[MSH: When readers finish this essay, they will recognize its internal consistency with my argument in The Unseen Realm that salvation was the same across the board in both testaments. The issue was believing loyalty to Yahweh. Dr. Johnson raises the question of how someone outside Israel and its sacrificial system could anyone be “atoned for”? That issue, and the consistency of the basis of salvation, is the focus of this final installment.]
In the final section of this blog series 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 previously in parts 1 and 2 of this post), 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).
Let me summarize my view of atonement through a short Q/A:
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).