Sacrifice and Justification

Q – I happened on to your website as I searched the web for “sacrifice.” I wondered whether I could discover the origin of sacrifice. It clearly does NOT have its origin in God.

Jim – Well, I would contend that sacrifice actually did start with God. When Adam and Eve recognized their nakedness, they hid when they heard God coming. God asked them why they were hiding and they said that they were naked. You know the story. In the end, God covered their nakedness with animal skins.

“Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.” (Gen 3:21)

That act required the death of an animal. This is most interesting. God had just announced what theologians call the protoevangel – the first telling of the gospel.

“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15)

In other words, the seed of the woman will crush the head of the seed of the serpent. As soon as there was sin, the gospel was presented in its most primary form. Then, God not only supplied a covering for their nakedness (the realization of their condition being the result of their sinful disobedience) but He accomplished that covering by something dying in their place.

This was sacrificial in the truest sense. The only difference between this first animal sacrifice for sin and the later versions found in the Levitical law was that later sacrifices were made by men, toward God. In this first instance, God satisfied Himself by providing an adequate covering. And, of course, that’s precisely what happened at Calvary. God provided an adequate sacrifice in the person of His son, to cover the sins of His people.

So, when looking for the beginning of sacrifice, I would start there.

Q – Yahweh didn’t ask Cain or Abel to make offerings to Him. It was their own idea. Also, Yahweh didn’t say that He rejected Cain and his offering because it wasn’t a blood offering. Rather He told him that he would be acceptable if he did well and mastered sin.

Jim – True, the Bible does not tell us that God asked for Cain and Abel to make offerings. Yet, they both had the concept. We’re forced to ask where they learned that concept. If they made it up, how did they both come to the same conclusion that God would be pleased by their offerings? I am prone to believe that if they did not learn it from God in some direct fashion they learned it from their father and mother who would have related the initial sacrifice in the garden.

Or, to approach this another way, I cannot imagine that God would have had respect toward Abel’s offering if this were not something God actually desired. If the boys simply concocted the notion of offerings and imposed them on God, I expect that God would reject them both out of hand. The character of God is such that if a High Priest failed to bring a proper sacrifice, or proper incense, or did not wear the proper garments or enter the Holy of Holies on the proper day, God would kill the priest. So, given God’s predilection for only accepting that which He commands, I don’t know why God would accept an offering from either boy if this were merely their handiwork or imagination.

It’s also true that the Bible does not specifically say that God accepted Abel’s offering because it had blood in it. It’s just very difficult to ignore the contrasts and typology. We must ask why God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s. You seem to be implying that it was because Cain was less righteous than Abel and had not yet “mastered sin.”

Gen. 4:1-4 tells us that Cain tilled the ground and brought the fruit of the ground as an offering. But, Abel brought a lamb “and the fat thereof,” indicating that the lamb had been slain. So, we have one brother offering the work of his hands and the other brother bringing a sacrificed lamb. God accepted the latter and rejected the former. I find it hard to ignore that God accepted the slain lamb and rejected the fruit of the ground. Those images are too prominent in the rest of Scripture to be ignored here, at their first appearance.

Now, regarding God’s instruction to Abel, once his offering had been rejected, Cain became angry and his countenance fell. God responded –

“Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:6-7) NIV

It does not appear that God rejected Cain’s offering as the result of Cain’s anger or reaction. These things happened after the rejection and as a result of it. What I believe God was telling Cain here was that if he did not react appropriately to God’s object lesson, he would sin against God by his anger and displeasure. The sinful nature he inherited from his father was present, tempting him and wanting to control him. He would have to master that tendency, though we all know that he failed in that effort and killed his brother.

I liken this account to Jesus telling Peter that Satan had desired to have him and sift him like wheat (Luke 22:31-32). However, in Peter’s case he had Jesus’ prayer to cover him and keep him in the faith. I do not read Gen. 4:6-7 as God giving his reason for rejecting Cain’s offering. Rather, it is God warning Cain to react rightly to God’s sovereign choice. God was teaching an important object lesson, made all the plainer by the progressive revelation of later sacrifices.

It’s an important distinction. We are not made acceptable before God by doing well and mastering sin. We are made acceptable by the atoning work of Christ. We are then “accepted in the beloved.” (Eph. 1:6) To say that Cain was rejected because he did not master sin sets a rather dangerous theological precedent. We all come short in that regard. That’s why we have a Savior.

Q – Also consider:

Jeremiah 7:22-23 – For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But, this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice and I will be your God, and you will be my people; walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.”

Psalm 40:6 – Sacrifice and offerings You do not desire; but thou hast given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering thou have not required.

The heathen religions tried to appease their gods by offering sacrifice. Christ sacrificed Himself, not to appease the Father, but –

Titus 2:14 – …who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

II Corinthians 5:15 – And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

I Peter 2:24 – He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.

It seems pretty clear that He didn’t die in order to appease the wrath of a Holy God as a substitute so that we could avoid hell. Rather it was to provide His enabling grace so that we would be capable of pleasing Him.

Jim – If I understand your argument, you are saying that the verses from Jeremiah and the Psalms support the notion that the sacrifice of Christ was not meant to appease the anger or wrath of God. You are basing that on the notion that God did not desire actual sacrifice.

But, the passage in Jeremiah does not indicate that God never commanded any sacrifice at all. The point of the passage is that the House of Judah had turned to worshipping other gods and even if they added and heaped up burnt offerings it was not going to be sufficient to abate “Mine anger and my fury” (Jer. 7:20). In other words, burnt offerings and sacrificed were designed to accomplish that very thing. God’s rejection of such sacrifices would indeed result in God’s anger being poured out. God went on to tell Judah, via Jeremiah, that when He brought their forefathers out of Israel He did not initially command any such offerings, but they turned from Him anyway and followed the dictates of their wicked hearts.

So, the question must be asked, since Israel had a long history of engaging in the activity of burnt offerings and sacrifices, where did they get the notion that God required such things? Well, at Mt. Sinai, of course. God’s Law is absolutely chock-full of sin offerings, burnt offerings and blood sacrifices. But, according to the tenth chapter of the book of Hebrews, these offerings could never actually pay the penalty for sin or make the person performing animal sacrifices perfect. That was why they were done continually. They never accomplished actual redemption.

On the other hand, the verse from Psalms is merely David recognizing the very thing Jeremiah was recounting. God prefers obedience to sacrifice. But, whether it was God bringing Israel out of Egypt by His grace while requiring no sacrifice, or whether He was dealing with Israel under the Law, requiring continual sacrifice, the people proved themselves to be wholly incapable of following God’s decrees and commands. They remained stubborn, stiff-necked and rebellious.

So, it is absolutely true that God preferred obedience to sacrifice. All He received in return was disobedience. And, that’s why an ultimate sacrifice, sufficient to fully redeem God’s people was a necessity.

And, that brings us to your New Testament citations. Your conclusion: “It seems pretty clear that He didn’t die in order to appease the wrath of a Holy God as a substitute…” is short-sighted in that you have failed to interact with the verses that actually address the subject of God’s wrath and Christ’s work of substitutionary propitiation.

For instance, does the Bible teach that Jesus died as a substitute? Well, yes –

“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18)

“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor 5:21)

This is fundamental Christian teaching. Jesus was sinless, but was made sin on our behalf. Consequently, His righteousness is imputed to our account. That is the great exchange that lies at the heart of Christ’s sacrificial work. Though He was fully righteous and just, He suffered for the unjust in order to bring us to God by His death and resurrection. The atonement was entirely substitutionary. He had no sins for which to pay. He died on behalf of His people.

Next, can His death be said to have been truly propiatory? Well, yes again –

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” (Rom 3:23-26)

“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

Propitiation is indeed a heathen term, used to describe the activity of abating or appeasing the anger of the gods. Paul used that precise term to describe the work of Christ. Christ justified the ungodly in order that the redeemed would escape the wrath of God.

“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.” (Rom 5:8-9)

This declaration of Paul’s is diametrically opposite of your assertion that Jesus did not die to appease God’s wrath.

“For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not ye therefore partakers with them.” (Eph 5:5-7)

The sins of unsaved, disobedient people result in the wrath of God. But, we are not partakers with them. Why? We’ve been saved from wrath by the atoning work of Christ.

“And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess 1:10)

“For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.” (1 Thess 5:9-10)

I would say that your conclusion fails to take into account all of the evidence.

But honestly, it is the last line of your email that concerns and disturbs me most. You wrote:

“Rather it was to provide His enabling grace so that we would be capable of pleasing Him.”

You are contending that the death of Christ was not meant to satisfy the anger of God against sinners; that He was not dying as a substitute to bear the full weight of God’s fierce wrath on our behalf, but that He died merely to provide us with the ability to please God and become acceptable on that basis.

Sir, I do not know your religious background. I do not know what, if any, denomination you belong to. But, this is pure Romanism. This is standard Roman Catholic dogma. It is also 180 degrees wrong.

This position postulates that due to God’s provision of “enabling grace” individual sinners are imbued with the power to establish their own righteousness. God then, rather than accepting us on the grounds of Christ’s finished work, full payment and complete redemption, gives us eternal life on the basis of our own merit. It is common to hear proponents of this view argue that it is not truly “works righteousness” (which the Bible clearly denounces) because it is not our flesh independently that accomplishes our good deeds; it is the grace of God establishing our goodness through us. And, since it is God’s Spirit giving us the grace to please God, this brings glory to God and is not to be confused with self-righteous salvation.

This is wholly unbiblical.

The conflict is between these two basic concepts: synergism and monergism. Synergistic theology requires the participation of both parties – man and God – to accomplish salvation. Monergism insists that it is the work of one party – God alone – that fully and completely accomplishes the work of salvation.

In the book of Hebrews we read, concerning the work of Jesus at Calvary –

“But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; from henceforth expecting till his enemies be made his footstool. For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” (Heb 10:12-14)

Notice that the death of Christ is called a sacrifice, fulfilling the type and shadow of every sin offering performed prior to His incarnation. And, that one sacrifice satisfied the debt of sin forever. Consequently, those who are sanctified by that atoning work (the saints, the “hagios,” or “set apart” ones) are “perfected forever.”

In other words, our redemption, our sanctification (being made “holy” or “set apart”) and our eternal perfection are all accomplished fully by the “one sacrifice.”

Also, we are not justified before God by our good works, righteousness or ability to please God. Our justification is equally accomplished by Christ’s substitutionary atonement.

“Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:38-39)

“For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” (Rom 3:23-25)

“Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.” (Rom 5:9)

“Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” (Rom 8:30)

In Romans 8:30, God’s activity of predestination, calling and justification culminate in the glorification of those for whom Jesus died.

Let me conclude with this – what I believe has happened here, sir, is that you began with a “philosophical presupposition” – to wit: It was not necessary for Christ to sacrifice Himself as our substitute, it is only necessary that He enable us to live perfectly enough that we will be accepted by God. Then, you offered out-of-contexts verses, from which you have drawn inferences that seemed to support your foregone conclusion. That’s a popular method of mishandling the Scripture. But, the proper approach is to allow the Bible to say what it actually says and to align our thinking with it – not the other way around.

There is not one single word in the Bible anywhere that states that God gives men and women “enabling grace” – a phrase that is itself unknown to Scripture – whereby we are made capable of pleasing God. Rather, what you discover in the Bible repeatedly is that salvation is a Christocentric and Theocentric enterprise. It is God who saves, through the substitutionary atoning work of His Son. And, we are accepted before God on the basis of Christ’s obedient sacrifice – not by any goodness, activity, work or merit of our own.

I hope that my response has not appeared harsh or demeaning to you. I simply must stand against this sort of errant doctrine wherever it pops up. I would appeal to you to reconsider your position in light of the Scriptures. But, should you opt to remain committed to this approach, then we will have to respectfully agree to disagree.

Yours in Him,

Jim Mc.