R.C. Sproul: The Curse Motif of the Atonement

SPROUL: The last thing Thabiti asked me before he went and sat down was, “Please bring the book.” I have the book, and I’d like to read from that book from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 3 beginning at verse 10 and reading through verse 14, Galatians 3:10 to 14.

“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous

Shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written,

‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ – so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Can we pray, please? Our Father and our God, Your curse reaches throughout the earth and is heaped upon everyone

In it who is not covered by the righteousness of Jesus. O Lord, even now we tremble at the very thought of being under Your curse, and we can’t possibly imagine what it would mean to have the fullness of that curse poured out upon us.

And so, as we contemplate the manner in which it was poured out upon Jesus, we beg You, in Your Spirit to condescend to the frailty of our understanding, the weakness of our minds, to give us illumination of this text that Your Word would pierce our souls for

Our sake and for the sake of Jesus. Amen. It has now been over fifty years, over a half of a century, that I have contemplated and studied and read a host of tomes written about the meaning of the cross of Christ.

And yet, I still believe that I have not been able to do anything more than to touch the surface of the depths and the riches that are contained in that moment of redemptive history. I suspect that when my eyes open in heaven in the first five minutes of my beginning

Of eternity, there, I will be absolutely staggered by the sudden increase of understanding that will come to me when I behold the Lamb who was slain and hear angels and archangels singing in my ears, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive honor and glory, riches, dominion,”

And to see the Apostle Paul and to say, “Thank you for knowing nothing but Christ and Him crucified.” Beloved, when we go to the New Testament and we read not only the narrative event of the cross but the many didactic expressions that explain to us its meaning and significance,

I think we are soon aware that there is no one image or one dimension that can comprehensively explain the cross. Rather, we find many images, many metaphors that would indicate that the cross is a multifaceted event. It is by no means one dimensional.

It is as a magnificent tapestry that is woven by several distinct, brightly hued threads that when it is brought together gives us this magnificent, finished work of art. When the New Testament speaks of the atonement of Jesus, it does so in terms of substitution.

It calls attention to a death that in some way was vicarious. We see that it speaks of the satisfaction of the justice and of the wrath of God. We see the metaphor of the kinsman-redeemer who pays the bridal price to purchase His bride with His own blood, releasing her from bondage.

We see the motif that is used in the New Testament that speaks of ransom that is paid. There is the motif of victory over Satan and the powers of darkness, when the serpent’s head is crushed under the bruised heel of the Redeemer.

But there is one image, one aspect of the atonement that has receded in our day almost into total obscurity. We heard earlier of those attempts to preach a more gentle and kind gospel. And in our efforts to communicate the work of Christ more kindly, we flee from any mention

Of a curse inflicted by God upon His own Son. We shrink in horror from the words of the prophet Isaiah in the fifty-third chapter of his book describing the ministry of the Ebed Yahweh, “the suffering Servant” of Israel that tells us, among other things, that “it pleased the Lord to bruise Him.”

Can you take that in, that somehow the Father took pleasure in bruising the Son, when He set before Him that awful cup of divine wrath? How in heaven could the Father be pleased by bruising His Son, were it not for His eternal

Purpose through that bruising of Him to restore us as His own children? But there is this curse motif that seems utterly foreign to us, particularly in this time in history. When we speak of the idea of curse today, what do we think of?

We think perhaps of a voodoo witch doctor who places pins in a replica doll of his enemy. We think of an occultist who is involved in witchcraft, putting spells and hexes upon people. The very word “curse” in our culture suggests some kind of superstition.

But in biblical categories, dear friends, there is nothing superstitious about it, and the idea of the curse is deeply rooted in biblical history. We need only go to the opening chapters of Genesis to the record of the fall of man that

Provokes from God His anathema on the serpent who’s cursed to go on his belly, and the curse that is then given to the earth itself that it would bring forth thorns and briers, making it difficult for Adam to live by the toil of his brow.

And it brings the excruciating, and I choose that word carefully, pain given to the woman who would bear a child. But not only do we find this idea of curse there early in Genesis, but if we fast forward

To the giving of the law under Moses, we understand that with the covenant God makes with His people at Sinai that He attaches to that covenant, to the stipulations of that law, dual sanctions – a positive sanction and a negative sanction.

The positive sanction is articulated there in terms of the concept of blessedness. Let me quickly jump back to Deuteronomy chapter 28 that we read this litany of blessings. “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the LORD your God, being careful to do all His

Commandments that I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” Listen to this, “And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the LORD your God.

Blessed shall you be in the city, blessed shall you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, the fruit of your cattle, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.

Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.” Do you hear what God is saying to Israel? “If you keep My Word, then I’m going to bless you in the city. I’ll bless you in the country. I’ll bless you when you rise up.

I’ll bless you when you lie down. I’ll bless you in the kitchen. I’ll bless you in the bedroom. I’ll bless you in the living room. I’ll bless your fields. I’ll bless your goats. I’ll bless your sheep. I’ll bless your cows.

I’m going to bless you all over the place that your life will be nothing but an experience in divine benediction and blessedness.” But God goes on to say that “If you do not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be

Careful to do all His Commandments and His statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city. Cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.

Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds, the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.” In the kitchen, in the living room, in the bedroom, in the garage, cursed.”

You know one of the things I love about Christmas is the singing of carols, and one of my favorites is Joy to the World. And there is one line in there that I love. It always gets my attention, I’m sure you can guess which one it is. What is it, Ligon?

“He comes to make His blessings flow. Far as the curse is found.” He comes to make His blessings flow, where? “As far as the curse is found.” As far as the curse is found. How far do we find that curse?

The Apostle Paul says that the whole creation groans together in travail, waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God. We live in a planet, dear friends, that is under the curse of God. Well, what does that mean?

And I’d like to take some time with you this afternoon to explore the meaning and the significance of this idea of God’s divine curse. And I want to look at it in a couple of different ways. First of all, when the prophets of the Old Testament spoke not their own opinions but

The Word that God had placed in their mouth so that they could preface their announcements by these words, “Thus saith the Lord,” that the favorite method the prophets use to express the Word of God was the method that was called “the oracle.”

It seems that sometimes the only place we hear of the idea of the oracle is in Greek mythology when we hear of “the Oracle of Delphi,” where people would go and consult the oracle to ask how the future was going to turn out. “Will we be victorious? Will we be defeated in battle?

Will I marry Susan, Betty, or Jane?” And they were looking to these self-appointed prophets there at Delphi to give a divine pronouncement. Well, there were oracles before there was an oracle at Delphi. There was one called Isaiah, one called Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, Ezekiel, Daniel.

And they would use this oracular form to communicate the Word of God, and there were basically two kinds of oracles known to the prophets. There was “the oracle of weal,” which was an oracle of good news, an announcement of prosperity coming from the hand of God.

And then there was also “the oracle of woe,” which oracle would be an announcement of doom brought from the hand of God. And the normal way in which the oracle of weal would be uttered was by the use of the

Term “blessed,” by the pronouncements of a divine benediction, as David begins the Psalms, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, or stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and

In that law he meditates day and night. He’ll be like a tree planted by rivers of water, bringing forth his fruit in his season. But the ungodly are no so. They are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.”

How often did our Lord exercise the function of the prophet and make oracular pronouncements, such as He did on the Sermon on the Mount when He looked to His disciples and He said to them, “Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who hunger

And thirst after righteousness, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for My sake,” and so on, giving us that section of the Sermon that we call “The Beatitudes,” where Jesus pronounces the blessing of God upon certain people.

But the oracle of doom, in contrast, was normally prefaced by the word, “Woe.” As you recall Amos pronouncing the judgments of God on the nations, “Woe! For two transgressions and three, woe unto you Assyrians, woe unto you Damascus, woe unto you Israel.”

Or the incredible moment when Isaiah beheld the unveiled holiness of God, he pronounced an oracle of doom upon himself. He understood who God was, and for the first time in his life he understood who Isaiah was. And he cursed, not God, but he cursed Isaiah, “Woe is me. I’m coming apart. I’m undone.

I’m ruined because I have a filthy mouth, and I’m not alone. Not only am I exposed to the woe, but I live in the midst of a people of unclean lips who are equally exposed to the judgment of God.”

And so we see these statements in the Bible, these oracular statements of blessing and curse, weal and woe. And yet somehow, we love to hear the story of blessedness, but we never want to hear the woe. I don’t think there’s ever been a culture in the history of the world that has experienced

More discontinuity at that level. Everywhere in this country you see automobiles with bumper stickers that read “God Bless America.” After 9/11 Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell suggested that perhaps the events of 9/11 were God’s judgments upon America.

And the outcry and outrage of the press was so severe, they had to recant their musings on that point, because we believe in a God who is infinitely capable of blessing people, but is utterly incapable of cursing them.

When I was a young Christian, I heard a sermon from Billy Graham in which he said, “If God does not judge America, He’s going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” But the idea of God bringing judgment and wrath and curse upon a nation has been expurgated

From our Bibles and from our theologies, as we do exactly what Mark Dever warned us about doing earlier today. But if you really want to understand what it meant to a Jew to be cursed, I think the simplest way is to look at the famous Hebrew benediction in the Old Testament.

You all know how it goes. Those of you who are clergy use it for your final benediction countless times, “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.

May the Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon you and give you His peace.” Now, if you notice the structure of that famous benediction that it follows a common Hebrew poetic form known as “parallelism.” There are various types of parallelism in Hebrew literature.

There is antithetical parallelism, where ideas are set in contrast one to another. There are those synthetic parallelisms, where there is a building crescendo of ideas, a new idea is placed on top of another one, and another new idea comes in.

But one of the most common forms of parallelism is what is called “synonymous parallelism,” and as the word suggests, synonymous parallelism states the same thing simply by using different words. And there is no more clear example of synonymous parallelism anywhere in Scripture than in

The benediction here, where exactly the same thing is said in three different ways. So, if you don’t understand one line of it, then look to the next one and maybe it will reveal to you the meaning. Now to get things complicated, we see in the benediction three stanzas, as it were, with

Two elements in each one. “May the Lord bless – keep, make His face to shine upon you – be gracious unto you, lift up the light of His countenance upon you and give you His shalom, His peace.”

Now, what is so important for us to understand the curse is to understand, first of all, how the Jew understood blessing. How did he understand it? “May the Lord bless you.” What he meant by that is to be blessed by God is to be bathed in the refulgent glory that emanates His face.

“May the Lord bless you” means “May the Lord make His face to shine upon you.” Is this not what Moses begged for on the mountain when he said, “O God, I’ve seen what few mortals have ever seen. I saw the plagues that You brought to Egypt. I saw the river turn to blood.

I was there between Migdol and the sea when You dried up the sea and let us walk through. But now let me have the big one. Please let me see Your face.” You know what happened. God said, “Moses, you don’t know what you’re asking.

Haven’t you read the book you wrote that no man can see Me and live? Moses, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll carve out a niche in the rock over here and I’ll place you there in the cleft of the

Rock, and I will allow My backward parts to pass by and I’ll give you an instantaneous glance of My backward parts, but My face shall not be seen.” And when Moses had that brief glance of the back side of God, his face shone for an extended period of time.

But what the Jew longed for was, “O God, just let me once, just once see Your face.” You see, his ultimate hope is the same hope that is given to us in the New Testament, the final eschatological hope of the beatific vision.

“Behold, what manner of love is this,” John says, “that we should be called the children of God. We don’t know yet what we will be, but this much we know that we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” Don’t you want to see Him?

The hardest thing about being a Christian is serving a God you’ve never seen. And so, the Jew asked for that benediction. “O God, bless us to the degree that You would make Your face shine upon you.” Last week, Charlton Heston died – Moses, Ben-Hur. How many of you ever saw Ben-Hur?

Let me see. Almost everybody, good! Wait a minute, I’m going to try that the next time I do an invitation, if I can get that many hands up in the air. I don’t do invitations, except to weddings and graduations, things like that.

You remember that scene in Ben-Hur where he’s been reduced to slavery, and he is being dragged behind his captive and they finally come to this well in the midst of the desert. And he comes there and he’s in the sand and his lips are parched, and he’s overcome with thirst.

And all of a sudden, you see the shadow of a human thing. You never see this person’s face, but whoever it is who meets Ben-Hur stoops over and gives to him a cup of cold water.

And the point of view of the camera is from the gaze of Ben Hur, who looks up into the face of the one who is giving him this drink of water, and instantly Ben-Hur’s face begins to shine.

And you don’t have to be told who it was who gave him the drink of water, because the Lord Jesus made his face to shine upon this slave. “May the Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon you and give to you His peace.”

Every time I hear that benediction in church, I get chill bumps because it so incorporates my highest dream to see His face. But my purpose this afternoon is not to explain the blessing of God but its polar opposite, its antithesis, which again can be seen in vivid contrast to the benediction.

It would be the supreme malediction that would read something like this, “May the Lord curse you and abandon you. May the Lord keep you in darkness and give you only judgment without grace. May the Lord turn His back upon you and remove His peace from you forever.”

In the imagery of atonement on the Day of Atonement, we know that there are several animals involved in the ritual of that day. The priest, before he can enter into the holy of holies, where the high priest and only

The high priest and only this one day of the year can go, must first himself make a blood sacrifice and go through an elaborate process of purification. And then there are two more animals involved – one who was killed; the other that survives.

The one that is killed yields his blood, which the chief or high priest takes into the inner sanctum and sprinkles on the mercy seat, sprinkles on the throne of Yahweh to bring reconciliation. And yet in this drama, there is no power in that blood other than it’s pointing forward

To the blood of the Lamb, even as the blood on the door posts on the night of Passover pointed beyond itself to Christ our Passover, who was sacrificed for us. We know two things from the Day of Atonement. One, that without the shedding of blood there was no forgiveness of sins.

We also learn from the author of Hebrews that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sin. But in that half of the drama, with the blood sacrifice that is sprinkled on the mercy seat, what is symbolized is an act of propitiation, which some brilliant translators in the middle

Of the twentieth century decided to take out of the New Testament to their everlasting shame. Those two words that are so central to the core of the gospel, propitiation, expiation – what’s the difference? They have the same root, but different prefix.

I want our people at Saint Andrew’s in Sanford, Florida to always understand propitiation and expiation if they’re going to understand the gospel. And I tell them, I said, “You know our church is built in the classical style that is called

The cruciform, so that if you looked at it from the air, the shape of our building forms the shape of a cross.” And I say, “If you come down the center aisle, let it remind you of the vertical piece of the cross.

Let it remind you of propitiation, because in propitiation the Son does something to satisfy the justice and the wrath of the Father. It’s a vertical transaction.” That is what is prefigured in the sacrifice that is made on the mercy seat.

But let’s not forget that other animal that liberal theologians try every which way to erase from the biblical record as we’ve already heard. Yes, I’m speaking of the goat, the scapegoat who becomes the object of imputation, where the priest now lays his hands on the back of that goat, symbolically indicating the

Transfer, or the imputation, of the guilt of the people to the back of that goat. So at the end of that ceremony, the priest lays his hands on the goat and says, “May the sins of the people be upon this goat,” and then says to the goat, “Thank you very

Much for standing still during this.” And he says to the people, “You are dismissed.” No, no, no, no, no. The significance really reaches its crescendo after the imputation of the sin of the people to the back of the goat, when the goat is driven then into the wilderness, outside the camp.

You remember when God numbered the people according to the tribes and they pitched the tabernacle, the tribes were in a circle and what was in the middle, equidistant to every settlement of every tribe, was the tabernacle indicating God is in the midst of His people.

And to be driven out of the covenant community, to be driven outside the camp was to be driven to the place where the blessings of God did not reach, sent into the outer darkness, into the wilderness, into exile, into the curse. That’s expiation.

When in the cross, not only is the Father’s justice satisfied by the atoning work of His Son, but in bearing our sins, the Lamb of God removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. How does He do it? By being cursed.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law. Listen to this, not simply by being cursed for us, but becoming a curse for us. He who is the incarnation of the glory of God now becomes the very incarnation of the divine curse.

As it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs upon the tree.” Many, many years ago I was asked by the Quaker community of Pennsylvania, the Society of Friends, to come to one of their meetings and explain to them the difference between the old covenant and the new covenant.

And there I talked about the Day of Atonement in Israel and the crucifixion of Christ in the New Testament. And as I spoke of Christ becoming cursed, my message was interrupted by a guy in the back who stood up and shouted out loud, “That’s primitive and obscene!”

Has that ever happened to you when you’re preaching? I was taken aback and just to give myself a chance to think, I said, “What did you say?” as if I didn’t hear him. Everybody in the room heard him. I said, “What did you say?”

And with great hostility he said, “I said that’s primitive and obscene!” And I said, “You’re right. I love the words that you have chosen to describe this dynamic. What could be more primitive than killing animals and sticking their blood over the

Throne of God, or taking a human being and pouring out his blood as a human sacrifice? That is primitive. You’re right. You know, one of the things I love about the gospel, sir, is that it wasn’t written merely

For an agnostic elite group of scholars who had to have their Ph.D. in theology in order to understand it. But the drama of redemption is communicated in terms so simple, so crass, so primitive that a child can understand it. But I really like the second word you used – obscene, obscene.

If there ever was an obscenity that violates contemporary community standards, it was Jesus on the cross. Because after He became the scapegoat, and the Father imputes to Him every sin of every one of His people, we see the most intense, dense concentration of evil ever experienced on this planet.

Jesus was the ultimate obscenity.” And so, what happened? The Bible tells us that God is too holy to even look at sin, and He cannot bear to look at this concentrated, monumental condensation of evil, and His eyes are averted from His Son.

The light of His countenance is turned off, all blessedness is removed from His Son whom He loved, and in its place was the full measure of the divine curse. All of the imagery that portrays the historical event of the cross is the imagery of the curse.

It was necessary for the Scriptures to be fulfilled that Jesus not be crucified by Jews, but He has to be delivered into the hands of the Gentiles. He has to be executed not by stoning, but He has to be killed by Gentiles outside the

Camp, outside Jerusalem at Golgotha, so that the full measure of the curse and the darkness that attends it be visited upon Jesus. And God adds to these details astronomical perturbations, where at midday He turns the lights out on that hill outside of Jerusalem so that when His face is moved away, when

The light of His countenance is shut down, even the sun won’t shine on Calvary. And bearing the full measure of the curse, Christ screams, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Oh, and look at how the theologians play with that!

“Oh, well Jesus was taking this occasion to identify with the psalmist in Psalm 22, which begins with those words so that He can call attention to those who are looking upon this spectacle that this is really a fulfillment of prophecy.”

I don’t think Jesus was in a Bible quoting mood at that time, or as Albert Schweitzer opined, “This was a cry of a disillusioned prophet who believed that God was going to rescue Him at the eleventh hour, and He felt forsaken.” He didn’t just feel forsaken; He was forsaken.

For Jesus to become the curse, He has to be utterly, totally, and completely forsaken by the Father. I started off by saying to you I’ve been thinking about these things for fifty years, and I can’t begin to penetrate that, what it meant that Jesus was forsaken by God.

But there is none of this to be found in the pseudo-gospels of our day. Dear brothers, every time I hear a preacher on television or live, who says to his people, “God loves you unconditionally,” I want to ask that this man be defrocked for such a violation of the Word of God.

What pagan, who hears that announcement that God loves him unconditionally does not hear in that statement that he has no need of repentance, he can continue in sin without fear knowing that it’s all taken care of, that God doesn’t hold grudges, that God loves him unconditionally?

Well, there is a profound sense in which God does love people even in their corruption, but they are still under His anathema. I know that almost everybody here is a minister or related to a minister and so on, but you

Know just because you’re ordained there’s no guarantee that you are in the kingdom of God. And with this size of professing Christians assembled in one hall, the odds are astronomical that there are many people in this room right now who are still under the curse of God,

Who have not yet fled to the cross, who are still counting on this nebulous idea of the unconditional love of God to get them through, or even worse, still thinking that they can get into the kingdom of God through their good works, through their service, who don’t

Understand that unless you perfectly obey the law of God, which you have not done for five minutes since you were born, you are under the curse of God. And here’s the reality that we must make clear to our people, that they will either bear

The curse of God themselves, or they will flee to the One who took it for them. Cursed of God! The Father turns His back. Thomas Aquinas once was asked. “Thomas, do you think that Jesus enjoyed the beatific vision through His whole life?”

Thomas said, “I don’t know, but I’m sure that our Lord was able to see things that our sin keeps us from seeing.” Remember that the promise of the vision of God in the Beatitudes is the promise made to whom? To the pure of heart.

Beloved, the reason why you can’t see God with your eyes is not because you have a problem with your optic nerve. What prevents us from seeing God is our heart, our impurity. But Jesus had no impurity. And Thomas said He was pure in heart.

So obviously He had some, some experience of the beauty of the Father until that moment that my sin was placed upon Him. And the one who was pure was pure no more, and God cursed Him.

It was as if there was a cry from heaven, excuse my language but I can be no more accurate than to say, it was as if Jesus heard the words, “God damn you.” Because that’s what it meant to be cursed, to be damned, to be under the anathema of the Father.

As I said, I don’t understand that, but I know that it’s true, and I know that every person in this room and every person outside in this hotel and on the street and across the world who has not been covered by the righteousness of Christ right this minute

Draws every breath under the curse of God. If you believe that, you will stop adding to the gospel and start preaching it with clarity and with boldness because, dear friends, it is the only hope we have, and it is hope enough. Let’s pray.

Our Father, the work, the Person of Your Son is our only hope in life and in death. And so, we hope for our life and for our death in His life and in His death. Give us the grace to cling to the gospel. Amen.

#R.C #Sproul #Curse #Motif #Atonement

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