ATONEMENT FOR NATURE
Recently, the issue has been raised on an internet discussion forum as to whether or not there is a need for Atonement for our mortal, sin-prone nature as well as for our committed sins. We did cover this aspect some time ago in response to a correspondent, and it is also covered in the Atonement section of our internet website. However it seems pertinent to revisit the matter, and demonstrate what the Bible actually teaches.
The first point which needs to be established, is what does “Atonement for Nature” actually mean? It is not a Scriptural expression, is clumsily ambiguous (meaning different things to different people), yet it continues to be used as shorthand for a number of very different mutually-exclusive ideas. The issue comes to the fore when we consider the sacrifice of Messiah: he had no committed sins to be atoned for, but as one correspondent asked: “did he have a personal need for a sacrifice for his own nature?”
If you mean: “was he required to be physically purified (Heb. 9:23) from the “Law of Sin and Death” (Rom. 8:2) by condemning it (Rom. 8:3) and bringing it to destruction (Heb. 2:14) upon the cross, and a physical change to immortality (1 Tim. 3:16)”, then we would answer: “Yes”.
But that is not the way in which the phrase is often used. Confusingly, the phrase “atonement for nature,” or the similar phrase “sacrifice for nature” is also often used to represent something quite different, to which we would reply with an emphatic “NO!” That is, it is supposed that there is a “legal condemnation” (similar to the church teaching of “original sin”) which all men including Christ come under, and which can only be repealed by the offering up of innocent blood. One internet correspondent expresses his view of the term thus:- “I think it’s the idea that it’s not enough that we be atoned for because of our own sins, but that we also have to atoned for someone else’s sin too (i.e. Adam’s in particular).” Although some accuse us of teaching this, we actually rejected it nearly 20 years ago in the booklet “The Truth Concerning the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – The Christadelphian Position Vindicated” (available for free download on our website).
This is a wrong doctrine which some accuse us of teaching, because of their imprecise use of the term “Atonement for Nature”. They inconsistently use the same term as a shorthand for both the above teaching, as well as the very different position that we (and Christadelphians for over 150 years) hold.
There was nothing about the nature of Christ which was under a “legal condemnation” (another phrase which is not derived from Scripture). He was never alienated from his Father, and consequently never needed to be “reconciled” to God by a sacrifice for his nature, as some suppose, and others claim we teach. However, there was as part of his nature “sin in the flesh” AKA the diabolos, which it was his purpose to “destroy” (Heb. 2:14), which God condemned (Rom. 8:3), and Christ “put away” by his death (Heb. 9:26). It exists as both a consequence of sin, and the cause of sin (in all except Messiah), and having the power of death it must be removed in order for mortality to be swallowed up of life (2 Cor. 5:4). Like a doctor who loves his patient, yet hates and despises a mortal disease, God sought to destroy the disease of sin (compare the parable of leprosy), and did so in the sacrifice of his Son whom He Loved. As I say, Christ was never personally alienated from his Father, but according to Scripture, there was something in Jesus physical makeup which was to be “condemned” and “destroyed” through his death. And it stands to reason that it could not be so condemned or destroyed if it did not exist in him. It was Christ’s mission to overcome it in life, and destroy it through death, and having prevailed against it, to be elevated to immortality and appear in His Father’s Presence. This removal of “the law of sin and death” by sacrifice in order for immortality to be given, is described in Scripture as a purifying (see Heb. 9:23).
Jesus had to save himself as part of the process of saving us (see Heb. 7:27, Jno. 17:19). A good illustration is seen in the Ark that Noah built. It’s whole purpose was to bring salvation to those who sought it. But in order to save it’s occupants, it needed to itself float, and not sink. It’s floating was the basis of their salvation, as well as it’s own. We need to enter into the Christ-Ark in order to be saved, upon the same basis on which the Ark saved itself and those within it from disappearing into the depths.
HUMAN NATURE IS DEFILED BY SIN
The inspired Apostle Paul exhorts: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof (Rom. 6:12). And again, in the same chapter, he describes this “sin” which reigns in the disobedient, as “uncleanness:” “As ye have yielded your members to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity, even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness” (Rom. 6:19). Sinful works then, are produced by our yielding to “servants to uncleanness,” and doing those things which are contrary to the will of God.
This description of “uncleanness,” in Scripture does not speak of literal dirt, “the filth of the flesh” (1 Pet. 3:21). Rather, it describes how we naturally stand in the eyes of our Maker. The Lord does not regard us as being transgressors just because we have “sin in the flesh” of our physical make-up. Only when we actually commit sin do we become worthy of the wages of death.
Men and women are defiled even from birth. So in Job chapter 14, we read: “Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one” (Job. 14:4). Even before a child can be regarded as being sinful in it’s own right, having done neither good or evil (Rom. 9:1), it is “unclean,” having the “uncleanness” of “the law of sin and death” residing within it. This is why sometimes babies die, even in the womb: not because of their own committed sin, but because of the mortal nature which it is our misfortune to inherit. They inherit “the law of sin:” which the Apostle describes as being that “which has the power of death” (Heb. 2:14).
THE LAW OF MOSES
The concept of being “clean” or “unclean” is a feature of the Law which came through Moses. Here, in a number of matters there was an uncleanness which was not a consequence of personal committed sins. A woman was unclean due to childbirth (Lev 12, Cp. Job 14:4). Lepers were unclean not simply because they had transgressed, but because of their disease (Lev 14:18-31). The High Priest had to be cleansed at his consecration (Lev 8:34), as well as for his transgressions. And in addition to this, Atonement was made for inanimate objects, which were regarded as being unclean: the Holy Place (Lev 16:20), the Most Holy place (Lev 16:16), the Tabernacle itself (Lev 16:33), the Golden Altar (Ex 30:10) and the Brasen Altar (Exo. 29:36).
We see then, that in these cases uncleanness was not simply to do with acts of sin. Even inanimate objects could be unclean, and be in need of purifying through bloodshed (see the following article on The Brasen Altar). And all of these aspects of the Mosaic system of things were “patterns” of things yet to come in the Lord Jesus Christ. In Hebrews chapter 9, we read that “almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. It was therefore necessary that the patterns of things in the heavens should be purified with these; but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these” (Heb. 9:22-23). It is evident that “the heavenly things themselves” includes Messiah, who is in heaven, who was “purified” by the better sacrifice of himself.
There are a number of issues to consider when dealing with “atonement for nature,” not least the confusion as to what the user of the term actually means. The matter pivots around whether or not the “law of sin” residing in our flesh requires to be condemned by death. The scripture testimony is that yes, it does, and in that God condemned it in the sacrifice of His Son. In this sense, our (and Jesus’) unclean nature requires a purification with his shed blood, after the pattern of the Brasen Altar under the Mosaic law. Those who deny this defilement of human nature, are evidently teaching a variation of the so-called “clean flesh” wrong doctrine that Bro Robert Roberts had to contend with in his day. To summarize: the Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ forms the basis for both the forgiveness of our committed sins, and the transformation of our nature to be immortal, sinless, and full of glory.