What Do We Believe About...Jesus Died For Us?
Mark 10:41-45; Matthew 26:26-29; Romans 5:6-11; Hebrews 9:18-26
Rev. Doug Van Doren
The sermon series in which I have been engaged in my last few sermons and my next few was prompted by a number of things I hear, or that seem to be assumed as part of, or central to, Christianity. They, however, are not. In fact, some of them are counter to the Christianity I think best follows the person of Jesus.
Sometimes we don't believe these things, but feel like we ought to. Sometimes we just ignore them; but then there is a disconnect between our religious life and the rest of our life. Sometimes these false, or at least limited notions, drive people away from religion. Sometimes they prevent us from moving into a deeper experience of the joy and power of faith.
For instance, I dealt with interpretation of the Bible the first Sunday because most of us have had someone tell us that if we don't believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, we are not real Christians. On the other hand, how many times have I had someone say to me, "I just don't believe in the Bible." I say, "What don't you believe about it." Well, "I don't believe all that stuff happened." To which I say, "Dah, neither do I!" Or, as we dealt with last week, the seeming unquestioned assumption that the Bible has a "traditional" family model, as known today, and that Jesus and the New Testament laud the traditional family model - which they most certainly do not.
Take today's topic. How many times has someone said to me, "I don't believe in God." I say, "Describe the God you don't believe in." "I don't believe in a vengeful God, I don't believe in a God who would sacrifice his own son. What kind of a God is that?" To which I reply, "I don't believe in that God either."
What do we mean when we say, "Jesus died for us, or for our sins?" How do we interpret a scriptural line like, "He gave his life as a ransom for many?" What do we think we are supposed to mean by that, or what do we think others, or "the Church" mean by that?
What we are looking at here is a doctrine of, and theories of atonement. Atonement literally means "at-one-ment." Somewhat more generally it means to be reconciled to God, to be redeemed, or brought back. Usually this is through forgiveness of transgressions. In the Old Testament, this is often referred to as "covering over" of transgressions against God. But reconciliation is never only to God. Biblically, being separated from God was always shown in being at odds with people. To be hateful and warring with people was always seen as rebelling against God.
One of the high holy days of the Jewish Faith is Yom Kippur, which began yesterday. It is the Day of Atonement. In ancient ritual, the priest said prayers all night in the Temple on behalf of himself and the people. A bull was sacrificed, and a goat, and at some points in Israel's history another goat was taken to the priest who pronounced the sins of the people in the community on the goat. That goat was then driven into the wilderness and off a cliff, taking the sins of the people with it. Thus, a new start is possible. In Judaism, the new year begins, and in ancient Judaism, this ritual preceded the Year of Jubilee. That is when all debts were forgiven, land or other property taken as payment for debt, returned, as were slaves.
You can see that the ancients knew how important it is to get out from under wrong doings that separate us from God and others. There is great wisdom and truth in this. It is also truth that this is something beyond what we can simply do ourselves in the regular course of things. Our hurts and feelings run too deep; our memories too long, our foresight too short. God seeks us in community with God and with one another. Religiously and ritually, we enact that forgiveness and new start.
The doctrine of the Atonement comes, in large measure, out of that covenantal, sacramental/sacrificial system of ancient Israel even into New Testament times. It is not in dispute that the Bible says, "Jesus died for our sins." Neither is it in dispute that this is a central doctrine of the church. It is called the Doctrine of the Atonement. (There is still, of course, a lot of room for debate about what sin is, or "our" sins. The language and images of the sacramental/sacrificial system likely do not best describe this experience of God for modern people. But those are topics for another sermon.)
What some fail to realize is that the Bible gives no clear theory (or theology) of the Atonement. That is, how Jesus' death brings about forgiveness and salvation. We need to know right off the bat that all theories of how go beyond the Biblical text. Now this may be more theological and theoretical than you want to go into, and that is fine. And certainly I don't want to beat a horse that no one is riding. The problem, however, is that one of the theories of the Atonement - which many people think is the only, or the major theory - is one precious to Evangelicals and many conservatives; and thus touted by many people these days. It is also potentially dangerous. That is the Satisfaction, or Penal Substitution theory. It is one that many of you legitimately bridle against.
This theory says that Jesus literally paid with his tortuous death an infinite debt that we owe to God. Because God is holy and cannot overlook sin, Jesus underwent the appropriate or needed punishment in order for God to be able to forgive people their sins. Those who wish to put this in its most crass form would call this the theory of God the Cosmic Child Abuser. Perhaps more accurate to the proponents of this theory, they would say that human sin incurs a debt to God that deserves punishment. God being both just and merciful wishes to forgive, but justice doesn't allow it. God resolves this by becoming human, suffering the pain and death of crucifixion as a substitute for the punishment we humans deserve. Thus, the debt having been paid, a just God can offer forgiveness - when and if we humans respond in faith to Jesus, then God accepts the suffering of Jesus as a payment for our sin. (C.S. Evans, The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith, p. 82 Oxford.) This is far from the only, nor was it the first, theory of the Atonement. It was first put forward by Anselm who became Bishop of Canterbury in the late 11th and early 12th century, and was more defined and given particular voracity by John Calvin. That is the John Calvin of the "Total Depravity" theory of humanity.
This theory is not necessarily at odds with the specific language about Atonement in the New Testament. A couple lines in the New Testament can be interpreted that way, like "he gave his life as a ransom for many." Or some would say, language equating Jesus to the Lamb of God, or the sacrificial lamb. But that certainly is not the only or necessarily the best reading even of those lines. As Mark Mattison pointed out in a work on this subject, "Many Christians read the words 'for us' and mentally add 'as our substitute.'" But the Greek preposition is no clearer than the English and can as easily mean "because of," "on account of," or "for the good of."
The images and language and thus much of the understanding in the New Testament about the efficacy of Jesus' death come out of the sacrificial/sacramental system of ancient Israel. We wrongly assume that the animal, often specifically a lamb, was offered as a substitute for a human being. That was not, however, the understanding of sacrifice in Israel. Animal sacrifice was part of the covenant system. Blood was the sign and seal of a covenant. We don't know why, but probably because it was understood to be the essence and sign of life. It was the blood in ceremonial use that sealed the covenant: the blood sprinkled on the people that signified their cleansing and being made new. The Law of Moses never describes the sacrifices as substitutes. They are not, or at least as they evolved they were not, like the sacrifices of other beliefs. They were not done to placate God, like one would placate the god of the volcano or the god of rain. In the New Testament, Jesus death is not substitutionary but rather, sacrificial. The biggest problem is that this Substitutionary theory of Atonement does violence to Jesus' and the New Testament's portrayal of God. In this theory, God is a vengeful God and does not really forgive. The debt has to be paid in full by someone.
But this runs counter to the New Testament's portrayal of God. In Mark 2:5 and many other places, Jesus simply pronounces a person's sins forgiven. In fact, Jesus taught that God's forgiveness is available to sinners. That God will not forgive unless a debt for our sin is paid in full is nowhere in the scripture. What Jesus says about forgiveness in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is just the opposite. In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Jesus directly commands us to forgive those who trespass against us without demanding repayment, and he commands us to forgive others as our "Father in heaven forgives us" in the Lord's Prayer. We also see Jesus forgive his executioners and those that denied and forsook him. Even in the Old Testament, God is seen as a God who will forgive us as long as we turn away from our sin.
If sin is debt that must be paid with a price, then all humans and all humanity owe an infinite debt requiring infinite payment. Somehow, Jesus would need to incur infinite punishment or suffering beyond what other people have suffered in torture and execution which certainly is not the case, but seems to be what was behind Mel Gibson's graphic depiction of the scourging and crucifixion in The Passion of the Christ.
On the one hand, this theory can be seen to take sin seriously. Too often we downplay our propensity to sin and the consequences of alienation from God and each other. The horror we do sometimes to the ones we are closest to, and sometimes in the name of religion or nation - often both wrapped up together - is taken seriously by God. It alienates us from God and keeps us from the reign God is bringing about. Though forgiveness is of God, it requires repentance and the continuing work of faithfulness and responsibility on our part. We are enabled to live differently, to follow and emulate Christ. Too often, people use this theory to say, Jesus suffered, Jesus served, Jesus paid the price, I don't have to. Too often people say, in effect, Jesus suffered and died for me, not for you. And I won't either.
You see, if we in any way see ourselves to be created in the image of God, and ours is a judging, wrathful God, then I believe that becomes our religious attitude. It is okay, then that some suffer, are destroyed, they are not us. We have no responsibility for them; must be somehow they deserve it. A wrathful God that has somehow made us right because we have believed rightly and acted correctly is very appealing. It seems like arrogance and belligerence have great appeal these days. Whereas serving, suffering, seem an anathema to those who are "right with the Lord." How can that be a faithful living out of a people who worship a suffering Savior?
Ultimately, I would argue that crucifixion is not a sign of God's rigidity and wrath, but of God's infinite love. Further, I believe it reveals the character of God: giving, self-giving, forgiving, who suffers our humanity, and suffers at the hands of our humanity, who grieves bitterly when we are lost, and rejoices wildly when we are found. I believe this is the experience of God that our Biblical forebears were trying to describe by using the system of thought and language available to them, that is, the sacrificial/sacramental system.
I have used the sacrificial system's image and language of the Bible in this sermon as this is the language the doctrine of the Atonement is wrapped in. It is the language the Church has used, particularly those for whom this theory is so central. But the sacramental/sacrificial system is not one that connects to us in the same way that it did for the Biblical peoples. Can we get behind the language to the experience of Jesus' followers that resulted in such a profound claim? Nothing less than the God of all ages and all eternity, lived and died for the love of humanity and the enterprise of building the peaceable realm.
I pray that the truth of the New Testament people's experience of God in Jesus, an experience given great meaning by, but also limited by their sacrificial/sacramental frame of reference, would invite us to that same truth, to that same experience of God. That is, an experience of a relationship with a God so full, so loving, so powerful, that, as Paul put it, "neither life, nor death... nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God, in (as seen in) Christ Jesus our Lord."