The Divine Design of Salvation

May 19, 2017

by Scott Oliphint

Once we acknowledge that sin is universal, that it continues in every person from the point of conception on (Ps. 51:5)­—and that it is individual, that it plagues and enslaves me—we begin to see what Christians mean by “salvation.”

Since sin is rebellion against a holy God, it is impossible that such a good and holy God could overlook that rebellion. Since he is holy, he must punish all violations of his character.

This concept of God goes against more “popular” notions of him. Typically, people think that God’s love trumps everything else. He is not bothered by our rebellion. Others think God’s primary job is to forgive us, no matter our attitude toward him.

We have to recognize who God is, not what we might want him to be. We must know him according to what he says he is and does. God says that “the one who sins is the one who will die” (Ezek. 18:20). He says that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), and the death that sin produces is not just physical death but eternal punishment (see Rev. 20:14, for example). The Lord is too holy to allow sin in his eternal presence. He cannot look upon, or tolerate, sin (Hab. 1:13).

An analogy might help. Suppose you have a sworn enemy who had dedicated himself to opposing and fighting against all that you are and stand for. Anything that you hold dear he vehemently opposes. His disposition toward you includes a resolve to fight against everything you love. Now suppose this enemy claims that your responsibility is to accept him as he is, to bring him into your home, and to include him in all your affairs.

How would you respond to this person? At minimum, you would conclude that he is not thinking clearly. He cannot really think that he can oppose you at every turn and still expect that you will include him.

The very presence of God requires us, not God, to act differently.

Now consider that God—who alone deserves praise and who is to be honored by all of his human creatures—simply decides to bring all who are opposed to him into his presence, where they can oppose him more vigorously. Their presence itself is a violation of his character, because it is sin and rebellion in the presence of perfect goodness and holiness. Is God expected to tolerate that rebellion? Is he supposed to bend to our desires?

When Moses and Isaiah (just to use two examples) find themselves in the presence of God, they are afraid and undone (see Ex. 3:6; Isa. 6:5). They recognize that they are not worthy to be in God’s presence because they stand condemned in his sight. The very presence of God requires us, not God, to act differently.

But our sinful and rebellious condition does not have to be the end of our story. Even though we are the ones who defiled God’s good creation, he graciously provided a way back to him. God gives a hint of this “way back to him” as soon as sin enters the world. He says to the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). God declares that there will be animosity and antagonism between the seed of the serpent (Satan) and the seed of the woman. In other words, someone who is a descendant of the woman will be wounded. The good news is that this descendant will crush the head of the seed of the serpent. In other words, the seed of the woman will destroy the seed of the serpent.

Edenic Initiation

After God pronounced his curses on the serpent, the woman, and the man, he “made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). This may seem like a mere gesture of kindness. But it is much more than that. Adam and Eve had already made coverings for themselves by sewing fig leaves together (Gen. 3:7). The process of sewing these leaves together indicates that they had adequately accomplished their purpose. They were no longer exposed.

Why, then, did God make garments of skin for Adam and Eve, since they were already covered? Those garments provided a hint as to what God would do to solve the sin problem that Adam brought into the world. There are two aspects to the covering that God made that help us see his grand design for salvation, in light of sin.

  1. First, the problem of sin could not be “covered” by the efforts of Adam and Eve. If they were going to be truly covered, God would have to cover them.
  2. The covering that God provided, unlike the covering that Adam and Eve made, required a sacrifice that God himself would initiate.

The covering that Adam and Eve needed was a covering, not one they made, but that God made. God made a covering of animal skin, not leaves. This points to the fact that if sin is going to be covered, blood will have to be shed (Heb. 9:22). In other words, the death that sin brings can be covered only by the death that bloodshed requires.

For human sin to be covered, there must be the shedding of human blood—someone must die—and it must all be acceptable to and provided by God himself.

These two key aspects of God’s activity toward Adam and Eve are developed in God’s dealings with humanity from this point forward. We see, in Genesis 4, Abel brings an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord; it is a sacrifice that required the shedding of blood. But Cain’s sacrifice consists of the “fruit of the soil” (Gen. 4:3); it is not acceptable to God. Already we begin to see that it is not simply any sacrifice to God that will do. The only sacrifice that can truly cover our sin is a sacrifice that God initiates, that he can accept, and that includes the shedding of blood.

The rest of the Bible illustrates these two key aspects of salvation—that God will provide an acceptable sacrifice, and that sin cannot be covered without the death which the shedding of blood requires.

Abrahamic Sacrifice

Certain events in biblical history demonstrate this more clearly. In Genesis 22, for example, God calls Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac (Gen. 22:1–18). So Abraham takes Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him to the Lord. As far as Abraham knows, God requires the shedding of a blood sacrifice to cover his sin.

We know from this chapter, though Abraham does not yet know, that God is doing this to test Abraham. He wants Abraham to demonstrate his loyalty to him. Abraham knew that God had promised to build and bless a nation through Isaac, so he realized that God could raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:17–19). Abraham proves himself to be obedient to the Lord. Once Abraham’s obedience is proven, God stops Abraham from going through with the sacrifice of his son. Instead, God provides an animal, a ram, for Abraham to sacrifice. Abraham names that place “The LORD Will Provide” (Gen. 22:14).

With this event, we begin to see in more detail the two aspects of God’s plan of salvation. Not only must God provide an acceptable sacrifice, and not only must there be the shedding of blood (i.e., death) for sin to be properly covered, but we see hints, from the perspective of the New Testament, that this shedding of blood must be more than the shedding of the blood of animals. For human sin to be covered, there must be the shedding of human blood—someone must die—and it must all be acceptable to and provided by God himself.

This piece is adapted from K. Scott Oliphint, Know Why You Believe, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 117–121. Used with permission of the publisher.

Scott Oliphint

Dr. Oliphint (PhD, Westminster) is professor of apologetics and systematic theology at WTS.

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