Part 3: He Was Interpreted – Chapter 6
So far, in this discussion of early Christian attempts to interpret Jesus, we have been considering the question of the nature of Christ; we must now ask about the work of Christ. From our examination of the primitive church’s answer to the question, "Who was this Jesus?" we now turn to the answer it gave to the question, "What did he do for man?" I shall depart somewhat from the method of preceding lectures and shall attempt little more than to present the position of Paul, whom this question so constantly engaged. I shall do this not because there are not significant differences in the way various New Testament writers interpreted what Christ had accomplished, but because there will not be opportunity to present at all adequately each of these divergent views; and if one must choose, Paul’s view is by every criterion the most important. In general it may be said that the same line of development from the most primitive strata in Acts, to Paul, to John can be traced in early Christian thinking about the work of Christ as we have noted in the primitive church’s reflection upon his nature. References to these sources, and others, will occasionally be made; but the focus of attention, even more than in the preceding lecture, will be Paul. (For a more adequate discussion of New Testament teaching in its several parts see Taylor, The Atonement in New Testament Teaching; or the earlier work of James Denney, The Death of Christ [New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1903]).
At the very outset it is well to remember that the question, "What did he do?" is not to be taken as meaning, "Did he do anything very important?" The supreme significance of what Jesus had accomplished was never in debate. The fact of the divine saviorhood of Jesus was a matter of experience, as I sought to emphasize in the first two sections of this book. The first believers knew they had been "saved" -- that is, they knew they had been forgiven and reconciled to God; that they had been incorporated into a new and divine community and had received a new and divine life. They knew also that this had happened "through Christ." The question was: How and why was this true? In just what way did Jesus accomplish all of this for them? How were they to understand the saviorhood of Jesus?
The very term "saviorhood" suggests man’s need of salvation, and any discussion of soteriology must begin with anthropology, in the sense in which the theologians use that term. Paul’s whole theology begins with a diagnosis of the human situation, and the truth and pertinence of that theology depend almost entirely upon whether that diagnosis is sound. If we find true Paul’s view of man and his condition, we shall probably both understand and find acceptable everything else of a fundamental sort that Paul has to say. If, on the other hand, we regard Paul’s answer to the question, "What is man?" as a false answer, all that he says besides will be likely to seem to us either meaningless or incredible.
Paul’s answer begins where any Jewish answer to this question must have begun: with an affirmation of man’s creaturehood. God created man, and created him in his own image. Thus God set him above the beasts of the field and crowned him with glory and honor. The breath of the divine was in him and the law of God was written in his heart. Man was thus the child of God, delighting to do his will. There was peace within himself, and between himself and his whole environment, because there was peace between himself and God.
But this original goodness and beatitude did not continue. Man became separated from God, estranged from his Creator. This estrangement occurred not because God turned away from man, but because sin made its way into human life and established itself there, distorting what God had made, destroying the original balance and harmony of creation, and turning man’s heart from obedience and fellowship to transgression and rebellion.
I hardly need to say that this understanding of man was not original with Paul; he derived it from the Judaism in which he was reared and which he never consciously forsook. The stories of the creation and the fall of man in the first three chapters of Genesis are together nothing other than a primitive statement of that same understanding. They purport to be accounts of some events which happened in the remote past, and, of course, were intended and for the most part received as such, quite literally and naïvely. But what the stories are really concerned to do is to set forth an answer to the question, "What is man?"; and they are false only if that answer is untrue. (I am aware that biblical scholars sometimes deny that this is in any sense the intention of these myths. I can only say that in my opinion such scholars are too cautious on this point. But whatever may have been the original meaning, there is plenty of evidence that in Paul’s time the myths were understood as having decisive bearing upon human nature and the course of history. See H. St. J. Thackeray. The Relation of St. Paul to Contemporary Jewish Thought [London: Macmillan Co., 1900], chap. 2.) Man, the creation story says, has capacities and powers which raise him far above the rest of creation and make him capable of fellowship and of conscious cooperation with his Creator; but, says the story of the fall, not only is he actually falling short of the glory of God for which he was created, but his very spiritual capacities have been corrupted and perverted, so that whereas on the one hand he is infinitely above the beasts, on the other he is infinitely beneath them.
Man is not an animal, belonging simply to the natural world; he shares the image of God. But the position is more complicated still: this image of God is, as it were, distorted. (John Baillie. in Our Knowledge of God [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939],p. 23, writes: "The doctrine of the imago dei has its basis in the fact that our existent human nature presents itself to us, not as a simply bad thing, but as a good thing spoiled." No one has written with greater acuteness on this matter than Reinhold Niebuhr. and I am greatly indebted to him, here and elsewhere. See his An Interpretation of Christian Ethics [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935], especially chap. 3, and The Nature and Destiny of Man [New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1943], Vol. I) What more natural than that such an understanding of the character of "existent human nature" should express itself in the belief that man was created in God’s likeness but was overtaken by a vast moral catastrophe which irremediably marred that likeness, set man at odds with his Creator and with himself, and not only thwarted the realization of his true nature but also hopelessly perverted it, turning what was created for the service of God to the service of demons? This is the understanding of human nature which is presupposed in all the profounder parts of the New Testament. It was undoubtedly Paul’s understanding.
The cause of man’s failure has already been identified as sin; and it is important to understand as clearly as possible what this term meant for Paul. Here again a reference to the Old Testament is appropriate. Of the many terms used for sin in the Old Testament some suggest a failure to "hit the mark" or to conform to some objective standard of conduct, and others suggest an attitude of disloyalty to a person. In the prophets, in whom Old Testament religion has its highest and most authentic expression, the second of these two senses is much the more important. Sin is rebellion against God, or at least unfaithfulness toward him. Social injustice within Israel, for example, which called forth the sternest protests of the prophets, was not merely a violation of the command of Yahweh: it was sin against Yahweh himself, who had identified himself with the people he had chosen. On this issue there is no doubt that Paul stood with the prophets, as against more legalistic ways of interpreting the will of God. But the term "sin" has for him another, deeper meaning. According to this meaning, sin is not merely the act or condition of rebellion against God, but is the very Spirit of rebellion itself. The act of disloyalty (although it may be called "sin" ) is, more profoundly, the consequence of sin: sin makes us do wrong and keeps us from doing right. Sin itself is a demonic power, alien to man in his true nature, which has got entrance into human life and has brought it into subjection.
This understanding of man as being actually (although not essentially) the slave of sin is expressed again and again in Paul’s writings, never more poignantly than in the final sentences of Romans, chapter 7:
The law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin. . . I do not do the things I want to do; I do things that I hate. . . . It is no longer I who do these things; it is sin, which possesses me. . . . To will the good is possible for me but to do it is impossible. I do not do the good I want to do; I do the evil I do not want to do. . . . It is not I who am acting thus, it is sin which has possession of me.
This sin has possession of the individual because the individual is part of the race. Sin for Paul (as for many biblical writers) is a massive social or racial fact. Not simply every man separately, but man -- human nature -- has become infected and corrupted by sin. To be human is to be a sinner: not, I repeat, that man or any part of him is constitutionally evil -- there is no ultimate dualism in Paul any more than in orthodox Judaism. But racial man, as he is actually found, is in the grip of sin, and no individual can free himself from that bondage. There is, to use a phrase of C. H. Dodd, a "fundamental wrongness" in human life, in which every living man is inescapably involved; a "reprobate character," a tendency toward evil, which no man can successfully resist. This reprobate character is known not only through an individual’s own experience with himself as he struggles with impulses too strong for his own strength to overcome, but also through his observation of the world about him, a world in which evil and its works are so terribly apparent, and in whose operations he is so inextricably involved.
Sin is thus a demonic power which through Adam’s disobedience gained access to man’s interior life. Taking up its seat in man’s flesh, (Paul is no doubt influenced here by Hellenistic dualism between flesh and spirit, although it is to be noted that he does not regard flesh as being essentially evil. Still, it is the seat of sin and is undoubtedly thought of as having been especially corrupted by it.) it has upset the primeval balance of God’s creation and reduced man’s diviner part to an abject slavery. Man is the slave of sin, and disorder and death are the lot of all mankind.
This death is not so much an arbitrary penalty as an inevitable consequence. "The wages of sin is death." Sin works itself out in decay and destruction. Paul’s term for this destruction is "the Wrath" or, occasionally, " the Wrath of God." Dodd points out that the relative infrequency of the latter, more personal, form of the phrase, together with the fact that Paul never makes God the subject of the verb "to be angry," should put us on guard against supposing that he is thinking of any personal attitude of God toward men when he speaks of "the Wrath." (C.H. Dodd. The Epistle of Paul to the Romans [New York and London: Harper & Brothers. 1932]. pp. 20ff.)
He is speaking primarily not of an attitude at all, but of an event -- the corruption and death whose working he feels within his own body (" Who will deliver me from this body of death?") and sees horribly revealed in the perversions and degradations around him:
So God abandoned them, with their heart’s cravings, to Impurity, and let them degrade their own bodies. For they had exchanged the truth of God for what was false, and worshipped and served what he had created, instead of the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen! That is why God has abandoned them to degrading passions. . . . They revel in every kind of wrongdoing, wickedness, greed, and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, quarrelling, deceit, and ill-nature. They are gossips. slanderers, abhorrent to God, insolent, overbearing, boastful, ingenious in evil, undutiful, conscienceless, treacherous, unloving, and unpitying. They know God’s decree that those who act in this way deserve to die, yet they not only do it, but applaud any who do. (Rom. 1:24-32. [E. J. Goodspeed’s translation (The Bible: An American Translation) is used by permission of the University of Chicago Press.])
But although Dodd’s emphasis upon the objective character of " the Wrath " is justified, nevertheless it is clear from this very passage that Paul did not hesitate to ascribe to God responsibility for this judgment. It is God who has "abandoned" sinful men "to degrading passions" and it is God whose "decree that those who act in this way deserve to die" they have disregarded and flaunted. Thus although we must not suppose that he thought of God as being angry in the way men are angry, still Paul is aware that the divine righteousness has been outraged by man’s sin. "The Wrath" is not merely the final issue of man’s bondage (see Romans 6: 16ff.); it is also God’s sentence upon man’s guilt.
We confront here another of the many contradictions in Paul’s thought: man is helpless in the grip of sin, but man is responsible for sin. This contradiction cannot be resolved -- but do the facts permit that it be avoided? Again, the final test of the truth of Paul’s view is not whether it is logically consistent, but whether it answers to the real human situation. Actually is it not true that though we do know ourselves helpless to do God’s perfect will, helpless to resist successfully the temptations to pride and selfishness which assail us in every area of our life and at every level of moral endeavor, we nevertheless know that we are guilty before God and that we should be guilty even if we should make the maximum effort of which human flesh is capable? We know ourselves actually to be amenable to a law of purity and love which our sinfulness will forever keep us from fulfilling. No logically consistent statement can cover and interpret this fact, but the fact is unmistakable. And Paul’s view of man’s condition (and in its essentials his is the central biblical view) cannot be declared false, for all its mythical character, so long as it is the only view of man which takes adequate account of this inescapable reality of human experience: On the one hand, I know that "it is not I who do these things but sin which has possession of me"; but, on the other hand, I know that I am responsible for these acts of sin and that I deserve to die because of them.
Of both this bondage and this guilt the law, according to Paul, makes us aware, and it was divinely designed and given with that purpose. No problem confronting the interpreter of Paul’s thought is likely to seem so difficult as how to understand his conception of the law. This is true because, in all probability, the law proved an almost insoluble problem for Paul himself. He was a good Jew and as such could not think of questioning the divine source and the authority of the law; and yet desperately earnest attempts at obedience had convinced him of the futility of expecting salvation through that means. Indeed, the law had served only to bring into vivid relief the reality of his alienation from God and his bondage to the power of sin. More than that, the commandments had sometimes had the effect of stirring sinful impulses, which were sleeping, into activity. Thus he can write:
I had not known sin, but by the law; for I would not have known lust unless the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of sinful desire. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was for life, I found to be for death. For sin taking occasion by the commandment deceived me, and by it slew me. (Rom. 7:7ff.)
In this way bondage to sin and bondage to the law -- utterly opposite though these two elements might seem to be -- could appear to Paul as one bondage. Without the law there would have been no awareness of his slavery to sin; and without sin, the law would not have appeared as the hard taskmaster it was, since in that case he could easily and naturally have given the required obedience. Thus, in spite of its divine origin, Paul could think of the law as one of the three great enemies from which man needs to be delivered: "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law." (I Cor. 15:56.) "The law was a tutor to bring us to Christ," Paul says on another occasion; (Gal. 3:24.) but he is not alluding to any gradual approach to Christ through obedience to the law. He means that attempts to fulfill the law produce the despair of self which must precede one’s acceptance in faith of salvation, which is not achieved by man’s effort but is bestowed in Christ by God’s grace. The law stands as a reminder of God’s righteous will, but also of man’s moral impotence and of his need of a redemption which only God can bring.
Paul’s whole conception of man -- his creation in God’s own image with the law of God written in his heart, his losing battle with a demonic enemy, the shameful captivity in which he is now held and the doom of death which awaits him -- this whole conception, as well as the despair of one who awakes to the realities for which the conception stands, is expressed in the words with which Paul ends what we know as the seventh chapter of Romans:
I delight in the law of God after the inward man, but I find another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death!
This poignant cry is followed at once by the triumphant shout, " I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord" ; just as Paul’s reference to man’s bondage to sin and death in I Corinthians 15:56, quoted a moment ago, is immediately followed by "Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." It was Paul’s most certain, most intimate, and most central conviction that God has brought deliverance, and that he has done so through Christ: "What the law could not do because it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending his own son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin. He placed sin in the flesh under sentence of death." (Rom. 8:1f.) The law indeed, as we have seen, had not only been too weak to destroy sin in the flesh; it had actually stirred sin into activity. But God in Christ has broken the grip of sin and set us free -- free from both its guilt and its power. In him both forgiveness and new life are made available for us.
But the question with which this lecture began still remains: How did Paul understand that this had been accomplished?
We have seen that Paul’s understanding of the realities of the human situation apart from Christ could be expressed only in mythological terms, and the suggestion has been made that, in the nature of the case, this must be true, not for him only, but also for us, if our understanding is at all adequate or profound. This fact about Paul will prepare us to find that his interpretation of the "work" of Christ makes use of similar terms. Indeed, it may be said that whenever Paul speaks of what Christ accomplished (or of what God accomplished through him), his language is either mythical or metaphorical; and the distinction between myth and metaphor is not always easy to draw.
Paul nowhere gives a systematic statement of his views on this matter, but if one will read through his letters, carefully noting every reference to what Christ did for man, or what God did for man through him, one will discover the use, in some cases frequently recurring, of some five rather distinct images, which may be roughly indicated as follows:
1. Jesus paid a ransom on our behalf and thus secured our release from the slavery of sin,
2. He satisfied the requirements of the law for us; he paid a penalty we could not pay.
3. He offered an adequate sacrifice for sin, which we were not able to offer.
4. He met and defeated sin and the powers of evil which had mastered us and which we had not strength to overcome.
5. He offered a perfect obedience and thus became the New Man, undoing the results of Adam’s transgression and making possible our incorporation into a new and sinless humanity.
Now it will be at once apparent that Paul is not using these images to designate five separate events or transactions, or even to designate five distinct effects of one event or transaction. Christ’s act was one act, and its effect was one effect (though with two sides: to free us from sin and to reconcile us to God, to offer emancipation and forgiveness). The images are, certainly in part, metaphors; (So A. Deissmann, Paul [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1926]. pp. 167ff., 200ff.; Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, pp. 56ff.) they represent Paul’s effort, by using every analogy which ordinary experience presented, to make vivid and clear the reality of the salvation offered in Christ.
This is most obviously true of the first of them. "You are bought with a price," Paul says. (I Cor. 6:20; 7:23; etc. The use of the figure of the ransom is also to be noted in Mark 10:45 [which I am unable to ascribe to Jesus himself]; Rev. 5:9 and 14:3f.; I Pet. 1:18; II Pet. 2:1; I Tim. 2:6.) We recognize the absurdity of taking that sentence as a bare, literal statement of fact, although one conspicuous "theory" of the atonement was based upon such an understanding of it. According to that view, man was in Satan’s power; Christ came and paid a ransom to Satan, thus bringing about the prisoner’s release. It will be granted that Paul thought of man as being in Satan’s power, but the literal application of the sentence stops there. Indeed, literally interpreted, this item is quite incompatible with the fourth in our series of images. According to that representation of Christ’s work, far from paying a ransom to the powers of evil, Christ utterly vanquished them; Christ set us free not by compensating or appeasing Satan but by destroying his power. The truth is that when Paul uses the image of the ransom, he is meaning to say something like this: "Imagine yourself a slave or captive in the hand of a hard master who has set a price upon your head far beyond anything you could ever pay. You are utterly helpless and hopeless. Then one day a stranger comes, whom you did not know and who owes you nothing; this stranger, at great loss to himself, pays the ransom and you are set free. In the same way, Christ, at the cost of an incalculable sacrifice, sets us free from the power of sin." To try to make the analogy apply at every point is to distort Paul’s meaning. The same metaphorical character, I am inclined to think, is not altogether absent from Paul’s use of the ideas of a penalty paid and a sacrifice offered, though here the consciously metaphorical is merging into the unconsciously mythological.
This latter character plainly belongs to the conceptions of Christ as winning a cosmic victory over sin and Satan, and as becoming the Second Adam. These two ideas are closely related and, in my judgment, have an importance for Paul and are intended with a literalism and realism which cannot be affirmed of any of the other images, although, as will soon appear, I am by no means dismissing the second and third of them as mere metaphors. We have seen that Paul interprets the human tragedy as consisting essentially in man’s slavery to sin and that he thought of this slavery as following upon man’s defeat by the evil powers when Adam transgressed God’s command. This being true, it is not strange that he should understand the freedom from the guilt and power of sin which, he is persuaded, is now available to him and to all men who believe in Christ, as owing to the victory which the man Christ Jesus has, by his obedience "even unto death," won over man’s demonic enemies. As by man came sin and death, so by man have come forgiveness and life. As Adam was the head of the old, natural humanity, which sin has marred and despoiled, so Christ is the head of a new, spiritual (that is, supernatural) humanity, in which are righteousness and peace. Salvation consists in dying to the old world and becoming alive in the new; in the breaking of contact with the order of relationships which is "Adam" and the entering into the new order of relationships which is "Christ." "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive." (See I Cor. 15:20ff. and Rom. 5:12ff. The conception of Christ as having won a cosmic victory over the demonic powers on our behalf, though it is worked out more consistently and fully in Paul than elsewhere. is by no means peculiar to him. Mark all but begins his story with a reference to Jesus’ struggle with the Devil in the wilderness and represents the whole career of Jesus, under one of its aspects, as a demonstration of victorious power over the demons. The same note is struck again and again in the other Synoptic Gospels. One remembers especially the saying ascribed to Jesus [in Luke 22:53] in the moment of his arrest: "This is your hour and the power of darkness." And although earlier apocalyptic conceptions are generally missing in the Fourth Gospel, as we have already had occasion to observe, traces of this idea of Christ’s victory are to be found even there; as in 14:30: "Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh and hath nothing in me"; in 16:11: "The prince of this world is judged"; and in 12:31: "Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.")
Obviously, this conception is eschatological. The "new humanity" belongs to the new age. The "new order of relationships" is the order of the world to come. The salvation of which Paul speaks is primarily salvation within the kingdom of God which, whatever it may have been for Jesus himself, lay beyond the end of history for Paul and the primitive church. Their thinking was largely affected by Jewish apocalyptic conceptions, according to which history had fallen under the dominion of demonic powers; when "the fullness of time" should come, God would engage these powers in battle, would defeat and destroy them and their human agents, and would inaugurate a new and unimaginable order of blessedness, righteousness and peace. Clearly the conception of Christ as Victor over man s demonic enemies and as thus becoming the Second Man, with whom we may be identified, in whom we may be incorporated, in just the same sense as we belong, as natural men, to Adam -- clearly this conception fits into the apocalyptic pattern. "In Adam" we belong to this world; "in Christ" we belong to the world to come.
But this conception, while it is eschatological (and eschatological in a literal temporal sense, not in the sublimated sense in which moderns sometimes use the term), is not simply futuristic. I have already had occasion several times to refer to the fact that the primitive church (possibly even Jesus himself) believed the eschatological event had already begun to occur. The end of history was not merely to happen and to happen soon; it was then happening. According to Paul, the sentence of death has already been placed upon sin. Thus he can speak of sin as being dead in those who have "died" and "risen" with Christ -- that is, those who have become members of the new social reality of which Christ is the representative Head and Center. (See, for example, Rom. 6:1ff. and Col. 3:1ff.) But, in the next breath, by his ethical appeals, admonitions and denunciations, he can indicate unmistakably his recognition that sin is not only not dead but is having sometimes devastating results among those who presumably have been redeemed from its power. And in that connection, one remembers his description in Romans 7:24 f. of his own experience of bondage and deliverance, both referred to in the present tense as though they were happening together.
The truth is that sin, as Paul speaks of it, is both dead and not dead; justification and new life are both present and not present. Sin is dead in the sense not only that it is doomed but that the doom is already in process of being executed: "the Wrath is being revealed." Justification and new life are present in the sense that they have not only been surely promised but token installments, so to speak, have already been received. The Spirit is spoken of as the "earnest" (vastly more than a promise) of the salvation, which in its fullness is still in the future. In the same way the church might have been spoken of as the "earnest of the kingdom. The present and the future are so close to each other that Paul and other early Christians can mix the tenses in ways impossible for us. Notice how "futures" and "presents" are interspersed in Romans 8: for example, Paul can say in verse 15 that we "have received the Spirit of adoption" and in verse 23 can speak of our "groaning within ourselves" as "we wait for the adoption." The presence of the word "Spirit" in one of these passages and in the immediate context of the other suggests the only resolution of this contradiction, if any resolution is possible. We do wait for the adoption -- that will come at the fulfillment of all things, which, however imminent, is still future; but even now we possess the Spirit of adoption, that is, God’s miraculous gift of forgiveness and grace, an advance installment, a token payment, a foretaste, a "first-fruits," of a life which in its full, true character belongs only to the world to come.
Sin is doomed and its power is weakened, but it has not been actually destroyed; salvation has already been bestowed in Christ, but the fulfillment of that salvation awaits Christ’s return in glorious power to bring to completion his victory over sin and death and to inaugurate fully and finally the kingdom of God.
We are now in position to see more clearly how Paul understood the necessity of the incarnation, (This term can scarcely be avoided, but will be understood, when applied to Paul, in the light of what I tried to say earlier), about which we were speaking in the preceding lecture. The Son of God became man in order to meet and deal with the sin which had established itself in man’s flesh. The unspeakable sacrifice, the self-emptying, involved in Christ’s coming, had to be made because only within human life itself could man’s enemy be found. (Here is further proof, if any were needed, that Paul had entire confidence in the reality of Jesus’ manhood. No pseudo-man, no half-man, could do the work that needed to be done.) Christ entered the area where sin was exercising its sovereignty and by his perfect obedience to the will of God decisively defeated this demonic foe. The cross marked the moment of the foe’s most determined assault, when this obedience was most sorely tested. Just as the Son of God had to come in the flesh in order to meet Sin, so he had to die in order to meet Death. The resurrection is the moment, and the seal, of his victory. God, in Christ, suffered sinful flesh that he might destroy Sin; he suffered death that he might destroy Death. So much has God loved us; so much has he done for us men and for our salvation.
Thus far in this part of our discussion I have been trying to show that Paul’s thinking about the work of Christ is predominantly eschatological: In virtue of an obedience which man, who stood simply in the succession of Adam, could not give, and of a victory which man could not win, the human situation has been radically transformed. A new humanity has been created, the spiritual humanity of the age to come, to which even now one can belong (fully, in principle, and partially in actual fact), through faith in -- that is, through personal trust and self-denying devotion to -- the one who loved us and gave himself for us. Such a one is "in Christ." He is, again in principle (but also, in a measure, actually), released from his bondage to his old enemies; he is dead to sin and alive to righteousness. The church is the embodiment, the manifestation within the present brief time, of this new humanity. It is "the body of Christ." To belong to the community is to be "in Christ"; to be "in Christ" is to belong to the community. (Baptism can thus be described as an initiation "into Christ." See Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:12.) Whatever more mystical connotations this phrase "in Christ" may sometimes have in Paul, (No reader of the fourth lecture in this series will suspect me of denying the reality and importance of Paul’s "Christ-mysticism." On this see A. Deissmann, The Religion of Jesus and the faith of Paul [London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1923] , pp. 162ff.) its primary meaning is eschatological. It designates membership in God’s new and final creation, the kingdom of God, and in the church, which is (more than the promise) the actual in-breaking of that kingdom.
But though Paul’s thinking about the work of Christ is, in my judgment, primarily concerned with Christ’s victory over man’s demonic enemies, there is a juridical note in it which cannot be denied and must not be ignored. Paul speaks again and again of Christ as "dying for our sin." On one occasion he mentions this as an element in the faith which he had received from earlier believers, (I Cor. 15:3.) and the prevalence in almost every part of the New Testament of references to Christ’s death as being " for us" or "for our sins" or "for sin" confirms his statement. Such references fit better with items 2 and 3 in our list earlier in this chapter than with item 4. They can be taken most naturally as allusions, not to a battle fought and won, but to a penalty paid or a sacrifice offered.
The vicarious penal or sacrificial value of the death of Christ is indicated also by not infrequent allusions to "the blood" of Christ. Particularly important is the reference, with its context, which appears in Romans 3:25. There, having quoted from the Psalms, "None is righteous, no, not one," Paul goes on to say:
Whatever the Law says, we know, it says to those who are inside the Law, that every mouth may be shut and all the world made answerable to God; for no person will be acquitted in his sight on the score of obedience to Law. What the Law imparts is the consciousness of sin. But now we have a righteousness of God disclosed apart from law altogether; it is attested by the Law and the prophets, but it is a righteousness of God which comes by believing in Jesus Christ. And it is meant for all who have faith. No distinctions axe drawn. All have sinned, all come short of the glory of God, but they are justified for nothing by his grace through the ransom provided in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as the means of propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to demonstrate the justice of God in view of the fact that sins previously committed during the time of God’s forbearance had been passed over; it was to demonstrate his justice at the present epoch, showing that God is just himself and that he justifies man on the score of faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:19-31. From The Bible: A New Translation. By James Moffatt. Harper & Brothers. Publishers. Used by permission.)
There can be no doubt that we have here an allusion to Christ’s death as constituting a sacrificial offering on account of sin and a satisfaction of the demands of God’s righteousness. Dodd rightly insists that the term "expiation" should be read instead of "propitiation" (The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, pp. 54ff.) -- the situation is not that an angry God needs to be placated and that he is placated by the blood of an innocent victim (such an idea would have seemed monstrous: after all, it is God who is "setting forth the expiation"; it is God who is seeking to "reconcile the world to himself") ,but rather that sin needs to be covered or annulled. But even so, the passage reflects the conviction, to which I referred early in this discussion, that man not only is the slave of sin but is guilty before God. It is not enough to escape from bondage to a hated, alien foe (" a law in my members which wars against the law of my mind and brings me into captivity to the law of sin in my members"); something must be done about my own ghastly guilt.
Thus, we cannot, as in the case of the "ransom," regard Paul’s images of the legal penalty and of the sacrificial offering merely as graphic metaphors, however apt. He is not saying, "It is as though you were subject to the penalty of death and someone freely paid that penalty for you," or "It is as though you had committed a crime far beyond the power of any sacrifice you could offer to expiate and someone made the adequate sacrifice on your behalf." No, the situation is not thus hypothetical. Rather, you are subject to the penalty of death -- it has not only been imposed but it is deserved; you are guilty beyond your power to expiate; and yet you are, in Christ, forgiven. It was almost inevitable that the early church -- for here the various voices of the New Testament speak with extraordinary unanimity -- should find in the death of Christ the vicarious expiatory significance which alone could resolve this paradox. This understanding of the death of Christ as representing a vicarious offering to God cannot be rendered consistent within itself (since it is God who both makes the offering and receives it) , nor can it be made logically compatible with the conception of Christus Victor. (But see the significant book of G. Aulén, Christus Victor [New York and Toronto: Macmillan Co., 1931]. in which an attempt is made to work out such a logical synthesis.) But it answers to a real element in the Christian experience of salvation. Just as sin is known as both guilt and bondage, so salvation is received as both expiation and deliverance.
I have just said that in this understanding of the death of Christ as a sacrifice for sin the various writers of the New Testament almost without exception agree. (The exceptions -- some of the briefer Epistles -- are not important and, even so, may only appear to be such.) It goes almost without saying, in view of what we observed in the preceding lecture, that at the very beginning (that is, immediately after the resurrection) Jesus’ death would have had little, if any, theological significance. As the first believers saw it, the resurrection was the first really significant moment. It was then that Jesus became "Lord and Christ"; it was then that he " was installed Son of God with power." The life of Jesus preceding that exaltation was, of course, vividly remembered and was laden with the most poignant meaning, but this meaning was not, certainly in any way that could have been made explicit, theological in character. It was only after it had come to be seen that Jesus must have been the Messiah even during his earthly life (and this, we can be sure, happened almost at once) that the death became a matter for theological reflection.
At first, it must have had the aspect of a difficult problem, a "stumbling-block," as Paul later tells us it still was for the Jews. But soon it was realized -- partly as a result of the remembrance of Jesus’ own utter humility and denial of self, particularly as associated with his awful suffering and his uncomplaining acceptance of it as the will of God; partly under the influence of a fresh reading of the Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah; (commented on earlier) and, not least, as a consequence of the community’s own experience of the forgiveness of sins -- soon, I say, it was realized that the whole significance of Jesus’ earthly life culminated in his death. As the hour approached, his "soul was exceeding sorrowful even unto death"; and in the final agony it seemed that even God had "forsaken" him. (Mark 14-34; 15:34.) But this was no fortuitous or meaningless catastrophe: He was doing the thing he came to do. He was tasting death for every man. He was, in ways hidden in mystery, destroying the power and guilt of sin.
Here is where Paul stood, as we have seen; and he stood, in all essentials, on common ground. This feeling for the deep significance of the suffering and death of Christ is constantly present in Mark, as the quotations just above will have indicated (as well as the familiar "to give his life a ransom for many" [See F. C. Grant, The Earliest Gospel (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1943), pp. 78ff], and is only less important in Matthew and Luke-Acts. The very theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews is the sacrificial death of Christ, and I Peter and the Apocalypse are full of allusions to it. The Lord’s Supper, originally Jesus’ last meal with his disciples before he and they should eat and drink together in the kingdom of God, (See Otto. The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, pp. 265ff.) becomes a memorial to his death, a communion in his body and blood, and thus a participation in the salvation made possible by his sacrifice. And though in the Fourth Gospel the notes of agonizing struggle, or even of ordinary human weakness and suffering, are muted, if not hushed, and the death is, as Vincent Taylor says, "no longer a (Greek word) but a shining stairway by which the Son of God ascends to his Father," (The Atonement in New Testament Teaching, p. 215. See also Colwell, John Defends the Gospel, pp. 67ff.) nevertheless it is in this Gospel that Christ is both "the good shepherd" who "giveth his life for the sheep" and the "lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world," and it is in the closely related First Epistle of John that God is said to have "sent his son to be an expiation for our sin." (In the Fourth Gospel the saving significance of Jesus resides rather in what he was than in anything he did. Therefore all that was said in the preceding lecture about that Gospel’s understanding of the nature of Christ throws light upon its understanding of his work. We have already noted in the Fourth Gospel traces of the earlier apocalyptic notion of a victorious conflict with the powers of this world and now we are observing indications of the conception of Christ’s death as sacrifice for sin. But the primary significance of Christ for the author of this Gospel lies in his having been the manifestation of the Father, the incarnation of the Son of God. Christ came not primarily to do something [as in Paul], but to reveal something. We are saved through the appropriation of this revelation, for salvation, or "eternal life." is the knowledge of, the fellowship with, God which was made possible by the manifestation among men of the Eternal Word and is still possible in the church through the Spirit, which, as we have seen, is Christ’s continuing presence.)
The use of this penal and sacrificial imagery reflects the early church’s profound sense of guilt, and its knowledge, which seemed to have come to it by way of the spectacle of Christ’s sufferings, that the forgiveness which it now enjoyed, although given freely had not been given lightly. God had not ignored man’s guilt; he had forgiven it. All forgiveness is costly; and God’s forgiveness, it was instinctively known, had cost infinitely. Involved in the "conviction of sin" is the realization that God takes sin with immeasurably more seriousness than even the most repentant sinner can. The death of Christ became the awesome symbol of God’s inescapable judgment upon sin. God’s forgiveness of our sin, it was felt, did not cost him his righteousness only because it had cost him his Son.
But if this gift of his Son was, in some way beyond the early church’s or our own understanding, a satisfaction of God’s justice, it was even more manifestly an expression of his love. If the death of Christ spoke of God’s judgment, it spoke also of his mercy. Indeed, the wonder of the cross was that it revealed a righteousness in which justice and love were finally one. It is because God is love that our rebellion against his righteous will is so utterly appalling. It is precisely because God is forgiving that our sin is so heinous. Thus the recognition of the forgiveness of God, far from mitigating our awareness of judgment, serves immeasurably to deepen it. The more gracious God is, the more terrible our disobedience and disloyalty. The cross, in forcing us to face the tragic facts of our sin and of God’s judgment on it, confronts us also inescapably with the love of God, and thus with the deepest and most tragic meaning of our sin.
The realization of that deepest meaning is repentance. One may, in other ways, feel sorrow for sin (the sorrow of regret, or remorse, or despair); but one cannot feel the sorrow of repentance (which alone leads to forgiveness and salvation) unless one knows that God suffers because of our sin incalculably more than we -- and that he suffers willingly and out of love for us. The sorrow of repentance grows out of a recognition that we have not only transgressed the law of God but have brought grief to the love of God, But this same love stands ready to redeem us. The very love which drives us to the verge of despair when we think of what we have done to it, grasps us at the edge of the precipice and brings us home again. "O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
So much for an attempt to interpret several important strains in early Christian reflection upon the significance of Jesus. I should like to conclude by emphasizing again the distinction between Christ and Christology, and by insisting once more that Christ is more important than Christology, as life is more important than dogma. By "Christ" we mean the One remembered and still known in the church, by whom we are grasped, through whom we are forgiven, in whom we have been found of God. By "Christology" we mean the attempts of the church to explain this Reality. The two are closely related but are not identical. One can know Christ and "the power of his resurrection" without finding entirely congenial any of the classical interpretations of that experience. Indeed, such a one is certain to feel that none of these interpretations is altogether adequate; and some of them he will reject (whether he knows he is doing so or not) as quite useless.
And yet few things are more certain than that the church will never find it possible to reject or replace the more important terms with which the last two lectures have abounded -- terms like the creation and the fall of man and the coming and the dying of the Son of God. This is true not because the church will necessarily feel itself bound by these terms (we are not to feel bound by any terms: God has not called us to bondage, but to freedom), but because what these terms stand for cannot be translated into the language either of ordinary speech or of scientific and philosophical discourse. What is said by such statements as "Christ died for us," or "God sent his son into the world that the world through him might be saved," or "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself" cannot be said otherwise.
The reason the basic and common christological terms will always prove to be both indispensable and irreplaceable is that they stand, as mythological terms invariably do, not primarily for abstract ideas, but for concrete realities known within the experience of the community -- the realities dealt with in the first three, and particularly in the fourth, of these lectures. Indeed, such conceptions as Christ’s victory over sin and death on our behalf and the forgiveness of sins through him are part and parcel of the event itself which we know as Jesus Christ. To this extent Christology is inseparable from Christ.
Just as it would be impossible to replace with definitions such words as " home," or "light," or "music," or to make the meaning of such words clear to someone who had never himself experienced the realities to which they point, so it will always be impossible to replace with definitions such terms as ‘ the grace of God in Christ," "peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ," or the great story in which these phrases have their only possible context. Definitions and explanations will often be of the greatest value, but they will never exhaust the meaning of the realities within the life of the church to which these terms refer nor will they render the terms themselves unnecessary. Particular terms we may discard; but in so far as the New Testament story as a whole has fallen into disuse, it is not because we are too intelligent to believe it but because we are too small and poor to know what it means.
Those to whom, all unworthy, the suffering and forgiving love of God has been revealed in Christ will find themselves, in every generation, laying eager hold upon the terms which sprang out of the experience of the first recipients of this revelation. Those to whom it has been given to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ will gladly claim the words in which the first wondering witnesses expressed their rapture and their awe. They will know that whatever may be the real and ultimate truth of God’s being and purpose (and it must be, in the nature of the case, far beyond our knowing), we never approach so near to that truth as when we say with Paul, "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us," or with the author of the Fourth Gospel, "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son," or with still another of those upon whom the light first shone, " Because of the great love wherewith he hath loved us, God hath made us, who were dead in sins, to live again with Christ."