This post is an excerpt from the book review of John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
Without question, one of Owen’s favorite themes in the atonement is that of Christ as the Sin-Bearer. Owen quotes 1 Peter 2:24 and Isaiah 53 throughout much of his book. This concept undergirds his whole concept of the atonement, but I think Owen’s understanding of Christ’s bearing sins is mistaken.
Owen organizes his thoughts on Christ’s bearing sins as follows:
Owen mistakenly conflates the sacrificial aspect of the atonement with the sin-bearer. Thus Owen relates the sin-bearer with punishment, even going so far as equating “sin-bearing” with undergoing punishment. But scripture teaches a different concept for sin-bearer: taking away sin.
In opposition to Owen’s concept of sin-bearer, I will offer my own.
1. Christ offers Himself as Sin-bearer
2. Christ intercedes for the believer
3. The Father accepts the offering
4. Christ carries away the sins of the believer
Notice what’s missing from my explanation. Anything about sacrifice, or death or punishment… Fundamentally, the biggest difference between Owen’s view of the sin-bearer and my own is that Owen mixes the concepts of sacrifice and sin-bearing and I keep them separate. I see the sin-bearer as a distinct aspect of the atonement and Owen sees it as an intermediate step in the process of penal substitution. In my view, the sin-bear represents Christ’s liberating us from sin by carrying our sins away.
What Does Scripture Teach about the Sin-Bearer?
Leviticus 16:5, 20-22: “He shall take from the congregation of the sons of Israel two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering.20″When he finishes atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall offer the live goat. 21″Then Aaron shall lay both of his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the sons of Israel and all their transgressions in regard to all their sins; and he shall lay them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who stands in readiness. 22″The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a solitary land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.
This key passage explains how the sin-bearer worked in the OT atonement system. Aaron took two goats for one offering. Aaron sacrificed one goat and offered it, but this goat didn’t bear sin. Aaron offered the second goat without sacrificing it. He then confessed the sins of the people with his hands on the head of the scapegoat. The sins of the people transferred onto the scapegoat and it carried Israel’s sins way.
The scapegoat wasn’t sacrificed or punished. Its function was to carry sins away. The penal substitution aspect of the atonement can be seen in the sacrificed goat, not the scapegoat. The wages of sin is death, Christ died for us, so His death is a substitute. So the sacrificed goat, who died, represents the penal satisfaction aspect of the atonement and the scapegoat, who lived, represents the removal of sins.
Aaron offered both goats which together constitute one offering. This unity in offering can be seen in Isaiah 53, which talks about both Christ’s sacrifice and sin-bearing, albeit distinctly. Mathew 8:14-17 and 1 Peter 2:24 quote Isaiah 53’s sin-bearing aspect. Matthew tells of how Christ’s touch healed people’s infirmities, which confirms our understanding of a living (not sacrificed) sin-bearer. Peter provides the imagery of Christ, as Priest, carrying His own body onto the altar of the cross, confirming that the sin-bearer is offered. John also speaks of Christ as the sin-bearer, in 1 John 3:5, confirming Christ takes away sins.
The Gospel of John describes Christ as both the Door and the Way. Do we conflate these concepts and say Christ is the way to the door? It might sound nice at first, but no we don’t. These are two distinct metaphors for Christ, and we don’t want to mix metaphors. The two goats in the Old Testament were both symbols for Christ. But they were distinct symbols. Saying the goat carries our sins so he can be punished for them, sounds good, but that’s not what the bible is saying. The sin-bearer symbolizes Christ’s liberating us from sin, and the sacrificed goat represents Christ’s dying for us.
In the process of mixing the sin-bearer with the sacrifice, Owen has to modify the concept of sin-bearer to come to his conclusion. Thus he transforms the biblical concept of “carrying away sin” to “bearing punishment for sin”. Owen exchanges the biblical finality of liberation for the intermediary step of taking on sin for the purpose of punishment. But passages such as 1 John 3:5, are too clear to allow such interpretations.
Problems with Owen’s View
If we understand Owen’s step 1 such that our sins are gone, does it matter if Christ dies in step 2? Are we not already free? In other words, Owen has two options. 1) deny that Christ’s sin-bearing liberates us from sin (which contradicts scripture) or 2) deny that Christ’s death matters (because He already liberated us by taking away our sin).