the Atonement according to Psalm 50

I briefly mentioned towards the end of a post last month that one topic I’d like to address in the near future here is that of sacrifice.  Although I’m not ready to tackle this huge topic head-on yet, I have come across an important passage of scripture that does: Psalm 50.  I have decided to prepare a sermon on this Psalm in a couple weeks for my preaching class, so these are simply my initial notes.

When I read this psalm yesterday morning as part of my private devotional time, I noticed that it had a lot of great sacrifice content, so I was already watching out for that theme as I went about studying it a little more closely today.  In the ESV translation of the Bible, Psalm 50 is broken into seven stanzas, and I set out to give a one-line summary of each one, and I was amazed at the result:

  1. verses 1-2: God is the Creator and God is perfect.
  2. verses 3-6: God is a righteous judge with a covenant people by means of sacrifice.
  3. verses 7-11: Offering burnt offerings (substitutionary sacrifice) is not enough because God owns all things.
  4. verses 12-15: God doesn’t need us to feed Him, He just wants thanksgiving (self-sacrifice); this is the way of salvation.
  5. verses 16-18: Wicked people reject God’s words, which disqualifies them from God’s covenant and offering self-sacrifices.
  6. verses 19-21: Wicked people treat God like one of them, but unlike them He does not slander them back, but rebukes & judges them.
  7. verses 22-23: Offering God no self-sacrifice leads to destruction; offering Him a self-sacrifice is part of salvation.

As you can probably see here, this is an astonishingly complete summary of the Atonement, especially from a piece of Old Testament poetry!  Of course, this isn’t the whole picture, and there is ample material from everywhere else in Scripture to explain this further.

There are two key pieces of additional information that I would add to this summary to help explain it.  The first is the very definition of the word “sacrifice.”  It comes from the Latin roots sacra+ficio, or literally, “to make holy.”  So when we sacrifice something, we’re making it holy, or setting it apart for a particular (holy) purpose.  The method of sacrifice, therefore, often included burning the object of the sacrifice – a radical way of giving something over to God indeed!

The second key note is the definition of sacrifice offered by the Apostle Paul: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”  True worship of God, therefore, is self-sacrifice.  Obviously this is not about burning ourselves up on altars like in the case of Old Testament animal sacrifices.  Those were substitutionary sacrifices – the animals were sacrificed in place of the people because the people were not holy.  This would still be true today except for the fact that Jesus has come, and through his perfect self-sacrifice, offered his holiness to all who will accept it.  Once we accept his righteousness to our account, we are able to sacrifice ourselves to God.

So in Psalm 50 we see that there was a time that substitutionary sacrifices were expected by God from his people, but they were not what He ultimately wanted.  The substitutionary sacrifices were to be accompanied by self-sacrifice.  The animals were imperfect substitutes, and thus it was appropriate for them to be offered continually.  Jesus was the perfect substitute, and thus Christian self-sacrifice is always rooted in Christ.

Taking this back to the text, Psalm 50 reveals God’s expectation that an appropriate self-sacrifice is that of thanksgiving.  This makes perfect sense, given the reminder earlier in the psalm that God already owns everything.  The closest we can do to giving God anything is by exercising our free wills for Him.  Although, yes, he gave us our free wills, the fact that we can be creative (like God, in a way), allows us to give something back to God via a lifestyle of praise and thanksgiving to the Creator of all.

This is why the psalm points out that the wicked (those who reject God and his ways) cannot join in covenant with God, and have no business pretending to be friends with Him.  If all we can offer to God is worship, then refusing to do so is willfully cutting ourselves off from him and effectively choosing the path of destruction.  In due time, God will judge and punish those who reject Him.

What, then, is the Christian’s sacrifice to God in this day and age?  “Praise and thanksgiving” are the eternal sacrifices – they could be offered in the Garden of Eden before sin entered the world, they could be offered in the Old Testament era, the current era, and they’ll be offered in the future everlasting Kingdom of God, so that’s a good baseline.  So, a little deeper, in what ways do we offer God “thanks and praise?”  Well, we can go back to Romans 12, offering our bodies as living sacrifices unto the Lord.  But that’s still something of an abstraction – more of a lifestyle than a specific act.

There is a central act of worship in Christianity.  Its most common name through history translates into English as “thanksgiving.”  The Greek word behind it is ευχαριστέω, from which we get the word Eucharist.  Yes, Holy Communion is an act – the central act – of thanksgiving.  In it, Christians celebrate a memorial of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.  In it, Christians offer God thanks and praise for Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice.  In it, Christians partake of Jesus’ Body and Blood, joining His substitutionary sacrifice with their own self-sacrifices, making it all into one.  Jesus is not be re-sacrificed, but rather, his sacrifice is re-appropriated by his people in the Eucharist.  This is our ultimate act of worship; accepting God’s new covenant in His blood, taking His word upon our lips, and offering ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and righteous in His sight, through the merits of His Son our Savior, Jesus Christ.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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