Atonement in Scripture: Isaiah 53, Part 4


A Response to J. Alan Groves’ Essay on Isaiah 53

In The Glory of the Atonement, a book dedicated to theologian Dr. Roger Nicole and the doctrine of penal substitution, Dr. J. Alan Groves contributed an essay on Isaiah 53.   In the bulk of his essay, Groves makes a persuasive case that the sin-bearing language of Isaiah 53:11 – 12 is a reference to the scapegoat of the Day of Atonement, now reconfigured around the human Servant-Messiah.[1]  As noted earlier, I agree with that part of Groves’ argument.  I disagree, however, with Groves’ assessment that this is evidence for penal substitution.  Two aspects of Groves’ argument are worth pointing out here.


First, Groves in his essay does not actually integrate his understanding of Isaiah 53 into his broader treatment of Isaiah, which he says, remarkably, can be summarized by the word purification.  He says:


‘In the singular vision of Isaiah, a ‘new’ and startling purification was unveiled.  Isaiah 40 – 66 revealed a purification that secured global, permanent purity and that actually changed the object for which purification had been made – removing sin, sin’s effects, and sin’s source.  It was a purification that began with judgment and culminated in salvation.  It was a purification of Zion (Is 1:25, 27) and her inhabitants (Is 4:4) that (unthinkably) included the nations (Is 2:2 – 4) and even the entire heavens and earth (Is 24:1 – 6; 65:17)! … Such extraordinary purification required an atonement of equally extraordinary and radical nature…accomplished by a new thing (Is 48:7), something previously unknown and not derived from human experience or wisdom – the astounding suffering of one righteous Israelite (Is 52:13 – 53:12), who bore the sins of others.’


Groves believed that the sin-bearing of Jesus was of the legal-penal-juridical kind.  In keeping with the aim of the book The Glory of the Atonement, Groves was arguing that we must interpret Isaiah 53 as supporting penal substitution.  In which case, the question left unanswered is how exactly God’s satisfaction of His own retributive justice organically fits with His purifying the whole heavens and earth, and everything and everyone in it (except unbelievers).  Does atonement refer to God solving a problem within Himself, as in penal substitution?  Or does it refer to God solving a problem within humanity and the creation?  Groves’ surprise, however worshipful and delightful and inspiring, shows that to him, atonement is the former (satisfaction of God).  The deeper, organic connection to the latter (purification of the person), though, is therefore never explained and is fundamentally separate.


In the ontological-medical substitution model of the atonement, God purifies that which He loves.  To be sure, He expresses the fire of His purifying action towards that which must be burned away.  That is, He has a wrath that flows out of His love, not His retributive justice as a separate attribute equal and opposite to His love.  In fact, His wrath is a derivative expression of His love.  It is His love in purifying action, directed at the corruption of sin within the human.  Therefore, God in atonement solves a problem within humanity and the creation, ontologically and fundamentally.  He does not exhaust an attribute that demanded satisfaction, or otherwise change His own disposition towards us while leaving us the same.  Purification is atonement.


Second, Groves tried to rebut scholar R.N. Whybray, who made the case that


‘the Servant cannot be said to be suffering, or to have suffered, in place of the exiles in such a way that they escape the consequences of their sins, since, as in the case of speakers in Lam.5:7, it cannot be said that they have escaped punishment:  they are all actually suffering the consequences of defeat and banishment.  The Servant, if, as is here maintained, he is one of them, shares their suffering.  Chapter 53 indeed makes it clear that he has suffered more intensely than they, and the ‘we’ who speak there confess that, at any rate compared with themselves, he is innocent; nevertheless this is shared and not vicarious suffering.’[2]


Apparently, Groves believed that by successfully establishing that the Servant of Isaiah was functioning as a sin-bearing scapegoat of sorts, that he has answered Whybray’s argument.  I do not believe he did.  For Whybray argued that the Servant did not deflect the punishment of exile from Israel.  And on this particular point, I agree.


Groves did not explain in his essay what punishment he believed the Servant took as a replacement for Israel and the world, for that question must be answered by any proponent of penal substitution.  Sadly, Groves passed away in 2007 at the age of 55, before finishing his theological commentary on Isaiah.  He finished his last class at Westminster Theological Seminary in 2006 while battling cancer.  His colleagues Peter Enns, Douglas J. Green, and Michael B. Kelly edited a collection of essays in his honor, and they write in the preface,


‘His untimely death prevented Al from finishing his intended contribution to that series, The Gospel According to Isaiah.  His remarkable biblical-theological work on Isaiah, seen, for example, in his article “Atonement in Isaiah 53”, and contained in over a decade of students’ notes, will have to wait to see the further light of day as many of us pick up his ideas and explore and expand them in other venues.’[3]


Although I did not benefit from Groves’ lectures personally, I presume that Groves would say the Servant absorbed the eschatological wrath of God, which would ordinarily be expressed towards every human being in the fires of hell itself because the retributive justice of God requires an infinite punishment in response to insults done to an infinite Being.  Given his standing in the Reformed tradition characteristic of Westminster Theological Seminary, Groves probably viewed Israel’s exilic banishment from the garden land as a foreshadowing of the much more profound banishment of hell.  He probably viewed them as being theologically connected through the retributive justice of God exacting punishment for the offended holiness of God.


But is that how Isaiah himself understood the motif of fire as a literary symbol of purification, the exile of Israel and the broader exile of the world, the suffering of the Servant on behalf of others, the renewal of all things, and the character of God?  And is that how Jesus and the apostles understood Isaiah?  Arguably not.[4]  Isaiah was drawing from the fiery mountain motif of Sinai from Exodus 19.  At Sinai, God summoned Israel up on the mountain to meet with him face to face.[5]  Israel, however, declined.  Moses alone went up to meet with God face to face.  Moses reminded the second generation of Israelites that the first generation was afraid of the fire (Dt.5:4 – 5).  Yet the significance of Mount Sinai is its literary-theological resemblance to Eden, the original mountain on which God’s presence dwelt (Ezk.28:13 – 14).  God even made water to flow from the rock at Sinai (Ex.17:1 – 7) just as water flowed from Eden (Gen.2:10 – 14).[6]  The motif of fire comes from the older biblical antecedent, Eden, outside of which burned the flaming sword of the cherubim (Gen.3:24), which Isaiah was surely recalling (e.g. Isa.66:16).  Mount Sinai burned with God’s purifying fire, which Moses alone entered, and his face shone with light as a result.  Isaiah sees that Mount Zion, as the next mountain of God’s presence, also fits into this pattern.  God purifies those who allow Him to do so, but that same fire will be a fiery judgment for those who reject Him and His work.  It can only be so, since the fire symbolizes and expresses the purification God still insists upon, even towards those who continue to resist Him.  What happened at Sinai will be repeated at Zion:


3 It will come about that he who is left in Zion

and remains in Jerusalem

will be called holy—

everyone who is recorded for life in Jerusalem.

4 When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion

and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst,

by the spirit of judgment

and the spirit of burning,

5 then the LORD will create over the whole area of Mount Zion

and over her assemblies a cloud by day, even smoke,

and the brightness of a flaming fire by night;

for over all the glory will be a canopy.  (Isa.4:3 – 5)


Isaiah uses fire as an expression of God’s judgment on others (e.g. 5:24 – 25; 10:16 – 17; 26:11; 30:27 – 33; 33:10 – 14; 42:25).  But he also sees that the fire of God will purify them, and as their silver has become dross (1:22), God says that He ‘will also turn My hand against you, and smelt away your dross as with lye, and will remove all your alloy’ (1:25).  That is the image of a metalworker’s refining fire.  Isaiah even experiences the fiery judgment of God on himself.  In his encounter with God in the temple vision, Isaiah offers his unclean lips to be touched by a burning coal (6:6).  This attests to the use of a single motif – fire – with dual effects depending on one’s posture:  purification for those who yield their uncleanness and sinfulness to God, and for those who do not, the burning pain of being subjected to God’s fiery purity.  Similarly, Isaiah says of Israel that the exile served the purpose of a refining fire:  ‘Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction’ (48:10).


Isaiah’s final vision ends with the vision of renewed holy mountain Jerusalem on which God’s people enjoy life and peace, but outside of which is a fiery graveyard of sorts, where living corpses feed the worm that does not die.  Those inside Jerusalem, i.e. within God’s presence, can be joyful (66:10), be nourished and comforted like a young, nursing child (66:11 – 13), and be strengthened (66:14a – c).  But towards those who choose to remain outside of God’s presence, ‘He will be indignant towards His enemies’ (66:14d).  God will ‘come in fire…His rebuke with flames of fire, for the Lord will execute judgment by fire and by His sword on all flesh’ (66:15 – 16).  The motifs of fire are telling, reminding us of the covenant offered and refused at Sinai.  Then comes a devastating warning against impurity (66:17) and an invitation to all nations to come to ‘My holy mountain Jerusalem’ (66:18 – 20), from which God ‘will also take some of them for priests and for Levites’ (66:21), which is a remarkable statement about Gentiles.  This will constitute a ‘new heavens and new earth’ centered in this renewal of God’s presence at Jerusalem (66:22 – 23).  Outside of that will lie the eternally dying bodies of those ‘who have transgressed against Me, for their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched; and they will be an abhorrence to all mankind’ (66:24).  Since Jesus quotes that very verse from Isaiah’s final vision in Mark’s Gospel (Mk.9:43 – 48), he indicates his awareness of the whole of Isaiah’s prophecy.  Jesus also used the language of fire in the same dual way that Isaiah did; fire speaks of the purification by the Holy Spirit (Mt.3:11; Acts 2:3) and is logically connected to having light in one’s self (Mt.5:14 – 16; 6:22 – 23; 17:2; 28:3); but fire is also used to describe the burning of those who resist (Mt.3:10, 12; 5:22; 13:40 – 42, 49; 18:8 – 9; 25:41, 46).  Jesus clearly oriented Isaiah’s final vision around himself – since he embodies God’s presence within himself and is himself the covenant, he becomes, in the truest sense, the renewed Jerusalem, the renewed place where God dwells.  Those outside of him, i.e. not joined to him by his Spirit, are those who will be eternally burning in a death more terrible than the physical death we understand.


Within this understanding of Isaiah’s understanding of fire as both purifying and destroying, depending on one’s posture towards God, and how Jesus continued using that language, we can situate Israel’s exile and restoration from exile.  God will have to burn and purify away something unclean from Israel and each person who willingly surrenders to that process, just as He did in archetype when the burning coal touched Isaiah’s unclean lips which he offered voluntarily (Isa.6:6).  God did that in the Servant-Messiah when he offered himself as a sin/guilt offering.  In that offering, at least portions of the slain animal were burned in fire (Lev.4:10 – 11, 21, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 12), and that fiery image is an intrinsic part of Isaiah’s understanding of the purification process which happened within the Servant-Messiah as he bore human sinfulness into God for God to consume (Isa.53:10 – 12).  Consequently, he is the one who God has returned from exile as the true Israelite.  We can tell that Isaiah makes him out to be this because of the language he uses in the fifth and final stanza of the Servant Song (Isa.53:10 – 12).  The Servant-Messiah inherits the creational blessing of a ‘prolonged life’ and the fruitfulness of ‘offspring’ (Isa.53:10) along with his ‘portion’ of the garden land which he will ‘divide’ with others (Isa.53:12).  That language reaches back through the experience of Israel all the way to the original creational vision of Genesis 1 and 2.  The Servant-Messiah goes through this purification process for all others, Jew and Gentile. But he does this to represent all others, on their behalf, so that the purification required to return from exile can be reproduced by his Spirit in all people who willingly and voluntarily become the Messiah’s subjects.


Those who resist the Messiah experience fire.  But why?  Not, I submit, because the fire of the ‘retributive justice’ of God is another ‘attribute’ of God equal and opposite to His purifying love.  Rather, those who resist the Messiah continue to experience God’s love as a demand to surrender and be purified through union with Himself.  As later Christian reflection will articulate about human nature in eternity, people who resist God will be unable to stop resisting God for the same reason people who love God will be unable to stop loving God.  John of Damascus, a Syrian priest who lived in the 7th and 8th centuries under the Arab Islamic conquest, who is thought to sum up the deposit of Christian thought until that time, said,


‘In eternity God supplies good things to all because He is the source of good things gushing forth goodness to all… After death, there is no means for repentance, not because God does not accept repentance – He cannot deny Himself nor lose His compassion – but the soul does not change anymore… people after death are unchangeable, so that on the one hand the righteous desire God and always have Him to rejoice in, while sinners desire sin though they do not have the material means to sin… they are punished without any consolation.  For what is hell but the deprivation of that which is exceedingly desired by someone?  Therefore, according to the analogy of desire, whoever desires God rejoices and whoever desires sin is punished.’[7]


This conclusion, which might be surprising to Protestant evangelicals, was already implicit in Isaiah’s vision of eternity and his understanding of God’s desire to purify all things (e.g. Isa.24:5; 25:6 – 9; 34:1 – 35:10).  This makes much more sense of God’s purposes.  God never stops trying to purify His creation through union with Himself, because He loves each and every being.  This is true even for those who resist Him.  God does not suddenly shift His posture towards the unredeemed from purifying love to ‘retributive justice’, as if He could turn one of His ‘attributes’ off and another on like light switches.  He is simply doing one thing:  He acts out of purifying, healing love towards all, at all times.  If people try to hold on to the corruption God wants to burn away, then they will experience God as a burning, destroying fire. But His posture in eternity is the same as His posture towards them now in the present.  The experience of God by the unredeemed is different than that of the redeemed based on their posture towards God, not based on God having two categorically different ‘attributes’ between which He toggles.


[1] J. Alan Groves, ‘Atonement in Isaiah 53’, edited by Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III, The Glory of the Atonement (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004)

[2] R.N. Whybray, Thanksgiving for a Liberated Prophet: An Interpretation of Isaiah Chapter 53, JSOTSS 4 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1978) p.30

[3] Peter Enns, Douglas J. Green, and Michael B. Kelly, Eyes to See, Ears to Hear: Essays in Memory of J. Alan Groves (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), p.xiv

[4] See my treatment of Isaiah’s use of the Sinai ‘fiery mountain’ motif, and the Gospel writers’ use of Isaiah in Mako A. Nagasawa, Hell as Fire and Darkness: Remembrance of Sinai as Covenant Rejection in Matthew’s Gospel;; see also my summary of how Christians historically and theologically understood hell in Hell as the Love of God;

[5] John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), p.51 – 59; see also the discussion of Jeremiah’s recollection of Sinai in Jer.7:23 – 24 on p.51.

[6] Note that people meeting with God on a mountain, from which life originates and spreads, is a motif that also recurs.  In the story of Noah and family, the ark rested on the top of the mountains of Ararat (Gen.8:4) and from there, new life spread on the earth.  In the story of Abram and Sarai, Abram went to the mountain on the east of Bethel, between Bethel and Ai, and built an altar on the mountain and worshiped (Gen.12:8; 13:5).  Mount Sinai is yet one more example of God using the literary motif of a mountain.

[7] John of Damascus, Against the Manicheans 94.1569, 1573; Augustine, Confessions, book 1, said, ‘Every inordinate affection is its own punishment.’


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