N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.
Zechariah’s prophecy as example [NTW/JFG]
Remember: When Wright puts “forgiveness of sins” in quotation marks, he is not being ironic. That is, he’s not saying that sins aren’t really being forgiven. Rather, he is saying that this term is being used in a special sense. For example, in Luke, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, prophesies —
(Lk. 1:68-79 ESV) 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; 72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Now, in Bible class, we generally summarize this as John will prepare the way for Jesus, so that Jesus can save us by dying on the cross. What we don’t do is notice what is actually being said and the OT roots of this language — and so we miss the radical nature of these claims.
Notice that in vv. 68-71, 74 “salvation” is God’s protection from Israel’s enemies, not going to heaven when we die — which is a very OT sort of thought.
He says this is in fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham (v. 72-73). V. 75 is a paraphrase of Gen 18:19, where God says that he made a covenant with Abraham so that he and his descendants would walk in justice and righteousness.
Thus, when we get to v. 77, “forgiveness of sins” is to provide “salvation.” Salvation means God’s protection (not heaven), which is the end of Exile brought about by forgiveness of sins.
In the OT, “salvation” refers to God’s protection of Israel from its earthly enemies. For example,
(Exod. 14:13-14 ESV) 13 And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”
(Jdg. 10:10-15 ESV) 10 And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, saying, “We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.” 11 And the LORD said to the people of Israel, “Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? 12 The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. 13 Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. 14 Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.” 15 And the people of Israel said to the LORD, “We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.”
In particular, salvation in the OT is God’s protection of Israel so that they may live unmolested in the Promised Land.
Now, as we covered earlier in this series, if the Prophets take the “Promised Land” to include the entire earth when God invites the nations into the Kingdom, then God’s salvation is bringing his people into an earth transformed to be safe and free from oppression. Heaven does not fit this description, but the New Heavens and New Earth (NHNE) does. God destroys in the fires of his wrath all enemies of his children, and transforms the Creation to be eternal — to last forever — so that he can live among his children in the NHNE.
Thus, “salvation” is not really redefined from the OT to the NT. Rather, the nature of the location of the place is transformed from the Promised Land to the renewed Creation.
If this is not right, then Zechariah’s prophecy makes no sense, because Jesus did not come as a great warrior to defend the church against its earthly enemies. Rather, he came to save the church by defeating all the church’s (and God’s) enemies at the Second Coming and providing the church with a place of perfect safety.
In v. 79, the people in darkness are the Jews living in Exile. God’s presence is light, and so separation from God is darkness. The “way of peace” is, of course, found in the Messiah, who promises peace for those he saves.
Acts 2:38 [JFG]
Wright works his way through several other passages in Luke-Acts to demonstrate that “forgiveness of sins” refers to the end of the Exile and the entry of Gentiles into the Kingdom, among the other changes that the Kingdom would bring. He does not spend much time on Acts 2:38, but does mention that it speaks of “forgiveness of sins” in this technical sense. Wright hastens to add that individual repentance and forgiveness are also taught. It’s just that the individual part is all we see.
In the KJV, “forgiveness” is translated “remission,” which is a very unusual word in modern English. And it’s not even the usual Greek word for “forgiveness.” Why? Well, “remission” translates aphesin, a word which appears in the instructions for the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:26 LXX), and in the return (aphesin) of land to the original owners every 50th year due to the Jubilee (Lev 25:10-12 LXX). That is, Peter seems to have chosen this word to tie the promise of forgiveness to two ancient practices that the cross recapitulates.
Faith in Jesus leads to atonement, which is now accomplished by Jesus on the cross rather than by sending the scapegoat into the desert. Faith in Jesus now restores our inheritance — now the NHNE rather than a plot of land in Palestine. It all fits together.
Moreover, both John and Peter promise baptism into (Greek: eis) the forgiveness of sins. This way of expressing forgiveness fits with Wright’s approach. God wishes to rescue Israel from the curses of Deu 28-29, and so he makes available forgiveness of sins (which is synecdoche for forgiveness, entry into the Kingdom, submission to Jesus as Messiah, the Spirit’s work in softening our hearts — all the blessings of the Kingdom). We are baptized into these things. Hence, we aren’t just forgiven, but we’re added to the Kingdom, receive the Spirit, etc. — and some of these things are made explicit in the passage and some are only implied. But the thought is not mere forgiveness. Jesus had been forgiving people with a word throughout his ministry. This was something much bigger — cosmic, even.
PS — There have been extensive studies done on Luke’s tying of the Jubilee to the ministry of Jesus. But that’s for another day.