Ted Grimsrud—February 10, 2012
In what sense should we think of Jesus as our savior? My cyber-friend Al Steiner has raised a series of challenging questions (scroll down for Al’s comments) of my account of salvation based on his careful reading of the Bible. Reflecting further on the questions Al raises will help me continue to think though what I want to say about salvation.
How is Jesus “instrumental” for salvation?
(1) Al concludes from John’s Gospel and the first letter of John that Jesus “is instrumental in the grace of God, purifying us, taking away our sin.” Key verses include John the Baptist’s declaration when he first sees Jesus that he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) and these words: “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
On the face of it, at least, I don’t really see these assertions about Jesus’ role in salvation being in tension with what I am trying to say. So much depends on definitions—both of the problem Jesus is trying to resolve and the meanings of such key works as “takes away,” “sin(s),” “blood,” and “cleanses.”
First of all, I see no hint in these verses and their wider contexts that John is portraying Jesus’ saving work as in any way related to providing a necessary sacrifice that, in a way only it can, makes it possible for a wrathful/just/holy/honorable God to offer forgiveness that prior to that sacrifice was not possible. That is, whatever “take away” and “cleanse” have to do with, it is not satisfying something in God.
I think that the problem, basically, is that our trusting in idols has separated us from life-giving relationships with God and fellow humans. What needs to happen is that the power of sin (idolatry) over us needs to be broken. To have sin taken away or to have sin cleansed, it seems to me, is about breaking this power of sin over us and freeing us to accept and live in light of the persistent and ever-present mercy of God.
Going back to the story of the ancient Hebrews. The first act was always one of God’s mercy (calling Abraham and Sarah, the exodus, the gifts of Torah and the Land, restoring hope after Babylon’s destruction of Judah). Nothing needed to happen to God to enable God to offer that mercy. But the people needed to be freed from their sinful mis(placed)trust in things other than God.
I am assuming that John’s Gospel means to tell essentially the same story as the other gospels, but with somewhat different language, emphasizing somewhat different stories, and highlighting somewhat different emphases. Still, I read the “takes way sin” as saying that through his ministry Jesus revealed the true character of God (to use John’s imagery, brought unconquerable light into the darkness) in a way that for those who responded with faith, the power of sin would be broken (taken away).
The reference to Jesus’ blood in 1 John (an image used elsewhere in the New Testament as well) has been misunderstood as an allusion to Jesus’ death as a sacrifice by later Christian theology. Unfortunately, the Bible does not clearly explain what it means by “blood” in this kind of context. We are told in Leviticus, though, that “in the blood is life” (17:11, 14—and note that the blood offering referred to here is labeled a “ransom” [that is, a liberating]). In light of that allusion, perhaps we should more accurately think of the New Testament references to Jesus’ blood as allusions to his life. So, Jesus “cleanses us from all sin” (that is, frees us from bondage to sin) by his faithful life that did, inevitably in the world he lived in, culminate in his crucifixion. But it’s the life that frees, not the death.
So, yes, in an important sense Jesus is instrumental in our salvation. But not because he is killed as a sacrifice to God that enables God to forgive. Rather, it’s because his life embodied God’s freely given mercy more profoundly than anything else has ever done. As such, his life (genuinely a self-sacrifice) illumines the basis dynamics of salvation that have been apparent in the Bible from early on in Genesis—God’s mercy comes first; when embraced, it frees people from sin and empowers a transformation in their lives.
Did Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac prefigure Jesus’ death?
(2) Then Al refers to the story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac in Genesis 22. He writes, “I read this as a preview of God the Father sacrificing His own Son the Lamb of God, how do you see it?”
Well, I’m not quite sure how to read this story. I have never understood it very well. Is it mainly just a kind of random residue of Ancient Near Eastern sensibilities that should be rejected (the idea that God would demand child sacrifice—kind of like the bizarre little story in Exodus 4:24 about God trying to kill Moses)? Or is it rather a pretty subtle subversion of the sacrificial dynamics given that the purpose for Abraham taking Isaac with him (that he would murder Isaac) is actually rejected.
Regardless, I don’t think we have any idea about the purpose of the sacrifice of either Isaac or the ram. This story seems to add to the confusion concerning why God might want sacrifices like these, since here God provides the sacrifice that is then offered to God. I think the main meaning of this story should be found in light of the overall movement in the Bible away from sacrifice, not as somehow prefiguring God demanding another—in a way, even more terrible (God’s own son, not Abraham’s)—murder.
It seems very different, in relation to Jesus, to think of him as one who lived a faithful life that involved his self-sacrificial willingness to remain consistent to the path of persistent love even in the face of death, than it does to think of his death being a case of “the Father sacrificing his own son.” To what purpose would God sacrifice his own son? It doesn’t make sense to me that one would be both the giver and receiver of the sacrifice—especially given the terribleness of the act of murder that Jesus’ alleged sacrifice to God entailed.
In what sense are we “saved from God’s wrath?”
(3) Al did find one reference that seems to link together Jesus’ death and being saved from God’s anger: Romans 5:9: “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!”
This verse seems to reflect the same problem. Paul’s whole point in Romans 5 is to emphasis God’s love even for God’s enemies, reflected most decisively in God providing in Jesus the means to salvation. So if God loves us unconditionally, that is, God provides Jesus “while we were God’s enemies” (5:10), clearly there is nothing that needs to happen to God before God can offer mercy. So why does God need to do something to save us from God’s wrath? Is God helpless against God’s own character?
Fortunately, there seems to be an easy solution to this problem in relation to this specific verse. The “God’s” that modifies “wrath” in Romans 5:9 is not in the Greek text. It is supplied by the translators. The text actually says, “how much more shall we be saved from wrath through him.” This could means something quite different than saying it’s about God’s anger or violated holiness/justice/honor that is at stake. Rather, in Romans and elsewhere (especially in Revelation), “wrath” seems to refer to the inexorable working out of the negative consequences of idolatry (like the psalmist wrote, we become like what we worship, i.e., lifeless [Ps 115:3-8]).
What Paul seems to be saying, then, is that God has provided, in Jesus, a means for humanity to break free from the cycles of violence and injustice that accompanying being in bondage to sin (idolatry). Jesus’ “blood” (i.e., his life that culminated in the cross) reveals to us the restorative and transforming justice of God (3:21-26) that empowers us to live transformed lives (i.e., to be saved from the dynamics of wrath that lead to death and alienation).
Is Jesus’ death part of God’s eternal plan?
(4) Finally (and I am leaving out a few of Al’s questions due to time constraints; I hope what what I do write will at least indirectly address them), Al draws on the well-known exposition of predestination from Ephesians 1:3-14 to raise this challenge: “I read this to say that our salvation was planned before the creation of the world, through Jesus Christ. How is this compatible with your interpretation of redemption outside of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection?”
This passage could be read to stand somewhat in tension with my arguments. First, though, one of my main concerns is simply to deny that the New Testament presents Jesus’ death as a sacrifice to God necessary to gain our salvation. I don’t see anything in the Ephesians text that would challenge my assertion on that point. Ephesians 1:3-14 contains one affirmation after another of God’s unconditional mercy—there is no hint here of a sacrifice that God needed in order to be freed to offer forgiveness. The forgiveness seems to be built into creation, “according to the plan of him who works out everything…” (1:11).
The issues of predestination and God’s plan and foreknowledge are difficult to sort through. I’ll just say that one way I can read this text is that it actually is affirming the idea that it is built into creation that the way God will resolve problems of sin and idolatry is through offering mercy that can be transformative when recognized. Jesus, again, embodies this “eternal plan” like no one else. However, his ministry does not invalidate what went before. It actually does validate the message conveyed through Abraham, Moses, and the other great prophets about trusting in a God of mercy rather than idols that lead to death.
Since Jesus conveys this message more powerfully than anyone else had or has, it is understandable that these words from Ephesians would focus on his role in making clear God’s work to “bring unity to all things” (1:10). But it’s not a different way of bringing salvation than had beforehand existed.
But am I saying that redemption happens “outside of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection”? I think it’s a bit more complicated than simply saying yes or no to that question. Jesus’ crucifixion (which has to be tied inextricably with his life that led to the cross) and resurrection profoundly witness to God’s redemptive intent and initiative. But that redemptive intent and initiative exist apart from the crucifixion and resurrection. I don’t think we can read the entire Bible accurately without recognizing that. Given that Paul (and the other New Testament writers and Jesus himself) all seemed to assume that they were operating totally within the confines of (what we Christians could not call) Old Testament faith, I think we must face the challenge to try to understand whatever the New Testament says about Jesus’ saving work as being in harmony with the Old Testament understanding of salvation (not in harmony with later atonement theologies).