The John Wesley Fellowship began in 1977, with Steve Harper and yours truly being two of the first John Wesley Fellows chosen. I have told the story of Ed Robb and AFTE this past Fall on the blog so I will not repeat it. Here are some of the senior fellows attending the meeting. […]
(This lecture will be delivered in another form at the IBR meeting at the SBL in Atlanta in November)
THE DEATH OF SIN IN THE DEATH OF JESUS: ATONEMENT THEOLOGY IN THE NT
Dr. Ben Witherington, III
Amos Professor of NT for Doctoral Studies
Asbury Theological Seminary
I. Setting up the Context of the Discussion Properly
One of the great problems one sees in the great debates about the meaning, significance, and effects of the death of Jesus is the problem of anachronism. Already in the classic discussions which begin at least as early as Anselm, significant terms, ideas, concepts are being read into NT texts resulting in skewed interpretations of some of the more crucial and explicit NT texts which deal with atonement for sins. This trend unfortunately did not end with the Patristic period but continued on into the Reformation period, and indeed into the modern period. Juridical ideas and theories which didn’t not even exist in the first century A.D., or did not have the bearing they were later to have, have been imported into the discussion ad libertum with telling effect.
For example, the theory that Jesus’ death provides a ransom to Satan so that the sinner may be freed from bondage to the Diabolical One is not only absent from the NT, it is a theory that goes against the grain of much of what is said about the matter in the NT. Bondage in sin is not the same thing as demon possession nor does the NT suggest that God owes or pays Satan anything.
Unfortunately, the discussion has become rancorous at times to no good end, with one Christian group or another anathematizing each other (e.g. is the atonement limited or unlimited, and if limited who limited it?), despite the fact that no ecumenical council in Christian history ever established what an orthodox belief about the atonement should and must include or exclude (Robert Jenson Systematic Theo. Vol. One, 1997, p. 187: “It is one of the more remarkable and remarked on aspects of theological history that no theory of the atonement has ever been universally accepted. By now this phenomenon is itself among the things that a proposed theory of atonement must explain”).
As a historian, a NT scholar and an exegete I am sometimes tempted to throw up my hands when some of these sorts of discussions are used as a sort of Ockham’s razor to exclude one or another person from: 1) one’s denomination, or 2) one’s academic or theological society, or 3) even from the category of Biblical orthodoxy. It follows from this introduction, that the discussion of the atonement must be set up in careful terms, not taking theological terms in the NT in isolation from their original historical, rhetorical, social, and religious contexts. It is about those contexts that I want to speak next.
II. Getting the Context Right
Most religions in the Greco-Roman world, like most religions in the Ancient Near East had three things in common—- temples, priests, and sacrifices. One of the real problems Christianity must have had in the first three plus centuries of its existence was establishing that it was indeed a ‘religio’ and should be taken seriously as such, despite the fact that it had no temples, no priests, and offered no literal sacrifices. True, there were fears of some pagans that those Lord’s Supper meals were clandestine acts of cannibalism, but those fears were based on rumor not reality. Anyone who has read the works of scholars like Ramsay MacMullen or R.L. Wilken or A. D. Knox to mention but three will realize that Christianity will have appeared to most outsiders as some sort of philosophy of life, and all the more so as it became detached from and disassociated from early Judaism and its praxis. But if a non-Christian probed a bit deeper, he or she would discover a lot of discussion in early Christianity about non-philosophical matters like atonement for sin.
If one probes Greco-Roman religion, and indeed early Jewish religion when it comes to atonement thought, it becomes very clear indeed that offering sacrifices, and making atonement was seen as a way to deal with one god or another’s anger with some action or attitude of the suppliant. It is hardly possible to remove the notion of anger or wrath and the notion of appeasement or satisfaction from these discussions, and have anything significant left to say about the atonement thought in play. And if a non-Christian Jew or Gentile in the middle of the first century had read the following words in Romans: “for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness…” (Rom. 1.18) and then went on to peruse the discussion of the hilasterion in Rom. 3, it can hardly be doubted that they would conclude that the Christian God as well was a God who was angry about sin and demanding atonement, or justice, or satisfaction or some such thing as a result. And when such a demand is stated or implied, we are most definitely in the territory of the term ‘propitiation’ which might as well include the notion of ‘expiation’ though not necessarily. It was not Jonathan Edwards who invented the notion of a Christianity which included the concept of sinners in the hands of an angry God. My point is simply this— it takes a lot of ignoring of the larger religious context and conceptualities about God or the gods to be able to exclude ideas like appeasement, propitiation, divine wrath, and the like from the discussion of the atonement in the NT whatever other sorts of concepts we might want to include in the discussion.
The second important contextual matter that needs to be attended to at this juncture is the inter-relatedness of so many of the crucial ideas. By this I mean that one’s conception of the atonement will be affected by one’s conceptions of both sin and God to mention but two crucial correlates. One of the merits of Gary Anderson’s recent book entitled Sin, a History, (Yale, 2009) is to emphasis not merely that ideas have a history, they develop and change over time, but also to make clear that ideas are inter-related things and they have consequences, often devastating consequences. To this I would add that when you are dealing with something as complex as atonement for sin, you are not simply dealing with ideas or the history of ideas and a Religionsgeschichtliche approach to the matter will hardly be adequate, not least because it is the praxis of making atonement which also affects if not determines how one views ideas about atonement. Herein lies one of the great problems for theologians— the danger is that history and praxis will be ignored, and one will try to settle theological controversies simply on the basis of debating ideas, or rearranging ideas, or logically thinking through and connecting ideas.
But alas for such approaches, before ever there were Christian ideas about the death of Jesus, there was the event of the death of Jesus, and it might be useful to ask if Jesus had any crucial religious or theological thoughts about the meaning and consequences of his coming death. Too often the discussion of atonement has begun and ended with some squabbles about whether St. Paul believed in propitiation as well as expiation when it came to atonement theory. Indeed, sometimes there has been the sneaking suspicion that Paul invented Christian thought about the atonement, and that we should blame him for the negative consequences. I am not one of those cynics, and I do not think we can get at a NT theology of atonement through an appeal that amounts to— ‘back to Jesus’ with the implied agenda ‘away with and away from Paul the first great corrupter of pristine Jesus religion’. No, as I have argued in detail (perhaps too much detail) in my recent two volume work The Indelible Image a NT theology of anything needs to involve everything the NT has to say on the matter, and this includes the atonement. What I intend to do in what follows therefore is to look at a variety of the things Jesus and the NT writers seem to think and say about atonement, whether it is congenial to our modern discussions of the matter or not. There is of course not time or space to include everything in this discussion, but we can make inroads in the right direction. Let’s start with Jesus.
III. Jesus the Ransom in Place of the Many
Of the various Synoptic texts we could focus on, I want to mention and discuss just three: 1) Mk. 10.45; 2) Mk. 14.36; and 3) Mk. 14.23-24. In some ways, Mk. 10.45 is the most crucial of these, but as we shall see, the other two are also very important, not least because we have a form of the words of Institution also in 1 Cor. 11 which makes evident that the tradition about what Jesus said at his last meal with his disciples was handed down at an early juncture by those who were present at that meal to persons like Paul.
I have argued at length for the authenticity of the logion in Mk. 10.45 elsewhere and do not need to repeat that argument here (see my The Gospel of Mark, Eerdmans, 2001). I will also not repeat my discussion of whether the Servant songs may be alluded to in this saying. In my judgment they surely are. Most tellingly, the contrast in both Isaiah 53 and in Mk. 10.45 is between the one who does the suffering, and the many for whom he suffers, not between the many as opposed to all. In other words, we have the classic contrast between the one and the many here, and this text does not favor the view that Jesus died for some rather than all. The ‘many’ here is ‘the all’ minus the sufferer himself, in this case Jesus. The one person for whom Jesus did not need to die was Jesus himself. In other words, the variant of this saying found in 1 Tim. 2.6 which speaks of Christ as a ransom for all got it right. Jesus’ death had potentially universal benefits.
The second crucial thing to be said about Mk. 10.45 is that the noun lytron and its cognates entail in the LXX of Exod. 13.13-16 the concept of a substitutionary sacrifice. Indeed, Yahweh’s work for Israel is described as a lytron throughout 2-3 Isaiah (35.9; 41.14; 43.1,14; 44.22-24; 52.3; 62.12; 63.9). It is of course also true that we find the notion of a ransom paid by one party for the sins of another in the Maccabean corpus (2 Macc. 7.37-38; 4 Macc. 6.27-29; 17.21-22) as well as at Qumran (1QS 5.6; 8.3-10; 9.4). In short, there is no reason why Jesus could not have spoken of his death as a ransom, indeed as a substitutionary sacrifice for others.
The third thing to mention about Mk. 10.45, as my old mentor, C.K. Barrett once pointed out to me, is that the basic notion is the substitution of something of equivalent value. One has to ask how could the death of one man be of equivalent value to all the sins of the many? This would have to be a very unique death indeed and not just the death of an ordinary person, like say a Judas Maccabee. There is an exalted Christology implied in this saying, and I would suggest as well that what is implied is that Jesus was not a sinner and did not need ransoming himself. Therefore, he was free to provide the ransom for all the others, who indeed did need it, for they were in thrall to sin.
Fourthly, this saying explains the purpose of the Son of Man— why he came into the world as a human being in the first place, as 1 Tim. 2.6 makes even more clear. There was a sin problem, and God could not pass over sin forever. He could not simply forgive it without the provision of an adequate atoning sacrifice. This tells us something profound about the holy and righteous character of God. Just because God is love does not mean that God ceases to be holy, or ignores the issue of justice and righteousness in order to be forgiving. The death of Jesus was meant to put to death once and for all the sin problem in this sense— that a sufficient once for all time and all persons atoning sacrifice would never be needed again.
Lastly, Jesus the servant came to set people free, ransom them from the wrong sort of servitude so they could commit themselves to following the Son of Man and take up the right form of servitude. Ransom in this context refers to the deliverance of a slave or prisoner from some sort of bondage, in this case sin, and it also tells us something profound—- God was prepared to go great lengths to accomplish this redemption. God wanted his possession, his people back (see Lev. 25.47-55).
The exposition suggested above comports nicely with what we find in Mk. 14.36. Jesus asks that ‘this cup’ might pass from him, if it be possible and in accord with God’s will. Is Jesus simply having a failure of nerve in the face of death by execution? This would not be Mark’s view. Mark’s view is that the cup in question is the cup of God’s wrath or judgment on sin, and texts like Is. 51.17 (cf. Zech. 12.2) make this quite clear. Jesus realizes in the garden that his death will be no ordinary death. It will be the judgment of God on sin, including the sins of God’s people as the Isaianic reference suggests.
This brings us to the words of institution in Mk. 14.22-24. I have always found it remarkable that Jesus could be talking about some sort of benefit of his coming death in advance of his dying. More to the point, Jesus is talking about a positive benefit of his coming death for his disciples, so sure is he there will be such an outcome. The reference to ‘my body’ when coupled with the reference to the blood poured out for many, is surely a reference to the breaking and piercing of that body, leading to death. This dying inaugurates a new covenant which otherwise could not begin.
Put another way, covenants like suzerainty treaties were inaugurated by a sacrifice, and in the case of the new covenant it was Jesus’ death which ‘cut’ and inaugurated the covenant. Here the old discussions of Meredith Kline (By Oath Consigned) are still valid and valuable. It is worth adding of course that Jesus’ audience were Jews, and had they thought he was literally talking about drinking his blood and eating his flesh, they would have run out of the room screaming. Rather, in the context of a Passover meal it was clear enough that he was re-interpreting some of the elements of the meal which had previously had other symbolic significance. Now the meal shared by the disciples would be focusing not on an Exodus or Passover from long ago, but rather one inaugurated on a cross in Judea in A.D. 30 (see my Making a Meal of It, Baylor 2008).
IV. Paul and the Mercy Seat
A long time ago (1974), James Dunn wrote a telling, and typically provocative essay on Paul’s theology of atonement (“Paul’s Understanding of the Death of Jesus,” in Reconciliation and Hope, ed. R. Banks, Eerdmans, 1974, pp. 125-41). At one juncture in the essay Dunn suggests the following while discussing Rom. 3.25: “the way in which Christ’s death cancels out man’s sin is by destroying it–the death of the representative sacrifice is the destruction of the sin of those represented, because it is the destruction of man’s sinful flesh, of man as sinner…’God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death’.”
Now the problems with this reading of the locus classicus in Rom. 3 are severalfold: 1) Paul did not believe that Jesus had sinful flesh, indeed he goes out of his way to say that Christ appeared in the likeness of sinful flesh, which is a different matter. Jesus is not merely Adam gone right in Paul’s theology, though clearly enough he is portrayed as the eschatological Adam who does not sin, and is the founder of a new race of persons who are neither Jews nor Gentiles but a third thing. Jesus, in Paul’s theology was neither a sinner in the active sense of the term, nor did he bear a sin nature. The author of Hebrews is equally clear on this point; 2) hilasterion has a semantic range which includes mercy seat, expiation and propitiatory sacrifice, with the former of these renderings being the literal one. The term is most certainly associated with God’s wrath in Exod. 32.14-14 and Dan. 9.16-19 in the LXX. In fact, propitiation of wrath is the normal meaning of this term and its cognates in Greek literature, and it is surely how a largely Gentile audience would have heard the term.
Consider for example an inscription found on the island of Cos which reads “The people, for the Emperor Caesar, son of God, Augustus, for salvation to the gods [offer this’ propitiatory sacrifice” (hilasterion–see my Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Eerdmans 2004, p. 108). God, in Paul’s view is both the offerer and the recipient of this sacrifice that Christ makes. God, in other words, averts his own wrath through offering his Son as a sin offering. God propitiates himself, and in the process expiates (cleanses us from) sin. C.K. Barrett gets at the very heart of the matter. “The paradox is rooted in the nature of God. It is the nature of God to be irreconcilably opposed to sin; it is the nature of God to love sinners and to seek reconciliation with them. No one but God could resolve the problem; and God himself could be faithful to both aspects of his being only at the cost of the Cross” (Barrett, Romans, 2nd ed. Hendrickson 1991, p. 74). 3) we should note the emphatic position of the word ‘all’ in Rom. 3.23 at the beginning of the sentence. It was God’s plan that Christ die for the sins of all. But equally clearly, while Christ’s death is sufficient to atone for the sins of all, it is only efficient for those who have faith in Christ and in his blood sacrifice. And this death of Jesus reveals the righteous judgment of God on sin, while at the same time providing a propitiation for that sin that allows God to forgive sins without ignoring or passing over their sin.
Rom. 3.26 says that God previously showed tolerance not fully judging sin, but that that forbearance could not go on forever. Pardon without atonement would not have been just or right for a God in whom there is no darkness or shadow of turning. Rom. 3.21-26 makes clear that Christ’s death is the definitive revelation of God’s paradoxical saving righteousness which not merely gives us right standing with God and pardon, but which liberates the sinner from the bondage to and of sin, and in this sense frees them up to begin to be actually righteous in thought, word, and deed. This is why Paul does not stop at the forensic sense of righteousness here but adds (offering here a literal rendering): “for all have sinned and lack the glory of God, being righteous (no accounting language about being reckoned righteous here) freely by his grace through the ransom which was in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a means of propitiation through the faith in his blood as a proof of his righteousness, through the overlooking of previously committed sins, in the tolerance of God, for the proof of his righteousness in the present time, unto his being righteous and setting right those through faith in Jesus.”
V. The Hapax Sacrifice
Perhaps no text in the NT so clearly makes evident the obvious connections in the ancient mind between priests, temples, and sacrifices as Hebrews does. Jesus has to be shoe-horned into the Melchizedekian priesthood in order for him to be able to offer the proper sacrifice, and indeed be the proper sacrifice. And no NT book makes clearer that the sacrifice of Jesus makes obsolete all previous sacrifices and otiose any future ones. It was once for all says the author. Furthermore, no author makes clearer the connection between covenants, priests, temples, and sacrifices. And for this author what is very clear is that the new covenant, grounded in the prophecy in Jerm. 31 which is a major text for this author, is no merely renewal of any older covenants. It is, as the author says ‘ad infinitum’— better, greater, more adequate, perfect, and frankly final. Whether one calls this supercessionism run riot, or ‘completionism’ to coin a term, our author is clear–we don’t need any more human priests, sacrifices, or temples. Jesus fulfilled and completed all of that, and the heavenly sanctuary was the blueprint and prototype for any earthly ones in any case. Our author is nothing if not ambitious and comprehensive in the way he views Christ’s atonement. Several aspects of this need to be highlighted.
Firstly note that our author does not think that the death of Jesus merely provides right standing with God. To the contrary, Jesus the perfect sacrifice without blemish offered himself to God and as a result the blood of Jesus purifies our conscience from dead works so that we can worship the living God (Heb. 9.14). And this brings up another crucial point. Atonement theology is or implies worship theology, and when the situations with priests, temples, and sacrifices changes, so should worship. Jesus foresaw this when he said the day was coming when neither on Mt. Zion nor on Mt. Gerizim, but anywhere and everywhere one worships in Spirit and in truth it will happen (John 4). In other words, one doesn’t need a sacred zone, a priest, a literal sacrifice any more to offer the living God true worship—- Jesus paid it all, and changed the patterns of worship into an eschatological mode. All now have free and direct access to God because all believers have free and direct access to Jesus who is their intercessor in the Heavenly Holy of Holies (see my We Have Seen his Glory, (Eerdmans 2010).
Secondly, our author is adamant. God could not forgive sin without a blood sacrifice. He puts it this way “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9.22). So much for the modern notion that that’s Jesus’ death was not absolutely necessary in order for God to forgive our sins. To those who like to make such statements these days, our author would rebut— if Jesus’ death was not both the absolutely necessary and sufficient sacrifice to procure for us the forgiveness of sins, if God could do it just because God is a nice God who likes to forgive sin, then strangely enough that God is not a good God, not a good Father, for what Father would put his only and beloved Son through that agony if it was not the one means necessary to save the world?
Thirdly as Heb. 9. 26 puts it, Jesus didn’t just come to pay for sins, he came to remove them. At the heart of the book of Hebrews is a theology of sanctification that tells us that we are indeed intended to go on to perfection, intended to be purified from sin, beginning now, and continuing on in our lives. A theology of atonement that does not realize that both what we call justification and sanctification are involved and implied in that atonement is not a NT theology of atonement. Heb. 10.10 says “it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”. Our hearts have been sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, and we should live accordingly (10.22). I must say it is a mystery to me how some theologians can talk about the sovereignty of God’s grace and yet refuse to come to grips with the implications of texts like Heb. 10 or Rom. 8 which tell us that as a result of Jesus’ death and by God’s Spirit and grace we have been actually set free from the bondage to sin and death, not just in principle but in reality. A theology of the power of God’s grace should entail a robust theology of sanctification.
Lastly, the author of Hebrews works out the Christological implications of Christ being our perfect high priest, namely unlike all previous priests, this one was without sin. He was temptable but not contemptible (Heb. 4.15). And the point the author makes is that the Son was virtuous in resisting sin for he could have done otherwise. Therefore, he becomes the paradigm of faithfulness, as well as the paragon of virtue, and the trailblazer and finisher of faith, whose example Heb. 12 says we must follow until he returns in a blaze of glory.
VI. The Atoning Sacrifice for the Whole World
1 John is an epideictic homily that uses the good preacherly practice of repeating key ideas and themes over and over again, but with variations. One of those themes is laid out in 1 John 1.7 and 2. 1-2 where we hear about Jesus Christ the Righteous One and what he did and does for us and in us. 1 John 1.7-9 speaks not only of our sins being forgiven but of our being cleansed from sin, cleansed from all unrighteousness. And we are told quite specifically that it is the blood of Jesus which does this cleansing, this sanctifying.
1 John 2.1-2 becomes even more specific and in some ways echoes Hebrews— when we sin we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus the Righteous One. Though Christ is not called a High Priest here, the job description fits. These verses give us an opportunity to talk more fully about the implications of the hilas–root and its various meanings.
The language of atonement in Greek is difficult to translate into proper English as a glance at recent translations of 1 John 2 will show where we find–atonement, atoning sacrifice, propitiation, expiation, sacrifice for sin and even remedy for defilement (which makes the matter seem as if ritual defilement were the main problem). Surprisingly, our author here does not do the expected thing. He is talking about a person, Jesus Christ, but he does not use the noun hilaster which means one who offers or makes atonement. The more abstract noun hilasmos however may be chosen to indicate that Jesus is paradoxically enough both the sacrifice and the priest who does the offering. A brief review of this language and its cognates may help a bit here.
There are two verbs used in the LXX to denote atoning action, hilaskesthai and exilaskesthai. While the latter term is never found in the NT, it is found in the LXX over 100 times, and it is also found in the earliest Church Fathers (cf. 1 Clem. 7.7; Hermas, Vis. 1.2.1) where it clearly refers to propitiation. Hilaskesthai is a much rarer word, found only eleven times in the LXX and twice in the NT–Lk. 18.13 (where it seems to be a plea for mercy) and more relevantly Heb. 2.17 where it seems to refer to Jesus’ propitiating of sins of the people as the High Priest in heaven. In Zech. 7.2 and Mal. 1.9 the meaning is clearly propitiation.
The lack of use of hilaskesthai in the LXX is more than compensated for by the use of the cognate, hilasterion found twenty seven times in the LXX of which twenty two are referring to the mercy seat cover, or more broadly to the Ark of the Covenant. That cover is where the blood was sprinkled for the propitiation of sin, being the spot nearest to God that was possible. The mercy seat did not need cleansing, the people needed cleansing from the effects of their sin but that was only possible if God’s righteous anger against sin was dealt with. We find this same noun used in Heb. 9.5 where it certainly refers to the Mercy Seat itself and the atoning that went on at that spot. The only other use in the NT is found at Rom. 3.24-25 where the stress is on the fact that God put forward Jesus as a hilasterion by his blood. As J.D.G. Dunn has said about this verse, the logic here is that God’s wrath, previously discussed at some length in Rom. 1, is somehow averted by Jesus’ death (cf. 2 Macc. 7.38), and averted amazingly enough according to this text by God offering to himself his own Son as an atoning sacrifice (J.D.G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Waco: Word, 1988), p. 151).
A few misconceptions need to be pointed out at this juncture. It is not true that hilaskesthai in the LXX is not associated with God’s wrath, for as we already noted it certainly is in Ex. 32.12-14 and Dan. 9.16-19, so the translation propitiation can not be ruled out by saying there is no precedent in the LXX for such a rendering. Returning now to the review of key terms, we note that hilasmos is a noun found ten times in the LXX and also in our present passage and at 1 Jn. 4.10 (the only two occurrences in the NT). Notice that the latter text is much like Rom. 3.24-25 in that it is stated plainly that God is the one putting forward Jesus as hilasmos. One gets the distinct impression that what we are dealing with in the use of this terminology involves an exchange or action that transpires between the Father and the Son not an action that is primarily focusing on what goes one within the believer as a result. When our author wants to talk about the cleansing effect of atonement he does so directly by using that language (i.e. katharise in 1.9). It would appear that both our author and Paul believed that unless God’s wrath is propitiated by Christ’s death, the effects of our sins are not expiated and so we do not receive either cleansing or, equally importantly, reconciliation and communion with God after the alienation caused by sin. The issue then being dealt with in this terminology involves guilt and cleansing but it also involves far more than that and tells us something profound about the righteous character of God which cannot be compromised just because God loves his creatures. As B.F. Westcott points out, fortunately for the sinner, the propitiating merit of Christ death is continual. It says here he is the atoning sacrifice, not ‘he was the propitiation’.
There is one more related term of consequence, hileos found some 35 times in the LXX and it refers quite specifically to God as God turns the divine anger away from his people, and we have this same sense of the term in Mt. 16.22 and Heb. 8.12 quoting Jer. 31.34 where it is usually translated ‘be merciful’ which is the same thing as to turn away wrath.
It is true of course that the Hebrew term KPR lies in the background and it has as its basic meaning to cover or cover over and there can be little doubt that in various places in the LXX propitiation is in view (see Ps. 106.30 LXX and Sir. 45.23). Zech. 8.22 could hardly be more direct. It refers to many coming to Jerusalem ‘to propitiate the face of the Lord’. In the context of various of the LXX uses of the relevant terminology the wrath of God is referred to directly, for example in Micah 7.18-19 we hear “God does not retain his wrath forever because he delights in mercy.” Our author as well is perfectly familiar with the connection of disobedience, sin, and divine wrath as a consequence as John 3.36 shows.
The question still remains as to where the focus lies in 1 John when this terminology comes up, and I agree with the lengthy and careful discussion of R. Brown that there seems to be more focus on cleansing, not surprisingly since our author is writing pastorally and he is not giving an abstract discourse on the nature of Jesus’ atoning death, but on its benefits for the audience namely forgiveness and cleansing. I also agree that the echoes here of the Day of Atonement ceremony as described in Lev. 16 where the priest sprinkles blood of the mercy seat seems clear, especially 16.16 “thus he shall ‘cleanse’ the Holy Place from the impurities of the Israelites and from their wicked acts in respect to all their sins.” We find this text in Leviticus directly applied to the work of Christ the high priest in Heb. 9-10. Nevertheless the idea of propitiation is clearly implied.
Sins do not need atoning for, if God does not need to be propitiated. They could simply be forgiven and cleansing could come through forgiveness rather than through an atoning sacrifice. But clearly enough our author does think that Christ’s atoning sacrifice was necessary for the forgiveness of sins as does Paul. It is thus right to use the translation atonement or atoning sacrifice recognizing that while propitiation is clearly implied in 1 Jn. 2 and 4 the focus is on the benefits of the sacrifice for the sinner, namely cleansing and forgiveness. It is not in the end an either/or matter for both propitiation and expiation are necessary to take care of the sin problem and reconcile God and humankind. And the marvel is that the Advocate is propitiator, expiator, and propitiation all in one. Lastly, it will do well to remember that the earliest commentators on 1 John were not squeamish when it came to saying that God’s righteous wrath against sin must be propitiated. For example Bede puts it this way: “In his humanity Christ pleads for our sins before the Father, but in his divinity he has propitiated them for us with the Father” (On 1 John–PL. 93.90). Notice once again, the strong stress in 1 John 2.2 that Christ is the atonement not just for the believer’s sins, but for the sins of the whole world.
VII. The Suffering Servant and his Precious Blood
No document in the NT more alludes to Christ as the fulfillment of the Servant Songs in Isaiah than 1 Peter. Our task here must be to focus on 1 Pet. 1.18-19 and 2.24. Vss. 18-19 need to be read together and reveal what Christians know or ought to know about their redemption. The key term we must examine first is the verb elutr?th?te which here means either redeem or ransom. The idea of ransoming of course implies a form of redeeming, but the converse is not necessarily true. So we must examine how to translate this term. In favor of the translation ‘ransom’ is: 1) the ‘not…. but’ structure we have here which contrasts two means by which one can be ransomed; 2) the reference to money – which was so often used to ransom various sort of captives or slaves 3) ‘ransom’ must be the meaning in Mk 10.45 and it is quite possible and likely that Mark was dependent upon Peter for his gospel, which would thus suggest a similar translation here (cf. Titus 2.14); and 4) the use of the term in pagan and Gentile contexts would normally conjure up the idea of being bought out of slavery or buying oneself out of slavery (cf. 1 Cor 7.22ff, Gal 5.1, Rom 6.14-23).
If we ask to whom this ransom was paid, the text does not say; however, it surely cannot be Satan since neither Christ nor God owed Satan anything. Later patristic theology went in the wrong direction here. Most assuredly it is the price paid to God Himself and the Judge who will indeed condemn us and cast us out if our sin is not dealt with, covered, paid for. A just God requires a just payment for sin – no more, but definitely no less. This implies that forgiveness for God is very costly indeed – nothing but Christ’s death was a sufficient price for ransoming believers from sure destruction and slavery to sin. God’s love then is a holy love – holy in that sin must be dealt with, paid for before forgiveness can be offered or a declaration of no condemnation pronounced, loving in that Christ paid that price with His blood in our stead. Not all the money in the world could have paid for our multitude of sins and bought us salvation. Such things, though valuable, are perishable and could not purchase something of eternal worth.
Notice here that Peter’s emphasis is on being ransomed from previous useless (or futile) and sinful behavior. There is probably a play on words here for the word tim? refers to the price, in this case the price of manumission paid in the temple to the deity, and in turn the deity then pays the slave owner back, less a commission. But it is not a tim? of silver or gold which ransomed the believer but rather the timi? the precious or valuable blood of Jesus which did the ransoming and paid the price. We may hear in this verse an echo of Is. 53.7 in preparation for the fuller Christological statement in 2.22-25 where Christ is more extensively portrayed as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, but already here Peter begins to paint that portrait. Jesus is seen as the flawless and faultless lamb.
Christ also did not die so that believers might sin all the more; now having a sure means of forgiveness. As Paul, Rom 6.1-2, says, “shall we go on sinning, so grace may increase – God forbid!” Rather, Christ spilled his precious blood so believers might be purified and holy. Christ’s death if we are to receive its benefits, implies our death to our previous sinful ways.
The reference to Christ’s blood as like that of a pure and spotless lamb (on the sinlessness of Christ see 1 Pet. 2.22; 2 Cor. 5.21; Heb. 4.15; 7.26; 1 Jn. 3.5), of course conjures up the idea of a sacrificial lamb. The Passover lamb in the OT times was apparently not seen as an animal which if sacrificed made atonement (see Ex.12.5). However, it had begun to have this significance in Jesus’ day in contemporary Judaism (cf. Jn 1.29, 31, 1 Cor 5.7). Since Isaiah 53.7 seems to be in the background here, the atoning significance is surely implied. Of course, a lamb, if it was to be offered had to be perfect (Ex 12.5, 29.1). On blood as a means of redemption or as a price see Eph 1.7, Heb 9.12, 22; Rev. 1.5, 1 Clement 12.7, Rev. 5.9. Let us turn now to 1 Pet. 2.24.
1 Pet. 2.24 gives Peter’s view of the atonement in some depth. Christ took up the cross or bore on the cross in his own body, our sins, which is to say the punishment for our sins. That it is ‘in his body’ stresses Christ’s humanity. He was truly human and redemption came through a real historical person. He suffered too, he suffered unjustly, he suffered for those who deserved to suffer as sinners. Sins here may be seen as a burden which Christ lifts from human being (against Anderson who over schematizes things suggesting the burden notion was replaced by the debt notion of sin). Since Isaiah 53 is likely in the background here, it is likely also that the implied idea is that Christ bore the punishment for human sins in their stead. Thus, we have here, substitutionary atonement by the suffering servant. It is also implied that Jesus takes away human sins, i.e., heals us. To what end? Not just so humans may experience redemption, but so they may die to sin and live to righteousness, as Christ himself died for sin and lived to righteousness. Christ’s death, if one accepts it, requires of us a willingness to go and sin no more, lest one crucify Christ afresh by one’s further sins. Thus, theology leads to ethics necessarily in 1 Peter. To accept Christ means to agree to follow in his righteous footsteps, and not to crucify him afresh by sinning again.
“By his wounds (welts, weals) we are healed of our sin sickness” m?l?pi means weal, that is, it refers to the marks on the body of one who has been whipped, such as a slave (cf. Isaiah 53.5). We must remember that in Phil. 2, Jesus is said to be a suffering slave and he received a slave’s final punishment – crucifixion. What better way to encourage Christian slaves here in 1 Peter than to say in fact that Jesus voluntarily became a slave for your sake? He knows what you go through. He’s been there too. Sin is also seen here as a disease that affects the whole person, not just his behavior, but his desires, his thought patterns, etc. It is a deadly cancer of which one must be healed lest they be lost. And atonement then must mean and offer more than forgiveness or right-standing, it must go ‘as far as the curse is found’.
VII. And So?
We have roamed far and wide in the NT for the purpose of exploring in some depth its atonement theology. What we have discovered is a repeated pattern. The authors of the NT, or at least the ones we have examined here, agree that Jesus’ death should be seen as a propitiatory sacrifice, dealing with the problem of sin and sinners in the hands of a righteous God who cannot pass over sin forever, but does wish to love his creatures forever. We have noted the use of the language of ransom and cleansing and forgiveness which were all intertwined with the language of propitiation and expiation. We also noticed that there is an emphasis on the comprehensive scope of Christ’s death— sufficient to atone for the sins of all and efficient for those who believe. The scope of the atonement’s benefits is limited by the response to the atoning death of Jesus, not by God.
We also saw an emphasis on the substitutionary nature of Christ’s sacrifice. It should have been us on the cross. If there was one person who did not deserve to pay for sin, who did not deserve to die on the cross, it was Jesus himself, the Righteous One who paid the price for the Many. We talked about the notion of ransom, which clearly implied bondage, in this case bondage to sin, but not debt to Satan much less possession by demons. 1 Peter goes further and talks about being in bondage to false and fruitless ideas about God and life as well.
It is important to add at this juncture what I did not say. I did not say that a penal substitutionary propitiatory sacrifice is the only image of Christ’s death that exists in the NT, nor is it the only language used to describe the atonement. What I would say is that it is the dominant model in the NT, and however squeamish this truth may make some folks because of its implications about God’s character, at the end of the day one should not pit the Love of God off against his Justice, or the Righteousness of God off against his Mercy and Forgiveness.
Indeed, an adequately Biblical theology of the atonement will show how all of these attributes of God are seen to be in play in the death of Jesus on the cross. Who wants to live in a world where justice is not finally done as well as a world where love conquers all? It is worth saying however that it is probably not an accident that when it comes to predicating nouns of God he is called light and life and love, but the adjectives appended to these terms include holy, righteous, just, and many more. God’s love is a holy and just love, not love without holiness, and not holiness without love—- thank God.
Finally, I have stressed that the effects of the death of Jesus amount not just to gaining us right standing with God, but also freeing us from the bondage of sin, cleansing us from sin, cleansing our consciences from guilt, and enabling us to live sanctified and holy lives that glorify God and edify our fellow human beings. In the end, atonement is just another way of talking about salvation, and as Titus 2.11 says “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly while we await the blessed hope” who indeed will come and eliminate suffering sin and sorrow, disease, decay and death once and for all. Amen and amen.