The method I’m outlining here, is like that of filling in a jigsaw puzzle. Once again, it comes from the book to the right, and the outline here comes from their chapter covering the same topic.
Interestingly, much of what we need to know about the atonement comes from the early chapters of Genesis. From Genesis 1, we immediately see a God whose word creates the entire universe. Not only does He create, but He creates things good. I have blogged elsewhere about the philosophical implications of Genesis 1:1 (see here) but for now, it may help to boil it down to two things:
- God’s word is effective
- God’s word is good
When these combine, they point to God’s inherent truthfulness. To quote from Pierced for Our Transgressions:
God vindicated his truthfulness by remaining faithful to his promise that sin will be punished; he manifested his justice by punishing sin and acquitting the righteous; he glorified his name by exalting his Son and placing all things under his feet; and he demonstrated his love by dying for sinners and reconciling to himself those who were once his enemies. (pg 104)
This is the big picture of the atonement. It vindicates God as both truthful and good. But to see how we get to that point, let’s run through a few theological themes.
As noted above, the creation accounts depict God’s word as both effective and good. It also indicates that everything exists by God’s intentions, or by his will. That is to say, nothing is in existence that was not by God’s will, nor is anything in continued existence, except by the supporting power of God (see Colossians 1:15ff). Because of all this, it is appropriate to all creation as belonging to God. This of course is simply another way to say God is Lord of all.
Because of this Lordship, God is able to establish order, and actively does so by appointing Adam and Eve as vice regents over his kingdom. He contracts both a loving relationship with them that is both personal and legal (it has rules involved). Humanity then is given a derivative authority over God’s creation, with rules as to how to govern, but also a intensely personal relationship with the actual King of the creation. The hierarchy set up is:
- Rest of creation (namely animals and earth)
This is how the story ends in Genesis 2, but unfortunately, the story itself does not end there.
The authors in the above book prefer the term “de-creation” rather than fall, because, when really looked at closely, Genesis 3 presents just that. It is almost an exact reversal of Genesis 1-2. Right off the bat, the order is toppled by Eve giving the serpent an ear, and then along with him, critiquing and questioning both God’s goodness and his truthfulness. The order gets entirely reversed:
- Serpent (part of creation)
Once de-creation on a large scale occurs, nothing short of a complete recreation can undo it. Later on, interestingly enough, this is how redemption is depicted, but we’ll see that below. For now, it should be easy to see in reading through Genesis 3 that Adam and Eve basically did exactly what Romans 1condemns. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and were guilty of false faith, which is just another way of referring to idolatry. They trust in them own ability to reason apart from God and gave the serpent’s words equal weight with God. They assumed the position of God, thus brought sin into the world. Sin, in this sense, is de-creational, and only God can then recreate the world. Yet he must do so in a way that upholds his truth and goodness. This then is the dilemma of the Old Testament.
In addition to being de-creational, sin also brings death. Some commentators have questioned whether or not the threat to death in Genesis 2:17 is actually carried out since Adam and Eve do not immediately die. However, elsewhere throughout the OT, death and banishment from the presence from God are inner-related so that one naturally invokes the other. Being banished then from God’s presence in the garden was effectively a death sentence for Adam and Eve. Coupled with effects of the blessings in Genesis 1 and 2 turning sour, we are left with pretty bleak picture prior to God’s promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15.
Given all this then, there are certain elements that must be present in order for humanity to be saved from its predicament. If God were to go back on his promise to punish sin, this would undermine his promise of mercy as well. If we cannot trust God’s word in judgment, we can’t very well trust it for blessing either. God failing to punish sin would amount to a denial of His own truthfulness.
What must salvation look like then? Here are just a few suggestions:
- Salvation must be an act of illumination
- Salvation must be an act of divine grace
- Salvation must be an act of liberation
- Salvation must be an act of conquest
God’s truthfulness requires that He both punish sin and yet also restore creation to its original intended purpose. This then is the question that must be answered by any account of salvation:
- How can God save sinful people from death while remaining faithful to his promise to punish sin?
The answer comes in the doctrine of redemption of which the atonement is a central part. Rather than delve into that here though, we’ll come back in another post tomorrow and wrap this all up by answering the question in terms of how penal substitutionary atonement satisfies it.