N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 66G (Atonement Theories)

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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 accomplish our salvation.

Hebrews: Jesus our great High Priest

The author of Hebrews demonstrates that Jesus’ experience as a human on earth better equips him to be our Savior. For example, the author sees that Jesus is able to help us defeat temptation because he himself experienced temptation —

(Heb. 2:18 ESV) For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

(Heb. 4:15 ESV) For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

I’ve not been able to find the author who first taught me this, but there’s an argument that Jesus, through the present work of the Spirit, is better able to help us overcome sin in our lives because Jesus, while in human form, had to learn how to defeat temptation. He never would have experienced the temptations that comes from hunger, the desire for power, and the like except as a human. Therefore, his humanity is what equips him — and therefore the Spirit — to help us cope with the weakness of our own humanity.

This naturally leads to the observation that Jesus, through the Spirit, can teach us obedience because he obeyed his Father.

(Heb. 5:7-10 ESV)  7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.  8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.  9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,  10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

V. 9 would be read as an atonement passage if it appeared in Paul or one of the Gospels. But in Hebrews, we get so caught up in trying to understand “after the order Melchizedek” that we miss the larger point. Jesus is only the source of our salvation because he learned to obey in suffering.

How does this work? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but it would make sense to conclude that “salvation” includes not merely having our sins forgiven but also the receipt of the Spirit and the Spirit’s work in our lives — and the author says as much in Heb 10. And the Spirit is able to teach us obedience because the Spirit as part of the Triune God learned how to obey from Jesus’s experience on earth.

The same idea appears in —

(Heb. 2:9-10 ESV) 9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.  10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 

Jesus was made “perfect” through suffering. The suffering didn’t make him sinless. The author doesn’t have moral perfection mind. Rather, the suffering made him perfect (or complete) so that he could be our Savior. It both gave him the moral authority to call us to a life of suffering for his sake as well as the ability, through the Spirit, to write his laws on our hearts and in our minds (Jer 31:31 ff quoted in Heb 8). The Spirit can only teach us what he knows — and for a divine being, resisting temptation and remaining faithful despite suffering can only be learned by taking human form.

“Propitiation” in Hebrews

Heb 2:17 has, at times, been misused to argue that Jesus’s sacrifice means that Jesus’s sacrifice was a propitiation. In the Greco-Roman world, a “propitiation” was a gift given to a god to persuade the god to no longer be angry. It’s a pay off, a bribe, blood money. But among the Jews, the meaning is quite different.

Those who would understand Hebrews receive a rich reward if they interpret “to make atonement” by listening carefully to the way Hebrews describes what Christ does with sin. The [author] will not allow his hearers to restrict this term either to the “propitiation” of God’s wrath against sin or to the “expiation” of sin by its removal from the sinner. Nor does he distinguish neatly between the two. He speaks the language of covenant and Tabernacle. Thus his primary concern is the removal of impurity.

As the typological old system removed outward impurity, so the work of Christ removes the impurity of the heart (9:11–14). An impure heart is a disobedient heart in rebellion against God. Thus the all-sufficient work of Christ transforms the kind of rebellious heart exemplified by the wilderness generation (3:12) into the obedient heart of the New Covenant characterized by joyous compliance with the will of God (10:11–18; cf. 10:22). Christ “cleanses the conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (9:14)!

The old sacrificial system made it clear that impurity prevented access to God (9:1–10). Christ’s removal of heart impurity dispenses with this barrier and provides access to the divine presence (10:19–22). His death can also be seen as propitiatory in that he took upon himself the covenant curse on the disobedient (9:16–22) so that God no longer “remembers” the disobedience of his faithful people (10:11–15). Those who “draw near to God through him” (7:25) find these benefits in union with their High Priest.

Gareth Lee Cockerill, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the Old and New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 151.

Critically important is the fact that the author of Hebrews is building his case on several OT passages, including especially the new covenant promises of Jer 31:31 ff. That is, atonement is not just offering a sacrifice. It’s also about cleansing God’s people through the work of his Spirit.

“Propitiation” in 1 John

Twice, John refers to Jesus’s sacrifice as a “propitiation.”

(1 Jn. 2:2 ESV)  He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

(1 Jn. 4:9-10 ESV)  9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.  10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 

The NIV and NET Bible translations prefer “atonement.”  The RSV translates “expiation.” However, in the UBS Handbook series (a series by translators for translators), the authors question the choice of “propitiation” and “expiation,” as those terms relate to the pagan sacrificial system that is quite unlike the Jewish system.

The Greek term rendered expiation (here and 4:10) is derived from a verb which outside the New Testament generally means, “to pacify,” namely, an offended deity. Another meaning of the verb, rarer in non-Christian writers, is: to perform an act by which ritual or moral defilement is removed. In the Greek and Hellenistic world it was believed that the prescribed rituals (which might or might not include the slaughter of animals) could serve, so to speak, as a powerful disinfectant. Every one who had performed this ritual could be confident that the taint was removed.

In the Greek Old Testament the verb in question is the most general term for such rituals. Almost invariably it has the sense “to cleanse from defilement.” Where priests or other men are the ones who expiate, it refers to sacrifices or purifying rites. But in Hebrew thought it is also possible (as it never is among the Greeks) that God performs the action.*

Accordingly, the meaning of the Greek verb comes close to that of “to cleanse” (cp. 1:7) and “to forgive” (cp. 1:9). An interpretation along these lines leads to renderings like, “Christ himself is the means by which our sins are forgiven” (TEV), ‘who makes good all our sins,’ ‘it is he who is what-frees-from our sins’ (making use of a term that in the indigenous religion refers to the exorcising of magical influences), ‘he is the means of the disappearance of our sins,’ ‘he himself takes away sin,’ ‘he covers up our sins.’ The last mentioned rendering is fully acceptable in some languages (among them probably also Hebrew, for “to cover” is one of the meanings the corresponding Hebrew verb can have), but in other languages and cultures it would suggest hiding (so that God cannot see it), and therefore cannot be used.

C. Haas, Marinus de Jonge, and J. L. Swellengrebel, A Handbook on the Letters of John, UBS Handbook Series, (New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 35–36.

Similarly, Wuest comments on the translation —

John further describes Him as “the propitiation for our sins.” The word is hilasmos (ἱλασμος). It is from the verb hilaskomai (ἱλασκομαι). In pagan usage it meant “to appease, to conciliate to one’s self, to make a god propitious to one.” Herodotus says, “The Parians, having propitiated Themistocles with gifts, escaped the visits of the army.” However, when the word comes over into New Testament usage, its meaning is radically changed. Canon Westcott says: “The scriptural conception of the verb is not that of appeasing one who is angry with a personal feeling against the offender; but of altering the character of that which, from without, occasions a necessary alienation, and interposes an inevitable obstacle to fellowship. Such phrases as ‘propitiating God,’ and ‘God being reconciled’ are foreign to the language of the New Testament.”

That from without which occasioned the alienation between God and man, was sin. It was the guilt of sin that separated man from his creator. Our Lord on the Cross assumed that guilt and paid the penalty in His own blood, and thus removed the cause of alienation. 

Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament: For the English Reader, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 1 Jn 2:1.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began, Romans Reconsidered, Part 66G (Atonement Theories)

  1. Dwight says:

    It has often occurred to me that Jesus being on this earth as a man was a learning experience for God. While God had Godly compassion, he didn’t have compassion from the point of view of needing it and being without it. God had come to not only know His creation, but know as His creation and get in touch with his weaknesses. And also teach man how to be more Godly and connect to God and overcome His human state.

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