Preached Good Friday 2022 at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Taylor
What does Jesus’s death do? The fancy words for this conversation among Christians are soteriology or atonement theory. It is one of the hottest topics in our faith these days and Good Friday is a good time to reflect on this question. I want to discuss the four popular views of the atonement and a fifth I think shouldn’t be neglected as we consider our Saviour’s death
- The Exemplar Theory
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! -Philippians 2:5-8
I used to dismiss this first theory as liberal, as something someone who didn’t accept the divinity of Christ would say. But this first theory of the atonement can be found in the collect for Palm Sunday and in the sermons of St. Augustine, so its not exactly an Enlightenment innovation. That is not to mention its in Philippians. Jesus’s death shows us how to walk in the way of the saints. He shows us virtue and humility and faith under persecution and pain. He shows us the power there is in not insisting on our own way. Cruelty and pride will abound while the old creation groans. We are called into Jesus’s example of humility. We are invited by the King of kings to take the lowest seat. We are empowered by him to thus be brought up higher. By being united to Christ on the cross our nature changes, our character changes, such that we desire to and by grace can follow his example. The Exemplar Theory answers the question of “what does Jesus’s death do” with the answer “shows and empowers humans to embody humility”.
2) The Ransom Theory
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 1 Colossians 13-14
The ransom theory goes something like this: The devil makes a good point in accusing humanity of not being worthy of the favour or love of God. His accusations are true therefore we should be surrendered to the justice system, the prosecutor wins, and we should pay damages. The ransom theory is that in the Old Testament sacrifices at the temple paid the price of sins, but Jesus’s perfect death is sufficient to pay the price of all the sins of the whole world. He is after all the word who spoke it into being. Jesus death pays the damages from our sins and ransoms us from the accusations of the devil. The devil then no longer has a place in the heavenly courts and is cast out where Jesus now instead intercedes for us. The Ransom theory answers the question “what does Jesus’s death do?” with the answer “pays the ransom for our sins”.
3) Penal Substitutionary Atonement
But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. -Romans 5:8-9
Penal Substitutionary Atonement differs little from the Ransom Theory. There is a price to be paid but it is not to satisfy the accusations of the devil but rather to satisfy the wrath of God. If God is fully just, if he cannot tolerate evil or wickedness who can stand before him? If he is only mercy and just cancels out his justice than he is not really just, he is not a God we ought to worship joyfully but only fear. Rather Jesus in the cross shows himself to be fully merciful by enduring himself his just wrath against us, and fully just by issuing this punishment against the sins of the world. What does Jesus’s death do? It endures the wrath of God for us so that we do not have to, and makes us worthy to stand before God.
4) Christus Victor
Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Christus Victor theory would have us place less emphasis on the death of Christ and more on the resurrection of Christ by which God shows himself victorious in Jesus, and in those united to him, over death, the devil and judgment. Jesus’s death is not properly considered fully if those remembering forget what happened on the third day. Christus Victor was a conflict point in Anglicanism fifty years ago and is a conflict point in broader Evangelical circles today. Some proponents of this view err when they say Christus Victor is true and Penal Substitution is false. Both are present in the New Testament and complement eachother. This, by the way, is the main reason I prefer the Book of Common Prayer to the Book of Alternative Services. The framers of the BAS were uncomfortable with the notion of God having a just wrath against us, and fair enough it is an uncomfortable truth. It is also a biblical truth and Jesus’s atoning death is a cornerstone of the faith handed down to us as Anglicans. What Christus Victor does offer us when its not being combative though is a lens to see the death of Jesus in light of his glorious resurrection. Christus Victor says that Jesus died to confront and overthrow by his resurrection the power of sin, death and the devil.
5) The Revelation Theory
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. -Zechariah 12:10
Finally, Jesus’s death performs the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. A Messiah had been promised right? And what was the Messiah? The Messiah was a descendant of David who would reign as God had intended David to reign. He would restore Israel as a people set apart from the pagan nations. He would be a Good Shepherd, a good king who suffers for his people instead of profiting from their suffering. The people of Israel had a clear sense of how that ought to happen. John and James the sons of Zebedee eagerly asked Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on his enemies to bring in his reign. The people by the sea shore who he fed with bread and fish were prepared to become an army to install him as king by force. But what kind of king was the Messiah, the Christ? Jesus showed them, in his death and resurrection we see in Jesus the kind of king he is, one who overturns the power of cruelty and makes grace pour forth from its symbols. In Jesus’s death Jesus becomes king, we see many of the Old Testament prophecies fulfilled unexpectedly in the manner of Jesus’s crucifixion. In seeing this we see God’s expectation for our relationship with power. In seeing this we see what kind of King Yahweh the Lord of hosts is.
May we receive all the benefits of Christ’s passion. Good Lord deliver us, Amen.