This last week was the LA Theology Conference 2015 put on by Fred Sanders and Oliver Crisp and as usual, it was a delight. It was also a challenge. The subject of the conference was “locating atonement” with respect to other key doctrines. The idea is that atonement is one doctrine that, in particular, tends to get stretched out of shape unless it is properly situated within the broader framework of Christians thought. Well, the speakers all did a bang-up job of relating the atonement to various subjects in Christian theology and I can’t wait for the book to come out in the fall. But instead of summarizing them, I figured I would honor the spirit of the conference by doing a bit of “locating” of my own.
In this (hopefully) brief post, I want to say something about what we can see about the proper doctrinal location of the atonement based in most part on Romans 8:1-17, (with some bouncing about in the rest of Romans 8 and a few other texts). In other words, given that this section contains a passage universally acknowledged as a key atonement text in the New Testament, which doctrinal layers or themes need to be acknowledged in order to grasp Paul’s logic in the text. If you don’t have a Bible nearby, I invite you to read it here.
First, I have to acknowledge this will be an uneven, rather surface-level, engagement at points. It is a blog post. Second, not everything that can be said about atonement, nor atonement in this passage, will be said. I go into far greater depth in this lengthy piece, as well as others, but this is just a short one intended to demonstrate the way the Scriptures themselves situate the truth of God’s work through the Cross of Jesus.
1. Triune – First, note that the atoning action is clearly the work of the Triune God. The work of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit structure the passage as a whole. It all begins in verse 3 with God (the Father)’s action in “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Here we have the first action of the Father who moves to “send” the Son, in proper Trinitarian fashion, as the originator of the atoning action in Christ. At the same time, this verse also introduces the Son’s action: being “sent.” For this action–this sending/being sent–to happen, there is an inner conformity, a unity of action between the Father and the Son. While the Father “offers up” his Son (Rom. 8:32), the Son offers himself up to Father (Eph. 5:1). Although it is not stated in this text, it must also be remembered that Luke shows us that the Father sends the Son on his historical mission which culminates at the Cross in and by the power of the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:33-35; 3:16, 21-22; 4:1, 14, 18). Also, the author of Hebrews reminds us that the Son “through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God” (Heb. 9:14). In which case, we see already the three Persons at work in the Father’s sending of his Son and the Son’s coming at the behest of the Father. (As we’ll see below, the Spirit’s presence and work pervades the passage).
2. Incarnational—Looking to that same early passage, we see that the atonement of Christ has as its necessary condition the coming of the Son in “the likeness of sinful flesh” (8:3). It was necessary that the Father send the Son in the “likeness” (homoioma) of this sinful flesh, in order to identify with sinful humanity as far as possible, without sinning, as the rest of the New Testament tells us, and thereby be the place where He could deal with the sin of humanity. The logic of sinlessness is present here, even if it is not as clearly spelled out as it is in other texts. While not present here, we should also note that it is in the incarnation that the impassible God assumes humanity in order to undergo passion on our behalf, in order to one day end our passion.
3. Penal—Next, the atonement of the Son has, in some sense, a clearly legal and penal efficacy. Whatever the Son does, it is clear the result is that “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1). What’s more, Paul tells us that the Father sent the Son precisely to do what “the Law” was insufficient to do, weakened as it was by our sinful flesh, which set us in constant opposition to it (8:7). God “condemned (katakrima) sin in the flesh” of Jesus, “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:3-4). For anyone looking to grapple with text of Scripture, I don’t know what we can term this language of “condemnation” other than legal, forensic, and penal.
4. Sacrificial—Of course, the atonement is also sacrificial. The Father condemns sin in the flesh of Jesus by putting him forward “for sin” (8:3). This term peri hamartias (for sin) was regularly used in the LXX to translate the Hebrew term for “sin offering” in the OT (Lev. 5:6-7; 11; 16:3, 5, 9; Num. 6:16; 7:16; 2 Chron. 29:23-24). How does this deal with sin? James Dunn says in his Romans commentary, “The theology is fairly clear…the death of the sin offering effects God’s condemnation of sin by destruction of the sinful flesh.” In this way, the wrath of God is propitiated/expiated/cleared, and judgment is rendered (Rom. 3:25). So then, the Father hands over the Son, the Son offers himself up in the Spirit to be a sin offering, removing the guilt from his people.
5. Covenantal–Which brings us to the next locus, the covenantal dimension. While this should be evident from the language of the Law in the passage, it is made even clearer when we notice the “in Christ” language. As N.T.Wright has argued, “Christ” should not simply be taken as a name, but rather read with its full titular sense drawn from its Jewish background, Messiah, “the one in whom the people of God are summed up.” Along with this, the phrase “in the Messiah” should be seen to have an incorporative sense. It can at times connote or denote “the people of whom the Messiah is the representative.” Jesus is the Representative Messiah in whom people can be incorporated by faith, so that his accomplishments can become theirs.It is because of this logic that, if the Father deals with sin in his Son, then he has dealt with the sin of those who are in him. It is for this reason that there is “no more condemnation” for those who are “in Christ Jesus” (8:1). (Also, for those who weren’t aware, Wright’s formulation is basically a modified, Reformed federal theology of union with Christ with some 2nd Temple beef.)
6. Pneumatological– This next one is not immediately obvious, but in this passage the atonement is a pneumatological reality in various senses. First, as we pointed out from Hebrews, the Son offers himself in the Spirit. Second, The Father’s actions through the Spirit do not end with sending the Son, or condemning sin, but continue on through the resurrection of Jesus Christ by the power of that same Spirit (8:11). Paul indicates that the Spirit is the agent by which God raises Jesus from the dead, by the corollary that if we have the same Spirit we will “also” be given life through that same Spirit as Christ was. Jesus’ resurrection is an important part of God’s atoning action in Christ because according to Paul, he “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Resurrection as vindication is itself a justifying act, vindicating Jesus as the Representative Messiah of his people.
Third, the Spirit is the gift the atonement is aimed at, as well as the agent of the atonement’s sanctifying goal. Having received the Spirit, believers can live not according to the flesh, but out of the power of the Spirit. They are then no longer hostile towards God and his law (Rom. 8:7-9). It is in this way that Paul says the “righteous decree” was “fulfilled in us”(Rom. 8:4). The term translated “righteous decree” (dikaioma) is a peculiar one which speaks of “the righteous decree”, or the “covenant decree” of the law for life. In this case, the “decree” is the decree of Deut. 30:6-20, which says that those who do these things “shall live.” The believers’ lives in the Spirit conform to it and so the decree is “fulfilled” in them. The Son was sent that believers might be given the Spirit, through whom they can now have a life at peace with God. They can be obedient to his revealed will, his law. This is because this Spirit is a “spirit of adoption”, which confirms them as children of God, co-heirs with Christ who enables them to pray with Christ, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15-17).
7. Eschatological – Finally, the atonement is connected to eschatology. The atonement exhausts the curse of the law and so issues in New Resurrection and New Creation. Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in one, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). This new life of reconciled relationship with God issues ultimately in the resurrection of the believer. Later Paul notes that those who are in Christ and have the “first fruits of the Spirit” wait for the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). This is the final stage in our being remade into the image of our firstborn brother, Jesus (Rom. 8:29). It is not a present reality, but a hope which believers wait for in patience (Rom. 8:25). This hope is also connected to reconciliation with creation. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of God” (Rom. 8:19-21). When believers receive the redemption of their bodies, creation itself will receive redemption. The two are intimately connected (Rom. 8:23).
According to Paul, atonement has Triune, incarnational, penal, sacrificial, covenantal, pneumatological, and eschatological dimensions. And that’s just one passage. So how much of a tragedy is it, then, when in our preaching and teaching we separate out Christ’s work into its own airtight, doctrinal package? No, it is only when we set the atonement in its proper doctrinal location in our preaching and teaching that our people can see it for the multi-faceted, saving jewel of the Gospel that it is.
Soli Deo Gloria