As much as Paul emphasized the theological significance of Jesus' crucifixion and made it the touchstone of correct Christian belief and praxis, he explicitly builds his theologizing upon the foundation provided by the primitive apostolic tradition of which he himself was the recipient. It is to Paul, after all, that we are indebted for preserving the precise content of the earliest summary of the "gospel," which included the proposition that "Christ died for our sins" (for my discussion of the foundational 1 Corinthians 15:3, see here). Not only this, on many occasions he summarized the significance of the "cross" by using variants of two primitive formulae that clearly predate his use of them.
The first of these has been called the "surrender formula," which uses the verbs paradidōmi or the simple didōmi to speak of the "giving up of Jesus for human salvation. The classic here is Romans 4:25, which manifestly alludes to Isaiah 53:12 (LXX) when it speaks of God's "handing over" of Jesus to death in the following way: "who was handed over because of our transgressions." More often the apostle presents Christ as the subject of the action. For example, in Galatians 1:4 he opens his theologically rich tour de force by supplementing his typical salutation with the confession that "the Lord Jesus Christ" "gave himself for our sins."
The second traditional formula used by Paul has been termed the "dying formula," and is ubiquitous in his letters. Two classic examples are found in the apostle's greatest letter, Romans:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Rom 5:6).
But God shows his love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8).The preposition used by Paul in most of these instances is hyper (with the genitive case), which is normally best translated "on behalf of" (cf. Rom 4:25; 5:6, 8; 8:32; 14:15; 1 Cor 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14; Gal 1:4 [probably]; 2:20). Hyper, in such instances, at least denotes representation. Thus, Christ died for our benefit and to our advantage as our representative. Nevertheless, the notion of representation can be rather elastic, and at times shades into the realm of substitution. Indeed, it has been convincingly demonstrated by many Greek grammarians that hyper often, for all practical purposes, is the equivalent of the preposition anti ("in the place of") and thus indicates substitution (for discussions, cf. A. T. Robertson, The Minister and His Greek New Testament [New York: George H. Doran, 1923] 35-42; Murray J. Harris, NIDNTT, 4:1196-97; Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996] 383-89). A clear example is found in Paul's shortest letter:
I would have been glad to keep him with me, so that he might serve me as your proxy (hyper sou) during my imprisonment for the gospel (Philemon 13).The pressing issue thus becomes one with significant exegetical and theological ramifications: How is it that Jesus' death benefits us? In what specific way did he die on our behalf?
One classic Pauline text that touches on this issue is 2 Corinthians 5:21:
He who knew no sin was made sin for us (hyper hēmōn), in order that we might become the righteousness of God in him.This text makes three theological affirmations. First, Christ "knew no sin." Anyone who has ever read the gospels (or, in Paul's case, was aware of the Jesus tradition shortly to be written down by Mark et al.) knows that Jesus was aware of human sin and, indeed, viewed his mission as the means whereby God would establish the new covenant and kingdom of God. The "knowledge" about which the apostle speaks must accordingly be understood in the Hebrew sense of a personal, experiential knowledge, a knowledge such as that about which he writes in Romans 7:7. Paul's point here is to emphasize that Jesus' death, unlike the deaths of all the rest of us, was not the result of his own sin and guilt. Indeed, the sinlessness of Christ is essential to the soteriological scenario painted by the apostle. As Margaret Thrall concisely writes, "Since it was human sin which required a remedy, it was Christ's sinless state as man which was significant" (II Corinthians [2 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994-2000] 1:439).
Second, Christ "was made sin for us" (hyper hēmōn hamartian epoiēsen). Paul transparently is writing about Jesus' crucifixion, the moment which, more than any other, indicates the degree to which Jesus identified with sin and sinful humanity. Once again, however, the essential question concerns how and in what sense Christ "was made sin for us." Here I would suggest that the apostle is using a figure of speech called metonymy to make his point. This understanding is well expressed by the late Charles Kingsley Barrett:
... [H]e came to stand in that relation with God which normally is the result of sin, estranged from God and the object of his wrath (C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians [HNTC; New York: Harper & Row, 1973] 180).In other words, Jesus took upon himself the burden of the guilt of our sin and thereby substituted for us in penal judgment. It is thus only because Christ was "made sin" for me, that is, in my stead, that I am spared the condemnation that I deserve. Christ died my death and secured my immunity to judgment for my sins.
Third, Christ died "that we might become the righteousness of God." The precise theological force of these words has been a matter of some dispute among New Testament scholars and theologians in recent years (one in which I have found myself embroiled). Nonetheless, its main point is agreed upon by most, at least in general terms. The key term is "the righteousness of God" (dikaiosynē theou). As (I would argue) always in Paul, this term refers to God's own righteousness by which he acts "righteously" to save his people in faithfulness to his covenant promises. If so, once again the apostle is utilizing metonymy here. But his point is somewhat clear: the purpose of Christ's sin-bearing death in our place was that we, the beneficiaries of that death, might be given a righteous status before God (i.e., to use Paul's language in Galatians and Romans, that we might be "justified") by virtue of our union with him.
This, to put it succinctly, is the logic of penal substitution, and it is a logic in which I glory, for one reason: unless Jesus, the sinless one, took my place in judgment, I would have to stand before God with my sins unatoned for. And in that condition I could never stand. In my next installment I plan to look at three other texts which clarify the precise way Paul understood the substitutionary death of our Lord. Soli Deo Gloria!