Atonement in Scripture: Isaiah 53, Part 5: Atonement and Social Justice Are One


Tentative Conclusion #3:  Atonement and Restorative Social Justice

Here is one application of Incarnational, ontological atonement to Christian ethics.  In Isaiah 58, Isaiah gives his rousing sermon about the lack of social justice with regards to fair wages, debt-enslavement and debt-forgiveness, hospitality and economic sharing, and Sabbath rest (Isa.58:1 – 14).  All of these issues are both interpersonal and structural issues because they are based on the original Mosaic vision of fair land distribution, limitations on inheritance, regular debt-forgiveness, and upholding the dignity of the poor (Lev.25; Dt.15:1 – 18; 24:10 – 22).  Behind the Mosaic vision lies the original creation order, even if only in part due to the ‘hardness of heart’ that had set in since the fall (Mt.19:8; cf.19:3 – 12) since Israel was called to be God’s true human family living in God’s garden land, like Adam and Eve lived in the original garden.  Isaiah then foresees God intervening.  The Redeemer will come to Zion in what appears to me as a passage about incarnation and atonement, to bring about social justice:

14 Justice is turned back,

And righteousness stands far away;

For truth has stumbled in the street,

And uprightness cannot enter.

15 Yes, truth is lacking;

And he who turns aside from evil makes himself a prey.

Now the LORD saw,

And it was displeasing in His sight that there was no justice.

16 And He saw that there was no man,

And was astonished that there was no one to intercede;

Then His own arm brought salvation to Him,

And His righteousness upheld Him.

17 He put on righteousness like a breastplate,

And a helmet of salvation on His head;

And He put on garments of vengeance for clothing

And wrapped Himself with zeal as a mantle.

18 According to their deeds, so He will repay,

Wrath to His adversaries, recompense to His enemies;

To the coastlands He will make recompense.

19 So they will fear the name of the LORD from the west

And His glory from the rising of the sun,

For He will come like a rushing stream

Which the wind of the LORD drives.

[20 ‘A Redeemer will come to Zion,

And to turn transgression from Jacob,’ declares the LORD; LXX translation]

[20 ‘The deliverer will come from Zion,

he will remove ungodliness from Jacob,’ declares the LORD; quoted by Paul in Romans 11:26]

21 ‘As for Me, this is My covenant with them,’ says the LORD:

‘My Spirit which is upon you,

And My words which I have put in your mouth

Shall not depart from your mouth,

Nor from the mouth of your offspring,

Nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,’ says the LORD,

‘From now and forever.’  (Isa.59:14 – 21)


Isaiah had already said that the Servant would bring about ‘justice’ to the coastlands (Isa.42:1 – 4) precisely by freeing captives from prison, giving sight to the blind, and so on (Isa.42:5 – 9).  In other words, the restoration of liberty, sight, and so on serve to illustrate the meaning of the ‘justice’ that the Servant brings.  The Servant brings a restorative justice.  Now, Isaiah uses retributive justice language (e.g. ‘vengeance’, ‘recompense’) for the larger purpose of demonstrating God’s restorative justice.  In and through the person of His Servant, the Redeemer who will come to Zion (and in Paul, from Zion), God will remove ungodliness from Jacob – that is, according to Paul and the LXX reading of Isaiah 59:20!  I read this as meaning that the Servant will ontologically remove the corruption of sin, first from himself as the true Israelite, and then inaugurating the removal of ungodliness from all those who come to him.  He will extend His covenant to them by the Spirit upon him, ‘to those who turn from transgression in Jacob,’ as the Masoretic Text reads in complementary fashion, and not just to those ‘from Jacob’ but even to those far off from ‘the coastlands.’  By doing this, Isaiah indicates that the covenant relationship between God and Israel is precisely to express God’s restorative justice, within which retributive justice has some smaller part to play but is not the highest form of justice within God.  As John Goldingay observes, God’s ‘chastisement is not merely punitive but also restorative (1:21 – 31).’[1]  This is much more consistent with Trinitarian logic, insofar as we can immediately see that restorative justice is an organic expression of God’s very nature as Triune love.  God seeks to restore all that has been marred.  It is not immediately obvious, by contrast, why retributive justice is an organic expression of God’s nature as Triune love.


The Redeemer will be the locus of a healing, purifying, and transformative change among people.  The Spirit of God will be on him, and extended through him to others.  The word of God will be in his mouth, and extended through him to others, which means that God is trying to do justice by healing the corruption and impurity of sin in every single person, which means that God is not at all complicit in human evil.  The goal of such ‘salvation’ (59:16) is not a salvation from God.  Nor does salvation mean waiting for the next world while assuring people that the wrath of God has been appeased, which is where penal substitution most naturally and logically leads.  Rather, this salvation is a salvation from impurity, corruption, injustice, and sinfulness, to bring about restorative social justice through the purifying transformation of people through Jesus by his Spirit.  This is an appropriate motivation for ontological substitutionary atonement.  If Isaiah said, ‘It was displeasing in His sight that there was no justice,’ and also said that divine displeasure was a primary motivation for the incarnation and atonement of Jesus, then who are we to deny that working towards social justice, in both the structural and interpersonal arenas, is an intrinsic part of the gospel?[2]


In fact, in two places in his letters, Paul reinforces our union with Christ the Redeemer, and simultaneously reminds us of God’s call for restorative social justice.  He surely had Isaiah 59:17 in mind when he admonished the Thessalonians and the Ephesians (which was probably an open chain letter to all believers) to take up the ‘breastplate of righteousness’ and the ‘helmet of salvation’ (1 Th.5:8; Eph.6:13 – 17).  Jesus has already ‘clothed’ himself with this ‘battle armor’ (which can perhaps be said to begin within our fallen human nature and culminate in his new humanity!) to accomplish our redemption from sin and to bring about justice among the people of God, and through the people of God in the wider world.  He removes sinfulness from human nature, first in himself and then in us.  Now we are to consciously ‘clothe’ ourselves with Christ, that is, to live out of our identity in Christ.  We must live out our redemption from sin and God’s desire for justice, which he renews at the very core of our being by his Spirit.


I am not sure how Groves would respond to my treatment of Isaiah.  Perhaps that would be a task one of his colleagues or former students would undertake.  Suffice to say, however, that in 2004, Groves did not adequately answer Whybray’s skepticism about finding penal substitution in Isaiah 53.  My explanation, however, does adequately answer Whybray.  Jesus shared in Israel’s exilic punishment – including the ontological condition of corruption in particular – precisely to bear sinfulness away from his human nature, and by his Spirit to offer his new humanity back to Israel and the world to bear theirs away, too.  This is exactly what leads Isaiah to think about the work of the Servant-Messiah in global terms.  Whybray overstated the case when he said that the Servant’s suffering is not vicarious.  The Servant did not have to deflect a punishment in order to suffer vicariously for others.  He could share in it, experience it to the full, and conquer it from within.  This Jesus did.  So while Whybray correctly noted that the Servant did not deflect the punishment of exile from Israel, but rather shared in it with Israel, he did not consider the thesis of ontological substitution:  Jesus had to overcome the condition of bearing corrupted human nature that made the exile from the tree of life necessary in the first place.  The Servant, by suffering the struggle of loving God fully and bending human nature back towards the Father in the Spirit, accomplished something vicariously for Israel and the world that no Israelite could accomplish.  Nor could Israel as a whole accomplish it as a covenant community.  He bore our sinfulness, and bore it away from us, so he could bear a new humanity for us and towards us.



[1] John H. Goldingay, ‘The Theology of Isaiah’, edited by David G. Firth and H.G.M. Williamson, Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p.177

[2] A pressing issue about which American evangelicals today are sometimes confused.  Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith:  Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press, USA: 2001) explain why white American evangelicals tend to be blind to structural and systemic problems; see also the much shorter article by Alan Noble, Sin’s Part in the System (and Vice Versa): Thoughts on Voddie Baucham’s “Thoughts on Ferguson”, Christ & Pop Culture, Nov.28, 2014;; last accessed Dec.28, 2014.





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