Tackling the Atonement

I tried twice to day to write this post, and I deleted what I had both times. Then I found an email from a couple days ago that was sent to me by a regular reader and commenter, and I am going to answer it publicly.

I can’t share the email. It was sent privately for a reason, I assume, but the questions asked were perfect. I hate to write a long, private response that would interest those that read and commented on my post on penal substitution.

Please note: By “tackling” the atonement, I mean that I am giving it a whirl. Except for my staunch opposition to the paid penalty theory, which I defined in a previous post, I am trying to work my way through this subject. I appreciate all the challenges, which is why I posted it here.

In the first post I was mainly obecting to one narrow–though extremely popular–view of the atonement. That wasn’t too hard. It’s easier to prove something false than to prove something true.

For example, the writer of that email said, “We cannot willfully refuse the work of God in our lives and be saved.” That very thought disallows penal substitution. If Jesus “paid the penalty” then there should be no penalty for disobeience in those who believe Jesus died for their sins. That is exactly what a lot, perhaps most, evangelicals believe.

If we are going to address the questions from the email, we need to have a better foundation than the penal substitution view. Let me lay that foundation by addressing the first question I was asked.

To whom was the price paid?

If I run in front of a bus to save a child, but I’m hit by the bus, then I sacrificed myself. I paid a price in suffering or maybe death to save the child. But did I pay the price TO someone? Or, take into account a soldier in Afghanistan. He pays a terrible price in the name of defending our country, but to whom is he paying it? He’s not paying it to anyone.

In Jesus’ case, we have something different. Jesus did not just pay a price of pain in order to sacrifice himself for us. He also purchased us, redeemed us, and ransomed us. All three are good Scriptural terms (e.g., Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 1:18; 1 Tim. 2:6). The result of that purchase, in Scripture, is that we are freed from the law of sin and death, we are freed from death itself, and we are freed from the dominion of the devil.

Redeem, purchase, and ransom are slave words. We were in bondage, and redeeming or purchasing us requires a price paid to someone. That someone, of course, is whoever is currently holding us in bondage.

I am going to assume that it’s a horrifying thought to you, like it is to me, that Jesus paid a price to the devil, or to death or sin. I think, however, I can get us past this horror when we consider what actually happened.

Man, by disobedience, sold himself to sin and death. We became slaves to sin.

As by one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, so death passed to all men because all sinned. (Rom. 5:12)

I am carnal, sold under sin. (Rom. 7:14)

And you … who were dead in your trespasses and sins. (Eph. 2:1)

… who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. (Heb. 2:15)

You get the idea. We were slaves. Slaves, if they are to be free, need to be purchased, redeemed, or ransomed.

Jesus, however, being the eternal Lord of Glory had a better way to purchase us than paying a price to our slaveholder, the devil. Jesus became man. He became one of us. He entered into human bondage, though he refused to be bound.

I find it interesting that Philippians 2:7 says Jesus took upon himself “the form of a servant.” Jesus came as a free man, not as a servant. However, all of us, all of mankind, were enslaved, and just by becoming man, he took on the form of a servant.

Jesus then had a task in front of him. Just as Adam led us into slavery through sin, Jesus had to break our slavery through obedience. His triumph, his deliverance, began the moment he put on human flesh.

In fact, perhaps it began before.

The fall in the garden began not with the disobedience of Adam, but with the disobedience of the woman, Eve, who was at that time still a virgin. The redemption of mankind began with the obedience of Mary, also a virgin. Her obedience and faith in the promise of God was directly counter to Eve’s disobedience and lack of faith.

Jesus faced a temptation, just like Adam did. Jesus, however, chose obedience to God over the temptation of Satan. Throughout his life, he overcame sin in all its forms, but he directly undid what Adam did when Satan threw the three temptations in the wilderness at him. Adam and Eve gave in to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life. Jesus obeyed God when tempted with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life (1 Jn. 2:16).

So first, Jesus began the atonement by undoing what Adam did, obeying where Adam disobeyed. That is one reason he had to die on a tree. Just as Adam sinned through a tree, so Jesus had to obey through a tree.

Throughout his life, he was overthrowing the power of sin. Man was subject to sin, but Jesus was breaking its power.

God was in the King, reconciling the world to himself … for he has made him sin for us, who knew no sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor. 5:19)

Overcoming Death

Sin was not the only tyrant over man, however. There was also death, and there was also the devil. To overthrow those, he would have to enter into their bondage.

Inasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also partook of the same so that through death he might destroy the one who had the power of death, that is, the devil. (Heb. 2:14)

Jesus went into the realm of the dead, to face not only death but the principalities and powers who ruled over death.

Having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a display of them openly, triumphing over them in it. (Col. 2:15)

1 Corinthians 2:8 tells us that if the princes of this world had known the hidden wisdom of God, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory. They did not know, however. They thought that in the depths of Hades they would be able to hold on to their captive, the Son who came willingly to die on our behalf. They thought they had triumphed, when in fact he was about to vanquish them and triumph himself.

Jesus gave them fair warning. He said that no one can rob a strong man’s house unless he first binds the strong man (Matt. 12:29). He said it in the context of what he was doing, casting out demons. He was already setting man free, even before he died and entered the realm of death. He was casting out demons, delivering the human race, and so the devil was happy to put him to death and get him into his clutches, for Hebrews 2:14 tells us that the devil had the power of death.

What they did not expect, nor foresee, was Jesus turning the tables on them. He not only came out of Hades himself, completely overthrowing the devil and his power of death, but he “led captivity captive.” His overthrow of death was so potent and so thorough that Matthew tells us that graves opened up and saints walked in holy city when he rose (Matt. 27:52-53).

Thus, Jesus ransomed us. Thus, he overthrew death. In this way, he triumphed over sin, brought forgiveness, and brought mankind into fellowship with God through his obedience.

I am by no means saying that by writing this I have covered the fullness of Jesus’ atonement. I’m not sure that is even possible.

Almost 2,000 years ago, Christians emphasized Jesus conquering sin, death, and the devil as the foundation of the atonement. So let’s let you see the things the early Christians taught, and in the next post, we will address the rest of the questions that were put to me.

Early Christian Quotes on the Atonement

Letter of Barnabas, AD 80-130

If the Lord endured to suffer for our soul, he being Lord of all the world … understand how it was that he endured to suffer at the hand of men … that he might abolish death and reveal the resurrection from the dead, endured in order that he might fulfil the promise made to the fathers. By preparing a new people for himself, he wanted to show—while he dwelt on earth—that he, when he has raised mankind, will also judge them. (ch. 5)

Justin, c. AD 150

He became man by the virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same way in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived by the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the virgin Mary received faith and joy when the angel Gabriel announced the good news to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her and the power of the Highest would overshadow her. Therefore, also, that which was begotten by her is the Son of God. … By her has he been born … by whom God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who are like him, but works deliverance from death to those who repent of their wickedness and believe in him. (Dialogue with Trypho 100)

Irenaeus, c. AD 185

In the beginning [the devil] enticed man to transgress his Maker’s law and got him under his power, yet his power consists of transgression and apostasy. With these he bound man. So again it was necessary that through man himself he should, when conquered, be bound with the same chains with which he had bound man, in order that man, being set free, might return to the Lord and leave to him those chains by which he himself had been fettered, which is sin. For when Satan is bound, man is set free … Afterward, the Word bound him securely as a fugitive from himself and made spoil of his goods, which were those men whom he held in bondage and whom he unjustly used for his own purposes. (Against Heresies V:21:2-3)

Clement of Alexandria, c. AD 190

Man, that had been free by reason of simplicity, was found fettered to sins. The Lord then wished to release him from his bonds and, clothing himself with flesh—O divine mystery!—vanquished the serpent and enslaved the tyrant death. Most marvelous of all, man that had been deceived by pleasure and bound fast by corruption had his hands unloosed and was set free. O mystic wonder! (Exhortation to the Heathen 11)

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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3 Responses to Tackling the Atonement

  1. Ruth says:

    Well I gotta say a life so potent it overcame death itself is a very comforting thought. I always wondered exactly what leading captivity captive could mean. The news just keeps getting better.

  2. paulfpavao says:

    The reason no fathers speak against penal substitution is that such a monstrous doctrine had never been considered at that time. I don’t need quotes, though, since I already explained in the previous post why penal substitution is impossible. We still face consequences for sin, even as Christians. Those consequences include being barred from the kingdom of God and of Christ (Eph. 5:5). They include death if we live in the flesh (Rom. 8:12-13). If Jesus paid the penalty for sin, he didn’t do a very good job!

    As for the rest of your post, I am not sure why you are even arguing with me. I don’t really have problem with the idea of Jesus as a sacrfice. I have a problem with the penal substitution theory, which I have clearly defined several times now.

    I will say that I don’t have any regard for 11th century quotes. At that point the churches had been tinkering with the faith for centuries rather than preserving it as they had for two or three hundred years. Athanasius has some clout with me, but if he taught penal substitution the way the evangelicals do, I would say he was wrong. Fortunately, he didn’t.

  3. “For example, the writer of that email said, “We cannot willfully refuse the work of God in our lives and be saved.” That very thought disallows penal substitution. If Jesus “paid the penalty” then there should be no penalty for disobeience in those who believe Jesus died for their sins. That is exactly what a lot, perhaps most, evangelicals believe.”

    This is a totally false belief, and it does not disallow penal substitution at all. The early church often delayed baptism of adults, to be sure they didn’t fall into sin afterwards, as baptism erased prior sins. (repentance confession and penance were the solution to sin afterwards, sometimes years of public penance.) The price paid for sin is applicable to sin after accepting Him if one turns from it sincerely and in sorrow for it. But the overall once saved always saved and disobedience is okay thing has nothing to do with penal substitution but with cherry picking Scripture to serve the flesh.

    NONE of the Church Fathers quotes you have given goes against penal substitution, rather it shows the big picture side of it as does theosis which is only possible because of it. St. John Cassian in explaining why prayers are offered at the sixth hour teaches atonement. St. Athanasius the Great explains that we couldn’t pay for our sin because we are impure but Christ did it for us, God could not retract the penalty for sin and just pretend it never happened, without violating HIs own integrity, leaving His creation to dither off into more and more destruction was unthinkable, but God the Son becoming an unfallen man could do so.

    The problem comes when we ignore the Old Testament basis of the New Testament, Jesus is the Passover Lamb that the lamb prefigured, and the sin offering sacrificial system and blood for the sins of the people brought into the Holy of Holies by the high priest every year, is discussed in Hebrews as being done better by Jesus The High Priest Who only needed to do the Sacrifice once, and brought His own blood in to the heavenly Holy of Holies.

    Blachernae-Constantinople AD 1156 was a synod held in response to a couple of deacons or something who decided that the Sacrifice was received only by The Father, also some issue about the reconciliation of God and man being accomplished in stages through Jesus’ life.

    It stated that the Sacrifice was received not only by The Father but by Jesus Christ The Son Himself, and The Holy Spirit, the whole Trinity received the Sacrifice. And the reconciliation of God and man was accomplished on The Cross.

    This presupposes the atonement sacrifice to God. This is not questioned even by the ones the synod condemned for their errors.

    As for who the price was paid to, think of it like this. Someone seriously pisses off the Tsar and he exiles the person to Siberia. So lets think of a king who exiles someone, and someone pays the fine due to the king, and the king sends for the person to retrieve him or her from exile. While in exile, one is living with various nasties and under the heel of the strongest. One is rescued from this situation, but not by payment to a gatekeeper or to some bully sharing the exile.

    In the Atonement scenario, the king himself pays the fine due to himself, on behalf of the exilee, who is then forgiven and retrieved.

    “Redemption” in Hebrew thought is not just payment, it can also be a raid to rescue captives. In this case, both, payment to the one who justly sent them into captivity for their sins, and a raid to free them from captivity, aka “the harrowing of hell.”

    It is only when people start thinking in narrow either/or terms, and lose track of context, that we get these soteriological problems. The idea of debt being paid to the devil may have started with Origen, and was in context of a pagan culture which had no sin offering concepts, in its false religion, because its “gods” were fed by sacrifice, something YHWH makes clear that He is in no need of. (the false gods are vampiric demons.)

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