Friday, March 10, 2006

Death or Death?

I at times accept thoughts and ideas without serious consideration if it is true or not. This happens because an idea may be so pervasive and “accepted” that it is never even thought to challenge it. For example, until the mid 1400’s and the arrival of Christopher Columbus, the idea that the world was flat was pervasive and broadly accepted as true. The same thing occurred with the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe until Galileo came along. People just did not consider if the world really was flat or if the Earth really was the center of the universe. I fear that the idea of Jesus becoming accountable for my sin on the cross has fallen into the same trap and it is so pervasive in most Christian denominations that considering if it is true is rarely done. A brother referred to this type of issue as a “spiritual blind spot”, an area of our understanding that may be flawed and simply not seen.

At this point you may be asking the question, “Why is this use of the word ‘bear’ for Jesus on the cross important?” To address that requires us to back up in the thought chain of Jesus literally bearing my sin as in becoming accountable for it on the cross. There is an idea referred to as “Penal Substitution” and is common to most Christian denominations. My understanding of this idea starts with God being a perfect and just God must punish all sin. In order to save us from our sin, God must find someone to punish in order to maintain his justness. That someone was Jesus on the cross and that God punished him there by placing on him all the sins of the world, as in he became literally accountable for my sin and that of the world on the cross. It is the punishment aspect for the use of the word “penal” and the replacement of Jesus being punished instead of me for the use of the word “substitution”. This idea can be called various things but is commonly expressed in statements such as, “Jesus died in my place on the cross.” You may chose to call this idea by some other name and it is the idea that needs to be the focus but for the sake of clarity I will refer to this idea in the remainder of this study as Penal Substitution.

Hopefully it is becoming clear why the definition of the word “bear” is so critical in building a solid foundation for our understanding and harmonization of scripture concerning Jesus and the events surrounding the cross. There is a very different understanding of Jesus bearing on the cross as “To be accountable for; assume” or “To carry from one place to another” as in removal. There is already a serious flaw in the Penal Substitution idea based on the previous analysis of “bear” in harmonization of very clear passages such as Ez 18:20 which state sin is not, and cannot, be transferred from person to person. The word “bear” has several possible meanings as demonstrated in the harmonization of Isa 53:4,11 and Mat 8:16,17, a case where Divine inspiration establishes the definition of “bear” to mean removal. But there is more to examining the idea of Penal Substitution and the next link to consider is the word “death”. Subtitution views Jesus’ physical death on the cross as punishment for sin by God and forms the next critical element of this idea.

It is without doubt that Jesus physically died on the cross. His death was prophesied in scripture, he spoke of it himself, and is necessary for God to show power over death through his resurrection which gives us all hope and faith in Jesus. The question is not did he die but did Jesus die in my place? In scripture when the word “death” is used it can refer to one of two possibilities: physical death or spiritual death. Our physical death is a direct consequence of Adam’s sin by being cast from the Garden as established in scripture:

Gen 3:22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever:
Gen 3:23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

And as stated by Paul in Romans, physical death had reigned over everyone as a consequence of Adam’s sin:

Rom 5:14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come.
Rom 5:15 But not as the offense, so also is the free gift. For if through the offense of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many.

We can see a reference to a spiritual death in a passage we looked at before:

Eze 18:20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.

This passage connects the “soul” and “death” and therefore, refers to the spiritual death of the individual committing sin as a direct result of their sin. We have other passages establishing this connection between sin and a spiritual death:

Rom 6:23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This context is spiritual established by the contrast between “eternal life” and “death”. Although the word “eternal” is not placed before death, the equality of the contrast between the two establishes that this is an “eternal death”, and there is only one death that is eternal which is a spiritual death. The punishment, the wage I have earned, for my sin is spiritual, eternal death. As Gen 3:22 and Rom 5:14 described, I, and all people after Adam, are going to die physically as a result of Adam’s sin and separation from the Tree of Life. The critical flaw with the idea that Jesus physically died in my place on the cross to be punished and satisfy God’s justness is that I, and all others, need salvation from a certain and eternal spiritual death as a result of our own sin. As seen in Ez 18:20, I am the one that dies spiritually and only me and that accountability cannot be transferred or shifted. Jesus’ death on the cross as if dying in my place a physical death places punishment for sin in the wrong realm, the physical realm, when scripture is quite clear that sin brings about a spiritual death.

At this point you may be asking, “What then did Jesus’ death on the cross do for me and my sin?” Recall again the study of Isa 53 and the Divine commentary established for it by Mat 8:16,17. The bearing of iniquity that Jesus performed on the cross was the removal of my sin, the carrying away of my sin from me. Again, that does not mean he was accountable for my sin, nor does it mean he was punished for my sin by God. What it demonstrates is that a perfect, unblemished, sinless, and willing sacrifice for sin is necessary and capable of carrying away my sin to be remembered no more by God, full and complete forgiveness of my sin. I understand you may be skeptically reading this exegesis at this point but there are more things that must be examined to fully frame the flaws and issues with this idea that Jesus died in my place on the cross. The next study will examine a very serious issue with asserting a perfectly righteous man, Jesus, was punished by God. I pray you give me the patience to consider this next step in the harmonization of this subject with scripture.

---Stephen Ledford