Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him (Mt 26:3-4)
It seems like a simple question, right? The Bible tells us that the chief priests and the elders did. And it was the Romans who put Jesus on the cross. Who else could we blame?
Enter the theory of substitutionary atonement. Postulated by Anselm in the 11th century, this theory became widely influential, and remains the foundation for many Christians’ understanding of redemption. In brief, it suggests that humanity, through its disobedience, owed God a debt it could not pay. In order to satisfy this debt, Jesus assumed human form and was sacrificed to God as satisfaction for our debt. (Anslem suggests this was a debt of honor; John Calvin later contributed the idea that the debt was penalty for our sin.)
What’s the problem with this? Any way you look at it, this makes God responsible for Jesus’ death. God killed his own son to atone for our sins.
There’s not a lot of biblical support for this theory. Hebrews suggests this mechanism, and there is some sacrificial language in Matthew. But Matthew also makes clear that it was the religious leaders who caused Jesus’ death. Luke and John also take very different views. For Luke, Satan is defeated when Jesus’ followers begin doing the work Jesus did (Lk 10:17-18, cf John 14:12); Pentecost is the moment in which this salvation is revealed. John (like Mark before him, see Mk 15:39) sees Jesus’ death as an act of love; salvation comes through the Incarnation (Jesus’ birth) and, by extension, the Resurrection. Paul often argues similarly.
We might wonder why there are multiple views of salvation in the New Testament. One answer is that these authors were writing for different audiences. Jews understood sin and atonement to be inseparable– Hebrew uses the same word for both. Gentiles would have had trouble with this view. Perhaps more importantly, though, to expound on the mechanism of salvation requires knowledge of the Mind of God– knowledge that I, for one, do not have.
In the early Church, the most common view of salvation was called Christus Victor. It suggested that salvation came not through Christ’s death. but through his resurrection– his victory over sin and death. Yes, the religious leaders (and the Romans) killed Jesus. That was human sin. But Jesus was victorious over that sin by rising from the dead. That is the victory Jesus brings to us (see for example 1 Corinthians 15:12-19). “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).
Can we believe that God killed Jesus? If not, then substitutionary atonement doesn’t work. Yes, Jesus died for our sins. In fact he died as a direct result of our sins. But it was not his death that brought salvation. It was his victory over death. In Christ, death and sin are conquered. And, as Luke adds to this discussion, through Christ, when we follow and imitate Christ, we too conquer sin and death. Not by works, but by the grace of inclusion and the transformation of our hearts to obedience to undertake Christ’s call to new ways of living.
You might wonder why this matters. But our view of salvation affects our whole social order. If Christ died for our sins, nothing more is required of us. Convenient, isn’t it? All we have to do is say we believe, and we don’t have to change much. Sure, we should refrain from legalistic sins like drunkenness and adultery. But love of our neighbor can be a noun rather than a verb. We get to ignore passages like Matthew 25:31-46. Injustice? That’s for God to worry about. We’re headed for the hereafter. (For more on this misconception, check out this sermon.)
That’s called “cheap grace.”
We are called to do the works of Jesus (Jn 14:12). And Satan is defeated when we do (Lk 10:18). If we are saved, our lives will be changed. Our behavior will be changed. We will become citizens of the Kingdom of God, and act accordingly.
Christ conquered death. This was no legalistic sacrifice to appease a vengeful God. The Resurrection conquered sin– our sin. So let us do as he did, in the faith of his salvation.