing the mark (Greek, hamartêma), referring to individual actions. The word is from the same root as hamartia. Both words appear in a variant reading of 2 Peter 1:9 in Greek manuscripts.
- Guilty or wicked person (Greek, harmartôlos), as noted in 1 Timothy 1:9, “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers” (NIV).
- Transgression (of a line, Greek parabasis), passing the bounds God sets on human action, going beyond the norm. The Jews used this term for violations of the Law, but Gentiles do not transgress the Law because they are not under the Law. Romans 4:14-15 says, “For if those who depend on the Law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the Law brings wrath. And if there is no Law there is no transgression” (NIV).
- Trespass (Greek, paraptôma), “falling away” from the divinely ordered course of duty, a false step. It can also be committed against other humans. In Classical Greek literature, it is a blunder or an error in measurement.
- Ignorance (Greek, agnoêma) of what one should have known (see Hebrews 9:7).
Terms With Theological Orientation
- Lawlessness (Greek, anomia), nonobservance of a law (see 1 John 3:40). It appears opposite of righteousness (Greek, dikaiosynê), and is coupled with scandal (Greek, skandala), with hypocrisy (Greek, hypokrisis), with uncleanness (Greek, akatharsia), and with missing a mark (Greek, hamartia).
- Breach of Law (Greek, paranomia).
- Disobedience (Greek, parakoê) to a voice, namely, the voice of God (see Romans 5:10).
- Ungodliness (Greek, asebeia), impiety, active irreligion, withholding prayer and service that is due God, considered by some the “most profoundly theological word for sin. It indicates offense against God in distinction from akikia, which refers to wrongdoing against mankind. Murray and Milne indicate this is “…perhaps the profoundest New Testament term… it implies active ungodliness or impiety.”
Terms Indicating Spiritual Badness
- Active evil (Greek, ponêria), qualitative moral evil, wickedness, baseness, maliciousness. In the New Testament and early Christian literature, it is used only in the ethical sense. Satan is the evil one (Greek, ho ponêros).
- Viciousness (Greek, kakia), qualitative moral evil, malice, evil disposition.
- Unholy (Greek, anosios), wicked.
- Defect (Greek, hêttêma), defeat, failure.
- Scandal (Greek, skandalon). The RSV translates it “causes of sin” in Matthew 13:41, as well as “hindrance,” “temptations to sin,” or “stumbling blocks.”
Ethical and Juridical Terms
- Unrighteousness (Greek, adikia), injustice, with ungodliness. Anomia is used when delineating wrong done to one’s neighbor. The term is translated variously in different contexts as injustice, unrighteousness, falsehood, wickedness, and iniquity, and us typically associated with sin.
- Guilty or liable (Greek, enochos), a legal term in courts of law used for a particular wrong (1 Corinthians 11:27; Hebrews 2:15) or to declare one liable to judgment (Matthew 5:21).
- Debt (Greek, opheilêma), indicating the burden of guilt that the sinner bears in the sight of God.
It must be noted that prior to Martin Luther and the Reformation, most Christian writers held that Jesus mediated the righteousness of the cross to mankind by means of the Mass. The church, with its sacramental system, was seen to stand in a position between God and humanity, controlling the access that humans have to God, and consequently the forgiveness that God mediates to humanity through that system. But consider the words in 1 Timothy 2:4-6: “He wants not only us but everyone saved, you know, everyone to get to know the truth we’ve learned, that there is one God and only one, and only one Priest-Mediator between God and us—Jesus, who offered Himself in exchange for everyone held captive by sin, to set them all free” (MSG).
Many in the early church saw Jesus Christ as a martyr. Of course, the basic definition of martyr is a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounce his or her religion. Those who believe Jesus to be merely a martyr conclude that something good happens in our lives only as we follow Jesus. They conclude that Jesus inspires us to be like Him by virtue of what He did during his ministry. Accordingly, if we do nothing or believe nothing —if there’s no response on our part—then nothing actually took place at Calvary. 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (NIV).
Henry (1997) notes in Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible that what happens to a new believer is “more than an outward reformation.” Henry indicates that God reconciled us to Himself through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Henry also notes that Christ who knew no sin was made Sin, not a sinner. This seems to indicate that something did indeed occur at the cross, in and of itself, regardless of any response on our part. Something objective happened at Calvary. To me, this is an ontological fact. In other words, the reality of atonement is inseparably bound to the time and place of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.
To say that salvation is based upon subjective reality—such as our response to Jesus’ sacrifice—is to say we are only redeemed through our works. This would indicate we have to complete that potentiality ourselves. According to this view, a person looks at the life of Jesus, tries to emulate that life, and by His example becomes a better person. There is nothing objectively supernatural (spiritual) in this view, nothing of God’s forgiveness based on an act of Christ’s atonement. From this perspective, forgiveness occurs only after one has become a “better person,” at which time God grants forgiveness and acceptance. This is the epitome of conditional love.
The belief that Christ becomes our Redeemer only when He is preached and accepted is appropriately designated existentialist in nature because it deals with what happens inside a person when that person makes a decision through faith. According to this view, when one takes what eminent theologian Søren Kierkegaard called “a leap of faith” and accepts Christ through faith, then something really happens. If we buy into this school of thought, we’re saying salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus is actually based upon our moral decision rather than the action (the very death, burial, and resurrection) of Jesus on the cross.
In attempting an explanation of the Atonement, it is important that we know something of what motivated the death of Christ. The idea that our Lord died a helpless martyr is nowhere taught in the Bible. Those who have no understanding or appreciation of Jesus Christ’s work for us, lack understanding also on the subject of the nature and effect of sin in all men. Many Scriptures teach clearly that the Atonement of Christ is an expiation of human sin. It is that sin which made the Atonement necessary. Christ became incarnate in order that He should die for human sin.
The objective view —which is the biblical view—emphasizes the actuality of atonement as a fact of history. Something objective happened at Calvary, whether anyone responds or not. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all that needed to occur. In the subjective view, by contrast, atonement is purely potential. It never occurs until someone believes and is responsive to the Gospel message. Without atonement, there is no redemption. Without redemption, there is no reconciliation. Without reconciliation, the relationship between God and man remains forever broken.