Our last article explored the popular doctrinal theory of atonement called penal substitution, and touched on other related theories. Each of them placed the need for Christ’s death at God’s feet. According to these theories, God needed a way to address issues He faced, such as His honor or satisfaction, or even issues of legality. But in fact, the problem of salvation is not with God. The real problem is here with us; it is with me and with you. The problem is Sin, and our addiction to it.
In this article, we will explore scriptures that show the real purpose of the death of Christ was not to change God, but to change us. God’s situation didn’t need to change. It is our hearts and minds that need to be different.
The last evening
We’ll begin with the gospel of John, chapters 13-17. These chapters cover the evening before Jesus’ arrest. In fact, about one third of John’s gospel record encompasses this one evening. It’s astonishing! The last supper is there in John 13; in chapter 14, Jesus pours out all kinds of teachings, presumably teachings that they desperately need. And then they leave the upper room, cross theKidronValley, all the while with Jesus teaching, teaching. He must have considered these teachings particularly important, given that he selects them at this very critical time. Look at the last two verses of this fourteenth chapter:
I will not speak with you much longer for the Prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me, but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me (John 14:30-31, NIV).
I love the NIV translation here. It seems to capture the sense of the original very well. This is only about twelve hours before the crucifixion, and Jesus explains to his disciples exactly what is going on. The world is being taught a double lesson, he says. The world must learn that (a) I love the Father and (b) that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.
If we want a clear description of the purpose of the crucifixion from the lips of Jesus himself, then we should highlight this verse. It may not reflect the whole story, of course, but it is the aspect that he chooses to emphasize just a few short hours before his death.
Continuing in faith
Let’s look at Colossians:
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation (Col. 1:21-22).
Up to the end of verse 22, one might be excused for drifting into a substitutionary view; just from that verse it sounds as if there might have been something magical about the death of Christ. But let’s continue:
… if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel (Col. 1:23, NIV).
You see the point Paul is making? The death of Christ is effective “if you continue…” So whatever the death of Christ accomplishes, it requires our participation. We have to “continue” in a life of holiness, in a life of devotion to God. His death initiates a way of life for us, not that some magical event took place there and suddenly we’re saved!
Here’s another example, this time from Peter:
He set an example so that you should follow in his steps (I Pet.2:21).
The content of this is remarkably like Jesus’ words earlier: the world must learn something. Peter heard those words and took them to heart. Jesus, he says, is expecting us to learn from his example. He is expecting us to do something different as a result of what he did. Notice that there’s no hint of a substitution here, of Jesus being a sacrifice instead of us. Quite the reverse. Jesus is calling us to join in his sacrifice.
Here’s Paul on the topic:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:10).
Again, no hint here of Christ dying instead of us: he describes Jesus’ death as something in which to participate: I want the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in his death.
Christadelphians have often used the word ‘representative’ or ‘representationary sacrifice’ to describe the atonement. I’d like to suggest an alternative phrase that better captures the ideas we’ve seen so far. Jesus calls us to participate with him in his death, so we might describe his death as a participatory sacrifice. Calvary was not simply something that happened over there two thousand years ago – some magic was performed and now we’re okay. Rather, it is something that requires me to participate. “Take up your cross,” he says, “and follow me!” Or, as we’ve just read here in Peter’s first letter, “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you should follow in his steps.”
Without our response and participation, the death of Christ is irrelevant. His death was intended to reach us, to make us responsive, to enable us to hear God calling. It was, so to speak, necessary because we were so blind that we couldn’t see what God had been trying to tell us through the prophets. Christ died to cut through our stubbornness. His death was not about changing God, not about changing some kind of legal landscape, or trying to resolve some legal or technical difficulty that God faced. It was to address our limitations.
No mystic effect
As we continue to study this, I think we will be driven to the conclusion that the actual physical death of Christ released no mystical principle of salvation. Instead it played two very down-to earth roles: (a) the effect it has on us and (b) the perfecting of Christ himself. By mystical principle we mean no principle of legality, or honor, etc. that was the barrier to God being able to forgive us.
A statement such as the actual physical death of Christ released no mystical principle of salvation is likely to come across as a challenging concept to many of us. It may cause us to pause while we try to see the implications. I suspect that many of us have a sense that there surely was something mystical that took place at Jesus’ death, that some change took place as far as God was concerned. I certainly did for many years. So I’m very aware that when I propose a statement like this, I’m on borrowed time! Each of us has to examine for ourselves whether the statement is true and fair to the wealth of scripture on the topic. Until we have done so, we should take it simply as a trial statement, for us to hold it in our minds, and to explore it as we go through the scriptures.
We’re not going to have space in this current article to look at the perfecting of Christ. It is a critical dimension of Calvary, and we will study it later. For now, we will just focus on the effect on us.
The effect on us
What effect can the death of Jesus have on us? We see the most righteous, the most beautiful, the most lovely man who ever lived, and religious people – people like you and me – murdered him! That should be shocking!
It wasn’t as if he went into the worst district of the worst town, and faced some gang of robbers who jumped on him and slew him. It was ‘good,’ religious people who decided that this man is better dead than alive. If that doesn’t tell us about the sinfulness of sin, we haven’t thought about it.
We are holy people but not in a self-righteous sense. We are holy when we let the holiness of our Lord be upon us, allowing His holiness to reflect itself in practice in our lives. Yet we still have sin within us. We still have temptation, still have the tendency to sin. You know what the struggle against temptation feels like, and so do I. The death of Christ forces us to admit that even within people who desire to be holy, sin is still a powerful force. And it’s incredibly destructive.
We have a tendency to say, “Oh yes, but this sin (of mine) isn’t so bad; I know those sins over there are really bad and I would never do those, but these sins over here – they’re not so bad!” And that’s exactly how the religious community of Jesus’ day were. They could easily condemn all sorts of sins and destructive behaviors. And then they took the most wonderful man who has ever lived – and they killed him!
We are left with no excuse about the sinfulness of sin. The little sin that I do, the little sin that you do: where will it lead? The sin may be quite mild (we think). Consider Nicodemus. He was there in the Council. He was rooting for Jesus, and perhaps he managed to interfere enough with the farce of a trial to cause it to take all night. But even so, he was not willing to stand up and say, “This is wrong!” And because of his sin, and the sin of the others, who man was slain. He felt the personal shame profoundly.
To explore this idea further, let’s ask a couple of questions. Was it God’s will that Jesus should submit to death? This is easy; it’s not a trick question: “Yes” is the answer. It certainly was God’s will that Jesus should submit to death. Isaiah 53:10 provides one proof for this.
Let’s ask another question. Were the people who killed Jesus doing God’s will? Pause and consider this for a moment, because it is a very telling question. What did you answer?
The answer is, “No.” They were not doing God’s will. The trial, the condemnation, and the crucifixion were all sin. One quick proof: if their actions were not sin, why would Jesus ask for forgiveness for those involved in the mechanics of the act?
It is extremely important to distinguish between these two questions when we think about the death of Christ. An act can be sin for those who participate in it, while still being used by God to accomplish His will. In fact, we may go further. God often uses sinful acts to accomplish purposes that far transcend those acts, creating purpose out of destruction, beauty out of brutishness.
Sacrifice is an important aspect of the death of Christ, so here’s a third question. Who offered Jesus as a sacrifice?
Let’s consider some possible answers. Did you? No, of course not. Did the people who were living in Jesus’ time? Again, no. Their minds were focused on murder, not reconciliation.
There can be only one answer. It was Jesus who offered Jesus as a sacrifice. That act of submission was the one act of righteousness that was taking place. Everything else was raw sin. Murderous intent! From people like us! We have no excuse: we can be in no doubt about the sinfulness of sin.
Bore our sins
Look at Romans 4:25: “He was delivered over to death for our sins.” For reasons that will become clear in a little while, I’d like to suggest that we should understand this as: ‘He was delivered over to death as a result of our sins.’ That is, our sins killed him. Literally. Not literally the sins of the people reading this article, of course, but the sins of people just like us. It was literally our kind of sins that killed him. It was no act of righteousness to put Jesus to death, any more than it was an act of righteousness to betray him. “The Son of Man must go as the scriptures have said but woe unto that man,” says Jesus. And the same with the death on the cross.
We’ll come back to Romans 4 in just a minute, but I’d like us to jump over to Isaiah 53:6. You know the verse very well: “…laid on him the iniquity of us all.” At first the verse seems to suggest a ritual in which Jesus had our sins placed upon him metaphysically, like the scapegoat, for example. Actually, the word “laid” comes from the Hebrew root pga. Some quick concordance work shows us that the idea of pga is that of ‘meet’ or ‘encounter.’ So Isaiah 53:6 is talking about something very simple: The Lord made him encounter the iniquity of us all. He “faced the iniquity of us all,” and he died in the process.
The same word occurs later on in the chapter, in verse 12. It’s a little surprising: it’s the word “intercession.” Rolling back the bias of the translators, and applying the understanding above, gives us a similar meaning. Verse 12 says: he bore the sin of many, he encountered the transgressors.
He bore the brunt of our sin. It was our sin, sins of people like us, which killed him. Murder.
Not just the death
Earlier, we proposed that the actual physical death of Christ released no mystical principle of salvation, but instead that it played two very down-to earth roles: (a) the effect it has on us and (b) the perfecting of Christ himself. So far we have concentrated on (a) only. Given that we are leaving (b) to a future article, that still leaves us having to justify the basic statement, that there is no mystical principle released by the physical death of Christ.
To do so, let’s go back to Romans 4, verse 25, and look at the whole verse:
He was delivered over to death for our sins, he was raised to lif, for our justification (NIV).
What an interesting counterpoint! To death for our sins, to life for our justification. Justification means the same as salvation; it is the removal of sin. Paul seems to be saying that Jesus was killed because of sinfulness, but that he was raised in order to save us. Maybe this is just a nice turn of phrase, just Paul’s style of speaking. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it? In fact, it echoes something that many passages make quite clear.
I Corinthians 15 is one of those passages. I’ve been reading it all my life, yet there’s a verse here that I’d never noticed! At least, never read carefully enough to see what it actually says. It is right in the middle of the section explaining how important the resurrection of Christ is. Look at verse 16:
…if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins. (NIV)
Whoa! If Christ has not been raised…we are still in our sins. This verse says that the death of Jesus is not sufficient to bring forgiveness!
If the substitution theory (discussed last month) was true, and the death of Christ had paid the debt and freed us, this verse would make no sense. Or, put the other way around, this verse alone is sufficient to establish that penal substitution is a false theory. Instead, this verse tells us that there is something about the resurrection of Christ that frees us from our sins. Isn’t it a fascinating verse?! I’d never seen it before!
Maybe it’s just Paul who states things this way. No, it’s not. Let’s look at Peter, another famous chapter, another verse that we read again and again. Once more, I love the way the NIV translates it. I Peter 3, the baptism passage, verse 21:
This water symbolises baptism that now saves you also, not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience towards God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (NIV).
Does baptism save us by the death of Jesus Christ? No, says Peter. It saves us by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So again, the resurrection of Christ is directly associated with our salvation. He was delivered over to death because of our sins, as a consequence of our sins, but God raised him to life in order to save us, in order to justify us, in order to make us free. Baptism saves us through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Consider Philippians 3:10. This is a tremendous passage about Paul:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (NIV).
We already noticed how Paul describes the death of Jesus in a participatory kind of way: the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. In contrast, he describes the resurrection as a thing of power: the power of his resurrection. The resurrection gives Jesus the power of salvation, the power to save us.
All of these passages have a common thread. If Jesus had stayed dead, there would be no salvation. Many of them go further and say that the power of salvation comes from his resurrection.
How does this work? In what way does power come from the resurrection? Should we look for mystic principles associated with resurrection? I think that would be a mistake. The role of the resurrection is quite simple: we need a living Lord, one who works with us day by day as our mentor, our high priest and guide. We saw this dimension of Jesus in the first article of this series, and will continue to develop it in the future. For now, we will satisfy ourselves with Jesus’ personal declaration, again on the night he was betrayed. John14:19reads:
Before long the world will not see me any more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live (NIV).
It is not, “Because I die, you will live.” It is, “Because I live, you also will live.” I am profoundly moved at the simplicity of these words – they’re just so beautiful.
This article may have provoked many questions, perhaps introduced some fresh perspectives for us to chew on. Obviously there are many more Scriptural concepts that we still have to examine, some of which may at first appear to conflict with the ideas being explored here. In the next article, we will look at the scriptural concept of Jesus giving his life. We’ll try to tie that down a little, and maybe clarify a few of the concepts we have just stirred up.
(With many thanks to Paul Launchbury for his help in the development of this article.)