Tag Archives: Divine Attributes

The Blood of His Cross (9) – D. A. Carson

agnusdeiRomans 3:24-25 (NASB)      
Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed…

In an essay on the atonement in Romans 3:21-26 (in Hill & James (eds.), The Glory of the Atonement, 119-139), D. A. Carson argues on exegetical grounds for a penal substitutionary view of the atonement grounded in the justice of God. His arguments are carefully articulated and appropriately nuanced, as for example, in his acknowledgement that while ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion) is rightly understood to include the notion of propitiation, it is “simultaneously true that sin is expiated, indeed must be expiated” (130).

To my mind, Carson’s treatment of the text in its larger context is convincing. Carson rightly insists that interpretation of this key passage must be seen in the larger narrative of what has preceded it from 1:18 – 3:20, that is, the story of divine wrath on account of human sin and guilt. Nor is divine wrath antithetical to divine love, but both divine perfections are unified, for God “always acts according to the perfection of his own character” (133). God’s love is holy love, and his holiness is loving holiness. In this sense, the divine wrath is God’s personal response—the response of the holy and loving God—to human sinfulness.

The part of the essay I enjoyed most concerned his comment on verses 24-25, in which he notes that Paul uses three specific images to explain the work of Christ, and that these three images correspond to the three images of sin detailed in 1:18 – 3:20. Further, Carson insists that in Paul’s mind, these three images are interlocked rather than parallel. That is, these are not three options amongst which we can choose when discussing Christ’s saving work. We cannot simply pick the particular metaphor that appeals to us: the three belong together (129).

The first metaphor is that of justification, deriving from the imagery of the law court and addresses human guilt as a consequence of sin. The second metaphor is redemption, deriving from the slave market and addressing the reality that sin not only renders humanity judicially guilty before God, but also enslaves it. The third metaphor, drawn from the religious or cultic world, is propitiation. This metaphor addresses the divine wrath which has been aroused on account of human sinfulness.

These three metaphors also indicate something of the internal dynamic at work in the atonement. That we are justified “as a gift by his grace” shows the origin of our salvation in the saving, gracious will of God. The historical basis of this salvation is the redemption accomplished in the life of Jesus Christ. The means by which this redemption is effective is the propitiation:

The redemption (ἀπολύτρωσις) that is effected is accomplished by the payment of a price or a ransom (λύτρον). … In the passage at hand, the price in view is Jesus’ death, which frees us from death that is nothing other than sin’s penalty (128-129).

God is both the subject and the object of this propitiation: in his love toward humanity, God sets forth Christ as the propitiation, and likewise receives the self-offering of Christ which turns aside his wrath. That God is the subject of the propitiation distinguishes this event from all human-originated propitiations. That is, the offering of Christ is not an offering made by humanity to appease a capricious or angry deity. Rather, God propitiates himself in Christ. Although Carson does not acknowledge explicitly the trinitarian dimensions of this sacrifice, his thought nonetheless runs in this direction (131).

This redemptive propitiation is “in his blood,” which for Carson is simply Paul’s way of speaking of Christ’s sacrificial death as the “means by which God’s wrath is propitiated” (136). The mention of Christ’s blood is to indicate the nature of his death as a sacrifice.

Carson’s final comment on these verses explores the purpose of the propitiation as expressed in verses 25-26. Here Carson finds the deepest mystery and ground of the atonement: God set forth and publicly displayed Christ as a propitiation not simply for the justification of humanity in the face of their sin and guilt, but also as the justification of God himself (138). Carson acknowledges that this interpretation requires a different nuance of the term “God’s righteousness” in this verse than that found in verse 21. In the earlier verse it refers to God’s activity of justifying his sinful people; “here it refers to something intrinsic to God’s character” (138). Paul’s words in verse 26 emphasise this contention: “for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

“That he would be just.” The cross is the ultimate expression not only of God’s grace and love, but also of his righteousness and justice (the same Greek word is used for both these terms). In and through the blood of Christ—his sacrificial death—God has both satisfied his own righteousness and saved, forgiven and cleansed his sinful people.

The Blood of His Cross (6) – Kevin Vanhoozer (i)

agnusdeiIn his excellent survey of modern atonement theories, Kevin Vanhoozer identifies seven lines of thought (“Atonement” in Kapic & McCormack (eds), Mapping Modern Theology). The classic lines of atonement theology were, of course, laid down a thousand years ago by Anselm and Abelard in the so-called objective and subjective theories of atonement. The Reformers focussed primarily on the former, while in the nineteenth century the ‘turn to the subject’ in philosophy was echoed by a similar ‘(re)turn to the subject’ in atonement theology. The rise of psychology, an emphasis on human history and experience, and a rejection of divine retribution all contributed to a new focus on Abelard’s approach (178). The first five lines of modern atonement theology are characterised by Vanhoozer as:

  1. Jesus’ spirituality and socio-politics: Jesus, the exemplary human, communicates divine love, a consciousness of forgiveness, a new consciousness of God, and a new ideal of sociality and justice (Schleiermacher, Harnack, Ritschl, and Theodore Jennings). The cross overcomes our enmity towards God and calls us to a new way of life.
  2. From Substitution to Representation: Incarnation as Atonement. Atonement occurs not simply in the death of Jesus but in the entirety of his life. The focus is more ontological than moral, more incarnational and participatory, though the question arises, how one does participate. (Irving, McLeod Campbell, T. F. Torrance).
  3. Non-Violent Atonement: the cross is not an atonement as such, but an exposure of the myth of violence, a divine refusal to overcome sacrifice and violence with more violence. Sacrifice and violence are not redemptive but self-perpetuating; God never uses them, nor requires retributive justice before he can or will forgive (Girard; feminist, black and liberation theologies.)
  4. Christus Victor Recapitulated: the older account of the atonement demythologised: cultural rather than cosmic powers have been defeated in the work of the cross. Against the violence of the cultural powers which crucified Jesus comes the non-violent ethos of Jesus in the face of violence. This is not a passive submission to violence, but its unmasking through non-violent forgiveness and witness to the reign of God (Aulen, Wink, Weaver).
  5. The Cross as an Event in God’s Being: Hegel proposes a metaphysical account in which God overcomes the estrangement between the finite and the infinite by taking alienation and the finite into his own being and overcoming it. God is the reconciliation, the overcoming of opposites. Moltmann proposes a similar eschatological account of the cross as death in God, in which the event of the cross is constitutive of God’s nature as suffering love that takes the whole of created history into itself. Barth, too, sees the cross as an event in God’s being, but as the outworking of the divine self-determination established in the divine election. “The cross is not a contingency plan but part of the content of God’s self-determination to be our God and to embrace humanity as his covenant partner” (195).

Following this survey Vanhoozer questions the place of penal substitution in modern evangelical theology noting that it is both criticised and defended by different groups and theologians from within the evangelical camp.

One merit of the penal substitution view is the clarity and conciseness with which it is able to answer the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” The answer: in order to bear the condemnation (penal) in our place (substitution). … The outstanding question for evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic now concerns not only the legitimacy of penal substitution but its centrality: is it merely one among many possible models, first among equals, or the one true explanation? (197, 199)

Vanhoozer’s comment about defenders and detractors of the doctrine shows these two groups dividing along classic Anselmian-Abelardian lines: “While defenders of penal substitution affirmed divine justice and human guilt, it detractors…emphasized divine love and human repentance” (197).

The seventh line of modern atonement theology is identified as a “unified” or “non-reductive” approach, in which proponents seek to bridge the divides between various models and incorporate the various strengths of each (Sherman, Boersma, Spence). In the end, Vanhoozer too adopts a unitive approach understanding the atonement in terms of ‘triune covenantal mediation.’ Vanhoozer refuses to play one set of divine attributes off against another: “God is all that he is—all holy, all loving, all just, all merciful—in all that he does. The cross, as the sum of divine wisdom, displays all the divine perfections.” Further,

The cross is the climax of the history of the Son’s covenantal mediation, the culmination of the whole triune economy of redemption. The shed blood is a graphic sign that God has proved faithful to his Abrahamic promise (Gen. 17) precisely by undergoing the sanctions, legal (i.e. death by execution) and relational (i.e. exile), for covenant disobedience (Deut. 28:15-68). By dying for us, Jesus makes possible new and expanded ‘in-law’ relationships (Rom. 5:15-19; 8:15), giving us a share in his Sonship (201).

It is clear, however, that while Vanhoozer seeks to include the positive contribution of all the approaches, he prioritises the objective nature of the atonement as the ground by which the subjective response might be realised. The ‘penal’ nature of the atonement is still present but reimagined within a broader covenantal context and narrative. Jesus’ death is for us and in our place, a redemptive suffering on our behalf. His blood plays a positive role: as witness that he has borne the legal and relational covenant sanctions for us—rejection and death—that we might be given a share in his divine Sonship.