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The Curse Motif of the Atonement, Part 1

A Message by R.C. Sproul

Drawing deeply upon the imagery of the Old Testament, R.C. Sproul looks at Galatians 3:10-14 and richly meditates on what Jesus suffered on the cross—and what He saved us from.

From the series: Together for the Gospel 2008

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    Cursed on Our Behalf

  2. devotional

    The Curse of the Law

  3. blog-post

    The Supreme Malediction: Jesus Became A Curse

Cursed on Our Behalf

Redemptive history — the story of God’s work in time to save His people — is on Paul’s mind as he analyzes faith, works, and the Mosaic law (Gal. 3). One essential redemptive-historical concept is the covenant of works in Eden. Adam would have merited righteousness and eternal life for mankind had he obeyed our Creator (Rom. 5:12–21). Yet with the fall came the Almighty’s curse (Gen. 3:16–19) and the inability to obey God unto righteousness (Ps. 143:1–2).

Our Creator would have to set aside His standards — an impossibility — to waive His demand for righteousness. So, in the covenant of grace, God provides for the covenant of works to be kept and for us to be found righteous through faith (Gen. 15:1–6). To form this faith, God gave a law to the Israelites that serves both the covenant of grace and the covenant of works. The Mosaic law’s teaching that life comes through unwavering obedience to it (Lev. 18:5; Gal. 3:10–12) serves the covenant of works in that we are reminded of its demands. Being reminded of its demands, however, shows us the divine curse on the failure to keep it, and thus it serves grace. Deuteronomy 27:26 promises a curse for Israel’s failing to keep covenant, the greatest curse being exile from the very presence of the Almighty (28:15–68). In exile, Israel was to realize her inability to obey and look to God alone to be saved. The Gentiles also would see their own fallenness in this; if God’s chosen could not obey, how could they?

God sent His Son to lift the curse and bring His people back from exile. Though Jesus was utterly faithful to the Law (1 Peter 2:22–23), He must have suffered for transgression because only those regarded as wicked could suffer the curse of being hung on a tree, as in His crucifixion (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13). Therefore, if He did not die for His own sins, Christ died for the sins of others. On the cross the Father imputed the sins of His people to Jesus, that is, the Father placed our sins on His Son, condemning sin in His flesh. But He also counts Jesus’ record of perfect obedience to all who believe (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ’s perfect righteousness, His flawless keeping of the covenant of works, is the grounds for our justification and is imputed to us by faith alone.

The Curse of the Law

Paul's fifth argument against the Judaizers is that the law, misunderstood as a way of salvation, only brings a curse (Galatians 3:10–14). Paul cites four Old Testament passages, proving once again that the Judaizers are not being faithful to the teaching of the old covenant, as they claimed.

First, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law." It is clear that nobody obeys the law perfectly, so everybody falls under the curse of the law. According to Genesis 2 and 3, the curse is death. Thus, the law cannot possibly give life and salvation to men; it can only work death. Those under the curse of the law can only find life by trusting in the promises, apart from the law.

Second, Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4: "The righteous will live by faith." Life, says Paul, comes by means of faith, not by means of earning favor through works. Day by day the righteous man finds life by believing the promises, and then after receiving life, he lives a life of obedience to the law.

Third, Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5: "The man who does these things will live by them." God was telling the people that if they lived faithfully, trusting and obeying, they would grow in life and sanctification. In context, Leviticus 18:5 presupposes faith, and simply means that true faith—the kind that gives life and growth in salvation—is obedient faith. It seems, though, that the Judaizers were misusing Leviticus 18:5 to teach that law-keeping by itself produces salvation. Paul pits their misreading of Leviticus 18:5 against the clear statement of Habakkuk 2:4 and argues that if we separate the law from faith, and use the law as a means of getting salvation, all we shall find is the curse and death.

Finally, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 21:23: "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree." Jesus was hanged on a tree, and took the curse of the law on our behalf. This is what delivers us from the curse of the law, and enables us to find true life when we put our faith in Christ's atoning work, on His life, and His cursed death.

The Supreme Malediction: Jesus Became A Curse

R.C. Sproul

The Curse Motif of the Atonement

One image, one aspect, of the atonement has receded in our day almost into obscurity. We have been made aware of present-day attempts to preach a more gentle and kind gospel. In our effort to communicate the work of Christ more kindly we flee from any mention of a curse inflicted by God upon his Son. We shrink in horror from the words of the prophet Isaiah (chap. 53) that describe the ministry of the suffering servant of Israel and tells us that it pleased the Lord to bruise him. Can you take that in? Somehow the Father took pleasure in bruising the Son when he set before him that awful cup of divine wrath. How could the Father be pleased by bruising his Son were it not for his eternal purpose through that bruising to restore us as his children?

But there is the curse motif that seems utterly foreign to us, particularly in this time in history. When we speak today of the idea of curse, what do we think of? We think perhaps of a voodoo witch doctor that places pins in a doll made to replicate 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 there is nothing superstitious about it.

The Hebrew Benediction

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, one which clergy often use as the concluding benediction in a church service:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
(Num. 6:24–26)

The structure of that famous benediction follows a common Hebrew poetic form known as parallelism. There are various types of parallelism in Hebrew literature. There's antithetical parallelism in which ideas are set in contrast one to another. There is synthetic parallelism, which contains a building crescendo of ideas. But one of the most common forms of parallelism is synonymous parallelism, and, as the words suggest, this type restates something with different words. There is no clearer example of synonymous parallelism anywhere in Scripture than in the benediction in Numbers 6, where exactly the same thing is said in three different ways. If you don't understand one line of it, then look to the next one, and maybe it will reveal to you the meaning.

We see in the benediction three stanzas with two elements in each one: "bless" and "keep"; "face shine" and "be gracious"; and "lift up the light of his countenance" and "give you peace." For the Jew, to be blessed by God was to be bathed in the refulgent glory that emanates from his face. "The Lord bless you" means "the Lord make his face to shine upon you." Is this not what Moses begged for on the mountain when he asked to see God? Yet God told him that no man can see him and live. So God carved out a niche in the rock and placed Moses in the cleft of it, and God allowed Moses to see a glimpse of his backward parts but not of his face. After Moses had gotten 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 to see God's face, just once.

The Jews' ultimate hope was the same hope that is given to us in the New Testament, the final eschatological hope of the beatific vision: "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). Don't you want to see him? The hardest thing about being a Christian is serving a God you have never seen, which is why the Jew asked for that.

The Supreme Malediction

But my purpose here 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. The supreme malediction 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."

When on the cross, not only was the Father's justice satisfied by the atoning work of the Son, but in bearing our sins the Lamb of God removed our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. He did it by being cursed. "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'" (Gal. 3:13). He who is the incarnation of the glory of God became the very incarnation of the divine curse.

Excerpt taken from "The Curse Motif of the Cross" by R.C. Sproul in Proclaiming a Cross Centered Theology, Copyright ©2009. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187.

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