It’s one thing to say “Jesus saves.” It’s another thing to say that “Jesus died for our sins, and rose again.” These are expressions of the atonement, the act by which Jesus took care of our sin problem and made salvation possible, or happen, or begin, for us sinners. On the popular level, this is about all that many people are prepared to say. Indeed, some people say that this is all that we need to say about the atonement and the work of Christ for our salvation.
Approaching a Question
But when you turn to the scriptures, and consider what is taught about salvation therein, you find that there are a number of different pictures and concepts with which this atonement is explained. What’s more, as you study the scriptures and the theology we draw from it to understand it better, you will find that some of these atonement models are better than others when it comes to explaining the whole picture more fully. Different traditions of Christianity at different periods of church history have tended to latch on to different models as their favorite or primary way of understanding, teaching, and celebrating the atonement.
At my conservative, but not fundamentalist, evangelical seminary, I was taught the standard Protestant penal substitution atonement model in theology classes, and a handful of other atonement models in church history classes. So on one hand, there was an “official” favorite atonement model taught, but on the other hand there was an open-mindedness to the insights of the past, even if we don’t make primary use of them. But being a catholic christian, that is, one who is concerned that I teach and believe that which has always been taught and believed by the Church in all times, I have been a little uncertain of how to deal with all of these atonement models, alongside the standard Protestant explanation, in light of the big picture of the history of the church.
As far as understanding the Scriptures’ direct teaching, I have found substitutionary atonement generally the most all-encompassing atonement model out there. Certainly, the primary elements of it can be found not only in the Bible but also in the writings of the Early Church Fathers. But there is something missing from substitutionary atonement, especially Penal Substitution, as it usually seems to be explained, which I haven’t been able to put my finger on until very recently. Namely, what is the connection to the sacraments, and Christian life and ministry and worship? As typically presented, substitutionary atonement is so Jesus-centered that it can be difficult to understand if there is, or even can be, any response or participation on our part. How does this spiritual transaction work? By what means is his atonement applied to us? How do we know for whom he died and rose again?
Approaching a Thesis
Granted, these questions, and other more frequent objections to Substitutionary Atonement such as the accusation of “divine child abuse,” can be and have been answered quite handily by many Protestant scholars over the past few centuries. That is why I haven’t ditched it in favor of a different atonement model. But one question still remained in my mind: if this indeed is the best atonement model, why is it not seen more explicitly in early Christian writings? Why are the sacraments so heavily emphasized in their teachings?
The answer, I have finally realized, is that the classic substitutionary atonement model emphasizes Christ the Victim more heavily than Christ the Priest. Protestants do not deny that Christ is our great high priest, indeed it is a great matter of faith and theology! But it is his death that gets much more air time and ink on the page then his priestly ministry.
So, as a high church Anglican who cares deeply about the Catholic faith informed by the Scriptures first, I would hazard to offer this supplement to the standard Protestant atonement model: Sacrificial Atonement.
Approaching a Definition
I should begin with a disclaimer: all atonement models overlap. Emphasizing Christ the Victor does not deny the substitution on the Cross; emphasizing Christ’s ransom does not deny his moral example, and so on. So as I seek to outline a model named “Sacrificial Atonement,” that is not to say that his priestly sacrifice is missing from the other models; I’m simply putting that theme front-and-center in the hopes that it will encompass the others in a way that’s more reasonable and biblical in the long run.
Jesus is said to possess three “offices” that in the Old Testament were used to guide God’s people: Prophet, Priest, and King. A handful of Old Testament characters can be said to possess two of those offices, and King David comes closest to functioning as all three, but no single person fully encompasses these three roles until Jesus fulfills them. He is the long-awaited and eternal King from the line of David (as promised in 2 Samuel 7:16). He is the Prophet “greater than Moses” (as promised in Deuteronomy 18:15-19). He is our great high priest (as taught throughout the book of Hebrews). As King, Jesus saves us by overthrowing the Kingdom of Satan, but most of our interaction with him as our King is considered a result of our salvation. As Prophet, Jesus saves us by preaching repentance of sins, but that’s largely a precursor to our salvation. It is in his Priesthood wherein Jesus actually undertakes the act of saving us. Therefore, rather than focusing on his substitution (becoming the Victim in our place) I propose we focus on the sacrifice (his work as Priest).
The Saving Work of Priestly Sacrifice
In the Old Testament, and likely the Ancient Near East in general (regardless of which religion), a priest has one job: to make sacrifices on behalf of others. Although the rituals could be very elaborate and various in the materials they use, the outline of activity (or the “order of service” if you like) is basically the same.
- Commit the Offering to God
- Make Intercession for the Offerer
- Bestow a Blessing upon the Offerer
If you want details, read the first few chapters of the book of Leviticus carefully; there are lots of specific examples there. The three-step process looks something like these examples:
1) Slaughter the animal, 2) Burn its proper portions on the Altar, 3) Bless & eat with the people who offered the animal
1) Bake the bread, 2) burn or wave it before the Altar, 3) eat the leftovers with the offerers
1) Make some wine, 2) Pour it out upon the Altar, 3) Assure the offerer of God’s blessing
When it comes to the priestly sacrifice of Jesus, the same format is used. I’ll give it some more detail than the previous examples.
- He announced at the Last Supper that the Sacrifice was beginning and agonized over it in the Garden of Gethsemane. His sacrificial offering was his own self – body and blood – broken and poured out upon the Cross.
- He rose again from the dead and soon ascended bodily into heaven to the “true temple” where he now lives to make intercession for us.
- He will return to raise the dead and save all who are waiting for him.
If you want more details, read the book of Hebrews carefully, especially chapters 8-10. And, not that I am one for simple proof texts, but the one verse that perhaps best encapsulates this whole Sacrificial Atonement model is Hebrews 9:26b.
But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
There, we’re told straight out that Jesus sacrificed himself (actively as a priest, not passively as a victim) to put away sin. And this he did once – in a single act – rather than through a repeated sequence of sacrifices or appeals, as the Old Covenant sacrificial priesthood had done. The New Covenant in Christ is founded upon a single sacrifice for sin that works perfectly and completely. We are saved by this Priest’s sacrificial work, and none other.
Finding Our Place
One of the potential drawbacks of atonement models that focus on Christ’s substitution is that it doesn’t leave any clear indicators of what we’re supposed to do about it. Indeed, this is a challenge inherent in monergism, the belief drawn from the Scriptures that God alone is responsible for our justification. The usual, and primary, implication for us is that we are to respond with gratitude: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit…” (Psalm 103:2-4a). But then the appeal to obeying the Law of Christ, and walking in the light, and pursuing the sanctification in the Spirit, although rightly explained as outflows of thankfulness to God, can still feel like something of a non sequitur to the inquisitive mind. How clearly does it actually follow that Christ’s death on my behalf leads to a new lifestyle being demanded of me? At worst, this can feel like a bait-and-switch deal.
If instead we take on the model of Sacrifical Atonement, emphasizing the priestly sacrifice of Christ, these questions are approached in a different way. Rather than primarily looking at our participation in the atonement as internal (being thankful), we are offered an external participation: the Holy Communion.
At the Last Supper Jesus announced his sacrifice was about to begin – “this cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Reflecting on the Lord’s Supper, St. Paul explained the teaching that he’d received:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? (1 Corinthians 10:16-18)
In short, the Lord’s Supper is our participation, or act of communion, in Christ. Jesus himself, with his own words, linked the bread and the wine to his sacrificial body and blood. And by instructing us to do this as his memorial, he instituted the ritual as an earthly remembrance of his actual sacrifice. He broke his body and shed his blood on the Cross, and then brought his sacrificial body and blood into heaven where he pleads before the heavenly Altar of God for the life of the world. While he carries out the intercessory part of his priestly ministry in heaven, he draws us into that ministry in the celebration of Holy Communion, where we eat the body and drink the blood along with him, both memorializing and participating in his Sacrifice. His death happened once but the intercession continues.
By involving us in his priestly sacrifice, Jesus gives us a tangible means of responding to his sacrifice and receiving assurance that we are part of his Church. This also serves as an anchor point by which Christian teaching may flow seamlessly from Christ’s atonement to our right living, from God’s work to man’s work. The call to repentance, the prior necessity of covenantal membership, the impetus to love and good works… it all has a link to the act of Communion. Chapters 10 and 11 of St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians contain a wealth of teachings along these lines.
Final Thoughts for now
I write this not as a rejection of penal substitution. I don’t think the classical Protestant (or at least, classical Reformed) position is wrong, exactly. It’s a matter of emphasis: penal substitution looks so closely at God’s demand for justice satisfied in Christ that it’s hard to see how we fit in amidst that complex interaction between God the Father and God the Son. By writing all this about Sacrifical Atonement, I hope to provide us with a fresh set of language to recast what we already know and believe in a way that both accounts for the biblical data and does so in a way that makes the most sense with the fewest stumbling blocks.
I acknowledge that I write this as a highchurchman with a more traditional view of the Sacraments than some (especially compared to most Protestants). But I don’t believe what I’ve stated here requires a specifically high church theology of the Sacraments to work. We all believe in the priesthood of Christ, we all believe that he instituted the Supper to be the memorial of his sacrifice. Belief in the object real presence of Christ in the bread and wine is not demanded for what I’ve written, though it certainly fits. What I’ve written here isn’t even specifically Anglican; I think it could be embraced by Easterners and Romans and Lutherans and Calvinists and Baptists fairly equally comfortably.
What do you think?