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To Bear Sin

Smeaton on the meaning of “to bear sin”:


But the phrase, “to bear sin,” demands more particular consideration. Wherever the language occurs, it carries with it the notion of an oppressive burden, or of penal endurance. But let us consider the phrase in examples. It occurs, first, in the sense of living under the frown or punitive hand of God: thus the Israelites “bore their iniquity” according to the number of the days in which they had searched out the land, each day a year (Numb. xiv. 34): it is used as synonymous with being guilty (Lev. v. 17; Num. v. 31): it is found as equivalent to being cut off (Lev. xx. 17; Num. ix. 13): it occurs in the sense of being punished with death (Num. xviii. 22, 32. Compare also Ex. xxviii. 43; Lev. xxiv. 15). In all these instances it refers to a person bearing his own sin. Where the reference, again, is to the sins of others, it means to undergo punishment for them, or to feel the penal effects and the unpleasant consequences due to the sins of others (Lam. v. 7; Ezek. xviii. 19). Hence, if we abide by the usage of language, the phrase can only mean, in this passage, to endure the penal consequences inseparable from the sins of mankind.

And as to the origin of the figure, it is taken from lifting a burden in order to carry it, or to lay it on one’s shoulders. But as the language is sacrificial, it points to the victim bearing the sin which the offerer laid upon it, by the laying on of the hand. The language, rightly understood, can only mean that Jesus was put in connection with sin; that He took Sin as such, and not the mere consequences of it, or the element of punishment alone; that He bore sin considered as guilt in its relation to the moral Governor; that He was made the world’s sin, and bore it,—thus becoming, not personally but officially, the proper object of punitive justice, and enduring the penalty due to the sins of mankind. The words prove that the work of Christ was a provision for sin as such,—that is, for sin considered as demerit and guilt; and only as the atoning work of Christ is adapted to this end, and divinely accepted, does it reverse the consequences of sin. A canon of easy application is, that the interposition of Christ implies that the burden of sin which was transferred to Him pressed heavily on the world, that mankind could not rid themselves of it, and could do nothing to remove it; and the language implies that the Lamb of God made it His—His heritage or property,—bearing in His own person what we had committed.

It must be noticed, further, that the verb beareth, which is in the present tense, is not used as a prophecy, neither as an allusion to the constant efficacy of the sacrifice, but as indicating that Jesus was even then the sin-bearer. He never in fact appeared “without sin” during His humiliation (Heb. ix. 28); and His coming in the likeness of sinful flesh was at once a proof that sin was borne by Him, and that this was already a part of His satisfaction. He was, even then, bearing sin, and many of the penal effects of it. It is a mistake to say, then, that the thought of the passage is an allusion to the abolition of sin; for the first idea of a sin-offering was not so much the consuming of moral evil—though that undoubtedly follows, and is a necessary consequence at the next remove—as the bearing of guilt. And an Israelite dreading divine wrath ever thought of the sin-offering in this light, as liberating him from its burden or pressure.

—George Smeaton, Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Banner of Truth, 2009), 100–102.

Posted 2018·05·07 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Atonement · Christ’s Doctrine of the Atonement · George Smeaton · Substitution

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