Doctrine of Christ (part 9)

October 23, 2011     Time: 00:35:59

We have been talking in our lesson about Christology, the Doctrine of Christ. That is the section of this course that we are dealing with now – the Doctrine of Christ. You may recall that when I introduced this section I said that it comprises two parts: first, the person of Christ and then, secondly, the work of Christ. We have now completed our section on the person of Christ, answering the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” Today we want to turn to a new section on the work of Christ.

The Work of Christ – His Death and Atonement

The work of Christ comprises primarily, again, two components: the cross and the resurrection. The cross and the resurrection of Christ are two sides of the same coin, so to speak. We want to look first at the cross of Christ and what Jesus accomplished there by understanding how Christ’s death served as an atonement for sin. How is it that through his death on this Roman gibbet the world was reconciled to God and forgiveness of sins was made available?

In order to look at the doctrine of Christ’s atoning death, or work, we want to first examine some Scriptural data concerning the cross of Christ, or the death of Christ.

Scriptural Data

Jesus’ Own Teachings

First, what was Jesus’ own attitude toward his death? Jesus, as you read the Gospels, had a keen sense of his impending death. This was not an accident that caught him by surprise. Indeed, he fairly impelled himself toward his death by going up to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover Feast. What was Jesus’ attitude toward his death? Why did he push himself in this suicidal direction that he knew clearly would lead to his own destruction? Take a look at several passages – three of them in particular.

First, Mark 10:45. Here Jesus speaks of his death in terms of a ransom. He says, “For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” So he thought of himself as the Son of Man come into human history to give his life as a ransom for others. We will have to explore later what that means. But at least here we have in Jesus’ own self-understanding the idea of his death as a ransom for other persons.

In Matthew 26:26-29, we have Jesus speaking of his death in terms of the forgiveness of sins for many. This is the story of Jesus’ last Passover supper with the disciples, and Matthew records,

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’

Here, Jesus, through the bread and the wine, prefigures his own death, and he says that in drinking the cup this represents the blood of the covenant – some manuscripts say the “new” covenant – which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. So Jesus himself, as we see in these words of institution of the Last Supper, thought of his death as a sacrificial death that would be poured out to achieve forgiveness of sins1.

Finally, third, in Luke 24:26-27, in the resurrection appearance story on the road to Emmaus, we find Jesus speaking of his death as being part of his messianic office which he was to fulfill. That is to say, as the promised Jewish Messiah, he thought that his suffering and death properly belonged to the messianic role, or function, that he was to fulfill. Jesus says, “‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” This is in one sense quite startling because the messianic prophesies that you find for the most part in the Old Testament predict that Messiah would be a Davidic king who would establish his throne in Jerusalem, he would conquer his enemies, subdue the enemies of Israel, and his throne would be established forever. But Jesus evidently thought of the Messiah in quite different terms. Here he thinks, based on Scripture, that it belongs to the messianic office to actually suffer and die, and therefore he thought of his death in terms of something that he, as the Messiah, had to fulfill.

So in Jesus’ own sayings about his death, we find that he thinks of his death as a ransom for many, that it is a sacrificial death whereby his blood is poured out for the forgiveness of sin for others, and this is part of the messianic office that he came to discharge.

Paul’s Teachings

In addition to Jesus’ own attitude toward his death, we have the teachings of the apostle Paul about the cross of Christ in his various epistles. Paul has a lot to say about the cross. Indeed, Paul seemed to think of the cross as the very center of the Gospel which he proclaimed. He said, “I determined to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). So the cross was the centerpiece of the Gospel Paul preached.

There are two sorts of expressions that you find in the letters of Paul with respect to Jesus’ death. First are those passages that speak of Jesus being “given up” – he’s being given up to death, or handed over to death. The other type of expression is to say that Christ “died for our sins.” He died for our sins. So the first group of passages would be those that speak of Christ being delivered up or given up. The second would be the notion of his dying for our sins.

With respect to the first texts, Jesus’ being given up, we might refer, for example, to Romans 4:25, where, referring to Christ, Paul says he was “put to death” (that is to say, in the Greek, delivered up or handed over) “for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” That would be an example of these texts that speak of Christ being delivered up or handed over for our trespasses and then raised for our justification.

And then “dying for our sins” – this is found, for example, in the very early creedal confession that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3. Paul reminds the Corinthians of this oral tradition that he passed on to them. He says, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received . . .” That speaks of the transmission of tradition. What he received he is now transmitting in turn to the Corinthians; then he begins to quote this formula, the first line of which says: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” So right at the head of the Gospel message was this notion of dying for our sins, and it is found in this very primitive formula that Paul quotes and that New Testament scholars generally date to be within the first three to five years after Jesus’ death on the cross2.

Even more significant than the verbs, though, of giving Jesus up or Jesus’ dying for our sins is the object of the action. On the one hand, Paul will often say, as we have seen, “for our sins” – it is our sins that is the object of the death. On the other hand, he will sometimes talk about dying “for us” – where he makes it very personal. Christ died for our sins; but also he died for us. Have a look at Romans 5:6, 8, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. . . . But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” There, actually, we find both of them – the notion of Christ’s dying for sin, but also for us personally. Galatians 1:3-4 would be another example of dying for our sins: “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” There you see Christ’s giving himself up for our sins. More often, Paul will say that Christ simply died for us or that he was given up for us. For example, Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up” (there’s that verb again of delivering him up) “for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” There you see how Christ was given up for us. Or Romans 14:15: “If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.” There you have the notion of Christ’s death for this person. He died for this brother. 1 Corinthians 8:11, a similar verse: “And so by your knowledge this weak man is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.” There again you see Christ dying for this person. Galatians 2:20, Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me” (and then here comes the expression) “and gave himself for me.” Christ gave himself for me. 2 Corinthians 5:14-15:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all [there you have the expression died for all]; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

1 Thessalonians 5:9-10: “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him.”3 Finally, John 11:51, speaking about Caiaphas’ statement that it is expedient for one man to die, John comments, “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation.” So we have in Paul, then, this notion of Christ’s giving himself up (or being given up) or Christ’s dying, and the object of this can either be dying (or being given up) for sin or dying (or being given up) for us.

Jesus’ Death as a Sacrifice

Finally, the third point that I wanted to make, in addition to talking about Jesus’ attitude toward his own death and what Paul has to say about the death of Christ, is the notion of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice. The notion of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice. We find this in various places in the New Testament. For example, John 1:29; this is a statement of John the Baptist about Jesus, “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” Here John thinks of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb. Just as the lambs were slaughtered in the temple, John calls Jesus the Lamb of God, and in being the Lamb of God he sees him as taking away the sin of the world. So this is the notion of Jesus’ death as some sort of a sacrifice – a sacrificial offering to God. Then there is the Last Supper. Let’s look at Mark’s version of the Last Supper. Mark 14, particularly verse 22 and following (we’ve already read Matthew’s account),

And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’

Here the language is one again of sacrificial offering in which the blood is poured out on behalf of others. So Jesus also thinks of his death in terms of a sacrificial offering.

Paul also had this conception. 1 Corinthians 5:7. This is a very interesting passage because you don’t have this in Paul much at all, but 1 Corinthians 5:7, the second half of that verse, in encouraging the Corinthians to be like an unleavened lump of dough, where the evil leaven is cleansed out, he says, “For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed.” Here he refers to Christ as the Passover lamb, and he says our Passover lamb has been sacrificed, which is Jesus Christ. So he is thinking of Jesus’ death in terms of being like the Passover lamb. Romans 8:3: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin,” (or this could be rendered “as a sin offering”4) “he condemned sin in the flesh.” This expression. which is translated here “for sin,” is usually rendered in the Greek version of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint, which is abbreviated LXX. This is the Greek Old Testament that was used by the New Testament writers, who spoke Greek; they would often quote from the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament), and that expression that is here translated “for sin” is the usual rendering of “a sin offering.” So God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering; Paul is saying something very much along the lines of 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Christ our Passover Lamb.”

The Book of Hebrews is perhaps the book that reflects most on this notion of Christ’s death as a sacrifice. Look, for example, at Hebrews 9:11-14. The writer says,

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God!

So here he thinks of Christ not only as the high priest offering the sacrifice, but as the sacrifice himself! He is both the priest and the sacrifice. He offers his own blood like a lamb without blemish to God to cleanse us from sin. Then also Hebrews 9:24-10:18. So this is an extended passage:

For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshipers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings thou hast not desired, but a body hast thou prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou hast taken no pleasure. Then I said, “Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God,” as it is written of me in the roll of the book.’ When he said above, ‘Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), then he added, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will.’ He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,’ then he adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.5

Here the author reflects at length on the contrast between the ineffectual, repetitive Old Testament animal sacrifices with the single, efficacious sacrifice of Christ. He says that these animal sacrifices were ultimately ineffectual; they could not take away sin; they simply reminded people year after year of their sins. They were not effective in cleansing people of sins. By contrast, Christ’s death is unique; it is efficacious in cleansing once for all from sin; it procures forgiveness of sins; it sanctifies those on whose behalf it is done; and it takes away their sins. So clearly this author is thinking of Christ’s death in these Old Testament categories of a sacrificial offering which Christ brings to God on our behalf.

1 Peter 2:24 also has this theme; there the author says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” There he speaks of Christ as the sin bearer, the one on whom our sins are laid. This recalls Isaiah’s prophesy. In Isaiah 53:4-6 and 10-12,

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

And then verse 10-12,

Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

In 1 Peter 2, this is exactly the kind of language that we have repeated. Christ is bearing our sins, God has laid them on him, and then we are healed though his sacrifice, just as Isaiah says, “by his stripes we have been healed.”

Propitiation and Expiation

One final thought for today, as we think about the biblical material related to the death of Christ: This is the distinction between Christ’s death as a propitiation for sin and an expiation for sin. Propitiation and expiation. What are we talking about here? The key term here in the Greek is hilasterion, which is the Greek term for the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies.6 It indicates a sin offering, an offering to take away sin. Christ’s death is spoken in the New Testament in these terms, as a hilasterion – a sacrifice or offering for sin. For example, Romans 3:25 speaks of Christ as him “whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” There you have the word “expiation” – Christ is put forward as an expiation by his blood. Hebrews 2:17: “Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people.” Also, in Hebrews 9:5, there he speaks of the “cherubim of the glory overshadowing the mercy seat” – hilasterion. So that would just be a reference to this notion of the mercy seat, and we’ve seen Christ is put forward as an expiation in the same way. 1 John 2:2: “and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” And 1 John 4:10: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.”

Now what does it mean to talk about this notion of Christ’s death as an expiation as opposed to a propitiation? The idea of an expiation or expiatory death means that it is a death which removes some offense to God. It takes away the offense of our sin. Propitiation speaks of meeting God’s demands – meeting the demands of his justice. Some scholars have felt very uncomfortable with the idea of propitiation. You noticed in my translation that I read from, the word was always translated as “expiation,” never “propitiation.” C.H. Dodd, a great Cambridge New Testament scholar, tried to get rid of this notion of propitiation. He thought it was unworthy of the God of the Bible – that God would be this sort of angry Oriental King that needed to be appeased and propitiated. He thought, no, no, these references to the hilasterion simply refer to Christ’s death as an expiation. It removes our sin – it takes it away. But God doesn’t need to be propitiated in the manner of some petty Middle Eastern king. But I think most scholars would say today that the idea of propitiation is also contained both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, the sacrifices are often thought of in terms of seeking God’s favor. For example, Zechariah 8:227 and Malachi 1:98 speak of seeking the favor of God. This shouldn’t be thought of in terms of buttering up the gods in order to win their favor. That is not the idea of propitiation. That would be unworthy of the biblical God, as though we had to make sacrifices and offerings to God to sort of butter him up and get him over on our side so that we would have good fortune. That is a very pagan concept. But rather the idea is that Christ’s sacrificial death does meet the demands of God’s justice and hence served to avert the wrath of God, so that God’s wrath is placated. He does not need to punish us anymore because the demands of his justice are met by Christ’s death. So in Christ’s death we have both an expiation of sin – a removal of sin – but also a propitiation – or meeting the demands – of God’s justice and, hence, turning aside his wrath.

Those are just some of the biblical reflections on the notion of the death of Christ. What we will do next time, I’ll wrap up this section by saying a few more words on the biblical material about Christ’s death, take your questions, and then we will jump into a systematic summary and look at what the church fathers have said about the way in which Christ’s death works atonement for us.9


1 5:11

2 D. M. Baillie, God Was In Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), p. 82

3 10:00

4 cf. John 5:36, 10:25

5 15:24

6 20:05

7 21:44 Dr. Craig omits the word “not” in the audio

8 25:03

9 30:19

10 Total Running Time: 31:24 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)