Humanity stands in need of God, existing as it does in the great contradiction of its self-contrived way of being. By misuse of the faculties with which it was endowed to live in harmony with God, each other, and creation, it has compromised and continues to compromise the very means of its existence. Internally and externally, in thought and behavior, humanity reverses the relationship in which it was created, making itself subject and God predicate, operating as lord and rebelling against the true lordship of its Creator. It therefore gasps for breath having turned its face against the Breath of life. It vacillates between generosity and miserliness, kindness and cruelty, compassion and spitefulness, serenity and anger, having chosen self-love over love of the other and mutual determination. It scrounges for food, squeezing the earth to supply its hunger, having been driven from the tender reciprocity of the garden. Death—when gasping, vacillating, and scrounging cease, and breath, love, and sustenance are no more—death stands before us as the sign of God’s judgment against sin.
The condition of true life in the face of death, hope for resurrection, life reconciled with God and in turn with each other and creation, requires that God cancel human sin, that He rebel against our rebellion, if you will. Humanity has always stood in dependent need of God, but now more than ever. In the state of sin, in the intractable, instinctual positioning of ourselves as prior, self-sustaining, and self-fulfilling, we require an external invasion, an offensive against the reflexive impulse to subsist at our discretion and according to our illusive means. We need light to shine in the darkness once again as it did in the beginning, lightning to break through the thick clouds of our tempestuous soul and body.
Lecture Ten considers God’s assault on the darkness of sin and death in Christ Jesus, His being God again in the exercise of His factual hegemony over every principality and power of nonbeing. It discusses the work of Christ as in fact God’s work of reconciling creation to Himself.
The doctrine of the work of Christ is also called soteriology. “Soteriology” is from the Greek root soteros, which means “salvation.” It is the first topic covered in our two-part treatment of Christology, or the larger doctrine of Christ. In Lecture Eleven, we will address the person of Christ, or the incarnation.
The doctrines of salvation and incarnation are central to Christian faith because, as we have been seeing over the past several lectures, they determine the nature and being of the Christian God. The work and person of Christ together form the life-act by which God has His being as God-with-us. They are the content of His executed decision to be the covenant God, to be Immanuel.
Because of their central importance, salvation and incarnation have received an extraordinary amount of attention over the roughly two centuries of Christian history. There is much more to them than we can adequately handle by way of brief introduction.
In this lecture, we will not be able to cover questions concerning the order of salvation (i.e., the relationship between election, regeneration, conversion, justification, sanctification, and glorification), the substance and content of conversion, the special place of justification in salvation, the importance of Christ’s life and resurrection and not just death to God’s saving work, and the scope of salvation, including the matter of universalism. We will have to content ourselves with “atonement,” the means of salvation and theories that have been formulated to explain it.
In order to get even a preliminary handle on the atonement for sin effected by Christ, we must locate it within the religious ritual and especially the system of sacrifice revealed in the Old Testament. We do not locate it there as a means of justifying that system or advocating for its continuance. Christianity is not Zionist Judaism! As we will see, God does with this system what He did with so much else in ancient Israelite religion (e.g., circumcision, a priestly class, and dietary laws): He makes use of it ultimately to put an end to it.
The front line of God’s assault against human rebellion is disclosed in Exodus 25. Here He gives instructions for the building of the tabernacle and for its various contents. Forerunner to the temple, the tabernacle is of course the place of God’s meeting with His people. It is the spatial/historical point at which He rejects the dislocation brought about by human rebellion, that place and moment at which He re-creates the conditions of communion with His creature.
The most significant element of the tabernacle with respect to encountering the presence of God is the ark of the covenant. Directions for the construction, transport, and use of the ark are given in verses 10-22. Two things stand out in these directions, corresponding to the two features of human rebellion mentioned last time: disobedience and the instinctive priority of self.
In the first place, the ark, which is a modest-sized box less than 4 feet long and just a little more than 2 feet wide and 2 feet high, was to contain the tablets of the testimony. These were the commandments given by God to Moses in Exodus 31 and again in Exodus 34, inscribed in stone tablets by the very finger of God. By their enclosure in the ark, an association is made between experience of the presence of God and obedience to God’s commands. For the ancient Israelites, fidelity to the covenant in the form of obedience to God’s Law was a precondition for enjoyment of God’s presence. The history of Israel is of course a long record of infidelity to the covenant in the form of disobedience to God’s Law, and thus God’s hollow absence and their near-destruction as a nation. But inability to achieve perfect obedience does not make the association between obedience and God’s presence irrelevant. On the contrary, it points out the import of Christ’s obedience.
Humanity’s disobedient impulse, amply testified to in the history of ancient Israel, meets its match in the life and death of Jesus. The New Testament authors recognized that Jesus’ obedience is important, for He achieves what no other human could. He perfectly obeyed God’s Law, even unto death. In doing so, He opened the way for reunion with God. Being “just as we are, yet . . . without sin” (Heb. 4:15), Christ became our Great High Priest. He became the one able to enter into the very presence of God on our behalf.
Christian hope is in the belief that Jesus did not only make unity with God possible for Himself, that only He enjoyed God’s presence by His obedience. We too enjoy restored union with God by being included “in Christ,” as Paul put it (2 Cor. 5:17). It is in Him that we enjoy rebirth and are a new creation. To the extent that our flesh is represented in His and our internal and external faculties are brought under His lordship, we also stand face-to-face with God.
In the second place, the ark was topped with a very special cover. It was an ornate sculpture made of pure gold with two winged angels on either side. The upstretched wings of these angels seem to have formed a kind of throne for God, as He promised to meet between the angels with the people and give them His commands (Exod. 25:22). Here God would reign again as God. In reversal of humanity’s self-commanding priority, He would be Lord and King.
Because it served as God’s throne, the cover of the ark was called the “mercy seat,” or the “seat of atonement.” The word is hilasterion in the Greek translation of Exodus, which word Paul references in Romans 3:25. Hilasterion has become part of Christianity’s unique vocabulary of salvation.
There is debate as to whether it refers to the place where sin is covered over or “propitiated,” or the place where sin is removed or “expiated.” We will leave that debate aside. The critical point is that cover of the ark represented that place, like Eden, where sin was nullified and Creator and creature once again were in communion. But what were the means by which sin was nullified in this Most Holy Place?
The priests did not charge in to the Holy of Holies where the ark was kept to stand before God on His throne. A series of rituals first had to be performed in order to purify the high priest before he could be in the presence of the Lord (see Lev. 16). At the core of these rituals was sacrifice. The high priest was to sacrifice a bull and sprinkle the blood of the bull on the cover of the ark before he could enter the Most Holy Place.
He burned incense in order to create a smoke barrier between himself and the ark while he did the sprinkling. Leviticus 17:11 explains that it was the blood which paid sin’s penalty and enabled the unholy priest to stand before Holy God. “For the life of a creature is in the blood,” the verse says, “and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.”
Rebellion against God is an offense deserving capital punishment. The appropriate punishment or “wages” of sin is death. In the sacrificial system, life was given for life, the punishment due was paid by the death of an animal. But the author of Hebrews makes it clear that the sacrifice of animals was never to be God’s final means of dealing with sin. In fact, it appears that God used the sacrificial system as part of His dealing with an ancient and cultic people, only, as indicated, to put an end to it.
“It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins,”
says Hebrews 10:4. Temple sacrifices were temporary fixes, we might say, imperfect means of deferring the consequences of sin by offering a substitute life to pay for sin’s penalty. But the lifeblood of a sacrificial animal could only be a patch. It could only cover specific sins committed by a specific people for a specific time, but could not make final recompense for the sum total sin of humankind. For that, something greater was required.
The temporary nature of sacrifices rendered the sacrificial system itself temporary, only the prototype of the final sacrifice in Christ Jesus. As noted, Paul references the atonement cover in Romans 3:25. Here he says that God presented Jesus as the hilasterion. Christ is put forward as the place of reconciliation with God. It is in Him that God will now commune with humanity. He is the location of sin’s nullification, the place of human forgiveness. Thus it is in Him that God makes possible communion with humanity. Christ is not only the place of reconciliation, but also the means. The author of Hebrews states that it is by His blood that we all may enter God’s presence. His death is the substitute for the sum total sin of humankind. His life pays for all lives.
But how is this so? How is it that Christ’s death is sufficient payment for the wages of all sin when no other death was adequate? In what way does the shedding of His blood make atonement for the sin of all humankind?
Theologians have formulated several theories over the ages in order to explain how Christ’s sacrifice is effective in a final and total way, how it puts an end to the consequences of sin by paying the comprehensive penalty of sin. These theories are traditionally categorized as being either objective in their reasoning, or subjective.
Objective theories of the atonement contend that Christ’s death effects a change external to the human being. The implications of the change certainly concern humanity, but the change itself takes place on a grander level than mere alteration of the human subject. First and foremost, God Himself is affected by the work of Christ on the cross. His eternal justice is satisfied in some way.
The first theory in this category is aptly called the Satisfaction Theory. Anselm, 11th-century bishop of Canterbury in England, is most famously associated with this way of framing the work of Christ. He offered an explanatory rationale for Christ’s death in the context of his attempt to explain why God had to become human. You can read more about his thinking on the matter in his book Cur Deus Homo, or “Why God [Became] Man.”
Thinking no doubt in terms of his feudal setting, where serfs were indentured to their lord, Anselm reasoned that sin indentured humanity to God. It is as if we owe God a debt that has to be worked off over time. The problem, however, is that the debt is simply too great. There is no amount of human work that can pay the debt of sin, because it is of infinite weight. It is God’s own life that has been offended, His limitless benevolence that is insulted when we seek a life of independent judgment over Him, for it is exactly by that bottomless charity that we live at all. There is no end to the dishonor and injustice done to God by human disobedience.
Humanity thus owes a debt that only God can pay. What is required to rectify this situation then? A God-man, Anselm concluded. God ultimately has to become human in order to satisfy His justice, for only a human ought to make restitution, but only God can do so. The sacrifice of Christ’s life is effective in a way that no other has been because, unlike all other lives, His is simultaneously the infinite life of God and the servant life of a human debtor. On the cross, humanity’s debt is paid in full—divine life is given—by one who ought to give it—the human, Jesus of Nazareth. Thus God is at once the due recipient of the penalty for sin, the payee, and its necessary supply, the payer.
The Reformers operated within the rational architecture of the Satisfaction Theory, but transferred its terminology from a monetary, debt structure to a forensic, legal one. Their view is summarily referred to as “Penal Substitution.” Although it has fallen out of some favor in recent decades, this theory continues to be the leading one among Evangelical Protestants today. A good place to engage in further reading about its various components is Book II, chapters 15ff., of Calvin’s Institutes.
The key idea for the Reformers is that sin constitutes an offense against God’s righteous order. It is a crime committed against God and incurring His just and holy wrath. Christ appeases the wrath of God by His obedience to God’s righteous will, and He satisfies the punishment due human sin by the sacrifice of His life. He is our substitute, serving the penalty of sin in our behalf. As Isaiah prophesied (53:5),
“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
Christ is able to be our “substitutionary atonement” because, as in the Anselmian theory, His obedience is perfect and his life is infinite. There is no more that can be given to appease God and to make restitution for this crime; what Jesus gave is maximal, covering every possible guilt. There is no more punishment due humanity. Our guilt is fully removed. We now live freely in God’s grace so far as we live under the cross of Christ.
Some theologians have felt that theories like Satisfaction and Penal Substitution unduly focus on God’s vengeance, honor, and justice. They make Him to be a disproportionately wrathful deity. They wonder why, out of His unceasing love, God could not forgive sin in another way than through the death of His Son. At the least, they contend that the main focus of Christ’s work on the cross was not to pay a debt, to appease God’s anger, or to suffer punishment. Rather, it was to demonstrate the extent of God’s love and inspire and enable humanity to live in it.
Subjective theories of the atonement construe the cross to have extraordinary powers of attraction; to be able not only to motivate sacrifice in Jesus’ name, but also to sustain and shape various kinds of individual and corporate participation in Christ’s self-giving love. Such theories have gained popularity in modern theology, for instance, in the idea that the cross is God’s means of liberating us from social, political, and economic injustices. God stands in solidarity with the outcast as forsaken Himself, and in so doing He stirs the heart of the oppressor to empathize with the plight of his fellow man, to renounce his oppressive actions, and to strive for an equitable and just civilization.
Peter Abelard, a 12th-century French theologian, provides background for this kind of thinking in his work on the biblical book of Romans. Abelard’s interpretation of Christ’s sacrifice has come to be characterized as a theory of “Moral Influence.” The point of the cross is to demonstrate the great extent of God’s love, His willingness to experience the consequence of sin Himself, not as one to whom it is due but as one who wishes in every respect to unite Himself to humanity. Before such wondrously determined and persistent love, our only response can be to return it to God, to love Him with the same obedience of Christ Jesus and to love our fellow humanity in appropriate, self-giving humility, as they too are objects of God’s affection.
Christ’s sacrifice influences us to a new way of being. Very importantly, this influence is not just on the level of individual attitude. Rather, as we submit ourselves ever more fully to God’s will, as we identify new ways to live out His love, we very truly contribute to a new order of things, to a kingdom defined not by domination and the will to power, but by mutuality and self-sacrifice.
One more theory worth mentioning does not really fit into either the objective or subjective categories, or I should say, it exhibits defining features of both. It has undergone varying formulations and therefore names, but is perhaps best known as “Christus Victor.” This is the title of a historical work written in 1931 by Swedish Lutheran theologian, Gustaf Aulén, which identifies certain key constructs as making up the default understanding of the ancient church.
Paramount among these constructs is the notion that in and through its sin, humanity is in bondage to spiritual forces of darkness. Indeed, Satan would seem to be in some kind of rightful possession of us; having forfeited God’s reign over us, we placed ourselves under the authority of the devil. For God to save us, He must ransom us from Satan. He therefore offers the devil the greatest life that has ever lived, His anointed, Jesus of Nazareth. Satan does not know that Jesus is really God in the flesh, and so he accepts this prize, bringing the crucified Christ to hell. In hell, however, Christ reveals His true glory. He exercises His divine prerogative over Satan and sets His captives free. Hence, this theory is sometimes called the “Ransom Theory,” the “Fishhook Theory,” and the “Mousetrap Theory,” reflecting the “bait and switch” that God pulled on the devil.
As indicated, in whatever form the theory takes, its key idea is that Christ is victor over the forces of death and darkness in and through His own death on the cross. Containing the idea that a ransom is paid external to the human, there is an objective component to this theory. Yet inasmuch as its aim is to secure release from bondage to the forces of darkness, there is clearly a subjective element as well.
I hope that as you reflect upon all of these theories, you appreciate the ingenuity of the Christian tradition in trying to make sense of the justice and mercy of the cross. I also hope that you are not discouraged by the fact that there is not a single, straightforward, universally accepted account of the atonement, but that the work of Christ involves a range of dynamics, at least some of which are taken up in these various ways of explaining His sacrifice.
For my part, I am inclined to bring Penal Substitution into dialogue with Christus Victor. Penal Substitution is correct in that Christ takes the sin and therefore punishment upon Himself that we deserve. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “for our sake, [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin.” Christ takes up our criminal rebellion is judged in our place. But as the Son of God, it is the judge Himself who is judged in our stead.
The cross is something that God has willed for Himself in the Son from before all time. It is not an accident of history or a tragic turn in an otherwise glorious life. It is part and parcel of who God elects to be. He is, once more, Lord in being Servant. God is Lord over death and darkness, as Christus Victor teaches, although not by heroically deceiving the devil. He is Lord over death and darkness by decreeing His once-for-all rejection of sin in Christ from all eternity, by actively supplying humanity’s need in the beginning, now, and forevermore.
In Christ, God is again who He has always been, self-consistent Lord over every force of nonbeing. By laying all human sin—past, present, and future—on Jesus, God is able to fully condemn sin on the cross and, in so doing, to restore the condition of our fellowship with him. His “yes!” to us comes through His “no!” to Christ on Calvary.