Introduction: Substitutionary Atonement
Substitutionary Atonement, a key theme in the Bible, involves three parties: the transgressor, the transgressed, and the substitute. The substitute (though innocent) takes the punishment that the transgressor (though guilty) deserves, in order to restore him to right standing before the transgressed. Here it is in biblical terms:
- God is holy (Isaiah 6:3).
- “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). 1
- Man’s sin against this holy God incurs His wrath (Romans 1:18).
- “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
- “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
- “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
A Sacrifice for Adam and Eve
“And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.”
In the beginning, there is God….
Our eternal God creates the world, not out of necessity but out of love. Each thing he creates is intricately designed and absolutely perfect and yet, He merely speaks it into existence. This paradise awaits God’s final, most valuable creation–mankind. God sees to it that it is all good for His children–very good. He commands everything into being…except the people. God fashions the man with His own hands and breathes life into him. He lovingly forms the woman and brings her to the man to be his helper and with him to mirror God’s love through their marriage. They alone bear His image; they alone have true fellowship with Him, their loving Father.
They are at rest in perfect relationship with Him in the flawless home He created for them in order that they may worship and obey Him. His command to them is generous and good–eat freely from every tree in the garden! There is only one small restriction–only one tree from which they must not eat. It is for their own good this tree is forbidden, for as God warns them, this tree’s fruit brings death. But beside it is the tree of life! This tree’s fruit brings–not death–but eternal life! And they have full access to it! 2
How Adam and Eve must have enjoyed those days in the garden! Uninhibited love for each other, full and shameless fellowship with their Maker, an awe-inspiring world to explore, beautiful and delicious food to eat…and yet…
There was that one forbidden tree. And that serpent who said it would not bring death, but knowledge. “Did God really say…?” 3 The fruit seemed so good. It was beautiful! If it would actually bring wisdom…
And they ate. Before them was life and death, blessing and curse. 4 They chose to doubt God’s love and goodness. They chose to grab the knowledge for themselves that their Father wanted to give them in His own perfect way. And they fractured their union with Him. They immediately knew guilt and shame, new and terrible feelings that caused them to cover themselves with leaves and hide from God’s presence.
Yet it is not anger we hear in God’s words. It’s grace. He gently questioned them, drawing out their confessions, giving them opportunity to repent. He was their Father and His goal was restoration rather than vengeance.
Of course there were tragic consequences to their disobedience. They would have to live with sin–and sin had corrupted them and their perfect world. They would now toil in great pain to bring forth children and sustenance. Their relationship with each other would be a struggle. And they would die. But the physical death to come was mild compared to the spiritual death they experienced as soon as they ate the fruit. They lost their perfect union with their holy Father. Their sin would keep them from God’s presence for eternity. Except…
God loves them. He had created them to be in right relationship with Him. And He already had a plan to atone for their sin. So, he curses the serpent and promises his defeat. But the promise for His children is incredible. He would send them a savior–from among their own offspring! This savior would give his own life to defeat the enemy. Hope! Forgiveness! Restoration! What a loving Father!
Then God does something unthinkable. He gives them a vivid and tangible picture of His forgiveness and a shadow of the savior’s sacrifice to come. He knows their fig leaves are insufficient, actually and symbolically. There is nothing they can do to restore their relationship with God. So He does it for them. He slays an animal in order to cover them with durable skins. The first physical death. 5 How horrific the sight must have been to them! Yet, this was the consequence they justly deserved. How merciful and gracious God is! To not only transfer their punishment to another but to go so far as to transfer the substitute’s benefit to clothe them, covering their shame!
Of course, the animal did not actually atone for their sin. It was a picture. Only the promised Messiah could sufficiently atone for their sins. But this tangible illustration demonstrated God’s forgiveness and surely must have served to establish their hope and faith in the true atonement that was to come.
- All Scripture quotes are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise specified.
- Much of my understanding of these first chapters of Genesis was influenced by Dr. Michael G. Wechsler whom I had the privilege of learning under in a class on Genesis at the Moody Bible Institute. Thankfully, he has now written a commentary on Genesis that can be found within The Moody Bible Commentary: A One Volume Commentary on the Whole Bible by the Faculty of Moody Bible Institute, general editors, Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham, Moody Publishers, 2014. I’m telling you, this commentary is worth your money just for Dr. Wechsler’s Genesis commentary!
- Genesis 3:1 NIV
- see Deuteronomy 30:19
- This is inferred from the text.