Posts Tagged ‘atonement’


So many of our gospel presentations today are content to end the story with Jesus’ death, then switch their focus to our repsonse. But it is notable that none of the four apostolic gospel presentations is willing stop there. They all press on to reach their climax and denoument at the resurrection.

Jesus, having announced his intention to live out Israel’s prophetic hope of resurrection, then goes and does it. He allows himself to be cast out and killed. He bears Israel’s exile in crucifixion, and then undergoes their resurrection. The tomb is found empty, and his disciples begin to speak of ‘what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands’ (1 John 1).

In the context of Jesus’ ministry the meaning of his rising is clear: he has entered into the new age, and done it on Israel’s behalf. ‘We have seen it … and declare to you that the age-to-come life that was with the Father…has now been revealed to us’ (1 John 1). Now all his people can enter the new age also, restored to God and to their inheritance as his people.

In other words, Jesus’ resurrection was this sort of resurrection: an eschatological event of epoch-making proportions. And the salvation it achieved was this sort of salvation. At his death Jesus closed off the path of sin that humanity had been travelling since Adam (see Post 3). Now at his rising he achieves a way forward for mankind, a future: “In Christ shall all be made alive.”


In the earliest apostolic preaching, it was the resurrection which established Jesus as redeemer and judge of Israel:

“God has exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Saviour that he might give repentance to Israel and release from sins.”  Acts 5:31

The Jewish title for this saviour/leader was Messiah. Israel expected this Messiah would be a new David-figure, the king sent by God to bring the nation back from exile. Peter, after describing how Jesus was murdered, announces to the crowd at Pentecost that God has appointed Jesus to this kingly office.

“David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying, ‘He was not abandoned to Hades…’. Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”   Acts 2:31, 36

What Peter is announcing, of course, is Jesus’ resurrection. In his view this was quite simply Messiah’s coronation – an  enthronement which secures blessing for his people. For now Messiah is ushering in the age of the Spirit, bringing Israel release from their old captivity and return to live in God’s presence in the new kingdom:

“Be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for release from your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”          Acts 2:38

Paul shares this view of resurrection-as-enthronement: at the opening of his master-epistle, to the Romans, he uses another traditional title for the Davidic king: son of God.

…the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was appointed to be son of God with power according to the Holy Spirit by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through who we have received grace.          Romans 1:3-5

He rose to reign in the Spirit-filled new life of God’s kingdom. But because he does this as Israel’s leader, he opens up that new existence for the whole nation.

In other words, Jesus’ resurrection is being shared with his people. They become a resurrection community enjoying the blessings of the new age, here and now. Or, to use Isaianic terms, enjoying salvation:

By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead… Although you have not seen him, you love him… you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are already receiving the goal of your faith: salvation for human people.      1 Peter 1:3-9


The NT epistles are written with the express purpose of helping this new community grasp and live out its resurrection life to the full together.

But God, who is abundant in mercy…made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. …He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus… For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them…So I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle… Ephesians 2, 4.

Of course the key-word here is ‘so’: their community life springs out of the reality of resurrection. All Paul’s ethical instruction is given on this same basis: the people are already part of this resurrection community. Indeed it only makes sense with that as its premise:

No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.   Romans 6:13

The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!    1 Corinthians 6:13-15.

He died for all, so that those who live might live no longer to themselves, but to him who died and was raised for them… So if anyone is in Christ, new creation! – the old has passed away; see, new things!      2 Corinthians 5:14-17

This view of the Christian communities is not unique to Paul but common to all the apostolic writers.  Their letters are written to encourage and admonish resurrection-gatherings:

Through Jesus you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. Now you have purified yourselves by obedience to this truth that leads to genuine brotherly love. So love one another deeply from the heart. For you have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring Word of God.  1 Peter 1:22

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love remains in death.  1 John 3:14

The letters to the churches hardly ever mention Jesus’ resurrection without linking it to the present life-experience of the recipients. The two things – his resurrection life and theirs – are not treated as two but as one and the same thing.

In summary, Jesus’ expectation had been realised: in his resurrection as Messiah, he had raised up Spirit-filled communities which began living the new life of the age to come, even in the present. Those far away had released from sin and brought near, to enjoy favour with God and peace with each other. Isaiah’s ‘salvation’, Ezekiel’s ‘resurrection from the dead’, or Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’ (see Post 4) – whichever name you want to call it by, it had arrived.

CONCLUSION: A Better Theory of the Atonement

We have suggested that Jesus achieved two things at the Cross: a death and a resurrection. Both of which we needed. Satisfaction Theory finds little atoning value in the resurrection: how can rising from the dead satisfy anything? But now that we have told the story the apostles were always telling, it should be apparent why they place the greater share of the theological weight on the resurrection. It was essential that our sinful human flesh be put to death, and Jesus accomplished that. But this was really just the ground-clearing. The real goal was the building which God had planned in its place: the kingdom of God.

The death of Christ was God’s ‘No’ to sin and sinful mankind. But that was not his final word. God’s ultimate word to us was given in the resurrection: and it was ‘Yes’. This is why all four gospels push on beyond Good Friday, to land on Easter Sunday.

confess(In the previous post we began our assessment of the work of Leon Morris on the word ‘propitiation’. Here’s the rest.)

Next Morris turns to hilasmos. He concludes once again that ‘whenever’ it means forgiveness the circumstances indicate the turning away of divine wrath.

One example should be enough to test the quality of this conclusion. In Psalm 130, we read ‘but there is forgiveness with you’. The context celebrates God’s loving orientation towards Israel. He does not mark their sins but will instead redeem them from them all. It would seem that God’s wrath is far from view in this Psalm. But no, Morris finds propitiation implied even here: “the word occurs in a context of trouble.” That’s it, that’s the proof. Did you catch it? The writer is facing troubles: a clear statement of God’s wrath(!) Apparently God has marked the psalmist’s sins after all. And not only is God’s wrath here: for Morris the turning away of wrath is a ‘necessary feature’ implied by this context of trouble.

It seems there is no context where Morris cannot find the idea of God’s wrath being turned away. I suppose he might say the whole Bible is such a context – in which case every word in it must necessarily speak of propitiation! In any case, Morris’s approach makes the business of considering individual examples of usage pretty pointless: we know what the outcome will always be.

Next is hileos. Morris’s comment on Deuteronomy 21:8 is revealing. The context is all about the removal of guilt in case of murder. Clearly expiation is in view. The elders are to sacrifice a heifer and say, “Do not let the guilt of innocent blood remain upon your people.” There is no mention here of wrath or punishment. In spite of this, Morris detects it: “It is difficult to interpret this other than as a propitiatory rite.” Why is that? Why could it not be, say, an expiatory rite? No reasons are given. In fact we already know that Morris has ruled out the category of simple expiation a priori. Actually one gets the feeling that this comment of Morris’s pretty much sums up his approach to studying the usage of the hilas– word-group: he finds it difficult to seriously consider interpretations other than propitiatory ones. If so, this tells us about Morris – but not about hileos.

The real test for Morris comes with exilaskomai.  For the word is mainly used in Leviticus, in a cultic context. But in Leviticus there is no mention, no suggestion of God’s wrath: the focus is always on the removal of sin or guilt. In fact the book is remarkable for omitting this common OT idea, the wrath of God. In this cultic sphere, the category is apparently absent.

You might think it would be difficult to find propitiatory ideas, then, in this Levitical term, exilaskomai. But I think by now you’ll have guessed that Morris finds them. Here’s how he does it: there are a handful of occurrences of exilaskomai outside this cultic context. He decides that this reflects the normal usage of the word, and that the huge number of cultic occurances are the exceptional usage. Ok…

He calls these few non-cultic occurrences “what the verb means in itself quite apart from the conventional use of the cultus.” He then demonstrates to his own satisfaction that these few occurrences allow of a propitiatory interpretation. The next step is to let these few non-cultic occurrences to control the meaning of the term when found in a cultic context: they ‘give us the key to the understanding of the cultic references.’ They become in effect the tail that wags the dog. They force a propitiatory meaning onto the Levitical usage.

This is Morris at his worst. As we have pointed out elsewhere, this idea of an intrinsic meaning in a word ‘in and of itself’ apart from context and usage, this has been thoroughly discredited by a century of lexical semantics by now. Usage and context are the keys to word meaning. For Morris to extract the word from its cultic setting in order to pin down its ‘real’ meaning apart from all the distractions of context, is naive. To then reimport this meaning into the cultic usage, is to commit the ‘illegitimate identity transfer’ which James Barr complained was such a common error among biblical scholars. A word’s meaning in one context cannot determine its meaning in a very different context.

In fact, words take on different meanings in different settings. Especially in a technical setting like the Levitical instructions, a word could easily have a special meaning. The legitimate way to discover that meaning is to look at Levitical usage. Simple. But that yields an ‘expiation’ result…

At the end of this chapter studying the OT usage of the hilas- word-group, Morris summarises his position beautifully: “When we reach the stage where we must say ‘When the LXX translators used “propitiation” they did not mean propitiation’, it is surely time to call a halt. No sensible man uses one word when he means another.” This would seem to be a conclusive argument – if the LXX was using ‘propitiation’. But that is precisely what Morris is attempting to prove. What this sums up so clearly is that Morris has all along been assuming the meaning of the word in order to prove that assumption. He might as well say, “It must mean propitiation, because that’s what it means.” We might remember that he began his discussion with this same argument. This silliness does nothing to advance our understanding of the hilas- group.

Such large-scale and persistent methodological flaws and follies as we have identified render Morris’s work of little value as a contribution to the study of the hilas word-group. The fact is that neither he, nor the ‘authorities’ he adduces, seem to understood how to employ the disciplines of modern lexical semantics (the science of studying words).

Sadly the evangelical constituency for which he was writing had even less understanding of these things than he did, and so were easily impressed by the appearance of scholarship. I for one grew up on this diet, being assured that “it has now been settled by the best scholars that this word means ‘propitiation’”. It is distressing to revisit this from a linguistic point of view, and find such poor quality work. I come away from this review feeling that the Christian community deserved better from a scholar they trusted so much.

In summary, pretty much everyone agrees that the idea of ‘expiation’ is central to in LXX usage of the hilas- word-group. Morris has argued that propitiatory ideas are also to the fore whenever this root is used. But he has not produced convincing evidence for this. The best we could say is, he has shown from the usage that ‘propitiation’ is sometimes in view in some of the terms studied. But in other hilas- words – in particular those connected with the Levitical sacrifices – there is no evidence of ‘propitiation’.

court-gavelI have realised over the years that Satisfaction Theory jars for me. I’m ready to make my confession: when I sing those songs (see previous post), I feel my heart cringe inside me for a moment. I find the whole idea more of a hindrance than a help.

Why is that? Is it because I’m a closet liberal and want to secretly undermine the idea of God’s wrath? Hard to say, but meanwhile, I’d like to re-examine the Satisfaction Theory of the atonement (ST), take a critical look at it, and see if I can crystalise my concerns.

There are many ways we could come at critiquing ST. One is to ask, why is this theory of the atonement popular among evangelicals? I think in fairness we should come back to this sociological issue at the end.

So let’s start with biblical concerns, then move on to theological ones. And finally address sociological/political issues.


The most obvious objection to satisfaction theory from a biblical standpoint is that it’s very difficult to find it taught in any particular place in Scripture. The bible frequently asserts the more general truth that Christ died for our sins, but rarely does it get more specific. In particular, it never uses a term meaning ‘satisfaction’ in relation to the Cross. I hear it taught so often, but never with convincing textual support.

In fact there is no place in the Bible where God’s wrath or justice is said to be ‘satisfied’ or requiring satisfaction (in spite of the NRSV’s dodgy translations in Ezekiel, it’s not there in the Hebrew or the LXX).

Lack of satisfaction terminology is not a knock-down argument against ST. But it should definitely give us pause.

A much more serious objection relates to biblical theology. Put simply, ST does not seem to have arisen through reflection on the story of salvation history. Rather, it developed in a more abstract theological setting. Reading Anselm or Calvin, they are simply not starting from this place: the questions they are asking are worked out in a much more logical, systematic environment. “How might this atonement thing work? How can we make sense of it? Let’s collect some texts that address this. Let’s reason it out from first principles. How does it fit with other doctrines we believe?” That sort of approach.

What is notably lacking is biblical theology. I.e. there is little or no attempt to approach the atonement from the point of view of the narrative of God’s works as recorded in Scripture. And this is a real concern. All kinds of theories can be made to sound plausible, biblical – but without this discipline of biblical theology, the potential for introducing foreign ideas and distortions is great. It’s so easy to set up questions using imported categories foreign to Scripture, and deduce answers that make sense in those same categories, all with apparent Scripture backing from proof texts – but without ever connecting with the themes or narrative of Scripture.

And in fact this concept of ‘satisfaction’ would seem to fall down at this very point: it’s not easy to see how it is congruent with the bible’s meta-story.

Think about this: in ST, the great obstacle to be overcome is one located in God himself, or in an abstract universal standard like ‘honour’ or ‘justice’ – rather than a problem down here on the ground. Once we had sinned in Adam, the problem was entrenched, and nothing we did would have made any difference to it. Though (hypothetically speaking) every human from then on had been repentant and obedient, the great obstacle would have remained. Once Israel had sinned and turned away from God, his wrath would have been invoked, the justice of the law would have laid down its demand for punishment, and nothing Israel did after that would have made the slightest difference. After all, “What satisfies the law? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

In this view, the problem from the Fall onwards has always been God’s justice. For God to establish his kingdom and salvation a way must be found to avoid his justice: we must escape from the judgement of God. We evangelicals often find ourselves talking like this.

ST and the Old Testament 

If we compare this with the Old Testament, ST would lead us to expect laments in the prophets of this sort:

When I would restore the fortunes of my people, 

when I would heal Israel,

the guilt of Ephraim is revealed,

and the righteous demands of my justice which cannot be silenced.


I want to redeem them,

but my wrath will not be turned back.


How can I pardon you?

Your children have neglected my honour,

and it must be satisfied.

But in fact we never do find such sayings in the prophets. No, the story they tell goes like this:

When I would restore the fortunes of my people,

when I would heal Israel,

the corruption of Ephraim is revealed,

and the wicked deeds of Samaria;

for they deal falsely,

the thief breaks in,

and the bandits raid outside…

Now their deeds surround them,

they are before my face.          Hosea 6:11-7:2

I want to redeem them,

but they speak lies against me.     Hosea 7:13

It’s a pretty consistent story throughout the prophets:

How can I pardon you?

Your children have forsaken me,

and have sworn by those who are no gods.     Jeremiah 5:7

Here the problem is located firmly on earth. The barrier that hinders God’s blessing and salvation is in man, not in God or in an abstract sphere. God is willing: his people are unwilling. God is offended and angry, yes. Yet Yahweh is ready to forgive: but his people are not ready to repent.

Moreover, this is the way the prophets always talkThis is the story they consistently tell, the story of Israel, the story of mankind. “All we like sheep had gone astray”. The name Israel means ‘struggled with God’, and that correctly describes the nation. They are the ones who always turn away:

You shall say to them, “Thus says the LORD:

‘When people fall, do they not get up again?

If they go astray, do they not turn back? 

Why then has this people turned away

in perpetual backsliding?

They have held fast to deceit,

they have refused to return

I have given heed and listened,

but they do not speak honestly;

no one repents of wickedness,

saying, “What have I done!” ‘”          Jeremiah 8:4-6

That’s the story. That’s the meta-problem of the OT narrative: stubborn, persistent rebellion. That’s what needs to be overcome in order to bring salvation and the fruition of God’s purposes.

ST suggests that once we have sinned there is nothing we could do that could possibly fix things. Judgement must be enacted. But the prophets insist that if Israel turns, there really is forgiveness and healing:

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another,  if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt,  then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.   Jeremiah 7:5-7

Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts…Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. Malachi 3: 7-10

There is something Israel could do: she could renew her relationship with Yahweh if she would turn. But she will not.

It is true that for reconciliation and at-one-ment to take place, there must be forgiveness on God’s side also. He is the rightly offended party. But in the prophets this is not identified as the sticking point. In fact, the God of justice is already overflowing with mercy. From the beginning He identified himself by this quality.

The LORD, the LORD,

a God merciful and gracious,

slow to anger,

and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.          Exodus 34:6

God is sovereign in his mercy: he forgives when and where he likes. This is fundamental to his lordship. More than once, Moses finds that Yahweh the just can be successfully persuaded to forgive.  The problem then that creates the drama of the OT narrative is not the intransigence of God’s judgement. The prophets never long to dodge God’s justice. The change they long for lies elsewhere, in the hearts of men.

Can you see the problem with Satisfaction Theory?

When we come to the gospel story and ask, ‘How does God save us at the Cross of Jesus?’, surely the answer must be in the same categories that the prophets used? If the OT functions like a great question, with the gospel as the answer, then must not the answer relate pretty closely to the question? If the NT gospel provides the final and climactic chapter of the long Scripture narrative, we could be forgiven for expecting that it might resolve the main dilemmas in that story.

If the problem has centred around the abiding presence and power of sin in mankind, then it is reasonable to look for a solution, a salvation, that also centres on this problem. To put it simply, we are looking first and foremost for a way of release from our sin problem, a means of escape from our slavery. We need God’s forgiveness, yes, but the sticking point is our sinful hearts and lives.

But ST turns up an answer which pushes these issues to the periphery, and centres instead on acquital. However, as we have seen, acquital was never the main issue in the story. ST switches the discourse to a different category – the legal one. It gives an answer to a different question, not the one the OT centred on. The solution it offers does not meet the problem. Put simply, ST derails the narrative of redemption, distracting attention from its big issues. It tells a story, but not the Bible’s story. It dislocates the gospel from salvation-history. In particular it makes the whole history of Israel an irrelevance. (You can see this in many ‘gospel presentations’ based on ST: they routinely omit Israel, and don’t even miss it!).

It seems that ST doesn’t sit very comfortably with God’s revelation of himself in the OT prophets. In my book that’s a pretty serious objection to the theory.

Tomorrow: ST and the New Testament

death-of-Jesus-on-the-crossThere are many theories of the atonement, explaining how Jesus’ death (and possibly resurrection) achieves salvation. Of all of them, the one I find perhaps the most problematic is the one I keep encountering in my own evangelical tradition: the idea of satisfaction.

It’s in so many of our songs:

In our place He pays our ransom
Satisfies the law – Rob Smith

What satisfies the law
Nothing but the blood of Jesus – Lowry/Morrow

Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied          – Stuart Townend.

Your justice has been met
And holy wrath is satisfied
Through one atoning death – Bob Kauflin

‘Satisfaction’ theory goes like this: our sin creates a demand, which must be met. Until it is met there can be no salvation. The atonement is then the story of how God meets the demand, and thus makes our salvation possible. He meets it through the death of Jesus his son. Jesus’ death satisfies the demand on our behalf so that there is no longer any claim on us.

An unspoken addition or assumption within this theory is often: not even God can save us until satisfaction has been made.

So what is the demand which must be met or satisfied? There are a few different versions of satisfaction theory, which give different answers to that question:

1. Honour:

Satisfaction theory was first developed by Anselm in the 10th century. For a thousand years before him, the church did not teach this idea: the dominant view of the atonement was of a ransom.

Anselm saw sin as dishonouring to God, robbing him of the honour he was due. Christ’s death however is the ultimate act of obedience, and so honours God greatly. In fact, by going beyond the call of duty, it renders more honour than was needed! So Christ’s death is a work of supererogation: it has virtue to spare which can be shared with us. His death renders to God the honour we owed him but withheld.

Why was this so important? Because God could not forgive sinners until his honour was satisfied:

So then, if it be not fitting for God to do anything unjustly, or out of course, then it does not belong to his liberty or compassion or will to let the sinner go unpunished who makes no return to God of what the sinner has defrauded him. Cur Deus Homo I.12

This statement is important: God has no liberty to release sinners until the demand of honour has been met. God himself must satisfy honour before he can achieve his goal of salvation for man.

From this unpromising start, the doctrine went on to be developed further by the c.16th Reformers.

2. Justice

Calvin (the lawyer) transferred this theory into legal categories. He taught that it is God’s justice that must be satisfied.  For God to forgive sin would be unjust, and so he is restricted in his action. He must find a way to save sinners that at the same time satisfies the demands of justice. And what justice demands, is punishment. Jesus was “made a substitute and a surety in the place of transgressors and even submitted as a criminal, to sustain and suffer all the punishment which would have been inflicted on them.” (Institutes 2.16.10)

This is often expressed in terms of God’s law, which is generally identified as the law of Moses. Since the law prescribes punishment for sin, it must be enforced. The law, then, makes demands – and even God is obliged to satisfy them.

In this model God’s justice or law functions as the real problem. Let man be repentant, let God be willing to forgive: no matter. Nothing can be done until justice has been appeased through a full punishment. For justice is an absolute.

The cross of Christ then is explained as an act of punishment: the Father inflicts the punishment and the Son endures it. It must be enough punishment to cover the sins of the whole world (or if you’re a five point Calvinist, the sins of the elect). The quantity of the suffering is vital here to make the model work. Jesus in some way suffers enough, and so justice is done. Mankind can be released.

From this idea of implacable justice, flows all the talk about escaping God’s judgement, which we hear so often in our evangelical tradition. You don’t hear, say, Greek Orthodox theologians speaking like this. It developed in the West.

3. Wrath

Luther emphasised the closely related idea that demands are made by God’s wrath. Wrath is an angry force which must be reckoned with – even by God himself. It must be appeased or propitiated. It literally cannot stop until it is satisfied. Not even God can stop it – the most He can do is to turn it aside and exhaust it in some way. If it can do enough damage, eventually it will be spent – kind of ‘burnt out’.

Thus there is an actual conflict within God’s person, between wrath and mercy. This conflict is focussed at the cross where Jesus becomes the sponge who absorbs God’s wrath until there is none left – notice that quantity is important again here. He does it by his death at the cross: “And on that cross where Jesus died/ the wrath of God is satisfied”. In Jesus God overcomes wrath with mercy.

On this account we are implicitly invited to side with God’s mercy and against his wrath: wrath is to be avoided and mercy embraced. Wrath is bad and mercy good. Since God has turned on himself in this way, we inevitably do also.

Satisfaction theory: I don’t know how you feel about it. Some people love it, others hate it. Personally my concerns are biblical and theological. From those points of view I find it extremely problematic.

Tomorrow we will try to understand why this theory has become so popular in the West, and how it relates to the teaching of the NT.