Matthew 5:17-20; Philippians 2:5-11
The subject I decided to preach on today, covenant and the Atonement of Christ, is way too big to address in a single sermon. I probably could teach a semester-long class on it and barely scratch the surface. One of my seminary professors has written an entire book on the subject (R. Larry Shelton, Cross & Covenant: Interpreting the Atonement for 21st Century Mission. Tyrone, Georgia: Paternoster, 2006).
I don’t have time to describe every theory of the Atonement that has ever been thought up in any detail at all, so I’m going to do a lot of really oversimplified summarizing.
The Bible tells us, more than once, that “Christ died for our sins” (see 1 Corinthians 15:3 and Romans 5:6-8). But what does that mean? How does Christ’s death do anything about our sins? That’s what Christian theologians have tried to make sense of for almost two millennia.
If I were to ask how you understand the atonement, I daresay many of you would describe one of the theories, and I daresay many American Christians today would assume that one theory is the only true and correct one.
These are the bare bones of this theory, which is generally called “penal substitution”: In God’s sight, we deserve to be punished by death for our sins. That’s required because God is a God of justice. There’s no alternative; someone has to die because we have sinned. But we are not punished by death for our sins, because Jesus stepped in and took our punishment for us.
It’s been the dominant theory in Western Christianity for so long that few of us can really even imagine another way to think about the Atonement other than in the framework of crime and punishment. But it has some pretty major problems, which I’ll get to momentarily—and before, say, the 1100s or so, there were plenty of other ways to understand how it happens that Jesus takes away our sins.
There have also been some other theories that have been promoted in more recent times, mainly because of the problems of the penal substitution theory.
The earliest atonement theory is “recapitulation,” articulated only about a century after the Gospels were written. In this theory, which is based on Paul’s description of Christ as the “second Adam,” Christ undoes the damage that was done when Adam introduced sin into the world.
Next comes the “ransom” model, in which humanity is seen as in bondage to sin and the devil, and God negotiates for our freedom. Satan demands Christ’s death as the price to set us free, and so Jesus dies…but in this God plays an epic trick on Satan: Christ dies, yes, but then he is raised, which completely shatters the power of Satan and of death over humanity. I think we can see echoes of this theory in the classic Christian allegory by C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
The final early Christian atonement model is Christus Victor, in which Christ fights and wins a cosmic battle against sin and death.
In the Middle Ages, Christian theologians rejected these classic models as much too dramatic and fantastic. In an age of rationalism, theologians wanted to make the atonement make sense. So they looked to the world around them, and also to the concepts of law and justice that were rooted in Roman law.
In the age of feudalism and chivalry and knighthood, the “satisfaction” theory emerged. God’s honor had been violated by our sin, and something had to be done to satisfy this offense. In the codes of chivalry, an offense against someone’s honor could be directly punished, or it could be indirectly handled by appointing “champions” to represent both sides in a symbolic battle, a duel or a joust. So Christ is seen, in a way, as our “champion,” whose death satisfies the debt we owe to God for besmirching his honor with our sin.
The penal substitution theory arose not long after this, and rose to prominence among the Protestant reformers, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. It revised the satisfaction model for a post-feudal society, and saw the problem solved by the atonement as the need for God to punish sin. In this view, our guilt should mean the death penalty for us; but Christ steps in and voluntarily takes the punishment we are due, thus wiping away our sin and allowing us to be righteous.
Now here are some of the problems with this model.
First of all, it reduces God to a bloodthirsty monster—and as critics of the theory rightly point out, this is not the God of the Bible or the God revealed in Jesus; this is a pagan god, one who doesn’t love us or care about having a relationship with us, but must have his fury appeased.
It also images God as a cosmic child abuser. I’ve heard a story that illustrates this model, in which a younger child misbehaves, their parent resolves to give them a spanking, and then the child’s older sibling goes to the parent and says, “Spank me instead.” Personally I don’t feel a sense of gratitude at this story; instead I’m offended that any parent would do such a thing.
Yet that’s what we are saying about God when we teach the penal substitution understanding of the atonement.
Penal substitution also causes problems if we believe, as I think most Christians do, in the Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It sets God and Jesus in opposition to one another, one Person of the Trinity inflicting violence on another. People have tried to soften this by saying, well, Jesus went to the Cross voluntarily, but I don’t think this helps much. Furthermore, this theory teaches that God and Jesus see us differently: the Father is a God of wrath and anger, and the Son is a God of love and forgiveness. But the Bible records Jesus as saying, “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:38), and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Penal substitutionary atonement, carried out to its logical extreme, reduces salvation to nothing more than eternal fire insurance, making sure we go to heaven when we die. Christ’s washing away of our sins does absolutely nothing to change the way we live and behave now, only which way the elevator goes at the very end.
This model has to be seen as one of the foundation stones of the twisted form of Christianity that allowed slaveholders to go to church on Sunday and go home feeling holy, and then beat their slaves the rest of the week, assuming that the gospel had nothing at all to say about how we treat other human beings, including those we bought and sold like property.
In penal substitution, especially as described by John Calvin and his successors, “righteousness” is given a strange meaning, one which violates the way it’s understood in the Bible, and when we recapture the Biblical meaning, we begin to see a different way of understanding atonement. For Calvin and those who came after him, “righteousness” is a moral quality; we are “righteous” if we behave ourselves and keep the rules. (Yes, I do see how incoherent this sounds in light of the reality that penal substitution can also allow us to ignore the need for a change in behavior to be a result of salvation. That incoherence should also give us pause as we consider whether or not penal substitution is the only way of understanding the atonement.) Calvin understood “righteousness” in the Old Testament to be synonymous with “observance of the Law,” and that might be true; but Calvin seems not to have recognized that observing the Law isn’t just about keeping the rules, but about humanity living in covenant with God.
In its original, Biblical sense—and this is through the entire Bible, not just the Old Testament—“righteousness” means “right relationship with God.” Right relationship with God is what the covenant is all about. God chose to make a covenant with Israel, and to expand the covenant through Christ to welcome us as God’s people alongside the Jewish people.
The Law in the Old Testament is there to help us understand how to live within that covenant. When we sin, we violate the covenant—to the point that, as we saw a few weeks back in the naming of Hosea’s children, God says, “You are not my people and I am not your God”; then, almost in the next breath, using those same kids’ names to remind the people that they are God’s people.
But over and over again God takes the initiative to restore the covenant. God provided in the Law for various mechanisms to remove our guilt and cleanse the stains that mar God’s image within us. Those mechanisms include sacrifices, but the sacrifices are meant to be a sign of our inward change of heart and direction, not ways to appease an angry God.
God reached out through the prophets, even when the people’s sin became so great that they were conquered and sent into exile, seeking to restore the relationship between God and God’s people. God promised through Jeremiah, as we heard last week, a “new covenant”—the same in content as the old one, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33)—this time written not on stone tablets or scrolls, but on our hearts, presumably to make it easier for us to keep it.
Ultimately God’s desire to restore and renew the covenant led to the Incarnation—Jesus, God’s Word made flesh and living among us, dying our death and rising to do away with death’s hold on us. In Jesus we are shown most fully what God is like, and the lengths to which God will go to bring us back into right relationship, covenant relationship, with God.