We are continue to reflect on Michael J. Gorman’s The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement.
Another path that Gorman might have traveled down is the Old Testament thread beginning with Deu 30:6. It is, in my mind, as central to the Mosaic covenant as, say, the Ten Commandments.
(Deu 30:6-10 ESV) 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. … 8 And you shall again obey the voice of the LORD and keep all his commandments that I command you today. 9 The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, 10 when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Deuteronomy records the second giving of the Law, just as the Israelites were preparing to cross the Jordan River to begin the conquest of the Promised Land. It’s in the form of an Ancient Near East treaty. And it therefore concludes with a series of blessings and curses.
Amazingly, Moses predicts Israel’s rejection of God and scattering among the nations as a result of exile. And then God promises that, even if you reject me and I scatter you, I will restore you in repentance. When this happen, I God will transform your hearts so that you will become obedient.
This passage undergirds much of the prophecy of the Old Testament. The kingdom and messianic prophecies expand on just how God will do this — including the outpouring of the Spirit.
(Eze 36:27 ESV) 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
(Eze 37:12-14 ESV) 12 “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.”
And, perhaps most importantly, Jeremiah 31, again — which promises,
(Jer 31:33 ESV) 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
In short, an essential element of the new covenant, and hence atonement, is God’s work within the individual Christian and within the church to transform hearts and minds to become obedient — by the Spirit.
As a result, the atonement is much more than a forensic transaction, Jesus giving himself for our sins. As true as that is, we do not receive mere forgiveness. Forgiveness cleanses us so that we may receive the Spirit and so receive within ourselves the transforming work of God.
Just as the temple had to be cleansed with blood before God could enter into the Holy of Holies, so must we.
It is the work of the Spirit, promised by the prophets and sent following the death of Jesus, that makes the death of Jesus an existential reality within and among the community of the new covenant. The reality of the Spirit addresses head-on the “under-achievement” of other models. The close relationship of the Spirit to the cross, that is, to atonement, means that, whatever else the cross does, it connects people to God and to one another in a transformative way.
To be saved by the cross of Christ is not only to be forgiven but also to be changed; it is not merely to believe in a past one-time act but to participate in its ongoing, transformative effects — all by the workings of the Spirit. Thus the people of the new covenant effected by God’s action in Jesus’ death are empowered by the Spirit to fulfill the horizontal and vertical demands of the Law, also reconfigured by the cross into a cruciform shape, and to live peaceably.
(Kindle Locations 5650-5656).
Exactly. Jesus himself, when he spoke most directly of the “new covenant,” referenced the Old Testament passages that speak of the coming Spirit.
Why couldn’t the Spirit come before the crucifixion?
Again, I’m getting a little outside of Gorman’s actual writings and instead reflecting on how they connect with my own thinking.
Gorman explains how the Spirit brings into the Christian the essential characteristics — personality traits — of God.
In becoming part of the new-covenant community, human beings take on the Christlike holiness of God by the work of the Spirit, and specifically the divine character traits of faithfulness, love, and peace (as in “the God of peace”). They are drawn into the life of the Triune God. They participate in God’s being-expressed-in-acts, God’s narrative identity, God’s very life.
(Kindle Locations 5934-5937).
But Gorman never explains how this happens. Indeed, one feature of his book is that he wants to move away from the “how” to the “what” of atonement. But here I think the “how” matters and bears some serious reflection.
My own thinking comes from a book I read, but I cannot find the quote. Maybe it’s C.S. Lewis. In any event, here’s the idea. We start with —
(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.
In think v. 8 is key. Jesus “learned obedience.”
But this is not to suggest that Jesus had previously been disobedient, and now needed to grasp what it meant to obey the will of God. Rather, authentic obedience is practised in particular, concrete circumstances. So, as Jesus encountered fresh situations — and the focus of the text is on his suffering — his faithfulness to God was challenged, his unfailing obedience to the Father’s will was tested again and again. That testing occurred throughout his suffering which culminated in his death.
Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 201.
Jesus didn’t go from disobedient to obedient but from un-tempted to tempted, from unchallenged to challenged, from immortal to mortal, from Divine to human. And it was only as a human that Jesus could suffer many of the temptations common to all humans.
In the wilderness, Satan tempted Jesus to abuse his powers, to use a miracle to soften the challenge of being human, to become ruler of the world by bowing to Satan, to show off his powers by leaping from the temple. To be selfish. And that’s the most fundamental of all human temptations.
(Heb 2:17-18 ESV) 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
The fact that Jesus was tempted as we were assures us of his sympathy and understanding. But the thought is deeper. His defeat of temptation makes him “able to help” us.
You see, before Jesus lowered himself to become human, he had never been hungry. He’d never felt the urge to have sex with someone he was not married to. He’d never was pressed by the crowds to do more than he could physically do. And he’d never felt pain — much less the agony of crucifixion.
After the crucifixion, not only had Jesus experienced the painfulness of humanity, he’d experienced overcoming. He’d prevailed! And now, by the Spirit, Jesus is able to give us this part of himself — a part that previously did not exist.
(Joh 7:37-39 ESV) 37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
Why did Jesus have to wait to send the Spirit until he rejoined the Father? Because the Spirit could not have shared in Jesus’ sufferings and temptations and overcoming until these things had happened. But once that happened, the Spirit could impart to Christians the nature of Jesus — and strengthen us to live as Jesus lived.
(Heb 2:10 ESV) 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.
How does suffering make Jesus — Jesus! — “perfect”? Well, “perfect” doesn’t mean sinless so much as complete or, better yet, completed for its intended purpose. Suffering prepared Jesus to form a community that could suffer as he did — if necessary — to bring about the perfection of all things.
This understanding of atonement, sometimes called the participatory model, has its roots in Jesus and Paul, comes to vibrant expression in some of the church fathers, and is enjoying a revival today. It says Christ became what we are so we could become what he is. The new-covenant model would focus on this ancient soteriology, stressing its connection to the covenant-fulfilling death of Jesus. When we participate in Jesus’ faithful and loving death by the power of the Spirit, we both benefit from and embody Jesus’ covenant-fulfilling love for God and neighbor.
(Kindle Locations 5615-5618).
The church and its members are to be like Jesus in his service, submission, sacrifice, and — yes, even suffering. But we can endure what we suffer because Jesus did — and the Spirit shares this part of Jesus’ experience and existence with us as we need it.
(Joh 16:13-15 ESV) 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
(2Co 4:6-12 ESV) 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
(1Jo 5:18-20 ESV) 18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. 19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. 20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
It’s not just that we’re forgiven, but we’re empowered to prevail by the Son giving us that which is his. This is found in enduring temptation and in suffering, but the result is God’s own protection for us.
Sounds like atonement.