Atone Deaf Part Four: Paul and Atonement

Latest in a series of posts examining atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

For many Christian theologians and most modern believers, Paul is the primary (and effectively the only) teacher of atonement in the New Testament. I believe this to be unfortunate for two reasons: 1) Despite how we have been trained to read his writing, Paul’s first concern is not atonement theory in particular or even theology in general. The death of Jesus is central to his writing, to be sure, but the apostle’s letters are impassioned pleas addressing specific contexts of crisis, not fully developed systematic theologies. To read them as such is to misread them. And 2), while we have been busy dissecting and synthesizing Paul’s writings to produce our various atonement theories, we have all but ignored the gospels and how Jesus understood his own death according to those traditions. That surely ought to be the loudest voice in this conversation. (Our series has already attempted to remedy this inequity, of course.)

Yet the significance of Jesus’ death (and resurrection) to Paul cannot be overstated. If we want to get a complete picture of what the earliest Christians thought about atonement, this is a major piece of the puzzle. Paul has a lot to say about why Jesus died, and I don’t mind admitting that my own presuppositions were challenged in this exercise. Let it be said that wrath and substitution are undeniably present in Paul’s complex understanding of atonement, though I would maintain that they have too often been overemphasized and defined according to a context other than Paul’s. It doesn’t help that Paul’s letters are so urgent and specific to their historical circumstances. We are at a major disadvantage as we try to reconstruct both his frantic train of thought AND his context. But when we are careful and patient with Paul, the rewards are many. Here is a too-brief overview of what Paul has to say about the death of Jesus in his letters, with special attention to Romans.


Paul’s letter to the Roman church is his longest and most beloved. As I’ve discussed before at length, it has also suffered greatly from the type of misreading I described above. Taken for centuries as a theological textbook about how an individual sinner can attain salvation by “faith, not works,” it is actually about a very profound and practical question facing the earliest generation of Christians: how might both Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus live together as the people of God? The answer for most of Paul’s colleagues, it seems, was to train Gentiles first in the practice of Jewish customs, and then to admit them cautiously into the community. This letter is Paul’s forceful rejection of such a program. “Faith not works” and “justification” are not about how to get saved and get into heaven, they are about trust in Jesus as the sufficient and only basis for inclusion in the Christian family. Everything in Romans is there to help build this argument.

And so in Romans Chapter 3, when Paul turns to the topic of Jesus’ death, he does so within the context of this debate about who can call themselves the people of God and why. Here is a well known passage:

23 All sinned, and fell short of God’s glory – 24 and by God’s grace they are freely declared to be in the right, to be members of the covenant, through the redemption which is found in the Messiah, Jesus. 25 God put Jesus forth as the place of mercy, through faithfulness, by means of his blood. He did this to demonstrate his covenant justice, because of the passing over in divine forbearance of sins committed beforehand. 26 This was to demonstrate his covenant justice in the present time: that is, that he himself is in the right, and that he declares to be in the right everyone who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus. (Romans 3:23-26, KNT)

I’ve intentionally used N.T. Wright’s Kingdom translation for the way it sidesteps the familiar pitfalls of reading Romans out of context, and places appropriate emphasis on the notion of Jewish-style “covenant justice” instead of the traditional “righteousness,” which bears many unhelpful connotations and associations. Paul is addressing the question of who is allowed into the fellowship of Christians in Rome, of who can consider themselves a member of the “covenant.” And he insists that anyone who trusts in the redemptive death of Jesus may consider themselves a full member, and no one should dare to judge or obstruct them. From a standpoint of atonement, it looks like this: on the cross Jesus was being faithful to his people, and God was being faithful to his covenant. This, says Paul, replaces law or ritual as the sole grounds by which any human can consider themselves “redeemed” or “included.”

Many of us who grew up Evangelical know a different version of Romans 3:25 that says “God put Jesus forth as a sacrifice of atonement” or even “as a propitiation…” This language invokes wrathful deities and blood offerings, and so Paul’s words have been used to endorse Penal Substitution in very certain terms. However, this is not an ideal rendering of the verse in question. The Greek word translated “propitiation” in the KJV and ESV is the same used in the Septuagint to refer to the “mercy seat,” the place atop the ark of the covenant which represented the seat of God’s justice on the earth (and figured prominently in the ancient yom kippur rituals). Wright’s translation reflects this and invokes a very different image, the image of the cross as the place where God’s mercy and justice are truly displayed – not through divine violence, but through divine suffering.

Shortly thereafter Paul returns to the subject of Jesus’ death in another famous passage, this one from Romans 5:

6 This is all based on what the Messiah did: while we were still weak, at that very moment he died on behalf of the ungodly. 7 It’s a rare thing to find someone who will die on behalf of an upright person – though I suppose someone might be brave enough to die for a good person. 8 But this is how God demonstrated his own love for us: the Messiah died for us while we were still sinners! 9 How much more, in that case – since we have been declared to be in the right by his blood – are we going to be saved by him from God’s coming anger? 10 When we were enemies, you see, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son; if that’s so, how much more, having already been reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:6-10, KNT)

The reference in verse 9 to “God’s coming anger” (“God’s coming wrath” in most other translations) seems at first glance to be a smoking gun for Paul’s endorsement of PSA. On closer inspection, however, this is not precisely an expression of what we’d call Penal Substitution. For one thing, the “anger” in question is “coming,” it is a future reality that is anticipated and which will be averted, not a present reality that has to be quelled or propitiated. We’ve seen elsewhere how Paul’s eschatology included an expectation that God would one day definitively purge the world of evil and death, and here he celebrates his belief that “ungodly” “sinners” have been saved from this coming trial by nature of the “reconciliation” won by Jesus on the cross. The strong implication is that all sinners have been caught up in this rescue, and (let’s recover the real point of Romans Chapter 5) this is all a demonstration of God’s intense love for His children, not His anger. Nowhere does Paul come close to suggesting that God poured His wrath upon Jesus or that Jesus himself was being punished. For Paul, the cross is a public display of God’s self-giving love. If it saves us from wrath, it does so by smothering us in love.

Romans 8 opens with a well known analysis of the achievement of Jesus on the cross:

1 So, therefore, there is no condemnation for those in the Messiah, Jesus! 2 Why not? Because the law of the spirit of life in the Messiah, Jesus, released you from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law (being weak because of human flesh) was incapable of doing. God sent his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and as a sin-offering; and, right there in the flesh, he condemned sin. 4 This was in order that the right and proper verdict of the law could be fulfilled in us, as we live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit.

Elements of substitution and condemnation in this passage, and yet once again it does not conform to the specific contours of PSA. God did not condemn Jesus himself as an innocent victim, rather He condemned “sin and death” and destroyed them, thus releasing us from their oppression. This actually has more in common with a “ransom” or “redemption” view of atonement. Jesus died as a “sin-offering” that released his covenant people from the bonds of captivity. The result is that those who are “in Christ” can no longer be “condemned” (or “accused”) by sin and law. In context, this is Paul warning the Roman Christians not to use law to wreak accusation and division among them.

And The Rest

Here are a few representative quotes from Paul’s other letters that add dimension to his presentation of Jesus’ death and its meaning:

  • Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that “Messiah did not know sin, but God made him to be sin on our behalf, so that in him we might embody God’s faithfulness to the covenant.” Jesus’ death was vicarious, with the result of reconciliation.
  • In his opening salutation to the church at Galatia (1:4), Paul declares that Jesus “gave himself for our sins, to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of God our father.” Paul appeals to his apocalyptic understanding of history.
  • In Galatians 3:13, Paul states that “Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the law, by becoming a curse on our behalf, as scripture says: ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs from a tree.’” By his own will Jesus took the “curse of the law” upon himself, in order to redeem his people from it.
  • In Colossians 1:20 Paul says (perhaps quoting an ancient Christian hymn) that through Jesus God acted “to reconcile all to himself, making peace through the blood of his cross…” More reconciliation.
  • Colossians 2:14 states that God destroyed the condemnation of law against sinners by “nailing it to the cross,” and verse 15 says that God “stripped the rulers and authorities of their armor, and displayed them contemptuously to public view, celebrating his triumph over them in [Jesus].” More apocalyptic/anti-empire language.

Summary Conclusions: Reconstructing the World of Paul

It is difficult to wrangle Paul’s scattered and often compounded arguments into a tidy system or (heaven forbid) a series of catchphrases. On the topic of the cross, however, a few distinct themes emerge across all of the apostle’s letters. There is the theme of Jesus’ redemptive death, liberating or rescuing his people from corruption and doom. There is a thread of reconciliation, where “sinners” and wanderers are brought back into relationship with the God who loves them. Then there is an apocalyptic element that understands the cross as the place where God put law, sin, death, and empire to death, delivering his people from an “evil age” unto an age of hope and peace. According to Paul, in all of these aspects of atonement, God won a decisive victory over the personal, spiritual, cosmic, organized, and oppressive forces of condemnation and death.

And this is the crux (if you will): For Paul, “sin” is not first and foremost a problem of individual humans, to be worked out through religion or sacrifice. He understands sin as a force, a principle, a power; it is a tyrannical reality into which humans are caught up. We fuel this monster with our selfishness, violence, and greed, and yet we also suffer under its oppressive reign. THIS is what Jesus exposed and overcame on the cross. THIS is the object of God’s “wrath,” and THIS is what He condemned and destroyed on Good Friday. Anthropologically, the cross represents the victimization and punishment of an innocent person by human oppressors. But theologically, especially in the work of Paul, the cross represents a self-given sacrifice which defeats the power behind human oppression and sets all of its victims free. God wins this victory not by doling out violence and punishment, but by becoming sin’s ultimate victim, exposing it and disarming it.