[Note: for previous posts in this series, see here, here, here, here, here, and here.]
Back at the turn of the 21st century, Joel Green and Mark Baker leveled several criticisms — most of them, in my view, irrelevant and/or misleading — against The 19th century Princeton theologian Charles Hodge's model of penal substitutionary atonement. One argument, however, has a long history: the argument from ethics. Green and Baker conclude that "ethically this model has little to offer." Why is this? To quote them again: "According to the logic of the model, an individual could be saved through penal substitution without experiencing a fundamental reorientation of his or her life ... [I]t can do little more than serve as an example to point to when calling individuals to imitate Christ" (Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts [Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2000] 149).
Now I would be the first theologian to insist that ethical concerns are integral to any theology that warrants the label "biblical." Moreover, I happily acknowledge that many Christians operating under the banner of "substitutionary atonement" fail mightily in this regard, not least those who, for all practical purposes, so emphasize forensic "justification" that they ignore, or at least sever that doctrine's intrinsic ties to, "sanctification." Likewise, I am one of many today who lament the apparent collapse of ethics in many American Christian circles to an individualistic and pietistic concern for "purity", understood within the parameters of supposedly "conservative" cultural values. Thus Green and Baker's charge is a serious one. But, as Christians who take the Bible's authority for doctrine and practice seriously, we must first ask the question, Is this charge warranted, scripturally speaking? In this post I have chosen to look at 1 Peter 2:24, one of my favorite biblical texts, one of many texts which directly bear on the question at hand.
The text, in translation, reads as follows:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you were healed.This remarkable verse comes at the climax of a section in which Peter exhorts slaves patiently to endure unjust suffering at the hands of their masters (2:18-25). As counterintuitive (and offensive) as such advice might appear to those of us raised with modern western sensibilities, the apostle nevertheless considers such patient endurance to be "grace" (charis) before God (2:20), if indeed such perseverance is motivated by a sense of conscious commitment to God (ei dia syneidēsin theou) (2:19). In verse 21 he ups the ante, even claiming that it was to such patient endurance of unjust suffering (a backward-looking touto) that they were savingly "called" (eklēthēte; cf. 2:9). The reason Peter can say this (hoti) lies in the historical example of Christ, who left behind the model (hypogrammon) they should follow when he "suffered" (epathen) on their behalf (2:21).
At this point the apostle continues with a passage that bears unmistakable signs of being a preformed liturgical or creedal fragment based on a Christological reading of Isaiah 53 (cf. also Polycarp's Epistle to the Philippians 8.1-2, written as early as 110 CE, which recites the same passages in reverse order). This example provided by Christ not only extends the application of the text to all Christians, but also provides the theological foundation for the Christian ethical life as well. Verse 24a is, for all practical purposes, a quotation of Isaiah 53:12 (LXX), with slight modifications drawn from Isaiah 53:4 ("our sins" rather than "the sins of many"), and thus explicitly interprets the significance of Jesus' death in terms of the mission of the suffering and slain Servant of Isaiah 40-55.
The mission of Christ is defined in terms of "bearing" (anēnenken) our sins in his own body on the "tree" (xylon, lit. "wood"), a reference to the cross via the early Christian application of Deuteronomy 21:23 to our Lord's execution (e.g., Gal 3:13; Acts 5:30; 10:39). Because the verb anapherō is commonly used in the Old Testament (LXX) of the priest's task of bringing a sacrifice to the altar (Lev 14:20 et passim), C. A. Brigg suggested more than a century ago in his famous ICC commentary that Peter envisioned the cross as an altar to which Christ carried our sins to be slain there (cf. also the standard Greek lexicon, BDAG, which renders the verse "he himself brought our sins in his body to the cross"). Such a notion, however, is foreign to any reasonable understanding of the Levitical sacrifices. It is better to understand the verb in light of the Hebrew text underlying the LXX version quoted by Peter. There the verb used to describe the mission of the Servant is נשא (nāśā'), which in that context carries the sense of bearing guilt or punishment for others (so BDB, 671). Edward Gordon Selwyn, in his classic commentary, wrote: 'In what sense, we may ask, did Christ "bear" our sins? In the sense that he took the blame for them; suffered the "curse" of them ... and endured their penal consequences' (The First Epistle of St. Peter [London: Macmillan, 1949] 180). Even if Frederick Danker is correct in his judgment that the verb anapherō never has this meaning (BDAG, 75), and we should rather translate the verse, "He himself carried our sins in his body to the tree," we still must interpret the text in conjunction with Peter's other clear statements about Christ's death. Elsewhere he interprets the cross as a cultic sacrifice (1:2), as the ransoming antitype of the Passover lamb (1:18-19), and as a vicarious death effecting our reconciliation to God (3:18). At the very least, then, Peter presents Christ's death as the definitive means to accomplish expiation — the removal — of "our" sins. And manifestly he did this vicariously, bearing the punishment we deserved for the sins we committed.
What stands out here, however, is the purpose (hina) the confessional statement attributes to Jesus' vicarious death. Christ bore our sins, Peter writes, in order that, having died to those sins — for my readers who have studied Greek, note the anaphoric article (tais) indicating that the sins they had "departed" or "abandoned" (apogenomenoi) are the very ones borne by Christ — we might live to "righteousness." For Peter, in other words, Christ's expiatory, substitutionary death effects, not only the forgiveness of sins, but also a definitive existential break with those sins for the beneficiaries of that death. This definitive break with sins must then work itself out in moral renewal or, as the apostle says here, "living for righteousness." "Righteousness" (dikaiosynē) in this context does not refer to the forensic status of "being in the right," as in such Pauline passages as Philippians 3:9. Rather, it speaks of "righteous" or upright behavior, the doing of "what is right" (cf. 3:14; i.e., the type of behavior Peter describes as "doing what is good" [agathapoiountes] in verses 15, 20).
Green and Baker, as we have seen, made two accusations against the theory of penal substitution. The first was that it results in people "saved" from sin's guilt without experiencing a fundamental reorientation of life. This, frankly, is an objection based on a "problem" Peter would not have recognized. Indeed, "living for righteousness" is dependent upon our sins having first been expiated by Christ's death on our behalf and in our stead. Their second objection, viz., that penal substitution at best can present Christ as an example to imitate, is likewise less than substantial. Indeed, Peter himself is guilty in this respect, and in pointing to Christ's example as motivation, the apostle simply reiterates a theme that permeates the New Testament.
In Green and Baker's defense, the connection between penal substitution and moral transformation is not notionally transparent. That, however, does not vitiate the connection that Peter, for one, clearly makes. At most it could be a pointer to the fact that penal substitution does not monopolize New Testament theologizing about the significance of Jesus' death. And acknowledging this does not thereby invalidate it as a necessary and significant aspect of what that death achieved. Peter himself provides a hint at the basis of moral transformation when he speaks of regeneration through the "word of God," the gospel message (1 Pet 1:23-25). In my next post, I plan to return to the Apostle Paul, who provides an even more profound interpretation of Jesus' death, entailing both substitution and moral renewal, in two of his primary epistles.