Below is an excerpt from Chapter 29 of The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology , by Kevin Vanhoozer. Dr. Vanhoozer is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He has also held posts at Wheaton College Graduate School and at New College, the Faculty of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh. He is the author or editor of twenty books, including The Drama of Doctrine and Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness, and Wisdom.
The Content of Atonement: What Does Jesus’ Death Actually Accomplish (and How)?
What did Jesus do to establish right relations between God and humanity? Why the God-man? The Son of God assumed humanity to fulfil the covenant stipulation (commands of the law) through his active obedience, to suffer the covenant sanction (curse of the law) through his passive obedience (death). The active/passive distinction takes its cue from an important insight of Calvin’s: ‘Christ redeemed us through his obedience, which he practised throughout his life’ (Inst. II.xvi.5). Everything depends, however, on understanding this obedience, in particular Jesus’ shed blood, in its proper framework: federal satisfaction by filial obedience.
Contra critics of penal substitution, Jesus was not the victim of divine child abuse. Jesus insists that no one takes his life, for he lays it down of his own accord (John
10:17–18). The eternal Son of God’s obedience is both loving and free, and is first seen in his emptying himself, taking the (human) form of a (covenant) servant, in which form he completed the course of obedience by dying on a Cross (Phil. 2:6–8). The Cross is not the fulfilment of a commercial contract but the historical outworking of God’s eternal self-determination to re-establish right relations with fallen human creatures and thus to reopen their access to his life-giving presence.
Jesus’ self-sacrifice is a striking example of filial obedience, more so than Isaac’s. Although some Jewish interpreters view Isaac as the hero of the odd incident at Moriah, the author of Genesis does not explicitly depict Isaac as a covenant servant (Gen. 22:1–18). However, the New Testament authors clearly say that Jesus learned and displayed perfect obedience by completing his mission (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; Heb. 2:10–18, 5:8–10). By demonstrating obedience, the Son of God made it possible for many to become sons and daughters of God (2 Cor. 6:18). It is by means of Jesus’ human obedience that the Lord of the covenant becomes its servant: ‘God himself, as the covenant maker and keeper, must unilaterally act to keep his own promise through the provision of a faithful, obedient Son’ (Gentry and Wellum 2012: 668).
It is just here, at the climax of the Son’s obedience, that we confront the scandal of the Cross in all its gory glory. Many people cannot stand the sight of blood, and many contemporary theologians cannot stand to mention it—and the violence it represents—in connection with God (e.g. Belousek 2012). Blood seems too messy, and primitive, to have anything to do with the love of God. Nevertheless, we must deal with the Gospel we have been given, not the Gospel we might have preferred. The New Testament presents the Gospel as an announcement that a new covenant has been instituted by Jesus’ blood (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 12:24).
Blood looms large in both Testaments as the gracious means God provides for his ongoing relationship with his people, in particular by ‘covering’ their sins from God’s
righteous sight (Leithart 2016: 112–13). Israel’s tabernacle was a God-given mechanism that enabled sinful humanity to dwell in God’s presence. A good case can be made for viewing Leviticus 16 as the centre of the Pentateuch and the Day of Atonement it recounts as the high point of the story of God’s relationship to Israel (Morales 2016:
23–9). The blood sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant by the High Priest on the Day of Atonement represents the life owed God as the giver of all good gifts, particularly life itself. Hebrews represents the work of Christ as both High Priest and blood sacrifice (Heb. 9:11–14) and suggests that Israel’s earthly tabernacle was but a shadow of the real heavenly thing (Heb. 9:23). Indeed, the whole sacrificial system of Israel, together with the law itself, were simply provisional pointers (Heb. 10:1, 14)—previews to the main event: the self-sacrificial once-for-all sin offering that was the death of Jesus Christ that purifies the cosmos (Morales 2016: 171). The liturgical drama of temple atonement staged a parable of the eschatological drama of the Cross of Jesus Christ.
The purpose of Israel’s law was to establish and enforce right relations. The law is not an arbitrary violent imposition upon human beings but, on the contrary, an expression of the law of their created nature: we were made in God’s image for fellowship with God. Hence the summation of the law is to love the Lord God with all one’s heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:5): ‘The goal for Israel is fellowship and communion with God. Because YHWH God is holy, the source of life, however, the requirement for communion with God is utter and complete consecration’ (Morales 2016: 124). Justice concerns what is due a person. Sin, the failure to give God his due (love), is injustice: the failure to live rightly in relation to God and human beings. Sin disorders our relations with God, one another, and the world itself.
Sinners owe the author of life nothing less than life itself. Jesus’ shed blood, a sign of life given—consecration to the uttermost; whole-hearted submission—indicates that covenant relationships have been put right. A righteousness has been revealed from heaven in Christ, for the Son makes things right—makes the Creator–creature relationship right—by taking onto himself the consequences of sin, in particular, the sanctions for covenant disobedience: not only physical death but separation from God. It is by thus ‘covering’ our sins—hiding unrighteousness from God’s sight by taking it away—that Jesus’ death satisfies God’s holy justice and just holiness. The Cross propitiates God by expiating sin (Rom 3:25; Heb. 2:17). Jesus’ sacrificial death ‘corresponds to satisfaction for us’ (Inst. II.xvii.5) because it satisfies not only God’s justice but the sum total of God’s perfections. What meet on the Cross are not justice and mercy only, but love, wisdom, patience, goodness, freedom, and all the other divine attributes as well. The Cross is where God acts lovingly to make things right in a way that draws on the fullness of the divine perfections.
The obedience of Christ accomplishes redemption by removing the ground of our separation from God—covenant disobedience and death—and by re-establishing right relatedness, which is to say, right covenant servanthood. In addition to reconciling us to God, Christ’s work also frees us from the dominion of sin and death. In particular, Christ frees us from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13) and from the necessity of having to establish right relatedness with God on the basis of our own works (Rom. 5:19). Ultimately, the sacrifice given on the altar of Jesus’ Cross opens up the way for a renewal not only of our relationship with God, but of our hearts and minds. Because of Christ’s sacrifice of obedience, we can now offer up our obedience in thanks and praise.
From The Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology edited by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain. Copyright © 2020 by Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.