Traditional Legal Model – a just God, to satisfy His justice and appease His wrath against sinners, must punish every sin before it can be forgiven. Because God loves the sinner, He appointed that sacrifices, ultimately that of His Son, could pay the penalty in man’s behalf.
Biblical Healing Model – God freely forgives every sin without the need for sacrifices. The sacrifices were to satisfy our understanding of justice so that we could accept even the possibility of being forgiven. They were also to show that sin caused death and to point to the Savior.
An ever-merciful God of love would not require payment by sacrifice to forgive. To forgive, by definition, implies no strings attached. A bank cannot both collect and forgive a debt. Let’s investigate the origin of the idea that sacrifices are needed for forgiveness. This study does not go into detail about the various offerings) of the sacrificial system, but deals with the reasons behind that system and why it was needed.
The Wages of Sin Misunderstood
As with so much of our understanding of the character of God, the nature of His law (https://characterofgod.org/law-definition/) is very important to understand correctly. Here is the first law given to man:
“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Gen 2:16-17)
The plainest meaning of that verse (in the KJV) is that in the same day Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit they would die. Of course, they did not die that day. Since God does not lie, what is the solution to that apparent discrepancy?
The KJV margin for “thou shalt surely die” reads “dying thou shalt die” reflecting the meaning of the original Hebrew.
The “thou shalt surely die” was not predicting an immediate, imposed event but, rather, indicating a process or natural consequence – they would be subject to death and, indeed, they did die although it was hundreds of years later (Gen 5:5). They would begin to die because they no longer had the gift of eternal life. How did they lose that gift?
“He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” (1 John 5:12)
That must be referring to eternal life as everyone alive has (temporal) life. To have the Son means to have a relationship with Him; to trust in Him. By their actions, it seems Adam and Eve trusted more in the words of the serpent than in the words of God. In fact, what had transpired would have resulted in distrust of God leading them to fear.
Why be Afraid?
“And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Gen 3:9-10)
What was Adam afraid of? It is interesting how God responded:
“And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?” (Gen 3:11)
Notice that God did not accuse them. Rather, He asked them (it would have been interesting to hear His tone of voice) giving them opportunity to respond with either admission or denial.
Adam could have answered (to an ever-merciful God) “yes I did and I am sorry, please forgive me”. Wouldn’t God have forgiven them? Yes), but how did Adam answer?
“And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” (Genesis 3:12)
While he could not deny the act, this was a denial of responsibility. Adam was “passing the buck,” blaming Eve for the transgression. Why would he do that?
The possibilities for the fulfilment of “thou shalt surely die” (Gen 2:17) were only that death would come as a natural consequence of eating the fruit, or that it would be imposed by God. They had both survived eating the fruit and the fact that they hid from God indicates where they thought the death would come from.
Imagine a situation where children are playing ball in the back yard and a window gets broken. Mother comes out the back door and asks “Who did it?” The guilty child points to another child and says “he did it.” The guilty one would do that in order to escape punishment.
In Adam’s mind, perhaps he expected the sentence of death to come from the hand of God. Could his reference to “the woman” (Adam did not say “my dear wife”) be a way of saying it was her fault? The implication was that if anyone was to be punished it should be her. Here we have the first mention of the concept of substitution or vicarious atonement.
Concepts of Justice
So at that point, Adam’s concept of God’s justice system was that the sinner needed to die for having sinned. Was he right? What were the two possibilities according to what God had said?
- That Adam would die that day as a consequence of something physically deadly in the fruit.
- That Adam would die that day by an imposed act of God.
We know that Adam did not die that day at all. In fact, he lived for nearly a thousand more years. Obviously, there was nothing inherently deadly in the fruit (Gen 3:6). Here is a clue:
“But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” (2 Peter 3:8)
By that measure of a day, Adam did die in the day he ate. Yet he lived for centuries and eventually died of old age, not by an imposed act of God.
So if Adam thought he could “pass the buck” (transfer the responsibility) wouldn’t he have understood that the punishment could also be transferred? That another could be punished in place of the offender?
Scripture speaks against this idea of such a transfer:
“The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” (Eze 18:20)
If Adam thought that justice required the payment of a penalty for sin and that a substitute could pay the penalty for his sin (remember, he cast the blame on Eve), can you see a possible reason for God giving animal sacrifices?
Could God Simply Forgive?
Couldn’t God have just forgiven them? Many would say “no” because of their concept of justice but God’s justice (https://characterofgod.org/justice-definition/) is not the same as man’s. God’s justice is to do the just or right thing; in such a case as this to heal and restore.
That Adam had a hard time just accepting forgiveness or that God could just forgive is reflected in Adam’s own son. After killing his brother Abel:
“… Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear.” (Gen 4:13)
The King James Version marginal reading for that verse says:
“Mine iniquity is greater than that it may be forgiven.”
This indicates that, in Cain’s thinking, God could not forgive him. It is a curious thing that Cain, likely knowing from Adam the concept that the wages of sin is death, should then say “… it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me” (Gen 4:14) and yet God took action to protect him from death:
“… the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.” (Gen 4:15)
Consistent with His ever-merciful character, God forgave; the problem was that neither Adam (at least not initially), nor Cain (ever) received the forgiveness, Remember forgiveness involves two parties. (https://characterofgod.org/forgiveness-definition/)
So the question really comes down to: did God want or need sacrifices at all?
“Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened: burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required.” (Psa 40:6)
The Bible says “no” in quite a number of places. (https://characterofgod.org/sacrifices-not-desired/) God gave them including that first animal sacrifice in Eden not because He needed or required sacrifices but because mankind needed them to satisfy His understanding of justice.
The Sacrifices of God
What “sacrifices” does God want?
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psa 51:17)
That seems to indicate a humble and repentant spirit.
Return to the Character of God and the Gospel Glossary Index
Return to the Home Page