These are notes from my reading John R. W. Stott’s classic book, The Cross of Christ.
“Images” of salvation (or the atonement) is a better term than “theories.” Theories are usually abstract and speculative concepts, where biblical images are concrete pictures and belong to the data of revelation.
- Propitiation introduces us to rituals at a shrine
- Redemption, to a transaction in the marketplace
- Justification, to proceedings in a courtroom
- Reconciliation, to experiences in a home or family
- Substitution is not a theory, but the foundation of these all
Propitiation: Romans 3:24-25, 1 John 2:1-4, 4:10 – to propitiate someone is to appease or pacify his anger. Remember God’s holy wrath and his loving self-sacrifice of Christ, which was his own initiative to avert his anger.
This is a critical question: is the object of the atoning action God or man? If the former, then the right word may be propitiation (appeasing God); if the latter, the right word may be expiation (dealing with sin and guilt). Christians are less pacifying the displeasure of God and more as a means of delivering man from sin. At the cross Jesus expiated sin, he did not propitiate God.
Fire and brimstone theology has the idea of appeasing an angry God or that the cross was a legal transaction in which an innocent victim was made to pay the penalty for the crimes of others. This is not Paul’s theology, but came from the minds of medieval churchmen (this is not biblical Christianity).
- The reason why a propitiation is necessary is that sin arouses the wrath of God:
- His anger is poles apart from ours.
- What provokes our anger (injured vanity) never provokes God; what provokes his anger (evil) seldom provokes ours.
- Who makes the propitiation? In pagan cultures it is always the human trying to avert the anger of the deity.
- The gospel states that nothing we can do or say or even contribute can compensate for our sins or turn away God’s anger. There is no possibility of persuading or bribing God to forgive us.
- God is so gracious he gives us the sacrificial blood to make atonement (Leviticus 17:11).
- Remember that God does not love us because Christ died for us; Christ died for us because God loves us.
- What is the propitiatory sacrifice? Not an animal, vegetable or mineral, but a person. The one person who could step in was God himself.
In Pauline theology, man is alienated from God by sin and God is alienated from man by wrath. It is the substitutionary death of Christ that sin is overcome and wrath is averted. God can now look at man without displeasure and man can now look at God without fear. Sin is expiated and God is propitiated.
Redemption: we move from an image at the temple to the marketplace, from religious rituals to business transactions, from ceremony to commercialism; to redeem is to buy back by purchase or ransom. There is an emphasis that we are more than redeemed by Christ, we are ransomed by him. This comes only at the payment of a price, which then sets us free. The price paid is not “himself” or his “life” but his “blood” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Christ was the victim as well as the priest, entering the Holy Place by his own blood (Hebrews 9:12, Romans 3:24-25, Ephesians 1:7). In communion, we drink the blood of Christ not to participate in the life of Christ, but in his death, appropriating the benefits of his life laid down.
Justification: this image tasks us into the courtroom. Justification is the opposite of condemnation. Forgiveness remits our debts and cancels our liability to punishment; justification declares us in a right standing before God. There have been various objections to justification:
- Strong antipathy or dislike to legal categories in talk about salvation; it presents God as Judge rather than as Father.
- It attempts to dismiss the doctrine as a Pauline idiosyncrasy, originating in his legalistic mind.
- Catholic objection of the reformers teaching on justification by faith;
- The Council of Trent (Session 6, January 13, 1547) taught that justification takes place at baptism and includes both forgiveness and renewal.
- Also, that before baptism, prevenient grace predisposes people to convert themselves to their own justification by freely assenting to and cooperating with that grace.
- Post-baptismal sins are not included within the scope of justification.
Justification declares the person right before God, it does not make them right.
- If just means forgiven and accepted and right with God, then we immediately become what God declares us to be. There is a difference between declaring and making us just.
- If just is used to signify made new or made alive, then again we are what God declares us to be.
- If just means having a righteous character or being conformed to the image of Christ, then God’s declaration does not immediately secure it, but only initiates it. Sanctification is another topic, dealing with growing in holiness.
Faith is of no value in itself. Its value lies solely in its object. The justifying work of Son and the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit cannot be separated. Good works follow justification and new birth. Salvation is never by works but unto works.
God never acquits the guilty (Exodus 23:7) and never condemns the innocent (Proverbs 17:15).
Four of Paul’s key phrases summarize his defense of this divine justification of sinners.
- The source of our justification is indicated in the expression “justified by his grace,” that is, by his utterly undeserved favor, which occurs in Titus 3:7 and in Romans 3:24. No one can justify himself, no one is righteous (Romans 3:10, 20, 24).
- The grounds for our justification are that we are “justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9). There could be no justification without atonement. There is no pardon without principle; there is no forgiveness that simply overlooks sin.
- The means of our justification is indicated in Paul’s favorite expression “justified by faith” (Romans 3:28; 5:1 [“justified through faith”]; Galatians 2:16; 3:24). Grace and faith belong indissolubly to one another, since faith’s only function is to receive what grace freely offers.
- The effects of our justification can be deduced from Paul’s expression “justified in Christ” (Galatians 2:17), which points to his historical death, and personal relationship with him that, by faith, we now enjoy.
Reconciliation: this image is from the home and family and friends; it is the opposite of alienation. It begins with reconciliation to God and then to the community. It has to do with making peace with God, adoption into his family and having access to his presence. Ephesians 2:11-22 refer to the wall of separation, Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:14) but also separated from Christ (Ephesians 2:12).
How does reconciliation take place (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)?
- God is the author of reconciliation: it is from his initiative, not ours. We are reconciled to him; he is not reconciled to us. He is always the subject and never the object. Reconciliation presupposes enmity between two parties. The Bible uses words like, enemies with God, enmity, hostility (Romans 11:28, 5:10).
- Christ is the agent of reconciliation: 2 Corinthians 5:18-19 make this clear; God reconciled us to himself through Christ (past tense). It was finished at the death of Christ.
- We are the ambassadors of reconciliation: (2 Corinthians 5:20).
- Propitiation underscores the wrath of God upon us.
- Redemption, our captivity to sin.
- Justification, our guilt.
- Reconciliation, our enmity against God and alienation from him.
- All of God’s saving work was achieved through blood-shedding, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.