"According to the law, all things are cleansed with blood … but if the blood of lambs could have truly cleansed those who offered them, the people would have stopped making sacrifices. Now Jesus died once, because he has truly cleansed those who believe." (Heb.9-10, paraphrase).
For a long time now I have wanted to write something on the nature of atonement. Most Christians seem to think that the primary thing Jesus' death accomplished was to in some way have born God's wrath and the punishment that we deserved, because somebody had to be punished and He volunteered to take our place. Unfortunately, what people fail to realize is that as popular as this idea might be, and as shocking this this next statement might be, it is almost impossible to find this theory of penal substitution in Scripture. We certainly have no model of such a thing in our culture, despite that fact that this metaphor of atonement is taken from our modern judicial system (rather than the bible). In fact, if such an event occurred, we would call it a miscarriage of justice and demand that the true guilty party be apprehended immediately. No such transfer of sentence even makes sense to us.
Nor would it have made any sense to Jews in the first century, because that is not how they thought about sacrifice. If you read the laws given to Moses regarding sin offerings and guilt offerings, they have nothing to do with punishing a lamb instead of a person. Rather, it was seen as an act of cleansing — exchanging the innocence of the lamb for the sin of the person. They would lay their hands on a goat, symbolically transferring — not just the guilt — the sin of the person onto the goat, which was then sent away to die. Then they would take the blood of an innocent lamb (without spot or blemish) and sprinkle it on the person(s) which symbolized the transfer of the lamb's innocence to them. The person and the animals swapped sin and innocence. That was how they were atoned for. No one thought of the lamb as being punished or taking God's wrath. It just absorbed the sin. And due to the nature of sin, it died — instead of the person.
Now sacrifice is a little hard for our modern mind to grasp. Perhaps the best metaphor we could use today is that of a transfusion. Suppose I have an incurable disease of the blood that is killing me. Then Jesus comes and says, I'll trade you my blood for yours. The doctors plug in the I.V. tubes and pump my blood into him and his blood into me. I am saved from certain death, and he is going to die instead of me. That is what Jesus did on the cross! That is why Paul talks about our sin being nailed to the cross, that Jesus became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God. This is the image that the writer of Hebrews has in mind when he talks about how Jesus' death cleanses us from all sin.
Punishing someone else for my sin still doesn't do a thing to rescue me from the sin itself. But cleansing my body and soul of sin not only liberates me from sin, it saves me from the consequences of having sin in my soul. And this model of atonement actually makes sense!
And what grace! That God in Christ would offer to take our diseased matter into himself so that we could be free of it! He took our sin, and in his death he took it to hell where he left it forever, and then he came out victorious and alive, to finish the work in us that He had begun. What an amazing God we have! What incredible suffering He went through to cleanse my soul!
I cannot help but pray with David, "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin … wash me and I shall be whiter than snow … create in me a clean heart, O God!" (Ps.51).
( I realize I have just stirred up a lot of people and that it would take a book to fully defend what I just wrote here. But I believe it's true and that it needs to be said. It's implications for how we grasp the love of God and the Father's role in atonement are absolutely huge. )