Expiation, Propitiation, And The Atoning Work Of Christ (V)

Objection # 3

Some who reject the substitutionary death of Jesus argue it would have been sinful for Jesus to die in our stead. One of these argued that the fact “Jesus’ death was not substitutionary…is not difficult to show, for the Law and Prophets specifically prohibited substitutionary deaths of a man in the place of another man.”[1] He offered the following passages as proof: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin (Deut. 24:16), and, “Yet you say, ‘Why should the son not bear the guilt of the father?’ Because the son has done what is lawful and right, and has kept all My statutes and observed them, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself (Ezek. 18:18-20).” He followed this up with:

Since Jesus lived while the Law of Moses was still in effect, He was subject to it while He lived. If Jesus died as a substitute for one man or any number of men, He violated the Law of Moses and the inspired word of the prophets. And since we know Jesus never actually sinned, the sacrificial death of Jesus could not have been a substitutionary death.[2]

I believed then, as now, that bro. Sims use of Deuteronomy 24:16 is fundamentally flawed. In fact, the very thing he claims this passage disproves still awaits proof, in that neither the letter nor the spirit of Deuteronomy 24:16 prohibited one from graciously volunteering to pay the deserved penalty or debt of another. On the contrary, such a restriction was put in place by God to prohibit those in positions of authority from perverting justice by wrongly punishing one for the sin, crime, or debt of another. This is borne out by Deuteronomy 25:1, where the obligation of judges and those in positions of authority to “justify the righteous and condemn the wicked” is made clear.

It was precisely this kind of justice we see demonstrated by Judah’s King Amaziah in 2 Kings 14:6, which says, “But the children of the murderers he did not execute, according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, in which the LORD commanded, saying, ‘Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; but a person shall be put to death for his own sin.’”

Besides, the demands of Deuteronomy 24:16 and similar passages were not given to constrain God, but man. Therefore, when God, the Righteous Judge, does justice and righteousness, He is not being guided by the external dictates of the law He has given to man. Instead, He simply acts consistent with His own nature. In other words, He does justice and righteousness because He is just and righteous (viz., God always exercises Himself consistent with Who and What He Is). Therefore, any effort to judge the justice and righteousness of God based on His amenability to an external (i.e., outside of Himself) law code misunderstands the very nature of the I AM THAT I AM.

Again, God’s justice and righteousness are not dependent on, nor judged by, any law He has given to His creatures. On the contrary, His justice and righteousness are solely dependent on His divine Being. This means, among other things, that when the only absolutely righteous Judge is portrayed as doing the very kind of thing He has prohibited His fallen, finite creatures from doing (cf. Ex 20:5; 34:7; Isa 14:21; Jer 32:18), He must not be judged by, and is not guilty of, the law He has given to His creatures. Rather, the context of God-given law is but man himself, in that it is only man who is the subject of God-given law—that is, it is exclusively man who is amenable to it. Misunderstand this and one finds himself in the unenviable position of bringing false charges against God Himself.

But nothing I’ve said here should be taken to mean I think God was unjust or unrighteous when He visited the iniquity of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Him (cf. Ex 20:5; 34:7; Isa 14:21; Jer 32:18). Instead, the omnipotent, all-knowing God, in contrast to His fallen, sin-sick creatures, is able to execute justice and righteousness flawlessly, and He does so without the constraints of external (outside of Himself) law. This means that when the Righteous Judge visited the iniquity of the fathers up to the fourth generation, He was doing so in perfect harmony with justice and righteousness. I like how Adam Clark put it in his comments on 1 Samuel 15:2-3:

Nothing could justify such an exterminating decree but the absolute authority of God. This was given: all the reasons of it we do not know; but this we know well, the Judge of all the earth doth right. This war was not for plunder, for God commanded that all the property and people should be destroyed.[3]

Therefore, one of the mistakes Sims makes is thinking God is subject to the law code He has given to His sinful creatures—a law code that was designed to prevent them, due to their finitude and self-corrupted natures, from perverting justice and righteousness, something the I AM THAT I AM would never do.

On the other hand, Ezekiel 18:19-20 is found in the context of a rebellious people who are being confronted with the wrath of God by way of the Babylonian Empire. At the time it was written, the first Babylonian deportation in 606 B.C., as well as the second in 597, had already occurred. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 B.C. are yet some five years out. The false claim of these rebellious people that God is unfairly dealing with them is a familiar one by this time. Their audacious we-deserve-nothing-of-what-we’re-getting claim is, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Although their claim may, at first, appear to have some merit, what is happening to them is their own fault, in that they have stubbornly refused to repent of their own rebellious and idolatrous ways. As a result, they are rightfully experiencing the wrath of God.[4] Hence, any such charge leveled against God based on the appearance that His actions were violations of the justice and righteousness principles found in His law is clearly false.

Sims went on to compound his error by using Isaiah 5:20, Jeremiah 31:27-34, and Hebrews 8 to argue that any concept of substitutionary, man for man, penalty- or debt-paying was as unlawful under the NT as it was under the OT. It is true that Christians can play no part in any effort to punish, or otherwise impose a penalty on, anyone but the perpetrator of a sin, crime, or wrongdoing, as any action to the contrary would be unjust and/or unrighteous, and thus unscriptural. But when all this is said and done, none of it says anything about it being wrong for someone to graciously volunteer to accept, experience, or suffer the debt, penalty, or punishment that rightly belongs to another. In fact, Paul’s actions on behalf of Onesimus, which are recorded in verse 18 of his letter to Philemon, are a demonstration of this very thing. Concerning Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway servant, “But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account.” The key phrase here is “put that to my account” (touto emoi ellogā). The only other time the verb ellogā is used is in Romans 5:13, where it is translated in the KJV, NKJV, ASV, and NASB as “imputed,” which is not insignificant when considering the subject under discussion. Yes, there can be no doubt that it would have been unjust for Philemon, or anyone else, to charge whatever wrong Onesimus had done, or debt owed, to the apostle Paul without his consent, and nothing Paul says or does in connection with this incident gives any credence it would ever be right to do so. What is in play here, and this is so important, is grace.

This is brought out clearly by Albert Barnes in his Notes on the Bible:

(1) Onesimus, not Paul, had done the wrong. (2) Paul was not guilty of it, or blameworthy for it, and never in any way, or by any process, could be made to be, or conceived to be. It would be true forever that Onesimus and not he had done the wrong. (3) Paul assumed the debt and the wrong to himself. He was willing, by putting himself in the place of Onesimus, to bear the consequences, and to have Onesimus treated as if he had not done it. When he had voluntarily assumed it, it was right to treat him as if he had done so; that is, to hold him responsible. A man may assume a debt if he pleases, and then he may be held answerable for it. (4) If he had not assumed this himself, it never could have been right for Philemon to charge it on him. No possible supposition could make it right. No agency which he had in the conversion of Onesimus; no friendship which he had for him; no favor which he had shown him, could make it right. The consent, the concurrence on the part of Paul was absolutely necessary in order that he should be in any way responsible for what Onesimus had done. (5) The same principle prevails in imputation everywhere. (a) What we have done is chargeable upon us. (b) If we have not done a thing, or have not assumed it by a voluntary act, it is not right to charge it upon us. (c) God reckons things as they are.[5]

So, in order to be consistent, Sims must argue that not only did Paul sin by suggesting such a solution (viz., having Onesimus’ debt and wrong doing put to his account), but that he actually compounded it by asking Philemon to become a partaker with him in his “evil” scheme. I’ve couched it this way for two reasons. The first is based on Sim’s argument that says:

If Jesus died as a substitute for one man or any number of men, He violated the Law of Moses and the inspired word of the prophets. But since we know Jesus never actually sinned, the sacrificial death of Jesus could not have been a substitutionary death.[6]

The second is based on his argument that this was not just an OT principle, but a NT one as well.

As I see it, then, Sims has but two choices—(1) he must recognize he has wrongly interpreted and applied the passages under discussion, or (2) he must view Paul as sinning when he asked Philemon to “put that to my account.” But instead of admitting his mistake, he invents a third way he thinks will permit him to extricate himself from the charge of poor exegesis. Ironically, and tellingly, he succeeds only in digging an even deeper exegetical hole for himself:

No, I don’t have to take either of those options since Paul’s voluntary assumption of the debt was not a matter of law or sin, but an act of grace. Paul did not sin by assuming the debt, and he did not sin by involving Philemon. But the real issue at the heart of this substitution theory debate is not the condition of Philemon, to whom a debt was owed (equating to God), nor the condition of Paul, who assumed a debt he did not owe (equating to Jesus), but the condition of fortunate Onesimus, who was released from a debt he could not pay (that’s us). It was not the men who moved, one to take another’s place…it was the debt that moved, from one man to another. And when the debt of the first man was taken away, he was debt free. Where substitution theory gets off-track here is that it confuses debt with penalty. They are not the same. If you have ever taken a loan, you know there is both a debt to be repaid and a penalty to suffer if you fail to pay it; you prefer to pay the debt and avoid the penalty, right? Jesus took our debt away to save us from the penalty…that is what sacrifice achieves, and Colossians 2:14 actually says He “canceled out the certificate of debt…having nailed it to the cross.” Hebrews 9:28 says, “so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” It does not say He bore our penalty…it says He bore our sins, just as John the Baptizer declared (John 1:29). But substitution theory says, without a single scripture to support it, that Jesus took our penalty away. No, hell (the real penalty) still exists, and you and I can still go there if we incur new sins (debts) which are not taken away before judgment comes. Do you believe that you still bear your debts even now, but that you are exempted from the penalty of hell (ellipses in the original)?[7]

He went on to say:

Regarding the crux of the matter…You said the crux of the matter is “whether one is permitted to voluntarily take the penalty of another.” No, that is not what I am arguing against. You are confusing penalty with debt. My position is that Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross results in the forgiveness of sins (debts) for those who have faith, so that they are justified by His blood, spared from God’s wrath, and thus saved from the eternal penalty which will rightly fall on those who die in their guilt. I believe that God is just when, on judgment day, He condemns the unforgiven sinner to pay the full penalty due for his own unremitted sins (debts) in an eternal torment. I believe that God is just when, on that same day, He welcomes into eternal bliss those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb, not because the penalty was already paid, but because the penalty cannot be laid against them since their sins (debts) were forgiven in Christ (emphasis in original).[8]

Although Sims’ debt vs. penalty argument may appear reasonable to some, Colossians 2:13-14 makes no such distinction. He simply reads into it the following scenario: “If you have ever taken a loan, you know there is both a debt to be repaid and a penalty to suffer if you fail to pay it; you prefer to pay the debt and avoid the penalty, right?” Well, right, and if we were talking about a debt I had the ability to repay, then such a penalty, if significant enough, would surely deter any thought I might have of not paying my debt. But suppose we are not talking about a car loan or house payment, but a catastrophic debt I am unable to pay? Would not the penalty, in such a case, be part and parcel of such debt? The fact is, it’s this latter kind of debt that’s under review in Colossians 2:13-14. Consequently, and this by necessary inference, punishment (i.e., penalty) is very much a part of this text (i.e., debt and penalty are but different metaphors for sin’s effect).

As I said in part II of this series, it is a mistake, and Calvinists aren’t the only ones who make it, to say that when we are justified, or declared to be righteous, we are treated just as if we had never sinned (i.e., “not guilty”). The truth is we are, and will ever be, guilty sinners (1 Jn. 1:8-9). The “good news” of the gospel is that, in connection with Christ, we are treated just like someone else (viz., Jesus) has already paid the penalty of debt that was our due. After quoting Colossians 2:13-14 as it reads in the ESV, I said that it, as do the other translations which reference some sort of certificate of indebtedness (cf. NET, NASB, NIV, etc.), depicts the case against us as taking place in a civil court of law. But instead of the written document being a certificate of indebtedness against which there may be a defense, it is a formal finding of debt. Again, as in other translations (cf. KJV, NKJV, ASV, etc.), the written document is described not as a bill of particulars against which there may be a defense, but a written finding or verdict of “guilty” as in a criminal court of law. In either depiction, no hope is held out for a “not guilty” verdict. Thus, the penalty for sin is very much in play. So, whether our sin is portrayed as incurring debt or a penalty, the truth is, we are all “guilty as sin.” Therefore, the only effective remedy is forgiveness, which is one of the things the shedding of Jesus’ blood provides for, and the very thing Colossians 2:14 specifically mentions, praise God!

But in order to make this forgiveness/justification possible, the Father had to be propitiated, which is what Romans 3:25a is talking about. However, there can be no room for propitiation in the anti-vicarious-death-of-Jesus position, in that those who take such a position claim there was no penalty/curse exacted on Jesus by the Father on our behalf, as all such thinking is alleged to be Calvinistic. This is why one of my complaints against those who take Sims’ position is that they attempt to lump one aspect of what Jesus did for us under a few metaphors, when the Bible uses many such metaphors and symbols to describe Jesus’ cross work. They do this not because the Scriptures are unclear about this, but because they cannot let stand anything that infringes upon their “non-vicarious death of Jesus” doctrine.

In the end, there’s nothing in the passages Sims cited that prohibits someone from voluntarily assuming another’s debt and/or penalty. And, this is exactly what Jesus did on our behalf (cf. 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 2:24, etc., etc.).



[1] A personal correspondence I had with David Sims which is posted, with permission, on his website at http://www.retainthestandard.com/pst.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Adam Clark’s Commentary On The Bible.

[4] This is a crucial point when trying to understand God’s righteousness when visiting the iniquity of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generations (cf. Ex 20:5).

[5] http://sacred-texts.com/bib/cmt/barnes/plm001.htm.

[6] Sims, op. cit.

[7] David Sims’ rebuttal to my arguments at http://www.retainthestandard.com/Rebuttal%20to%20Turner.pdf.

[8] Ibid.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *