Stephen J. Wellum
In this post, we continue to reflect on the Bible’s rich, interconnected, and complementary description of Christ’s atoning death for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3). From the OT to the NT, Scripture presents the cross as a beautiful gem that can be gazed at from many angles, yet each angle is necessary to capture all that our Lord Jesus has achieved for us in his glorious work. In fact, the Bible uses at least eight different words, concepts, or images to describe the cross, all of which unite in explaining how Jesus becomes our victorious new covenant head by his penal substitutionary death and resurrection for us.
Last time, we looked at how the “obedience” theme linked together Christ’s obedient life and death for us as our legal covenant representative and penal substitute (Rom. 5:12–21; Phil. 2:6–11; Heb. 5:1–10). What Adam (and thus the entire human race) failed to do, namely render God his due by complete love and loyalty, our Lord Jesus did for us. By becoming the last Adam and our great High Priest in his incarnation, our Lord Jesus, by his obedient life and death, paid the penalty of our sin and secured our justification (Rom. 3:21–26; 5:18–21). To add another beautiful dimension to the Bible’s rich and multi–faceted description of what our Lord achieved by his death for us, let us move from the concept of “obedience” to that of “sacrifice,”
The NT clearly interprets Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for our sins. However, to understand the meaning of this description, we must not think of “sacrifice” in non-biblical categories. For example, in common parlance, “sacrifice” conveys forgoing our rights for some purpose—we “sacrifice” money for our children, or we “sacrifice” eating kinds of food for our health. But in Scripture, to understand what is meant by Christ’s death as a “sacrifice,” we must place the concept within the Bible’s framework and storyline; specifically, the OT sacrificial system (see Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 5:7; 11:25; Eph. 5:2; Rom. 8:3; 1 Pet. 1:9; 3:18; Gal. 1:4; Rev. 5:8–9; 7:14). In fact, this is precisely what the book of Hebrews does. In the NT, the most detailed treatment of Jesus’ sacrificial death is Hebrews, but it’s vital to see how Hebrews interprets Christ’s sacrificial death within the larger context of the biblical covenants, priesthood, sin and guilt, and the need for divine forgiveness. In other words, to think biblically and theologically about Christ’s death as a “sacrifice,” we must first think about priestly representation and penal substitution. Why? Because in the case of Christ’s death, he is not merely offering a sacrifice for us (representation); he is also becoming the sacrifice for us (penal substitution).
However, in current discussion about the atonement, it’s common for some to downplay the representational and substitutionary elements of Christ’s “sacrificial” death. One example is the influential work of Joel Green and Mark Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, 2nd ed. (IVP Academic, 2011). They rightly acknowledge that the NT’s “sacrificial” language cannot be understood apart from the OT sacrificial system, but then they downplay its substitutionary significance in two ways. First, they insist that the setting of the sacrificial language in the Gospels is the Exodus, which they interpret solely in terms of deliverance and not substitution, which is not correct. What is missing from their analysis is the representational, penal, and substitutionary nature of the Passover lamb. Second, they appeal to the diversity of OT sacrifices as proof that they are not primarily concerned with sin, which again is not correct. But from these two observations, they conclude that when the NT authors apply the “sacrificial” language to the cross, it does not require viewing the cross in representational and substitutionary terms. In fact, they argue the opposite. They contend that most OT sacrifices “had nothing to do with sinful activity consciously committed or with its consequences” (p. 66). For sure, they admit that some of the sacrifices were for sins (sin and guilt offerings), but overall the OT sacrificial system is more complex. Thus, they contend, when the NT speaks of Christ’s cross as a “sacrifice,” it should not be viewed as paying for our sin and securing our justification before God.
What should we think of such an argument? Much could be said, but my overall assessment is this: We cannot dismiss from OT “sacrifices” and the entire sacrificial system the concepts of representation and penal substitution. Furthermore, an appeal to the diversity of OT sacrifices also does not dismiss the legal, penal, and substitutionary elements of the system. Yes, the number and kinds of sacrifices are diverse in the OT (Heb. 5:1). But when one investigates how these varied sacrifices function within the Mosaic covenant, it’s impossible to remove the idea that the sacrifices atone for our sins. In fact, one misses the central point of the sacrificial system if one fails to see that it was given by God to remedy the problem of sin, our guilt before God, and to provide a substitute to bear our sin. To miss this central point, and then to miss how this point is applied to the meaning of Christ’s cross, is to miss what is central to his sacrificial death. This point is borne out especially when we remember that the OT context establishes three truths that underscore the relationship between the OT sacrificial system and its representative and penal substitutionary significance.
First, the clearest statement that the OT sacrifices were penal and substitutionary in intent is Leviticus 17:11. This text not only reminds us that the entire sacrificial system was God-given, we also have God’s explanation for why the eating of the blood was prohibited: “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.” If taken seriously, this text underscores the vicarious nature of the sacrifices—life was given for life, the life of the victim for the life of the offerer—and the God-given nature of the system as the means by which God satisfies his own righteous requirements. Second, in the book of Leviticus, the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16) is no minor event; rather it is the theological center that binds the two halves of the book together. Under the Mosaic covenant, the Day of Atonement was designed to make atonement for the sanctuary, the tent of meeting, the altar, the priests and “all the people of the assembly” (16:33). Without atonement, namely, the sacrificial lamb standing in the place of the Israelites due to their lack of holiness and sin, Israel could not serve as God’s holy people. Third, it’s impossible to sever the link between sin, punishment, and the role the sacrifices play in removing guilt and defilement and also averting the wrath of God by offering the life of a substitute (Lev. 16:22).
Why is this important to emphasize? Because given the meaning of the OT sacrificial system, when the sacrificial imagery is applied to Christ’s death, it demands that we interpret the cross in representational, penal, and substitutionary terms. In fact, to not do so simply implies that we are trying to interpret the meaning of the cross apart from its biblical context. In the entirety of Scripture, Christ—our “sacrifice”—can only mean one thing: Jesus, by his death, acted as our great High Priest and in his body, bore our sin (1 Pet. 2:24–25). For this reason, Scripture repeatedly teaches that Christ died “in our place” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45), “for us” (Matt. 26:28, Rom. 8:3; 1 Pet. 3:18; 1 John 2:2; 4:10), and “on our behalf” (Mark 14:24; Luke 22:19–20; John 6:51; 10:11, 15; Rom. 5:6, 8; 8:32; 14:15; 1 Cor. 11:24; 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:15, 21; Gal. 1:4; 2:20; 3:13; Eph. 5:2, 25; 1 Thess. 5:10; 1 Tim. 2:6; Tit. 2:14; Heb. 2:9; 10:12; 1 Pet. 2:21; 3:18; 1 John 3:16). Thus, in his “sacrificial” death, our Lord Jesus Christ acted as our covenant head and substitute, expiating our sin and averting God’s wrath.
But it’s also important to remember that the OT sacrificial system embedded in the Mosaic covenant does not appear in a vacuum in Scripture. It is also set within the Bible’s unfolding covenantal story that goes back to God’s initial promise to reverse the effects of sin and death by a coming “seed of the woman,” a last and greater Adam (Gen. 3:15). Here is where the “sacrificial” theme intersects and is interwoven with the “obedience” theme. What is needed to accomplish our redemption? God’s provision of a Redeemer—God’s own dear Son—to act as our covenant head by obeying for us and dying for us as our sacrifice. In fact, as one traces out God’s unfolding promises, eventually the Prophets anticipate the coming of the King-Priest, who will lay down his life for us and by his life-giving death, pay for our sin and secure our justification before God (Isa. 53:4–12). As Jesus arrives on the scene in the NT, he is the one who is the great King, the perfect High Priest, and the spotless and sinless divine Son, who, as our new covenant head, obeys for us in his life, and pays the penalty of our sin by his death.
What does it mean to say that Christ died as our sacrifice? If understood within the framework, content, and categories of Scripture, its meaning is not ambiguous. On the contrary, its meaning is rich and beautiful, and it is best understood in the theological categories of penal substitution. To say that Jesus is our sacrifice is to affirm that in Christ and by his cross, our glorious Redeemer, God the Son incarnate, acts as our new covenant head and our Priest-King. It’s a reminder that in Jesus alone, we have what OT priests and sacrifices could only point to, namely a Redeemer who truly saves and a justification before God that full and complete. No wonder Paul can proclaim: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” (Rom. 8:1).
Part 4: Thinking with Scripture about the Cross: Propitiation