Dialogue on the atonement

These are taken from real conversations:

Covenant Keeper (CK):  Why did Meschiach have to die?

Anchorite: To defeat Satan.

CK:  Is that all?

Anch: Well, it dovetails with other issues, but that is the main point.

CK:  Fair enough.  Did Christ’s death satisfy God’s wrath against sinful humanity?

Anch:  Wrath doesn’t mean what you think it means. from an Orthodox perspective the “wrath” of God is a synonym for the inherent spiritual state of human beings estranged from God which has its origin not in God, but in human rebellion against the will of God.

CK:  So wrath of God means not-really-wrath of God?

Anch:  I wouldn’t put it like that.   God isn’t punishing us for our wrongdoing, but allowing us to reap the consequences for our wrongdoing.

CK:  But the Bible repeatedly speaks of God’s actively punishing sinners.

Anch:  You have to understand that the Bible uses a lot of metaphors and that’s only one of them.

CK: But it is a metaphor, right?

Anch.  Yeah, but there are a lot of metaphors.

CK: But God says in Deut. 28:22 that he will (active voice) plague covenant-breakers for their sins.

Anch:  Ah ha!  I’m familiar with your modern Reformed theologians.  That passage you quoted is from the Old Testament and relates to God’s “special dealings” with his theocratic people.

CK:  (Mutters to himself, “Marcion, thou hast conquered!)Touche.   Okay, this is going nowhere.  Let’s move the conversation.  The Bible says Christ died for our sins, so on the Anchorite gloss did Christ die for our sins?

Anch:  “Remission of sins and the healing of the soul are one and the same thing. Our repentance of sins is also our remission. Repentance means the change of our heart and mind, and our coming close to God, instead of living far from Him.

CK: This means that salvation is ontological, not ethical.  This means that our problem is with being human, not with rebellion against God’s law.

Anch: That’s right.  It frees us from death, and Paul says death is the enemy.

CK:  Yes, but Paul specifically links Death and Sin (Romans 5), so we are back to the discussion of sin.   On your gloss, what is sin?

Anch:   Sin is missing the mark.

CK: I agree.  What mark?

Anch.  What do you mean?

CK:  Sin is missing the mark.  What is the standard?  John defines sin as breaking God’s commandments, yes?

Anch.  Yes.

CK:  God’s commandments = God’s law.  Legal language.   Will God punish covenant-breakers?

Anch:  No, that is figurative for our experiencing the consequences of our bad decisions.

CK:  That’s not what the text says.  The text says God will cut off covenant breakers (Lev. 7:20)


A truism on penal substitution

A commenter asked a good question at a site which rejects penal substitution:

“Exactly how does Christus Victor save me from my sins?”

The answer:

In response to your closing question: Can anyone explain how the death/resurrection of Christ is linked to forgiveness of sins in this model?,” I would say: Focus your attention on the whole diamond — our God and Savior Jesus Christ — not just particular aspects like the forgiveness of sins, his vanquishing death, his rising from the dead in isolation from each other. Focus on the Person of Christ. Seek to have a holistic and integrated understanding of salvation.

Maybe I missed it, but was there an actual answer to that question?  Here is a tip for Anchorites:  come to grips with the fact that Reformed link death-justification-resurrection (Romans 4:25).   At first your dishonesty was annoying.  Eventually a lot of inquirers will see through it and call it for what it is.

Anchorites point out that Death is the primary problem, not sin.   To which I would say, “Paul links sin and death.”  Further, in the NT’s use of atonement language, the phrase “dying for our sins” (or some variant) is ubiquitous.  This raises the logical truism:  If Christ died for my sins, then Christ died for my sins.  Conclusion:  Christ death forgave my sins.   Penal substitution might not be perfect, but it best deals with these issues. Further, Isaiah 53:10 references the guilt offerings in Leviticus 5.  It has Christ dying for the guilt of his people.

If I say something like, “Christ’s death overcame the powers,” which is true, the question still remains, “Why did he need to die?  What is the connection between that and remission of sins?   As Michael Horton points out to Robert Jenson, how is what Christ actually did made pro nobis on a Christus Victor account?

Jesus, Firmament, and Prayers to Saints

Jesus = Firmament.   This is so because he is the only mediator between heaven and earth.

Earth (us)  ———————- Firmament (Jesus-Mediator) ————————— (heaven) departed saints.

You can’t talk to dead saints because Jesus is in the way.

The firmament, and this needs some fleshing out from the Hebrew, is the boundary between heaven and earth (understanding, of course, that the Bible uses heaven in a multiplex sense).  Jesus becomes the New Firmament. The Firmament in Genesis 1 is not simply the boundary between earth and sky, or earth and waters, but also the boundary between the waters above (which is the sea before God’s throne) and the waters below (which have yet to be gathered into seas).    The Firmament in this sense is “above” us.

While speculative, this makes infinitely more sense of the hilasterion passages of the NT.    Liberals and Eastern Orthodox hate the word propitiation because it suggests God gets mad.   Conservatives are on stronger lexical ground.   I think propitiation is a good translation of Romans 3:25.   It becomes problematic, though, when we move to 1 John 2, where it says Jesus is the propitiation for the whole world.   This comes very close to universal atonement.

Most good commentaries will say that hilasterion is (correctly) referring to the Mercy Seat above the ark.   If so, then Jesus is the new mercy seat who takes to himself God’s great fireball to destroy evil.   He is the Protective Covering between heaven and earth.   This way hilasterion means nothing about universal atonement.

John Barach has an interesting take on this.

(2) Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters (Gen. 1:6) & You shall not make for yourself a carved image … you shall not bow down to them nor serve them (Ex. 20:4-6).

The firmament is between the waters above and the waters below.  The firmament includes everything we call “outer space,” since the sun, moon, and stars will be placed in the firmament on Day 4.  The waters above the firmament reappear later in Scripture as the sea below God’s throne (e.g., Rev. 4:6).  Thus the firmament is the barrier and the mediator between heaven and earth.  It’s a veil, corresponding to the veil in the tabernacle.  The tearing of that veil represents the rending of the mediator (Heb. 10:20).

The second commandment has to do with bowing to images in order to worship Yahweh through them.  The images are false mediators.  So both the second word in Genesis 1 and the second word in Exodus 20 have to do with mediation.


More on TU”L”IP, falsely so-called

Steven Wedgeworth has done helpful work on the atonement in Dort’s theology.   It summarizes what I have been saying about TULIP: once you move outside the English language “TULIP” doesn’t even make sense.  Therefore, how can one seriously reduce all of Reformed theology to a controversy at one specific time, whose authors were merely responding to several loci of theology, furthermore the very wording of the appellation doesn’t even work outside the English language?!?

The Canons of Dort do not follow the order of TULIP. In fact, the acronym TULIP only even works in English!…

Dort does not use the language of Christ simply dying “for” one group, but not “for” another. Instead, it treats his death as being “the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.”…

This type of explanation is important because it does not limit Christ’s own value or worth. He being divine, his merit was necessarily infinite.

Were the fathers in limbo?

Were the fathers (Old Testament saints) admitted into eternal joy upon death, or did they rest in some limbonic waiting place? The former we affirm; the latter we deny.  Following Turretin (vol. 2: 257) we note: It should be borne in mind that limbo is actually a dimension of hell, not heaven.

  1. The covenant of grace under which the fathers lived does not allow for a limbo.  God promised to be their God eternally, not temporally.
  2. Christ says all live unto him (Luke 20:38)
  3. Christ does say that the ancients went immediately to the bosom of Abraham.  While I agree, since Christ is using this as a parable, I am cautious against putting too much weight on it literally.  Be that as it may, it cannot be argued that the bosom of Abraham is limbo, for Christ says that Lazarus received good things there.
  4. The prison in 1 Peter 3:19 cannot be limbo, for the grammar and syntax of the passage insist that it is the spirit of Christ preaching through Noah, indicating that it is during Noah’s time before the flood (cf Wayne Grudem’s exegesis, which I find convincing).

These arguments do not equally apply to the Eastern Orthodox as they do to Rome.  Orthodoxy does not have the same concept of limbo.  However, there are some similarities.  Orthodoxy does hold to a form of “spirits in prison,” which fits in with their Christus Victor motif (as evidenced in the icon of Christ leading Adam out of hades or prison or whatever).   Further, it seems to be a warrantable inference (on their gloss) that what is true of Adam, mutatis mutandus, is true of other Old Testament saints.  Yet, we have established that this cannot be true of other Old Testament saints; therefore, it is not true of Adam (if p, then q.  ~q; therefore, ~P).

An interesting project would be to apply the above reasoning to arguments about purgatory.

Discarding the copies

I’ve toyed with this idea in inchoate form for some while now.  Hebrews 9:23 says

23 It was then necessary, that the [z]similitudes of heavenly things should be purified with such things: but the heavenly things themselves are purified with better sacrifices than are these.  24 [aa]For Christ is not entered into the holy places that are made with hands, which are similitudes of the true Sanctuary: but is entered into very heaven, to appear now in the sight of God for us, 25 [ab]Not that he should offer himself often, as the high Priest entered into the Holy place every year with others’ blood, 26 [ac](For then must he have often suffered since the foundation of the world) but now in the [ad]end of the world hath he been made manifest, once to put away [ae]sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Geneva Bible 1599)

The background is Christ’s atoning death, and leaving aside the scope of the atonement for the moment, hopefully we can all agree that the atonement accomplished something.  Normally, we say that Christ’s death accomplished the reality of my salvation, and that’s true.  And those who deny that have a fundamentally flawed understanding of the Bible.   But let’s take it a step further.

The beauty, the “smells and bells” of the Temple were tied directly to the Old Covenant sacrificial system which pointed to Christ.  Christ’s death does away with that sacrificial order.     Most Christians intuitively know that.  I think the language of Hebrews 9 is much stronger, though.  If the old order with its external trappings are merely copies of the redemption, why would we want to hang onto them when the substance of redemption has come?

I don’t think this can stand alone as a proof for the RPW.  What it does do, though, is show as faulty any kind of inference to the Old Order to justify sensual worship experiences.

Transfer of guilt/righteousness is possible

One of the objections to the doctrine of the satisfaction of Christ is that the transfer of guilt (ours/Adam’s) and/or the transfer of righteousness (Christ’s) is morally and legally impossible.  Hodge answers:

“The transfer of guilt or righteousness, as states of consciousness or forms of moral character, is indeed impossible.  But the real transfer of guilt as a responsibility to justice, and as righteousness which satisfies that justice, is no more impossible than that one man should pay the debt of another.  All that the bible teaches on the subject is that Christ paid as a substitute our debt to the justice of God” (II: 540-541)

Planting the Tulip: Atonement

Things got a little heated in the last go around.  This one will be shorter.   The document can be accessed here.   This piece will try to appreciate what he is getting at, yet suggest that the EO model on the atonement does not fully address all biblical concerns.

RA notes:   ” Whereas the Canons of Dort is explicit in its affirmation of limited atonement, surprisingly a careful reading of Calvin’s Institutes does not yield any explicit mention of limited atonement (see Roger Nicole’s article).

This is mostly true.  Here is an interesting linguistic point:  The canons of Dordt do not teach limited atonement because atonement is an English term, not a Dutch one.  I refer you to my friend Steven Wedgeworth, who has done some clear thinking on the issue. (I am undecided on where I stand regarding some of the conclusions, but the historical analysis is very good)   One must ask, though, if absence of evidence is evidence of absence.  The debate on whether Calvin taught LA has gone back and forth.  The current scholarly view is “kind of.”  I think it is best to say that Calvin addressed both concerns depending on which perspective was in play (I’ll explain in a bit below).

RA then gives a list of quotes showing that Christ died for the “world.”  He then rebuts the common Reformed gloss on these texts:

The real challenge for those who appeal to the above passages lies in the semantic tactics used by Calvinists in which they argue that “all” and “the world” are not to be taken literally but as referring to only those predestined for salvation.
My thoughts on the semantic gloss are a bit different from most Reformed. I think the gloss is defensible and the denial of it entails problems for those who hold to unlimited atonement, but I also understand why most people are not satisfied with it.   While using this gloss isn’t my preferred tactic, I must say that he hasn’t fully given all of the semantic thrust that the Reformed use.  For example, when the Pharisees, speaking of Jesus’ popularity, say, “The whole world has gone after him.”  Did they really mean every individual on planet earth?  If not, then can we not at least grant that the Reformed are justified in glossing world to mean not necessarily every individual on planet Earth?
RA then points us to historical theology (I tried to do that last time and I was told to stick to Calvin and the Confessions).
This is where historical theology can help us assess the competing truth claims. The advantage of historical theology is two-fold: (1) it enables us to understand the historical and social forces that shaped Calvinists’ exegesis and (2) it enables us to determine the extent to which Calvin’s theology reflected the mainstream of historic Christianity or to what extent Calvin’s theology became deviant and heretical.
This isn’t a bad set up, but I had to read it several times to see where he was going with it.  I originally thought that he was going to use historical theology to assess Calvin’s view of the atonement, since this paragraph is included in the heading on the atonement, but I think he is actually meaning it to refer to the rest of his essay.  My argument and response can go with either.  He then gives us three quotes (Irenaus, John of the Ladder, and Chrysostom) to show God’s universal love towards humanity.  By doing that he (presumably) intends to show that the early church universal held to ????
This is where it gets kind of confusing.  I am not entirely persuaded that listing the views of three fathers warrants an inductive inference to the patrum consensus (including all the problems that the patrum consensus entails).   I do acknowledge, however, that most of the Fathers probably agree with his claim that God’s love is universal (however, I would point the reader to Gibbon’s comments on Tertullian; it’s funny.  Go find them.).  My difficulty in evaluating it is that it is not simply enough to say that God’s love is universal.  Other questions arise:  is his love the same in quality towards the objects of his love (Jacob have I loved; Esau I hated)?
Refocusing the Reformed View of Atonement
I was surprised that he did not mention Gustav Aulen’s Christus Victor model, since many Fathers held to it.  The Reformed simply ask this question, “Did Christ’s death do anything regarding the believer’s relation to sin and guilt?”   The Reformed simply point to the biblical evidence that Christ died for our sins, understanding sin to be a violation of God’s law.  This raises the next question:  if Christ died for everyone’s sin, isn’t everyone saved?
Calvin knew this. He might not have stated it in so many words, but it was common enough knowledge in the middle ages.   The scholastics distinguished between the sufficiency of the atonement and the efficiency of the atonement.  If the question before the house is whether Christ’s death was sufficient for the whole world, then who doesn’t believe in unlimited atonement?  If the question is whether Christ’s death is efficient for the whole world, then even the staunchest Arminian and revivalist semi-Pelagian believes it was limited.
The problem is that when people use the term “atonement” today, they usually mean expiation, in which case we all believe in an unlimited atonement.  If by atonement we mean propitiation, then we believe in an unlimited atonement.
People can complain about legal language all they want, but the fact of the matter is that the Bible is replete with it. “Wages of sin” (Rom. 6), “Certificate of debts” (Eph. 2).  We have no problem with language of Christ’s victory over death or our union with Christ, but I have yet to see an EO apologist incorporate imputation-language and legal-language into their own theories of the atonement.    If we do not have a robust view of legal language and categories, then we must own up to several questions:

Towards a definite atonement theology

From a friend of mine on goodreads


  • Connection between High Priest’s role and Day of Atonement
  • Sacrifices were made for covenant members
  • Sacrifices were always made with intercession.
  • Jesus specifically said he wasn’t interceding for all.
  • If Jesus died for you, he is your high priest.

Can you find imputation?

I have been critical of the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness for the past seven years.  Even when Reformed, I held it at arm’s length.   I still don’t think a lot of the proof-texts for it are all that convincing.  However, hints of the doctrine are there.  Consider Romans 8:2:  “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us,” speaking of Christ’s death.

It seems that Christ fulfilled the law and that fulfillment has something to do with our salvation.   For sure, this isn’t the full imputational theology found in 19th century Southern Presbyterianism, but neither is it a wild stretch either.