This post is a continuation of Parts 1, 2, and 3 by Dr. Ronn Johnson. Dr. Johnson recommends listening to some of the Leviticus podcasts at one point, and that’s good advice (see the episodes on Lev 4 and 5). For those who might remember the series on Leviticus, with respect to this installment, it’s good to recall that the blood of the sacrificed animal was never applied to the offerer who needed to bring it. It’s also good to recall that most of the sacrifices for sins in the OT were about being made fit for sacred space, not hatred for a moral sin (most of those had no sacrifice, only a penalty like the death penalty or restitution. — MSH
I am moving on to look at the next “brick” on the evangelical “Big Story wall”:
God’s holiness demands that he cannot be in the presence of moral sinfulness:
This cliché has certainly been around for a while. Even as a kid I knew it was not true, since God and Satan talked to each other in Job 1. Plus, I had a mom who seemed to show up every time I was bad, and I knew that God was in the same business. Sin does not make God hide his eyes, nor make him go away, which is what I wanted him to do. So if children understand this, what could this idea possibly mean, and where did it come from?
Let’s consider the meaning of God’s “holiness,” especially in its relation to sin. The Hebrew word most commonly translated as “holy” in the OT is qodesh (first appearing in Exod 3:5, “the place your stand is qodesh ground”), appearing over 400 times. The general meaning of qodesh is not contested (“holy or sacred; set apart as dedicated to God”), though its use within the Bible has at times led to confusion. Here is why: while we know that qodesh may be used to describe non-moral things, such as a day of the week or clothing (“Tomorrow is a qodesh Sabbath to Yahweh,” Exod. 16:23; “You shall make qodesh garments for Aaron your brother,” Exod. 28:2), qodesh also seems to appear in places where the story is trying to describe the non-sinfulness of something or someone (“So Aaron shall make atonement for the qodesh [place], because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and for all their sins,” Lev. 16:16 [emphasis mine]; “Joshua said, ‘You cannot serve Yahweh, for he is a qodesh God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins,’” Josh. 24:19 [emphasis mine]). So it is easy to see why the idea of “being qodesh” has become associated with “being non-sinful.”
We do not have room for a full word study here, so I would recommend looking into “holiness” (and its cognate term “sanctify”) with the help of a careful Bible dictionary. Listen to Mike’s podcasts on Leviticus, if possible. I would even recommend scanning through each use of “holy/sanctify” in the OT on your own. Here is what you will find: qodesh consistently relates to, or is used when describing, the ceremonial or ritualistic elements within Israel’s religion. “Holy” does not mean “non-sinful.” It means “special/sacred.” So the opposite of “holy” will not be “sinful,” but “profane”—something along the lines of normal, regular, or common (“Everyone who profanes [the Sabbath] shall surely be put to death,” Exod. 31:14).
So if God’s “holiness” is not directly related to the absence of sin, where did this brick come from? Who came up with the idea that God cannot be in the presence of evil? I am guessing here, but I think it developed over time as we tried to express how God was opposed to or against moral evil. When we began to allow the word “holy” to poke its nose into the tent as the operative word for describing God’s sinlessness (“Holy, Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty, Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see . . . perfect in power, in love, in purity”), it was not long before we had a full-fledged doctrine announcing that God can’t be in the presence of evil. But this simply wasn’t true. This brick is therefore not useful as part of our Big Story of the Bible. As it turns out, God can be in the presence of moral evil if he so decides to be. He can also decide if he does not want to be in the presence of sin. It is his choice.
God’s holiness demands that sin must always be punished
Again, I have always doubted that this was true, even as a child. God can do anything he wants, including punish sin or forgive it. If a human can do this, so can God. So this must just be bad preaching, I thought, or a rumor I’ve picked up. When I got into Bible college and seminary, however, the textbooks said differently:
“Although God’s punishment of sin does serve as a deterrent against further sinning and as a warning to those who observe it, this is not the primary reason why God punishes sin. The primary reason is that God’s righteousness demands it, so that he might be glorified in the universe that he has created” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan, 1994], 509).
“God being God, he not only may act to preserve his own honor, he must do so. He cannot simply disregard it. Thus, he cannot merely forgive or remit sin without punishing it. Nor is it enough for us to restore to God his due. There must be additional reparation. Only with some form of added compensation can the things that have been disturbed by sin be restored to equilibrium. Sin left unpunished would leave God’s economy out of order” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology [2nd ed; Baker, 1998], 815).
“…Moral offense entails a moral debt that must be paid. Therefore those who sin against God owe him either their own punishment, or some restitution or satisfaction for their transgression of his law. God’s justice demands such payment, but human beings cannot make satisfaction since they are guilty and are deserving of God’s punishment. Satisfaction can be made only by one who is innocent, so God himself makes this possible by the incarnation of Jesus Christ” (Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America [Minneapolis, 2011], 120.)
This sounds like philosophy to me, not theology, and not that there’s anything wrong with philosophy. But again, I think it is fair to ask whether the Bible helps us here. Did these writers discover in the story of the Bible that God cannot forgive sin without also punishing it? I do not think so, as then it would have been easy to simply cite where this happens, or where it is taught. The only quotation of these three that included a biblical argument along the way was in Grudem’s text, where he concluded his statement with a passage from Jeremiah: “‘I practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight,’ says the LORD” (9:24). I will let you judge whether this verse defends his argument; in my opinion it does not.
So if this idea does not come out of Scripture, where does this brick come from? Who started the rumor that God cannot forgive sin without also punishing it? I know that Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) is generally credited with the theology of “satisfaction,” or the idea that God’s honor was in need of repair because of human sin, the kind of repair that could not be satisfied by mere forgiveness of sin. But it would be out of step for the evangelical movement, as well as for these respected authors, to depend on a Medieval theologian for their view of God and the punishment of sin, or at least one would think. We have the tradition of going to the Bible to define our views.
I have been around the block numerous times with my Reformed friends about this issue, and I think I have come to understand why they resist believing that God could just forgive sin without punishing it. It has to do with adding, as I just did, the word just. Erickson described the apparent problem this way: “But, we must ask, is sin really serious if God can forgive without requiring some form of penalty or punishment?” (p. 838). There it is. If God forgives sin—or “just” forgives sin, whatever that means—this means God does not think the sin was all that serious. Erickson has put into words what I thought all along was just a bad rumor: forgivable sins cannot be taken seriously. That is why they are forgivable.
All I can say to this is you’ve got to be kidding (not a very scholarly response, I realize). The very idea behind forgiveness is being able to punish, to know that the other person deserves punishment—and then deciding not to punish. I am not trying to be difficult when I say that I am honestly confused by this brick. Jesus told us to be forgiving people, even beyond seeming respectability (cp. “Up to seven times?” “No, up to seventy times seven,” Matt. 18:21-22), and I feel we are going down a very dangerous path, an opposite direction from that of our Savior, when we believe that forgiven sin cannot be seriously-taken sin. I have long ago thrown this brick away, and would recommend you throw it away as well. It has no part on the Bible’s Big Story wall. Of course sin is serious. That is why forgiveness is serious.
The reaction I have had to this last paragraph has been fairly consistent among my friends. To close up our thinking about this brick, here is a rough sketch of how the conversation usually goes (I have filled out our arguments a bit, or made them more explanatory, for the sake of this blog):
Me: I don’t think you need to believe that God has to punish sin. I think he can forgive sin if he wants to, and I think that our theology about salvation would function just fine with a forgiving God.
Friend: Since you mention salvation—what about Jesus’ death? Why else would Jesus have died than to pay the punishment that God required for sin? It sounds like you are minimizing the meaning of the crucifixion.
Me: I’m not following. What does one thing have to do with the other?
Friend: I think we can rightfully assume that Jesus must have died for a very great reason, and I cannot think of a greater one than paying the punishment I deserved.
Me: I agree that Jesus died for a great reason. Please don’t presume that I think otherwise. But I have to leave the definition of great to God. Sometimes it feels like we are competing amongst ourselves in trying to come up with the “greatest” reason that Jesus could have died, and then going with that reason, fearing that if we settle for a less important reason we would somehow dishonor the meaning of the cross. I don’t think that’s a wise way to come up with the meaning of the crucifixion.
Friend: Fair enough. But here’s how Jesus’ death seems to tie into God’s need to punish sin: The greatest reason that Jesus could have died would be to accomplish that which, if he had not died, would consign me to hell. In other words, I think it is fair to say that Jesus died to accomplish the greatest possible thing that I can imagine, and the greatest possible thing I can imagine is making me fit for heaven through that death.
Me: Let me reword that to see if I understand you: We want to guard ourselves against any theology that would have people ending up in heaven without Jesus dying. So in that sense Jesus must have died to somehow make it possible for people to go to heaven. That’s what you mean by saying that Jesus died “for the greatest reason I can think of.”
Friend: Right. And since sin is the reason we deserve hell, it makes logical sense that Jesus’ death somehow dealt with our sin. Otherwise Jesus’ death would not have been due to the greatest possible reason.
Me: I agree that Jesus’ death must have somehow dealt with our sin. Scripture says as much, that he “died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). But I sense you take the “died for” to mean “died to take away the punishment for.”
Friend: We can get to that later. For now, follow my thinking: Since we know that God has already been in the business of forgiving sin in the OT, long before Jesus’ death (“forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” Exod. 34:7), Jesus’ death must have been for some other reason than forgiving sin.
Me: I totally agree. God was already forgiven people prior to Jesus dying, so the effect of Jesus’ death could not have been to forgive our moral sins.
Friend: And here is where God “having to punish sin” comes in. The only option left for Jesus dying would be to take on the punishment of sin in himself.
Me: I see where you’re going. So in this way, Jesus’ death is still necessary to get humans to heaven (“the greatest possible thing”) even while forgiveness was going on before the cross.
Friend: Right. So do you believe that God had to punish sin, as accomplished in the death of Jesus, and that God cannot just forgive sin?
Me: No. While what you did was interesting, the steps were not logically necessary. Plus, you are assuming too many things that I don’t think are true.
Friend: Like what?
Me: Five things come to mind: 1) I do not believe that Jesus had to die for a “great” reason in my understanding, nor even his. He may have died for no understandable reason at all, in his own mind, but just because the Father wanted him to. That may have been the “great” reason Jesus died. I have to leave that option open. 2) I do not think Jesus died to get people out of hell, nor into heaven. I believe people could be right with God before Jesus died, and so the effect of Jesus’ death could not have been to make them righteous. 3) I do not believe that my unpaid for sin sends me to hell, nor that forgiven sin allows me to go to heaven. My afterlife is not dependent on issues of sin management. 4) I believe that Jesus’ death dealt with our sin, but I see him doing what a priest did in the OT—handling sin or uncleanness in a ritualistic sense—in the end sanctifying us so that we could approach God’s presence in worship (think of the veil tearing). Since we don’t believe that priests made people righteous in the OT, it follows that Jesus’ priestly work was not making people righteous while on the cross. 5) I don’t think that God “having to punish sin” is therefore anywhere on the radar map of what we have just talked about, including the purpose of Jesus’ death. I feel like you are arguing backwards, taking your specific view of the cross and interpreting the entire story of the Bible through it.
Friend: Well, you haven’t convinced me either. I just think that if God could have forgiven our sin without Jesus dying, he would have. I guess we’ll agree to disagree.
God instituted OT sacrifices to teach of his hatred toward sin:
Evangelicals take a great interest in the subject of sacrifice in the Bible, but I find it interesting that we tend to think through the subject backwards. By this I mean that we don’t start where sacrifice starts—watching the ritual played out in pre-biblical Mesopotamia—but instead dwell on the sacrificial meaning of Jesus’ death and only then work our way back into such books as Exodus and Leviticus. If that sounds too bold an assertion, try this experiment the next time you go to church: lean over and ask your friend what sacrifice meant in the Bible. Then compare their answer to the article on sacrifice in The Dictionary of the Ancient Near East (University of PA Press, 2000). I’m not saying which answer is right…I am merely saying that the difference between these two answers exposes a more serious problem. We are approaching the subject of sacrifice from two different directions.
So what was sacrifice in the days of the Bible, and what did it mean? Who started it? We really know so very little of this ancient practice, largely because, well, it is just so very old. We are told that humans were sacrificing as early as Genesis 4 (Cain and Abel), but we are not told why. We are not necessarily told that God “instituted” sacrifice any more than he invented the harp and flute (Gen. 4:21) or the process of smelting bronze and iron (Gen. 4:22). I know we want to give sacrifice meaning, especially religious meaning, but we may be moving too fast. After Genesis 4 it will be hundreds/thousands of years and possibly millions of sacrifices before Moses is even born. From there, many of the whens and whys and hows associated with sacrifice in Torah are still left unanswered, and any ability to psychoanalyze the mind of the worshipper during sacrifice is simply not afforded us. In my reading, I get the sense that the ancient historian would give his left arm to be able walk up to the prehistoric sacrificer and ask, “Why are you doing this?”
Yet here is my opinion for what it is worth. In reading the Bible left-to-right, it appears that sacrifice was an early invention of mankind, possibly being associated with early “religion,” though that word reflects a rather modern construct. The individual participated in sacrifice as a communal event, such as during a feast, and in this sense it was not attached to individual belief as much as to some kind of public social performance. Here is how one historian understood the practice: “What mattered most was the expected traditional gesture, made in the right way, at the right time. For the population at large, traditional rituals reinforced confidence in the belief that the security of the community required the attention of the gods. Communal rituals [such as sacrifice] represented the group acting as one and invited the gods to participate in human endeavor. Conversely, failure to perform a communal ritual properly could put the entire community at risk” (Susan Cole, “Greek Religion,” from A Handbook Of Ancient Religion [Cambridge U Press, 2007], 276-7).
Though Cole is describing ancient Greek ritual tradition (going back as far as the 8th century B.C.), I think she is putting into words how Abraham (and maybe even Cain and Abel) would have interpreted sacrifice. It was a public means of communing with a deity, a human way of bridging the gap between the physical and spiritual worlds. Whether the deity would “accept” the sacrifice, or hear the plea of the sacrificer, was a difficult matter to determine. There were no guarantees. Sacrifices connected the community with the gods, but it also reiterated a kind of expected social order in which implied responsibilities existed between the humans and the gods. The supplicant constantly faced the possibility that he had offended his god in the smallest of matters (had he pronounced his god’s name correctly? was the fruit properly ripe?), and so sacrifices were often done in an over-the-top style in hopes that it would “take.” Animal sacrifice was considered the most impressive means of gaining the attention of a god, though vegetables or grains were more common (and certainly more affordable if the entire sacrifice was to be burnt away). The special requirements for participation in sacrifice (gender, status, kinship, profession, etc.) depended upon local interpretation of the god’s requirements, usually interpreted by the king or priest.
So if this is how scholars generally handle the subject of ancient sacrifice, what about our brick? Did God institute OT sacrifices to teach of his hatred for sin? I am going to side with the secular historian on this one and say no. I do not sense that God “instituted” sacrifice at all, but that it developed as a natural response among humans as we tried to commune with the world above us. It would be like asking who started the tradition of folding our hands and closing our eyes when we prayed as children. God certainly didn’t “tell” us to do this, but we somewhere along the way decided that it was a proper posture for talking to God (or to keep the kids’ hands to themselves in junior church). So why did individuals in the OT sacrifice? The biblical record shows that altars were constructed with regularity, whether by Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen 12:6 ff.; 13:18; 22:9), Isaac (Gen 26:25), Jacob (Gen 33:20; 35:1-7), Moses (Exod 17:15), Joshua (Josh 8:30 f.; cf. Deut 27:5), Gideon (Jdg 6:24 ff.), or David (2 Sam 24:18-25). I believe that these individuals were simply following cultural norm, whether living before or after Moses. This view is not uncommon among evangelical authors, by the way. Daniel Block argues that most of the categories of sacrifice found in Leviticus 1-5 are attested to outside of Israel, including the zebah (sacrifice, sacrificial meals), selamim (peace/well-being offerings), ola (whole burnt offerings), and mincha (gift, grain/cereal offerings) (“Other Religions in Old Testament Theology,” in Biblical Faith and Other Religions: An Evangelical Assessment [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004] 43-78).
But what about sin? When God instructed Moses on the practice of sacrifice at Sinai, was this in any sense due to His desire to teach Israel about the seriousness of moral sin, or his hatred of it? As much as I would like to say Yes to this idea—as it makes sense if I don’t think about it too deeply—I simply cannot find enough evidence to do so, and in fact find strong evidence in the opposite direction. (If the question was changed to “Did God instruct Moses within Torah about the seriousness of sin, and his hatred of it?” then the answer would be an easy yes; so notice that the issue here concerns sacrifice, not Torah.) See if my proposal works for you: If sacrifice had been designed to teach the seriousness of sin, then the rules on sacrifice would have looked much different than they do—namely, the bigger the sin, the bigger the sacrifice. But that is not what we find. The biggest sins of all (let’s say murder) had no sacrificial equivalent. So something else must have been going on with the meaning of sacrifice when it came to Moses’ teaching. We will deal with that when looking at the next brick. For now, toss this one aside.
If you would like to respond to this post, I welcome your emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will certainly reply.