Part 1: One God Among Many
This is a Compilation of several posts a friend of mine put together triangulating between Atonement, Forgiveness of Sin, and (bloody) Sacrifice. Enjoy. .It is a Long one.
One of my favorite topics is the plurality of gods. It was early in 2003, when I was looking for a dissertation topic to finish my PhD at Dallas Seminary, that I took up an invitation from Dr. Michael Heiser to join him for supper with a friend in Madison, Wisconsin. We began talking about Michael Heiser’s dissertation topic at the UW-Madison, and his friend made the off-hand remark that the gods of the divine council in Psalm 82 were to be identified with the principalities and powers of Paul. I was fascinated by the idea, and I drove back to Minneapolis that night wondering if that concept would work as a dissertation topic. Surely, I presumed, a fellow evangelical had thought of this, and had produced an academic monograph tying Paul’s powers to the gods of the first commandment. Alas, no one had. My topic was quickly approved, the dissertation was done within the year, and things have never been the same for me. I think I was one of the few lucky ones who actually got to enjoy writing his doctoral dissertation.
(I don’t want to get too far afield here, but as I wrote that last sentence I recall being brought to tears several times as I wrote the paper. I honestly felt as though I was discovering the Big Story of the Bible for the first time, putting all sorts of biblical pieces together that had long been scattered over my theological yard. I had been teaching in Bible colleges for over a dozen years by this time. Thus the motivation behind my title of this booklet.)
A starting point: Like most evangelicals, I have long presumed the western Christian tradition basically had the larger Story right: God must judge sin, Jesus solved that judgment on the cross, and reception of this payment for sin provides entrance to heaven. This was my view from childhood, though I had never really considered any alternative. I do recall being generally uncomfortable when I considered the disconnect between the first three steps of the Romans Road (you’re a sinner, sinners go to hell, Jesus died for this sin-penalty) and the fourth (believe in Jesus and be saved). What did the last point have to do with the first three? Here is where I am again motivated by my title. I have found—speaking only for myself—that the existence of plural deities stands behind a gospel message that solves this disconnect. That’s a gutsy way to say it, but that’s how it has worked for me.
The remainder of this section will follow through on a point-by-point explanation of how I think the Big Story of the Bible works, beginning with the argument of my dissertation about plural deities. Think of each numbered paragraph as a domino that fell (in my mind, whether immediately or over time) because of the weight of the previous paragraph. There’s plenty here to disagree with, I understand, and I welcome your reaction forthwith. Some issues may seem unrelated to previous ones, but for me everything I write below works as an oiled machine going in one direction. I was going to say well-oiled, but I know that’s not true. There’s plenty to work on. But here we go:
- The main point of my dissertation argued that the first commandment was to be taken seriously because the beings called “gods” (Hebrew, elohim; Greek, theoi) are real, personal spirits who desire human worship. They are not necessarily “evil” or “good,” or at least should not be pigeon-holed into that sort of medieval model. That they are powerful is beyond question, and that Yahweh expects them to fulfill a role in human affairs even now is also assumed in Scripture. It is these beings that Paul refers to as “authorities” or “principalities” or “powers” or “rulers.” How they manifest themselves today is left largely undescribed for us, though the Bible is full of stories which offer fascinating possibilities and even probabilities.
- Idolatry therefore causes God’s ultimate anger in the Bible, replacing the traditional idea that God is punishing mankind for Adam’s guilt. Idolatry is important because the objects of our worship are not invented; we are being seduced by spirits who want to harm us, principally by keeping us away from the worship of Yahweh and Jesus, and secondarily by influencing us toward immoral and hurtful behavior. All talk of sin and punishment in Scripture ultimately works its way through the backstory of idolatry. To be clear (since this is often misunderstood, I have noticed), all idolatry is sin, though not all sin is idolatry. To worship a created deity ahead of Yahweh or Jesus is the most severe transgression available to mankind, and guarantees eternal judgment for those who persist in such a lifestyle. The story of individual human salvation involves the conversion of an individual away from his penchant toward idolatry.
- Since the word for angel in both testaments is the original word for messenger (mal’ak in Hebrew, angelos in Greek), it follows that there are no angels in the Bible since this is a (potentially) functional term for any spirit or god, including Jesus (Malachi 3:1; Gal. 4:14). In the end, the study of angelology turns into the study of gods and vice-versa. This is generally why looking up the word “angel” in Bible dictionaries is a waste of time. Tradition has assumed that angels can be identified and studied by looking for appearances of angels. Better to think of it this way: any appearance of an angel in the Bible (Nebuchadnezzar looking into the fiery furnace, for example, in Daniel 3:28) is the physical appearance of an elohim, or god (as Nebuchadnezzar admitted in 3:25: “the form of the fourth is lebar elohahin [Aramaic for like that of a god, or god-like]). A god had appeared in the furnace, performing as a messenger-god.
- Following the same point, we need to re-state what we mean by the word “God” and even saying things like “Jesus is God” since the Hebrew and Greek words for “God/god” are shared by created ruling spirits such as Satan. It comes as a general surprise to most Christians that there is no capitalized word “God” in the Bible. Therefore the traditional doctrines of monotheism and Trinitarianism need to take into account at least the possible existence of created plural deities before saying things like “there is only one God.” Unfortunately, most explanations of a lone God or a three-in-one-God leverage Latin expressions and do not deal with Hebrew and Greek at all. This makes for painful reading in my experience. Latin should really have no bearing on the theology of the Bible.
- During my dissertation process, it became clear to me why OT salvation was consistently described in terms of faith. As Abraham resisted the temptation to worship his family gods (e.g., Josh. 24:2), and instead committed this worship to Yahweh (he “called upon the name of Yahweh,” Gen. 12:8), he was justified or pronounced proper in the sight of God (Gen. 15:6). Salvation will be less about sin, especially behavioral sins, and more about which god a person chooses to worship. As evidence, the need to abide by the laws of Torah will never be confused with human salvation. Torah-obedience, in short, would become the expected privilege of those who were already found faithful to Yahweh, thus already “saved.”
- The Hebrew term for faith (aman) is built on the same root word meaning loyalty or fidelity (amuna). Salvation is thus to be identified with moving one’s loyalty from one god to another, described as “believing” (aman) in Yahweh. The same connection is found for the NT words for faith (pistis) and loyalty (pistos). When the Philippian jailer was told to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ” he was being asked to move his spiritual loyalties from his god to Jesus. From the way the story progresses, it appears he made his ultimate confession of which god he worshipped at his baptism. It was common in the ancient Near East to make one’s official “conversion” to another deity very public, since there was no such thing as private religion at that time.
- Believing Jews in the book of Acts often encouraged gentiles to keep various ethnic aspects of Torah (circumcision, Sabbath, kosher food laws) alongside their belief in Christ. This is not surprising, owing to the treatment of gentiles by famous Israelites in the OT (Joshua, Sampson, David, etc.). Yet Paul warned against the idea that the “works of the law” needed to be mixed with faith for his gentile audiences. Gentiles were meant to join in the messiah-movement on the sole basis of loyalty—a truly astounding concept for the time.
- The ideas of atonement and sacrifice were not confused with loyalty/salvation in the OT. To be very specific, atonement (kaphar) was a ritualistic means of cleansing for the righteous person (i.e., the Yahweh-loyalist) who wished to approach God in sacrifice or worship. Israelite religion never taught that Yahweh could be satisfied or “paid” through a substitute. This was a pagan practice, in fact, practiced by gentiles who thought that their deities could be influenced by death or blood or the offering of valued possessions. Moving into the NT, Christ’s death will match the OT meaning of atonement: Jesus provided ritualistic cleansing/sanctification for the believer (and especially the gentile who did not have means of atonement!) who still needs to approach the God of Israel in purity (Heb. 12:14; 1 Pet. 3:18).
- Moving the concept of OT righteousness (won solely on the grounds of loyalty to Yahweh) into the NT, God now declares a person righteous, or proper, when he places his loyalty in Jesus. There does not need to be any transference of righteousness between God and the one being made righteous, as the Reformed position teaches.
- While every generation believes that salvation is the ultimately the result of God’s grace, it seems that the narrative of the Book of Acts employs charis (“grace”) to commonly describe God’s favor in allowing the gentile to join the family of Abraham by loyalty alone. This use of “grace” or “favor” would then make sense of verses such as Acts 11:23 (“When they had seen the favor of God” [upon the gentiles through the coming of the Holy Spirit]).
- Instead of the gospel starting with Luther’s famous problem—people cannot go to heaven when they die because of their sins which have not been paid for—the gospel therefore begins where the OT story of Israel ends in the latter prophets. Here, people are asking that God will show mercy where he has formerly shown judgment, ending in exile: “For a mere moment I have forsaken you, but with great mercies I will gather you; with a little wrath I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,’ says the LORD, your redeemer” (Isaiah 54:7-8). What has upset God so greatly, of course, is the idolatry of the individual Israelite, something that David foresaw in his own lifetime (“Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully,” Ps. 24:3-4). The answer to the problem, then, which is the starting point for the NT gospel, is repentance from one’s idolatry and returning to the God of Israel through the person of Jesus. Both Jews and gentiles are under the same obligation to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord of Lords and will someday judge the world for its misdirected worship.
- Speaking of Jesus, the gospels record the good news that Yahweh, through Jesus, has kept his promise of rescuing the world from the authority of the gods of the first commandment. The “gospel” is not about going to heaven, then, as much as it is about which god has the right to rule. Jesus won this right, or visibly secured it, through the temptation account with Satan (Luke 4:6; 10:17-19). This was the straightforward purpose of Jesus’ many exorcisms and healings and miracles—to show who was really in control of a world which visibly appeared to be ordered by demons and gods.
- One of the main stories of the Bible seems to course through the Bible rather quietly: throughout eternity, God appears to be giving to mankind the glory/authority which he has presently given to rebellious spirits. This is due to these spirits’ abuse of authority in our current world, led by Satan, the “prince and power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). Jesus confirmed his authority when he ascended to the right hand of the Father, and will someday share his glory with Christians in the next life. This is the doctrine sometimes referred to as theosis, taken directly from such passages as 2 Peter 1:4.
- Our present responsibility is to complete the Big Story that began with our forefather Abraham. I am called to simply do what he did (Romans 4:13-25): be loyal to Yahweh, especially in worshipping his loved Son Jesus, the final fulfillment of Abraham’s covenant. All those who do so, whether Jew or Gentile, will share in his coming eternal kingdom.
If other gods exist, how might they have compared to Yahweh with regard to blood and atonement?
The OT concept of animal sacrifice, especially bloody sacrifice, is usually considered the necessary backdrop for understanding the NT themes of justification and salvation. In this paper I will try to show that Israel’s religion did not set out to teach this on the front end, and that the larger biblical story will not defend those themes on the back end. In its place I will contend that the Yahweh/human relationship has always been primarily dependent upon fidelity (“faith”) and not upon blood sacrifice, nor even atonement (ritual purification).
I understand that those last three words are likely the most difficult to defend. It is a scary thing to challenge our modern understanding of atonement. The paradigm of Christ “dying for my sins” as a “substitute payment for my debt,” with the gospel even being described as “accepting this payment as my own” is pervasive to the point of not being considered one paradigm among other viable options. I opened a book just yesterday (which had nothing to do with the atonement) and found this sentence in the opening paragraph of the introduction: “They [my friends who will likely disagree with some points in this book] strongly affirm the complete inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity, the full deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ for our sins, and dozens upon dozens of other important doctrinal convictions.” There you have it, I guess. To question substitutionary atonement or the way it’s talked about is to challenge the Trinity and the deity of Christ. I believe otherwise, and hope that this paper will show why.
Let’s Make a Sacrifice
Scholars disagree about the meaning of sacrifice in the ancient world. Considering all the sacrifices and offerings mentioned in the OT, there exists no clear indication that any of them were meant to be interpreted in terms of vicarious penalty-removal (I would recommend here Bradley McLean, “The Absence of Atoning Sacrifice in Paul’s Soteriology,” NTS 38 , 532-42). Our biggest problem in forming a theology of sacrifice, quite frankly, is simply lack of information—mixed with our attendant predispositions of what we think the sacrificer was thinking at the moment of sacrifice. So let’s summarize what we do not know. We have no certain evidence that Israelite religion taught that sin and its guilt could be literally transferred to an animal (I say “literally” in the sense that even the goat sent out of the camp in Leviticus 16 was himself not to be considered a morally sinful goat). Imagine how interesting a world that would be, by the way, if sin could be transferred from a person to an animal: I commit a serious sin, grab Fido from his nap under the table, head out the back door, and . . . my sin is gone. But no Israelite thought like this. Maybe pagans did. But not Israelites. Add to this the fact that poor people could sacrifice food (no blood there) in place of animals (Lev 5:11-13), and we are forced into realizing that unless we are willing to see flour inheriting sin, we probably should not do the same for an animal. Then there are the sacrifices which were explicitly for a purpose other than that of solving sin (e.g., Abraham/Isaac, Passover, the peace offering, etc.), and we are left holding an empty bag if we were presuming that all sacrifices were primarily about sin. Most were not.
So why did Israelites sacrifice? We recall numerous examples of the many patriarchs and leaders who built altars with regularity, whether Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen 12:6 ff.; 13:18; 22:9), Isaac (Gen 26:25), Jacob (Gen 33:20; 35:1-7), Moses (Exod 17:15), Joshua (Josh 8:30 f.; cf. Deut 27:5), Gideon (Jdg 6:24 ff.), or David (2 Sam 24:18-25). From all indications, these individuals were simply following cultural norm, whether living before or after Moses. Archaeological evidence tells of Canaanite altars within Israel from the 14th and 13th centuries B.C. forward, and we suspect this tells the story of all nations long before that time. All ancient cultures viewed the physical world as created and lorded over by deities, and everyone lived and worked under the assumption that the gods expected some sort of penitential rituals on the part of worshipping humans. Bloodletting was a common means of gaining a god’s attention. There was even the shared notion that the gods fed upon human blood and food. As Daniel Block has pointed out, most of the categories of sacrifice found in Leviticus 1-5 are attested to outside of Israel, most notably zebah (sacrifice, sacrificial meals), selamim (peace/well-being offerings), ola (whole burnt offerings), and mincha (gift, grain/cereal offerings) offerings (“Other Religions in Old Testament Theology,” in Biblical Faith and Other Religions: An Evangelical Assessment [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004] 43-78). So let’s follow through on this possibility: could Yahweh have allowed for sacrifice as a way of expressing religious devotion, as opposed to demanding it? I think yes, with some evidence to follow.
Triangulating between Sin, Forgiveness, and Atonement
Israelite religion taught that it was a serious thing to deviate from the expressed will and desire of Yahweh. This is what it meant to sin, at least in the behavioral sense. The seriousness of sin was expressed in many ways in the OT through the use of numerous Hebrew words, many times carrying curious illustrations. Consider these word pictures:
- Sin is a thick cloud cover over one’s head: Lamentations 3:44-50
- Sin is having dirty lips, the gateway to one’s soul: Isaiah 6:5 (cp. Prov. 6:12-14)
- Sin is being a rebellious animal: Jeremiah 31:18
- Sin is a demonic animal waiting to attack: Genesis 4:7
- Sin is having a heart full of illegitimate desire: Ezekiel 20:16
- Sin is breaking a promise between partners: Nehemiah 1:7
- Sin is walking backward and not forward: Jeremiah 7:24
- Sin is wandering away from someone: Jeremiah 14:10
- Sin is turning of one’s back on someone: 2 Chronicles 29:6
- Sin is being left alone to fend for oneself: Lamentations 1
- Sin is being a rebellious child/spouse: Nehemiah 1:8-9; 9:33; Jeremiah 3:20, 22
- Sin is being dirty: Psalm 51:4
- Sin is a dirty garment, or a stain on a garment: Job 14:4; Isa 1:18; 64:6; Zech 3:4
- Sin is a disease: Leviticus 16:21; Psalm 41:4; Isaiah 1:6
- Sin is being blind: Isaiah 59:9
- Sin is being shamed: Psalm 69:5-7
- Sin is being ritualistically naive: Lev 22:14; 2 Sam. 6:6-7; Ezek 45:20
- Sin is an inadvertent mistake: Leviticus 4:20; Numbers 6:9-11
- Sin is a natural bodily discharge: Leviticus 15:16-24
- Sin is a mildew or allergen: Leviticus 14:53
- Sin is expressing human weakness as opposed to divine strength: Job 40:1-10
- Sin is a burden to be borne: Exod 10:17; Lev 5:1; 16:21; 24:15; Ps 103:12
- Sin is breaking of a law, necessitating penalty: Psalm 25:11
- Sin is missing a target: Judges 20:16; Job 5:24; Proverbs 19:2
- Sin is a master who pays cruel wages: Genesis 4:12-13
- Sin is a debt or an account in delinquency: Isa 40:1-2
This list demonstrates how sin and transgression could be viewed from various (even competing) angles and levels of severity in the OT. It also establishes why sacrifices in any culture would have developed such rich meaning. If the heinousness of sin could be illustrated with flair, the attending rituals needed to keep pace with corresponding solutions. Yet, as we know from many stories in the OT, sin was not necessarily solved through sacrifice alone (Exod 23:21; Deut 29:20; Josh 24:19; 2 Kgs 24:4; Isa 22:14; Jer 5:27; Lam 3:42; Hos 1:6). Yahweh always held the right to refuse forgiveness, with or without an attending sacrifice.
So how was sin to be solved, if not by sacrifice? Here is where I believe we have been nearly hypnotized by associating the words forgiveness and sacrifice together (Lev 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7; 19:22; Num 15:25-26, etc.) as though one brings the other. But—snap out of it!—there are far more examples in the OT of forgiveness being granted outside of sacrifice (e.g., Exod 10:17-18; 32:32; 34:7; Num 14:18-19; 30:5, 8; 1 Kgs 8:30, 34, 36, 39, 50; 2 Chr 6:21, 25, 27, 30, 39; 7:14; Ps 78:38; 86:5; 130:4; Isa 6:7). In the end, I believe it can be consistently argued that any necessary relationship between personal restorative forgiveness (where a person becomes “right” with God after being “wrong” with God, let’s say) and cultic sacrifice in the OT is unintentional. The text is not trying to literally tie atonement and forgiveness together as though the first causes, or necessarily results in, the second. The mature Yahwist understood that he could be on good terms with his god through loyalty alone (Exod 34:7; Num 14:18-20; Neh 9:7; Ps 130:4; Mic 7:18; Dan 9:9), an idea to be defended at length below. This included the concept of forgiveness, though we need to be careful what that means. There is no adequate Hebrew word which stands in for the English word “forgive.” This is why forgiveness as a concept is usually described by means of illustration:
- Forgiveness is to remove something: Psalm 103:12; Zechariah 3:9
- Forgiveness is to cast something into the sea: Micah 7:9
- Forgiveness is to go away like a cloud: Isaiah 44:22
- Forgiveness is to put something behind one’s back: Isaiah 38:17
- Forgiveness is to cover something: Psalm 32:1
- Forgiveness is to put something put out of sight: Psalm 51:9
- Forgiveness is to blot out something: Jeremiah 18:23
- Forgiveness is to wash something: Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 4:4
- Forgiveness is to cleanse something: Leviticus 16:30; Numbers 8:21; Ps 51:2
- Forgiveness is to receive a clean conscience: Psalm 51:10
- Forgiveness is to remove blood: Deuteronomy 21:8
- Forgiveness is to whiten something: Isaiah 1:18
- Forgiveness is to send rain on parched land: 1 Kings 8:36
- Forgiveness is to not remember: Jeremiah 31:34
- Forgiveness is to hide one’s face from something: Psalm 51:9
- Forgiveness is to heal from disease: Psalm 32:1-5; 103:3; Isaiah 53:5
- Forgiveness is to freely show grace, mercy, and love: Exodus 34:6; Neh. 9:17
- Forgiveness is to annul a decision: Numbers 30:12
- Forgiveness is to stop something from burning: Deuteronomy 29:20
- Forgiveness is to listen with approval: 1 Kings 8:30, 36
- Forgiveness honors a person’s heart, or intentions: 2 Chronicles 6:30
It makes sense, then, to hear that God would at times not forgive. It’s a privilege, and not a right, to be “right” or proper with Yahweh. This teaching was intended to both remind the Israelite of the ineffectiveness of bare ritualism and the privilege of being forgiven for sins committed while living within God’s gracious covenant. The mention of the covenant, of course, reminds us of another important point: Yahweh never offered general forgiveness of sins to all people of all nations for all stock offenses. In fact, we could tighten that sentence up a bit more: Yahweh promised that the sins of the nations would be held against them provided they remained idolaters. And it is precisely here where atonement becomes important in OT theology.
There are only twelve occasions in the OT NASB which combine the words forgive and atone in the same verse (we will use English for now). Consider the audience in each, or to whom Moses is speaking:
- Lev 4:20: He shall also do with the bull just as he did with the bull of the sin offering; thus he shall do with it. So the priest shall make atonement for them, and they will be forgiven.
- Lev 4:26: All its fat he shall offer up in smoke on the altar as in the case of the fat of the sacrifice of peace offerings. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin, and he will be forgiven.
- Lev 4:31: Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat was removed from the sacrifice of peace offerings; and the priest shall offer it up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him, and he will be forgiven.
- Lev 4:35: Then he shall remove all its fat, just as the fat of the lamb is removed from the sacrifice of the peace offerings, and the priest shall offer them up in smoke on the altar, on the offerings by fire to the LORD. Thus the priest shall make atonement for him in regard to his sin which he has committed, and he will be forgiven.
- Lev 5:10: The second he shall then prepare as a burnt offering according to the ordinance. So the priest shall make atonement on his behalf for his sin which he has committed, and it will be forgiven him.
- Lev 5:13: So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin which he has committed from one of these, and it will be forgiven him; then the rest shall become the priest’s, like the grain offering.
- Lev 5:16: He shall make restitution for that which he has sinned against the holy thing, and shall add to it a fifth part of it and give it to the priest. The priest shall then make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and it will be forgiven him.
- Lev 5:18: He is then to bring to the priest a ram without defect from the flock, according to your valuation, for a guilt offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his error in which he sinned unintentionally and did not know it, and it will be forgiven him.
- Lev 6:7: And the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD, and he will be forgiven for any one of the things which he may have done to incur guilt.
- Lev 19:22: The priest shall also make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering before the LORD for his sin which he has committed, and the sin which he has committed will be forgiven him.
- Num 15:25: Then the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and they will be forgiven; for it was an error, and they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD, for their error.
- Num 15:28: The priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who goes astray when he sins unintentionally, making atonement for him that he may be forgiven.
This list demonstrates both the cultic nature of the association between atonement and forgiveness (paired only in Leviticus and Numbers), as well as the intended audience for this association. It was the faithful Israelite—not the neighboring Moabite or Ammonite or Egyptian—who was told that he could celebrate forgiveness in spite of his recurring episodes of behavioral sinfulness. It went without much saying—though Yahweh said it repeatedly—that a pagan who worshipped other gods could not expect such merciful treatment (Exod 23:21; Deut 29:20; Josh 24:19; 2 Kgs 24:4; Isa 22:14; Jer 5:27; Lam 3:42; Hos 1:6). And the same could be said for the disloyal Israelite as well:
1.** Exodus 34:6-7:** Then Yahweh passed by in front of Moses and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh el, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives [nasa, carry, lift] iniquity [avon, guilt], transgression [peshah, offense, act of disloyalty] and sin [chatah, error, miss]; yet he will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” 2. Jeremiah 31:34: “They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know Yahweh,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares Yahweh, “for I will forgive [salach] their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” 3. Nehemiah 9:17: They refused to listen, and did not remember your wondrous deeds which you had performed among them; so they became stubborn and appointed a leader to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are an elohim [deity] of forgiveness [salach], gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness; and You did not forsake them. 4. Daniel 9:9: To Yahweh our elohim belong compassion and forgiveness [salach], but we have rebelled against him. 5. Psalm 86:5: “For You, Yahweh, are good, and ready to forgive [salach], and abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You. 6. Psalm 130:4: “But there is forgiveness [salach] with you, that you may be feared [yare, frighten, reverence]. 7. Psalm 32: “How blessed is he whose transgression [peshah, offense, act of disloyalty] is forgiven [nasa, carry, lift], whose sin [chatah, error, miss, cp. Numbers 19:9] is covered [kasah, conceal, keep from being known] How blessed is the man to whom Yahweh does not impute [chasav, take into account] iniquity [avon, guilt], and in whose spirit there is no deceit [remiyya, fraud, deception]” When I kept silent, my body ached through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. I acknowledged [yada, to know, understand] my sin [chatah, error, miss] to you, and my iniquity [avon, guilt] I did not hide [kasah, conceal, keep from being known] I said, ‘I will confess [yadah, to praise] my transgressions [peshah, offense, act of disloyalty] to Yahweh’; and you forgave [nasa, carry, lift] the iniquity [avon, guilt] of my sin [chatah, error, miss] Therefore, let everyone who is faithful [chasid cp. Ps 145:17] pray to you in a time when you may be found; Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; you preserve me from trouble; You surround me with songs of deliverance.”
In the interest of space allow me to summarize my point without going into further detail. While I admit that there is a ritualistic or forensic aspect to atonement/forgiveness in the OT (think Leviticus), there is no post-Numbers 15 mention of atonement which speaks of a person becoming relationally right with Yahweh. I think that’s huge, even if talking statistics alone. Think of it this way: juridical forgiveness will account for (so go the illustrations above) a clean record in leaving the courtroom, a burden relieved from one’s back, or the cleansing of a bodily discharge. But penalty or burden or fluid will never primarily be in play when dealing with any text that describes being in a right relationship to Yahweh (e.g., “I will give them a heart to know me, for I am Yahweh; and they will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with their whole heart,” Jer 24:7; cp. 2:8; 4:22; 9:3, 6; 12:3; 22:16; 31:34). We would think that if atonement played an important role in relating to Yahweh it would get major press somewhere in the text. But the silence is deafening. And we have yet to step into the New Testament, where the word atonement is missing altogether[^ The Greek words rendered occasionally in some English translations as “atone” or “atonement” are the verb hilaskomai and the related noun hilastērion. The former can (and often is, depending on the translation) rendered “forgive, be merciful.” It occurs twice (Luke 18:13 – “God be merciful to be a sinner”; Heb 2:17 – “to make propitiation”; “to forgive, show mercy.”) The latter noun also occurs twice (Rom 3:25 – God put forward Christ “as a propitiation” – an act of mercy or love? – Heb 9:5, a reference to the “mercy seat”).]. In my next chapter, I will briefly explain why the absence of atonement language in the NT makes predictable theological sense.
Though atonement and forgiveness sometimes took place together, one could happen without the other. My last chapter ended with the recommendation that ancient atonement ritual and Yahweh’s forgiveness for sins functioned as independent ideas in the OT. I would now like to think about the use of blood in Israelite ritual, and what it may mean to our understanding of the character of God.
In Israelite Religions: An Archeological and Biblical Survey (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) Richard Hess defends the idea that, among our available options, there may be no better way to determine the meaning of Israelite sacrifices than to look across Israel’s borders. We can safely presume, for example, that Israelites were intimately knowledgeable of the Egyptian cultic practices they had witnessed (and with which they likely had participated) for many years, as well as those rituals used by their Canaanite neighbors. Mesopotamian texts continue to provide us with numerous parallel patterns for sacrifice and cultic ritual. This sharing of information may be why Israelite ritual hinted toward what amounts to a pagan notion—that Yahweh, a formless being, liked food (Lev. 3:11, 16; 21:6, 17, 21-22; 22:25; Num 28:2, 24; Ezek 16:19; 44:7; Mal 1:7), and possibly enjoyed set meal times (Exod 29:38-45; Lev 6:20). And is it only coincidental that Yahweh enjoyed the “sweet aroma” of burnt flesh (cp. Gen. 8:21; Exod 29:18, 25, 41; Lev 2:12; 3:16; 8:21, 28; 23:13; 26:31, etc.) like other deities did (Ezek 6:13; 16:19; 20:28)? I would agree with Hess that these parallels are due to borrowed cultural practice, even to the point of Yahweh describing himself in terms that all cultures would expect. It is in this sense, then, that I would agree that Yahweh “liked” blood. But here is where we are expected to be careful. Yahweh was not like the pagan gods in how blood functioned within the process of ritual.
Nothing But the Blood
These similarities of ritual between Israel and the ANE also apply to the use of blood. The blood of slain animals was regularly associated with cleansing, consecration, and ritual purification in all cultures. Leviticus, we acknowledge, appeals to the use of blood with regularity: the person who had been healed from a skin disease was to be anointed with blood and oil to signal that he was ritually clean (Lev 14:6–20); the main altar and the priests were consecrated with blood (8:14–15, 23–30); during a burnt offering, blood was to be splashed all around the altar, and even upon the people (Lev 1; cp. Exod 24:6, 8); during the ordination of Aaron and priests, blood was applied to the high priest’s right ear, thumb, and big toe (Lev 3; 8:23-24); during a sin offering, blood was to be sprinkled seven times in front of the curtain of the sanctuary and put on the horns of the incense altar (Lev 4; 6:24-30); the guilt offering found blood being splashed all around the altar (7:1-10).
So what was it about blood that made it seemingly so important to Israelite worship? We are not sure. Blood obviously plays a major role in sustaining life, so its importance may have developed naturally in relation to its biological uniqueness. Unlike almost everything else, it is something to be appreciated once-per-lifetime. Keep it, or lose life. God told Noah that animal blood was special, nigh unto life itself (Gen 9:4, “its life, its blood”), and that blood also stood for the life of the human who was made to physically image the image-less God (9:6-7). So maybe blood was simply special and everyone knew it. If so, the careful manipulation of blood (do we splash it? daub it? drip it? what if it touches my second toe? etc.) may be a distraction we subconsciously bring to these texts. As a matter of emphasis, we are probably being told what to cleanse the mercy seat with—presuming that the object needed ritualistic cleansing with something—and blood was simply chosen for its peculiar, unrivaled nature. Maybe they didn’t splash water or calf’s milk on the altar because these liquids were just not special enough.
So let’s imagine the scene in Leviticus 16 as the priest sprinkled some of the blood of the sin offering upon the kapporeth (lid of the ark) for the purification of sins. It is fair to ask the obvious question: What was actually happening at the moment of “atonement” (16:16) here? Was the priest using the animal and/or its death to appease the deity’s anger toward his personal sin or that of the nation? If so, why would a deity be pacified by blood? What does it say about the deity’s character if this was the case? Was magic even at work, with the deity being manipulated by something outside of his/her control? Or, switching gears completely, was the priest using blood to celebrate that he was able to communicate with his deity in spite of the sinfulness for which he and others were already guilty? Or was it being used as a symbol of something else? Since the pervasive call of Israelite religion was to avoid issues related to witchcraft and created spiritual powers (Deut 18:9-14), I would recommend away from attributing some kind of magical power to the fluid itself. Beyond this, however, we have no answers in the text itself.
Some have believed that Leviticus 17:11 signals Yahweh’s appreciation of blood: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement” (NASB). While we may sense in this passage that God is attributing some kind of potential power or capability to blood itself, or of the requirement to use blood, we need to pull ourselves back from making this actual claim. Of interest is the verb “given,” a translation of natan. While this common word (over 2000 uses in the OT) can refer to the action of “giving” or “supplying” something (Gen 24:35, “he has given him sheep and cattle”), the word is general enough to include the passive notion of “letting” or “granting” or “yielding” or “allowing” as well (cp. Exod 10:25, “You [Pharoah] must also let us [natan] have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice them to the LORD our God”). What is distinctly missing from Lev 17:11 is the command to use blood as though it is the only means of atonement. It was “given” to Israel, which need not carry the force of necessity or requirement. (The relatively common occurrence of “bloodless” atonements will be described below.) Blood may have been allowed to be used by Israel, as other nations did, in ritual practice. What cannot be argued in this passage is that Yahweh here invented, within some kind of cultural vacuum, the requirement to use blood when Israel performed atonement ritual.
The larger context of Leviticus 17 may provide help in determining what was at stake, however. Moses is here explaining the prohibition against sacrificing away from the central tabernacle. Yahweh’s desire for singular worship is noted by his insistence that sacrificial blood is not taken to the wrong location: “Any man from the house of Israel, or from the aliens who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, and does not bring it to the doorway of the tent of meeting to offer it to the LORD, that man also shall be cut off from his people” (Lev 17:8-9; cp. Deut 12:4-6). Bringing the animal and its blood to God’s house was a clear way of avoiding the problem of “offer[ing] their sacrifices to se’irim (most probably goat demons) (v.7). It therefore appears safe to interpret Yahweh’s insistence upon the presentation of blood as being subsumed within his jealousy of worship: “You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are all around you, for the LORD your God is a jealous God among you” (Deut 6:14-15). This solidarity of worship was particularly concerned with where Israel would perform its sacrifices:
“Whatever man of the house of Israel kills an ox or lamb or goat in the camp or who kills it outside the camp, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to offer an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. And the priest shall sprinkle the blood on the altar of the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of meeting, and burn the fat for a sweet aroma to the LORD.’” (Lev 17:3-4)
“You shall seek the place where the LORD your God chooses out of all your tribes . . . . There you shall take your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes ….” (Deut 2:5-6)
In review, then, Yahweh allowed (my recommended meaning for natan in Lev 17:11) Israel the use of animal blood in the exercise of their sacrificial ritual. This was because blood was already being used in neighboring cultures, as were arks and temples and priests. Other than this, there was nothing special about blood per se. It could be poured, daubed, drained, squeezed, sprinkled, or splashed on altars and ark lids because it carried symbolic value to the ancient world and to Israel. It was much like saying “this place needs to be clean before my deity can be here.” As a natural substance it bore unique significance as the literal difference between life and death. Of utmost importance, however, was where that blood was to be brought during sacrifice. And the discussion of where will now naturally give way to the question of who and to whom. My thoughts below will try to demonstrate that atonement was only to be enjoyed by the sincere Yahweh-loyalist. The mistake will be to think that atonement was a means, or an invitation, to enter into this loyalty itself.
Was Passover an example of bloody atonement?
While the association between atonement and Passover does not surface immediately in the Torah—there is only a singular mention during this week-long celebration that a goat was slain “to make atonement” for Israel (Num 28:22)—a brief word on the bloody nature of Passover is necessary since the NT develops such a close association between the death of Jesus and Passover (cp. 1 Cor 5:7, “Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us”). The question before us is straightforward: Was Passover an example of a bloody atonement? Our answer will set the stage for how we interpret Jesus’ atonement.
I propose that the long-term significance of Passover was what happened later that evening, after the sacrifice, and what followed in the years to come. To follow the path that Passover takes into the future is to look past the bloody doorpost and toward the memory of God’s redemption of Israel from slavery. Blood played an important role in the story, of course (“Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are “ [Exod 12:13]); but this blood was not shed for sin, nor to assuage God’s wrath. It was quite literally a “sign” for protection over certain houses within enemy territory (12:13, 23). The annual Passover celebration was not destined to repeat the splattering of lamb’s blood (cp. 1 Cor 5:8) particularly because this was not the crisis moment of the original event. The bloody “sign” signified that something else was about to take place. So in no sense did the Passover blood atone for Israel’s sin, nor bring Israel into fellowship with Yahweh. Passover solved, instead, the potential destruction of Israel at the hand of its own God. It provided the necessary signal to the angelic killer to move past one house and enter another. The question to ask, coming below, is whether Christ’s death was meant to announce a similar redemptive sign.
Blood wasn’t always to be considered a good thing. As a bodily fluid it could defile and pollute, if even symbolically. “Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it” (Num 35:33; cp. Ps 106:38). Cain shed Abel’s blood, which then “cried out” to God from the ground for vengeance (Gen 4:10). Hence murder, which resulted in “bloodguilt,” would have to be settled in favor of the innocent victim: “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man” (Gen 9:5).
It is helpful to remember, too, that atonement ritual could took place in the absence of blood. The most famous example of bloodless atonement in the OT was the yearly ritual described in Leviticus 16. Two goats were chosen on the Day of Atonement, and distinguished by lots. The high priest sent one goat into the wilderness (“to Azazel,” Lev. 16:8, 10, 26, NET) to illustrate the carrying of sins and defilement away from the Israelite camp (“to make atonement” for the camp, presumably, 16:10). The other goat was sacrificed at the altar within the camp, its blood being sprinkled in very specific ways within the tabernacle and upon its furniture.
The meaning of this ritual seems easy to grasp. In celebrative fashion the nation was supplied a picture of what the removal of sin would look like if indeed sin were able to be physically removed. The joint symbolism of a dying and living animal (literally called “the day of atonements [pl.],” yom hakkippurim) was memorable if not a little horrific. The blood of the first animal represented its loss of life (“the life of the flesh is in the blood,” Lev 17:11), and the goat-gone-missing meant much the same. In both cases an animal died, and in both cases national uncleanness was symbolically removed, if only for the calendar year. The “goat of removal” (“for Azazel,” 16:22) pictured a non-bloody version of atonement, employing two enjoyable symbols, at least for the humans: Israelite sin was symbolically transferred to the goat (“Aaron shall lay both hands on the head of the goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat,” Lev 16:21), and the goat carried these sins out of the camp (“the goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land/Azazel,” v. 22). The details of both atonement stories are not meant to distract our attention from the main point at hand: to live within Yahweh’s covenant included release from sin, even if only symbolically.
Beyond the wilderness goat story, we find numerous non-bloody atonements or cleansings in the OT that should be on our radar when trying to think our way through atonement theory. Listed here are the OT passages in which kaphar is used without the mention of blood:
- Gen 32:20: Also say, “Behold, your servant Jacob is behind us.” For he said, “I will appease him with the present that goes before me, and afterward I will see his face; perhaps he will accept me.”
- Exod 21:30: If there is imposed on him a sum of money, then he shall pay to redeem his life, whatever is imposed on him.
- Exod 30:12: When you take the census of the children of Israel for their number, then every man shall give a ransom for himself to the LORD, when you number them, that there may be no plague among them when you number them.
- Exod 30:15-16: The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when you give an offering to the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves. And you shall take the atonement money of the children of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tabernacle of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before the LORD, to make atonement for yourselves.”
- Lev 5:11-13: But if his means are insufficient for two turtledoves or two young pigeons, then for his offering for that which he has sinned, he shall bring the tenth of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering; he shall not put oil on it or place incense on it, for it is a sin offering. He shall bring it to the priest, and the priest shall take his handful of it as its memorial portion and offer it up in smoke on the altar, with the offerings of the LORD by fire: it is a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for him concerning his sin which he has committed from one of these, and it will be forgiven him; then the rest shall become the priest’s, like the grain offering.
- Lev 14:18: The rest of the oil that is in the priest’s hand he shall put on the head of him who is to be cleansed. So the priest shall make atonement for him before the LORD. Then the priest shall offer the sin offering, and make atonement for him who is to be cleansed from his uncleanness. Afterward he shall kill the burnt offering. And the priest shall offer the burnt offering and the grain offering on the altar. So the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be clean.
- Lev 14:53: Then he shall let the living bird loose outside the city in the open field, and make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean.
- Lev 16:10: But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.
- Num 16:46-47: So Moses said to Aaron, “Take a censer and put fire in it from the altar, put incense on it, and take it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them; for wrath has gone out from the LORD. The plague has begun.” Then Aaron took it as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the assembly; and already the plague had begun among the people. So he put in the incense and made atonement for the people.
- Num 31:50: Therefore we have brought an offering for the LORD, what every man found of ornaments of gold: armlets and bracelets and signet rings and earrings and necklaces, to make atonement for ourselves before the LORD.”
- 1 Sam 12:3: Here I am. Witness against me before the LORD and before His anointed: Whose ox have I taken, or whose donkey have I taken, or whom have I cheated? Whom have I oppressed, or from whose hand have I received any bribe with which to blind my eyes? I will restore it to you.”
- 2 Sam 21:3: Therefore David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? And with what shall I make atonement, that you may bless the inheritance of the LORD?” (hanging! in v. 6)
- Isa 6:7: And [the seraphim] touched my mouth with it, and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.”
- Isa 27:9: Therefore by this the iniquity of Jacob will be covered; and this is all the fruit of taking away his sin: when he makes all the stones of the altar like chalkstones that are beaten to dust, wooden images and incense altars shall not stand.
- Jer 18:23: Yet, LORD, You know all their counsel which is against me, to slay me. Provide no atonement for their iniquity, nor blot out their sin from Your sight; but let them be overthrown before You. Deal thus with them in the time of Your anger.
- Ezek 16:60-63: “Nevertheless, I will remember My covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you. Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you receive your sisters, both your older and your younger; and I will give them to you as daughters, but not because of your covenant. Thus I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the LORD, so that you may remember and be ashamed and never open your mouth anymore because of your humiliation, when I provide you an atonement for all that you have done,” the Lord GOD declares.
- Amos 5:12: For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: afflicting the just and taking bribes; diverting the poor from justice at the gate.
- Psa 49:7: None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him.
- Psa 65:3: Iniquities prevail against me; as for our transgressions, you will provide atonement for them.
- Psa 78:38: But He, being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them. Yes, many a time He turned His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath.
- Psa 79:9: Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; and deliver us, and provide atonement for our sins, for Your name’s sake!
- Job 33:24: Then He is gracious to him, and says, “Deliver him from going down to the Pit; I have found a ransom.”
- Job 36:18: Because there is wrath, beware lest He take you away with one blow; for a large ransom would not help you avoid it.
- Prov 6:35: He will accept no recompense, nor will he be appeased though you give many gifts.
- Prov 13:8: The ransom of a man’s life is his riches, but the poor does not hear rebuke.
- Prov 16:6: In mercy and truth atonement is provided for iniquity; and by the fear of the LORD one departs from evil.
- Prov 16:14: As messengers of death is the king’s wrath, but a wise man will appease it.
- Prov 21:18: The wicked shall be a ransom for the righteous, and the unfaithful for the upright.
- Dan 9:24: “Seventy weeks are determined for your people and for your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy.
- 2 Chr 30:18-20: For a multitude of the people, many from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover contrary to what was written. But Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, “May the good LORD provide atonement for everyone who prepares his heart to seek God, the LORD God of his fathers, though not according to the purification rules of the sanctuary.” So the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people.
With the above passages in mind I would like to offer these four points in conclusion:
- We find it difficult to translate kaphar with any real consistency, but surely this is a good thing. The connotative importance of kaphar is found in its appeal to the restored position of something which was in need of repair. Kaphar fixes things, even people. With or without blood it can deal with almost anything, including such things as mold or uncleanness (Lev 12:7; 14:18-20; 15:15, 30) or unsolved murder (Num 6:11; Deut 21:8) or inadvertent sin (Num 15:25). It can appear in scenes of physical ritual or in celebratory poetry.
- In noticing where atonement can occur without blood, we must conclude that the exception proves the rule: blood is not necessary for atonement. We can even sense in the verses immediately above that it is relatively easy to attain fellowship with Yahweh without the use of blood. Leviticus 5 provides the most striking example of this. Blood is used in vv. 1-10 for the trespass offering but it is not used in vv. 11-13 for the same offering. Blood is not the common denominator in this offering, then, and in one sense is not essentially a matter of requirement. In another example, kaphar is used in the death of an animal, with no mention of blood, and even implied lack of blood (Num 8:12, 19, 21). And in yet another example, kaphar is used in the death of an animal (“break the neck of the bull”) where blood is the distasteful item within the story (“Provide atonement, O LORD, for Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and do not lay innocent blood to the charge of Your people Israel.’ And atonement shall be provided on their behalf for the blood [of the unsolved murder victim]” Deut 21:8).
- Of the 123 uses of kaphar in the OT, not one example applies to a person who is considered to be living outside the Abrahamic covenant. Turning this into a positive, atonement of any kind (bloody or non-bloody) was considered to be a privilege of the person-in-covenant. Atonement “ritual” should be better understood as an atonement “celebration,” therefore, illustrating the provision of cleansing/covering already offered within covenantal grace. Even the Passover was to be celebrated without Gentiles present (Exod 12:43-47). It is also important to note that in the event of bringing a Rahab or Ruth into the Abrahamic covenant, at no time was the mechanics of atonement used for making this entrance possible. As could be expected, then, kaphar was never made available for those outside the covenant (Num 35:31; 1 Sam 3:14; Isa 22:14; Amos 5:12 [used for “bribery,” apparently referring to the Israelites’ misuse of kaphar when worshipping other deities (cp. Prov 6:35)]).
- Observing the OT teaching on sacrifice and atonement is to notice the theological movement which came with it. I would recommend the following picture developing over time: God’s people were taught that sacrifice was an available cultural mechanism within a larger issue of fellowship between God and man. Sacrifice (even for “atonement,” Exod. 30:15; Lev. 14:53; Num. 31:50) was not to be thought of in terms of payments made, but in terms of relationship restored and maintained through sincere repentance, faith, and fidelity as symbolized in the ritual. In this sense sacrifice was ineffective to restore fellowship when not accompanied by inward commitment, and unnecessary when this commitment was present (2 Chron. 30:18-20; Dan. 6:10). This was because God was free to love those whom he so chose to love (Exod. 33:19; Deut. 7:7-11). Any appeal to the mechanism of sacrifice without inward commitment could even be considered blasphemous (Deut. 10:17; cp. Luke 23:39-43) on the basis that it assumed that God’s character was based on purely legal (and not personal) terms. The bloodlessness of many of the Psalms (e.g., Ps 91) was intended to progressively wire faithful Israelites toward the permanent understanding that blood was not necessary for gaining and maintaining a proper relationship to Yahweh. Most vital, of course, was settling the issue of monotheism, which necessarily brought with it the necessity for faithfulness to Yahweh. We could then presume that there would be a pattern of moving from literal use of blood (Lev. 17) to the recommended non-need of blood at all (Ps 51; Isa 1; Hosea 6; Amos 5; Dan 9; Jonah 4; 2 Chron 30). In the end, the greatest themes of Yahweh’s character would purposely leave blood out of the picture. He would be praised not for his fine use of blood, but for his character that operates outside the need for physical manipulatives of any kind (Deut. 7:9-10; Ps 136:1-2).
In the final chapter of Part 1, I will try to show that as it was in the OT, so it is in the NT: peace with God may occur without the mention of blood (Rom 4:23-5:5) or alongside it (Rom 5:10-11). It is interesting that blood, even Jesus’ blood, will be left out of most conversations about human salvation in the NT. In one poignant example, blood gets one mention in the book of Acts, and even here (20:28) it does not occur in an evangelistic sermon.
Jesus’ death and the Old Testament
There is no firm evidence that NT-era Jews anticipated the bloody death of the messiah, what we now think of as the bloody messianic atonement. The bystanders at the foot of the cross did not want him to die (Matt 27:39-44; Mark 15:29-32; Luke 23:35-41) simply because, to them, there would be no benefit in a dying or dead messiah. Messiah was supposed to liberate them from Rome. The Emmaus Road disciples had hoped that Jesus was “the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21), presumably without dying in the process. So while we may presume that the bloody death of the Son was God’s means of accomplishing salvation, this will best be understood in retrospect. To the observant Jew, the crucifixion of Jesus ruled him out of court for any serious consideration as the savior of Israel or of any individual in particular (“He who is hanged is accursed of God,” Deut 21:23), and there is no evidence that this view was challenged by any clear-headed Yahwist right up to and through the crucifixion. This realization needs to inform our understanding of NT atonement, and how it will be interpreted by those who lived closest to death of Jesus.
Paul is our best example of retrospective vision when dealing with Jesus’ death. He will position the cross deeply in the heart of God’s plan, of course, but he will do this while admitting that its meaning was hidden to us from the front end. I have often wondered whether Paul was familiar with Christ’s struggle with death in Gethsemane; but I have little doubt that Paul saw Jesus’ submission to the cross as evidence of full-blown obedience to the Father (Phil 2:6-11). I believe it will be in this sense that he will say that Jesus “died according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3); his was a kind of death which came through a conscious, willful submission to God’s larger will, even (for example) through the pain of having a friend turn against him (e.g., Ps 41:9). It was a death that came about because of faithfulness, and in this sense it was “according to the Scriptural” picture of what the messiah would do, and how he would live. If Jesus had died by suicide, in other words, he would not have died “according to the Scriptures” and how it presented the death of God’s ultimate servant (Isa 53).
I believe this is why Paul connected “the message of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18) with his own tellings of the “gospel” which found its framing story in the OT (cp. 1 Cor 1:17-18, 23; 2:2, 8; 2 Cor 13:4; Gal 3:1; 5:11; 6:12; Phil 2:8; 3:18; Col 1:20; 2:14-15). If the singular requirement of righteousness in the OT was faithfulness to the God of Israel (as discussed in previous chapters), then Jesus could be identified as the primary example of what it meant to be righteous, as demonstrated through his faithfulness-unto-death loyalty to the Father. The message of the cross was the message of faithfulness, the ultimate means of attaining righteousness in either testament.
Forgiveness and Atonement in the NT
Maybe it’s just my particular background, but somewhere along the way I was taught that being forgiven of my sin is all that stood between me and heaven. It’s like (I’ll try to draw the picture in your mind) I’m standing on one cliff, there’s a cliff in the distance I want to get to (call it heaven) and there’s my sin in between. If I can only get forgiven for my sins, if there could be some kind of bridge to cross the chasm, I could go to heaven.
There are certainly problems with this view: 1) Forgiveness as an OT concept dealt mostly with situations that did not really have to do with salvation at all. Forgiveness was for the believer, the Yahwist, as he dealt with daily issues of behavior, disease, and just normal existence as a dusty human. 2) Forgiveness is notoriously absent from classic NT salvation passages like John 3:16 and Acts 16:31 (this list could be multiplied, of course). 3) Forgiveness of sin makes a person neutral, not positively righteous. And neutral people don’t go to heaven, unless they’re owed it for some other reason. These are three ideas that quickly come to mind.
So why do we gravitate toward forgiveness as the key that unlocks the salvation door? It is due, in my opinion, to starting with the solution (heaven) and then going looking for a problem. Since general sinfulness is often the talk of the Bible, many people presume that forgiveness of this problem will lead to the solution. But this whole arrangement is really a solution looking for a problem without looking at the story of Scripture as a whole. Romans 6:23 certainly doesn’t argue that sin leads to hell (instead, “the wages of sin is death”) though this is often the fall-back verse for the above view. I once had a preacher admit to me that while Romans 6:23 doesn’t say that unforgiven leads to hell (he admitted it leads to death, as Paul was saying), he wasn’t about to change his view since he couldn’t think of anything else standing between a person and heaven.
But let’s think of the bigger picture being developed in the OT. The people of Israel are chosen, they’ve become idolaters, they’re off into exile. At that point the theme of forgiveness is picked up as a future reality for the people (Jer. 33:8: “I will cleanse them from all their iniquity by which they have sinned against me, and I will pardon all their iniquities by which they have sinned against me”) as though they aren’t forgiven at the present. That would be contradictory to the numerous places where God forgives sins as they are committed (think Leviticus); but this shows there’s a bigger issue, a bigger sin if you will, that needs bigger forgiveness. And that issue is corporate idolatry. (Here is where real gods makes such a difference in one’s theology, by the way. If the gods are not real, idolatry is hardly a problem, or anything much worse than standard covetousness.)
Along with forgiveness on the grand scale comes the need for atonement. Again, the people have been being atoned through the sacrificial system for generations. But there’s a bigger atonement, or cleansing, that needs to take place for the entire story to come full circle for Israel. Daniel 9:24: “Seventy weeks are determined for your people and for your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make atonement for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness.” I take this to mean that whereas Jeremiah had predicted 70 years of captivity, Daniel multiplies this by 7 (“seventy 7’s”) to give a sense of never-endingness to Israel’s captivity—until God himself does something to bring Israel back into faithfulness.
So the two pictures combine: forgiveness and atonement need to happen in the future, on a grand scale, for the story of God’s people to have a happy ending. It’s not about getting forgiven for one sin at a time, like the medieval model of going into a priest would have us believe, but getting to a new place in life where our entire relationship to God is not considered to be “in sin.” That will happen, in the story of Israel, when they come back to God and are not idolaters any longer. This will be the opening hope of the NT, as described by Mary (Luke 1:46-55), Zacharias (1:67-79), and Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). God was about to end Israel’s exile through a newborn child.
So back to the picture of two cliffs, with our sins in the gulf between. The cross of Jesus is laid over that gulf and we walk across. It’s where we get the idea that because Jesus died we can now be forgiven. I’m recommending that the Bible writers simply never had this picture in their head, so they were never answering the questions that this picture poses.
Instead I think the question that the Bible writers have in their head is “How do I approach a holy God like Yahweh?” It’s not a question about sin, really, as much a question of how a human can even be with, and be intimate with, God. The picture they constantly appealed to was getting inside the Temple to the Holy of Holies, where God lives: Psalm 24:3-4: “Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, nor sworn deceitfully. He shall receive blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.” So the scene isn’t two cliffs, it’s the tabernacle. I can’t go inside, I can’t be with God, if I’m dirty and (especially) idolatrous. “Blessed is the man whom you choose, and cause to approach you, that he may dwell in your courts. We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, of your holy temple” (Psalm 65:4:).
The verses that use this word picture of getting near God, or going inside the temple, are everywhere, spanning both testaments (Ps 11:4; 23:6; 24:3-4; 26:8; 27:4; 84:4, 10; 92:13; Isa 66:20; Joel 2:13; Zech 14:21; Matt 17:4; 2 Cor 5:1-2; Eph 2:13; Heb 8:2; 9:8, 11, 24; 10:19; Rev 13:6; 15:5). Even our traditional hope of “going to heaven” is described as entering God’s new temple (Rev 21:2-3). Getting saved in the Bible therefore isn’t being forgiven, then, as much as being intimate with God. Following this picture, being right with God precedes being atoned or cleansed (Heb 2:17; 9:25, 28; 1 Pet 2:23-24; 1 John 1:6-7; 2:2-4), which only makes sense. Like Moses meeting God at the burning bush, he was already righteous before taking off his shoes—but he still had to take off his shoes.
Why is this important? The question now changes from “How can I get to heaven when I die?” to “How can I be in the presence of God?” No false advertising. This also allows atonement to have two very distinct meanings, whether the practical issue of cleansing in the OT, or the metaphorical sense of being found faithful/loyal to God. Both are “cleansings,” or coverings, because the word simply is about becoming able to commune intimately with God. The same word picture would apply to two kinds of forgiveness. We’re forgiven for individual sins as believers, and we are forgiven for our entire past life when we convert away from paganism. Both words can apply to both stories, which they often do in Scripture.
This question of how to be found worthy of God’s presence also clears up the poor reasons that people may want to get saved today. I don’t think we should ask someone if they want to go to heaven when they die, but instead should say, “Do you want to be with God?” Once they say yes, then we can give the biblical picture of Jesus dying to atone them, to cleanse them, making them worthy to enter God’s presence – pictured literally as coming into the temple, even as a Gentile. The OT saint saw this Gentile inclusion only as a faint future hope (Ps 65:1-3; 66:4), but the NT carefully pictures the godly Gentile as now able to come into the temple because of Jesus’ atonement and the Holy Spirit’s cleansing on their behalf (Acts 10:4, 15; 14:27; 15:9; 26:18; Rom 15:8-9, 16; 1 Cor 6:11; Heb 7:27; 10:1, 19, 22; 12:14, 28; 13:12-13; 1 Pet 3:18). This was their picture of “getting saved.” They weren’t crossing a chasm between cliffs, they were entering the Holy of Holies. I find it interesting in this regard that when the last books written in the NT (the gospels) each have a chance to say that something “happened” when Jesus died, they each choose the same picture, the tearing of the veil. They say nothing about forgiveness or atonement.
Forgiveness before the Cross Impossible?
So was Jesus’ death necessary for God’s forgiveness to be possible? Though I have often heard this, I do not think so. There is simply too much OT theology at stake (think of the common strains of the Psalms, for example, where the writer relishes God’s forgiveness) to claim that up until the death of Jesus sin could not possibly be forgiven by God. It certainly was. The death of Jesus was necessary for other reasons. For example, with respect to the picture I have drawn above, Jesus’ death was necessary for a Gentile to approach the God of Israel, since the Gentile stood outside the original covenant begun with Abraham. The book of Hebrews picks up, in this regard, on the location of Golgotha outside the gates of Jerusalem: “Therefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify the laos [‘people,’ purposely broad enough to include Gentiles] with his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to him, outside the camp, bearing his reproach” (13:12-13). The Gentile can now approach God without fear of being rejected out of hand. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off [Ephesian Gentiles] have been made near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13).
A surprising number of commentators believe that Romans 3:25 teaches that God did not actually forgive sins in the OT (“in his forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed”). I find this to be an example of horrific exegesis, so let me give my understanding of the larger argument of this passage. Two themes in Romans bring us to end of chapter three: 1) God’s faithfulness/righteousness to the covenant he established with the family of Abraham (1:2, 17, 24-25; 2:2, 6-13; 3:1-4), and 2) human failure to respond to this faithfulness of God in kind (1:18-32; 2:21-24; 3:9-20). My exact wording is important here, as what I am arguing against is the common notion that the general sinfulness of mankind, or even (presumably) Adam’s imputed guilt, has incited God’s wrath against humanity. Even the most cursory read of the OT notices that it is idolatry, and not sin in general, that caused God’s anger in the OT (e.g., Deut 9:7, “in Horeb you provoked the LORD to wrath”). So too here in Romans. Paul is tightening the argument for his largely Gentile audience in Rome. Faithlessness to the covenant, with its attendant idolatry, has brought God’s wrath, whether committed by the Jew (1:18-32, describing the Red Sea/golden calf rebellion) or by the Gentile (2:6-16). Obedience to the specific laws within Torah did not trump God’s desire for the covenant faithfulness which he demanded of both the Jew and the Gentile: “But now the covenant faithfulness of God outside of Torah (but certainly predicted within it) is revealed, in the sense that Jesus’ faithfulness to God during his life, death, and resurrection is now applicable to all who place their loyalty in him—whether Jew or Gentile” (my paraphrase of 3:21-22). We all can attain to the “faith of Jesus,” or be credited with his loyalty to the Father by becoming loyal to Jesus himself. We desperately need this loyalty because of our previous disloyalty/idolatry. In doing this, in being “in Christ” as the Yahwist of the OT considered himself to be “in David” (cp. 2 Sam. 20:1), we show that the lordship/headship of Jesus Christ is for both Jew and Gentile alike (“Therefore we conclude that a man is justified apart from the deeds of the law. Or is he the God of the Jews only, and not also of the Gentiles also? Yes, of the Gentiles also,” Rom 3:28-29).
So, did God forgive sins in the OT? Let me offer a paraphrase of Rom 3:24-27: “We are all justified ‘freely’; whether by his outright favor, or through the mercy seat, we are redeemed from exile in Christ Jesus, through his faithful blood—not that of a Passover lamb. Previously God was right in forgiving sins, or passing them over [cp. Micah 7:18, ‘pardoning iniquity, and passing over the transgressions of the remnant of his heritage’], and presently he is also right in making us righteous. All to say, God is consistent, we Jews and Gentiles are being treated equally, faith has always been the key, and therefore no one can boast.”
Therefore in this age God’s covenant faithfulness is now available to everyone through Jesus Christ’s faithfulness to his Father’s will (Rom 3:21-22). He suffered for all, Paul previously told the Corinthians, even Gentiles (2 Cor 5:14-15). In the same vein Paul reminded the Romans that everyone was guilty of faithlessness (3:23). With these connections in hand, OT to NT, it is now Paul’s privilege to connect the dots only one more time: whereas Passover benefitted only those who identified with Yahweh in Egypt (Exod 12:43-47), now redemption expands its application to all those who identify with Jesus Christ (the intended force behind the “us” of 1 Cor 5:7). So while forgiveness has always been available, the specific moment of “redemption” is what took place on the cross.
A Word on Penal Substitution
How popular is the theory of penal substitution? Most of my Christian college students would say they are roughly familiar with the phrase, though they admit that they have not studied it out within its ancient Near East context. This led me to try an experiment some years ago. I asked 35 freshmen to carefully spell out the meaning of John 3:16 on paper. I was not surprised to notice that more than thirty described the gift of “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” in purely penal substitutionary terms (e.g., “he sent his son to die for the penalty of my sin”). That’s all the evidence I needed to confirm that penal substitution is quite alive and healthy even among those who have not thought much about it, especially from an OT perspective.
Many people are attracted to penal substitution for its depiction of God’s grace in action—that is, God’s making salvation available graciously through the mechanical payment of sin through the Son’s vicarious death. This hearkens back to Anselm’s assertion that God demands punishment for sin and cannot forgive sin without some kind of transaction (“God cannot forgive sin out of mercy alone, apart from any repayment of the honor stolen from him” [Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”), in Anselm of Canterbury, vol. 3 [Mellen, 1975], 68). Bringing my students back into this discussion, I have noticed that when asked if God can “just forgive” human sin, many express concern that this would demonstrate that God does not truly hate sin. It is as though God’s honor is lowered if he can actually forgive sin (apparently the intended meaning behind the just as in “just forgive sin”). But wait a second. Why is the possibility of God forgiving sin without mechanical or transactional means a bad thing? I have yet to find the answer here, though a bit of history helps frame the answer I hear most often.
Commonly, going all the way back to the Reformation, it is thought that God’s righteousness was something that was reckoned or accounted (with emphasis on the bookkeeping metaphor) to a sinful man’s standing before God. Justification, and hence salvation, was to be understood in transactional terms with our sin being exchanged for God’s righteousness at the cross. We are thus made right with God because God has accounted his righteousness to our account. And this transaction is gracious, or not deserved.
Here is my struggle: While this paragraph above may be true, it does not by itself make God’s glory greater. If anything, it feels like a return to old world paganism. Here I would recommend spending some time reading the hymns and prayers written to the gods of the ancient Near East. I believe you will notice that these deities were all about solving sin through ritualistic transactions such as prayer and sacrifice. Here is one example, taken from a Sumerian hymn entitled “Prayer to Any God”:
“Every day worship your god.
Sacrifice and benediction are the proper accompaniment of incense.
Present your free-will offering to your god,
For this is proper towards the god.
Prayer, supplication, and prostration. Offer him daily, and you will get your reward.
Then you will have full communion with your god.”
(Ancient Near Eastern Texts [Princeton, 1950], 391-2)
Gustaf Aulen expressed my concern this way: “If God can be represented as willing to accept a satisfaction for sins committed, it appears to follow necessarily that the dilemma of laxity or satisfaction really fails to guard the truth of God’s enmity against sin. The doctrine provides for the remission of the punishment due to sins, but not for the taking away of the sin itself” (Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement [trans. A. G. Hebert, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1931], 92). In trying to honor God’s hatred of sin, penal substitution minimizes sin. It claims that sin can have a price attached to it, even death, and that once the price is reimbursed, the person against whom the sin is committed can officially have his honor restored. He has been, quite literally, paid off. The Psalmist sees Yahweh in a very different light: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so Yahweh pities those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps 103:11-14). I therefore think that we need to reconsider the value of penal substitution. I believe it is moving our theology of sin, and ultimately our theology of God, in a harmful direction.
Final Thoughts on Atonement
I have said previously that in the OT it was the faithful Israelite—not the neighboring Moabite or Ammonite or Egyptian—who could enjoy forgiveness by Yahweh in spite of his recurring episodes of behavioral sinfulness. In much the same way the ritual of atonement (whether bloody or non-bloody) was considered to be a privilege of the person-in-covenant, a illustrative celebration of the provision of cleansing / covering / purification offered within covenantal grace. I have also said that God should be praised not for his fine use of blood, but for his character that operates outside the need for physical manipulatives of any kind (Deut. 7:9-10; Ps 136:1-2).
Q: What was the purpose of atonement? A: Religions of all stripes believed that a person or thing needed to be ritualistically cleansed before he/she/it could be intimate with a deity, or be used by a deity.
Q: Who was atoned? Specific to the OT, atonement ritual was reserved for the observant Israelite, or true members of the Abrahamic covenant. Atonement was never offered to the pagan who did not first become a proselyte to the Israelite religion.
Q: What could the atoned person/thing do which they could not have done otherwise? A: Once atoned, the individual or thing could be used by, or become intimate with, God. We think of Isaiah, for example, who was given his divine commission (Isa 6:8-13) after being atoned (‘your iniquity is taken away, and you sin atoned [kaphar], 6:7). The sin or iniquity in question here seems to have been his day-to-day relationship with the dusty ordinariness of humanity (cp. Ps 103:14, “He knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust”), as there is no hint of behavioral sin on Isaiah’s account, nor incriminating Adamic guilt to be absolved. He was a righteous man who simply needed to be cleansed before approaching his God.
Q: Was anyone unable to be atoned? A: An Israelite who rejected Torah and embraced idolatry could not expect atonement at the altar. He instead was subject to God’s wrath (“If you by any means forget the LORD your God, and follow other gods, and serve them and worship them, I testify against you this day that you shall surely perish,” Deut 8:19). This lack of atonement therefore also naturally extended to the idolatrous Gentile nations of the world.
Q: What if atonement was simply not available—such as during exile? A: Here is where we leave the OT world and enter the culture of Jesus himself. When there was no atonement available because of exile (e.g., Daniel), or because of a temple system which was avoided due to corruption (e.g., John the Baptist), it appears that the ritual itself simply became unnecessary. I suspect this is why atonement language becomes so elusive in the NT; it is simply not important to the story of the gospel. It is, however, important to Gentile inclusion within the story of salvation.
Q: How did Jesus’ death atone? A: He cleared the way for the non-righteous (the Israelite who had departed from Torah, as well as the entire Gentile world) to enter the temple and enjoy intimacy with God as a believer.
The scariest misuse of atonement for me is reserved for the time we say to a non-Christian, “Accept Jesus’ bloody death in your place and you will be forgiven and become a Christian.” Atonement never was used this way in the OT (i.e., Moses never offered the death of a bloodied animal to his pagan neighbor as a means of becoming a Yahwist), so we would not expect this in the NT. In fact, the entire concept of viewing atonement as a gift being offered to the non-believer has become one of the greatest miscues of modern evangelicalism. Think again through the meaning of Romans 6:22-23: “But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of [being a slave of] sin[fulness] is death, but God’s gift [of being a slave to righteousness] is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This paraphrase is admittedly my own, but I think it best summarizes the point that Paul is trying to make. The gift is not Christ’s payment for sin waiting to be taken from him and applied to my own situation; it is the privilege of being made free from sin and a slave to righteousness through the act of identifying with a new/living Lord.
Paul’s conversion to Christianity was the result of his conviction that Jesus was “the son of God” (Acts 9:20), or that “Jesus was the messiah” (Acts 9:22). Paul’s eventual death came at the hands of those who rejected this belief (cp. Acts 9:23). For those who believed in Jesus, however, Paul was excited to explain how Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection fulfilled the Scriptures by God’s design. While the most important aspect of Jesus’ life was his exaltation to the place of highest authority (Phil 2:9-11), the most curious aspect of his life was his conspicuous and shameful death upon a cross (Phil 2:8). Paul was convinced that even Jesus’ death was part of God’s plan, however, and took careful aim to explain this to his Christian audiences. The bare “gospel,” or good news, always remained the same for Paul, however: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31; cp. 1 Cor 12:3). Paul concluded that humans could only be justified only by loyalty to Christ (Rom 3:26, 28; 5:1; Gal 2:16) which matches an OT model of depending upon God’s covenantal love. Jews and Gentiles were furthermore to be justified in the same way: the circumcised (Israel) on the ground of their faith toward Christ and the uncircumcised (the nations) because of their faith in that same Christ (Rom 3:30; cf. Gal 3:8). Paul could appeal to the trustworthiness of Scripture concerning Abraham, who ‘loyal-ed himself to the God who justifies the ungodly’ (Rom 4:5, 9, 11; Gal 3:6).
Part 2: The Bible's Big Story
Dr. Johnson’s doing here what he does best – making us think about things we take for granted. Here are some of my thoughts on this book.
I believe in the concept of penal substitution, but I’m going to question that terminology a bit below. I believe in it if what is meant is that “we have redemption through his blood” (i.e., that the cross event was about our redemption, saving us from a fate that we could otherwise not avoid). In that regard I consider the atonement more than an example and not a ransom to be paid to Satan. However, I think the other views of the atonement make some contributions. We either “have redemption through his blood” (Eph 1:7; Heb 9:12) or not. Those verses seem quite clear to me. But “penal” implies a punishment, and “substitution” implies taking a punishment on our behalf. If the death of Christ on our behalf wasn’t really about giving God a substitute on which to pour out his wrath (this is what Dr. Johnson is beginning to focus on), then “substitution” likely isn’t the right word. Again, to repeat, I think Christ did die for our sake, but how to describe how that worked may require language other than “penal” and “substitution.” For certain the subject of penal substitutionary atonement has been articulated carelessly in evangelicalism. This is (for me) the chief value in Dr. Johnson’s series. For now I’ll go with the traditional nomenclature. So far in my head the issues needing attention are:
- Is penal substitution consistent with the character of God? I’d agree with Dr. Johnson that it’s a mistake to say that the point of the sacrifice of Christ was that God was angry at the sinner. That’s a common way to talk about penal substitution but the NT articulation of the cross doesn’t really approach it that way. We might say that God is angry with the sinner instead of at the sinner. He’s angry because the sinner is forfeiting what he could have in relationship with God, or that sin is self-destructive. God loves people and sin destroys them. That makes God angry. But that’s different than God being angry at the sinner. I think you can make a good case that Rom 1:18 is really following the trajectory that God is angry with the sinner because of what sin costs the sinner. God hates what sin does to people. He hates that it irrupted into his good world. He doesn’t hate sinners, though. I would think John 3:16 makes that clear. Consequently, what Jesus did on the cross isn’t about satisfying God’s lust for the sinner’s punishment or soothing his hatred. As noted above, that puts the vocabulary of “penal” into question.
- Did God select and intend the death of Jesus as a penal substitution, or did he just foreknow what would happen to Jesus on earth (not intending that he die) and then, through raising him from the dead, endorse him as a substitution? It seems to me that God foreknew humanity would suffer the loss of immortality (i.e., Eden would fail and with it, everlasting life with God). God knew this meant that death separated him from the humans he loved and wanted in his family forever. Death was a problem that needed solving—for everyone. This makes the focal point of God’s plan the resurrection, not the violent death. In other words, it ultimately wasn’t the death of Jesus that brought about redemption for lost humanity. It was the resurrection. Think about the meaning of “redemption” and you’ll see the point. To “redeem” something is to “buy it back”. In our case, the death of Christ enables us to come back into relationship with God. It cures the death problem, which is/was brought on by sin (my own view of Rom 5:12 helps here — that we are guilty before God not because of what someone else did [even Adam] but because of what we invariably and inevitably do — we sin). Christ wasn’t God’s chance to vent his anger on his Son. It was his chance to defeat death with resurrection and so secure eternal life for all who believe in the work of Jesus on the cross. So does “substitution” really work to describe this?
- Obviously, you can’t have resurrection without a death, and you need a death that is sufficient for all humanity at all times. I think this necessitates the death of the Son (the everlasting-ness of the atonement seems to require it). At any rate, it provides symmetry and a lot of OT thinking about sacrifice is about abstract ideas like balance and symmetry.
- There is also the issue of Passover typology (i.e., what happens to Jesus needs to correspond to the Passover lamb; 1 Cor 5:7). This is more relevant to the issue of the cross than other sacrifices in my mind. Evangelicalism has routinely mis-applied the OT sacrifices to Jesus. The blood, for example, is never applied to people except to sanctify the priests (they needed to be de-contaminated for occupying sacred space). That had nothing to do with forgiveness for moral sin. Passover is the more significant point of reference. The above (somewhat random and undeveloped) thoughts lead me to believe that, rather than denying penal substitution, maybe we should do a more careful job of explaining it in other ways besides wrath and hatred. Dr. Johnson’s series is exposing that need. The notions of “substitution” and “having redemption through his blood” do not need to be about hating sinners, but showing what the result would be without the grace of God in redemption – we are undone, we do not have eternal life, we are de-created in death. Rather than our de-creation, God offered his son to prevent that. The emphasis is love and life, not hatred and violence. Or at least it should be.
-- Dr. Michael S. Heiser
I recently heard that we see more images or pictures in one day (whether on our phone, on the TV, on a billboard, etc.) than a pre-Renaissance person would have seen over the course of their entire lifetime. Apparently our brains have been able to adjust to this visual onslaught, and we are not necessarily suffering because of it. But this is just another reminder of how much data we are being hit with (and hit seems to be the right word) every day, all day. We are victims of too much information.
Now in one sense I like this problem. Better having too much than too little. But it still counts as a problem, one that is relatively new to my way of life, and I find myself having to change the way I live because of it. For example, my wife and I now watch the evening news on fast-forward, pausing only if one of us interrupts with a “Hey, let me see that.” It is our new normal, turning something that used to be a half an hour into five minutes. I am not yet sure whether this is a good thing. It just means I have more time for more information.
For those of us who like to read and study the Bible, we could guess that this too-much-information condition would poke its nose into our tent as well. Biblical study is not immune from informational overload. The Bible is more accessible than ever, especially electronically. I have three Bible search applications just on my phone, allowing me navigate through almost any kind biblical study I can imagine, even while waiting in line at the store. So there is no excuse for not knowing Scripture. Or is there? Is modern accessibility to our Bible, at least the kind of accessibility we are accustomed to, actually putting us in a position to understand the Bible less than we did before? I think this question is very much worth considering.
I recently spent a week in Phoenix, on business, joined by my wife. This was our first time in Arizona, so my wife took the rental car sight-seeing each day while I sat in an office building (yes, it was one of those kinds of business trips). At night, however, the town was ours to enjoy. We just typed in the address of where we wanted to go, or where we wanted to eat, and our phone map took over. I never felt lost in a huge and totally unfamiliar city.
So I “learned” Phoenix that week. Or did I? After returning home, I realized that my experience of that city was limited to, quite literally, left- and right-hand turns. I never wondered where I was because that question never came to mind. My map took away the wonder, and may I say the “story,” of Phoenix. If you were to drop me in the middle of the city today, I would be lost, guaranteed. I have since decided that someday it would be fun to go back to Phoenix and get to know it the old fashioned way—with a map spread across the dashboard, wondering where in the world we are while simultaneously wondering whether we were ever going to get where we wanted to go. That dreaded feeling of being lost would be a good thing.
I think it is the same way with the Bible. To know what the Bible is about, to know its larger story, we need to experience the stories and plotlines and themes snaking through Scripture much like we need to drive (and even get lost in) the highways which lead into and around a city. We can’t just jump in and experience a few right-and left-hand turns and say we know what the Bible is about. We need to draw back, look at our map, and even get lost.
Evangelicals and the Big Story
So let’s admit the information we receive from the Bible (and its electronic retrieval systems) doesn’t necessarily help us experience its main plotline, what I will call its Big Story or leading narrative. This problem has not been lost on religious schools and publishers, of course. They know we are suffering from biblical information overload. In bookstores, I am noticing that the word “story” now appears in many titles of books about the Bible. Probably the best example is Zondervan’s recently published The Story, an abridged version of the NIV translation. Its subtitle certainly baits the hook for us: “The Bible as One Continuing Story of God and His People.” Out of curiosity, I opened to the beginning of The Story the other day to see if its editors would reveal where they were headed with their project. Here is the first paragraph from the Forward:
“This book tells the grandest, most compelling story of all time: the story of a true God who loves his children, who established for them a way of salvation and provided a route to eternity. Each story in these 31 chapters reveals the God of grace—the God who speaks; the God who acts; the God who listens; the God whose love for his people culminated in his sacrifice of Jesus, his only Son, to atone for the sin of humanity.”
This Big Story sounds familiar to most of us, I would suspect: God wants us to spend eternity with him, but he can’t because of our sin. Jesus’ death paid for our sin so that we can go to heaven. In simplest terms, let’s call this the Sin Paid For story. To bring the Bible into it, Genesis 3 (the sin) is resolved by Matthew 26 (the paying). Everything between these bookends counts as extra information, at times related to the main story but not necessary to it.
“Putting it that way, I would disagree,” said a friend to me in response to that last line. “The Bible has many stories which culminate in Jesus’ atonement, with these stories coming both before and after Jesus’ incarnation. So I would say the Bible’s main story, that of sin and atonement, has many smaller stories leading up to it. I don’t see why that’s a problem to you.”
I do have a problem with it, and I will lay out why we should all have a problem with it a bit later. But first I am curious if The Story’s version of the Bible’s grand narrative could be considered par for the evangelical course. So let’s try another book. The Bible in Sixteen Verses by Chris Bruno (Crossway, 2015) caught my attention because of its title (now there’s an idea—just read sixteen verses to get the point of the whole Bible!), and from the blurbs included on the book’s dustjacket. Many evangelical leaders apparently loved the book, one even saying it was the most valuable book about the Bible he had ever read. So now I’m interested. Bruno offers a summary statement of the sixteen verses he chose to tell the story of the Bible on page 142:
“God created a kingdom, and he is the King, but he made human beings to represent him in that kingdom. Adam and Eve rejected this call, which led to sin and death. But God promised to defeat the Serpent through the seed of the woman, who is also the seed of Abraham. Through Abraham’s family, and specifically Judah’s royal seed, David, the covenant blessings would come to the world. Because all people were guilty and deserved death, the sacrifices of the Mosaic law revealed more clearly their need for a substitute—the suffering servant. Through the servant and the work of the Spirit, God would establish a new covenant and give lasting life to his people in the new heavens and new earth. Jesus is the One through whom all of these promises find fulfillment, first in his sacrificial death as a necessary and just payment for sin and then in his victorious resurrection and reign as King. This great story will find its culmination when the redeemed from every tribe, tongue, and nation gather in the new creation to live with God forever.”
I applaud Bruno’s attentiveness to detail. But I maintain that what he is describing as the main story of the Bible is the same basic story we encountered earlier, now with other plots and sub-plots simply included as filler material. Here is the giveaway: notice how the word “necessary” connects the second-to-last sentence (“as a necessary and just payment for sin”) to his second sentence (“Adam and Eve rejected this call, which led to sin and death”). Bruno’s crisis is sin, solved by atonement. Of course other stories happen and other characters are introduced between these bookends. But we are right back where we started. The Big Story is the problem of sin and the solution of payment. It could even be argued that skipping completely over Jesus’ life, all 30 years of it, would not offend Bruno’s story, provided we include Jesus’ cross. Read Bruno’s paragraph again and ask yourself if he thinks that Jesus’ ministry—his teachings, his healings, his exorcisms—have any place in the main story of the Bible. Something is missing. And I maintain it is the Big Story of the Bible itself.
I close with five concerns, with each being the subject of another chapter to follow:
Concern #1: Evangelicals are content to describe the Big Story of the Bible without appealing to what is actually happening in the Bible. We (and I include myself as an evangelical, so I have been part of the problem) have been so busy making left- and right-hand turns through the Bible—think of your favorite massive commentary as Exhibit #1—that we have lost sight of the big picture. The solution is not making more careful turns, either. That would just be another commentary. The only way out of this problem is to step back and notice what is linking one story to another in the Bible, even linking one book to another. I will recommend not thinking of the bookends of the traditional story (sin and atonement) as the shiny objects that demand our attention, but instead spend time looking at what is lining up on the shelf between those bookends. When we do that we will notice that the Bible does not render sin management as its main narrative. I am convinced a brief tour of the Bible will convince you of this, and so this (see next chapter).
Concern #2: We have been taught to ask what the Bible means to us instead of asking what it meant to them. We are doing a good thing when we read the Bible for ourselves. But no ancient document, not even the Bible, can be understood without first drawing it through the lens of its original authorship and readership. This is the primary burden of this Naked Bible website. I believe the main narrative of the Bible is not hiding from us, but happily standing out in plain view for those who simply listen to the Bible in its original context. In the coming chapters, we will identify several key contextual elements which must be understood in the discernment of the Bible’s Big Story.
Concern #3: Evangelicalism, especially the modern American version of the movement, has concentrated on providing answers to the wrong questions. This is where I have come to appreciate the books of the British scholar N. T. Wright. If you have not read any of his books, I would recommend starting with Simply Christian and then trying The Day the Revolution Began. The first book will give you a scent of Wright’s Big Story, and the second wades into the details. Wright’s genius in my opinion is challenging the questions that Luther and Calvin tried to answer when reforming the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. He is an evangelical writing to evangelicals. But he thinks that evangelicals should basically start over when interpreting the Bible’s bigger story. I will dedicate an entire chapter to looking at N. T. Wright’s writings. While I do not end up subscribing to everything he maintains, listening to him challenge long-held views within the Western Christian tradition is refreshing and will lead us to think for ourselves, especially when trying to rethink our original questions.
Concern #4: We are still awaiting evangelicals to take other gods seriously. I would recommend reading Michael Heiser's The Unseen Realm, at least up to chapter 14, to getting a running start for my chapter on this subject. There would have been nothing more commonsensical to the ancient Bible writer than the reality of an unseen host of gods ruling over the affairs of men from the heavens, and for this reason there is no more commonsensical place to start for understanding the larger story of the Bible.
Concern #5: We should never have described God as a payment-based being. My last chapter will challenge the Sin Paid For model of the Big Story, claiming that it not only fails the Bible, but fails in explaining God’s character. It is a serious thing to damage God’s character, and I believe a leading culprit in this regard is the idea that God can be satisfied with payment for sin. I look forward to explaining this further.
In my introduction I recommended that locating the Big Story of the Bible can be difficult, and that simply being more fluent in the Bible does not solve the challenge. I should also add that I do not think this is anyone’s direct fault. No one is conspiring to keep the Story hidden. Maybe the modern Sunday sermon shares some of the blame, however: we are dropped into a text and then guided, often expertly, through left- and right-hand turns while never backing up (or backing out) to hear what is generally going on. During the sermon I suspect that everyone assumes—even the preacher—that everyone else knows how the text works in the larger scheme of things. When the sermon ends, we leave knowing the Bible better … yet the main story of the Bible is either assumed, or left out, and very likely left unchallenged. I think you know the drill.
But while no one is hiding the main story of the Bible from us, neither is our current evangelical climate excited at the prospect of rethinking it. I speak here from personal experience, having taught and pastored in the movement for all of my adult life (for the record, I’m fifty-five, which may be old or young depending on how you interpret fifty-five. I used to think it was old, and now find it to be rather middle-aged, lost somewhere between teenage impulsiveness and senior moments of forgetting why I just stood up). I have worked for academic deans, Bible departments, denominational leaders, and even college presidents who are simply not interested in reviewing the Big Story question. When the question is asked, I sense that a siege mentality appears. Why challenge the system? But why is precisely my burden here—why would a movement so interested in explaining the Bible clam up (or worse, clamp down) on the greatest question we could ever ask of the Bible? I begin to wonder if we are hiding something after all.
My last chapter included two sample paragraphs of evangelical renditions of the Bible’s Big Story. For fear of creating, and then destroying, a straw man, let me to offer two more quotations which come from well-respected evangelicals. I am trying to find short, representative readings that reflect current traditional thinking. As you read these paragraphs, my hope is that you find yourself saying yes, this is the Big Story I have been hearing. I want to be an honest critic, which means I first have to define my opponent’s view to his liking. This first sample is from the opening pages of the recently published ESV Gospel Transformation Bible (Crossway, 2013):
“We will understand what Jesus meant about all of Scripture bearing witness to him as we remember the big picture of the Bible. An old cliché says, ‘Biblical history is “his-story.”’ But how is this story of Jesus unfolding across the past and future millennia the Bible describes? A standard way of thinking about the whole picture of God’s dealing with humanity begins with a good creation, spoiled by Adam’s fall, redeemed by Christ’s provision, and perfected in the consummation of Christ’s rule over all things. This creation-fall-redemption-consummation perspective helps us map all the events of Scripture. All have a place in this great unfolding plan of ‘his-story.’”
This “creation-fall-redemption-consummation” story is another way of describing the Sin Paid For model which I mentioned earlier, where the problem of sin on the front end (here called the fall, coming on the heels of the creation) is solved by atonement on the back end (Jesus’ redemption, followed by the consummation). The story goes from Genesis 1 to Genesis 3, then jumps to Matthew 26 and finally to Revelation 22. It is the distance and time between Genesis 3 and Matthew 26 about which I am most concerned. That is quite a jump. N. T. Wright has cynically described this not as making a jump but as “helicoptering our way” over the Bible, arriving at our destination with suspiciously clean feet. We certainly wouldn’t want a big story that makes us trudge through the details! It seems like there should be more to it all than this.
Here is another sample paragraph. It is a bit long, but there may be no better spokesman for evangelicalism than Timothy Keller:
“Through two-thirds of the Bible, the part we call the OT, an increasingly urgent, apparently unsolvable problem drives the narrative forward. God is a God of holiness and is therefore implacably opposed to evil, injustice, and wrong, and yet he is a God of infinite love. He enters into a relationship with a people who are fatally self-centered. Will he bring down the curse he says must fall on sin and cut off his people, or will he forgive and love his people regardless of their sin? If he does either one or the other, sin and evil win! It seems impossible to do both. The resolution to this problem is largely hidden from the reader through the OT, though Isaiah comes closest to unveiling it. The glorious King who brings God’s judgment in the first part of Isaiah is also the suffering servant who bears God’s judgment in the second part. It is Jesus. Victory is achieved through [Jesus’] infinite sacrifice on the cross, where God both punishes sin fully yet provides free salvation. Jesus stands as the ultimate protagonist, the hero of heroes. Therefore, because the Bible’s basic plotline is the tension between God’s justice and his grace and because it is all resolved in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Jesus could tell his followers after the resurrection that the OT is really all about him (Luke 24:27, 45). So everything in the Bible—all the themes and patterns, main images and major figures—points to Jesus” (The Story of the Bible: How the Good News about Jesus is Central [in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, 2015]).
Let’s be fair, but pointed, in summarizing what Keller just said: God is holy, and he hates sin, but he cannot freely forgive the sin of those he also loves. So God is at an impasse between his love and his justice. God solves this tension by punishing Jesus on our behalf, thus providing us with a free and gracious salvation. What do you think? I hope that you can see that we are once again staring directly into the Sin Paid For model of the Bible’s Big Story. Nothing has changed. He has added some nice flourishes reflecting his pastoral concern, and for that he is to be thanked. He wants people to treasure God’s love for them as presented in the death of Jesus. I responded to this message when I was five years old, and my father was a pastor who ended almost every sermon by inviting people to respond to this story. So in one sense I am thankful for what Keller writes. But my concern remains. Is this really what the Bible is about?
Last time I mentioned five concerns that I had with the Big Story of the Bible as told by evangelicals. My first concern was this: Evangelicals are content to describe the Big Story of the Bible without appealing to what is actually happening in the Bible. I use the word “content” here because evangelicals often own up, very quickly, to this concern. I have heard them say rather often, in fact, that the main story of the Bible is likely not visible to those who simply pick up the Bible and read it. That sounds harsh. But Keller said it himself: “The resolution to this problem is largely hidden from the reader through the OT.” He then describes this problem/resolution as the “basic plotline” of the Bible, identified as “the tension between God’s justice and his grace.”
We should feel led to ask, Why is this tension largely hidden? And if it is, what is the point in reading the Bible if we won’t experience, along the way, the very tension that Keller claims is its main point? Either I am really missing the point of the Bible while I read it … or maybe the tension Keller is describing is simply not there. I recommend the latter option. I challenge any reader to find Abraham, Moses, or David describing a tension between God’s righteousness (the Hebrew word for justice and righteousness is the same, tsedaqah) and his grace. Moses received the stipulations of the law at the same time that he heard God describe himself as “gracious, long-suffering, and abounding in goodness and truth” (Exod 34:6). Yet we sense no tension. The Psalms commonly celebrate God’s righteousness and grace in the same breath (e.g., 103:17). And Jesus agreed. His parable of a creditor who “freely forgives” two debtors (Luke 7:42) is presented as though it is an honorable thing to be gracious without requiring payment. It is possible, even good, to “just forgive” a sinner without implying that their sin was not grievous. This graciousness is odd, yes, almost to the point of being ridiculous, but that is the point. God is just this ridiculous in his grace, and always has been. That is the kind of God that Jesus is trying to explain. Yet Keller rejects this view of a God, saying that we should have been sensing, all along, a grace/justice tension instead.
By the way—and I will return to this in a later chapter—evangelicals like Keller use Romans 3:25-26 as their proof for this tension between God’s justice and grace. I believe they are misreading the passage. But let’s say, for argument, that they are right about the meaning of Romans 3, and that the main tension of the Bible is finally exposed and resolved by two verses written by Paul to a church in Rome in A.D. 52 (what took so long?). I find this hard to believe. It is one of several reasons why Romans 3:25-26 will not support this interpretation. The point of 3:25-26 is summed up in 3:29-30, dealing with the Jew/Gentile problem, thus dismissing the idea that Paul was trying to clear up something that people had not known since the fall of Adam. I will deal with this passage when I explain my Concern #3, which is that Evangelicalism, especially the modern American version of the movement, has concentrated on providing answers to the wrong questions.
Let me close by taking an even closer look the Sin Paid For model, beginning with an illustration. Pretend we are trying to decide whether we should repair an old brick wall or demolish it and start over. From a distance the wall looks usable and sturdy. But when we get close we realize that some of the bricks are loose, others are misshapen, and some simply don’t belong. It appears the wall has been put together in hopes that no one will really inspect it. We conclude the whole thing needs to come down since its appearance does not match its reality.
So let’s inspect the bricks which make up the Sin Paid For wall. Actually, I would like you to do the inspection first, and I will save my opinions for my next chapter. Below I have listed the individual ideas or elements that go into the Sin Paid For story, or which comprise the finished wall. I’ve grown up staring at this wall, and I have heard or read each brick t some point on my journey. Your job is to determine whether a brick should be kept or thrown away. Or maybe it just needs reshaping. Maybe it was never part of the wall in the first place, and can just be ignored.
So how should you evaluate each brick? I recommend a simple test: in keeping with my concern that the Big Story of the Bible be found by appealing to what is actually happening in the Bible, I would like you to look at each brick and ask yourself: Is this idea taught, or is this happening, in the Bible? If it is, keep the brick. If not, throw it over your shoulder and move on. We will see what is left before rebuilding.
- Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden
- Adam’s sin resulted in the punishment of hell for all humanity
- Adam’s sin resulted in the corruption of a perfect creation
- Adam’s guilt is the primary cause of God’s wrath on humanity
- Human beings since Adam are naturally and totally sinful
- God’s holiness demands moral perfection from human beings
- God’s holiness demands that he cannot be in the presence of moral sinfulness
- God’s holiness demands that sin must always be punished
- God instituted OT sacrifices to teach of his hatred toward sin
- God instituted OT sacrifices to teach the general concept of substitution
- God’s wrath against sin was temporarily assuaged because of OT sacrifices
- God taught that a substitute could take the punishment of a morally guilty person
- Priestly actions in the OT (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) played a role in OT salvation
- Priestly actions in the OT (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) prefigured Jesus’ future priestly actions
- The OT teaches a constant tension between God’s justice and God’s love
- Loyalty to God (“faith”) is necessary for salvation
- Idolatry is putting anything in front of God
- Salvation is primarily an issue of one’s judicial relationship to God
- The idea of “taking away sin” relates to a person’s judicial relationship to God
- The offer of God’s “free” salvation depends on prior payment
- God’s grace cannot be shown without prior payment
- God’s forgiveness of sin is dependent upon prior payment
- God’s forgiveness of sin without requiring payment lessens the offensiveness of the sin
- God’s forgiveness of sin was not possible until Jesus’ death
- Forgiveness of sins is the means of becoming a Christian
- Unforgiven sin results in going to hell
- It was not possible to actually be righteous until Christ died
- When Jesus said he came to “save the lost,” he meant everyone
- Jesus needed to live a sinless life in order for humans to be saved
- Jesus’ sinless life can be credited to, or attributed to, the Christian’s judicial standing
- Our sinful life was credited to, or attributed to, Jesus on the cross
- God could not look upon Jesus on the cross because he was credited with our sins
- God’s wrath was poured out on Jesus on the cross
- God’s wrath against humanity was assuaged by Jesus’ death
- Jesus’ momentary death equaled the punishment of eternal hell for all humans
- Jesus’ “dying for sin” means that he paid the price/punishment of sin
- Jesus’ death was necessary for salvation
- Jesus’ resurrection was necessary for salvation
- Jesus’ priestly actions (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) play a role in human salvation
- The idea of being “saved from sin” means being released from the punishment of sin
- The Apostle Paul explained the plan of salvation better than Jesus
- Explaining the meaning of atonement is a necessary step in describing the plan of salvation
- Salvation is dependent upon believing in what Jesus did on the cross
- Salvation is dependent upon individually accepting the atonement of Jesus
- Salvation is a passive reception of something that is being offered by Christ to us
- The principal question being considered in the NT was how to become righteous
- Everything in the Bible points to Jesus
- The Big Story of the Bible is substituted moral perfection
We both have our work to do. Happy inspecting!
Many have expressed concern about going down the road of challenging historic Christianity on this issue of the Big Story of the Bible. I agree that this should always be a concern, especially for those of us who want to adhere to what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” Theologians should never try to be creative. I like Lewis’ words on the matter: “If I have read the New Testament aright, it leaves no room for creativeness, even in a modified or metaphorical sense. Our whole destiny seems to lie in the opposite direction, in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own, but borrowed, and becoming a clean mirror that is filled with a face that is not ours. Applied to literature, an author should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody some reflection of eternal beauty and wisdom” (“Christianity and Literature,” in Christian Reflections).
So I write this chapter of What Is the Bible’s Big Story trying not to be creative, and I hope you can read along in that spirit. If I am being creative, I feel I am closer to a child asking why someone in a parade is under-dressed, and why others seem not to notice. I admit to asking questions about a very complex theological system placed in front of me by my evangelical fathers, and about a system with which I have participated for many years. I am not claiming to know what the Big Story of the Bible is. My aim is more timid than that for now. I am still in the process of asking questions, as in “Why are we saying this…when the Bible seems to say that?”
In my last chapter I proposed that popular evangelicalism’s Big Story of the Bible carried, in effect, a Sin Paid For plotline since its climax involved Christ’s substitutionary payment for human sin. There are many subplots to this narrative, of course, but payment is the main (and indispensable) theme that arches over this reading of Scripture. Without Christ’s death, all humans would be properly consigned to hell because of God’s requirement for the payment of sin. That’s the parade that is going by in front of us. So let’s begin asking questions.
I closed with a long list of ideas which I sense to be the building blocks, or bricks, which make up the Sin Paid For wall. I asked you to determine whether each brick should be kept or thrown out, using the simple question “Does the Bible teach this, or is this happening in the Bible?” to help guide the decision. The goal, of course, is to reconstruct the Big Story wall using bricks which belong, or ideas that show up in the biblical narrative. In other words, the goal isn’t to tear down the wall and build some other wall totally contrary to the first wall. It’s to start building a composite wall that includes the Sin Paid For bricks along with other bricks that the Bible teaches to make a more complete “Big Story of the Bible” wall. (In case you think I’ve actually gotten that far in my own thinking, I have not. My own Big Story wall is yet incomplete. This is a work in progress. I have some idea how my completed wall will look, but I am fascinated by the prospect of discovering and understanding bricks which so far have escaped my attention.)
For each brick I will give my opinion on whether it should go or stay, or whether it needs some reshaping. I will often struggle in deciding how much detail to get into when looking at a particular brick, since some bricks are the result of centuries of theological history and debate. In such cases it would be imprudent or rash to just toss a brick aside as “unbiblical.” We owe each other some reasoning, sometimes some very careful reasoning, in dealing with bricks that we are used to seeing. But because I’m left holding this pen, you only get my views here. I would love to dialogue by email if you find the time.
Adam disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden
From the little we know about the story of Adam and Eve, this point seems clear. Adam was told to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17) and he did (3:6). This was an act of disobedience. I’m in favor of keeping this brick.
Adam’s sin resulted in the punishment of hell for all humanity
The exact nature of Adam’s threatened punishment (“you shall surely die,” 2:17) seems rather clear on the face of it, not least because God chose to use a word which turns out to be the most common way of describing physical death throughout the OT (mot, appearing 827 times). It is repeated by Eve in 3:3 and by the serpent in 3:4, and from everything said in the story we would suspect that God was threatening Adam with physical death if he ate from the tree. Mot describes Adam’s physical death in 5:5 as well as each individual who is reported to die throughout Genesis 5. So I think it is safest to say that God kept his death-promise to Adam in the sense that Adam eventually died. That is easy enough. What we do not know is what would have happened if Adam had not disobeyed.
(I’m not much interested in that question, having gotten my fill of the subject while writing my master’s thesis at Dallas Seminary on Calvin’s view of Adam’s original state. But in case you are wondering, Augustine thought it was possible that, as a being created from dust, Adam was destined to die a natural death no matter what happened in Genesis 3, and that Adam’s sin only made his life more miserable while waiting for the inevitable. Calvin later agreed in principle with Augustine’s suspicion, admitting that we simply don’t know what would have happened if Adam had walked away from the tree.)
So this much we know: Adam disobeyed, and he later died. God kept his promise. Maybe God’s means of keeping this promise was as simple as keeping Adam away from the tree of life (3:22, “lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”). Scripture never ties human death in principle to Adam’s tree-sin until Paul does so in Romans (5:12, 15, 17, 21; 8:10), and no writer in either testament will ever make the claim that Adam’s sin resulted in the punishment of hell for all humanity. I think what has happened is that over time the phrase “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23) has been interpreted as referring to spiritual death, and so to hell. But this triangulation is unwarranted, or it at least has no place in the story of Scripture as it is presented. So I think this brick, as worded, needs to be tossed aside. If people go to hell they apparently go for some other reason than because of what Adam did in the Garden. We’ll keep an eye out for that brick later. Michael Heiser’s series disputing that Romans 5:12 teaches that Adam’s guilt was transferred to us may be of interest to readers on this point, for he argues that we are all guilty before God because of what we do (sin), not because Adam sinned. As Rom 5:12 clearly teaches (what the text itself actually says), it was death that passed to all humankind because of Adam, not Adamic guilt. God’s wrath on anyone is due to their own sin. But more on wrath below.
Adam’s sin resulted in the corruption of a perfect creation
After Adam sinned God cursed the “ground” (adamah, Gen 3:17), a word that carries general meaning for dirt or earth. It denotes the whole world in Genesis 6:1 (“men began to multiply on the face of the adamah”) so our suspicion is that what happened in the Garden was indicative of what happened worldwide. Humans now toiled through thorns and thistles. But now to the question of whether the pre-fall creation was “perfect.” After creation God said that he thought that his work was “very good” (tov meod, 1:31), which indicates that he was very pleased. It was very good. It may not necessarily mean that everything was perfect, however. Did mosquitos bite? Did plants that Adam ate “die” in his stomach? These kinds of questions are often multiplied, and it is not long before we realize that we do not know how to delimit God’s definition of “very good.” In almost the same breath God admitted that Adam’s lack of a mate was “not good” (2:18). Paul will much later speak of the present painful state of creation (Rom 8:21), but he never tries to offer an opinion about the state of the creation before Adam’s sin. Does the Bible’s description of the final consummation connect back to a pre-fall Eden? It may hint at it, or allusions are made, but I don’t find the Bible as actually saying that explicitly. And I don’t sense that our Big Story depends upon it. God may have created an imperfect but “very good” earth to start with, and “perfection” (whatever that is) may come finally, and only, at the end, where mosquitos do not bite and the Vikings win every Sunday.
Adam’s guilt is the primary cause of God’s wrath on humanity
This hearkens back to Michael Heiser’s blog series on Rom 5:12 as well, but my goal here is to explain how I’m thinking about this brick. I was on a denominational licensure board awhile back, assigned to question the young man who wanted to become ordained in the ministry. I soon began to suspect that whenever our candidate did not have a clear biblical answer to one of our questions he would quote our denominational handbook. I didn’t like that, so I decided to stir the pot. “What is the cause of God’s wrath upon humanity?” I asked. “Why is God angry with us?” This was not a trick question on my part, but I knew the answer would take some thought. I will never forget how polished and precise the answer came: “In union with Adam, human beings are sinners by nature and by choice, alienated from God, and under his wrath.” The heads of my fellow board members began to nod halfway through his answer, as though they were watching the flight of a field goal which they could tell was on-target. The reason that I can still quote the candidate’s answer was because he had just quoted, verbatim, our handbook. I was looking right at it on page sixty-nine. So I then did a very bad thing. “Where do you find this taught in the Bible?” The pause was only long enough for the chairman of the committee to look my way with furrowed brow. “I believe he answered the question very well. Let’s move on.”
So that’s the background to this brick. It’s a test question on the way to getting ordained. But I think it is fair to start with a simple word search. Does the word “Adam” ever appear in the same verse as “wrath” or “anger,” whether in speaking of God or anyone else? Statistical inquiries have limited value, but remember our test: Can the parts of our Story be found in the Bible? Out of the gate we could assume that if God’s wrath was due to Adam it would somewhere be said that God’s wrath was somehow related to what Adam did, or what role we have in relation to Adam. It would not be hard to say this. Yet our search results come back empty (my program displays “There are no verses in the current range of the text which fit the current search entry”). On my own, without using a concordance, I am not aware of any argument in Scripture that Adam’s guilt is the primary cause of God’s wrath on humanity. Paul did say that Adam’s sin caused our “condemnation” (katakrima, Romans 5:16), but this is in reference to being condemned to physically die (5:12, 15, 17, 21), or to have a “body of death” (7:24; cp. 8:1). There will be plenty of fuel for God’s anger in Scripture, of course, and we will deal with those bricks when we come across them. But this brick can be tossed aside as simply untrue. God is not angry with us because of Adam or our relationship to him.
(By the way, as my wife Susan was reading through the list of bricks at the end of chapter 2, she predicted that the practice of setting bricks aside without replacing them would be uncomfortable. I agreed, but felt that this negative job of clearing the wall had to be done before the positive attempt of rebuilding it. I think it would get confusing to do both jobs at the same time. I hope you are ok with this approach.)
Human beings since Adam are naturally and totally sinful
There may be no more common theorem in Christian theology than man’s sinfulness. It is the basis for many other Christian doctrines, especially those having to do with salvation. But I have been bothered by this brick for some time. What is at stake with this brick is its precise wording. No one doubts that humans can be remarkably evil. We cannot get through the news without hearing stories of deliberate, unprovoked wickedness and cruelty. But the question here concerns the words “naturally” and “totally.” Are we naturally evil in the sense that we “sin by nature,” much as we breathe by nature and back away from curve balls by nature? If we were to settle this question biblically, we would need to find the place in Scripture where this particular question is both posed and settled in context with such ideas as “naturally” and “totally.”
Space does not afford a full doctrine of human depravity, of course, so I can only offer my quick opinion here. When the subject of man’s sinfulness occurs, the biblical writer quickly and unequivocally finds weakness and sinfulness to be our present lot. We easily sin. So I would say the Bible (following the pattern set out by Job and the Psalmists, for example) presents a pessimistic anthropology in that it does not believe that humans have the ability to be consistently good or moral or ethical for long stretches (Job 5:7; 15:14-16; 22:5; 28:12-13; 33:12; 35:2; Pss 39:4-6; 51:5; 70:5; 73:22; 78:39; 94:11; 103:14; 109:22; 119:176; 144:3-4). But these same writers also claim that humans can be very good and very moral at times, even very faithful to the god they choose to worship (e.g., the entire basis of Job’s story is the fact that he was considered “blameless and upright, and one who feared God and shunned evil,” Job 1:1; cp. Ps 40:1, 4, 8). So why the back-and-forth? Traditional Judaism has a quick answer: That’s the way we actually are. We are both good and evil at the same time in the sense that, assuming normal mental health, any human at any time has the choice to do good or to do evil. It sounds just like Genesis 3:5 has happened in that we have the knowledge (and ability) of good and evil at our fingertips.
Think of it this way. If we were naturally evil, would we know we are evil or even what evil is? Does a fish know it is wet? I have conducted many funerals as a pastor, and I am still waiting for anyone to praise the dead person’s evilness. Just the opposite, in fact: it appears that we know what good and evil are, and we want to be good while we end up being (at times) very evil. I find that all biblical passages which set out (in context) to talk about man’s sinfulness agrees with this basic point. We do not have to sin. We choose to. And that is what makes evil so evil. In my opinion the Reformed tradition comes to its view of human depravity (as it is specifically worded on this brick) as the result of reading lengthily developed conclusions backwards into such texts as Romans 3:10-18 (“There is none righteous, no not one”) to then frame out the idea that mankind is naturally and totally sinful. It serves their purpose to say this because it sets up their later understanding of grace and salvation. But I do not believe this tradition is found while reading the Bible left-to-right, watching the stories of Scripture unfold. I think we will be able to replace this brick when we discover that man’s behavioral depravity (however it is defined) is not the problem that Christ came to solve, nor a problem that even involves itself in the story of human salvation.
God’s holiness demands moral perfection from human beings
I am part of a weekly Bible study with about a dozen friends, and this week we will be coming to Christ’s plea that we be “perfect, just as our heavenly Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). By now you have learned to think behind such English words as “perfect,” asking yourself either what Jesus meant by this in his Aramaic (the spoken language of the Sermon), or what Matthew meant by this in his Hebrew (most scholars think that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew, though we have no textual evidence for that), or how the Greek-reading person would have later understood it (our only surviving copies of Matthew are in Greek). I don’t think we have to go through all those complications, but let’s look at some.
Neither Jesus nor Matthew was teasing his audience, telling them to be teleios while knowing they would fail. He was asking them to be complete or mature (the most tangible meaning of teleios in the Greek NT) in respect to loving the unlovable, their enemies (5:43-47). This is hard to do, maybe one of the hardest things a person can do who is truly suffering under the cruelty of another. But that is what God, Jesus’ Father, is like, and the point that Jesus was trying to make. (We will start our Bible study by listening to a ten-minute reading of one of C. S. Lewis’ finest essays, “The Trouble with X.” It has to do with this very point about God being forgiving. I recommend it to you.)
If listening to Jesus while being familiar with the OT, we would have connected Jesus’ request of perfection to the OT requirement to be tamim (often translated as “blameless,” Deut 18:13). Numerous OT people were considered, or considered themselves to be, tamim (Abraham, Gen 17:1; David, 2 Sam 22:24; Ps 18:23; Job, Job 1:1) and it was even the goal for the average Yahwist to be tamim (Ps 37:37; Prov 13:6). What is missing from every occurrence of tamim is any hint of perfection in the sense of moral sinlessness. Being righteous or upright before God was a million miles away from any sense of behavioral perfection.
Considering the biblical story in its larger scope, do we ever hear that moral perfection is demanded by God? I know this has been drummed into our heads since Sunday School, but I’m frankly left scratching my head when I start looking for this idea in the Bible. It’s a rumor, and a terrible one. Old Testament writers celebrate Torah without fearing that it sets out an impossible goal (Deut 10:12-13; 30:11-20; Psalm 119), and NT writers agree (Rom 13:8-10; 1Pet 3:8-12; James 1:25; Titus 3:5). Most importantly, Israel knew Yahweh as a deity who was both righteous/just and forgiving at the same time—a very unique combination (“Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yes, our God is merciful,” Ps. 116:5; cp. 36:5-6, 10; 37:21; 85:10; 89:14; 103:17; 112:4; 145:7-9, 17; Prov 12:10; 21:21; Isa 57:1; Dan 4:27; 9:18; Jer 10:24; Hos 2:19; 10:12; Mic 6:8). So, very importantly, this turns out to be a character issue regarding what kind of God we have, which is why this brick must be thrown as far away as possible. To say that God’s holiness demands sinless perfection on the part of humans is to do almost irreparable harm to the Big Story of the Bible. If that is offensive to your interpretation of the Story, I ask that you wait for biblical definitions of “holiness” and “righteous.” It will encourage you to enjoy God’s holiness and righteousness even while being imperfect.
I am moving on to look at the next “brick” on the evangelical “Big Story wall”:
God’s holiness demands that he cannot be in the presence of moral sinfulness
This cliché has certainly been around for a while. Even as a kid I knew it was not true, since God and Satan talked to each other in Job 1. Plus, I had a mom who seemed to show up every time I was bad, and I knew that God was in the same business. Sin does not make God hide his eyes, nor make him go away, which is what I wanted him to do. So if children understand this, what could this idea possibly mean, and where did it come from?
Let’s consider the meaning of God’s “holiness,” especially in its relation to sin. The Hebrew word most commonly translated as “holy” in the OT is qodesh (first appearing in Exod 3:5, “the place your stand is qodesh ground”), appearing over 400 times. The general meaning of qodesh is not contested (“holy or sacred; set apart as dedicated to God”), though its use within the Bible has at times led to confusion. Here is why: while we know that qodesh may be used to describe non-moral things, such as a day of the week or clothing (“Tomorrow is a qodesh Sabbath to Yahweh,” Exod. 16:23; “You shall make qodesh garments for Aaron your brother,” Exod. 28:2), qodesh also seems to appear in places where the story is trying to describe the non-sinfulness of something or someone (“So Aaron shall make atonement for the qodesh [place], because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and for all their sins,” Lev. 16:16 [emphasis mine]; “Joshua said, ‘You cannot serve Yahweh, for he is a qodesh God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins,’” Josh. 24:19 [emphasis mine]). So it is easy to see why the idea of “being qodesh” has become associated with “being non-sinful.”
We do not have room for a full word study here, so I would recommend looking into “holiness” (and its cognate term “sanctify”) with the help of a careful Bible dictionary. Listen to Michael Heiser’s podcasts on Leviticus, if possible. I would even recommend scanning through each use of “holy/sanctify” in the OT on your own. Here is what you will find: qodesh consistently relates to, or is used when describing, the ceremonial or ritualistic elements within Israel’s religion. “Holy” does not mean “non-sinful.” It means “special/sacred.” So the opposite of “holy” will not be “sinful,” but “profane”—something along the lines of normal, regular, or common (“Everyone who profanes [the Sabbath] shall surely be put to death,” Exod. 31:14).
So if God’s “holiness” is not directly related to the absence of sin, where did this brick come from? Who came up with the idea that God cannot be in the presence of evil? I am guessing here, but I think it developed over time as we tried to express how God was opposed to or against moral evil. When we began to allow the word “holy” to poke its nose into the tent as the operative word for describing God’s sinlessness (“Holy, Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty, Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see . . . perfect in power, in love, in purity”), it was not long before we had a full-fledged doctrine announcing that God can’t be in the presence of evil. But this simply wasn’t true. This brick is therefore not useful as part of our Big Story of the Bible. As it turns out, God can be in the presence of moral evil if he so decides to be. He can also decide if he does not want to be in the presence of sin. It is his choice.
God’s holiness demands that sin must always be punished
Again, I have always doubted that this was true, even as a child. God can do anything he wants, including punish sin or forgive it. If a human can do this, so can God. So this must just be bad preaching, I thought, or a rumor I’ve picked up. When I got into Bible college and seminary, however, the textbooks said differently:
“Although God’s punishment of sin does serve as a deterrent against further sinning and as a warning to those who observe it, this is not the primary reason why God punishes sin. The primary reason is that God’s righteousness demands it, so that he might be glorified in the universe that he has created” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan, 1994], 509).
“God being God, he not only may act to preserve his own honor, he must do so. He cannot simply disregard it. Thus, he cannot merely forgive or remit sin without punishing it. Nor is it enough for us to restore to God his due. There must be additional reparation. Only with some form of added compensation can the things that have been disturbed by sin be restored to equilibrium. Sin left unpunished would leave God’s economy out of order” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology [2nd ed; Baker, 1998], 815).
“…Moral offense entails a moral debt that must be paid. Therefore those who sin against God owe him either their own punishment, or some restitution or satisfaction for their transgression of his law. God’s justice demands such payment, but human beings cannot make satisfaction since they are guilty and are deserving of God’s punishment. Satisfaction can be made only by one who is innocent, so God himself makes this possible by the incarnation of Jesus Christ” (Evangelical Convictions: A Theological Exposition of the Statement of Faith of the Evangelical Free Church of America [Minneapolis, 2011], 120.)
This sounds like philosophy to me, not theology, and not that there’s anything wrong with philosophy. But again, I think it is fair to ask whether the Bible helps us here. Did these writers discover in the story of the Bible that God cannot forgive sin without also punishing it? I do not think so, as then it would have been easy to simply cite where this happens, or where it is taught. The only quotation of these three that included a biblical argument along the way was in Grudem’s text, where he concluded his statement with a passage from Jeremiah: “‘I practice steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I delight,’ says the LORD” (9:24). I will let you judge whether this verse defends his argument; in my opinion it does not.
So if this idea does not come out of Scripture, where does this brick come from? Who started the rumor that God cannot forgive sin without also punishing it? I know that Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) is generally credited with the theology of “satisfaction,” or the idea that God’s honor was in need of repair because of human sin, the kind of repair that could not be satisfied by mere forgiveness of sin. But it would be out of step for the evangelical movement, as well as for these respected authors, to depend on a Medieval theologian for their view of God and the punishment of sin, or at least one would think. We have the tradition of going to the Bible to define our views.
I have been around the block numerous times with my Reformed friends about this issue, and I think I have come to understand why they resist believing that God could just forgive sin without punishing it. It has to do with adding, as I just did, the word just. Erickson described the apparent problem this way: “But, we must ask, is sin really serious if God can forgive without requiring some form of penalty or punishment?” (p. 838). There it is. If God forgives sin—or “just” forgives sin, whatever that means—this means God does not think the sin was all that serious. Erickson has put into words what I thought all along was just a bad rumor: forgivable sins cannot be taken seriously. That is why they are forgivable.
All I can say to this is you’ve got to be kidding (not a very scholarly response, I realize). The very idea behind forgiveness is being able to punish, to know that the other person deserves punishment—and then deciding not to punish. I am not trying to be difficult when I say that I am honestly confused by this brick. Jesus told us to be forgiving people, even beyond seeming respectability (cp. “Up to seven times?” “No, up to seventy times seven,” Matt. 18:21-22), and I feel we are going down a very dangerous path, an opposite direction from that of our Savior, when we believe that forgiven sin cannot be seriously-taken sin. I have long ago thrown this brick away, and would recommend you throw it away as well. It has no part on the Bible’s Big Story wall. Of course sin is serious. That is why forgiveness is serious.
The reaction I have had to this last paragraph has been fairly consistent among my friends. To conclude our thinking about this brick, here is a rough sketch of how the conversation usually goes (I have filled out the arguments a bit, or made them more explanatory, for the purposes of this book):
Me: I don’t think you need to believe that God has to punish sin. I think he can forgive sin if he wants to, and I think that our theology about salvation would function just fine with a forgiving God.
Friend: Since you mention salvation—what about Jesus’ death? Why else would Jesus have died than to pay the punishment that God required for sin? It sounds like you are minimizing the meaning of the crucifixion.
Me: I’m not following. What does one thing have to do with the other?
Friend: I think we can rightfully assume that Jesus must have died for a very great reason, and I cannot think of a greater one than paying the punishment I deserved.
Me: I agree that Jesus died for a great reason. Please don’t presume that I think otherwise. But I have to leave the definition of great to God. Sometimes it feels like we are competing amongst ourselves in trying to come up with the “greatest” reason that Jesus could have died, and then going with that reason, fearing that if we settle for a less important reason we would somehow dishonor the meaning of the cross. I don’t think that’s a wise way to come up with the meaning of the crucifixion.
Friend: Fair enough. But here’s how Jesus’ death seems to tie into God’s need to punish sin: The greatest reason that Jesus could have died would be to accomplish that which, if he had not died, would consign me to hell. In other words, I think it is fair to say that Jesus died to accomplish the greatest possible thing that I can imagine, and the greatest possible thing I can imagine is making me fit for heaven through that death.
Me: Let me reword that to see if I understand you: We want to guard ourselves against any theology that would have people ending up in heaven without Jesus dying. So in that sense Jesus must have died to somehow make it possible for people to go to heaven. That’s what you mean by saying that Jesus died “for the greatest reason I can think of.”
Friend: Right. And since sin is the reason we deserve hell, it makes logical sense that Jesus’ death somehow dealt with our sin. Otherwise Jesus’ death would not have been due to the greatest possible reason.
Me: I agree that Jesus’ death must have somehow dealt with our sin. Scripture says as much, that he “died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). But I sense you take the “died for” to mean “died to take away the punishment for.”
Friend: We can get to that later. For now, follow my thinking: Since we know that God has already been in the business of forgiving sin in the OT, long before Jesus’ death (“forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,” Exod. 34:7), Jesus’ death must have been for some other reason than forgiving sin.
Me: I totally agree. God was already forgiven people prior to Jesus dying, so the effect of Jesus’ death could not have been to forgive our moral sins.
Friend: And here is where God “having to punish sin” comes in. The only option left for Jesus dying would be to take on the punishment of sin in himself.
Me: I see where you’re going. So in this way, Jesus’ death is still necessary to get humans to heaven (“the greatest possible thing”) even while forgiveness was going on before the cross.
Friend: Right. So do you believe that God had to punish sin, as accomplished in the death of Jesus, and that God cannot just forgive sin?
Me: No. While what you did was interesting, the steps were not logically necessary. Plus, you are assuming too many things that I don’t think are true.
Friend: Like what?
Me: Five things come to mind: 1. I do not believe that Jesus had to die for a “great” reason in my understanding, nor even his. He may have died for no understandable reason at all, in his own mind, but just because the Father wanted him to. That may have been the “great” reason Jesus died. I have to leave that option open. 2. I do not think Jesus died to get people out of hell, nor into heaven. I believe people could be right with God before Jesus died, and so the effect of Jesus’ death could not have been to make them righteous. 3. I do not believe that my unpaid for sin sends me to hell, nor that forgiven sin allows me to go to heaven. My afterlife is not dependent on issues of sin management. 4. I believe that Jesus’ death dealt with our sin, but I see him doing what a priest did in the OT—handling sin or uncleanness in a ritualistic sense—in the end sanctifying us so that we could approach God’s presence in worship (think of the veil tearing). Since we don’t believe that priests made people righteous in the OT, it follows that Jesus’ priestly work was not making people righteous while on the cross. 5. I don’t think that God “having to punish sin” is therefore anywhere on the radar map of what we have just talked about, including the purpose of Jesus’ death. I feel like you are arguing backwards, taking your specific view of the cross and interpreting the entire story of the Bible through it.
Friend: Well, you haven’t convinced me either. I just think that if God could have forgiven our sin without Jesus dying, he would have. I guess we’ll agree to disagree.
God instituted OT sacrifices to teach of his hatred toward sin
Evangelicals take a great interest in the subject of sacrifice in the Bible, but I find it interesting that we tend to think through the subject backwards. By this I mean that we don’t start where sacrifice starts—watching the ritual played out in pre-biblical Mesopotamia—but instead dwell on the sacrificial meaning of Jesus’ death and only then work our way back into such books as Exodus and Leviticus. If that sounds too bold an assertion, try this experiment the next time you go to church: lean over and ask your friend what sacrifice meant in the Bible. Then compare their answer to the article on sacrifice in The Dictionary of the Ancient Near East (University of PA Press, 2000). I’m not saying which answer is right…I am merely saying that the difference between these two answers exposes a more serious problem. We are approaching the subject of sacrifice from two different directions.
So what was sacrifice in the days of the Bible, and what did it mean? Who started it? We really know so very little of this ancient practice, largely because, well, it is just so very old. We are told that humans were sacrificing as early as Genesis 4 (Cain and Abel), but we are not told why. We are not necessarily told that God “instituted” sacrifice any more than he invented the harp and flute (Gen. 4:21) or the process of smelting bronze and iron (Gen. 4:22). I know we want to give sacrifice meaning, especially religious meaning, but we may be moving too fast. After Genesis 4 it will be hundreds/thousands of years and possibly millions of sacrifices before Moses is even born. From there, many of the whens and whys and hows associated with sacrifice in Torah are still left unanswered, and any ability to psychoanalyze the mind of the worshipper during sacrifice is simply not afforded us. In my reading, I get the sense that the ancient historian would give his left arm to be able walk up to the prehistoric sacrificer and ask, “Why are you doing this?”
Yet here is my opinion for what it is worth. In reading the Bible left-to-right, it appears that sacrifice was an early invention of mankind, possibly being associated with early “religion,” though that word reflects a rather modern construct. The individual participated in sacrifice as a communal event, such as during a feast, and in this sense it was not attached to individual belief as much as to some kind of public social performance. Here is how one historian understood the practice: “What mattered most was the expected traditional gesture, made in the right way, at the right time. For the population at large, traditional rituals reinforced confidence in the belief that the security of the community required the attention of the gods. Communal rituals [such as sacrifice] represented the group acting as one and invited the gods to participate in human endeavor. Conversely, failure to perform a communal ritual properly could put the entire community at risk” (Susan Cole, “Greek Religion,” from A Handbook Of Ancient Religion [Cambridge U Press, 2007], 276-7).
Though Cole is describing ancient Greek ritual tradition (going back as far as the 8th century B.C.), I think she is putting into words how Abraham (and maybe even Cain and Abel) would have interpreted sacrifice. It was a public means of communing with a deity, a human way of bridging the gap between the physical and spiritual worlds. Whether the deity would “accept” the sacrifice, or hear the plea of the sacrificer, was a difficult matter to determine. There were no guarantees. Sacrifices connected the community with the gods, but it also reiterated a kind of expected social order in which implied responsibilities existed between the humans and the gods. The supplicant constantly faced the possibility that he had offended his god in the smallest of matters (had he pronounced his god’s name correctly? was the fruit properly ripe?), and so sacrifices were often done in an over-the-top style in hopes that it would “take.” Animal sacrifice was considered the most impressive means of gaining the attention of a god, though vegetables or grains were more common (and certainly more affordable if the entire sacrifice was to be burnt away). The special requirements for participation in sacrifice (gender, status, kinship, profession, etc.) depended upon local interpretation of the god’s requirements, usually interpreted by the king or priest.
So if this is how scholars generally handle the subject of ancient sacrifice, what about our brick? Did God institute OT sacrifices to teach of his hatred for sin? I am going to side with the secular historian on this one and say no. I do not sense that God “instituted” sacrifice at all, but that it developed as a natural response among humans as we tried to commune with the world above us. It would be like asking who started the tradition of folding our hands and closing our eyes when we prayed as children. God certainly didn’t “tell” us to do this, but we somewhere along the way decided that it was a proper posture for talking to God (or to keep the kids’ hands to themselves in junior church). So why did individuals in the OT sacrifice? The biblical record shows that altars were constructed with regularity, whether by Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen 12:6 ff.; 13:18; 22:9), Isaac (Gen 26:25), Jacob (Gen 33:20; 35:1-7), Moses (Exod 17:15), Joshua (Josh 8:30 f.; cf. Deut 27:5), Gideon (Jdg 6:24 ff.), or David (2 Sam 24:18-25). I believe that these individuals were simply following cultural norm, whether living before or after Moses. This view is not uncommon among evangelical authors, by the way. Daniel Block argues that most of the categories of sacrifice found in Leviticus 1-5 are attested to outside of Israel, including the zebah (sacrifice, sacrificial meals), selamim (peace/well-being offerings), ola (whole burnt offerings), and mincha (gift, grain/cereal offerings) (“Other Religions in Old Testament Theology,” in Biblical Faith and Other Religions: An Evangelical Assessment [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004] 43-78).
But what about sin? When God instructed Moses on the practice of sacrifice at Sinai, was this in any sense due to His desire to teach Israel about the seriousness of moral sin, or his hatred of it? As much as I would like to say Yes to this idea—as it makes sense if I don’t think about it too deeply—I simply cannot find enough evidence to do so, and in fact find strong evidence in the opposite direction. (If the question was changed to “Did God instruct Moses within Torah about the seriousness of sin, and his hatred of it?” then the answer would be an easy yes; so notice that the issue here concerns sacrifice, not Torah.) See if my proposal works for you: If sacrifice had been designed to teach the seriousness of sin, then the rules on sacrifice would have looked much different than they do—namely, the bigger the sin, the bigger the sacrifice. But that is not what we find. The biggest sins of all (let’s say murder) had no sacrificial equivalent. So something else must have been going on with the meaning of sacrifice when it came to Moses’ teaching. We will deal with that when looking at the next brick. For now, toss this one aside.
Bricks 10 & 11
From my count, I am up to the 10th brick on the evangelical Big Story wall. I will only look at two bricks in this chapter, due to the importance they seem to carry.
God instituted OT sacrifices to teach the general concept of substitution
In my last chapter I recommended that the practice of animal sacrifice was not invented by God. This is a new idea to some, I understand, though I believe the evidence supports it. We know that sacrifices and offerings were part of ancient religion long before Moses, and that Torah’s instructions regarding sacrifice mirrored many of the ceremonial practices of foreign nations. It is often helpful to turn to traditional Judaism for a question such as this, especially when it concerns a practice so foundational to Israel’s history and culture. Here is a selection taken from The Teaching Company’s course entitled Introduction to Judaism (taught by Shai Cherry from Vanderbilt University) concerning the origin of animal sacrifice:
“Sacrifice was a commandment, but it was also a concession to human psychology. Here’s how it works. [The medieval Jewish theologian] Maimonides said in The Guide of the Perplexed, that, quote, ‘A sudden transition from one opposite to another is impossible.’ What he means is that people can’t go from understanding everything about the world in one way to understanding everything about the world in a completely different way. They need time to adjust. He says this in context of the Israelites being freed from slavery in Egypt where they were steeped in idolatrous practices. Those practices included animal sacrifices. So Maimonides says that when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt into the desert, the only way the Israelites knew to worship God was through these animal sacrifices. So as a ‘gracious ruse,’ or as a ‘noble lie’—there are different translations of that platonic idea—God allowed the Israelites to continue in this idolatrous practice of sacrificing animals, but to the right address. In other words, the only thing that changed was the address, so that way the Israelites could still feel that what they were doing was efficacious. What they were doing was still worshipping God, even though that’s not the most noble, the most authentic way of worshipping God—because God doesn’t need it.” (italics added)
I realize we should be wary of labeling any one view within Judaism as “standard.” The rabbis have always been adept at collecting and even appreciating dissenting and minority opinions among their ranks. At the same time modern Jews hold the views of Maimonides in highest respect. Personally, I believe his opinion about the origin of sacrifice makes good and practical sense. So if it is accurate—if sacrifice makes its way into the Bible not as an invention by God but as a concession to the psychology of mankind, akin to divorce laws (Deut. 24:1-4; cp. Matt. 19:8)—then we as evangelicals are guilty of giving sacrifice (as a bare practice) too much meaning in our theology. We need to change the word “instituted” on this brick to something closer to “allowed” or “permitted,” before moving on to what OT Israelites were supposed to learn from the sacrificial system.
But now let’s move on to the question of substitution. Did God allow OT sacrifices to teach the general concept of substitution?
I started struggling with this brick several years ago, after teaching it for over twenty years as a Christian college prof. You could guess that this is not a brick that evangelicals like to debate. It sets up so much of our larger theology, or our larger story (or we presume it does). It is a brick that stabilizes a huge portion of the Big Story wall. At least that is what it feels like when I talk about the idea of substitution with my theologically-minded friends. So I appreciate your patience here as I challenge the idea by asking some background / preliminary questions:
What do we gain by believing that sacrifice includes substitution? Better, let’s ask this the other way around: what would we lose if we do not include substitution within sacrifice? I am not asking, yet, whether the view itself is right or wrong; I am just asking a question going in. I have often received odd looks (or perplexed emails) when I have asked this question, sometimes even getting what feels like a hand-over-the-mouth aghast reaction. It is like I am rejecting some important doctrine. But then I remind them it’s only a question: Why should I include substitution in sacrifice? What is the value?
When an answer to #1 is offered, does it come directly from the Bible? Let’s say a person were to say “Substitution is important because it’s the way God can teach the sacrificer about divine hatred for sin.” I’ve heard this argument many times. My reply, you could guess, would be But where is this actually said? Remember that the bricks for our wall need to be ideas that are actually stated, or actually happening, in the Bible. We can only dream of a text where someone stops mid-sacrifice to look into the camera and say “This teaches me God’s hatred for sin.” Short of that, or in want of that kind of explanation for sacrifice, I do not feel led to think that sacrifice teaches hatred for sin, nor that it teaches the general principle of substitution. At least it would not teach me that if I were the one doing the sacrificing. My mind would go elsewhere. This leads to my next question:
If sacrificing taught substitution, what is exactly being substituted for what? If I were bringing a trespass offering after contacting an unclean carcass, for example (Leviticus 5:2-6), I may experience a passing sense that the animal is taking my place on the altar, but this would be a momentary emotion only. I know I do not deserve to die—I’ve only touched a carcass, and probably plan on touching another carcass next week—and yet I have just killed an animal for my trouble. There is no substitution here. (Again, if the argument comes back, “Oh, but you did deserve to die,” I would need to hear this discussion played out in the Bible. Torah gives us plenty of opportunity to say something like this, and it is never said. This should tell us something. Or not tell us something.)
To go philosophical on this question, what does substitution say about God? Knowing what we know of Yahweh, how would he be satisfied in substituting one thing for another, such as an animal for a person? Jesus acknowledged that animals are nowhere as valuable as people (Luke 12:24), and yet substitutional sacrifice seems to presume at least some kind of equality. I find the entire concept of substitution out-of-bounds for the character of God.
Outside of the impersonal world of bookkeeping or accounting, do we as humans ever deal in substitutes? We are not allowed to do it in a court of law (“Your honor, my neighbor has volunteered to go to jail for me”) nor do we imagine doing it in the course of human relationships (“Sorry I offended your spouse. Is there something I can give you?”). I just find it odd to think that God would be open to the idea of substitution when our normal human condition is so opposed to it.
As for the text, why is the Bible so silent on the topic of substitutionary sacrifice when given the chance? The Hebrew and Greek words for “substitute” or “exchange” (chalaph and mur, Lev. 27:10; antallagma, Mark 8:37) are not uncommon (some 50 times from what I’m seeing), but they are never used for the subject of how sacrifice works. In test-driving the idea of substitutionary sacrifice, one of the first proofs we would look for would be a text which states the idea simply and clearly. But this is not what we find.
I am content to say that this brick needs some help if it is to find a place on our Big Story wall. Maybe it can just be reworded, as the idea of a “proxy” (a representative who leads the way for others while not actually becoming a substitute for them) will certainly play a significant role in describing our ultimate salvation. But that discussion will come later when we start to build the wall. For now, I am content to set all talk of substitutionary sacrifice aside. It will not play a role in the Big Story.
God’s wrath against sin was temporarily assuaged because of OT sacrifices
This seems to represent a key turning point for the interpreter who is moving from the OT to the NT. Similar to what we have seen before, the wording on this brick seems to be the result of thinking backwards: If Jesus’ death finally solved God’s wrath against sin (a later brick we will talk about), and if Jesus’ death was a substitutionary sacrifice (another brick we will talk about), then that means that the substitutionary sacrifices which came before Jesus (i.e., OT sacrifices) must not have finally solved God’s wrath against sin. Thus the logical inference is that OT sacrifices did partially what Jesus’ sacrifice did fully as it concerned God’s wrath. I will recommend that this whole idea is unnecessary, and that the logic is faulty on the front end.
The wording on this brick changes slightly from author to author, and I can pass along two examples here. I mentioned earlier that I took a free Dallas Seminary online class entitled “The Story of Scripture.” Here is the professor’s exact wording on his brick: “God is willing to accept a temporary substitute for sin, and God’s grace allows judgment to be postponed until sin is dealt with in totality.” So he speaks of God postponing sin’s judgment, which seems to be another way of saying that God’s wrath is temporarily assuaged. The professor’s comment was based on Romans 3:25, the verse which is commonly appealed to for arguing this postponement idea. Here is the verse: “Whom God set forth to be a propitiation in his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed.”
I will look at what Paul meant by “passing over sins” in a moment, but here is another example quotation, this one coming from Douglas Moo’s commentary on Romans: “Paul’s meaning [in 3:25] is that God postponed the full penalty due sins in the Old Covenant, allowing sinners to stand before Him without their having provided an adequate satisfaction of the demands of His holy justice (cf. Heb. 10:4). In view of this, it is clear that ‘his righteousness’ must have reference to some aspect of God’s character that might have been called into question because of His treating sins in the past with less than full severity, and that has now been demonstrated in setting forth Christ as the propitiatory” (Romans 1-8 [Moody, 1991], 241-2).
So Moo’s argument is similar, where God’s wrath is postponed presumably through OT sacrifices. But now let’s ask what Paul could have meant by “passing over sins” in Romans 3:25. I sense we have quite a leap to make between the two ideas of “passing over” sin and “postponing the payment” of sin.
Here again is Romans 3:25, plus the beginning of the next verse: “…because in his forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at this time his righteousness . . . .” We notice that Paul’s larger argument concerns God’s righteousness, concluding with the realization that no one can boast because of it (3:27) and that one God will save Jews and Gentiles in the same way, through faith (3:30). Many commentators interpret the idea of righteousness (dikaiosune, used 92 times) along the lines of legal justice, even repayment, but I find this to be a forced idea that does not bear up behind the normal use of the word across the NT (e.g., 2 Cor. 9:10 uses dikaiosune in the sense of gratuity and kindness, almost the opposite of justice or repayment, and numerous other uses [Matt. 5:6, 10; 6:33; Rom. 6:18; Gal. 5:5; Eph. 5:9; 1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Pet. 3:13] signal general virtue which would not be associated with straightforward justice). My point is that we need to decide the general meaning of righteousness before figuring out what “passing over sin” means since the two ideas are so closely tied together in Romans 3:25. If we prepackage dikaiosune to mean justice in the legal sense, we will likely interpret “passing over sin” legally as well. This is what Moo does, coming up with the idea of “postponing the full penalty due sins” as his explanation of how God “passed over sins that were previously committed.”
So let’s pause and ask what Paul would have thought about righteousness. Did he think that God’s righteousness (Heb., tzedaqah) was primarily a legal concept, something that demanded a get-what-you-deserve “justice”? On the contrary, Paul read an OT which commonly tied God’s righteousness to his mercy and grace (“Gracious is the LORD, and tzaddiq/dikaios [LXX]; yes, our God is merciful,” Ps. 116:5; “The LORD is tsaddik/dikaios [LXX] in all his ways, gracious in all his works,” Ps. 145:17; cp. Ps. 36:5-6, 10; 37:21; 85:10; 89:14; 145:7-9; Prov. 12:10; 21:21; Hos. 2:19; 10:12; Mic. 6:8; Isa. 57:1; Jer. 10:24; Dan. 4:27; 9:18). This OT evidence leads me to suspect that Paul’s reference to “passing over sins” in Romans 3:25 is hinting toward God’s graciousness more than to what Moo calls the “adequate satisfaction of the demands of His holy justice.” It strikes me that Moo is making this idea up out of thin air, in fact.
The phrase “pass over” in Romans 3:25 is our translation of the single Greek word paresis. The word occurs just once in the NT, here in this passage. Mounce believes paresis means “let pass, pass over,” a word which is not meant to carry much theological weight. It certainly gives us a word picture to ponder on how God would treat sin. If I “pass over” someone’s sin again me, it may mean I just let it go, or it may mean that I hold a grudge until a later time when I can whack him. In God’s case, could his “passing over” sins include the idea of “postponing” deserved punishment? It might, depending on how we think about God’s righteousness. For remember, Paul’s larger argument is very careful: God’s righteousness was demonstrated in his passing over [paresis] of sins previously committed.
Here’s my opinion on God passing over sins in Romans 3:25—and I think the answer presents itself fairly easily. In the OT, God was in the business of forgiving sin (“But [Yahweh], being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them,” Ps. 78:38). Various analogies are used to describe God forgiving sins, including “bearing” or “lifting” them (nasaʾ, Gen. 50:17), “releasing” or “pardoning” them (salach, Lev. 4:20; Num. 30:5), “covering” them (kasah, Ps. 32: 1; 85:2), and “healing” them (raphaʾ, Ps. 103:3). We never get the sense from these common word pictures that God is postponing his anger for some later time as he bears/lifts/covers someone’s sins. We are not surprised, then, to also hear of God “passing over” sins with no hint of postponement or deferment of punishment: “Who is a God like you, pardoning (nasaʾ) iniquity, and passing over (avar) the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in mercy (chesed). He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18). Paul may have had Micah’s prayer in mind when he spoke of God passing over sins. Even if he didn’t, the theology of “passing over” sins holds; it is synonymous with forgiveness. There is nothing in the biblical phrase generally, nor in Romans 3:25 specifically, that indicates that God is postponing punishment.
So what role does righteousness have in God’s forgiveness? What might Paul have meant by saying that “the righteousness of God was demonstrated” when he forgave previous sins—presumably those in the OT? Again, I think the answer is fairly simple, coming straight out of the OT story: By faithfully and consistently forgiving the sins of his people, God was showing his propriety or his righteousness as the covenant-keeping God of Israel (Exod. 34:6-7; Num. 14:18; 2 Chron. 30:9; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 116:5; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3). God was righteous in the sense that he always did what he said he would do, in this case forgiving the sins of those who were faithful to him. Drop this idea into Romans 3:25-26, and Romans 3:27-30 makes sense. This will be an important brick in my understanding of the Big Story, so I will spend more time on this text later.
We can do one more thing to help us toss this brick aside in good conscience. Think again of the specific wording on the brick: God’s wrath against sin was temporarily assuaged because of OT sacrifices. How would the Bible sound if this were true? It is reasonable to assume that the words “wrath” or “anger” would appear somewhere in a conversation about sacrifice in the OT. So let’s ask our computer to do a word search: How many times do the Hebrew words for wrath or anger (the best options would be aph [275 times], evrah [34 times] or qatzaph [34 times]) appear in a verse having to do with sacrifice in either Exodus, Leviticus, or Numbers (where the subject of sacrifice is most prevalent)? When we hit Enter we get this result: “Then Moses made careful inquiry about the goat of the sin offering, and there it was—burned up. And he was angry [qatzaph] with Eleazar and Ithamar , the sons of Aaron who were left” (Lev. 10:16). That’s it, one verse—and it isn’t even about God at all.
This next brick is foundational to the evangelical Big Story wall, so it will take up this entire chapter. While writing about it I was reminded of the Sunday School teacher who asked her students “What is brown and has a fluffy tail and lives in trees and eats nuts?” One confused child answered “I know it’s a squirrel, but I think you want me to say Jesus.” I think this is how the average Christian struggles with the question “How does God ultimately solve your moral guilt?” They want to say something about mercy and forgiveness, but end up saying “Jesus” because they think they are supposed to. This brick has been the direct cause of this sort of confusion. Here is its wording:
God taught that a substitute could take the punishment of a morally guilty person
I now take a step back from the meaning of sacrifice and ask a larger, or more broad, question: Does Scripture teach that human moral guilt can be solved in the mind of God through a substitute who is willing to absorb the punishment which is due the guilty person?
Asked that way, my immediate gut-response is “Wow—how could anyone think like that?” I hope that is not disrespectful to God, of course, if indeed this is how he thinks about sin and guilt and how he wants to solve it. I am just being honest. I have never met anyone who thought this way, nor am I familiar with any culture or society which conducts its business in this fashion. Parents certainly don’t parent their children this way, and judges do not sanction substitutes in their courtrooms. I have to leave to you the decision whether God thinks like this. One of my good friends recently responded to this question with “Yes—God does solve guilt through substitution, and it is not up to you to question God’s character. So be careful.” We have to at least consider the possibility that he is right. But I think it is fair to question this idea, or see if it is taught in the Bible. If it is not taught in the Bible, the entire evangelical story will need to be adjusted.
I always like to start with the How would the Bible sound if such-and-such were true? Test. If God accepted substitutes for solving moral guilt, would the Bible say this? And how would it say it? In my opinion, I do not think the subject would be handled quietly. To the contrary, it would get top billing, as this is huge news: God accepts substitutes! Guilt is transferrable! I believe this captivating (if not incredible) idea would be celebrated in the Bible’s teaching at all points across the larger story, and discussions about God’s character would proceed in light of it.
But this is not what we find. In my previous chapter I said that the original words for “substitute” or “exchange” (chalaph and mur, Lev. 27:10; antallagma, Mark 8:37) appear about 50 times in the Bible, and that they are never used for the subject of how sacrifice works. I just skimmed through all the uses of these words again and believe we can push the point further: the Bible never uses “substitute” or “exchange” in any discussion of how God handles human moral guilt. So now we need to ask how this idea could have become so popular within evangelicalism. Surely it must have some merit.
This quotation from a theological dictionary seems to offer a clue: “While Christ’s substitutionary atonement is the central theological doctrine of the Christian faith, the imagery of substitution in the Bible is remarkably scarce” (“Substitute, Substitution,” Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, IVP, 1998, p. 824). If we flip the two clauses of this sentence around we discover an interesting admission: the imagery of substitution in the Bible is remarkably scarce and [yet] Christ’s substitutionary atonement is the central theological doctrine of the Christian faith. Said another way, Jesus becomes the answer (“He is my substitute”) before we even settle the question (“Does God accept substitutes?”).
I can think of two reasons why we may think that God deals with substitutes. The first goes back to sacrifice again; as the animal lay dead on the altar it may have been tempting to think “Oh well, better him than me.” While I agree that sacrifices may have contained a picture of substitution, I do not believe they explicitly taught substitution, and I trust you can work out that important distinction for yourself. Secondly, and more commonly, our minds naturally think substitution when we hear of Jesus “laying down his life for the sheep” (John 10:15) and dying “for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6) and dying “for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3). I will later spend a great deal of time on Jesus’ atonement when I build my Big Story wall. At that point I will defend, as a very biblical idea, that Jesus died for our sins. The text says as much, so we know it is true. But the question here is whether Jesus’ death for us, or for our sins, is teaching literal substitution in the sense of solving our moral guilt. I do not think so, and ask that you hear me out as I try to explain why.
First, consider how substitution works, or what we mean by it. We think of a substitute as something that switches with something else, as in a replacement teacher or a pinch-hitter, because procedural standards allow for it. For example, the rules of baseball say that either player A or player B can come up to hit, and it does not matter to the umpire. He simply wants someone in the batter’s box. He has a higher goal (in this case a rule book) than hoping for a certain team to win, or for any one player to play well. His intentions and expectations and means of satisfaction are purely non-personal. I trust you see where this is going. When we say that God “allows a substitute to take the punishment of a morally guilty person,” we are likening God to that umpire. We are saying God’s intentions and expectations and means of satisfaction are non-personal because he is operating by some kind of standard which gives the concept of substitution its room to work. Any situation which accepts substitutes must in the end be impersonal. This is important, of course, because we are trying to understand how God ultimately solves moral guilt, a highly personal issue.
(We may wonder if a soldier who dies on the battlefield “for” another—falling on a grenade, let’s say—is a substitute in the sense that we are discussing here. I would say this is one example of substitution, but not the kind we are talking about here. A battle does not begin by defining how many people need to die in order to satisfy the general. It is important to remember that in the evangelical view of Christ’s substitution for sin that God requires that someone dies even as the story begins. He is like an umpire who will accept either the guilty sinner or the sinless Jesus—the rules allow for either one. In this sense the battlefield analogy seems to fall short.)
Secondly, literal substitution is not what we mean when we speak of Jesus dying “for us.” If we were to hear someone pray, “Jesus, thank you for dying on the cross for my sins so that I wouldn’t have to die on the cross for my sins,” we would be simultaneously impressed by their attempt at accuracy and by their distinct lack of accuracy. No careful theologian has ever claimed that you or I deserved to be on Jesus’ cross that day, nor that our death would have done any good, for anyone. My point is that literal substitution is not in view when we hear of Jesus “dying for us/our sins” and that the evangelical tradition has known this all along. They are not claiming that Jesus took your place on his cross. So what do they mean?
As I finished that last sentence I walked over to our office printer. While waiting for my copy I found a stray rubber band and shot it into the wastebasket across the room. It occurred to me that it had been years since I shot a rubber band, maybe not since my school days. It also occurred to me that I didn’t really shoot it—I had put one end of it on a finger and then pulled it back and then aimed it and then let it go. “Shooting” involved several steps that really didn’t have to do with shooting.
Pardon the illustration, but this seems to be what is happening when evangelicals equate Jesus’ death to solving moral guilt by means of substitution. Numerous steps are required to get from “Jesus died for my sins” to “My moral guilt is therefore solved” even if most people mistake this for a single process, as in shooting a rubber band. I am honestly not trying to create a brain twister here, but I can count at least thirteen logical steps that make up the gap between these two ideas:
When the Bible says “Jesus died for my sins”:
- the word sins refers to issues concerning my personal moral guilt, and
- the words died for mean died as a replacement for the punishment for my personal moral guilt.
- The punishment that my guilt deserved was eternal hell.
- This punishment cannot be forgiven, but
- must be served by either me or
- an innocent substitute.
- Since Jesus was sinless,
- he qualifies as this innocent substitute for me and
- for all other guilty people since
- his physical death counts as eternal punishment. This means that
- God never really forgives us because
- he chooses to go ahead with our punishment
- by means of punishing our substitute. In this way
- my moral guilt is therefore solved.
Each of these steps deserves a conversation in their own right. I will deal with some of them as remaining bricks in the traditional wall (e.g., “Jesus’ momentary death equaled the punishment of eternal hell for all humans”), though suffice it to say for now that most people do not realize what is traditionally being packed into the idea that Jesus died for their sins. What they are hearing from evangelicals is much more than the Bible is actually saying.
So what should we do with this brick? What does the Bible teach about the relationship between substitution and moral guilt? I recommend we start with the words of James Garrett, a Southern Baptist professor who is a proponent of substitutionary atonement himself: “The NT evidence for Jesus’ death as his punitive substitution for the death due to be suffered by sinful humans is less pervasive than some of its modern defenders have claimed….” Systematic Theology, vol. 2, p. 17). I appreciate his honesty and recommend it to others. Let’s just admit that substitution has become a forced concept in our theology and that it is not part of the Big Story of the Bible. If the Bible wanted to use words like “exchange” and “substitute” for God’s dealing with moral guilt, it could have. But it doesn’t.
I believe that the Bible argues for a nearly opposite view: everyone will be judged for what they do, and whatever guilt a person carries, they themselves bear it alone without hope of transference to anyone else (‘the soul that sins shall die,” Ezek 18:4; “…because of the iniquity that he has committed, he shall die,” Ezek 33:13; “[God] will render to each one according to his deeds—eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality,” Rom 2:6-7; “so then each of us shall give an account of himself to God,” Rom 14:12). When we pause later and review the texts (in both testaments) that argue this way, the sheer volume of material will be surprising to many of you who were brought up in a traditional church. I know it was a surprise to me. I have now changed my mind to realize that substitution is both unnecessary to the Big Story and even contrary to it, principally because sin should never have been placed at the beginning of the conversation for why people face the judgment of God. We started wrong, so we got the whole story wrong.
I can’t help but think that the greater message of substitution—the concept that God needs to replace me and what I’m really like with something morally perfect, even Jesus—has harmed our modern presentation of the gospel big-time. I can see why many people are confused when they hear that God loves them but that he also can’t stand being around them. That would confuse me too. The courtroom substitution picture that we have so often appealed to is also confusing. A judge who accepts someone else’s death for what I have done may sound romantic to some, but it does not sound romantic to me, nor to most of my non-Christian friends. I know this because they have told me. I’ll paraphrase what one of my atheist friends said about the courtroom picture he was given as a kid at church: “I did not understand then, nor do I understand now, how this shows love, or shows forgiveness, or how it ultimately solves the situation. After Jesus dies I am just as guilty as I was before. The ‘good news’ Christians speak of only deals with the punishment phase of the story, not with the person who is still left standing in the courtroom.” This friend is currently the president of Minnesota Atheists.
Of course the Bible will use plaintiff / judge terminology in describing our relationship to God, but this will be the exception. Most commonly our relationship to God is defined in terms of ancestry, asking to which family do we belong? And that becomes a beautiful story of love, forgiveness, and solving my moral guilt. I can understand why substitution is necessary for those who describe salvation in terms of sin management, since in this view God ultimately is satisfied by nothing less than moral perfection, whether mine or Jesus’. But substitution will never enter the discussion for those who see salvation as primarily relational, or family-oriented. Parents don’t need substitutes for their kids. I am excited to talk of this when I present my case for the Bible’s Big Story. I don’t need to be substituted! God accepts me, the real me, as his child. And as for moral guilt, be assured that once your relationship with God is settled—when you are a member of his family—your moral guilt will certainly be solved in God’s chosen way. Thank goodness. Thank God! And toss this brick aside.
These next three bricks are pivotal to where I’m eventually going, so I want to take some time with them.
Priestly actions in the OT (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) played a role in OT salvation
Many evangelicals would be surprised to see this brick on their wall, and most evangelical scholars would deny that this idea has ever been made into a brick at all. Our tradition has been careful to avoid saying that an OT priest—or any priest for that matter—could affect the spiritual state of a worshipper. Put positively, we are Protestants; we believe that a person in both testaments can be right with God only through their individual faith, and that bare rituals or ceremonies play no role in a person’s salvation (e.g., “Animal sacrifices, of course, cannot ultimately save” [Thomas Schreiner, “Penal Substitution View,” in The Nature of the Atonement [IVP, 2006], 85). I agree with our tradition on this point. So how can I make the claim that evangelicals do believe that priestly actions in the OT played a role in salvation?
The answer comes in noticing that this brick quietly functions as a support to another just above it, a shiny brick which gets a lot of attention. It reads Jesus’ priestly actions (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) played a role in human salvation. We will talk about this brick shortly. The logical connection between these two bricks becomes clear as we realize that the higher brick is taking its cue from the lower: since Jesus’ priestly actions in the NT were salvific—principally in his atoning sacrifice—it stands to reason that OT priestly actions must have been salvific as well. We can assume that the evangelical is trying to be consistent in describing what a priest did, or the effect that his actions carried, across both testaments.
(I hope you catch the specificity of this point. I am not comparing the effectiveness of Jesus’ priestly sacrifice to the ineffectiveness of OT animal sacrifices, as the author of Hebrews does in 10:1-4. I am instead considering the meaning of sacrifices in general. What were they meant to accomplish? What did they mean to the life of the OT Israelite? What did they accomplish in the mind of God? Most importantly, did sacrifices play a role in salvation?)
The challenge to this brick is fairly obvious. The OT nowhere ties righteousness (Heb., tsedaqah) to priestly activity and numerous OT stories tell of people who were considered righteous without a priest or tabernacle in sight (Noah, Gen 6:9; Abraham, Gen 15:6; the inhabitants of Sodom, Gen 18:23; exiles in Babylon, Ezek 3:20, etc.). Evangelicals must give theological account for the long stretches of time (the exile is our best example) when Jewish priests and their sacrifices were not available to God’s people. In believing that righteousness was by faith we are forced to admit that access to a priest did not affect one’s ability to be right with God. I am not aware of any argument by evangelical scholarship that contradicts this rather simple point. So I believe it is safe to toss this brick aside and deal with another closely related to it.
Priestly actions in the OT (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) prefigured Jesus’ future priestly actions
Most evangelicals put a lot of thought, even a lot of weight, into this idea. Here is a sample quotation: “The citation in Heb 10:6-8 [of Ps 40] is particularly significant where burnt offerings, in association with other offerings, are shown to be inferior to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who offered himself as a sacrifice for sin once for all (Heb 10:1-4, 10). This suggests that the sacrificial system and particularly the burnt offering foreshadows or typifies the death of Christ for sins” (Mark Rooker, Leviticus: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Scripture , commenting on Lev 1:4). Rooker uses the words “foreshadows” and “typifies” where I am using the word “prefigured.” The larger point is that evangelicals have traditionally interpreted OT priestly activity as predicting what Jesus would someday do, and they believe it is important for the reader of the Big Story of the Bible to catch this connection.
But there is a potential problem with this idea, or at least something to think about. It is probable that the idea of a priest—a person acting as a divine/human intermediary or arbiter —was not invented by God at all. Instead, the idea seems to originate along with sacrifice and other religious practices within ancient cultures which pre-dated Israel. Recall that divorce law got into Torah not because God invented divorce but because human experience led to the need of clarifying the practice (Deut 24:1-5; cp. Matt 19:8). The same can also be said for the origin of slavery law (cp. Exod 21:2) and polygamy law (cp. Deut 21:15). The point is that many things find their way into Torah which were not of divine design, but of human design needing correction.
And recall where priests show up in the biblical story: like sacrifice, they appear well before Moses (e.g., Melchizedek in Gen 14:18; Joseph’s father-in-law in Gen 41:45). Add to this that the instructions for the priesthood in Torah compare closely with earlier pagan law codes (Code of Hammurabi, etc.), and we are led to the likely conclusion that the origin of the role of a priest is simply religious tradition. It was how humanity decided to establish and maintain contact with the world of the gods, and not how God decided to establish his contact with mankind. So how does this realization affect our understanding of this brick?
In a word, priests are not as important to the biblical story line as we have traditionally made them out to be. A man like John the Baptist, whose father was a priest (Luke 1:5), could completely withdraw from Temple/priestly activity and still function as a righteous man (Matt 11:11; 21:32). Jesus instructed a person to visit a priest on a few occasions (cp. Matt 8:4), but this was never for the purpose of getting right with God. All this happened before the crucifixion, of course, which negates the common argument that Jesus’ death fulfilled or abolished the need for future priests. The relative unimportance of the priesthood becomes a developing (but clear) story within the Bible’s larger narrative, extending well back into the days of the OT.
So I think this brick can remain, but its wording should be softened a bit: Priestly actions in the OT will be compared to Jesus’ future priestly actions. The connection between Jesus and the priesthood is that of simple association, not fulfillment (we will deal with Hebrews 5-10, the lone passage that makes this association, later; we should note that the author of Hebrews never uses the word we commonly associate with fulfillment [pleroma] anywhere in his book). Of course, we do have many NT passages which seem to describe Jesus performing priestly functions on our behalf (1 Pet 2:24, “[He] bore our sins on the tree”), and for those we must give account. So let’s get right to our next brick—the shiny one I had mentioned earlier.
Jesus’ priestly actions (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) played a role in human salvation
Almost every gospel presentation you have ever heard has been based on this brick. When someone says that Jesus “paid for your sin” or “propitiated God’s wrath” or “bore your penalty of hell” he is appealing to what he believes to be the primary effect of Jesus’ priestly work on your behalf. (This is commonly referred to as the “finished work of Christ,” a concept which traditionally investigates the meaning of Jesus’ death as opposed to his life.) As stated, this brick claims that Jesus’ actions as a priest make a difference to our spiritual status before God, even our salvation. This is quite an assertion. So let’s consider this idea more carefully.
It is good to remember that Jesus was not a Jewish priest. He did not qualify for the office, born of Judah instead of Levi, and he never referred to himself as a priest (cp. “Go show yourselves to the priests,” Luke 17:14). Nowhere in the book of Acts, nor in the writings of Paul, is Jesus referred to as a Jewish priest. Writers of the NT often describe Jesus acting as a priest, however, especially when interpreting the meaning of his death. As a matter of history, by the way, I think a Jesus-acting-as-priest idea would not have been surprising to the original audience of the NT, even if they knew Jesus did not qualify for the office. Herod’s temple was full of non-Levitical (and even non-Jewish!) priests, as the king had imported Egyptian and Mesopotamian priests to serve out their functions. The office of the high priesthood was no better, with the position known to go to the highest bidder. So no one would have been theologically offended to hear of Jesus the carpenter acting as a priest even if he failed the ancestral test.
So where does the NT say that Jesus performed priestly functions? Producing such a list involves a few judgment calls since some ancient concepts like redemption are at times associated with the Jewish priesthood, while at other times they are not. But we need not split hairs on this matter. For now, let’s think of as many passages as possible where Jesus appears to function as a priest:
- “The Son of Man came to give his life as a redemption [lutron, cp. Luke 24:41] for many” (Mark 10:45)
- “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)
- “It is expedient that one man should die for the nation” (John 11:50)
- “For [the disciples’] sake I sanctify myself” (John 17:19)
- “He obtained [peripoieo, cp. 1 Tim 3:13] the church with his own blood” (Acts 20:28)
- “Whom God set forth as a place of mercy [hilasterion, cp. Heb 9:5] by his blood” (Romans 3:25)
- “Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6)
- “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8)
- “Having now been justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9)
- “Reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10)
- “Through him we have now received the reconciliation” (Romans 5:11)
- “On account of sin, [God] condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3)
- “[God] did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all” (Romans 8:32)
- “Paul, to those who are sanctified by Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2)
- “You are washed, you are sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 6:11)
- “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3)
- “One died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14)
- “God has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:18)
- “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Corinthians 5:19)
- “He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
- “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13)
- “In Him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7; cp. Colossians 1:14)
- “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been made near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13)
- “[Jesus] reconciled both [Jew and Gentile] to God in one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:16)
- “Christ has given himself [as] an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2)
- “That [Jesus] might sanctify and cleanse [the church] with the washing of water by the word” (Ephesians 5:26)
- “Having made peace through the blood of the cross” (Colossians 1:20)
- “Who died for us, that we should live together with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10)
- “[Jesus] gave himself for us that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and cleanse for himself his own special people” (Titus 2:14)
- “For both [Jesus] who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one” (Hebrews 2:11)
- “Seeing that we have a great high priest … we ought to come boldly to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:14, 16)
- “The forerunner has entered [behind the veil] for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:20)
- “Because [Jesus] has an unchangeable priesthood, he is able to save those who come to God through him” (Hebrews 7:24-25)
- “With his own blood Christ entered the most holy place once for all” (Hebrews 9:12)
- “The blood of Christ [will] cleanse your conscience from dead works” (Hebrews 9:14)
- “By means of death [Jesus] is the mediator of the new covenant” (Hebrews 9:15)
- “According to the law almost all things are cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no remission” (Hebrews 9:22)
- “Jesus has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26)
- “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (Hebrews 9:28)
- “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus once for all” (Hebrews 10:10)
- “He offered one sacrifice for sin forever” (Hebrews 10:12)
- “By one offering Jesus has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14)
- “Brethren, we have boldness to enter the holiest place by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19)
- “A new and living way he consecrated for us through the veil, his flesh” (Hebrews 10:20)
- “Let us draw near in full assurance, having our hearts sprinkled” (Hebrews 10:22)
- “He will be worthy of punishment [who] counts the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing” (Hebrews 10:29)
- “In order to sanctify the people with his own blood, [Jesus] suffered outside the gate” (Hebrews 13:12)
- “You were redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish” (1 Peter 1:18)
- “[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24)
- “Christ suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18)
- “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7)
- “[Jesus] himself is the place of mercy for our sins, and for the whole world” (1 John 2:2)
- “God sent his Son to be the place of mercy for our sins” (1 John 4:10)
- “[Jesus] was slain and has redeemed us to God by his blood” (Revelation 5:9)
The sheer size of this list reminds us that one of the most important bricks on our Big Story wall will be the priestly function of Jesus, especially in relation to his death. Something very important happened at the crucifixion! But here is where things commonly go askew. If we are not careful, we may presume that our salvation is based on phrases within this list (e.g., “forgiveness of sins,” “reconciled to God,” “place of mercy for our sins”). For remember where we just were: in the OT, a priest did not function in a saving capacity. That was not his role. Nor did he grant the ability for someone to become righteous. If we are going to interpret Jesus’ priestly role as affecting our salvation, we need to realize what we are asking for—a vast change in how Israel’s story works, a change in how Torah works, and even a change in how the whole Bible works.
I am willing to try an experiment without knowing the result that will come. I’m working on a hunch. Let’s ask our computer how often the Greek words for save or salvation (verb, sozo; noun, soteria) appear in the context of any of our passages listed above. This may not prove anything, of course, but it may hint at some kind of relationship between Jesus’ priestly actions and our salvation. Maybe the Bible will come right out and say that Jesus saves us through his death, or through his sacrifice. It certainly could say this. Then again maybe it won’t. Here’s the result:
- “Much more then, having now been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:9-10)
- “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that we should live together with him.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10)
- “Because [Jesus] has an unchangeable priesthood, he is able to save those who come to God through him.” (Hebrews 7:24-25)
- “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for him he will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.” (Hebrews 9:28)
So there are four NT passages in which the words salvation/save appear in the same context as Jesus’ priestly work. These are certainly interesting verses to consider, and we will in a moment. I’m thinking, however, that we need to press our experiment further and include the Greek words for justify or righteousness or righteous (verb, dikaiao; noun, dikaiosune; adjective, dikaios) in our search since these words are commonly associated with salvation in the NT. Here is the result:
- “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a place of mercy by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins that were previously committed.” (Romans 3:25)
- “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18)
So now our simple lexical experiment has given us something a bit more substantial to work with: There are six NT passages which textually combine Jesus’ priestly activity with human salvation/righteousness. In deciding what to do with this shiny brick let’s think through these passages, considering whether they include the idea that Jesus’ priestly actions (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) played a role in our salvation.
Romans 3:25: Because “justifying” something in the Bible needs context (dikaiao is variously translated as “to approve” [Matt 11:19], “to free” [Rom 6:7], and “to verify” [1 Tim 3:16]), obtaining a clear understanding of “being justified by his blood” is difficult here, or at least open to discussion. Here is my opinion of this important verse. In arguing toward his conclusion that non-proselytized Gentile believers can claim the same God and thus the same family as Jewish believers (3:28-30), Paul noticed that the Jewish story which included a place of mercy (the ‘seat of mercy,’ or ark lid, in Exodus 25:17) now had a modern (especially Gentile) counterpart in Jesus’ cross and blood (3:24-26)—he was the new mercy seat, or forgiveness-place. This connection demonstrated that God was acting with consistency (“acting righteously”) in forgiving the past and present sins of all believers regardless of race. (Just what “forgiveness of sins” means will be the subject of future discussion, of course. I will argue that the “sin/trespass” offering in the OT, and thus the “forgiveness of sins” which accompanied this ritual, concerned ceremonial, as opposed to moral, cleansing. In this way sacrifices and priestly declarations of “forgiveness” bore no relation to human salvation.)
Romans 5:9-10: In these dense verses Paul combines four ideas into two, and then notes (through the use of changing verb tenses) that the first concept, once completed, leads to the opportunity to participate in the second. The first concept—being “approved by Jesus’ blood” (5:9), paralleled with being “reconciled to God” (5:10)—describes the ritual cleansing performed by a priest which permitted a person to move forward/inward during the process of worship in a temple. Paul is falling into line with every other religion of his day in believing that a person needed to be sanctified or “holy-fied” in order to approach a deity, including the God of Israel. Jesus’ blood sanctifies his Roman audience, thought Paul, mirroring the blood of the sacrificial lamb in the OT. But approaching Yahweh came with a purpose. Paul ended by saying “we shall be saved from wrath through him” (5:9), speaking of trust in the living Jesus, paralleling this with “we shall be saved by his life” (5:10). Paul’s point was that the effect of Jesus’ death, a past event of ritual purification, provides our approach into God’s presence and thus our future salvation.
1 Thessalonians 5:9-10: Paul is clear that the person who is responsible for our salvation also died. There’s certainly shock value in that idea. What he is not clear about in this verse is how Jesus’ death affected our salvation. So I will leave this passage alone, as it cannot be argued in any one direction.
Hebrews 7:24-25: Our salvation is won through Jesus, our eternal priest. This interesting word picture—“those who come to God through him”—details how the ancient world thought of the process of salvation. In order to be saved by a deity, one needed to supplicate him or her, and supplication was usually preceded by ritual sanctification. This is what Jesus now does for us. We come to God, for salvation, through the ritual cleansing of Jesus.
Hebrews 9:28: Those who wait for Jesus are saved, presumably meaning that only the Jesus-loyalist is the one who will gain eternal life. Jesus’ priestly activity is not the subject of discussion in this verse.
1 Peter 3:18: We often picture getting to heaven as getting across a great divide (hell), with a person wanting to get from one cliff to another (heaven). Salvation is pictured as Jesus’ cross spanning the divide, enabling us to walk across Jesus’ sacrifice to get to heaven. I would recommend changing out this picture for something that fits the ancient Near East mind much better: think of a building (say, a temple) in which the goal is not to get across but to get in—and then to move increasingly in until you confront the deity with whom you want to fellowship, or by whom you want to be accepted. Crossing sacred space, or approaching a deity, was considered the most dangerous thing a human could ever do in the ancient world. And so this is why Peter paints this picture for us. Jesus can now “bring us to God,” giving us confidence to approach Him after being atoned/cleansed of our ritual impurity.
So what about this brick? Do Jesus’ priestly actions, such as his atoning sacrifice, play a role in our salvation? Here is where things get tricky. I would say yes and no, depending on what we do with the subject of priestly ritualistic cleansing. I would say yes if our approach to Yahweh for salvation required prior cleansing. On the other hand, I would say no if we should interpret this cleansing as a matter of religious/cultural tradition. I realize that a lot of theology rides on where we go with these two options, so I would like to dedicate my next chapter to working through them. Until then hang on to this brick.
In closing, I want to affirm the importance Jesus’ death to the larger story of the Bible. I believe he needed to die by the will of the Father to complete our salvation. As a separate issue, I believe that Jesus’ actions as a priest are also critical to the Bible’s explanation of salvation. The challenge remains in sorting through how these ideas (priesthood, sacrifice, cleansing, death, salvation, etc.) relate to one another. Our goal is to explain them to the liking of the original writers and readers of the Bible
Jesus as Priest
I ended my last chapter by painting myself into a theological corner. In wondering what to do with the brick which says Jesus’ priestly work (atonement, sacrifice, etc.) plays a role in our salvation I realized that I needed to first play out the subject of ritual cleansing a bit more. Here is why. If I keep this brick, I am attributing salvific value to priestly activity—something that should worry me based on the limited role that a priest had in the OT. We recall that priests did not (indeed, could not) do anything to cause a person to become righteous in Israel’s religion. Their role was confined to ritual only. On the other hand, if I toss this brick, I am saying that Jesus’ sacrifice/atonement did not play a role in my salvation—and those are fighting words by almost any standard. Central to our evangelical faith is the idea that Jesus died to obtain/secure/provide (choose your favorite word) our salvation. So now you can see why we need to talk about this. It feels like neither option will work.
Recall the word picture of using Jesus’ cross to span the chasm between two cliffs. This illustration has certainly been useful, but it does not depict how the OT Israelite would have interpreted his situation. He worked with a different picture, something he physically experienced as a kind of living illustration: the tabernacle/temple. This is what I meant earlier in saying that the OT worshipper thought about getting in as opposed to getting across.
So let’s develop this OT picture. Draw a person standing in front of a temple. Directly above this, up in the heavens, draw God (however that works for you!). Now connect these three pictures with three lines to form a triangle. Let’s give a title to each of these lines before taking time with the picture as a whole:
Line #1 (between the person and God): This line is meant to convey something very simple and certainly very important. Title it simply as A man’s relationship to God. I will use it to describe the real (as opposed to a cultural or imagined) way in which a person was to relate to Yahweh, the deity of Israel.
Line #2 (between God and the temple): Once we introduce the concept of a temple into the biblical story, things get interesting. We sense contradictory messages. On one hand, Yahweh is said to reside inside one of his temple rooms (e.g., “You who dwell between the cherubim, shine forth,” Ps 80:1). This is consistent with how other nations thought of their gods living in the holy rooms of their respective temples, usually indicated by the placement of an idol. On the other hand, biblical writers also describe Yahweh as being too “big” for a temple (e.g., “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you. How much less this temple which I have built?” 1 Kings 8:27). So this line (which we can title God’s relationship to physical space) appreciates two apparently incongruous ideas which seem to have been believed at the same time: God was somehow present in a physical location while he was not able to be confined to any one physical location.
Line #3 (between the person and the temple): This line actually extends from the person to the farthest room inside the temple, the holiest place where the deity was thought to dwell (the ends of lines #2 and #3 should touch here). Only special people could go into this room, of course, such as Israel’s high priest, and even then once per year. For everyone else, the idea of officially approaching one’s god was a matter of wishful imagination (“Blessed is the man whom you choose, and cause to approach you, that he may dwell in your courts. We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, of your holy temple,” Psalm 65:4). As you can imagine, this line plays a significant role in the biblical story while also being difficult to explain to a modern audience. Let’s title it A righteous person’s official approach to God in worship / supplication / service.
With these lines in place, let’s think our way around the picture. I believe this will be the best way to determine how to handle our brick and even how to eventually understand the meaning of Jesus’ sacrificial death. I will number my points just for my own organization.
- Regarding line #1, the Bible teaches that God desires personal faith/loyalty (Heb., aman; Gk., pistis) from every human, and that in response to this faith God declares the person as righteous (Heb., tsaddiq; Gk., dikios), or proper. The fact that we can honor Yahweh in such a personal way is remarkable and speaks to the greatness of his character. No other god has ever treated his human followers in this way. This simple loyalty-brings-righteousness pattern spans both testaments, starting with the life of Abraham (“Abraham aman-ed the LORD, and the LORD accounted it to him for tsedaqah,” Gen 15:6), continuing through the Psalms (“Oh love Yahweh, all you his saints! For Yahweh preserves the aman, while fully repaying the proud,” Ps 31:23), and the prophets (“Your aman is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew that goes away; but I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings,” Hos 6:4, 6), and the gospels (“He who pisteo’s Him will not perish but have eternal life,” John 3:15) and Paul’s letters (“Salvation for everyone who pisteo’s, for the Jew first and also for the Greek,” Rom 1:16), and ending with John’s vision in Revelation (“…those who come with [Jesus] are called, chosen, and pistos,” Rev 17:14). So I believe it is important to keep this line unencumbered from heavy theological ideas, such as the mechanics of inherited sin/guilt or substitutionary payment/righteousness. Those discussions may have their time and place, but not on this line. The Bible teaches that it is inherently simple to get along well with God.
- Lines #2 and #3 intersect at the most sacred item in Israel’s religion, the ark of the covenant. This box is one example of “sacred space” in the biblical story—where heaven and earth met, as some would say. (The official definition of sacred space varies with religious traditions, so I am not really concerned with defining the phrase carefully at this point. In moving forward, let’s describe sacred space as where God’s presence was presumed to dwell, just as our picture shows.) We recall that the ark could not be touched with human hands (Exod 25:12-15; Num 7:9; Deut 10:8), apparently upon the pain of death (e.g., 2 Sam 6:6-7). I have always been fascinated by this idea, as most people are. Why would a box be so dangerous? What would be God’s point in making it dangerous? What if I almost touched it? Did all sacred space operate this way? And how does sacred space even work? How can two very different (even competing) modes of existence be merged together? These are interesting questions, and I sense the answers are above our human pay grade. So let’s move on to think of line #3 by itself.
- Line #3 represents a man’s official approach toward sacred space. This is different from line #1, where the question had to do with being right with God. To help us understand the difference between these lines, and to appreciate the dread associated with line #3 in the ancient world, think of the story of Esther and the concern she had of appearing before her husband-king uninvited: “All the king’s servants and the people know that any man or woman who goes into the inner court to the king, who has not been called, he has but one law: put all to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter, that he may live” (Esther 4:11). I remember hearing this story in Sunday School and wanting to say “Esther, you have nothing to worry about—he just chose you in a beauty pageant!” From every indication the king was still infatuated with Esther (cp. 2:17) and yet her fear was real, even justified. Approaching a human king meant laying one’s life on the line. Now multiply that fear several times over and we begin to understand the kind of terror that accompanied an approach before one’s god.
- And how dangerous was sacred space? Of course we would say very dangerous, but it has sometimes been assumed that humans could not enter that place where God’s presence was assumed to dwell. For what it’s worth, I would like to challenge that assumption. Recall that the king in Esther’s story was more important than the space he inhabited, meaning that he carried the right to determine what would happen to the queen when she stood before him. This story seems to align with how God handled his sacred space as well, at least in the stories left to us. Though standing on “holy ground,” Moses and Joshua were told to only take off their sandals (Exod 3:5; Josh 5:15). While appearing before Yahweh’s throne (in a vision, admittedly) Isaiah was allowed to remain after he was ritually cleansed by a seraph (Isa 6:6-7). In these three cases it could be argued that an otherwise normal human survived his sacred space ordeal just fine provided he perform some act of reverence prescribed by God. This sounds much like Esther touching Ahasuerus’ scepter (5:2). Most importantly—and this informs our understanding of the relationship between lines #1 and #3—each man was already presumed to be righteous, or right with God, before his sacred space experience began.
- So let’s think through why and how a person might cross into sacred space. The story of David’s sin with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11-12) seems to help us here. Though David’s sins deserved death (cp. Exod 21:12; Lev 20:10), Nathan announced that God had “passed over” or forgiven (avar, cp. Mic 7:18) them and that he would not die (12:13-14). Yet David had not offered a sacrifice, nor was he intending to (cp. Ps 51:16). “The sacrifices of God,” he recognized, “are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps 51:17). David understood that sacrifices were not about payment for sin, and that they could not replace a simple and humble request for God’s forgiveness based on his mercy alone (cp. Exod 10:17-18; 32:32; 34:7; Num 14:18-19; 30:5, 8; 1 Kgs 8:30, 34, 36, 39, 50; 2 Chr 6:21, 25, 27, 30, 39; 7:14; Ps 78:38; 86:5; 130:4; Isa 6:7.) Bringing our picture into this story, David’s concern was on line #1. He knew that the only possible response to his sin was to plead to God for pity (Ps 103:13), and that God would respond by restoring the broken relationship (Ps 103:17-18). But the story continues. After asking God to spare the life of his child who would eventually die (12:16-18), David “arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes, and went into the house of the LORD and worshipped” (12:20). For some reason David felt compelled to travel along line #3. Maybe David’s restored relationship with God led to a desire to approach God in an official capacity. He knew this would require ritual cleansing, which he did, and the story closes with David bowing before God in worship. Achieving line #1 prompted, in this instance, the story of line #3. David may even have considered line #3 to be a necessary and proper ending to his Bathsheba incident.
- It is common to hear a person say at this point “But Mosaic law repeatedly linked the priests and sacrifices associated with line #3 to the forgiveness of sins (e.g., “if he has committed sins, it shall be forgiven him,” Lev 4:26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18), which ends up sounding a lot like line #1. In other words, weren’t sacrifices necessary for having a right relationship to God?” In my hearing this has been a very honest question, arising naturally from the evangelical’s Big Story of the Bible. In this understanding, what I have called a “sin management” model, the problem of sin is elevated to line #1 and is met by the solution of forgiveness made available on line #3. Evangelicals then connect Jesus’ death to this story, going so far as to argue that God’s ultimate ability to forgive sin required the crucifixion. So this question clearly carries considerable theological weight, even approaching the issue of God’s character. Let’s see if our picture can speak to this question.
- Grab an eraser and change the scene to 586 B.C. when the temple was destroyed and the Israelites were taken into exile. Jeremiah told his friends to build homes and plant gardens in Babylon since they would not be returning to Israel for seventy years (Jer 25:11; 29:5). This means that everything on line #3 is now gone, even the line itself, for over a generation. We can erase line #2 as well. All that is left is line #1. What was a godly person to do about sacrifice and, potentially, about forgiveness of his sins in this situation? Certainly this period was not an incidental hiccup in the theology of Judaism. From all indications, this was a time designed by God to teach his people what it meant to relate to him without a “temple kit.” We are thankful that there is still more story to tell.
- The prophet Daniel is one of these final stories in the OT. He was taken to Babylon as a teenager (Dan 1:1-6) and lived out the remainder of his life on foreign soil. Imagine how violently and how quickly his understanding of God and sacred space needed to change. But he was up to it. Undoing almost 1000 years of tradition, he operated confidently outside the context of priests, sacrifices, and temple, openly asking God for forgiveness and blessing in the process (“O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act!” 9:19). Daniel got in trouble for his prayer life, we recall. Let’s imagine how the conversation might have gone on his way down to the lion’s den with one of the Babylonian guards (6:16):
“So, Daniel, what were you doing that got you into jail in the first place?”
“I was praying to Yahweh, the god of my people, as was my custom.”
“I heard that you prayed out an open window, apparently toward Judea [6:10]. Why?”
“We Jews have long been in the habit of praying in the direction of our temple [cp. 2 Chron 6:34]. But I’ll admit it’s more tradition than anything else.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, a couple of things. First, we’re like you in treating our temple as our god’s throne room. But second, we believe that our god alone is responsible for creating everything that is, including your god, and, as such, he does not limit himself to one place.”
“That’s quite an assertion, but I’ll go with it for now. So how do you approach your god, now that your temple is gone?”
“Even while our temple was standing, it was understood that our god could hear us wherever we were [cp. Ps 139:7-8]. Plus, much of our early family history had no experience with a temple [Genesis 12-Exodus 40]. So as I see it the whole idea of a temple was temporary. I think it was an accommodation of our god to how humans imagine the process of worship. It’s what we knew in Egypt before becoming a nation, and it continues here in Babylon as well.”
“So in praying toward your former temple you were just accommodating a tradition of an idea which itself was an accommodation?”
“That’s well-said. The beauty of it is that I’m totally fine sitting in a dungeon because my god thinks I’m totally find sitting in a dungeon. All he needs is my personal loyalty, and I can do that anywhere. I could even do it in a lion’s den.”
“That kind of god is different from any god I’ve ever heard of before. Are you saying that priests and sacrifices aren’t necessary in your worship?”
“No, they are not. If they are available, we certainly use them. If they’re not available, like here in Babylon, we just live by loyalty.”
“So what about sin offerings? How does your religion operate without them?”
“Like other religions, we used to offer sacrifices ‘for our sins,’ or for those common things that hindered our official approach to Yahweh’s throne room [e.g., mold or uncleanness, Lev 12:7; 14:18-20; 15:15, 30; unsolved murder, Num 6:11; Deut 21:8; inadvertent sin, Num 15:25]. But, again, we have a god who longs for personal loyalty above those kinds of rituals. So now that we don’t have a temple we simply don’t worry about doing sin offerings anymore.”
“You’re treating your relationship to your god almost like a personal friendship.”
“Right. And, as my friend, he doesn’t think about me just in terms of my behavior, or my actions. It’s much deeper than that.”
“Back to those sacrifices. When you sacrificed an animal, were you considering the animal as your ‘replacement’ on the altar?”
“Of course not. No one who was sacrificing was deserving of death. In fact, just the opposite—they were deserving of mercy.”
“Whoa. How can you speak of deserving mercy from your god?”
“The best thing about our covenant with Yahweh was that he promised that he would treat his loyalists kindly [cp. Exod 34:7; Num 14:18-20; Neh 9:7; Ps 130:4; Mic 7:18; Dan 9:9]. So we Jews like to mix God’s love and justice together in our prayers and songs [“He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the mercy of the LORD,” Ps 33:5; “He who follows righteousness and mercy finds life, righteousness and honor,” Proverbs 21:21], celebrating that in treating us justly, or righteously, God will be treating us mercifully.”
“Amazing. But I have this weird feeling, kind of like a prediction, that someday someone will say that one of the main lessons of your religion was that there has always been a strong tension between Yahweh’s love and justice.”
“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. It is basically the opposite of what Yahweh is like. In fact, that sounds like the gods of Canaan. They loved to play justice off of mercy, threatening their worshippers for all sorts of simple disobedience issues—like even mispronouncing their name.”
“Well, here we are at the lions’ den. Again, for the record, I’ve never heard of a god like yours before. If you guys ever go back to Judea, do you foresee building a temple again?”
“Certainly. Yahweh deserves a beautiful home. Until then, I’m not much concerned about it. I’m more concerned about the lions actually.”
“Something tells me you’ll be just fine. See you tomorrow.”
So what should we do with our brick? Let’s return to our original question: Did Jesus’ priestly work (atonement, sacrifice, etc.) play a role in my salvation? I hope that our picture has visualized how the direct answer to this question must be no. We are pronounced righteous, and are thus considered “saved,” because of our faith/loyalty (line #1), and, as a separate discussion, those people who approached God’s sacred space needed ritual cleansing (line #3). A person who enjoyed a good relationship to God on line #1 may or may not have experienced line #3, depending on his time and place and opportunity. This is not to say that line #3 is unimportant or simply incidental to the Bible’s story line. Quite to the contrary, in fact. The Bible was written by people and to people who believed that sacred space demanded their respect. Remember Peter’s refusal to even meet with Cornelius. This was not because Cornelius was ungodly, but because he was ceremonially unclean ( “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation,” Acts 10:28). Peter did not yet realize that Jesus’ death meant that everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, could now travel down line #3 (cp. Matt 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45; Heb 2:17; 4:16; 6:19; 9:3, 25, 28; 1 Pet 2:23-24; 1 John 1:6-7; 2:2-4; 4:10)—provided, of course, they had taken care of line #1. This “new covenant,” or new arrangement for approaching Yahweh (cp. Heb 10:16-19), will be the major story line of the New Testament. We will get there in due time. For now, set this brick aside.
Grace & Justice
My last chapter concluded with the recommendation that the primary effect of Jesus’ death when viewed in priestly terms (that is, when we speak of Jesus dying as a sacrifice) found him making an already-righteous worshipper fit for entering sacred space. Most of my evangelical friends would find this purpose of Jesus’ sacrificial death to be too limiting, of course, though I think that their concern is due to a miscalculation of how important sacred space was in ancient Near Eastern religious culture. The dread associated with officially approaching a holy God (beyond the privilege of offering up a spontaneous prayer, for example) will play a major role in the Big Story of the Bible, whether in describing Israel’s worship system in the OT or in celebrating the “new and living way” to approach God in the NT. So we will certainly revisit the issue of sacred space as I get to the construction phase of my project. For now let’s look at the next brick in the evangelical wall:
The OT teaches a constant tension between God’s justice and God’s love
I quoted from Timothy Keller’s opening article in Zondervan’s NIV Study Bible earlier when trying to explain the Sin Paid For model of the Bible’s story. Here is the quotation again, this time offered as an overview for the meaning of this brick:
“Through two-thirds of the Bible, the part we call the OT, an increasingly urgent, apparently unsolvable problem drives the narrative forward. God is a God of holiness and is therefore implacably opposed to evil, injustice, and wrong, and yet he is a God of infinite love. He enters into a relationship with a people who are fatally self-centered. Will he bring down the curse he says must fall on sin and cut off his people, or will he forgive and love his people regardless of their sin? If he does either one or the other, sin and evil win! It seems impossible to do both. The resolution to this problem is largely hidden from the reader through the OT, though Isaiah comes closest to unveiling it. The glorious King who brings God’s judgment in the first part of Isaiah is also the suffering servant who bears God’s judgment in the second part. It is Jesus. Victory is achieved through [Jesus’] infinite sacrifice on the cross, where God both punishes sin fully yet provides free salvation. Jesus stands as the ultimate protagonist, the hero of heroes. Therefore, because the Bible’s basic plotline is the tension between God’s justice and his grace and because it is all resolved in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Jesus could tell his followers after the resurrection that the OT is really all about him (Luke 24:27, 45). So everything in the Bible—all the themes and patterns, main images and major figures—points to Jesus” (The Story of the Bible: How the Good News about Jesus is Central [in the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, 2015]).
I appreciate Keller’s clarity in explaining his view. He is making several bold assertions along the way, however, with many of them open to immediate challenge by anyone who is simply reading through the Bible. I can think of seven such challenges: 1) if there is an “urgent, apparently unsolvable problem” driving the OT narrative forward, it is fair to ask where this problem is stated; 2) if there is a necessary curse of God which “must fall on sin and cut off his people” because they are “fatally self-centered,” it is again fair to ask where this idea is taught; 3) by using the provocative word regardless in the question “will [God] forgive and love his people regardless of their sin?” Keller implies that God’s forgiveness includes the idea of downplaying the seriousness of sin; 4) if “sin and evil win” when “God forgives and loves his people,” we are led to ask how or why this would be true; 5) if the “resolution of this problem [of sin vs. forgiveness] is largely hidden from the reader through the OT,” we are allowed to consider whether this problem ever existed at all; 6) if the “victory achieved through the cross” provides “free salvation,” it is fair to ask why salvation and righteousness were described as available before the cross; and 7) if the “Bible’s basic plotline is the tension between God’s justice and his grace,” we are owed an explanation as to why the OT regularly celebrates God’s justice and grace together.
It is this last point, of course, which concerns our brick. And this is no ordinary brick; Keller calls it the Bible’s basic plotline. Recall as well that Keller is not saying this in an essay tucked into the back of a library, but in the lead article of a major publisher’s best-selling evangelical study Bible. All this is to say that, in challenging this view, we are (in the opinion of many, but not all) stepping outside the boundaries of evangelicalism.
That being said, I think that a challenge to this brick can be surprisingly simple. Part of me wonders if I have missed something here, for when reading the Bible from left-to-right I find no tension between God’s justice/righteousness and his grace/mercy/love. These attributes often appear side-by-side when describing Yahweh, signaling that they are complementary ideas, even one leading to the other:
- Psalm 36:5-6, 10: Your mercy, O LORD, is in the heavens, and your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the great mountains; your judgments are a great deep; O LORD, you preserve man and beast. Oh, continue your lovingkindness to those who know you, and your righteousness to the upright in heart.
- Psalm 85:10: Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
- Psalm 89:14: Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; mercy and truth go before your face.
- Psalm 103:6-8, 17: The LORD executes righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the children of Israel. The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. The mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children.
- Psalm 111:3-4: [The LORD’s] work is honorable and glorious, and his righteousness endures forever. He has made his wonderful works to be remembered; the LORD is gracious and full of compassion.
- Psalm 116:5: Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; yes, our God is merciful.
- Psalm 145:7-9, 17: They shall utter the memory of your great goodness, and shall sing of your righteousness. The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy. The LORD is good to all, and his tender mercies are over all his works.
- Jeremiah 10:24: O LORD, correct me, but with righteousness; not in your anger, lest you should bring me to nothing.
- Daniel 9: 16, 18-19: O Lord, according to all your righteousness, I pray, let your anger and your fury be turned away from your city Jerusalem . . . . O my God, incline your ear and hear; open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city which is called by your name; for we do not present our supplications before you because of our righteous deeds, but because of your great mercies. O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and act! Do not delay for your own sake, my God, for your city and your people are called by your name.
- Hosea 2:19: I will betroth [Israel] to me forever; yes, I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy.
- Romans 3:24: [We are] being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
- Romans 5:17, 21: For if by one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ. So that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
- Titus 3:7: That having been justified by his grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
These verses seem to set a clear path for understanding Yahweh’s justice and love as working hand-in-hand, not in tension with each other. Because God had promised to love and care for his own, he was considered righteous or just (these are based on the same Hebrew word) in honoring this commitment. In this sense being righteous is a virtue available to anyone (e.g., Ps 112:4: “[The man who fears the LORD] is gracious, full of compassion, and righteous”; cp. Ps 37:21; Prov 21:21; Isa 57:1; Hos 10:12; Mic 6:8).
But this is where things can get confusing for the modern evangelical. Keller is apparently using “God’s righteousness” as a reference to a demand for moral justice as we would understand legal fairness. Used this way, I understand how he can see righteousness and grace as almost opposite ideas. And he may be right. The lexical meaning of tsaddiq in Hebrew, however, does not support his use of the term. The word’s basic meaning simply refers to being properly aligned, or to being found “in order” (Ludwig Koehler, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the OT), which means we must always start by considering what standard is in play before saying that God is aligned with that standard. In reviewing the above verses again, I believe it can be argued that the standard God is aligning to is the promise that he would bless the family of Abraham. Think again of the audience that originally heard these verses. So in saying “God is righteous,” the writer was saying that God would keep his side of the covenant. The original reader would have been shocked to hear this. The gods of the ancient Near East were notoriously bad at keeping their promises. If anything, they were the ones who played justice and love off one another, threatening either at any time. But because Yahweh was righteous, because he was a promise-keeping God, he would necessarily be merciful/gracious to those he loved. This is what made Yahweh so unique, so wonderful, so worthy of worship.
I therefore recommend tossing aside this brick. There is no tension between God’s justice and his love, and in fact the opposite is true. It is because God is righteous that we know he will be loving and gracious to his own. This teaching will become a foundational element in our Big Story of the Bible.
Loyalty to God (“faith”) is necessary for salvation
The evangelical tradition has strongly argued that individual faith is necessary for salvation. I believe we are right on target here, though some issues of definition may still come into play. My understanding of faith/belief starts with the Hebrew words for faith (ʾaman) and loyalty (ʾamuna), which are basically the same words with different endings. Faith and faithfulness thus become interchangeable ideas in the OT. In the NKJV, for example, ʾaman is translated as “believed” in Genesis 15:6, then as “faithful” in Numbers 12:7; ʾamuna is translated as “faithfulness” in Psalm 36:5, then as “faith” in Habakkuk 2:4. So one meaning bleeds into the other, much like stress and stressful and care and careful are built on the same words in English. When I was a pastor, I recall sometimes leading the bride and groom in reciting old marriage vow “To thee I betroth my faith” during a wedding. I sense it has only been recently that when someone says “faith” we don’t also presume they mean fidelity/faithfulness.
The same relationship between faith and faithfulness follows through into the NT, where the Greek pistis (“faith”) is basically the same word as pistos (“faithful”), just with a different ending (the –os ending on a Greek root often carries the meaning of –fulness or –ful). So pistis gets translated in the NKJV both as “faith” (Matthew 9:22) and “faithfulness” (Romans 3:3) and pistos gets translated as “believe” ( 1 Timothy 4:3, 9) and “believer” (2 Corinthians 6:15, 1 Timothy 4:12) and “faithful” (2 Timothy 2:2).
I would recommend Matthew Bates’ Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King (Baker Academic, 2017) for a book-length defense of this idea that biblical faith refers to loyalty. It is not until the sixteenth century that Protestant theologians made the meaning of faith to become something to be believed as opposed to something we do (showing allegiance is more than mental assent; it requires an act of the will). You may have heard of this as the faith vs. works question, which really is the result of Luther’s and Calvin’s reaction to the medieval theology of their era.
(Just last week my wife and I went to a Presbyterian church while on vacation, and it struck me how confused Paul would have been by the sermon. The pastor was preaching from Galatians 2:16, and he said that the “works of the law” mentioned there were any of those things that people did to earn their salvation, and that Paul wanted people to believe in, or put their faith in, the finished work of Christ instead. So salvation is a belief issue as opposed to a doing issue, the pastor said, and he piled on verse after verse about the virtue of faith. I think Paul would have liked the sermon for its emphasis on faith, but he would have struggled with what the pastor meant by faith as an English word. Paul’s concern in Galatians was not Roman Catholic legalism, as Luther saw it, but the fate of God-fearing Gentiles who were being told that they needed to add specific rules of Judaism [like circumcision, Sabbath, kosher, and other “works of Torah”] to their loyalty to Jesus in order to become authentic members of Abraham’s family. No, Paul argued, all a person needed was loyalty to Jesus to become an inheritor of God’s OT covenant promises [Gal 3:26-29]. As for the sermon, I think Paul would have been concerned that the pastor gave his audience a passive description of faith—as though it was the opposite of active obedience—and that he did not describe faith in terms of becoming loyal to Jesus while turning from the worship of the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. This is how Paul’s Galatian audience would have understood it.)
This understanding of faith becomes important because it adjusts the story of the Bible back to the beginning. When Abraham is said to ʾaman (“believe”) Yahweh in Genesis 15:6, Yahweh in turn considered Abraham righteous (tsedaqah). This would have been an outrageous idea to the ancient world; could a human be considered “right” with a deity due to simple (inward) loyalty? Deities usually demanded all sorts of ritualistic rule-keeping and sacrificial hocus-pocus. Clearly what was at stake was Abraham’s allegiance, or his worship of one god over another (cp. Joshua 24:2). The ripple effects of this idea will be felt throughout the rest of Scripture whenever people wondered how Yahweh, the deity of Israel, was to be honored. This was new territory, for no other god had ever been approached just through inward loyalty.
If you are following my thinking this far, it should become apparent why ʾaman and pistis are never used in the partial sense in the Bible. When used in describing a person’s relationship to a deity, a person was either considered faithful or they were not. No one was considered kind of faithful to their god. For example, Paul used pistos in 1 Corinthians 6:15 to describe Christians: “What part has a pistos [faithful person] with an unbeliever?” So the opposite of being pistos was being a non-Christian. In the same way, Paul starts Ephesians with “To the saints who are in Ephesus and pistos [faithful people] in Christ Jesus” as though he is talking to a single group of Christian people (cp. Col. 1:2 as well).
One more benefit of this view of faith comes in noticing that the Bible says that we will all someday be judged by inward realities (John 7:24), by the secrets we carry (Rom 2:16), by all of our hidden thoughts (1 Cor 4:5), and even by what we do (1 Pet 4:7; Rom 2:11; James 2). This is exactly how loyalty works. Faithfulness (loyalty) is an inward disposition, especially (in the context of most biblical storylines) answering the question of which god a person worshipped. So when Paul told the Philippian jailor to “Believe [pisteo] in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31), notice what he was saying as well as what he was not saying: Paul was not telling the jailor to try to follow the moral imperatives of Jesus’s teaching (works), nor to merely believe (mental assent) in Jesus’ finished work on the cross, nor even to become faithful to Jesus in some kind of behavioral sense. Quite simply, Paul was telling the jailor to become loyal to Jesus and to stop worshipping any other deity.
So is loyalty to God (“faith”) necessary for salvation? Absolutely. I appreciate my evangelical heritage for getting this one right, provided we work through what faith means. So keep this brick, preparing to use it as a foundational element in the Big Story of the Bible.
I've been asked to respond to some passages that traditionally find their way into conversations about substitution and Jesus’ death. I am happy to do this, as I have been enjoying email exchanges with readers of my writings on this issue.
I would recommend Michael Heiser's podcast series on Leviticus for background to my views. He showed how foundational concepts such as sacred space and atonement and sanctification are critical to understanding the OT, yet often ignored or redefined when trying to understand the NT. My concern is similar. Western Christianity has generally approached passages about Jesus’ death through the lens of the Reformation, a time when Luther and Calvin were more concerned about Roman Catholic excesses than with trying to revisit the larger OT storyline. So they came up with good answers, but to the wrong questions. What I am trying to do here is to carry an OT worldview into NT verses describing the effect of Jesus’ death. More often than not I hear myself say “Hey, this works” as I work through the verses. I am curious if you find the results as compelling as I do.
Here are the four verses Michael Heiser asked about, with my own translation included:
John 3:36: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe in the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” I take this to mean that we are to respond to Yahweh’s intense love for Jesus (3:35, “The Father loves the Son” cp. 5:20; 10:17; 14:21; 15:9; 17:24; Eph. 1:6; Col. 1:13) by following suit, thus believing in and becoming loyal to Jesus as a means of honoring the God of Israel. The reward is eternal life, which includes our transformation into the divine image of Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18). The penalty for not doing this—that is, worshipping other gods/deities who oppose Jesus—will result in God’s wrath.
2 Corinthians 5:20-21: “Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made him who knew no sin to be a sin offering for us, that we might accomplish the righteousness of God in Him.” This is certainly a challenging passage, with a long history of interpretation. Here’s my understanding: Paul has just said that if anyone is in Christ it is a new situation/creation (5:17), recalling that the early church marked the first time in world history that a religion (as we now use the term) was to be based on loyalty to a singular god regardless of one’s village or race or gender or class or ancestry. But while this was new, Paul believed it was also fulfilling Torah and the intended purpose of Abraham’s calling to bless the nations. He saw in such passages as Isaiah 49:6 (“I will give you as a light to the Gentiles”) that God had promised to bring the Gentile into Abraham’s family through the work of a “servant”—thus making the righteousness of God, or his truth-telling character, ultimately dependent upon Jew-Gentile unity. But what about Gentile uncleanness, or ritual impurity? For it was one thing to admit God-fearing Gentiles into the new age to come, but a different thing altogether to welcome them into the present Jewish family as Gentiles. My pastor has said it this way: It was one thing for Gentiles to get saved…but now they were coming to church. Paul’s answer for the Corinthians (a vastly Gentile audience) was to “be reconciled to God” (5:20) by seeing themselves as sanctified or ritually purified through Jesus’s death (“God made him who knew no sin to be a sin offering for us” [recalling that chatah, or “sin” in the OT, can also mean “sin offering”]). This fulfilled the OT promise of non-Jews eventually joining the family of Abraham through the work of the messiah (“that we [non-Jewish Corinthians] might accomplish [ginomai; cp. Matt. 11:21, Jesus’ “mighty works were ginomai in Bethsaida”] the righteousness of God through him”).
1 Corinthians 5:7: “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, ‘our Passover,’ was sacrificed for us.” Paul is comparing Jesus’ crucifixion to the original Passover. He saw an analogy: as leaven was not to be allowed in the Jewish home during future Passover celebrations (Exod 12:15), so non-believers should be excluded from church meetings. The connection was that the effect of Jesus’ death, like that of the Passover lamb, was for the covenantal family only, and not those standing outside. The obvious tension that Paul would have been creating in making this analogy concerned the Corinthian Gentiles themselves—those whom a Jewish messiah should have come to destroy (cp. Jer 10:25, and Jesus’ response to this in John 3:17!), and those who were not allowed to celebrate Passover in the first place (Exod 12:43). But Paul had a ready answer—and an entire ministry built around this answer, in fact—that the benefit of Christ’s death, even with the analogy of the Passover lamb in tow, now extended to the Gentile. Sometimes he just came out and said it: “While we were yet sinners [Gentiles], Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Other times he (along with other early Christians) probably picked up on the events of the crucifixion itself, noticing that Jesus’ death seemed to fit a Gentile story more than a Jewish one. For example, Jesus had been beaten, an obvious no-no for sacrificial animals in Torah. Even more meaningful, Jesus died above an unclean cemetery outside of Jerusalem, and not at the altar at the Temple. The author of Hebrews clearly used this historical fact for theological fuel: “Therefore Jesus also, that he might sanctify [ritually cleanse] the laos [people in general] with his own blood, suffered outside the gate. Let us therefore go forth to him, outside the camp, bearing his reproach [of mingling with unclean Gentiles]” (Heb 13:12-13). So as you can tell I don’t see any substitution in the Passover or crucifixion stories. The Passover was not about sin, nor about substituting a lamb for a son, but about God’s wrath directed against the polytheism of the Egyptians who were being marked out by the absence of blood above their doors (Exod 12:23, “…when he sees the blood on the lintel, the LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you”). This is just a guess on my part (and my apologies to the theological consultant for the original Ten Commandments movie), but I think if an Egyptian hedged his bet by smearing blood on his doorpost, God would have killed his son anyway. The blood was only a sign, meaning that it stood for something beyond itself (like a stop sign), and the destroyer had a job to do which a mere sign could not stop.
1 John 2:2: “And [Jesus] himself is the place of mercy for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” This pairs with 1 John 4:10-11: “God loved us and sent his Son to be the place of mercy for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Here is a rarely-made NT link connecting Jesus’ death to OT atonement ritual (oddly translated “propitiation” in many versions, taking a cue from the Latin Vulgate’s propitiatio [“to appease”] instead of the Greek hilosmos [“place of mercy”]). And what was OT atonement? Briefly put, a person or thing was “covered” (Heb., kaphar) or cleansed through participation in a purification ceremony in anticipation of approaching God’s presence. All ancient religions taught that it was a dangerous thing to enter sacred space, or any area occupied by a deity. We remember the prophet Isaiah’s vision of Yahweh’s throne room where he was met by a seraph who touched his lips with hot coals and pronounced him clean (6:7). This ceremony was not done to make Isaiah right with God, nor because God was angry about his sin. We can presume Isaiah was a righteous man prior to entering God’s throne room. Atonement happened simply because he was a mortal and required ritual cleansing. Over time, biblical authors came to use kaphar outside of ritual, though still with the general sense of approaching God (I especially like Hezekiah’s bold request of God to atone people who simply “prepared their heart to seek” him, 2 Chron 30:18-19). So atonement concerned one’s approach to the sacred space where God dwelt, and not with becoming righteous or being forgiven of moral sinfulness. It is unfortunate that theologians today allow the idea of being “at-one-ment” with God to inform our meaning of atonement, especially as they allow the Latin idea of anger-appeasement (“propitiation”) to sneak into our English text. Sometimes I turn to my wife Susan when thinking through this kind of thing and just say 'Can I get angry now?' So now to 1 John 2:2/4:10: The writer is simply bringing the picture of ritual purification to bear upon his largely Gentile audience. Jesus, a man beaten and killed outside the city of Jerusalem, counts as their atoning sacrifice. God-fearing people of all nationalities can now boldly approach the God of Israel (cp. Heb. 4:16) in worship. Thus the extent of Jesus’ atonement in the NT is different than OT sacrifices (“the whole world,” 2:2) which is why the “we also ought to love one another” (4:11) becomes such a challenge. It is interesting to notice how often the “love one another” passages in the NT show up in contexts of Jew/Gentile relations, but that is another matter.
Q: I realized after sending the email and reading your and Michael Heiser’s most recent blog posts on substitutionary atonement again that I had in my head the idea of “the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus” as a biblical point. So I did a search and discovered that phrase only in a commentary online, not in the Scriptures, at least not that I could find.
Exactly. Even as I read your phrase “wrath of God poured out on Jesus” I knew you were dealing with something outside the Bible, possibly a hymn. It’s helpful to realize that “wrath” and “anger” never appear in Leviticus, which should hint that sacrifice is not about solving God’s anger. Q: If we are under wrath, then substitution would mean that Christ took our place and had God’s wrath poured out on him. Please correct me if I missed it, but I couldn’t find any verse that actually said that.
A: The world is under God’s coming wrath, I believe, for its worship of other deities. But that’s not what Jesus’ death “satisfied,” so I think we have to look elsewhere for describing what the death of Jesus did, or accomplished. And that’s where, as you are catching, the idea of cleansing comes in. The Big Story shift I’m asking for, eventually, is to see the question of the NT not to be how to get right with God, but how the Gentile is supposed to approach the previsouly unapproachable God of Israel since he didn’t have the privilege of atonement through Torah. Jesus’ death solved this problem—huge to them and hardly recognizable to us.
Q: The connection between Passover and Romans 3:25 seems to include substitution. Please clarify.
A: I take the “passing over sins” in Rom. 3:25 to be a re-telling of Israel’s story in general throughout the OT, where God in his righteousness “passed over” or forgave the sins of loyal Israelites even when they were a behaviorally sad lot (Ps. 103:17-18)—and this had nothing to do with sacrifice, but only mercy itself. So long story short we don’t need substitution in the OT to get God’s people to be forgiven…and the same holds true in the NT in my opinion.
Q: What is “the wrath of God is being revealed” in Romans 1:18, and doesn’t that eventually lead to Jesus’ substitutionary death on our behalf?
A: I am seeing God’s wrath as consistently aimed at the disloyalist, the polytheist. He is not angry with us for general sins, nor for Adam’s guilt. That’s where I go down a different road from the traditional Reformed position, which has not given idolatry or the belief in the existence of other gods much thought. But if the gods are real, if they cause Yahweh’s jealousy, then wrath can work since God is like the spouse who is left at the altar. “For the wrath of God is revealed against all asebia and adikia (Rom. 1:18)— it’s not sins in general that God is upset about, but about what is missing (the two alpha’s there in front of ‘godliness’ and ‘righteousess’) in the lives of people—loyalty.
Q: What does it mean in the NT that Jesus died “for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3)? That sounds like substitution.
A: In short, what I will be recommending is that the smearing of blood in the OT sacrifice was for the purpose of ritually cleansing something or someone as a person prepared to worship God (often in the act of sacrifice itself). This cleansing was what the OT person would have identified as “putting away sin,” or “bearing sins,” where the word sin (chata) had more to do with mistakes or imperfections or amoral problems (listen to Michael Heiser’s podcasts on Leviticus if you have not). Recall that really bad things like murder and rape did not have a sacrifice, and that a person had to suffer the consequences for this. It was the “inadvertent” sins of Leviticus 4/5 that allowed sacrifice. So then just apply this forward into the NT. I am arguing that Jesus’ crucifixion performed the same function, as he died “for our sins” in the sense of ritual cleansing. Thus Gentiles and anyone who was ritually impure (most of Paul’s diaspora audience who hardly ever got to the Jerusalem temple) could worship the God of Israel and join the family of Abraham just by having faith in the messiah. No need to proselytize.
Q: Doesn’t the idea that “Jesus came to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15) argue for a salvific purpose to Jesus’ death—and not just ritual cleansing?
A: A good question. I would interpret 1 Tim 1:15 in line with Romans 5:9 (“having been justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him”), and ultimately coming through the logic spelled out in Romans 5:10: “For if when we were enemies [Gentiles] we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son [ritually cleansed so that we could approach him even while remaining Gentile while living in Rome], much more [here comes the end of the story], having been reconciled, we shall be saved by his life [Jesus’ resurrection seals the deal on Jesus’ rise to authority over the powers that Gentiles are worshipping, so that through loyalty to Jesus we will escape the judgment of God upon evil spirits and the humans who worship them].” I realize the potential weakness of my view is that 1 Tim 1:15 seems to imply, almost too plainly, that if Jesus had not come then sinners could not be saved. I would say that the phrase “Jesus came to save sinners” was Paul’s larger look back upon the story as it has been unfolding, not as a kind of doctrinal statement about the actual availability of salvation going back through history. For we know that sinners (Gentiles) have always been invited to come to God in faith, thus inheriting the same salvation as Jews. But I think that’s the kicker right in that last phrase—“as Jews.” One of the main arguments that Jesus was making plain throughout his teaching and ministry was that Gentiles could approach him, and Yahweh, as Gentiles. I think Paul saw, in looking back upon Jesus’ ministry, that he “came to save Gentiles as Gentiles.” His shorthand way of saying this in 1 Tim 1:15 is “Jesus came to save sinners [as sinners].” This then brings ritual cleansing right back into the conversation, at least for someone who would be wondering about it. I have long maintained that atonement is an occasional doctrine in the NT, meaning that it only comes up when needed, or when an audience member (or potential reader, as in Paul’s case) asks about it. Like “Trinity,” the word “atonement” never makes its way into our NT. That should give us pause.
Q: What does it mean that Jesus came to lay his life down for sinners (John 10:18)? That sounds like substitution.
A: When Jesus said this, he had just said that he has other sheep which he “must bring” into the fold (10:16). So the prediction of his death (10:17-18) likely has to do with the means of making “one flock” out of the many sheep. That’s the kind of atonement that I’m arguing for, which is ritually cleansing the Gentile and making everyone able to join the family of Abraham (the “therefore” of verse 17). I’m not aware of any other view on the atonement that would match this “one flock” idea as simply as the ritual cleansing model does (cp. John 11:51-52: Caiaphas “prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for that nation only, but also that he would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad”).
Q: Help me out with Romans 4:25 (“Jesus was delivered over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification”). That sounds like substitution.
A: Paul seems to be answering the common question at this point of why the messiah died. His creed-like answer was that he died “for our sins,” meaning that he saw the Israelite story of the sin offering (Lev. 4-5) being played out on Jesus. But that means we have to ask what the worshippers in Leviticus thought about their sacrifices. Were they substituting animals in place of their own deserved death? No, they were taught that the types of sins they could sacrifice for were only the “unintentional” type (4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15, 18; Num 15:22-29) in which a person was made ritually impure, not morally guilty, or the kinds of mistakes/problems that normal people faced just because they were human (menstruation, touching carcasses, mold, etc.). If a person committed a high-handed moral offense like murder there was no sacrifice to be made (Num 15:30: “But the person who does anything presumptuously, that one brings reproach upon the LORD, and he shall be cut off from among his people”). So I hope you can see my own confusion here in wondering why anyone would think that Jesus dying “for my sin” would have anything to do with Jesus dying to appease God’s anger about my moral guilt. That idea was never taught in the OT, so I don’t’ think anyone would have moved that idea into the NT.
Q: It sounds like you have an interesting take on Romans 5:6 (“For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly”). Please defend yourself.
A: In Jewish tradition the “ungodly” (asebes) person was the Gentile, meaning that he lived his entire life outside of the covenant of the God of Israel (Prov 11:31: “If the righteous will be recompensed on the earth, how much more the wicked and the ungodly [asebes, LXX]”). So I think Paul is now bringing the majority Gentile audience in Rome into the Levitical story, saying that Jesus did for the non-Jew what the Leviticus sacrifices had done for the Jew: make them ritually pure. This was huge news, as the death of Christ now meant that the Gentile was able to approach the God of Israel without going through proselytization (Acts 14:27: “And when they had come together, they reported all that God had done with them, and that He had opened the door of faith/loyalty to the Gentiles”).
Q: Are you saying that we can be saved without the death of Jesus?
A: The story of salvation in the OT works on its own from all indications, with people becoming righteous by faith (ala Gen. 15:6 and subsequent stories of belief and righteousness). So I do not believe the death of Jesus specifically answers the question of how someone gets saved in the NT. It certainly has huge meaning, but what was huge to the NT writers now becomes the issue. When I was in seminary the way the atonement was taught was that the person who could come up with the biggest or most important reason for Jesus to die basically won the argument. But I’m convinced, looking back, that we were arguing from Augustine’s approach to the story, and not the Bible’s. So what was the “huge” issue that the NT was fighting over? I will argue that the bricks that we see on the story wall of the NT concern the shape of the family of Abraham, and how a person could rightfully claim to be in that family. It is Abe’s family, after all, who ties the story together, starting with God’s promise of blessing in Genesis 12. Once a person was in the family, so the NT taught, they had the right to be members of the early church, to eat the Lord’s Supper unhindered, and to fellowship with the Jewish disciples without constraint. The family was, for all intents and purposes, the “heirs of the kingdom.”
Q: In general, then, what did Jesus’ death accomplish?
A: I will argue that Jesus “cleansed” or “atoned” or “purified” those who otherwise had no right to join the family of Abraham. This would of course include Gentiles, who had no means within Torah to claim ritual cleansing, and thus no means of joining the family. It would also include diaspora Jews, many of whom Paul met, who would have been considered impure simply due to their distance away from the Temple and their daily contact with Gentiles.
Q: What do you mean when you say “Most commonly our relationship to God is defined in terms of ancestry, asking to which family do we belong?”
A: I will be arguing that the big story really starts with Abraham, not Adam, and that getting into the family of Abraham is the chief concern of the biblical writer. Once in that family, all the blessings of that family become yours. It’s interesting that the blessing of being in Christ in the NT is dependent upon being in Abraham’s family first, and not the other way around (John the Baptist’s point in Luke 3:8, and Paul’s point in Galatians 3:29).
Q: How does one become a member of God’s family? My hope is that you will express your understanding in terms of biblical words, phrasings, and constructs.
A: Right, we need to stick to the biblical story. I’ll argue that Abraham’s model sets the tone in Genesis 15:6, and that it was his faith (or loyalty) to Yahweh that set his family apart. People then joined his family through that similar loyalty to Yahweh, eventually including Gentiles like Rahab and Ruth along the way. The law will be an issue of loyalty, mostly in the issue of which god is being followed, not how well. David will be a man after God’s own heart not in his behavior (which was quite terrible at times) but in his unswerving loyalty to Yahweh in spite of all the alternatives available to him in Canaan. When this comes to the NT, the question being asked there is the shape and look of Abraham’s family, which to that point had required proselytism to Judaism. Jesus’ ministry arc will take him from ministering to Jews (Matt 10) to including Gentiles (Matt 15), and his atonement on the cross will mainly be seen by Paul and others as accomplishing this “sanctification” of the Gentile that previously had been done through proselytism. The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Gentiles will confirm this (Rom. 15:16). There’s a lot there to prove, but I think the general story is there to be seen.
Q: Elaborate on what you said earlier: “…your moral guilt will certainly be solved in God’s chosen way…”
A: I will argue that forgiveness has always been God’s way of handling moral guilt, and never sacrament or ritual. The Jews had been allowed to continue sacrifice after coming out of Egypt because that is what they were used to…but God had different plans for them eventually, and that will be how the prophets later handle the issue of sacrifice—it was never supposed to be thought of as a means of getting on God’s good side. So, in the end, those in the family of God have their sins solved through forgiveness, and always have. Just like a good family does today.
Q: In Hebrews 9:28 it says “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” Is that not saying that Christ was offered on the cross to bear our sins so that we could have fellowship with the Father?
A: Yes, except that last line there about “so we could have fellowship with the Father.” In Leviticus, where the writer of Hebrews makes his connection to Jesus’ death, a person’s sins were “borne” during the sacrifice—but that did not make them able to have fellowship with God. Anyone who was sacrificing was already presumed to be right with God. The reason they were sacrificing was because of human and ritualistic impurities (this often gets unfortunately understood as moral sin), and this is what was “borne” or “forgiven” or “cleansed” by God. So the common mistake that modern readers tend to make is thinking that the OT sacrifices were for actually forgiving a person’s moral sins; this is not true. Forgiveness was only available through the mercy and grace of God. Killing animals had nothing to do with actual forgiveness of moral sins. When we hear of Jesus being ‘offered once to bear the sins of many’ this just refers us back to the concept of ritual cleansing that Leviticus was talking about. This doesn’t mean much to our modern world, but in the ancient world ritual purification was huge—recall Peter’s refusal to eat unclean food (Acts 10) or to even meet with the Gentile Cornelius (Acts 11). It was all a concern about ceremonial cleansing. And that’s what Jesus’ death solved.
Q: You have used words like loyalty and faith and righteousness in some unique ways. I worry that you may be using words without the supporting teaching that undergirds or brings meaning to them.
A: Fair point. Faith is one of the most battered words in Christian tradition. I’m convinced that it’s the place to start (defining what faith is) when explaining the larger story of the Bible. Faith is what’s behind God’s total forgiveness of our sins. Sometimes we will hear it the other way around: Ask God to forgive your sins, and then grow into the kind of person who has faith. Oops. As for righteousness, personally, I’m not one to find that God’s righteousness is any different than mine. It is not a religious term to me, but simply means “propriety,” or something done right. So in the larger story arc of the Bible, God’s righteousness turns out to be his “propriety to his promises,” or his keeping his word to his family, you and I. In that sense we partake in the same righteousness (“God’s righteousness”) when we are simply loyal to God/Jesus; we’re keeping our word, or being righteous.