In my last blog post I shared some of my difficulties with the doctrine of penal substitution. In this post I sketch how I articulate the biblical story of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. In this I am heavily indebted to Tom Wright, The Day the Revolution Began and Darrin Belousek Atonement, Justice and Peace.
The story begins with the creation of the world….
Genesis 1 sees the cosmos as the temple of God (John Walton), a place inhabited by its Creator. Reflecting the unrivalled power of God, the earth takes shape in response to the Creator’s command; reflecting the creativity and imagination of its Creator, the earth is filled with living creatures of all kinds; reflecting the kindness, generosity and grace of its Creator the earth is a place of abundant provision for its creatures.
Humankind has a particularly important place. Of all the creatures we alone are the image of the Creator. Although this has been subject to a wide variety of interpretations, the most convincing is that humankind is created to represent God (Middleton, The Imago Dei). To be fully human is to be loving, just, generous, kind, faithful, compassionate and cultivate communities that share these qualities. We also have a unique calling to rule the animals and subdue the earth. Our subduing of creation is to reflect God’s subduing of creation, which occurs on days 1-3 of the creation narrative when God forms the earth into an environment in which the living creatures of days 4-6 are able to flourish. Likewise our rule is to reflect God’s, which is to ensure provision is made for all living creatures.
Yet the story of hope becomes a narrative of tragedy. Genesis 2-11 shows humankind spreading across the planet not as those imaging God and promoting the flourishing of all creatures, but as those who greedily compete for control of the earth’s resources and of each other, filled with hubris and violence. We become increasingly alienated from God, from each other, from the earth, and from what it means to be human. God exiles Adam and Eve from the Garden, Cain from his land, and eventually humankind from the earth. Yet even after starting over with Noah and Noah’s family, the descent into debased and abusive behaviour sets in once more.
God however is determined to restore blessing to all the creatures of the earth. Abraham is called to be the father of a nation through whom God will restore blessing (Genesis 12:1-3). Abraham’s descendants are the people of Israel, whom God rescues from brutal oppression as slaves to the Egyptians. Brought to God’s land, they are to be the human community imagined in the creation story, which will see them enjoy the blessing of God, which in turn will lead the nations to return to Yawheh (Exodus 19:4-6).
Israel fails in this vocation. The people chase after false gods and their life is typically marked by idolatry, inequity, violence, greed, oppression of the vulnerable. In Israel’s story the pattern of Genesis 2-11 is repeated over and over again. God sends prophets to confront Israel and call the people back to their vocation, but the message falls on deaf ears and the pattern of exile is repeated.
The prophets warn of this fate, but remind the people that God will always be faithful to the covenant between them, even if they do not reciprocate. A time is coming when their sins will be forgiven, their hearts will turn to God and they will be the vehicle to restore blessing to the earth.
That time arrives in the form of Jesus, who perfectly reflects the heart and character of God and perfectly reflects what it means to be human. He fulfils the calling of Israel to faithfully exhibit the love, grace, kindness, compassion, and justice of God, and will become the vehicle of restoring Israelites and the nations to God as they witness the possibilities of life under the reign of God.
His followers expect his ministry to issue in a triumphant visit to Jerusalem where he will set up a new government from which the empire of God will stretch across the earth. Jesus knows it will be different, that just as the people mocked, abused, opposed and even murdered prophets who preceded him, that they will do the same to him. He knows that his call for the formation of communities and lives grounded in faith, love, compassion, generosity, equity, etc will fall on deaf ears; that the rich will not bear to let go of their greed; the proud will not bear to let go of their pride; the anxious to trust God. We watch with despair as the elites of Israel conspire with the Roman state to physically and emotionally destroy him, and goad the masses into a bloodlust. Even his own disciples abandon him.
Yet through it all Jesus remains true to his vocation. He does not waver from the calling to image God, to be loving, compassionate, generous, kind, and graceful even as he writhes in agony on the ancient world’s most awful instrument of torture. “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they do.” Even in the midst of his abandonment he maintains faith, taking for himself the prayer of the Psalm writer – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
On that bloodied, rough hewn cross the lone figure in all of human history who had been fully and completely human died. There the only Israelite who ever fulfilled Israel’s calling to be fully and completely given over to imaging God was murdered. And there on that awful instrument of torture faith, hope and love were broken, Christ’s lifeless body witness to our worst nightmare – the triumph of greed, hubris, violence and evil.
Two days later the nightmare ended. God raised Jesus from the dead! Love, compassion, generosity, grace and kindness had triumphed. The final word of history would not be death but life. In the risen Christ the nations could finally see the possibilities of life under the reign of God, that the final word in their lives need not be death but life; that the way to life and peace was through grace, love, generosity, servanthood.
Jesus commissioned his followers to take this message to the ends of the earth. That God is not against humanity, but for us. That the time of forgiveness, the pouring out of the Spirit, the resurrection of the dead and the renewal of creation has begun. That life under the reign of God is life indeed and will issue in life eternal.
On this reading:
• Jesus’s life, death and resurrection are read against the background of the Old Testament story.
• It is not God who has to be changed but us. God remains as always committed to our good, ready to forgive, and ready to contain evil through acts of judgement. It is we who have turned away from God and need to be turned back.
• Jesus’s death does not constitute God turning against Christ and punishing him, but humanity and the shadowy forces of spiritual evil turning against God and pouring their evil out on him;
• Jesus’s death shows us the extraordinary grace and love of God, whose response to the evil expended upon him is to offer forgiveness and reconciliation;
• Jesus’s death is “for us/for our sins”, in that the very purpose of living out the vocation of Israel was that people would turn away from idolatry, greed, etc and turn back to God. It was “because of our sin” in that it was human wickedness that crucified Christ.
• Jesus’ death becomes the place we experience God’s great mercy. In Romans 3:23 for example, Paul says God presented Jesus as hilasterion. Some translations give this as “propitiation”, which refers to a sacrifice that turns away God’s wrath; and others as “expiation”, which refers to sin being wiped away. The term is used in the Old Testament for the lid of the ark of the covenant, which was designated as the place God meets with the people, and was ritually cleansed (atoned for) through sprinkling with blood on the annual Day of Atonement. I think Paul it likely Paul is saying that Jesus is God’s meeting place with us, made possible by the wiping away of our sins through forgiveness.
Finally, the fact that different theories of the mechanics of salvation have long existed in the Christian church should not blind us to the reality that each is seeking to point us to the incredibly gracious, overwhelmingly generous, and exceedingly glorious work of God to rescue humankind and creation from captivity to greed, pride, idolatry and other forms of turning away from God in order that we might be restored being everything we were created to be.
The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are central to the Christian faith. Christians have long understood that God was “reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”
The earliest preaching, as it comes to us from the book of Acts, had a relatively straightforward take on this. Jesus came with the good news that God was gathering Israelites together to be the community they were always meant to be – good, compassionate, just, faithful, kind, loving, generous. It was a community in which adulterers were forgiven, the possessed were restored to their right minds, the rich shared with the poor, the lame and the blind were healed, the unclean were rendered permanently clean, and God was trusted to lead and provide. Awake to this calling, Israel could then fulfil its mission of being the vehicle for reconciliation between God and all the nations. The people however, prodded and goaded by powerful political and religious elites, who in turn were tools in the hands of shadowy and malevolent spiritual forces, conspired together to execute God’s Messiah. They stripped him bare, subjected him to shame and humiliation, then drained the life from his veins. God met their evil, not with retribution, but by raising Jesus from the dead and investing Jesus as Lord over all. Given this, the prudent course of action for any human being is to turn away from idolatry, injustice, violence, greed and abuse of others to follow Jesus into his new community of love, grace, peace, and hope.
In the centuries that followed our theologians turned their attention to this narrative. What did it mean for humankind that God had taken on humanity? What did it mean for God? When Jesus died was there something happening beyond his simply absorbing the evil smeared upon him? And what are the implications of his resurrection?
As these kind of questions were debated, the cultural frames of each generation were both a help and a hindrance. On the one hand, new cultural frames allowed fresh insights and interpretations and enabled the core themes of the good news to be articulated in ways that spoke to the deepest longings and needs of their age. On the other hand, each new theory was in danger of making the good news captive to thought structures succeeding generations could not embrace.
For a long time the dominant theory was that Jesus gave his life as a ransom to the devil, only for God to snatch it back in a daring move (the resurrection). By this means God rescued humankind from slavery to the devil.
In the 13th century Anselm shifted the dialogue. Informed by feudal notions of offended lords who required satisfaction for their wounded honour, Anselm argued that Jesus’s death was not a ransom paid to the Devil but an act that satisfied God’s honour.
Two centuries later the Reformers seized on Anselm’s theory. They replaced the idea of satisfaction with that of justice, God the offended noble with God the holy lawgiver. Jesus bore the penalty for our sin in order that we might be declared righteous. This understanding has proven dominant for the last 500 years and is deemed by many to be the very essence of the gospel. Indeed, for most of my life this is what I meant when I talked about the good news.
Yet it seems to me that the notion of penal substitution is fundamentally flawed. It speaks the language of a bygone era, employs tortured logic and to many people pictures a monstrous God.
It is not taught in the Bible.
There’s not enough space to get into all the relevant texts, but take those texts that speak of Christ dying for us:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
1 Corinthians 15:3-5
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:14-20
It is commonly assumed that in these passages Paul speaks of Christ dying to pay the penalty for our sin. This is so widely assumed, that many cannot see how the passages can refer to anything other than “penal substitution”.
Yet we use this type of language all the time without invoking ideas of a person paying a penalty for us. For example, a police officer might swap places with somebody being held hostage; a firefighter might give her life to rescue a child from a burning building; a football fan might say that a particular player scored the winning goal “for us”. When we say that the police officer took the place of the hostage there is clearly a substitution, but it is not penal. There is no sense in which we would say the police officer was paying a penalty for the sins of the hostage. In the case of the fire fighter there is no notion of penalty or substitution. The firefighter hasn’t swapped places with the child, but succumbed to injuries while seeking to get the child and herself to safety. And in the case of the sports fan the primary idea is the sense of solidarity and identification.
Nor will it do to say that the New Testament describes Jesus’s death as a sacrifice for sin and that just as the Old Testament sees sacrificial animals taking the place of the worshipper, so Jesus as a sacrifice bore the penalty we deserve. This simply misrepresents the Old Testament sacrificial system (you might like to read my post on this).
Some of Paul’s language is difficult to explain if he had in mind the idea that Jesus was paying the penalty for our sins. For example, “Christ died for our sins” cannot mean that Christ died instead of our sin or as the substitute for our sin. “Christ died for our sins” seems more likely to mean something like Christ died because of our sins. Or consider 2 Corinthians 5 where Paul speaks of Christ as dying and rising for us. In this instance it doesn’t make much sense to think in terms of substitution. Paul believed that Jesus’s resurrection opened the way for all of his followers to be raised from the dead. He is not saying “Christ rose from the dead in order that we need not rise from the dead”.
Logical and moral difficulties
There are some significant moral and logical difficulties with PST. It contains internal contradictions. For example, it declares that the just penalty for our sin is eternal separation from God and that Jesus bore the penalty for us. Really? Then why aren’t his bones still rattling around in a tomb in Palestine. Jesus clearly did not suffer eternal death. Or consider the fact that Jesus is understood to have paid the penalty for humankind’s sin. This means that either everyone’s sin has been paid for and therefore all will find salvation (which most of those in the traditional camp deny), or that Jesus only paid the penalty for some of us (which some Reformed Christians hold to but which many others consider appalling).
Penal substitutionary theory (PST) pushes us to imagine God in ways that are inconsistent with God as revealed to us by Jesus. For example, Jesus identified Yahweh as One who freely forgives our sin. Yet PST gives us a God who cannot forgive. At the heart of penal substitution is the idea that sin must be punished and that God cannot engage with us unless satisfaction has been made. This means the relationship is not established on the basis of forgiveness but on the basis that full satisfaction for wrongdoing has been made.
And what of the notion that God is estranged from us, burning with wrath against us, and that our sin is so offensive to God that God cannot bear our presence? Yet the Old Testament assures us God is slow to anger, and Jesus, whom we understand to the truest revelation of God, seemed to quite enjoy the company of sinners. He was marked not by a fury to punish but by compassion, generosity and grace and told parables that emphasised God’s kindness and compassion.
Faulty Conception of Justice
Or consider the grave problems with justice within the doctrine of penal substitution. If justice demands the guilty be punished and the innocent freed, PST can never be considered just, for God punishes the innocent . And what of the notion that a just penalty is proportionate to the crime committed? Can an eternity of unthinkable, never-ending torment possibly be considered a proportionate response to the harm and damage we cause during 60-80 years on earth, or for not worshipping a God who is somewhat hidden?
The idea that Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins and that his righteous status might be transferred to us was a brilliant response to the terror that gripped the hearts and minds of Europeans in the mediaeval period. It provided a powerful way of showing how God’s wrath against humankind, stoked to ferocity by our wickedness, could be averted; how God could both punish sin as required by God’s justice and forgive sin as required by God’s love. But it was fundamentally flawed.
The reason I raise questions about penal substitution is not because I want to undermine the gospel, but because I love it. The gospel of the crucified and risen Christ is the power of God for the salvation of the world (Romans 1:16-17). The problem is that when we equate PST with that liberating gospel it gives us a God who is incapable of forgiveness, who has a disturbing need for vengeance, acts in a horrifically unjust way and declares it justice, and who resorts to a bizarre technicality to save us. I find myself increasingly drawn into the earliest layer of interpretation, in which Jesus gently calls to recognise ourselves as loved by God and to join God’s movement for justice, peace, love, faith and offers us a way out of our idolatries; who is crucified by humankind, but who rises to lead us into a new world.
This is a longer than usual piece. So grab a cuppa and take some time…
For most of my life I’ve thought that the Old Testament sacrificial system was a way for people to be forgiven for their sins. The death of an animal was a powerful reminder to Israelites that they deserved to die for their sin, but that God accepted the animal as a substitute for them.
This then affected the way I read the story of Jesus. When he forgave sins without requiring people to offer sacrifices at the temple, he was effectively declaring that he, not the temple, now represented the presence of God. When he died on the cross, he became the sacrifice of all sacrifices, paying the penalty for my sins so that I could be free.
Recently I have been reading through the Old Testament teaching around sacrifice. It’s not something we often do, for it is a very foreign world with its talk of things and places being holy, clean or unclean, and is full of intricate and detailed rules regarding ways sacrifices are to be made. Given we no longer make sacrifices it is difficult to be motivated to explore these texts. Yet I have been surprised to discover that the Old Testament sacrificial system was not about the forgiveness of sin but the ritual cleansing of the pollution of sin. This has significant implications for how we understand Jesus and his death.
The sacrificial system is described in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Leviticus the most extensive. There were five types of sacrifice:
1. Burnt offering
2. Grain offering
3. Fellowship offering
4. Sin offering
5. Guilt offering
The two sacrifices related to forgiveness of sin were the sin offering and the guilt offering. These are extensively described in Leviticus chapters 4-6. They were not sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins in general, but could be offered only for “unintentional” sins. Chapter 4, which describes the sin offering, begins
“when anyone since unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the Lord’s commands…”
In verse 13 it continues
“if the whole Israelite community since unintentionally does what is full beaded in any of the Lord’s commands, even though the community is unaware of the matter, when they realise their guilt and the sin becomes known, the assembly must bring a young bull was a sin offering…”
The guilt offering seems to be distinguished by the fact that it is for unintentional sins “in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things” (5:15).
The sacrificial system did not provide a means by which the adulterer, the murderer, the thief, the violent, the oppressive, could find forgiveness for their sins. The Old Testament law was quite explicit that those who engaged in such behaviours were to be removed from the community because their behaviour represented a flagrant and destructive breach of the community’s calling, or they were required to make recompense in order to set the breach right. Where forgiveness does occur it is not obtained through the offering of sacrifice but as a free and gracious act of God.
The sacrificial system was an integral part of Israel’s purity system. It is difficult for Westerners to get our heads around, because it represents such a foreign way of thinking. We frame holiness and purity in terms of morality. Israel extended holiness to the ritual state of things and people. People, places and things existed in one of three states: holy, clean, or unclean. Those things closely associated with God were considered “holy”, most things were considered clean, but certain things in certain states of being could be considered unclean. For example, certain types of animals were considered unclean. A person could become unclean by eating these animals, or in a variety of other ways such as through an emission of bodily fluids such as semen or blood, or by touching something that was clean such as a dead body. When that occurred, there were a number of purification rituals that needed to be undertaken in order to restore them to a state of cleanness. It was quite normal for a person to become unclean and to then go through the process of being made clean again.
Because the land in which Israel lived was owned by God and because God dwelt amongst the people in the tent of meeting, it was important that the holiness of the tabernacle and the priests be preserved and that the cleanness of the people and the land be preserved. The sacrificial system served a number of goals, but the sin and guilt offerings represented a way of making purification for the offenders and of the tabernacle. The animal was not slaughtered on the altar, but outside the tent of meeting. The priest would take blood from the animal and sprinkle it on parts of the tent of meeting and burned particular portions of the animal in order to create an aroma pleasing to God. The blood of the animal appears to have been accepted as some kind of cleansing agent.
Yet what of those intentional sins, for which people had either been required to make restitution or to be cut off from the community? They not only created individual guilt but created an accumulation of uncleanness that needed to be cleansed. This occurred
on the annual Day of Atonement. Described in Leviticus 16, this involved the cleansing of the tabernacle through the sprinkling of the blood of a slaughtered goat and the cleansing of the people through the use of a scapegoat.
First there was a cleansing of the tabernacle.
shall slaughter the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the curtain, and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it upon the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins; and so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which remains with them in the midst of their uncleannesses… Then he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord and make atonement on its behalf, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and of the blood of the goat, and put it on each of the horns of the altar. He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it and hallow it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel.
Atonement here does not refer to the forgiveness of sin as release from the penalty of sin, but to the cleansing of the tent of meeting, including the “mercy seat”, which was the cover on the ark of the covenant and the place God’s presence was manifest.
Having made atonement for the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, the altar and the mercy seat, atonement was then made for the people through the sending of a scapegoat into the wilderness.
When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.(verses 20-22).
There has been significant discussion as to exactly what the goat does and how it bears away the sins of the people. We should be clear that it does not involve forgiveness in the sense we speak about it today. The Day of Atonement ritual did not mean that those who had intentionally and openly broken the law of God would be forgiven. The penalties were quite clear in the law. Rather it seems to be that the ritual uncleanness that accumulated in Israel was cleansed.
In addition to the regular sacrifices and the Day of Atonement, Israel also celebrated a Passover once a year. It was commemoration of the final act of God to liberate the Israelites from their Egyptian slave masters. The story is recorded in Exodus 12. God would
pass through the land of Egypt… strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals
The Israelites were to share a meal together and apply some of the blood of the animal they slaughtered upon the doorframes of their homes.
The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
Every year when the Israelites gathered together to re-enact the Passover they were reminded of this occasion on which God passed over their households with an act of judgement against their oppressors in order to liberate them from slavery to be a new community.
So what does all this mean for how we understand Jesus? First, when Jesus went around declaring people’s sins were forgiven, he was not assuming for himself the prerogatives of the temple. The sacrificial system did not result in the forgiveness of sins but in the cleansing of the land, the people, and the tabernacle from the accumulated uncleanliness their sin created. Forgiveness, in the sense of release of a person from the penalty of their sin, was something that only God could offer and was done quite independently of the sacrificial system. When Jesus offered forgiveness to a woman caught in adultery, to a renowned sinful woman who washed his feet with her tears, and to a tax collector like Zacchaeus, he was assuming the prerogative of God to freely and unilaterally forgive. And Jesus made clear that this free and unilateral forgiveness was available to all.
Second, we must stop importing the doctrine of penal substitution into our understanding of Jesus’s death as a sacrifice. The Bible writers use the metaphors of Passover and the Day of Atonement to describe what Jesus did. The blood on the door posts marked them out as those whom God was liberating from the Egyptians, in order to bring them to the land of Israel where they might live as God’s people. Jesus was enacting a second Passover, in which God’s people were being liberated from the power of sin in order that they might live as those who reflected the character of Jesus.
On other occasions the New Testament seems to have in mind the day of atonement. In a complex and much debated passage, Romans 3: 21-26, Paul explicitly refers to the cover on the ark of the covenant that was cleansed on the Day of Atonement (the term is commonly translated as “sacrifice of atonement” and then given a penal substitutionary meaning), and seems to bring together the idea that Christ is the place where God meets us and that the shedding of his blood served to cleanse us. This is certainly the way Jesus’s death is read in Hebrews 9 and 10. In 2 Corinthians 5 Paul talks about Christ being “made sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”. Reading this against the Old Testament Day of Atonement does not picture a legal transfer of sin from us to Christ who dies to pay the penalty for it and a transfer his righteousness to us. Rather in which probably refers to the scapegoat, who carries our sin away and in doing so cleanses us.
By using these metaphors the Bible writers pointed to some important realities: that we need to be liberated from those things that have mastery over us in order to become the people God created us to be, and that in the death of Jesus God provided a way for us to be cleansed so that we might begin being those people were created to be; and that God’s heart is to fully and freely forgive.
Grab a cuppa and give yourself some time. This is a longer than usual piece
When I was a teenager I remember being both excited and fearful when one of my non-Christian school friends came to church. I was excited because they were expressing an interest in faith. I was fearful lest they take communion, for it had been drummed into me that “anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup unworthily, eats and drinks damnation on himself”. Looking back on it now it seems so odd. How could it be that the very ritual that signified grace and love could simultaneously be an object of fear and terror?
The answer was centuries in the making. The fourth century theologian, Augustine, gave us the doctrine of “original sin”, which held that not only do human beings sin, but that they possess a sinful nature that makes it impossible for them not to sin and renders them unable to do anything truly good. Although Augustine recognised the doctrine could not be demonstrated from Scripture it became the orthodoxy of the Church for centuries to come. For example, I was encouraged to take up this view as a teenager when I read Holiness, a book first published in 1877, written by Anglican bishop, JC Ryle, and considered a classic. Reflecting the theology of original sin Ryle says
I ask my readers to observe what deep reasons we all have for humiliation and self- abasement. Let us sit down before the picture of sin displayed to us in the Bible, and consider what guilty, vile, corrupt creatures we all are in the sight of God.
Even babies were afflicted with this despised nature.
The fairest babe that has entered life this year, and become the sunbeam of a family, is not, as its mother perhaps fondly calls it, a little “angel,” or a little “innocent,” but a little “sinner.” Alas! as it lies smiling and crowing in its cradle, that little creature carries in its heart the seeds of every kind of wickedness! Only watch it carefully, as it grows in stature and its mind developes, and you will soon detect in it an incessant tendency to that which is bad, and a backwardness to that which is good. You will see in it the buds and germs of deceit, evil temper, selfishness, self-will, obstinacy, greediness, envy, jealousy, passion – which, if indulged and let alone, will shoot up with painful rapidity.
JC Ryle, Holiness
According to this narrative the essential truth about us was that we are vile and loathsome creatures. So why would we expect God to do anything other than reinforce this notion? And so theologians declared God is actively seeking to bring us to a place of brokenness where we see who we are. Take, for example, the famous Puritan Thomas Hooker:
The Puritan minister and Connecticut founder Thomas Hooker frequently compared the relationship between God and human beings to a king who has discovered traitors plotting against him. What would the king do? He would torture them. The traitor would be “brought upon the rack, and then one joynt is broken, and then he roares by reason of the extremity of the payne.” Perhaps then the accused would confess to some wrongdoing, but the king would not be satisfied. Instead, he would be “hoysed uponteh rack the second time, and then another joynt is broken, and then he roares againe.” The king would keep at it until he “discovered and layed open the whole reason.” God tortured the human soul so that men and women would cry and roar and eventually mourn for their sins.
John Turner, Thomas Hooker & the Terror of God
This teaching continues to find a place in the Church today, albeit in less violent forms. The website of an evangelical church near where I live describes the “good news” that “we are more flawed and rebellious against God than we ever realised, yet in Jesus are more loved and forgiven than we ever thought possible” (Maitland Evangelical Church).
The wretchedness of humanity may have been an unwelcome “truth”, but it was made a terrifying concept when coupled with the notion of God’s holiness as an offence against God’s honour. To disobey the will of a human king was serious enough. To disobey the will of the heavenly King was infinitely more serious. God was thought to be so pristine, pure and good that evil and sin could not survive in God’s presence. God would break out against evil, and in the fury of his wrath strike it dead. Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” is a frightening example of this type of thinking. He sermon includes this piece
The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince…
Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
To the wretchedness of humankind due to original sin and the nature of sin as an offence against an infinitely holy God, theologians added the assertion that God seeks his glory. In a disturbing piece of writing on hell, British Evangelist John Blanchard reflected this tradition when he wrote
In his eternal punishment of the wicked God is not aiming at their good but at his glory. The time for correction and discipline will be over. What matters then, is that God’s justice is satisfied, his majesty vindicated
John Blanchard, Whatever Happened to Hell (Evangelical Press, 1993) p147
Who wouldn’t be terrified of such a God? The genius of the Reformation was that it took these twisted notions of God and humankind and crafted them into a theology of atonement that reconciled them with claim that God is love and provided relief from the emotional breakdown anyone who took the teaching seriously would be liable to suffer. Martin Luther spoke of the anxiety and despair he felt when recognising that God was filled with wrath and anger against him that was entirely justified, but which he could do nothing to evade. Although he was a monk who dedicated himself to worship of God, Martin Luther found himself hating God and despairing of a future in a hell torment. In the throes of his crisis he had an aha moment that would change the world: that the just shall live by faith. Our works might condemn us but our faith in Christ saves us.
The Reformers went on to expound a new way of understanding the death of Jesus by placing their own novel twist on the theory of satisfaction first reported by Anselm in the 13th century. At the cross God poured out his wrath upon Jesus, which met the demand for justice and satisfied God’s offended honour. Because God-in-Christ bore the penalty for sin, the righteous standing of Jesus could now be credited to the wretched sinner. God could now look upon sinners who embraced faith as though they were Jesus.
And so for the last 400 years the heart of gospel proclamation in the evangelical, reformed at Pentecostal churches has followed the pattern set by the Reformers.
Something however does not seem right. For one thing, it never made much sense to me to say that sin could be transferred to Christ and his righteousness transferred to me. It might be a neat legal manoeuvre, and it may be profoundly moving to say that God took our punishment upon Godself, but it is hardly justice for God to punish the innocent and acquit the guilty. Moreover I remained a sinful human being. God knew it. I knew it . We all knew it. I love the thought that Christ’s righteousness is credited to me, but I struggle to escape the conclusion that it is God getting us off the hook of punishment on the basis of a legal technicality that in any other context would be decried as a travesty of justice. And even if we accept it as true, it didn’t change the fact that I was a filthy, rotten sinner. There may no longer be a penalty to pay but surely God was still perpetually furious with me.
But it seems to me that by far the strongest objection to the Reformation narrative is that it just bears no resemblance to the life and ministry of Jesus. If Jesus was God incarnate among us (and I think he was), then he didn’t behave anything like the God of my theology. Sinners didn’t combust when they came into his holy presence. Jesus didn’t resile from contact with them, nor did he express feelings of disgust and abhorrence at being plunged into this great heaving cesspool of sin.
Far from abhorrence, repulsion and disgust, Jesus is described as filled with compassion for humankind, went out of his way to touch lepers and shared meals with prostitutes. He didn’t applaud the righteous instincts of a crowd ready to enact the demand of God’s law that an adulteress be executed, but intervened to heap shame on her would-be accusers and deliver her from them. He got angry, but it wasn’t an indiscriminate outrage against “sin” but was targeted at those who spiritually and financially oppressed the vulnerable.
So I’m wondering if the problem is that the Reformation didn’t go far enough. The Reformers took on board the assumptions of that time about original sin and the nature of God’s holiness, and crafted a powerful narrative from that. With the benefit of hindsight I think we can argue that they should have questioned the assumptions about sin and holiness that they held.
The doctrine of original sin, which even Augustine recognised could not be found in the Bible, ironically falls short of what the Bible has to say about human beings. Yes, human beings have a propensity to greed, violence, selfishness, pride and the like, but we also have the glory and beauty of being those were created in the image and likeness of God and are capable of extraordinary acts of generosity, kindness, compassion and justice. Standing on its own, the construction of human sinfulness that was held in the church for so long tells us that we are worthless. In my youth we would often say that God loves the unlovely and God values the unworthy. Yet we are not unlovely and we are not unworthy. The Bible directly ascribes worth to us because created in God’s image (eg Genesis 9, Psalm 8). It seems that in order to magnify the glory of God, theologians and preachers past felt it necessary to reduce human beings to worthless abhorrent creatures. I don’t accept this is true to the biblical teaching on human beings, true to the way Jesus treated human beings, or true to our own experience life.
Alongside the disaster that the doctrine of original sin has proven to be, I wonder if we have not badly misconstrued the nature of God’s holiness. Yes, God is fiercely opposed to sin, but we have falsely located the origin of that opposition in the notion that our sin offends God both objectively (ie it violates God’s will) and subjectively (ie it arouses God’s anger, revulsion and abhorrence).
In my experience two Biblical passages above all are cited to support this: Psalm 51 and Habbakuk 1. Reputedly composed by King David after his sexual assault of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah, Psalm 51 contains David’s heartfelt but misguided prayer that “Against you , you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” Ah…no. As the prophet Nathan made clear when he confronted David, David had sinned against Uriah, and I would add against Bathsheba. If Psalm 51 was a prayer of repentance after the sorry episode with Bathsheba and Uriah (and it’s only tradition that says it is) then we must conclude that like many of the psalms, David’s prayer does note represent textbook theology but the cry of a broken human being, and in this case, the hubris of a king.
Likewise, when read in context, the prophet Habakkuk’s statement that “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing” does not mean that God is literally not able to gaze upon evil, but that God opposes evil.
Where the traditional narrative sees history as the outworking of the great tension between God’s holiness and God’s love, it is a narrative that is strikingly absent absent from the teaching of Jesus. Jesus rather seems to reframe the notion of holiness within a framework of love. “Be holy as I am holy” is cast in Luke’s gospel as “be merciful as I am merciful”. Jesus did not tell parables of a God who can’t abide the presence of sinners, but of a God who loves people and goes out searching for those who are particularly wayward – God is the shepherd seeking a lost sheep, a woman seeking a lost coin, a father seeking a lost son, a king who forgives a great debt, a rich man who gives his workers more than they deserve. Over against the Pharisees who had a spirituality grounded in purity, Jesus had a spirituality grounded in love for others. For him the demands of the law were summed up in two commands: love God and love your neighbour. His followers would have a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees, not by outdoing them at their own game, but by expressing holiness in an entirely different manner – loving others. Where the Pharisees identified God’s people by their maintenance of purity standards, Jesus said that they would be identified by their love for one another and those around them (eg Matthew 25 parable of sheep and goats). Holiness in Jesus’s teaching seems to be the unwavering commitment of God to proactively seek the good of all creation.
It makes sense then to see God’s abhorrence of sin deriving not from some impugning of his honour ( as if human beings could do that!) but from the damage it does to people and to the planet. Could it be that the dismay of God is not the pique of an offended noble, but the broken heart of a creator who witnesses the very people he loves and values destroying themselves, each other, and the planet on which he placed them. This brokenheartedness can issue in anger at the damage we do to one another, compassion for the ways we have been damaged by others, and wisdom to prevent us damaging ourselves.
And by the same token, God can rejoice in the love we show each other, the justice we enact and the care we show for creation.
Moreover, if love is at the heart of God’s holiness and God’s opposition to sin, we are relieved of the idea that God’s highest good is to seek God’s own glory. The gospel defines love for us as laying down one’s life for the other and putting the interests of the other above oneself. We know this is what love is because this is how God has loved us. The suggestion that a day will come when God will cease to love people or subordinates their best interests to pursue self glorification, overturns the very centre of the gospel message.
Is it not time to lay aside the blemishes and distortions of the Reformation narrative and share with our world the glorious truth that there is a Creator who values us more deeply than we can imagine; who longs for our flourishing; who is filled with empathy at our brokenness; who is deeply angered by the damage we inflict upon others and the planet; who grieves the damage others have done to us; who has wisdom to share that will lead us down the often counterintuitive path of flourishing; who is working to bring peace where there is conflict, love where there is hate, hope where there is despair; who is willing to forgive and to restore; who was revealed to us in Jesus; who laid down his life in order to win us back; and who raised Jesus from the dead to bring humankind and creation to the place where healing and peace will be complete.
I wrote a blog piece earlier this week in which I suggested that the good news of the gospel cannot and should not be reduced to the declaration that Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins. In the process I questioned whether the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), which is a fairly detailed elaboration of how it is Christ’s death saves us from the consequences of sin, is in fact an accurate representation of the teaching of the New Testament. My piece was denounced by a few of my fellow Baptist pastors, who boldly declared that not only is PSA the correct way to interpret the New Testament statements about Christ’s death, but that it constitutes the heart of the Christian gospel.
Really? Somebody had better tell that to the apostle Paul. Given he is the writer most closely associated with PSA, it would be reasonable to assume that if PSA is the heart of the gospel it would stand out boldly in his summaries of the gospel. Likewise, one might expect it would feature heavily in his evangelistic preaching. Now he discusses dimensions of the gospel right throughout his letters, but on three occasions he pauses to define the content of his gospel: in Romans 1, in 1 Corinthians 15, and in 2 Timothy 2. I have reproduced the texts below (NRSV translation). I also tracked down and include below the two sermons of Paul’s that are recorded in the book of Acts. Not a single one of Paul’s gospel summaries nor his Acts sermons comes close to describing the gospel in terms of PSA. There’s no discussion of propitiation or expiation, no mention of Christ bearing the wrath of God upon the cross, no elaboration of how it is that his death serves to save.
Did Paul understand that PSA is the mechanism by which God saves us? That’s a debate for another day. Even if I for the moment grant that it is, surely Paul’s own summaries of the gospel and his preaching of the gospel should relieve us of the notion that PSA is the heart of gospel. For Paul the gospel seems to focus on the glorious news that God raised Jesus from the dead, with a myriad of spin-off implications for us today. That we are deeply and truly loved. That even the deepest pits of despair cannot extinguish the possibilities of hope. That life has purpose and meaning. That death, disease, violence, and all those things that plague our lives and our world are not the final word, That injustice will finally be overturned. And on and on it goes.
From Romans 1
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3 the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4 and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.
From 1 Corinthians 15
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you-unless you have come to believe in vain.
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
From 2 Timothy 2
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David-that is my gospel, 9 for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal.
From Acts 13
So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak:
“You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen. 17 The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. 18 For about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. 19 After he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance 20 for about four hundred fifty years. After that he gave them judges until the time of the prophet Samuel. 21 Then they asked for a king; and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years. 22 When he had removed him, he made David their king. In his testimony about him he said, ‘I have found David, son of Jesse, to be a man after my heart, who will carry out all my wishes.’ 23 Of this man’s posterity God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised; 24 before his coming John had already proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 And as John was finishing his work, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but one is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on his feet.’
26 “My brothers, you descendants of Abraham’s family, and others who fear God, to us the message of this salvation has been sent. 27 Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him or understand the words of the prophets that are read every sabbath, they fulfilled those words by condemning him. 28 Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. 29 When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead; 31 and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. 32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors 33 he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm,
‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.’
34 As to his raising him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,
‘I will give you the holy promises made to David.’
35 Therefore he has also said in another psalm,
‘You will not let your Holy One experience corruption.’
36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, died,was laid beside his ancestors, and experienced corruption; 37 but he whom God raised up experienced no corruption. 38 Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you; 39 by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. 40 Beware, therefore, that what the prophets said does not happen to you:
41 ‘Look, you scoffers!
Be amazed and perish,
for in your days I am doing a work,
a work that you will never believe, even if someone tells you.’
From Acts 17
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him-though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we too are his offspring.’
29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
When Jesus burst into the Galilee the Gospels tell us that he came with the news that “the reign of God was near” and called people to “repent and believe the good news”. The Old Testament prophets had spoken of a time when God would deliver humankind from those things that robbed them of life. The poor would be delivered from poverty; the hungry would have full bellies; the blind would see; the outcast would be made welcome; the sinner would be forgiven; communities would be places of welcome, generosity, grace and welcome; the creation would be healed; and the universe would be bathed in the knowledge and love of the Creator. The good news Jesus declared was that this time was beginning in and through him.
The call to repentance was for every person to get on side with what God was doing. The rich should stop ignoring the rights of the poor; the powerful should stop co-opting social institutions in order to satiate their lust for power; the soldier should stop using violence to extort money from those who were powerless to resist; those who held grudges against their neighbour or a family member should forgive and be reconciled; and every person should start aligning themselves with the values of God: loving their neighbour; sharing their wealth; binding up the wounded; forgiving debt; trusting God.
Unsurprisingly, Jesus’s message gained him followers and opponents. He was talking about a dramatic transformation of society that demanded the privileged and the powerful lay aside their privilege and power for the sake of the poor and the vulnerable. It was not a message well received. The powerful conspired together to crush Jesus. Their rage was poured out upon him in crucifixion. And as people observed what appeared to be the inevitability of the powerful violently crushing any who dared to challenge the system, many fell back in with the seeming inviolability of what it is and joined in the ridicule of the One who had misled them. Here on the wheels of history it appeared that Jesus was just another deluded prophet.
Yet there was something deeper going on. God was refusing to play by the rules of violence and power. God’s reign would not be achieved through the triumph of violence. God would absorb every vindictive blow, every greedy grasp for power, every hateful curse and meet it with love and forgiveness. Incredibly, Jesus’s prayer was “Father forgive them”.
This did not mean a capitulation to the inevitability of violence, for beyond the violence and hate came the resurrection. God raised Jesus to new life. He would be the one who would lead humankind into the new era of God’s reign, the one who modelled for them the pathway of love and grace, and the one who would someday return to bring history to it’s conclusion. On that day time would be up for all those who refused to abandon violence; who refused to cease exploiting and oppressing poor; who ignored the hungry, the wounded, the hurt, the broken; who could not bring themselves to embrace justice, love and peace.
Walk into any evangelical church today and this is not what you are likely to hear when people declare the “good news”. You’re much more likely to hear that God is a loving but holy king who is deeply distressed at our refusal to worship him, and who is bound by the demands of justice to punish all human beings for their wrongdoing. So grievous is our offence that that God will condemn us to live eternally in hell, a place so void of goodness, so utterly and excruciatingly painful, it is beyond our worst nightmares. Yet because loves us, God has found a way out of this terrible destiny. God became incarnate in Jesus Christ and took the penalty we deserved, meaning all of who choose to follow Jesus will be considered as if we had never sinned and will be welcomed into heaven.
Most evangelicals think this is the gospel taught in the letters of the apostle Paul and one that can be overlaid on the Gospels. Many scholars believe it is a distortion of what Paul argued, and that it arose in late mediaeval times to address the terror people experienced who believed they lived in a universe governed by a holy and furious deity who was ready to explode in violence against them. Rather than challenging the vision of God, it accepted that vision and augmented it with the notion that through a demanding but clever legal ruse God’s love found a way to meet the demands of God’s justice.
I suspect that there is a lot more mediaeval in the articulation of the gospel we proclaim today then we would like to admit. Go back to the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts and you will not hear the gospel described this way. The emphasis is placed firmly on the resurrection as a sign that God had done something extraordinary in the world and that all people should follow Jesus. Was the notion that Christ paid the penalty for our sin part of the follow-on teaching that people received after they converted? Maybe. Maybe not.
Either way, it is clear that neither Jesus nor the Apostles equated “the gospel” with the doctrine of “penal substitution”.
It seems to me we need to return to the sort of articulation of the good news that we find in Jesus. We don’t live in an age in which people have a duty ethic that leaves them overwhelmed with a sense of guilt about the duties they have failed to perform. Nor do people possess a deeply held fear that God will punish them for their sins with an unimaginably horrific fate. The gospel of Jesus paying the penalty for our sin may have resonated powerfully in mediaeval times through to the enormous upheaval in thinking, values and attitudes that emerged in Western society in the 1960s. In our era it has lost resonance.
If the church is to have a future surely it lies taking on board the framework provided in the Gospels and applying it in ways that resonate with the deep longings of our time? I think this would lie in the direction of bringing the good news that in Jesus God has signalled the hope of a world in which every living creature flourishes; that God invites us to turn away from those things that rob us, others and creation of the opportunity to flourish; and that God invites us to join in the remaking our lives and our world. To my way of thinking, that is very good news.