Christian Salvation, Part Two: Old Testament Mercy

Ted Grimsrud—September 20, 2015

In the first post of this four-part series (drawing on presentations to a Sunday school class at Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, VA), I offered a summary and critique of the standard atonement theology characteristic of much of western Christianity. This is called the “satisfaction view” of the atonement, and I suggest that some of its problems are related to the way it presents God in relation to salvation as mechanistic, retributive, and punitive. I have written at length elsewhere how this theology actually has the tragic impact of leading Christians to be more supportive of violence (e.g., war, capital punishment, harsh criminal justice practices, corporal punishment of children).

Restorative justice

My thinking about Christian salvation has been helped a great deal by conversations I have had with my friend Howard Zehr about restorative justice. Howard has been a leader in the movement to reshape the way our society deals with the brokenness caused by crime. Howard’s approach is to focus especially on the needs of the human beings involved, especially the victims (who are often ignored—or worse—by the system) as well as the offenders (who rarely are helped to find healing and often after an encounter with the system end up offending again). We wrote an article together, “Rethinking God, Justice, and the Treatment of Offenders,” that attempted the beginning of articulating a theology for restorative justice (I also have been working on a book manuscript, Healing Justice [And Theology]).

Howard introduced me to a book, Justice as Sanctuary, by a friend of his, a Dutch law professor named Herman Bianchi. Bianchi uses a provocative image. He says that theology is a big part of our problem of criminal justice practices that make things worse, in terms of some problematic ways it has influenced the practice of criminal justice in the West. So, he suggests, what we may need is something like homeopathic medicine where we use a does of what makes us sick actually to help us heal ourselves. That is, he says, a different kind of theology might be able to help us overcome the problems of retributive justice.

The book I wrote about this, Instead of Atonement: The Bible’s Salvation Story and Our Hope for Wholeness, then, is a kind of exercise in homeopathic therapy—focusing on a rereading of the Bible and salvation as a way of moving toward a more peaceable way of dealing with wrongdoing that will help break the spirals of violence so widespread around us.

In this post I will discuss the Old Testament—followed by two more in the weeks to come that will focus first on Jesus’s own teaching and practice in relation to salvation and then on the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection for our salvation theology.

The Old Testament as a Story

It is interesting in small groups of Christians to ask what people’s quick, from the gut, reactions are to the Old Testament. A couple of times just lately I have raised this question. The responses vary greatly—from I don’t like that “bloody book” to the Old Testament is a source of encouragement for living in justice, especially justice for the poor. Quite often, a few people will talk about sacrifices and retribution, and the feeling that God is very violent and judgmental.

My approach is to focus on the big picture. What does the Old Testament as a whole tell us about salvation? How does this fit with what the New Testament tells us? And then what about the details and how they fit with the whole? Certainly there are many details—some of which are fairly strongly in tension with the direction the big story takes. I believe we need to respect those tensions and not simply explain them away or ignore them. However, I also believe the big picture is the location of the ultimate meaning (authority) of the text. We should live with tensions, but we nonetheless can gain guidance from the big picture. This is not an arbitrary choice or special pleading to privilege the big story. Throughout the Bible the writers articulate versions of the core story in reminding the people from where they came and what they owe God.

The key point from the big story that relates to the discussion of salvation theology, I’d say, is God’s direct and merciful intervention to give salvation. Most notably, we may see this activity of God in five major events that make up the core plot line of the Old Testament: (1) the call of Abraham and Sarah to parent a people that would ultimately number multitudes and would bless all the families of the earth; (2) the liberation of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants from a life of slavery in Egypt through the exodus events; (3) the giving to this newly liberated people a blueprint for their social life as God’s people called Torah; (4) the gift of a place to live out this social life, the “promised land,” and (5) the sustenance of this people as a coherent community after the shattering experience of the destruction at the hands of the Babylonian Empire of their kingdom (Judea) and their temple.

Two important elements of the portrayal of salvation in the Old Testament, Torah and the sacrifices, should be understood in light of these liberating and sustaining acts of God (more on this below).

This is what we learn about salvation from these key events:

(1) God gives salvation in each of these key moments to unworthy recipients. The focus on this unworthiness emphasizes that the people did not earn God’s favor. They had nothing to give God that would obligate God to provide for their salvation. The logic of retribution that the satisfaction atonement view is based on focuses on debt and punishment and desert. The dynamics of salvation center on the need to satisfy God’s holiness/justice/honor—or the need God has due to God’s moral character to punish wrongdoing, to give rebellious human beings what they deserve. But in these core events, God simply gives salvation to those who do not deserve it.

(2) God the savior acts in these events purely out of God’s own good will. When God wants simply to intervene and bring healing to the world or to God’s people, God freely does so. God is not constrained by a sense of holiness or justice or honor that needs to be satisfied before healing/forgiving/liberation might be forthcoming.

(3) Salvation has to do with a loving, passionate God desiring a personal connection with humanity. God’s work emerges from this personal, passionate, loving disposition. The God of these events is not revealed in the impersonal, legalistic, mechanistic dynamic of the satisfaction atonement that seems to be founded on the notion of God as governed by reciprocity, where God cannot respond personally but must work within the parameters set by the scales of justice or the need for honor to be given—that is, where God is governed by debt and payment.

(4) As a typical summary (Hosea 11) of the basic story tells us: God’s holiness fuels mercy, not retribution. Here we are told of God’s gifts to God’s child (Israel), of Israel’s rebellion, and of God’s response. The account refers to a kind of debate within God—will I respond with punishment like I did with Sodom? No! I am a holy God and I will respond with healing love. God’s holiness, then, is not in tension with God’s mercy. It does not force God to destroy sinners but rather pushes God to express healing mercy.

It is important to see that the lessons from this story that I mean to lift up here are not that the God pictured here is strictly a pacifist God. There is a lot of violence in the story, even in several of these key liberative events. What I am pointing to, though, is the underlying logic of the dynamics of salvation: God’s direct intervention to offer liberation without any hint of the need of satisfaction or debt payment or retribution as conditions for the saving deeds. As the story continues and finds its culmination in Jesus, we will see that these saving dynamics result in a picture of God who does save without violence—and that the lessons we learn from this picture call us to lives of nonviolence as well.

Torah and Sacrifices

When understood in light of God’s main saving acts cited above, the “institutions” of Torah observance in general and the sacrifices more specifically will be seen to have to do with the basic dynamic of gift and response. In the Old Testament, the human obligation to keep Torah and offer sacrifices follows from the gift of salvation. Neither of the institutions is about acting to gain God’s favor. And this isn’t true because human beings simply can’t be faithful enough to satisfy God’s demands as the necessary requirement for salvation. Rather, it is because salvation never did depend on satisfaction—it was a gift from the start. Human beings don’t keep Torah and offer sacrifices to pay a debt or balances the scales of justice or appease God’s anger. They does these acts (as intended) because they have already received God’s favor.

To follow the law does not lead people to salvation, and this was never the law’s intended purpose. Salvation leads people to follow the law—because the law means to inspire and direct people to wholeness in practical ways. In God’s free and sovereign love, God is able simply to act to liberate. Then, as a further act of mercy, God gives the law as guidance for how a liberated people will live is they are to remain free and whole.

The law is not a legalistic blueprint that, when violated, triggers God’s punitive anger and renders God unable (due to God’s inflexible holiness) to act directly with pure mercy. Rather, the law is a gift that is part of God’s mercy. Again, the dynamic is meant to be gift and response.

Sacrifices are not theologically central to Old Testament salvation, though they are commonly practiced. We best see them as part of the cultural landscape of the Ancient Near East that are taken on by the Hebrews. The Old Testament never actually explains how sacrifices work and what they exactly are. Ultimately with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in 70 CE, sacrifices pass away from Judaism altogether. They seem always, in retrospect, to have been extraneous to the core dynamics of salvation.

The sacrifices are not presented as part of how God makes salvation possible in the key saving events listed above. If they have a role, it is a part of the response of faith to those events, not as their cause. The role sacrifices play in the culture come to be major problems for the prophets and for Jesus because they too often take place of trust. How they do work in good ways (when they do) is as a human response to God’s mercy—a way to respond in faith and make the relationship between human beings and God concrete through a ritual that helps underscore the reality of God’s merciful works. The sacrifices are a reminder and a call to commitment, analogous to the practices of communion and baptism in the Mennonite tradition.

The prophets and salvation

The prophets play a key role in helping us understand Old Testament salvation. They emerge in the story in face of the breakdown of wholeness in the relationship between the Hebrew community and God, a breakdown embodied with the growth of injustice and oppression in the community—movement away from Torah. The ways many of the prophets respond to the breakdowns, as seen in various of the books of the prophets, helps illumine how they understood the dynamics of salvation.

The problems in the community centered around how the practices of following Torah and making sacrifices had diverged from the original intent. They had been intended to empower and sustain liberation from slavery and empower concern for the well-being of vulnerable people. The treatment of the vulnerable stood as a key litmus test for the faithfulness of the community to Torah. As reported in the books of Amos, Hosea, and Micah, many people in the community treated the sacrifices as ritual acts separated from the practice of justice in the community—under these circumstances, the sacrifices symbolized empty religiosity. With the emergence of kingship and the temple, people in power tend to use sacrifices as a tool to enhance their standing via their controlling access to God.

The prophets emerge as voices of loyalty to Torah in its original intent following the exodus. They challenged what they saw to be distortions of Torah and the sacrifices. They re-emphasize that salvation is God’s liberating gift and that following Torah and offering sacrifices are best seen as responses to God’s gift and not as means to gain access to it.

The prophets called for repentance—that is, they called for a return to trust in God and turning from idols. Such a call assumes that God is available when repentance happens. Nothing else is needed to gain God’s favor. The alienation the prophets speak against was a consequence of what had happened on the human side. The people had turned from God. God simply wants a turning back from problematic beliefs and practices usually linked with idolatry. The God of the prophets always promises healing and mercy when such a turning would happen. God remains—as always—favorably disposed and ready to bring healing.

Salvation in the prophets, then, is quite different from the notion of salvation described in the satisfaction atonement theology. There is no need for some kind of payment to God, some kind of way to satisfy God’s offended holiness or disregarded honor. There is no need for punishment of the offenders to establish a new balance in the moral universe. The message is, simply, turn back and God will welcome you. Such a turning, of course, went together with a return to a Torah-oriented way of life characterized by social justice. But such a way of life—as with the original commandments in Exodus 20— was simply a life-sustaining response to God’s gift of liberation.

[Here are parts one, three, and four of this series.]

5 thoughts on “Christian Salvation, Part Two: Old Testament Mercy

  1. 1. Ted, I am very pleased by the way you are rooting this teaching about salvation in the First Testament. This is going to work, I can feel it. The section “Torah and Sacrifices” is excellent!

    2. You write, “Salvation has to do with a loving, passionate God desiring a personal connection with humanity. God’s work emerges from this personal, passionate, loving disposition.” I don’t wish to argue with that, but wish you would make explicit a purpose of YHWH that is at least as important in the text: saving Earth and its inhabitants from destruction. What you have written can easily be spiritualized by 21st century Westerners. To avoid that result, we need the tension of acknowledging that the First Testament is first and foremost about saving the nations within human history.

    3. Following Wes Howard-Brook, “If Not Empire, What?” (written by John K. Stoner and me) encourages readers to recognize that in the salvation history of Israel, the order of events was the reverse of what you describe. First came the miracle of Babylon—surely an unmerited and unexpected gift—then came the return to Canaan, then the elaboration of an early blueprint for living as a non-imperial witness in the world, then the astonishingly subversive text of Genesis. Yes, Israel had a partial version of the Exodus text in some dusty closet much earlier in time, but it was not until after the exile that the story took the shape we so incorrectly assume today.

    4. You write, “The prophets emerge as voices of loyalty to Torah in its original intent following the exodus.” But then you don’t mention what was a huge part of the failure some of the prophets perceived: the organization of Ephraim and Judah as nation states under the authority of kings. Again, a partial text of Exodus was mainly what they had to draw on and it portrayed kings as fools, not representatives of YHWH. Hosea and Micah certainly caught this, even if Isaiah sitting in his comfy digs in Jerusalem didn’t.

    I’m looking forward to your next installment!

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