Atonement: Christ's Victory
In his letter to the Romans, Paul of Tarsus indicated God sent his Son, Jesus, into the world to atone for the sins he had previously overlooked (Rom. 3:25). The former covenant God required of the Israelites did not effectively reconcile sinners to him. The Law of Moses outlined a system of sacrificial atonement in which members of Israel, the covenant community, would slaughter goats, lambs, bulls, red heifers, or turtledoves to persuade God to remove their guilt. The purpose of sacrificing animals was for an individual to substitute a life they possessed for their own. The Israelites brought their sacrificial victim to a Levitical priest, who slaughtered and processed it on their behalf before God. These Levites came from a lineage set aside by God to be priests in Israel, who alone could serve him in the Temple. The author of Hebrews recapitulated the old covenant God shared with the Israelites by placing Jesus Christ as the only high priest capable of making an ultimate atonement for sin (Heb. 2:17). Whereas the high priest of Israel, a rotating position, entered into the Holy of Holies with blood from an innocent animal every year, Jesus' own sacrifice satisfied God's required justice for all time (Heb. 9:7, 11-12).
Atonement and Sin
Paul wrote that Jesus' atonement by the shedding of his blood is effective through faith (Rom. 3:25). In other words, the new covenant established by Jesus does not arbitrarily cover the sins of humankind without still requiring a form of sacrifice. Neither did God the Father intend the old covenant to atone for Israel's sins without demanding holy conduct. If the sacrificial system put forward by the Law of Moses effectively atoned for Israel's sins unconditionally, then God would not have expected his covenant people to obey his commandments. However, he sent patriarchs, priests, lawgivers, kings, and especially prophets to call Israel back to a faithful relationship with God. The author of Proverbs opined that God loathes sacrifices made by individuals without faith and obedience toward him. Likewise, Jesus admonished his disciples to carry their cross, an ancient Roman symbol of suffering and humiliation (Matt. 16:24). His instruction foreshadowed his own crucifixion, when Christ atoned for the sins of the world by shedding his innocent blood. In the same way Jesus surrendered his life voluntarily, he expects God's new covenant people to give up their regard for material existence (Matt. 16:25). The atonement realized by Christ's sacrifice on the cross enables individual people to obey God, but does not rely upon human actions. God the Father alone sent his Son to atone for humankind's sins without its input, nor even its approval. Yet, the atonement performed by Jesus does not completely violate free will, as God still demands obedience from its grace-filled recipients. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), a German pastor of whom Nazi Germany executed for his resistance, described the atonement of Jesus as "costly, because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives the man the only true life." Simply put, it costs the true disciple of Christ something in order to receive salvation. When the church baptizes or celebrates communion, it is by the grace of God and the individual's faith that it does so. Bonhoeffer opined that rites and other spiritual marks are pointless if one does not obey God, but still chooses to sin against him.
Atonement and Creation
The Genesis creation narrative begins with God forming the universe out of chaotic, shapeless materials called "nothing." It does not say whether these substances derive from God's essential nature or whether he created them. Apparently, the author of Genesis supposed that form is what defines an object as "something" rather than "nothing." Beginning with Irenaeus of Lyon (c. AD 130–202), the patristic theologians argued that God created the world "out of nothing" (Latin: ex nihilo) against their pantheistic opponents. Some Christians, especially the followers of Arius of Alexandria (c. AD 250–336), agreed with the Greek philosophers that the universe derives from God's substance. In other words, the cosmological materials that form the world are one with God's own matter. The patristic theologians deemed this suggestion anathema (G331). They believed the universe comprises matter wholly separate from God, hence the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Implicit in the notion of Christian salvation is the separation between God and his creatures, especially humankind. For God to determine that human beings require atonement for their sins, he must recognize their substance as other than his own. The atonement by Jesus is possible because God expends his divine energies to save humanity from sin and death, never his essence. Although the Father sent the Son to atone for those who receive eternal life, the incarnation represents God entering into human flesh while remaining transcendent.
Atonement and the End
God is not just the creator of the universe, but also its telos (G5056). In the Revelation to John of Patmos, Jesus proclaimed himself as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end (Rev. 1:8). That is, Jesus is the divine Logos (G3056) by which God formed the world and its cosmological governance. He is the original cause of human existence and its final purpose achieves realization through Christ. Also in Revelation, Jesus informed John that he holds the keys to death and Hades (Rev. 1:18). He declared his victory over the powers of evil and corruption at world's end, thus restoring creation to its primordial goodness. In order to accomplish this, Jesus must have existed during creation and the assurance of eternal life to know how to restore it. Despite the destruction the fall of humankind had on the universe, Christ is triumphant over that power and ultimately defeats it. Thus, the atonement of humankind's sin against God first happened through the death of Jesus and then because of his resurrection. It is creational and eschatological in nature, as Jesus will return to humankind to destroy the world in its current state so he can restore paradise.
The end of days marks the final victory of God over the powers of darkness. This triumph forever solves the dilemma between good and evil, divine omniscience and free will. The Christus victor model of atonement incorporates the passion and resurrection narratives of Jesus along with the eschatological future. In the same way that Jesus vanquished death when God raised him from the grave, he will also bring a final end to death for all of eternity. Moreover, Jesus' victory also incorporates the life he lived between his baptism by John and the last week of his earthly ministry. Although human beings receive atonement for their sins because of Jesus' sacrificial death, his life enables them to obey God in the first place. The Christus victor model is unique among atonement theories in that it includes the actual life of Jesus, not just his death. Jesus defeated sin by obeying the Father perfectly, even when Satan and his own disciples tempted him to go astray. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was tempted to avoid the crucifixion God intended to atone for human sin and seek worldly acclaim. However, he was obedient to God and allowed human authorities to kill him with torture and execution. Paul noted this obedience in his letter to the Philippians, in which he alluded to Jesus' voluntary surrender of his divine omniscience prior to his incarnation (Phil. 2:8). In this context, it is an accomplishment for God to limit his omnipotence in order to redeem humankind, not a weakness. The prophet Isaiah predicted the Father's sending of his Son, Jesus Christ, as a suffering servant who would accept the world's punishment as his own (Isa. 53:4-7). However, Isaiah did not indicate that God satisfied his wrath by dispatching Jesus to suffer for humankind, only that his fellow Israelites perceived their redemption coming from a substitute victim (Isa. 53:4). Whereas the substitutionary atonement model suggests Jesus' sacrifice placated an angry God, Christus victor accepts Isaiah's "suffering servant" narrative as part of a larger story that speaks of victory instead of punishment.
Jesus was the sacrificial lamb that God sent to humankind to atone for its sins. However, God did not will this atonement to assuage his own bloodthirsty desire for vengeance. The incarnation, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus represent the victory God affected over sin and death according to his sovereign rationale. As a result, individual Christians become partakers of God's divine nature through the process of theosis. Simon Peter indicated this reality in his second epistle by conveying how believers avoid the world's judgment once they surrender their will for God's purpose (2 Pet. 1:4). Atonement enables people to become godly beings, not just sinners saved from wrath.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, we pray that, having opened to him the gates of larger life, you will receive us more and more into your joyful service, that, with all who have faithfully served you in the past, we may share in the eternal victory of Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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