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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

I Desire Mercy

The Atonement of Christ is a key component of Christian theology. No Atonement, no Christianity. The claim of Scripture is that "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures" (1 Cor 15:3) (part of Paul's fundamental gospel). The blood of Christ is "a propitiation", an appeasement of God's righteous wrath toward sinners (Rom 3:25). We aren't merely justified by God because He's nice (read "gracious"); we are justified "by His blood" (Rom 5:9) "In Him we have redemption through His blood" (Eph 1:7). A good portion of the book of Hebrews is dedicated to the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice on our behalf.
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Heb 9:13-14)
Scripture is abundantly clear that Christ died on the cross for our sins to save us from God's wrath. The Bible calls His act a "sacrifice" (Eph 5:2; Heb 9:26; Heb 10:12) -- a sacrifice "to God", "of Himself", and "for sins".

Having established this clearly and repeatedly, it appears that we have a problem. You see, Jesus disagreed.
"Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Matt 9:13)
Well, now, this looks like we've arrived at an actual biblical contradiction. Paul argued at various times in various letters that Jesus sacrificed Himself for our sin and the author of Hebrews did so extensively, but Jesus appears to argue that God doesn't want sacrifice; God wants to show mercy. And, look, since Jesus is "the Truth" and Jesus is "the Word", Jesus is right and Paul is wrong; end of discussion.

This, of course, is problematic. If this is true -- Jesus was right and the rest of the New Testament is wrong -- then we can conclude a lot of things, but "The Bible is God's Word" is not one of them. Because in a major way the Bible is wrong. Paul's entire foundation of the Gospel is in error. As a matter of fact, most of Christendom is faulty. We'll just have to throw it out and go with something else.

Or could it be that we need to do what Jesus commanded? "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'" It would appear that these would be our only two possible choices. Delete Christianity or learn what it means (and that would require that it does not mean that God rejects sacrifice for sins). (Note: Others will surely offer alternative directions than these two. They all lead to either a negation of all the biblical claims of sacrifice, shed blood, the cost of sin and the like in one direction or universalism in the other.)

Let's note off the top that Jesus is pulling the phrase from the Old Testament. He didn't make it up. The prophet Hosea wrote, "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6) (Note: The ESV says "steadfast love"; the King James says "mercy". In the Hebrew, the two English concepts are meant to be similar -- "mercy" and "steadfast love" ... benevolence.) In the context, Hosea, speaking for the Lord, complains that Judah's love for Him was "like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away." (Hosea 6:4). As a result, "I have hewn them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of My mouth, and My judgment goes forth as the light." (Hosea 6:5) Why? "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice." That is, "I don't want you to respond to your sin problem by covering it; I want you to stop sinning."

In the first Book of Samuel the prophet tells the king, "Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams." (1 Sam 15:22). The phrase "To obey is better than sacrifice" is what Jesus is expressing in His quote here to the Pharisees. (Note the context of the Matthew 9 passage. The Pharisees were complaining that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. Thus, "I came not to call the righteous, but the sinners." (Matt 9:10-13).)

If Jesus is using quoting from these sources, then the meaning is somewhat different than "God doesn't want sacrifice", isn't it? What are the three (Hosea, Samuel, and Jesus) saying? Sacrifice was instituted by God. It was put in place as a remedy for sin. That is, sin required a remedy. And God instituted the shedding of blood as that remedy (because the wages of sin is death). Did God prefer the shedding of blood as a remedy? No, of course not. God preferred no sin. God preferred obedience. Obedience requires no remedy. And this is the message of Jesus in Matthew 9. "If you're healthy, you don't need a physician. God desires that you be healthy. Your problem is that you are not and a remedy is needed." The Pharisees, you see, preferred the alternative. "Sin all you want as long as you do the proper sacrifices to cover them." Like the attitude of some Catholic types who think "I can sin to my heart's content and then go to confession and be absolved." Jesus was suggesting that remedy was not the preferred option. Jesus was not declaring that God had been wrong in the Old Testament for instituting His method of dealing with sin or that Paul and the rest of the New Testament would be wrong in the future because they saw His act as fulfilling the necessary remedy for sin.

It is true that God would prefer that no sacrifice was necessary, that we would instead be benevolent, kind, loving, obedient -- "mercy". Since this is not the case, Jesus came to save sinners (Matt 9:13). Now, if you don't require such a remedy, then sacrifice is of no use to you. But, then, that would cause other problems with the reliability of Scripture (e.g., Rom 3:23; 1 John 1:8, 10), wouldn't it?

1 comment:

Stan said...

In case it wasn't clear, I am not saying, "Paul is literally true and Jesus is figuratively true." I'm saying both are true ... literally. Jesus was saying that God preferred that we be good rather than require sacrifices for sin. Jesus was saying that the mercy God desired was from us (just as the sacrifices are from us). We should show mercy (kindness, obedience) rather than not ... which would require a sacrifice for forgiveness. I'm arguing that Jesus meant exactly what He said and any attempt to turn it to "God wants to show mercy and not require a sacrifice" is not what Jesus said.

In case it wasn't clear.