Reversal Theory of the Atonement

This paper was given in 2006 at a symposium on the Atonement held in the Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference. I want to acknowledge my many conversations with Steve Kimes on this topic as a part of my processing this issue and coming to this understanding of the atonement.

My presentation is a modified version of the classic Christus Victor understanding of the atonement – the idea that Jesus conquers the powers that hold us captive, thus setting us free. My theory emphasizes the concept of reversal as this is articulated by Jesus as the way that the kingdom of God comes to earth. For instance:

  • Luke 6:20/24 – “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
  • Luke 13:30 – “Some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

This, then, is how Jesus gains victory over the powers and freedom for us.

I. The Four-fold Pattern of God’s Salvation

I want to begin with this pattern, that repeats itself in different ways throughout the Scriptures, as a background. It is the pattern of God’s covenant mercy, judgment and salvation.

The pattern shows up in Judges chapter 2 quite clearly. God acts in mercy to bring Israel into relationship with him:

  1. But there is unfaithfulness to the covenant (2:12). The people  “abandoned the Lord” and “went after other gods.”
  2. This provoked God’s anger (2:12). Thus in judgment God gave them over to the power of the nations around them (whose gods they worshipped) and they suffered (2:14).
  3. But then “the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them” (2:18).
  4. God, then, raised up a deliverer to defeat the oppressors (God’s instruments of judgment) and to set the people free (2:16-18).

This pattern shows up in the exile and release from Babylon – where Cyrus is raised up to defeat God’s instrument of judgment – Babylon because of their oppression over Israel, and it can be seen in numerous other places, including the Exodus event.

II. Why an Atonement? or What’s the problem?

Here we see the first three parts of this pattern play out. We were all created out of God’s mercy and love to be in relationship with God.

1. But, whether you want to think specifically of the Mosaic covenant or more broadly of a creational covenant, we are portrayed as all having broken accountability with God.

2. According to the pattern, then, we are given over to foreign powers to be slaves since we have turned away from God.

The more explicitly apocalyptic framework of the New Testament brings out the cosmic powers behind the nations even more clearly. The powers include human systems and the spiritual powers behind them. I will focus on four of these powers (that often show up in texts related to atonement or Jesus’ death) – that I call the judgment system:

  • We are under the condemnation of the Law
  • We are given over to the power of Sin
  • We are given over to the power of Death
  • We are given over to Satan [Note #1: Satan in Scripture], who is the administrator of this judgment system – with both spiritual and human agents of authority under him (i.e. governments – Romans 13).

We are all in bondage under this system. We are all slaves to Satan, Sin, the condemnation of the Law and Death. This slavery extends even to the whole creation – Romans 8:20-21. [Note #2: Slavery] This is the essential problem. We are separated from God – held in bondage by these powers.

3. The third part of our pattern, then, is that God  has compassion on us as he sees us miserable and given over to death. God has a change of heart. God desires to open a door for all who want to escape from his judgment.

This sets up the question of atonement or “at-onement.” How can God act to affect a reconciliation and renewal of relationship with humanity given this situation?

III. The Obstacle to our Deliverance – The Judgment System

Why can’t God just forgive us? The simple answer is that it doesn’t just involve God. There is the third party of the judgment system that has a say in this. And the powers have no place for mercy – only accusing and punishing with death. They keep hold of their subjects like a strong man guarding his plunder (Matthew 12:29). Their claim on us before God is that sin must be dealt with. They can quote God on this:

  • Genesis 2:17 – “in the day that you eat of (the tree) you shall surely die.”
  • Deuteronomy 27:26 – “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.”

They are the instruments of God’s judgment and we have indeed sinned. So they demand to keep us. Its like God saying to the Ammonites, “I’m done with you oppressing Israel now, would you please stop?” No, God had to raise up a deliverer to set Israel free (step #4 in the pattern of salvation). The powers hold on to us and have no intention of letting us go.

And regarding humanity, the powers keep us deceived and ignorant so that we don’t even seek to be free or forgiven or know what this might mean (2 Corinthians 4:4). So from both sides the powers keep God and humanity apart.

Now, it is true that God does often forgive people of specific sins. But this is not an adequate solution, at least in this case. These acts of mercy are only temporary and partial. The larger systemic problem remains – we are given over to the powers and eventually we all will succumb to death. (Even those whom Jesus forgave and helped during his ministry were not fully freed from the judgment system). To truly save us God must address the larger issue – the powers and their claims on us.

This seems to be acknowledged by Paul when talks about our former sins merely being “passed over” or not fully dealt with (Romans 3:25; see also Acts 17:30). And also the author of Hebrews who says that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). The full pattern of salvation must be played out in the larger cosmic arena by God at some point.

As can be seen in all this, the powers are not truly on God’s side. The judgment system performs a function in God’s administration of the universe – punishing evil, but the powers have their own agenda of opposing God. They are hostile powers who seek our destruction despite what God wants for us.

IV. God raises up a deliverer – The Story of Jesus

This is step four in the salvation pattern. God sends Jesus to bring about a series of three reversals that bring us salvation – and defeat to the evil powers that seek to hold us captive.

Jesus was born into a situation where Satan was on top. Satan says of the nations of the world – “all this authority and their glory . . . has been delivered to me” (Luke 4:6). The whole world is under his control since it is all under judgment.

Jesus ministered in a context whether the judgment system enslaved all. Jesus engaged and opposed the judgment system. He proclaimed God’s mercy. He opened people’s eyes to understand God’s righteousness and called them to live by this new way of the kingdom of God. Even though the judgment system remained in place, he gave a picture of what the kingdom is like through his activities of forgiving, healing and casting out demons by the power of the Spirit.

Jesus suffered under the judgment system as it opposed and persecuted him. It did not like being challenged and responded with violence. Jesus was slandered, verbally abused, shamed, tortured and then executed. Even though he was innocent, Jesus accepted this suffering and responded with love and nonresistance to his enemies.

The turning point: This comes on the cross in Jesus’ death. It is at this point that Jesus’ blood cries out, as it were, for vindication. (This is even on the lips of the dying Jesus in Mark 15:34; Psalm 22:1).

It seems hopeless, but Jesus’ mission did not fail. Jesus’ death exposed the judgment system as evil. The judgment system had no right to punish Jesus. For other acts of oppression the powers could at least say, “God we’re only doing what you told us to do – finding sin and punishing it!” In killing Jesus they were finally exposed as truly evil, for Jesus had no sin.

God saw this and God acted for Jesus. God always acts to raise up those who suffer and yet trust in him. God therefore acted to lift Jesus up and vindicate him (Acts 3:13-15; 5:31; 13:27-30). And God acted to put down the judgment system. Just as Jesus said:

  • “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).
  • “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life . .  . will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

God did this with three reversals:

Reversal #1: Although the judgment system condemned Jesus, now it stands condemned for what it did to him. This is what allows us to be set free from it; free from Satan, Sin, the Law’s condemnation and Death.

Thus Jesus’ death is seen as a ransom – a price paid to set us free from slavery. Mark 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [Note #3: Jesus’ death as a ransom]

But this concept of ransom and paying a price has caused much confusion. The word itself can mean paying a price to set someone free – for instance to redeem a slave is to pay for their release. But it does not always mean literally paying a price to someone (the Exodus; I Peter 1:18).

In the case of Jesus we have to say that the price was not paid to anyone – Satan or the Law or God. Yes, Jesus paid a price in that he had to suffer unjustly under the judgment system in order to expose it and undo it. The price was his life; his blood; his dying. It was his personal price or sacrifice which led to the setting aside of the judgment system – which leads to our being able to be set free. So it is not a quid pro quo – (this for that) a  price paid to someone that sets me free. It is a price paid, which brings about the condemnation of the judgment system, which makes possible my freedom.

An analogy: Its like a person who engages in civil disobedience. They pay a price in their suffering. But their suffering exposes the system as unjust and leads to change which brings freedom from oppression. The price is not literally paid to anyone, for instance, to the oppressive government. But it indirectly leads to freedom for everyone. And you can even say that our freedom was bought with a price – their suffering.

Point of Contrast
  • Classic Christus Victor: He paid a price – Satan accepted it and let us go free = quid pro quo
  • Reversal Christus Victor: He paid a price – which led to the undoing of the judgment system – which leads to our freedom

In this context, Jesus’ death can also be seen as a substitute – he died in our place. But this idea of substitution has also caused confusion. First of all, phrases like – “he became a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13) and “he bore our sins” (I Peter 2:24) do not mean, for instance, that he took on specifically my sins and yours. It means in general, he bore the penalty of our sins – he was punished by the judgment system and he died – the penalty for sin.

The basic idea of substitution is that Jesus, even though innocent, bore the penalty that should have been ours. And we, who are guilty, receive the result that Jesus should have received – life and blessing.

But just as with the concept of ransom, this substitution is not a quid pro quo – he takes my sins, I get his righteousness. There is an indirect, but causal connection. By bearing the penalty that I should have received, he condemned the judgment system, which allows me to be free and experience the life and blessing he should have received. So we can say, “he took my place” or “he took what I should have received” – but recognize that there is no legal claim or court analogy being made; no quid pro quo. [Note #4: Jesus’ death as substitutionary]

Point of Contrast
  • Penal/Satisfaction: Jesus took on my sins and since he paid the price, I don’t have to = quid pro quo
  • Reversal Christus Victor: By taking the penalty I deserved, Jesus brought down the judgment system, which means I get the result Jesus should have gotten – life and blessing.

So the first reversal is that, although the judgment system condemned Jesus, now it stands condemned for what it did to him. And this allows for our freedom from it.

Reversal #2: Although the judgment system kept us from God, now Jesus brings us into relationship with God. If the first reversal speaks to coming out of what held us in bondage, this one speaks to the positive side of salvation as relationship with God.

First of all, Jesus’ death is seen as buying us out of slavery to become God’s servants. This is a part of the idea of ransom. To be set free from slavery by someone places obligations on the one who receives this. You now are owned by your redeemer. As I Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” (Acts 20:28; Revelation 5:9). The redemption that we have in Jesus brings us into relationship with God – as God’s servants.

Jesus’ death is also seen as establishing a new covenant, which sets the parameters for our new relationship as servants of God. It is a covenant sacrifice (Matthew 26:28; I Corinthians 11:25) like what took place in Exodus 24 (the same phrase “blood of the covenant” is used). [Note #5:  Jesus’ death as sacrificial] It establishes a “new” system (Hebrews 9:15) or it can be seen as establishing the promises originally given to Abraham (Galatians 3).

We receive the covenant blessings: We are now free of the judgment system, sons of God, that is, inheritors of the promises (both women and men). We are given the promised Spirit to empower us to do God’s will. And when we fail and repent we are forgiven. Mercy prevails. We are given a whole new basis for our relationship with God.

But we also have accountability: God disciplines us lovingly as children to teach us his ways. We are only given back to the judgment system if we continually and willfully refuse to submit to God – which is a leaving of the covenant relationship on our part – Hebrews 10:26-29.

Reversal #3: Although Satan was on top and the authority over humanity, now Jesus is Lord. Just before his ascension, “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’” – Matthew 28:18. This is a clear narrative reversal from the beginning of the story.

  • While Satan lost his place in heaven (Luke 10:18; Revelation 12:7-9; John 12:31) now Jesus is resurrected, ascends, and is enthroned at the right hand of God. All powers and authorities are below him         (I Peter 3:22; Philippians 2:9-11).
  • While Satan had the power of death (Hebrews 2:14) now Jesus has the keys to death and Hades (Revelation 1:18).

Jesus is the new arbiter of human destiny now. He is the mediator between God and humanity (1 Timothy 2:5). [Note #6: Reversal & Jesus’ death: The parable of the tenets].

There is still a process unfolding in terms of the fullness of this redemption coming to pass (Romans 8:23; Ephesians 4:30). But it is secure and established through what Jesus has done.

IV. A Reflection: This was God’s Plan

In Acts 2:23 Peter tells us that Jesus’ death happened “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” The powers have never understood God’s wisdom and God’s ways. If they had, as Paul says, “they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8; See also Acts 13:27).

God knew how Satan and the judgment system would respond to Jesus. God used the judgment system’s own lust for power and violence to bring about its condemnation and the release of its captives. As Paul said, God “catches the wise in their craftiness” (I Corinthians 3:19). God used the evil actions of his enemies, who sought to thwart the coming of the kingdom, to establish his kingdom on earth.

V. A Reflection: This was God’s Justice

From another angle God’s mercy in sending Jesus can be seen as an act of God’s justice. For in situations of oppression God’s mercy and justice are the same thing (Deuteronomy 10:18-19; Leviticus 19:33f; Zechariah 7:9-10; Isaiah 30:18).

God knew the evil of the hostile powers. God saw the joy they took in our misery and the extent of their oppression. Like the Babylonians who came as God’s judgment on Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness, but were themselves judged because of their cruel oppression and arrogance, Jesus’ death is then what “filled up the measure” of the sins of the powers and moved God to act against them. So this was an act of justice because it allowed those who are weak and in slavery to escape oppression and find peace or wholeness with God.

VI. Other contrasts with the Penal Satisfaction Theory

I have already made one contrast with the traditional Christus Victor theory. For now I will draw out points of contrast with the popular penal/satisfaction view:

  1. Jesus’ death does not satisfy the demands of the Law, it condemns the whole judgment system so that it is set aside. Not satisfaction, but being ransomed, or liberated is the key. [Note #7: Romans 3:21-26 paraphrase with comments]
  2. God is the initiator of salvation, not waiting on someone to placate him. In fact, it is Satan or the powers who demand legal satisfaction in this theory.
  3. Jesus does not bear God’s wrath in his suffering and death. His death shows that the judgment system is not doing God’s will (even though their sin plays into what God knew they would do and thus fulfills his plan for redemption).
  4. Jesus’ ethical behavior is the key to the reversal that brings salvation, not incidental or ancillary as is the case for the satisfaction theory.
  5. As I noted before, there is substitution, so all the verses that seem to point to this can be accounted for under this theory. But there is no issue with how one person’s death can stand in for the sins of the whole world – a quid pro quo – and the lack of legal analogies for this. It is an indirect, but causal substitution.
  6. God’s justice is seen in retribution for sin for those who persistently refuse God’s mercy. But God’s justice is also expressed in releasing us from the judgment system because it is corrupt and oppresses us.

VII. The Atonement and Peacemaking

1. A general point – Jesus’ work of atonement would not have happened without his nonresistance and love of enemies. This shows how absolutely crucial these are as aspects of our discipleship. We too should love our enemies and work toward peace with others even to the point of our own suffering.

2. Jesus’ work of atonement was a nonviolent act of justice on the part of God in putting down oppressive powers – both human and cosmic – that brought peace to those who were oppressed. And we can follow in his footsteps and achieve similar results. As Paul says in Colossians 1:24 – “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

Jesus shows us the way with his teaching on nonresistance (Matthew 5:38-42), and the example of his life and death. He shows us how to encounter and overcome hostile powers – human and cosmic authorities.

  • Just like Jesus – we lower ourselves to serve others. We engage various human embodiments of the judgment system in order to give mercy and we call people to live by God’s kingdom righteousness.
  • Just like Jesus – when we are persecuted by evil authorities – we accept it and return good for evil.
  • Just like Jesus – we call out to God for justice and trust that God will act for us.
  • Just like Jesus – God will act for us. As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied” – Matthew 5:6. For sure, sometimes God will not fully act until the final day. And in general God is longsuffering and merciful because he wants evildoers to repent. Sometimes, however, God will intervene in the here and now in decisive ways to put down the evildoers and deliver us. This is not just an otherworldly reality.

3. This approach to the powers can be applied to our own situations – the context of Matthew 5. Or, we can be proactive like Jesus was and enter into the suffering of others, suffer with them, and work toward bringing down unjust authorities for them. This is intercessory suffering. It is a part of the process of bringing liberation and peace which will be completed when Jesus returns.


William S. Higgins

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#1: Satan in Scripture

  • Satan is connected to the cosmic dragon (Leviathan, Rahab, Yom) who seeks to destroy God’s creation – Psalm 74:13-14; Revelation 12:9.
  • Satan was defeated at creation and has been domesticated and put to use in God’s administration – Psalm 89:9-10; Job 41:1-6; 1 Chronicles 21:1 = 2 Samuel 24:1.
  • Satan is now the tester, prosecutor, or accuser who seeks out sin to bring it to God’s attention – Job 1-2; Zechariah 3:1; Matthew 4:1; Revelation 12:10.
  • Satan is the punisher who has the power of death to destroy God’s enemies – Hebrews 2:14.
  • Satan is evil – a murderer, liar and deceiver – John 8:44; 2 Thessalonians 2:10.
  • Satan is the supreme ruler of this world system that is apart from God – Luke 4:6-7; John 12:31; 2 Corinthians 4:4; I John 5:19.
  • Satan has an administration under him: spiritual powers – he is the prince of demons – Matthew 12:24 who are also the gods of the nations – 1 Corinthians 10:19-21. Through these powers he has human powers under him – the governments of the nations – Deuteronomy 32:8; Daniel 10:13, 20.

Note #2: Slavery

This speaks to the condition from which we need to be saved. Specifically we are in slavery to the judgment system. Different aspects of this system are highlighted in different texts. All of these are seen as hostile powers that block our reconciliation with God:

1. Slavery to Satan: we are given over to the power and authority of Satan and the powers to control us and make us miserable.

  • Matthew 12:29 – Jesus speaks of Satan as the “strong man,” who has people as plunder in his house. This refers specifically to those who are demonized, but also to the whole generation of Jesus – Matthew 12:45.
  • 2 Timothy 2:25-26 – regarding false teachers – “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.”
  • Ephesians 2:1-2 – “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience . . ..”
  • Galatians 4:3/8 We “were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.”
  • Acts 26:18 – Jesus’ commission to Paul – “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God . . ..”
  • 1 John 5:19 –  “. . . the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”

2. Slavery to Sin: we are given over to the power of Sin to control us and make us miserable.

  • John 8:34 – Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.
  • Romans 6 – Paul speaks several times of our old lives in terms of being “slaves to sin” or being under the dominion of “Sin,” seen as a cosmic power that controls us.
  • Galatians 3:22 – “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
  • 2 Peter 2:19 – False teachers, who entice by passions of the flesh, promise, “freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.

3. Slavery to the Law’s condemnation: The law is holy and good, but it holds us in slavery. It itself cannot bring salvation and in the broader context of the corrupt judgment system it is used to oppose God’s desire to give mercy.

  • Matthew 5:25-26 – Jesus speaks of sin as a debt we owe to God (Matthew 6:12). He also uses the image of a debtor’s prison for those who sin and are judged. They are placed in the debtors prison with no way out. “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Also, Luke 12:57-59; Matthew 18:32-35)
  • Galatians 3:23 – “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.”
  • Galatians 4:3-4 – parallels slavery to the powers with being “under the Law.”
  • Romans 7:14-25 is a portrait of bondage to the judgment system with special emphasis on the Law as a power that condemns us.

4. Slavery to Death: we are given over to Death as a power that overcomes each of us eventually.

  • Hebrews 2:15 speaks of “those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
  • I Corinthians 15:24-26 speaks of death as a hostile power.
  • Romans 5:12 – “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned . . ..”

Note #3 : Jesus’ death as a ransom

Jesus’ death is seen as ransom or redemption – a price paid to set us free from slavery to the hostile powers. To be set free is to be saved.

General texts:

  • Mark 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
  • I Timothy 2:5-6 – “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”
  • Galatians 1:4 – Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.”
  • Revelation 5:9 – “you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

1. Set free from Satan/the powers:

  • Matthew 12:29 – “How can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.” Jesus is seen as this one who binds the strong man.
  • Hebrews 2:14 – “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”
  • Galatians 4:8-9 – “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?”
  • John 12:21 – “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.”
  • 1 John 3:8 – “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
  • Colossians 1:13-14 – “God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

2. Set free from Sin as a power:

  • John 8:34-36 – Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. . . . if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
  • Romans 6:17-18 – “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
  • Revelation 1:5 – “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.”
  • Titus 2:14 – Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
  • Romans 8:2 – “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

3. Set free from the condemnation of the Law:

Satisfaction of the demands of the law or freedom from the condemnation of the Law? When we look at our relationship to the Law and our forgiveness from God – language of satisfaction or appeasement of God does not show up, rather redemption or liberation language does.

  • Colossians 2:13-15 – “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” God forgives us by canceling our record of debt, not by satisfying the demands of the Law. The powers are disarmed without the condemnation of the Law. They no longer have any claim on us. As Romans 8:33; 38-39 says– “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? . . .  For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
  • Ephesians  2:14-15 – “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace . . .. “ Jesus’ death does not satisfy the Law, it sets it aside so that there is peace.
  • Galatians 3:23-25 – “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian . . ..”
  • Galatians 3:13 – “Christ redeemed us (or set us free) from the curse of the law . . ..”
  • Galatians 4:4-5 – “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
  • Ephesians 1:7 – “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses”
  • Galatians 5:1 – “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
  • Romans 8:1 – “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
  • Hebrews 9:15 – “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them (or sets them free) from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”

4. Set free from death:

  • I Corinthians 15:21 – “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.”
  • 1 Corinthians 15:25-26 – “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
  • 2 Timothy 1:10 – Jesus “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”
  • Romans 8:2 – “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”
  • Romans 8:23 – “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
  • Hebrews 2:14-15 – “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:10 – Jesus “died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”

Summary: Freedom from God’s wrath – By being released in all these ways we receive God’s mercy and we are set free from the judgment system, which is God’s wrath. Jesus’ death is not a satisfying of God’s wrath. It is the means to being set free from God’s wrath; it is escaping from a system that is judging and being judged. All who leave the judgment system with its sin and rebellion receive God’s mercy through what Jesus has done.

Note #4: Jesus’ death as substitutionary

Vicarious suffering: First of all, Jesus’ death did not just concern himself – it was for us. It was “vicarious” or for our benefit.

  • Romans 4:25 – “who was delivered up for our trespasses”
  • 1 Corinthians 15:3 – “Christ died for our sins”
  • Galatians 1:4 – Jesus “gave himself for our sins”
  • 2 Corinthians 5:14 – “one has died for all.”
  • Titus 2:14 – Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us.”
  • Hebrews 9:28 – Christ was “offered once to bear the sins of many.”
  • 1 John 2:2 – Jesus “is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
  • 1 John 3:16 – “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us”
  • 1 John 4:10 – “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.”

Substitution texts: The idea of substitution goes a bit further and says Jesus died not just “for us,” but “in our place.” Here are texts that point to this:

  • Mark 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
  • Romans 5:8 – “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
  • 1 Corinthians 11:24 – Jesus said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
  • Galatians 2:20 – Jesus  “loved me and gave himself for me.”
  • Ephesians 5:2 – “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:10 – Jesus – “died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”
  • Matthew 27:26 – This substitution is seen in the narrative itself – “Then Pilate released for them Barabbas (a murderer), and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.”
  • John 11:50; 18:14 – “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” This is seen as a prophecy. Again – “It was Caiaphas who had advised the Jews that it would be expedient that one man should die for the people.”
  • Galatians 3:13 – “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’”
  • 1 Peter 2:24 – “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”
  • 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Note #5: Jesus’ death as sacrificial

Jesus’ death is spoken of with sacrificial language. For instance, Ephesians 5:2 says – “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” There are several different images of sacrifice connected to Jesus’ death – a sin offering, a Passover sacrifice and a covenant sacrifice to mention a few.

But what does this mean? What does this say about how Jesus’ death saves us? There are different understandings of sacrifice. My understanding of sacrifice is that it is a giving of a gift to God (Hebrews 8:3; Matthew 5:23). It is rooted in the ancient near-eastern context of approaching a king. One needed a gift to honor the king, according to the occasion of the visit – a gift of apology, a gift of thanksgiving and so forth (Exodus 24:30; Malachi 1:6-9) It is a way of maintaining relationship and gaining favor.

Jesus’ sacrifice was not a ritual sacrifice, like the temple sacrifices. It was literally his obedience to the point of death. The sacrifice of his life. This was the gift that Jesus gave to God. As the author of Hebrews says, – “Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book'” – Hebrews 10:5-7. God was not interested in more ritual sacrifices (and certainly not a ritual human sacrifice that appeases wrath). What God really wants is faithfulness at all costs. This is what Jesus gave to God.

How does this bring salvation? It fits into the understanding of salvation as redemption or setting free. Jesus’ obedience/sacrifice honored God more than any other gift God has received. It thus elevated his relationship with the King, so that Jesus is now the Lord of all creation. He has God’s complete favor. Or to put it negatively, his sacrifice was so astonishing and pure that God immediately acted for Jesus to bring down the judgment system that condemned him – for Jesus, not they, did God’s will. The indirect, but causal result of this sacrifice is that we are now able to be set free from slavery.

This same language of sacrifice is also used of Christians. We are also to offer up our lives as a sacrifice to God – Romans 12:1. We are also to bring sacrifices to God of our acts of obedience, justice and mercy (Amos 5:22-25; Hebrews 13:16; Philippians 4:18) and our thanksgiving (Psalm 50:14; Hebrew 13:15). These are all gifts we give to God as a part of our relationship with God.

Note #6: Reversal & Jesus’ death: The parable of the tenets – Matthew 21:33-44

The same story of reversal is told in terms of a particular human, earthly context rather than from a cosmic perspective: (I owe this reading to Steve Kimes)

  • The tenets are placed over the vineyard – the Sadducees, Chief Priests, Pharisees and Elders were given charge over God’s people.
  • But they resisted God and when God sent prophets they rejected and killed them.
  • Finally God sent his Son, but they killed him thinking, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.”
  • But God acts to judge the evil powers – they are thrown out (destruction of Jerusalem 70 C.E.).
  • And God exalts the stone that was rejected. Jesus becomes the cornerstone and the leader of God’s people.

Note #7: Romans 3:21-26 – paraphrased with comments

“But now the righteous character and action of God has been manifested apart from the Mosaic law – (the judgment system which demands punitive justice) although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – it is the righteous character and action of God (that gives right standing with God) through faith in Jesus Christ – for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all, both Jews and Gentiles have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are declared to be in right standing with God by his grace as a gift. This right standing comes through the setting free that Christ Jesus has brought about – whom God put forward as a way of cancelling out our sins by his blood to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteous character and action because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sin (like with Abraham and David – chapter 4). It was to show God’s righteous character and action at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Comments: God overlooked sin in the past and he sets free from sin in the present when he declares us right before him – as a gift. How is God still righteous? Doesn’t our sin demand punishment? God shows forth a different kind of justice in the coming of Jesus – one that does not simply rely on punishment, but that liberates from oppression those who will receive it by faith. God uses Jesus to liberate us from the oppression of the judgment system. That’s what it means when it says – we have right standing with God because Jesus set us free – 3:24. This is a liberating and restoring kind of justice. It is this justice of God that is revealed in the coming of Jesus.