Substitutionary Atonement through Covenantal Spectacles

I’ve seen a flurry of tweets, blogs, and sermons within the last week that question the necessity of the atonement’s substitutionary nature. As I step up to the plate, I want to be clear where I stand. The atonement is multifaceted. It’s not just a substitute, but it’s definitely not less than that. I find many Scriptures which also support the atonement theme of victory over sin, Satan, and the world. That’s a crucial component of the atonement. N. T. Wright sums up the victory component nicely in Evil and the Justice of God (buy):

The story of Gethsemane and of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth present themselves in the New Testament as the strange, dark conclusion to the story of what God does about evil, of what happens to God's justice when it takes human flesh, when it gets its feet muddy in the garden and is hands bloody on the cross. (74)

 

It isn’t that the cross has won the victory, so there's nothing more to be done. Rather, the cross has won the victory as a result of which there are now redeemed human beings getting ready to act as God's wise agents, his stewards, constantly worshiping their Creator and constantly, as a result, being equipped to reflect his image into his creation, to bring his wise and healing order to the world, putting the world to rights under his just and gentle rule....Our fear of triumphalism on the one hand, and on the other hand our flattening out of our final destiny into talk merely of “going to heaven,” have combined to rob us of this central biblical theme (139)

That’s all true as far as it goes, but those truths don’t exclude in any way also understanding the atonement as a substitute. The source of some of the chatter, I read over the last little bit seems to have originated from a sermon preached by Jonathan Martin, Pentecostal pastor of Renovatus Church in Charlotte, NC, entitled “The Unjust Judge” on September 29, 2013. He’s a rising and well-respected leader in the egalitarian and progressive Christian camp. I recently reviewed his book Prototype (buy) and found a lot of good in his excavation of the person and work of Jesus Christ. For reference, you can listen to the last few minutes of the sermon where he addresses the issue below.

While I’ve appreciated a lot of what Jonathan has to say, these remarks on the atonement are fundamentally off, not only on the atonement (the work of Jesus Christ), but also on the person of God. A few apologies in the old sense below. That’s not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This is meant as more of an open dialogue on the atonement and an encouragement for those who don’t find substitutionary atonement as necessary or helpful to reconsider their doctrine through a covenantal framework.

First, we do not limit God, but God only acts within the perfections of his essence.

Jonathan starts by sharing his concern for the trend within Pentecostal churches years back of “binding God” in prayer. I also share his concerns. The language is murky and unhelpful at best. We do not bind God. However, the seed of truth which may be what people are getting at is God keeps his promises. Prayer is nothing less than rehearsing the promises of God back to him.

For example, “You’ve said you will be shepherd in the darkest valleys of life, keep your word and help me to know your presence.” Or “Father, you have said you will not cast out anyone who comes to you in the name of Jesus. Be faithful to your word.” We are not binding God. We are rehearsing his promises in his presence. What’s more this is how Israel is commanded to interact with God in the Old Testament. God commands them to rehearse the redemptive acts of God in their homes and, whenever they have fallen away, their return is always preceded by a prayer reminding God of his promises.

Second, God doesn’t forgive sins apart from the cross. 

This may be the most fundamental error. Jonathan says multiple times that God does whatever he wants (can’t we all say amen there?). But that doesn’t mean that he ever acts outside his perfections (For instance, God couldn’t lie because he’s God). Teaching that God saves sinners apart from the cross is a theology of glory. His argument for this point is that we see sinners saved prior to the cross, but this misses the entire movement in redemptive history towards the cross.

The story from Genesis to the end of the Gospels points toward Jesus’s Christ. The sacrificial cult remind us a lamb must come to die for us. The differing types of sacrificial lambs point directly towards a substitutionary atonement. Furthermore, the gospel story to be rehearsed in the Old Testament was the physical redemption of Israel out of Egypt. That’s entire gospel episode is a full scale picture of God’s substituting the paschal lamb for his people. Israel kills the lamb. They smear his blood. The angel of death (most understand this as a pre-incarnate visitation of Jesus Christ) passes over because the lamb’s blood that has been substituted for his peoples (See this helpful explanation of the passover significance).

The posture in the Old Testament looks forward in hope to that once for all sacrifice, as Hebrews so eloquently expounds. In the New Testament, we look backwards at the cross and forward to his return where we will see him face to face. We see the glory of the gospel in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The OT posture of looking forward created a lot of tension. Solomon captures this in Proverbs, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord” (17:15). God cannot justify wicked people apart from the cross, apart from a substitutionary sacrifice, else he would not be perfectly righteous and just (Romans 3:21-26).

Third, God’s perfections require justice and righteousness.

Jonathan says the image of God keeping a ledger in the sky that must be balanced is a harmful image. When put in those terms, it sure does sound awful. The picture he paints makes God sound like a cosmic Scrouge. God is not an old curmudgeon in the sky. He is perfectly just, righteous; He’s perfectly loving and sacrificial; He’s all powerful and all knowing. These do not compete with each other. They form a perfect symphony. The notes beautifully compliment each other. The end result is a symphonic a masterpiece.

He then makes the comment that this imagery originates with Luther and Calvin. In my review of Prototype I mentioned, Jonathan misunderstood the Reformation fundamentally. Here’s a snippet of the review.

[In discussing liturgy, Jonathan says,] “There is not such thing as cutting ourselves off and starting over. (Even the Protestant Reformation didn’t truly succeed in that)” (p. 192). I would humbly submit that he might have missed the point of the Reformation. In fact, the Reformers would give a big hearty “Amen!” to the necessity of connectedness with the past. They vehemently sought to demonstrate their theology wasn’t novel but had its root in the early fathers, the Apostles, and Jesus gospel. The point wasn’t cutting off but reforming. Hence the Reformation motto: “Always Reforming.”

 

It’s worth pointing out again that the Reformers (and their heirs Lutherans, Presbyterians, and the like) are strident that they were reforming a perversion of the faith once delivered and handed down from the Apostles. They were not cutting themselves off from that stream. They returned to the original text of Scripture and also to the early church fathers to show that their doctrine was in step with the faith of the church from the very beginning.

I say all that to say, that the image of courtroom (forensic) didn’t originate with Luther and Calvin. They may have reemphasized it in their time. But it’s been an image that’s been around from the earliest times of the church and can be found in the early church fathers.

I will agree that as a church we have missed the boat when we make the primary image a Roman or western court. God isn’t keeping a ledger per se, when he sends Jesus to die on the cross. He is keeping covenant. The primary image is of a Hebrew court. A Hebrew ceremony of covenant cutting and keeping. Think Genesis fourteen. God makes a promise to Abraham and ratifies it by performing a covenant cutting ceremony. But Abraham and God do not both participate. God takes on both parties parts. He promises fulfillment of the covenant at expense of His own life. And that’s exactly what happens. Jesus Christ stands in our place as covenant breakers. He must be put to death because the terms of the covenant have been broken. God cannot be faithful and allow the terms of his covenant to stay broken.

If you will bear with me, I want to share a longer selection from Tom Holland’s excellent Contours of Pauline Theology (buy). He really hones in on this truth in connection with what I’ve said about rehearsing the gospel story in the OT and theme of Exodus throughout Scripture.

[T]here is a forensic aspect to justification that the Reformers correctly identified. My argument is not with this important fact. My concern is to demonstrate that this forensic understanding is best understood as being the condition of entrance into the covenant and that this often overlooked covenantal aspect is a vital key for appreciating the fullness of the biblical doctrine of justification. My stress on the importance of the covenant does not favour Wright’s understanding, for he says that justification is about being declared to be within the covenant. I am arguing that the covenantal aspect of justification means that there are uses of the word ‘justified’ which are not forensic but are about the establishment of a covenant relationship between Yahweh and the one who is called to salvation. To separate either aspects of justification from the other would fail to give the full biblical picture of the doctrine. But the strongest evidence that ‘counted as righteous’ means brought into the covenant is found in the OT. Psalm 106 speaks of Phinehas who took action against the ungodliness of his fellow countrymen for indulging in sexual immorality. Verse 31 states that ‘This was credited to him as righteousness for endless generations to come.’ The original account in Num. 25:10-13 makes it clear what being counted righteous means. It says:
‘The Lord said to Moses, Phinehas son of Eleazer, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honour among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honour of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.’

 

The meaning of ‘counted as righteousness’ could not be clearer. It means that Phinehas was brought into a covenant relationship with Yahweh.This covenant-making significance for the term ‘justified’ or ‘counted as righteous’ is supported by the New Exodus motif itself. Israel’s justification, her return from exile, was in fact the creation of the New Covenant. It was this, of course, that was ultimately the product of the death of Christ, which was his exodus and which has brought about the deliverance of the Christian community from the power of Satan. But why has this covenantal dimension been overlooked? I believe that the covenant perspective was missed because of the emphasis put on logizomai being an accounting metaphor. It certainly is, but it is also other things in the OT; it is also, for example, a legal metaphor. Whatever it means in the Genesis text, what is not permissible is to trawl the range of meanings from the biblical literature and amalgamate them into a new model or metaphor that is used as the key to a particular use of the word. Such a practice is a fundamental abuse of linguistics. It is the same type of misuse as saying that, because the word ‘bat’ can mean a flying mammal as well as a device used for playing ball games, we are entitled to say that some texts intend to suggest that the word speaks of the way that the ball ‘flies’ from the bat in a game of cricket! It is what Gen. 15 says about logizomai that matters, not what Proverbs or Leviticus say. . . .

Thus, going back to the New Exodus model, justification is repeatedly used to speak of Israel’s release from captivity. As a result of her release from exile, she was shown to have been acquitted, declared righteous, for her sin had been atoned for. In Israel’s case, being declared righteous was nothing to do with God overlooking her sins. She had paid double for her sins. She had paid the price for breaking the conditions of the covenant and this meant that God could now justify her claim to be His covenant people. This was done as He led her back from exile to retake possession of her inheritance, the land and Jerusalem in particular. Paul changes this rationale, for it is not the delivered people of God who have paid the price of covenant breaking, but the Son of God, the Paschal victim (1 Cor. 5:8). (223-24 sentence italicized mine)

For all of these reason, you must not neglect, reject, or underplay the importance of Jesus Christ’s substitutionary atonement. It’s a pillar of faith for the church. The story of God’s works which point to the death of Jesus Christ from Genesis to Revelation all point to the absolute necessity of this kind of sacrifice. Without it, we are dead in sin and still slaves to sin. With it, we are justified, adopted, and redeemed sons of God and heir to all the promises in Jesus Christ.