All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Is53:6)
Once again Handel’s glorious Messiah echoes through my mind as I contemplate this passage, albeit that the identity of the suffering servant in Isaiah is by no means clear-cut. In Is49:3 I take it to be referring to Israel (as does Paul in Acts13:47) whereas in chapter 53 it would appear valid to associate the reference more definitively with our Lord, both in view of the content of the narrative itself and its utilization by Philip in his witnessing to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts8:32-33. On that basis this prophecy from an individual’s perspective is the very heart of the Gospel; the good news that “The Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal2:20).
Only the Christian will make such an assertion, yet when one pays careful attention to the text of the New Testament one is struck by the fact that Jesus is consistently described as dying as an offering for sin rather than particular individuals. He became sin for us (2Cor5:21); He gave Himself for our sin (Gal1:4); He bore our sins in His own body on the tree (1Pet2:24); He suffered once for sins (1Pet3:18); the iniquity of us all was laid upon Him (Is53:6). In other words, Scripture presents the matter in terms of sin being punished in Jesus; not the sins of specific individuals or groupings – a statement which I shall shortly qualify.
The need for Christ’s Atonement
By an eternal decree there can be no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood (Heb9:22) and Jesus as God’s Suffering Servant more than satisfied the penalty owed by human sin. He bled and died for the sins of humanity so as to satisfy God’s own eternal Law of Righteousness. Yet that once-for-all atonement per se neither establishes “eternal life” nor abolishes physical death within any universal exchange because that historical event was never intended to rectify the nature of the vessel transmitted from our first parents that the human soul/spirit is to inhabit – what Paul quite deliberately refers to as “somatos tou thanatou toutou” – the body of this death.
It is evident that our sovereign God was quite content that human souls would inhabit such a corrupted vessel or he would have destroyed Adam and Eve at Eden – (they had been warned). Instead He continued to utilize this shamed couple as the procreative fountain-head for humanity (cf. Rom8:20). The fact that the Creator chose this course of action was an astounding act of love on His part (in view of the consequences for the Godhead) but unless you accept what I have been indicating in earlier posts, few reading this will currently see it that way – firstly in view of the resulting deeply troubled human history, and secondly in light of their understanding of the eternal fate of those not of the Christian Faith.
For it is surely a substantial majority that has not been willing or suitably enlightened to be discipled by Christ – to “lose their life in order to find Life” (Mt16:25), putting service to Christ and others first and second in their life. It is a small minority indeed who as the called, faithful and chosen, suffer with Christ in order to be glorified with Him as co-heirs of God’s Kingdom (Rom8:17 cf. Greek). For whilst all people of good will may be justified by an underlying “faith” (evinced by compassion Mt25) through the merits of Christ’s faithfulness [note a] , only the Christian can currently participate in the Life of God (Jn6:54-57) through a mystical communion with His Son.
The two-fold benefits of the Atonement
Making such a distinction between the forensic (pardoning) benefits of the Cross applying to the many and the participatory (cleansing and empowering) benefits applying to the proportionate few who dwell in Christ and He in them (Jn6:56) becomes essential if one is to do justice to God’s magnanimous Plan for the human race without compromising the role of Gospel, Church or Sacrament. For it can still be affirmed that all human salvation has been made possible by Christ’s atoning death, which continues to provide life for the world and individual cleansing for sin (Jn6:51; 1Jn1:7).
a] (Greek: “ek pisteos christou” e.g Rom3:22; Gal2:16; Gal3:22), which more theologians and the more recent bible translators are recognising needs to be distinguished from cognisant faith in Christ (pisteos en Christo e.g. Gal3:26 ) This pivotal distinction is elaborated upon in chapter 3 of my book = a free PDF of which is available HERE