Here’s a teaching I gave to my students from Matthew 26 on Jesus prayer in Gathsemene:
Peter Leithart, in his recently released theological magnum opus, Delivered from the Elements of the World, says at the beginning of his book that any theology of the cross must make sense or be connected to the Levitical cultic sacrifices (among other things of course. Leithart mentions 5 criteria for a proper theology of atonement: evangelical, Levitical, Pauline, inevitable or necessary, and fruitful).
Leithart says this about Levitical atonement theology: “a successful atonement theology treats Jesus’ death (at least) as a sacrifice, and it must be able to show that Jesus’ sacrifice fulfills Levitical ritual in historical events” (p 20).
The connection of the cross to sacrifice is of course apparent in NT letters such as Hebrews and the gospel narratives. But how exactly does the death of Christ “work” as a sacrifice? Peter Leithart takes up much of this book to bring to clarity the sacrificial death of Christ. First, he explains the purpose of the Levitical sacrifices:
[The] sacrificial system was designed to bring Israel near so that divine Husband and human Bride could feast together at the house of Yahweh. Yahweh accommodated himself to the post-Edenic, fleshly situation of Israel. Israelites themselves did not approach Yahweh but drew near through animal mediators, animals whose flesh was destroyed so that they could be transfigured and ascend, as the worshipper could not, in Yahweh’s presence. Israelite priests ate in the holy place but only under controlled conditions; Israelites could eat and drink and rejoice before the Lord, but only at a distance from his fiery presence. Israelites could not go past the cherubic swords and live. Israelites could not become fire to join themselves to Yahweh’s fire. But they could send animals past the cherubic swords, and Yahweh accepted the animals in place of the worshipers and Yahweh’s fire “consumed” the flesh of animals so that their flesh was turned to smoke and fire, “divinized” into union with Yahweh (p 138)
To make this explanation simple: the sacrifices were a sacramental means to accomplishing union with God. Israel offered these sacrifices, because they themselves were unable to ascend to God; they killed and burned the offerings as an act of repentance and vicarious self-giving, hoping the smoke could ascend to God and be accepted in their stead. This sacramental union was finalized when the priests ate the sacrifice “in the presence of the Lord”, which symbolized table fellowship with Yahweh.
Peter Leithart’s explanation of OT sacrificial theology represents a Thomistic sentiment. Sacrifices were seen by Aquinas as vicarious offerings of the self through the animal offerings for the purpose of creating union of God and man. The point of the sacrifices were “giving up” part of yourself to God; something valuable, something representative. This is why Israel offered animals, because they were comparable to income during those times. Even more, they gave the first born without spot and blemish. This was the most valuable animal. To give an animal like that was to give up part of your own income and wealth, and thus it was seen as a vicarious act of self-giving.
Moving on the cross, Leithart points out that the cross is seen by NT writers as fulfilling and finalizing OT sacrifices because while the OT sacrifices were vicarious, Christ’s was personal and actual. He didn’t offer to God a goat or bull, hoping that God would accept those in their place; rather, Christ offered himself in totality to God. Leithart says this:
[Christ] fulfilled the sacrificial system because he did what all sacrifices signified… Jesus did this in fact when he offered himself, passing through death into union with God like an animal sacrifice. (p 159)
So he fulfilled what all other sacrifices wished to fulfill: the offering of the total self to God. In fact, this is the point of the resurrection: it was simply smoke that rose to God; rather, God accepted Christ’s sacrifice and rose him up and seated him at his right hand. Sacramental union has been definitively accomplished in the person of Jesus.
But Leithar acknowledges: Jesus ” was not the first martyr to give his life to the God of Israel” (p 159). So what made his sacrifice different from all the other martyrs of the faith of Israel? Leithart answers:
The answer is, his identity and life. Jesus was the “son of God” in the Old Testament sense: he was Israel’s King, Israel embodied in a single person, and so his death, like the death of every king of Israel, was on behalf of his people. When he passed through death toward transfiguration, Israel went with him. More, Jesus was Israel’s king and Israel High King in one person, both David’s Son and David’s Lord. He poured out his blood, the life of his flesh, as Yahweh incarnate, and so his passage through death was Yahweh’s own passion, God’s own passage through human. Besides, Jesus’ entire life made his martyrdom unique. Heroic as they were, no other martyrs had lived a life of complete obedience to Torah. None had fully realized all that Torah required. Like every sacrificial animal, Jesus offered himself “without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14) (pp 159-160)
Jesus’ sacrifice was unique because Jesus was representative of Israel; and, borrowing from Saint Anselm, Jesus was man and God, which made his death utterly and infinitely more valuable than any other death of a human being. But even more than that, Jesus’ sacrifice was pure and without blemish. Because Jesus obeyed the Torah in full, he offered himself a pure oblation, innocent one, perfectly loving and just. God took delight in that and raised him up, and consequently, all Israel in him.
Aquinas said in his Summa Theologia that the value in Christ’s self-offering was not so much his suffering (although this doesn’t discount the need for vicarious suffering), but rather in the infinite perfect love with which he suffered. The entire point of the sacrifices was the give the self to God entirely: this is just what Christ did in the cross by dying in perfect love. And that infinite love was sufficient for the remission of all the world’s sin!
The cross is usually thought of as a work of the Son. And of course it is a work of the Son: a selfless giving-up — a priestly sacrifice — through which the sin of the world is forgiven.
But the cross is not just a work of the Son. Actually, the Bible presents the cross as a work of the entire Godhead done together. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”. What Paul means to communicate is that the whole God, not just the Son, was actively involved in the work of the cross to reconcile fallen humanity to himself.
But in what way?
Donald Macleod, in his chapter on the atonement from Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, explains that “as in every outgoing act of the Trinity, all three persons are involved” (p 255). Macleod explains firstly, that though the Father was not on the cross,
yet it is to him that the New Testament characteristically traces back the cost of Calvary, as if it were of his love that the cross speaks above all. But how, if he felt it not at all? If he has compassion for us, his children (Ps. 103), had he no pity for his Son? Did he not long to intervene as he did in the case of Abraham, and cry, “Don’t lay a hand on the boy!”?
The greatest indictment of sin is that even the divine love and wisdom could save the world only at the cost of God sacrificing his own Son. It was, indeed, a free and loving initiative, yet once it was embarked on, the sacrifice became a necessity. There was no other way. The cup could not pass (Mark 14: 35), and it was a sacrifice for both the Father and the Son. (p 255)
The Father gives up his Son, and he does not intervene in his sufferings. This is properly in what manner Jesus experiences the wrath of the Father. God lets him go; he abandons him. And on this account the curses of the law are said to be satisfied before the Father.
In this manner, the Father can be said to have offered Christ for the sins of the world. Macleod explains that while it is Christ who is priest of the New Covenant — and while Christ freely, lovingly, offers himself as the pure lamb for the covering of the sins of the world —
[there are also verses such] as John 3: 16; Romans 8: 32; and 1 John 4: 10 [that] speak of another priesthood: the priesthood of God the Father. Here is the heavenly archetype of the story of Abraham and Isaac, where the Father delivers up his jachid, his beloved Son, and where Father and Son together proclaim that there is no length to which they will not go to save the world. This is what “theories” of the atonement have to wrestle with: the cross not only as a demonstration of the love of Jesus but also as a demonstration of the love of God the Father. His, ultimately, was the cost, and his the loss. It is his Son who bleeds and dies. It is from his own Son that he must hide his face, to his cry he must turn a deaf ear, to him whom he can extend no comfort and offer no hint of recognition. (p 247)
All throughout this chapter, Macleod rightly compares Abraham and Isaac to the Father’s giving up of the Son. The Bible makes this comparison as well: “God so loved the world that He gave up his only Son” (John 3:16); Jesus is said to have carried wood on his back to the top of the mount, with no sacrifice but himself! Macleod concludes that just as Abraham and Isaac went up together to the place of sacrifice, “they [also] went up, ‘both of them together’ (Gen 22:6, 8), not as helpless victims of an unavoidable destiny but as divine persons who had covenanted together to share the cost of saving the world and were now walking together toward the pain” (p 255).
But it was not just the Father giving the Son up. The Spirit was also involved in the cross. But what did he do? Macleod says that the Spirit empowered the Son to (1) be the pure Lamb, having obeyed the entire law from the beginning of his life, and (2) “upheld the Son through all the challenges of his self-offering” (p 251).
Christ, in all humility, as Paul says, did not utilize his divine attributes during his time on earth “but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7). Rather than his own divine power, it was instead the anointing of the Spirit which enabled Christ to obey the covenant, and it was the same Spirit which empowered him to pain of the cross. It was by the Spirit that Christ refused to revile his enemies, but rather to ask the Father to forgive them. The Spirit was the power behind it all.
But one last thing must be said of the Father and Spirit at work in the cross: it was because Christ offered himself as the innocent victim, and suffered the violence of wicked men, that the Father, through the Spirit, infinitely pleased with Christ, raised Him up to glory. Macleod explains:
The loving, adoring Father, struck with the glory of his Son’s obedience, brings him back to life, raises him up, and seats him in the heavenlies (Eph. 2: 5– 6). He places that humanity, so abused by men, in the glory the Son had with the Father before the world was (John 17: 5). (p 255)
It is the Father, through the Spirit, who raises Christ to glory. Even the resurrection takes a Trinitarian shape!
Thus the work of the cross is entirely Triune. In it, the Father gives up his Son, and the Spirit upholds the Son; and because of this Triune empowered obedience, the same Triune God lifts the Son to glory. What joy!
I recently wrote a post on justification, in which I said, in essence, that justification itself has transformative elements to it. It is a word of pardon which at once delivers from bondage to sin and death.
This comes from Paul’s gospel preaching in Acts 13:38-39, in which he says that by faith, one is “justified” from all the things from which the Mosaic law could not free. I noticed that most biblical translations usually translate the word justified as “freed”: “one is freed from all the things from which Moses could not free” (cf ESV). My conclusion was that the impulse was correct: God frees us from bondage through his creative word in justification. Or, his pronouncement effects what it says.
After reading the post again, I’m not quite convinced I went far enough into the forensic or courtroom imagery, and that I didn’t do justice to what I was meaning to say (go figure!).
So, I want to add another element here that I hope can be formatted or integrated with my previous post. I still hold to the former post, that salvation is a declarative-rescue from the effects of sin and death, but it is also true in scripture that what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection is judicial in nature, or rather relates to man’s guilt before God. So I want to expand a bit here, borrowing from the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran tradition.
I want to concentrate on one peculiar verse from Romans 4: Paul says in Romans 4:25 that Christ was “delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification”.
I want to notice a couple things here:
First, Christ was delivered over for our sins. Paul connects Christ’s death with our sin. But what does he mean to say by this connection? Very simply, the death of Christ was the mechanism which released mankind from its debt or offense of sin. This is why the Bible commonly calls the cross a sacrifice, an oblation, a holy offering to the Father, which operates as man’s way to forgiveness; or as Paul says in Ephesians 5:2, it was a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God”, meant to compensate for the original sin and actual sins.
The Catechism of the Catholic church explains the death of Christ by saying this:
[Christ’s sacrifice is first] a gift from God the Father himself, for the Father handed his Son over to sinners in order to reconcile us with himself. At the same time it is an offering of the Son of God made man, who is freedom and love offered his life to his Father through the Holy Spirit in reparation for our disobedience. (paragraph 614)
His suffering was a self-gift, as self-offering, which, as the Catechism rightly states, “completes and surpasses all other sacrifices” found in the OT. It is offered to God the Father as a holy oblation of love.
The 39 Articles of the Anglican church explains his death this way: “[Christ came to] be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men” (Article II); and also: “[Christ] came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world” (Article XV).
The whole point here is that Christ offered himself as a holy sacrifice to God in order to take away the offense of sin. This is properly the negative side of salvation: Christ’s death and suffering made reparation between God and man. (And, just by way of aside, it is this same sacrifice which God the Father looks to in order that he may continue forgiving us. We sin every day, and why does he continue to forgive? The cross! It is eternal in its effects.)
OK, but what I want to notice here (finally we come to the whole point of this post!!) is that while Paul attributes forgiveness of sin to the cross, he attributes justification to the resurrection. Did you notice? Paul tells us: Christ “was raised to life for our justification” (Rom 4:25). It is important to note this; usually when Protestant scholars search for a biblical-theological import or corollary for justification, it is the cross. However, Paul says justification is related to the resurrection!
What all of this means is that justification, at least from this verse, involves a a union with the resurrected Christ that communicates spiritual life. I would also argue that justification, at least from the fullness of Paul’s corpus, involves the negative aspect of the release of sin-debt. Justification, then, it may be argued, is simultaneously a pronouncement by God of “not guilty” (or “forgiven” or “not condemned”) and a gift of divine life through union with Christ. Or, put another way, justification is a pronouncement of “not guilty” which actualizes inner renewal through union with Christ.
Hence, we come to Peter Leithart’s definition of deliverdict: Justification is a pronouncement of forgiveness and a gift of new resurrection life. Or, it is a forensic pronouncement which effects a deliverance from death and condemnation. The Council of Trent says this of justification: “justification is not only a remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man”. John Henry Newman defined justification in terms of a declarative word which was transformative: “[God] declares a fact, and makes it a fact by declaring it. He imputes, not a name but a substantial Word, which, being ‘ingrafted in our own hearts, is able to save our souls” (Lectures on Justification, Lecture 3, Par 8). God’s pronouncement of forgiveness effects ontic renewal.
And actually, this makes sense when one considers the mechanism of Christ’s own resurrection. Christ’s resurrection is properly effected by God’s declaration of Jesus’ own innocence and righteousness. Christ was put to death as a sinner and wretch by the authorities, but God vindicated Christ by raising him from the dead over all authorities and kings. Thus, God’s own judgment of Christ’s innocence effected his resurrection from the dead. They are one and the same action from God.
Newman himself calls Jesus’ resurrection his justification. Newman explains this way:
Our Lord’s justification, as St. Paul terms it,…took place upon His resurrection… Christ differs from us in this, that He was the true and eternal Son, we sons only by adoption; He holy by nature, we made holy beyond nature; but He does not differ in His justification, which, simply considered, was what I have been showing ours to be, an open acknowledgment of Him by the Father as righteous and well beloved, yet not nominally such (God forbid) but really. St. Paul, who in one place says that Christ was “justified by the Spirit,” (see 1 Tim 3:16) explains himself elsewhere by saying that he was “declared to be the Son of God, with power, according to the Spirit of Holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” (see Rom 1:4) (Lectures on Justification, lecture 3, par 7)
God’s word about Christ’s own righteousness effected his deliverance from death. Newman argues that it is the same as us: God’s pronouncement of forgiveness effects our union with Christ in his resurrection.
As we end, I want to look at one Lutheran scholar who has good insight on this issue. Jordan Cooper argues that Luther himself understood justification as both a forensic or declarative reality and as a ontological reality. Cooper says this:
Luther’s definition of justification contains two aspects: the legal and the effective. On the one hand, Luther confesses that we are imputed as entirely righteous through the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ, and on the other, he confesses that through the means of faith, we receive a new heart. (The Great Divide: A Lutheran Evaluation of Reformed Theology. Kindle Locations 3808-3810)
Jordan continues by saying that within the Lutheran tradition (at least for Luther), “imputation is the cause of sanctification and a renewed life” (Kindle loc 3813-14); and, “justification properly speaking is thus a legal declaration, but it is an effective declaration.” (Kindle loc 3827).
Cooper goes on to explain this principle in terms of God’s creative word:
To gain an understanding of the relationship between imputation and renewal, one need not go directly to Paul, but to the beginning of the Bible: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1: 3). God is a God who speaks. Not only does he speak, but he speaks with power. He does not speak descriptively, but as a divine potentate giving a command which is then brought into reality. Whereas human speech either describes, questions, or gives commands, God’s pronouncements enact what they proclaim. God says that it is so, and it is so. When God justifies the sinner, he is declared righteous and consequently is righteous. God’s word is a life-giving word and a creative word. As God declares the sinner to be justified, life is brought from death… (Kindle loc 3828-3834)
So then, justification is God’s word of forgiveness and acquittal which effects union with Christ in his resurrection.