Following on from my recent post Salvation reimagined, I had an interesting discussion with a friend at church about what an updated perspective on salvation might do to our understanding of certain Old Testament practices, including in particular law-keeping and sacrifice. I thought it would be good to unpack this a little here on the blog.
My contention is this: whether we’re aware of it or not, our understanding of sin and salvation is closely tied to our understanding of Old Testament law and sacrifice.
The discussion with my friend was triggered by a disconnect. On the one hand, he found the idea of seeing sin as a form of sickness or brokenness, rather than simply as wrongdoing, inherently appealing. On the other hand, he found it hard to completely let go of the notion of sin as legal offence, mainly because of the huge Old Testament emphasis on law and sacrifice.
I think this is a problem for very many Christians. In my experience, many believers instinctively resonate with the idea that sin is better understood as a condition we suffer than as legal offences we commit. The reason people resonate with this idea is that it makes sense in the context of their own lived experience and the flaws and defects with which they personally struggle. But they very often run into the same brick wall my friend did: given that so much of the focus in the Old Testament is on law-keeping and sacrifice, surely sin must to a large extent be legal in nature, mustn’t it?
One way to deal with this apparent dichotomy is to adopt a covenantal approach by saying that Jesus disposed of the old, law-based model and ushered in a New Covenant based on grace, not law. I have two problems with this approach. First, Jesus said he came not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. Second, even if the nature of the covenant between man and God changed with Jesus (which I believe it did), the nature of sin itself surely did not change. If sin is now a kind of sickness, surely it must always have been a kind of sickness? In which case, how could such a law-heavy and sacrifice-centric approach in the Old Testament possibly have hoped to address it?
There is, I believe, a much more satisfying way to resolve this apparent paradox.
I suggest we have to start by discarding the notion that sin is mainly a problem to God. We’ve built entire theologies on the idea that “God cannot look upon sin”. But tell me, if that’s the case, how on earth did God take on flesh, pitch his tent among us, and eat, drink and socialise with the worst and most notorious sinners? If man can only stand in God’s presence after appropriate sacrifice has been made, how the heck could man stand in the presence of Jesus, who was and is God with skin on? Did God suspend his requirement for sacrifice for the duration of Jesus’ earthly life? Of course he didn’t.
The answer, I propose, is simple yet profoundly disturbing to our received ideas about law, sacrifice, sin and salvation. For the key to finding our way out of this dilemma is to understand that sin is mainly a problem not to God but to us.
You see, if we make sin primarily a problem to God, it stands to reason that God would need to put in place some kind of system or scheme we had to go through in order to be reconciled to him – such as an elaborate system of law and sacrifice. But if sin is primarily a problem to man (because it damages him and ruins his relationship to God and other people), any permanent need for such a system largely disappears.
Thinking about this a little further, if God’s aim was always to reconcile us to relationship with himself, it seems to me that setting in place a requirement to fulfil intricate laws and perform complicated sacrifices was not an obvious way to achieve this. If anything, such a requirement would tend to deter us from moving in God’s direction. On the face of it, a need to meticulously fulfil laws and make sacrifices is not something that removes barriers between man and God.
But if sin is not a legal problem for God to be remedied through legal and sacrificial means, but rather a sickness suffered by man, suddenly reconciliation with God looks both more appealing and more possible. When a child feels ill, she instinctively runs to her parent for care and compassion. So it is with us: at the root of the remedy for our disease of sin is the healing care and compassion of our heavenly Father.
So far, so good. But there is one big question that remains. If sin is not and never has been a legal problem to God, why the need for the Old Testament Law and the whole sacrificial system in the first place? A good question – and one to which I once again believe there is a perfectly reasonable answer.
What I’d like to suggest is that, just as sin is primarily a problem to man rather than to God, the Old Testament mechanisms put in place to try to deal with sin were primarily offered for man’s benefit rather than for God’s.
To help us understand this, let’s briefly go back to the Garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve sinned, they became aware of their nakedness and were ashamed. When God saw this, he gave them garments to cover their shame. Why did God do this? Was it because he could no longer bear to look upon their nakedness? Of course not! God gave Adam and Eve clothes as a concession to them, to help them go on living and functioning without being completely crippled by their shame problem.
I would say the same applies to the Law and the system of sacrifice. God’s heart has always been to forgive freely – and what can that mean except to forgive without anything in return, neither fulfilment of law nor offering of sacrifice? But man, steeped in shame and surrounded by pagan sacrificial religion as he was, simply could not grasp this. He needed something to help him along the way.
What I’m proposing, then, is that God allowed man to adopt the Law and the sacrificial system as an accommodation to man’s need to see the scales of justice balanced and to see something visibly done about his sin problem. Just as it wasn’t God who needed Adam and Eve to cover themselves up, it wasn’t God who needed Law and sacrifice in order to be reconciled to man. It was man who needed it in order to even begin to see the possibility of a way back to restored relationship with God.
There are places in the Old Testament where this understanding that God did not require Law or sacrifice begins to break through the heavy curtain of sacrificial religion. Abraham glimpsed the truth of it when he allowed God to stay his hand and provide a lamb so that his son Isaac would not be sacrificed. David began to get a handle on it when he acknowledged that God did not desire sacrifice. And much of the message of the prophets was aimed at exposing the hollow sham of legalistic, sacrificial religion and revealing the tender, compassionate, relentlessly forgiving heart of God for his children.
So, let’s summarise: if sin is nothing more than legal offence against God, then the Old Testament Law and sacrifice make perfect sense. But we are left scratching our heads and wondering what about all those New Testament passages about being freed from the curse of the law.
But if sin is a sickness suffered by man, we can begin to see the whole apparatus of Law-keeping and sacrifice not as a divine requirement but as a concession by God to help man begin to find a way through the darkness in which he has been caught.
[ Image: Joe Gratz ]