Recently, a colleague asked me if penal substitutionary atonement was the primary doctrine of salvation in the first century church. And I asked her what her impression was of the apostles’ teaching. We had both just listened to a rousing talk on Christus Victor, the doctrine that portrays the Lord Jesus Christ as victorious over Satan, sin, and the grave. Her impression from her own reading, that Christus Victor was actually the more dominant theme.
So what happened? How come PSA (as it is often referred to among theologians) is now the dominant doctrine?
She intends to write a paper on it, and I cannot wait to read it! But in the meantime, here are some thoughts.
Sinners Set Free
And so because the children have taken a share in blood and flesh, then He in a like manner shared in them, in order that through death he would render inoperative him who has dominion of death, that is the devil (the Slanderer-Accuser).
Then He would deliver these—all who feared death throughout their lives, held liable to bondage.Hebrews 2:14-15 (my translation)
God’s children—human beings, you and me—are physical beings. We are flesh and blood, and always have been from the first man and woman. The Tree of Life was our access to life, and we partook of that tree freely . . . until we no longer had access.
Momentarily, it seems, the man lost his fear of God’s warning, of death, of God’s displeasure. And the woman was deceived into believing she need not fear that death would happen. Between them, the deed was done, and every human being since has been held in bondage to death, and held liable to the circumstances that follow no longer heeding God.
There was nothing for it but that God should take part in our physical world in order to lead us through death and into life. Not a one of us could do it without him. Death is the last stop without the Tree of Life, without the Word of Life. Yet death, for believers, is only the gateway to the very presence of God.
But Why the Bondage?
It was not simply to show us the passageway through death, but to also render inoperative the one who has dominion of death. And how does that one manage to claim every single human being who has ever made it to earth?
The writer of Hebrews explained who that on was—the devil, the Slanderer-Accuser, but provided no more of an answer. However, the Apostle Paul explained the why in great detail in his doctrinal treatise on salvation for the believers living in Rome.
It has to do with guilt.
The writer of Hebrews said all who feared death throughout their lives, held liable to bondage. I used the word “liable” to convey something of the word ἔνοχος | held in, bound by, liable to a charge or action, of the punishment, of the thing injured, guilty.
Sometimes, people bristle at that. Really? Are we all so guilty we are held liable to the bondage of death? Should there not be levels of penalty, or something? Is life really a pass/fail?
That feeling reminds me of a lyric from a Cat Stevens song.
You’re still young, that’s your faultCat Stevens, Father and Son
There’s so much you have to know
It is a canny play on the meanings of the word fault, for it implies responsibility in one way, but it implies an inherent imperfection in another. Perhaps in a third way, it implies taking responsibility for our imperfections.
We are sinners, that’s our fault.
At the end of his song, Cat Stevens sings,
If they were right, I’d agreeCat Stevens, Father and Son
But it’s them they know, not me
Now there’s a way and I know that I have to go away
I know I have to go.
Compare those words to Paul’s teaching in the first seven chapters of Romans.
Imagine God singing those words over humankind, grieving over us, outraged over us, and knowing the only way to deliver us from death, and the one who has dominion of death, is to enter our physical domain, free us from the power of the one who has consistently deceived humans from the beginning of time, and from the grip of our otherwise destined end, death.
What About the Angels?
Who would think to ask that in this modern time? But it must have been a big question among first-century Christians, because the writer of Hebrews addressed it.
For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.Hebrews 2:16 (NRSV)
- Humans get a second chance, but angels do not. Once they choose to turn away from God, that is it.
- Humans may be redeemed, but angels will not be. It is not a question of belief—angels do not need to believe God, they know God.
- Humans—complex creatures of flesh, blood, and spirit—have the capacity to grow and develop, to change, to mature, to be made holy and complete, but angels come ready made, it seems. They are created finished. Like Jell-o, if they melt, then melted they remain. They are creatures of light whose switch, once flipped, plunges them into permanent darkness.
There are hints throughout scripture that imply angels who have rebelled against God (presumably for the very reasons the Serpent fed to the first man and woman—to know all things, to be like God) face an ultimate and permanent end, and are now cast out from the inner presence of God.
The Sympathetic High Priest
Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.Hebrews 2:17 (NRSV)
Leviticus describes how animal sacrifices atoned for sin, how the high priest made atonement every year for the nation of Israel.
But now, Jesus has made one sacrifice, offered once and for all for sin. As high priest Jesus not only made atonement. Through His suffering He has become sympathetic to and empathetic with each one of us who remain here.
Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.Hebrews 2:18 (NRSV)
God uses Jesus’ suffering, and ours, to draw us together
Jesus identifies with us, He is our priest, and He is also the sacrifice offered on our behalf. You and I are now part of His family, and He understands us and He helps us.
That is what His suffering accomplished.
God led Jesus God the Son through suffering so He would be made complete, in flesh and blood, in like manner to us, for the work He was set on earth to do, to draw His own to Himself. Perhaps in a similar way, God leads you and me through suffering as well, we in like manner participate in Jesus’ life, and in a similar way we also become complete in order to fulfill our destinies on earth.