This eight-part series introduces the new perspective of Realistic Substitution, which unties the knots and answers the questions that previous theories could not. It is the ancient Realistic view of Adam further developed and applied to Christ.
Old Testament Requirements for Atonement
As we have rightly looked to the Old Testament to define atonement, it is important to look there also for the requirements. The concept of substitutionary sacrifice for propitiating God’s wrath runs like blood throughout the body of Scripture. The idea originated when God sacrificed an animal to clothe the sinners in Eden with skins. As early as Cain and Abel, we find the principle that, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). God required an acceptable sacrificial victim:
Gen. 4:3-5a ESV
3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard…
As God prescribed in Lev. 10:3 (NKJV), “By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy…” Before we can bring any other offering, our sin before a holy God must be acknowledged and dealt with on His terms. Cain failed to do this, and his offering was not accepted. Abel brought an appropriate blood sacrifice, and his sins were atoned for.
God required that an animal intended for sacrifice had to be “without spot” or defect. This pointed to the perfect righteousness of the Christ who was to come.
Lev. 22:18-20 NKJV
19 you shall offer of your own free will a male without blemish from the cattle, from the sheep, or from the goats. 20 Whatever has a defect, you shall not offer, for it shall not be acceptable on your behalf.
1 Pet. 1:19 NKJV
19 but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.
Heb. 9:14 NKJV
14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
The animal had to be killed by bloodshed and not by any other method. As time went on and the Mosaic Law was instituted, God specified different animals to be sacrificed for different sins and occasions. All of this was prescribed by God and affirmed His holiness.
Sacrifice Not Accepted in Behalf of the Faithless
However, what is usually overlooked is that God also required the faith of the sinner who offered the sacrifice.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts…
Was Abel’s offering accepted because it was a blood sacrifice or because it was offered in faith? Abel’s faith was shown by his choice of a blood sacrifice. In the Mosaic Law, we also find faith necessary:
Lev. 1:4 ESV
He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.
This was the sinner’s act of faith, believing that his sins would be borne by the substitute. The sinner was not to consider what the animal cost him, as if paying a fine; rather, he was to consider what his sin cost the animal as it died in his place. If the sinner did not lay his hand on the head of the animal, then it would not “be accepted for him to make atonement for him,” regardless of intentions. Lest it be thought that God only required the hands and not the heart—the act and not the faith—let’s look at the following:
Mal. 1:10 ESV
Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand.
Isa. 1:13-18 ESV
13 Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. 15 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. 18 “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.
Are we to assume from these passages that they did not lack faith but only righteousness? James would remind us (2:18b), “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” As the context makes clear, their lack of faith was shown by their works. And without faith, no atonement would be made for their sins.
In every case in the Old Testament where atonement was made, it was for a sinner who did have faith. Not once was atonement made in behalf of a faithless sinner. Sacrifice and atonement are not synonymous. One may offer a sacrifice without faith, but it will not be accepted as atonement in behalf of the sinner.
Another Old Testament picture of faith that is, according to John 3, analogous to saving faith in Christ, is that of the bronze serpent on a pole that Moses lifted up in the wilderness, so that any who were bitten by the “fiery serpents” would be healed and live if they looked to it.
Num. 21:8-9 ESV
And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
If anyone was bitten and refused to look to the bronze serpent, he would die. Jesus compared His coming crucifixion to being lifted up like the bronze serpent:
John 3:14-15 ESV
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
There was more involved than just the eyes. They looked in faith to the serpent and we must look in faith to Christ—”looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).
Even in the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), where two goats were viewed as one sacrifice, offered for all the people, these continually reinforced principles would have served to bring home to the sinner his own sinfulness and worthiness of death. The law was an effective teacher of the fact that every man deserved to be put to death, and that every sacrificial victim accepted by God died in place of the sinner as a singular substitute.
It is no surprise, then, that in the Day of Atonement we also find the requisite act of faith on the part of each sinner.
Lev. 23:27-32a ESV
27 “Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the LORD. 28 And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. 29 For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. 30 And whoever does any work on that very day, that person I will destroy from among his people. 31 You shall not do any work. It is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. 32 It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves…”
Abstaining from food and from work were to be outward manifestations of an inner “afflicting”—a taking to heart of the sacrifice that was made for them and why.
Joel 2:12-13a ESV
12 “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13and rend your hearts and not your garments..”
James 4:9-10 KJV
9 Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. 10 Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.
God never commands a faithless repentance. These passages describe the kind of afflicting of the soul involved in a faithful repentance. God does not accept a sacrifice in behalf of those without faith. Those who did not afflict themselves on the Day of Atonement were to be cut off and destroyed. There would be no reconciliation, no propitiation, no restoration. Atonement, on the Day of Atonement, was suspended and conditioned on the behavioral manifestation of faith during that day.
Both Proper Sacrifice and Faith are Needed for Atonement
If one who had real faith mistakenly brought an animal for sacrifice that had an imperfection, his faith alone would not be enough to cause God to interpose the animal as substitute (atone for his sins). For that matter, if a faithful Israelite under the Mosaic Law brought a perfect animal of the wrong species—such as a lamb when a goat was required—God would reject his sacrifice. And, if a proper animal was brought by one without proper faith, the animal would not atone for his sins—even if it was sacrificed with that intention.
Atonement is not made ipso facto in behalf of anyone by the mere sacrifice of an acceptable substitute. God will not accept any sacrifice in behalf of any sinner as an atonement until His prerequisites are met. To atone for sins, it is not enough that Christ die on the cross. As divinely acceptable as His sacrifice was, God does not accept it in behalf of a sinner until that one comes to faith in Him. You may ask, Did not God show that He accepted Christ’s sacrifice by raising Him from the dead? Yes, but in what way did He accept it? Accepting a sacrifice is one thing, but accepting it in behalf of someone is another.
First, God accepted Christ’s sacrifice as a perfect sin sacrifice, fully acceptable because of Christ’s perfect righteousness and obedience, and because He endured the full wrath of God against sin. Being such a perfect sacrifice, there was nothing left for God to require of Him. But the requirement for faith on the part of the sinner still remains.
Second, God accepted Christ’s sacrifice in behalf of those who at that time believed and all those prior to the cross who believed. In the Old Testament, faith of the believer came long before the sacrifice of Christ. Now, the faith of the believer comes long after the sacrifice of Christ. Yet, in the Old Testament, their faith justified them as it justifies us. However, in the Old Testament, though they were justified, justice had not yet been accomplished for them.
In the Old Testament, God set aside His wrath temporarily, knowing the certainty that He would fulfill His promise to “provide Himself a Lamb,” in order to be in relationship with the Old Testament believers. His wrath is His will (and necessity) to punish sin, and while that still existed, provisions had already been made in His plan for the future propitiation; and so, God was able to overlook their sin and His wrath in the meantime. Though their sins were forgiven, it was done “on credit” so to speak—but it was on God’s good credit and not man’s, since what God has promised He will certainly bring to pass.
Sins were forgiven, but not forgotten or atoned for; men were justified on faith, but justice was not yet satisfied. The necessity for the cross of Christ remained. This is why it is written,
Rom. 3:25b-26 ESV
This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
The former sins (sins prior to the cross) required divine forbearance because there was no atonement or sacrifice of propitiation yet. At the present time (the cross and afterward) God showed Himself to be just, as well as the justifier. Prior to the cross, He was the justifier, but His justice had not yet been shown.
Whether in the Old or New Testaments, God saved men through faith.
Rom. 4:3 ESV
3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
Rom. 4:23-25 ESV
23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Though little was known of Christ in the Old Testament, the faith was in the same God of both testaments, and the righteousness that was accounted to those who believed was none other than the righteousness of the Christ who would one day come. But until this was accomplished within substantial reality, these saints of old remained captives of the demands of justice. This is why they did not immediately go to heaven when they died, but went instead to a compartment in sheol, separated from the place of torment by “a great gulf.” At some point after Christ’s death, He brought the good news to the righteous in sheol and took them to heaven.
In the case of believers today, we have been living in the Day of Atonement ever since Christ was crucified. All that awaits for atonement is for a sinner to look to Christ in faith—the true faith that carries with it a true repentance. Then, both prerequisites will have been satisfied and atonement will be made for his sin—the sacrifice of Christ will be accepted in behalf of that one and Christ will be interposed between the sinner and God. Only then will God’s wrath against that one be propitiated.
In the case of believers both before the cross and after, it is faith that saves—but a faith that depends on the work of the cross and a work of the cross that depends on the faith of the sinner.