But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been shown, and is attested by the law and the prophets, namely, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; being freely vindicated by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God publicly displayed through faith as a mercy seat by his blood for the demonstration of His righteousness through the disregard of the previously committed sin by the tolerance of God, aiming at the demonstration of His righteousness in the present time for at the present time with the result that He is righteous even as He vindicates the one by the faith of Jesus.
But God shows his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who will be against us? He who indeed did not spare His own Son, handed him over for all of us, how will he not also freely give to us all things with him?
The history of Christianity has been haunted. It has been haunted by what I call the “ghost of atonement.” The attempt to try to explain how exactly it is that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ contributes to our salvation. The intellectual attempt to reflect on this is noble, as the redemptive nature of Jesus’ death is indeed a central part of the understanding of the whole New Testament. But yet, the way the Church has tried to explain the atoning death of Jesus has persistently lead to the temptation to appeal to what I refer to as “intellectual ghosts,” abstract concepts that become reified in the human imagination, to offer a “theory” as to how Jesus’ death saves the world from our sins. Whether it be redemption from a curse that hung over all humanity as Justin Martyr explained the cross, some reified notion of ransoming from Satan, repayment for a debt of honor per Athanasius, some substitution for punishment to be delivered for sins, etc. the significance of the cross has been repeatedly explained by reference to some abstracted idea about a negative state of affairs, whether it be that of a curse, slavery, debt, guilt, that is treated not merely as a metaphor but as the metaphysical reality behind the cross.
The problem with the “ghost of the atonement” is two-fold. First, the Scriptures do not testify to these various “ghosts” in any sort of clear, resounding way that should make us confident about our metaphysical portrayals of the power of the cross. Most, if not all, attempts to find a metaphysics behind the cross are simply the intellectual imagination demanding an explanation of the cross that the Scriptures do not give. Worse than that, they often (unintentionally) mutilate the Jewish Scriptures and misunderstand Israel’s story to validate the overall theory. For instance, the curse in Galatians 3.12-14 is often taken to be a curse upon humanity, even though Paul explicitly connects the curse to those who seek to live according to a pattern of deeds derived from the Torah. The curse is a curse placed upon Israel for failure to upon Torah, not a curse upon the world.
Second, by searching for the “ghost of the atonement,” we begin to give this ghost greater influence in our worship and life, often unconsciously, to the point that we can even begin to portray the nature of God as conforming to this intellectual ghost constructed by human imagination. As a consequence, we take a is a reified abstraction, that is we imagine an abstraction of reality itself to become something real, which may even then come to be a projection upon God. The most glaring example of this is the picture of atonement where God’s wrath is going to send people to hell for anyone sin, but only because Jesus takes the punishment in our place can we escape this. The nature of a persistent entity called “guilt” hangs over us after the committing of sin is ultimately projected onto the character of God who stays angry at our sin except until God punishes it. However, this picture is antithetical to Israel’s testimony that God is slow to anger (Exodus 34.6). Insofar as this trickles down to the way we understand issues such as justice, sin, etc., this forms people to become somewhat two-faced, talking about love and forgiveness and yet being quick to anger like the portrayal of God that they have.
The problem with all of these “ghosts” is that they are a reification of abstractions that make them two steps away from the original thing they are derived from. For instance, the phenomenological feelings of guilt and fears of punishment become abstracted into the idea of guilt and punishment which is then metaphysically imagined as an inherent nature of reality where something nonpersonal entity of guilt and inherent necessity of punishment is given ontological priority over the significance of the cross. Ultimately, however, these “ghosts” are nothing more than simulacra that one can not definitively demonstrate in the Scriptures, but only pointing Scriptures that speak about the original phenomena. It is thought that original phenomena and the “ghosts” are the same things, when in fact there is a veiled equivocation that confuses the regular phenomenon we all experience and that the Scriptures speak to with the highly altered simulacra of reified abstractions. Even more than this, though, the raising of the “ghosts of the atonement” to metaphysics leads to the even more pernicious hermeneutical that sees the hands of the “ghosts” behind every passage of Scripture and even the study of the historical and linguistic sources that one relies upon for the study of the Bible, without demonstrative warrants for them.
Yet, if we pay close attention to the one letter of the New Testament that gives perhaps the greatest attention to the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus for salvation, Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see language that doesn’t describe these veiled forms of metaphysics. For Paul, the cross is not the satisfaction of some metaphysical reality or even the change of some theological necessity that God’s anger demanding punishment, that must happen before we can become saved from our sins. Rather, at the heart of Paul’s understanding of the significance of the cross is demonstration and participation.
When we read Romans 3.21-26, there is a clustering of language that pertains to the act of making something visible and evident. The righteousness of God has been shown (πεφανέρωται) (vs. 21). God publicly displayed (προέθετο) Jesus as a mercy-seat (vs. 25). God’s righteousness is said to be demonstrated (ἔνδειξιν). This clustering of language is not coincidental, but it expresses the very way that Paul construes God’s action through the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is demonstrative in that it makes something known and clear.
What is it that the cross demonstrates? The cross of Jesus Christ demonstrates God’s tolerance (3.25-26a: τῇ ἀνοχῇ τοῦ θεοῦ). Later, Paul says in Romans 5.8 that God shows (συνίστησιν) his love by Christ’s death. Then, in Romans 8.31-32, Paul uses the handing over of Christ by God as evidence of God’s bountiful intentions. Paul understands the cross to be the event where God so clearly makes His own loving character visibly known to the world.
To be clear, though, Paul does not understand this love of God to be forgiveness, per se, but rather the way that God overlooks all the sin that had been previously committed (Rom. 3.25). The logic of this statement becomes evident when we understand the Greek word ἱλαστήριον to refer to the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant, as it is used in the Greek Septuagint, rather than the more abstract concepts in translating it as a propitiation, atonement, etc. The demonstrative language προέθετο in Romans 3.25 that generally describes a public display gives a strong preference for ἱλαστήριον to be understood as something concrete and tangible. Given that the Ark of Covenant was to be stored in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle where only the High Priest could approach once a year on Yom Kippur after they made purification for their own sin, describing a ἱλαστήριον as something that is publicly accessible to everyone as God overlooks their sin best fits with Jesus’ blood as a radically new type of mercy seat that the world can see and know. Even though the world has not been cleansed of their sin, God displays a new mercy-seat through Jesus’ cross before the world. This tolerance of God, this love of God is not understood by Paul to be the forgiveness of sins, strictly speaking, but rather that tolerance and patience (cf. Rom. 2.4).
What then is being demonstrated? That God’s tolerance and love for sinners, even the ungodly, extends even to the point of Christ’s death on the cross. While we might think of this as how far God will go to save sinners from their sins, I would put forward a slightly different twist to this. The cross is the place where God’s mercy intersects with the beginnings of God’s wrath, metaphorically (and not metaphysically) speaking. Israel was so imprisoned in sin, even though they had the Torah from God (Rom. 3.9-20), that they crucified the very Son of God. They ultimately rejected God and His reign over them through His Son (cf. Rom. 1.3-4). How egregious an offense this would be. It is one thing to die for someone who is good to you, but it is another thing to die for someone who spites you (cf. Rom. 5.6-7). Yet, this is how far God is willing to go in sending His Son to die at the hands of the ungodly who set themselves again Him.
Yet, God’s patience does have an endpoint, where wrath becomes the final outcome. Those whose lives refuse to acknowledge God and continue in their sin and thus become full of evil are primed for God’s apocalyptic judgment of sin and death (Rom. 1.19-32), so that anyone who refuses to repent as God is extending tolerance and forgiveness is storing up wrath for their future (Romans 2.4-5). The cross of Jesus Christ was the wide-spread refusal of much of Israel to recognize God. At this point, then, people are at a crossroads, either repent while God has shown how far His patience and love goes towards those who spite Him or continue the downward trajectory that ultimately sets people’s hearts to be wicked towards other people. The cross demonstrates God’s loving patience with an implicit warning: continue further down this line of injustice and you will become worth for this death
While the logic of narrative is based upon stating that Israel rejected God through crucifying His Son and their Savior, this is not for non-Jews to cast judgment on Israel. They shouldn’t arrogantly embrace anti-semitism in response (cf. Rom. 11.17-24). If Israel, who had God’s Torah, was unable to overcome sin because human nature in the flesh is stubbornly resistant to God’s will and purposes, how much more so would the rest of the nations be susceptible to the same reject of God if He had come to the flesh to them. Indeed, even Pilate as representing Roman power didn’t have the character to save this innocent man. So, all humanity is implicated in the cross as what we were just as susceptible to do apart from the transformative work of God in our life.
Now one might make the accusation that much of this reading that implies the cross is redemptive by demonstrating God’s love in response to Israel’s sin is not explicitly in the text, much like I accuse many metaphysical atonement theologies interpretations of lacking exegetical warrants. This is true, yet at the same time I would put up that my reading makes coherent sense of the way the various parts of Paul’s discourse function as part of the whole epistle. Furthermore, I can offer up a good explanation why it is missing: because the Jews were most likely expelled for disturbances about as “Chrestus,” it is likely that now that they have returned, Paul would want to minimize any explicit mention of the past conflicts about the Jewish for fear of stoking the same conflicts again, or even inviting the leering suspicions of Jewish Christians by Roman officials. With this in tow, I strain to think of a historically plausible reason for Paul not giving a clear description of the metaphysics of atonement that many put forward as explanations of the saving power of the cross, while at the time finding most of them lacking coherency with the rest of Paul’s letter.
The reason the cross can have this sort of power is that the cross was paired with the vindication of Jesus in the resurrection, demonstrating that Jesus is indeed the Son of God (Rom. 1.3-4). This makes clear that Jesus is on God’s side, that He was the righteous one in God’s eyes as the resurrection of life from the dead in Daniel 12.1-3 was to be evidence of those people who are wise and lead people to righteousness. Thus, the resurrection makes evident that to crucify Jesus is to set oneself against God by putting to death the One who displays God’s righteousness. So the crucifixion can be seen as the great extent that God endures the hostility of the sin of the ungodly, with an implicit warning that comes with continuing further down this line of sin.
Jesus’ cross is God’s tolerance shown to the world, the great extent of God’s patient love made evident to the world. When one realizes this love, when one recognizes that God is willing to vindicate even the ungodly who set themselves against Him (Rom. 4.6) yet at the same time that God will by no means leave the wicked unpunished who refuse to turn from their sins, what can one do but repent of one’s wickedness and seek God’s help to lead one into a new direction in life?
This is where the demonstration leads to participation. If Jesus is the revelation of God’s righteousness and we are stuck in sin, then the step towards God’s type of righteousness, rather than the illusory sense of “righteousness” we might have imagined ourselves to have, begins where it was shown to the world: in the cross. As we offer our lives as living sacrifices, our minds start becoming transformed so that we can actually discern what God’s will looks like (Rom. 12.1-2). Participating with Jesus in His death and suffering (Romans 6.1-14, 8.17; cf. Rom. 5.3-5) gives power to our repentance, enabling us to realize a new life of righteousness through being also united with Jesus’ resurrection.
Yet, the appropriate explanation for participation isn’t some other “ghost of atonement.” Rather, it is the Ghost of Holiness, that is, the Holy Spirit. For Paul, life in Christ is made possible and powered by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8.1-17). Just as the mercy seat at the Ark of the Covenant has a pillar of cloud and smoke representing God’s presence hovering above it like it also lead Israel in the wilderness, so too is the mercy seat of Jesus’ blood paired with the Holy Spirit who teaches and guides us how to put to death the deeds of the body. To that end, we can understand Jesus’ death as the prophetic act par excellence that demonstrate’s God’s love and power that outstrips even the recognition that Jesus has as Lord with those who believe, but His own sacrificial act lead by the Spirit is also a taste of the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead and who is at work in the whole world through Jesus.
Therefore, the only explanation I suggest we need to appeal to make sense of the atonement asides from God demonstrating His righteous love to us through Jesus and His crucifixion is the Holy Spirit. Atonement is fundamentally shaped by the Triune God, rather than pushing God to the periphery of atonement to put whatever metaphysics one imagines to explain the atonement in His place. Such metaphysics may provide an illustrious show of cognitive smoke and mirrors, but it is the agency of the Triune God that is responsible for our atonement, as the demonstration of the Father’s patient love in Jesus Christ leads us who believe towards the transforming, resurrecting power of the Holy Spirit in our own lives. AS we look to the face of Jesus Christ, rather than to the “ghosts of the atonement,” we become transformed by the Spirit of the Lord who brings forth the glory of God seen in the face of Jesus Christ in our own lives.
In saying this, I offer it not just simply as some abstract, philosophical reflection on atonement, but as an expression rooted deep in my own life, in my own experiences with pain, struggle, trauma, faith, love, and hope that serve as a paler prophetic demonstration of the power and work of God in salvation from our sin and weakness of the flesh.1 Either I am a fool in all of this (but at least I am a fool for Christ) or I hope my life and experiences are a prophetic demonstration of this Gospel of Jesus Christ that I hope God is using to transform the world in Christ and through the Holy Spirit. Yet, this understanding is not something I came to myself, but it was only because of the gifts of God, including through the Diamond formed by heaven, who herself was a prophetic demonstration of God’s compassionate love that watered me while the Spirit was interceding for me in my time of great weakness, allowing for God to do a work in me that far outstrips the love I have for the Diamond, whose face demonstrated what the face of the Hyperdiamond, Jesus Christ, would have looked like in response to my painful weakness.2
In all this, I also have the Diamond to thank for helping remove my… mask.
- In case you are interested to know what I felt in all of this, music may be the best avenue to learn to convey felt over these past few years: Red’s 2017 album Gone encapsulates so much of what I experience, thought, felt, and discovered which I listened to hundreds of times while I was at the University of St. Andrews. It felt almost as if the band was specifically inspired to write that music for me to hear.
- A few weeks ago, I was seeing the word diamond came up a lot making me think of the Diamond. During that time, I was reading a book on chemistry that talked about the idea of their being hyperdiamonds. Right as I came to the word “hyperdiamonds” my phone without any input on my part suddenly turned on music to play worship music by Jeremy Camp from my Pandora station I had listened to hours earlier that day. To that end, I, who am not a superstitious sort, saw that as a small little demonstration of God that the Diamond is a demonstration of the Hyperdiamond. This also comes as I was being continually reminded about the Scripture that talks about treasuring what is in heaven rather than the world and I saw this as a reminder that to treasure her is to treasure what formed heaven in the earth as a beautiful, glorious new creation.