Good Friday, Briefly

On Good Friday we remember the story of Jesus’ death. We participate in that death through eucharist in faith. And we celebrate the good news of that death in thinking and pondering the immense love of God for us — to clear our debt, to shoulder our load, and to remove our sins.

Perhaps three prepositions of atonement will be of some use to you today:

He died with us. At the heart of the death of Jesus is that he has completely identified with us. One of the earliest Christian hymns, Philippians 2:6-11, said it like this:

6 Who, being in very natureGod,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very natureof a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Notice that his death is part of his utter identification with us even to the death. He enters into our life all the way down into the darkness of death.

He died instead of us. But death is the punishment of God for sin, and we read about this from Genesis 3 on in the Bible’s Story. The immensity of the good news of the cross is that he shouldered our load and took upon himself our debt, the punishments of our sin, and did so in our place. He took upon himself the justifiable punishment of sin that we have incurred in dying instead of us. Romans 5:16: “The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation.” Romans 6:10: “The death he died, he died to sin once for all” and 6:23: “The wages of sin is death.” And Jesus became that sin instead of us. 2 Cor 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sinfor us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

He died for us. That is, his death (and resurrection) set us free. He died for our benefit. The benefits of his death with us and instead of us is salvation, but I want to focus today on liberation. At Passover the theme was liberation from Egypt and the hope of liberation from Rome. That liberation is not just a political liberation but a liberation from sin that led to captivity. So, when Jesus says in Mark 10:45 that he came to serve and to give his life a “ransom” for many, he is saying he has entered into enemy territory by dying in our place in order to be the ransom price so that we might be set free from slavery – in its full compass.

See A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology.

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  • John M.

    Thanks Scot. I need to reread “A Community Called Atonement.” I loved it when I read it a few years ago and it “reset,” so to speak, my one-dimensional understanding of the Atonement and expanded and enriched my theology of atonement. I recommend it whenever someone refers to the “atonement wars” going on in some circles these days.

  • CJ

    I have never understood 2 Corinthians 5:21. If sin is what we do when we break God’s law and/or act without love, it doesn’t make any sense to say that Jesus became sin. I don’t see how Jesus became an act of rebellion. If Jesus had sinned and/or acted without love, he would have only been human not human and divine. Isn’t it better to translate/interpret 2 Cor 5:21 as “God made him who had no sin to be a sin offering for us…”? Am I way off base? Any help would be appreciated. 

  • Phil Miller

    CJ, #2, I think another way to look at sin is as the rejection of God. Just as the darkness flees in the light, sin flees from the light of God. So, sin is in essence “Godforsakenness”. Jurgen Moltmann talks about this a lot, and, in fact, a centerpiece of his theology is Jesus’ cry on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

    To quote Moltmann:

    “When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”

    So I think the way in which Jesus “became sin” has to do with the rejection he experienced on the cross.

  • CJ (#2),

    Here’s how I understand it (my modification enclosed in square brackets):

    2 Corinthians 5:21
    Common English Bible (CEB)
    21 God caused the one who didn’t know sin to [represent] sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God.

    I.e., the expression “to be sin for our sake” is a statement of the representative atonement (Isaiah 53:4-5).

    Compare with this:

    Romans 8:3-4
    New English Translation (NET)
    3 For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.