A little while ago I posted some passages for Dr. Johnson’s take that (obviously) were relevant to his discussion about atonement / substitution language. Turns out he had been discussing those with some of you. What follows are his answers, as well as email questions and answers. Lastly, for those of you going to the Naked Bible Conference August 18, Dr. Johnson will be in attendance!  MSH


Mike asked me 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 some email exchanges with readers of my posts about this issue. In fact, if you’re Ryan, Guy, Austin, Trey, Joel, or Ken, you’re likely going to hear parts of our conversations repeated below.

I would recommend Mike’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 Mike 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.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about these verses. My series on Mike’s site is a work in progress and I enjoy interacting with your emails. I am due to teach a class on the big story of the Bible at my church here in Minneapolis this coming January, so I have a compelling reason to get this series done as soon as I can!

Thanks, Ronn


P.S. I apologize if the following is overkill. Some of my recent email exchanges with readers have concerned these questions of atonement and substitution, and rehearsing them here may be helpful to some of you even if they do sound a bit repetitive. For clarity I have reformatted the emails into Q/A’s, with readers asking the Q’s and I writing the A’s. Again, thanks for all the emails. I really enjoy thinking with you through these matters.

Q: I realized after sending the email and reading your and Mike’s most recent 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.

  1. 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 Mike’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 (and this will be fun in upcoming posts because the text walks right into this on so many occasions) 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. I’ll leave the detailed argument for later in my blogs.

Q: What do you mean in Part 6 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 say at the end of Part 6: “…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.