Today, Tyler over at The Supernatural Gospel published a post about the part that sacrifice played in the Old Testament and how the idea of sacrifice should be understood by Christians today as members of the New Covenant of Jesus. His view of sacrifice is negative and summed up in his statement, “...just because something is in the Law doesn’t automatically make it good. Sacrifice is a case in point.” The general narrative of his post tracks sacrifice as something that God created as ”a concession to man’s guilt and bloodlust,” and that “sacrifice under the Old Covenant was to provide an outlet for human violence and to fulfill the human need to feel free of guilt and have a clear conscience.” Basically, ancient man felt guilty sometimes, and to appease that guilt he made sacrifices to deities. God, despite not needing sacrifices, chose to condescend to this base part of human nature and set up a sacrificial system in Israelite culture to give the Israelites a way to assuage their guilt. It was supposed to be a way to let us feel like we are right with God, because God loves us and wants us to be right with him.
Tyler connects this to the cross by saying that, “[t]he cross didn’t deal with God’s sin consciousness, as if he was hindered from relating with us because of sin. It dealt with our sin consciousness (Hebrews 10:1-3). It doesn’t free God from a need to punish; it frees us from a guilty conscience.” The cross was thus the perfect “liberating device” in showing humanity that they were already in good standing with God. Even when we killed His Son, Jesus, He still loved us. The God portrayed here seems to be a fluffy bundle of love, and the Bible as a history book that keeps pointing us towards that. But is that biblically accurate?
As a fellow Christian, I aim to be gentle in critiquing Tyler’s post. His message that God loves us and sent His Son to die for us (for our benefit) is biblical and glorious. However, I strongly disagree with Tyler's presentation of sacrifice, not just because I think that his biblical exegesis (how he interprets the text) is deficient, but also because his interpretation of the sacrificial significance of the cross, the most pivotal event in human and world history, is biblically off the mark. This post aims to give a more rounded view of the biblical idea of sacrifice, how it relates to God, and how the OT practice of sacrifice is fulfilled in the propitiatory death of Jesus.
First off, let’s avoid a reductionistic view of sacrifice. There are many different types of sacrifices in the OT, including but not limited to, “the burnt offering, the grain offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the ordination offering, and the peace offering” (Lev. 7:37). Not all of these are restitutive; some are for thanksgiving and others are for ceremonial cleanliness. Tyler is right in saying that God doesn’t need our sacrifices (Job 22:2; Ps. 50:8-12; Acts 17: 24-25), but I want to add that God likes them. One of the repeated phrases in Numbers when talking about sacrifices is “an aroma pleasing to the Lord” (15:3, 7, 10, 13-14, 24, 18:17, 28:2, 6, 8, 13, 24, 27, 29:2, 6, 8, 13, 36). When King David prays to thank God for His blessings, he sacrifices “1,000 bulls, 1,000 rams, and 1,000 lambs, with their drink offerings” (1 Chron. 29:21) and blesses the Lord Almighty, along with all Israel. And God likes it. When Solomon dedicates the temple (1Kg. 8), he sacrifices even more animals, and God likes it. So I have trouble with Tyler’s statement that “God never wanted our sacrifices, even under the Old Covenant.” God absolutely wanted our sacrifices: He likes them. So keep in mind that not all sacrifice is atonement for sin.
But some is. When I talk about "sacrifice" now, I am specifically referring to the type that is meant as a payment for sin. Theologians call this "penal substitutionary atonement," and it means that Christ was sacrificed and suffered in our place and absorbed the divine wrath meant for our sins. Human sin is an offense against God and God alone (Ps. 51:4), so much so that the character and nature of God defines what sin is and is not.
God, as an infinite being, has an infinite number of positive attributes, including infinite wisdom, justice, and holiness. When he says something it comes to pass, and when he moves to act that action is accomplished. When he gives Israel a command or a law (or The Law), it is infinitely pure, perfect, and righteous and any infraction against it is infinitely grievous. In addition, Jesus (Matt. 5:17-18) and David (all of Ps. 119, for starters) both affirm the goodness of the Law, so I have trouble with Tyler’s statement that “just because something is in the Law doesn’t automatically make it good.” Everything that comes from the hand of God is good (Gen 18:25; Ps 71:19). Remember, too, that this is the nation to which God proclaimed:
“You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:4-6).
Sacrifice was a response of gratitude to work that God had both already accomplished and was continuing to perform, namely the choosing of a sinful people to be His holy nation. It was a reminder to the nation of Israel that their sin was terrible; that offending an infinitely holy God is deserving of infinite wrath. Animals had to be killed continually (Num. 28:3) because Israel forgot daily. But God, ever gracious and merciful, was waiting until the time was right to submit Himself to the constraints of time and space, pain and suffering, for the sake of His chosen people.
Tyler is right when he says that the animal sacrifices of the OT were eternally ineffective. The blood of bulls and goats can never take away sin (Heb. 10:4). What God set up as a physical ceremony was supposed to prompt a spiritual softening of the heart and a love for God (1 Sam. 15:22; Prov. 21:3; Isa. 1:11-13, 16, 17; Jer. 7:22, 23; Mic. 6:6-8). It is good, therefore, that animal sacrifice is not the end of the story, but rather a type (an event in history that points forward to a greater reality) of Christ.
Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross is the greatest expression of love in human history (Rom 5:8).
Christ took the Father’s wrath for us, in our place (1 Jn 2:2, 4:10), and this penal substitutionary atonement is effective in reconciling us to God (2 Cor. 5:18, 19; Col. 1:20). This reconciliation is necessary because we sin and God hates sin, as I have pointed out above. When Tyler says that “[t]he cross didn’t deal with God’s sin consciousness, as if he was hindered from relating with us because of sin,” he is in direct contradiction to what Paul makes very clear in Romans, namely that Christ’s blood sacrifice was necessary in order for God to be just in forbearing former sins (3:25) and our believing in the efficacy (Heb. 10:14) of Christ’s work on the cross saves us from divine wrath (5:9).
Why is this good news for us? Why should we care that Christ, in living a perfect life and dying a horrific death, proved the Father just and righteous while reconciling us to Himself? Because of who God is - a Being of infinite beauty and creativity and goodness. By nature we hate God (Eph. 2:3, Rom. 3:12) and separate ourselves from the splendor of His beauty, creativity, and goodness. Believing that God will reconcile us to himself with no concern for his own holiness, and that Christ’s death is just a brightly lit billboard showing us that, is a massive undercutting of God’s infinite holiness. Without bloodshed, God would not be infinitely just, and we could not trust Him. Apart from Christ’s death, glorification, and eternal intercession on our behalf (Heb. 7:25), there is an infinitely wide chasm between us and God. The wicked have no part in life with God.
The cross is also the assurance that God is for us. The word sacrifice means “giving up something that is valuable for the sake of other considerations.” If Christ is God (which he is) then He shares in the eternal beauty, justice, love, and holiness of God. So when Paul says in Romans 8:31-32 that, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”, he is reminding us that God loved His elect so much that He temporarily subjected His son to the wages of sin, even through Jesus was perfect, to redeem them. I am amazed by the reality that God would do that for a people He chose for Himself.
Christians aim to love God because He first loved us - not the other way around. There is nothing we did to merit that love and favor - it is a gift (Eph. 2:8-9), and there is no sacrifice that we can give to make God love us more. God loves us because He wants to, and the life and death of Christ proves that. The main motivating urge for me to write this was that I believe that Tyler’s presentation of sacrifice and the cross makes that divine gift of love and favor smaller and cheaper. It is like replacing silver with chrome or diamonds with glass. The entire Bible, both Old Testament and New, forms a cohesive story showing not only who God is and what He is like, but also how He works through history to draw a people to Himself. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross should enlarge your heart to love God more abundantly according to His standard of love and not what we as humans think love should be. Sacrifice is part of God's plan throughout history, and we should humbly worship in response.