Limited Views on Atonement

Lessons in Hebrews 9


Heb. 9:15; Gen. 15:6–21; Jer. 34:8–22; Eph. 3:14–19; Heb. 7:27; Heb. 10:10; Heb. 9:22–28.


Hebrews makes clear that the substitutionary death of Jesus is necessary to save us, because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22, NRSV). Blood stands for the life of the substitute.


The demand that the transgressor die was fulfilled by Jesus, who died once for all as an infinite sacrifice for all humanity. The Old Testament delineates more than one kind of offering. Leviticus enumerates burnt offerings for atonement, grain offerings in gratitude for God’s provision, fellowship offerings for communal meals with family and friends, sin offerings for the redemption of sin in cases of accidental sins, and reparation offerings for cases of restitution (see Leviticus 1–6). But, as Paul points out, these sacrifices, including those offered on the Day of Atonement, were ultimately ineffective because they could never take away sins (Heb. 10:1–4).


Only the “precious blood of Christ,” to which all these sacrifices pointed, could do that (Heb. 9:14, 1 Pet. 1:19).


Hebrews 7 talks about Melchizedek who was superior to the Aaronic line of priests. Consequently, Christ is superior to the Levitical priesthood because He is a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.


Hebrews 8 talks about the superiority of the second covenant, whose efficacy is further discussed in Hebrews 9:15. The first covenant, established with the Levites, was defective and could not remove sins (Heb. 7:11; Heb. 9:9).


In Hebrews 9, Paul also speaks of Christ’s superior sacrifice. Why is it superior?


First, His offering is not applied in the earthly sanctuary but in the heavenly one (Heb. 9:23, 24).


Second, the blood that He offers is not from an animal but is His own blood (Heb. 9:25, 26). Finally, the sacrifice of Christ is uniquely singular (Heb. 9:12, 28, NRSV, “once for all”) and effective (Heb. 9:14, NRSV, “purify our conscience”; Heb. 10:14, NRSV, “perfected for all time”) in contrast to the animal sacrifices (Heb. 10:1, 4).


The Dilemma of the Altar of Incense in the Most Holy: Hebrews 9 poses what appears to be a discrepancy. In verses 3 and 4 it says: “Behind the second curtain was a tent called the Holy of Holies. In it stood the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold” (NRSV). This text seems at odds with Exodus 30:6, “You shall place it [the altar of incense] in front of the curtain” (NRSV), which indicates that the altar of incense was not in the Most Holy apartment, but in the Holy Place, together with the lampstand and the table with the consecrated bread. At this altar of incense, Aaron was supposed to burn incense “every morning” (Exod. 30:7, NRSV). Similarly, other passages in the Pentateuch place the altar of incense in the Holy Place, not in the Most Holy Place (Exod. 40:5, 26).


So, why does Paul place the golden altar of incense in the Most Holy Place? How do we account for this apparent anomaly?


Paul might have been thinking along these lines: “Although positioned in the main hall (i.e., the holy place), the altar of incense (compare Exod. 30:1–10; 1 Chron. 28:18) ‘belonged to the debir’ (the Most Holy Place). It appears that the ritual burning of incense performed upon this altar had a direct effect on the Most Holy Place where God manifested His presence between the cherubim. After all, the smoke of incense most likely suffused the inner room. This may explain why Hebrews places the altar of incense in the Most Holy Place (Heb. 9:4).”—The SDA International Bible Commentary, entry on Hebrews 9:4.


Also it is important to note that in the Greek the author of Hebrews does not actually state that the altar of incense stood in the second apartment; only that the Most Holy “had” the altar. The word translated “had” (NKJV) may be rendered “contained,” but this is not its only or necessary meaning.“


The connection between the altar and the most holy place here indicated may be that its function was closely connected with the most holy place. The incense offered daily on this altar was directed to the mercy seat in the most holy. There God manifested His presence between the cherubim, and as the incense ascended with the prayers of the worshipers, it filled the most holy place as well as the holy. The veil that separated the two apartments did not extend to the ceiling but reached only partway. Thus incense could be offered in the holy place—the only place where ordinary priests might enter—and yet reach the second apartment, the place to which it was directed.”—The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 7, p. 449.


Also the word used by Paul for the “altar” (thymiatērion) came to be used in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament to refer to the censer by itself (2 Chron. 26:19; Ezek. 8:11). The high priest carried this censer with him into the Most Holy Place on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:12).


In any case, Paul’s focus does not seem to be so much on the rooms and furniture, since verse 5 says: “Of these things we cannot speak now in detail.” This verse implies that more important than the furniture and its placement is the point that Paul is making by referring to them, namely, the superiority of Christ’s sacrifice.“


The incense, ascending with the prayers of Israel, represents the merits and intercession of Christ, His perfect righteousness, which through faith is imputed to His people, and which can alone make the worship of sinful beings acceptable to God. Before the veil of the most holy place was an altar of perpetual intercession, before the holy, an altar of continual atonement. By blood and by incense God was to be approached—symbols pointing to the great Mediator, through whom sinners may approach Jehovah, and through whom alone mercy and salvation can be granted to the repentant, believing soul.”—Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 353.


Substitutionary Death of Christ: Substitution and satisfaction are terms that have aroused a lot of criticism. Why would God need some kind of substitution for the penalty of humanity’s sins? What does substitution mean? Substitution in this context means that someone takes the place of someone else in order to bear that person’s punishment for the purpose of saving him or her.


As to the second term, satisfaction, we must ask, What needed to be satisfied? Does the Bible support the concept of substitutionary death with the idea of the Substitution satisfying the claims of the law? Substitution occurs in the case of Abraham. When he was on Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son Isaac, “Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Gen. 22:13, NRSV; emphasis added). In the Passover narrative, life was spared by substitution. But the only firstborn males spared were those whose families sacrificed a lamb and put its blood on the doorposts (Exod. 12:7, 13). The whole sacrificial system was based on substitution. Because the penalty for sin is death, the substitute animal was killed, thereby sparing the sinner’s life (Lev. 17:11).


Turning to the New Testament, we find that John the Baptist identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NRSV; emphasis added). Paul declared: “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7, ESV). In the letter to the Ephesians, this same Paul is unambiguous: “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2, NRSV; emphasis added). In Romans, Paul states: “while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8, NRSV; emphasis added).


The Bible is full of substitution and sin-bearing language. (For more examples, see Isa. 53:12; Mark 10:45; 2 Cor. 5:14; 1 Tim. 2:6; Heb. 9:28; 1 Pet. 2:24.) Hebrews crowns this topic with the indisputable, though often ignored, statement that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22, NRSV). What blood? It cannot be the blood of animals, because “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4, NRSV). Thus, it has to be the blood, the life, of Christ.


Jesus bore our sins and died for us. Thus, we must not view Christ as a mere third party, an individual separated from God and humanity. Such a view would brutally distort the understanding of atonement. Christ would be portrayed then as Someone simply pacifying the Father. God, in turn, would be shown as punishing the innocent Jesus, just so that we guilty people could survive. The broken unity between the Father and the Son comes to full view in Paul’s great reconciliation statement in which the Father takes action through the Son: “All this [new creation in Christ] is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18, NRSV).


Our Substitute was neither Christ alone, nor God alone, but God in Christ, who was both God and man. God in Christ substituted Himself for us. Thus, the objections to a substitutionary atonement disappear. There is nothing immoral (lawbreaking) here, because the Substitute for the law breakers is the Lawmaker, who only could make atonement for transgression. The Cross is no transactional bargain with the devil. But as God, Christ reconciled us to Himself to “satisfy the claims of the broken law, and thus He [Christ] bridges the gulf which sin has made.”—Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, book 1, p. 341.


In the context of Christ’s substitution, consider the refrain of the hymn entitled “And Can It Be?” (The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, no. 198):


“Amazing love! How can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” What does this sentiment mean to you personally?


Why is substitution so central to the whole plan of salvation? What does it tell us about how bad sin is that it took the self-sacrifice of “God in Christ” in order to solve the problem and offer us the hope of eternal life?


Now more on this issue of “God in Christ, The Father, in Christ, substituted Himself for us”. Nothing can be as clearer to me as the following:


The price for redemption paid by them both


Zechariah 6:13 Even he shall build the temple of the LORD; and he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest upon his throne: and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.


Now, as surely as the counsel was between them both, so was the paying of the price:


“As the disciples comprehended it, as their perception took hold of God’s divine compassion, they realized that there is a sense in which the sufferings of the Son were the sufferings of the Father. From eternity there was a complete unity between the Father and the Son. They were two, yet little short of being identical; two in individuality, yet one in spirit, and heart, and character. {YI December 16, 1897, par. 5}


That this redemption might be ours, God withheld not even the sacrifice of Himself. He gave Himself in His Son. The Father suffered with Christ in all His humiliation and agony. He suffered as He saw the Son of His love despised and rejected by those whom He came to elevate, ennoble, and save. He saw Him hanging upon the cross, mocked and jeered by the passers-by, and He hid as it were His face from Him. He saw Christ bearing the sin of the world, and dying in the sinner’s stead. The human heart knows the love of a parent for his child. We know what a mother’s love will do and suffer for her beloved one. But never can the heart of man fathom the depths of God’s self-sacrifice.  {AUCR, June 1, 1900 par. 11}


2 Corinthians 5:19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.


Note above the paying of the debt of sin involved the Father too. It is only through simplistic definition of the penalty and price of sin that we conclude that Christ alone paid the penalty while the Father looked on


I wish to say that no human language could be framed to give a just conception of the fullness of the love of God, even the Infinite God, [who] suffered in His Son; and nothing He could express in His words or actions in doing and suffering could possibly exaggerate the conception of the grace of that great love of God wherewith He hath loved us. Now, what is required of every child of God? To search diligently “and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice” [Matthew 9:13]. Will all [respond] individually who claim to believe in Christ as their personal Saviour–all who truly believe Christ has developed the same in His individual members of His body, to multiply the similitude of His character in them?  {16MR 193.1}


The cross! the cross! it is set up that we may understand and know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. It tells us of the depth and breadth of infinite love, the greatness of the Father’s love. It reveals the astonishing truth that God the Father gave Himself in His Son, that He might have the joy of receiving back the sheep that was lost.  {17MR 214.2}


(2 Corinthians 5:19; Philippians 2:6.) Satan Uprooted From Affections of the Universe.–In carrying out his enmity to Christ until He hung upon the cross of Calvary, with wounded, bruised body and broken heart, Satan completely uprooted himself from the affections of the universe. It was then seen that God had in His Son denied Himself, giving Himself for the sins of the world, because He loved mankind. The Creator was revealed in the Son of the infinite God. Here the question, “Can there be self-denial with God?” was forever answered. Christ was God, and condescending to be made flesh, He assumed humanity and became obedient unto death, that He might undergo infinite sacrifice (MS 50, 1900).


God has measured how much it cost to save man. This salvation was accomplished only by the sacrifice of Himself in His Son. “God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Earthly parents love their children. How then did God feel when the Son of His love was despised by those whom He came to elevate and ennoble and save? He saw Him dying on the cross, mocked at and jeered at by the passers-by, and He hid as it were His face from Him. Christ was bearing the sin of the whole world, and dying in the sinner’s stead. Exalt the God of heaven, you who can realize the depth of His self-sacrifice; for He suffered with His Son.  {ST, January 27, 1898 par. 13}


When man, beguiled by Satan, disobeyed the divine law, God could not, even to save the lost race, change that law. God is love; His law is an expression of His character. To change His law would be to deny Himself; it would overthrow those principles with which are bound up the well-being of the whole universe. But in order to save the sinner, the Creator sacrificed Himself. The Father suffered in His Son. The measure of God’s love is Christ. The Saviour’s sacrifice was not to create in God a love that had not before existed; but it was the expression of a love that had not been appreciated or understood.  {BTS, February 1, 1908 par. 1}


Limited views of the Atonement


Ellen White was led to see the results of “limited views of the atonement.” Some of these results included:


(1) A limited sense of what Christ suffered on Calvary, linking His agony to physical pain only.


(2) A limited sense of how the Father was involved in the agony of Calvary, not comprehending that God’s wrath expressed in His withdrawal of His immediate presence was the ultimate “price of redemption.”


(3) A limited sense of how Christ’s life and death together “were earning the right” for Jesus to become humanity’s High Priest.


(4) A limited sense of how far-reaching Christ’s atonement was in that it embraced everyone who has ever lived, this limited sense caused by the presupposition that God’s sovereignty has chosen both the special “elect” and those predestined to burn in an eternal hell-fire.


(5) A limited sense of the “cost” of what God “gave” (John 3:16) in the death of Jesus by not recognizing that Jesus did not resume all of His former prerogatives, that He indeed “gave” Himself to the human race, to forever identify as a human with the human race—He was forever limited to time and space.


(6) A limited sense of what Christ “satisfied” on Calvary in not recognizing that He died to give sinners a “second probation … that they might return to their loyalty and keep God’s commandments,” not that He died so that obedience to God’s law was unnecessary.


(7) A limited sense of the “atonement” by confining the benefits to justification only, not grasping that the atonement was a “divine remedy for the cure of transgression and the restoration of spiritual health,” not sensing that it provided the means “by which the righteousness of Christ may be not only upon us but in our hearts and characters.”


(8) A limited sense of the depth in Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why? …” whenever a person believes in the immortal soul error, not realizing that His hour of death was that which all sinners will experience in their “second” death after the judgment. Nobody on this planet except Christ has really died, those who have “passed on” are only sleeping, awaiting the Life Giver’s call; Jesus felt the final agony of sinners who realize what they have rejected. Further, Jesus paid the “penalty of sin” thus proving that Satan was wrong when he said, “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4).


(9) A limited sense of sin in that most Christians have no idea of the universal implication of sin on this earth and how it affects the well-being of the universe.


(10) A limited sense of how God plans, because of the atonement, to “place things on an eternal basis of security,” a plan that involves an executive review including angels prior to the Second Advent of all people who have ever lived, and then a peer review conducted by the redeemed between the two resurrections (John 5:29).


From the quotes above it seems clear to me that the penalty of sin was paid by the Father through the son. Both of them paid it. The question to us then should be, at what point did the Father stop paying it and left the son to pay it only, I believe none. The divine sundering was the climax of that penalty. Something was torn from the Father and the Son. This was the great depth of the payment. Jesus lying lifeless in the tomb then cannot be the paying of the debt. It means more than that. I confess there is still a lot of limited views on what’s Atonement. I included, we are still playing church while professing to be doing a great work. Daily debating while angels which are Holy are looking into this subject with great intensity and anxiety for our own salvation while we are so carefree



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