While explaining his understanding of the Atonement in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis acknowledges the fact that the only way Jesus could serve as a substitute for sinners is if he was himself both God and man. He then addresses a common objection. He writes:
I have heard some people complain that if Jesus was God as well as man, then His sufferings and death lose all value in their eyes, ‘because it must have been so easy for Him.’ Others may (very rightly) rebuke the ingratitude and ungraciousness of this objection; what staggers me is the misunderstanding it betrays. In one sense, of course, those who make it are right. They have even understated their own case. The perfect submission, the perfect suffering, the perfect death were not only easier to Jesus because He was God, but were possible only because He was God. But surely that is a very odd reason for not accepting them?…If I am drowning on a rapid river, a man who still has one foot on the bank may give me a hand which saves my life. Ought I to shout back (between my gasps) ‘No, it’s not fair! You have an advantage! You’re keeping one foot on the bank’? That advantage – call it ‘unfair’ if you like – is the only reason why he can be of any use to me. To what will you look for help if you will not look to that which is stronger than yourself? 1
As usual, Lewis is very careful with his language. He everywhere assumes both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus. While he may solve one problem (refuting the notion if Jesus was God and man his suffering and death for us are disqualified), he implicitly surfaces another, namely, what role Jesus’ humanity actually serves. Lewis’ comments raise a couple questions: What, exactly, is the advantage that Jesus has? Why is it that Jesus is stronger than us? Lewis seems to imply that the answer to these questions is Jesus’ divinity. While I think the gut reaction answer to this somehow references his divinity (as Lewis does here), I’m not so sure that’s the end of the story (or at least, it’s not the whole story).
SAVED BY ONE OF OUR OWN
In this post I will argue that that which renders the atonement effective for us is Jesus’ humanity, not his divinity. Many people assume that Jesus atones for the sins of the world because he was fully God. I think the Bible actually emphasizes something different. Jesus atones for the sins of the world not because He was fully God (though, again, I’m not denying his divinity) but because he was fully human. I think our imagination is primed to overemphasize the divinity of Jesus while not fully appreciating his humanity. We fiercely treasure Jesus’ divinity (and rightly so) but this is often done at the expense of Jesus’ humanness. Consequently, we often end up paying mere lip service to his humanity. I think this is our tendency for a whole host of reasons not least of which is an impoverished view of the human person. (Our theological anthropology is in need of some re-routing. In course correcting, I hope I don’t make the opposite mistake.) For clarity’s sake, here’s the crux of my argument: the man Jesus Christ is he who saves us; humans are saved by one of their own.
Towards the goal of better understanding who Jesus is and what Jesus did, I want to take a fresh look at the biblical witness, especially the most pertinent passages. That is, those texts that explicitly emphasize Jesus’ humanity (not his divinity) as that which enabled his suffering as our substitute to be efficacious for our redemption.
EVIDENCE FROM THE SCRIPTURES
Let’s take a look at three passages where this is undeniably apparent (i.e., Romans 5:12-19; 1Corinthians 15:20-22; 1Timothy 2:5). I’ll provide the text and brief observations. First, Romans 5 where Paul juxtaposes two men: Adam and Jesus.
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The clearest thing about this passage is the obvious emphasis on the men. Paul is clearly shining a spotlight on the man, Adam, and the man, Jesus. I think we often think something along these lines: “well, yes a man (Adam) obviously got humanity into this trouble… but we all know a man can’t solve the problem: it’s going to take God to get us out the ditch we’ve dug for ourselves.” Note the screaming silence of Paul with regards to Jesus’ divinity here. It’s not that Paul doesn’t emphasize Jesus’ divinity; he simply does not mention it. Instead, Paul focuses entirely on Jesus, the man.
The phrase “one man” (referring to one or the other, Adam or Jesus) occurs 9x in this short passage – nine times in 8 verses! Paul is not juxtaposing the fall of a man and the rescue by a God. He’s juxtaposing two men. Taking 5:19 as an example, we see Paul juxtaposes Adam’s disobedience and Jesus’ obedience. It was by the obedience of the one man, Jesus, not the obedience of Jesus (who also happened to be God). It’s Jesus’ humanity, not this divinity that receives the focus. The emphatic point Paul is making is that it was Jesus, the man, the obedient human being who accomplished the work of salvation on behalf of sinful, disobedient humans.
Moving forward, we see Paul argues essentially the same point in 1 Corinthians 15, this time from the vantage point of the resurrection.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
Paul rehearses the same core argument here in a more concentrated way. By a man (Adam) came death, so also by man (Jesus) comes the resurrection from the dead. What’s interesting to me in these verses is the focus on the resurrection. In the same way that we easily overlook the humanity of Jesus during his earthly ministry, it’s even easier to overlook his humanity after the resurrection and the ascension. Jesus still has a body, y’all. Take a minute and think about the implications of this. The language in Revelation about the redeemed worshipping the Lion who is the Lamb is apocalyptic imagery for our worshiping the still-embodied man, Jesus. For the rest of time, the eternal Son shall never abandon the incarnation. In the age to come we will worship, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who also happens to be one of our own: a man. For time everlasting we shall worship the resurrected man, Jesus Christ.
Finally, let’s take a look at 1 Timothy where Paul makes the same point again in a different way.
5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.
Again, I think we’re so used to hearing the gospel presented in such a way that describes God as the principal actor who does everything (and in one sense that’s absolutely true). But when Paul is describing the one mediator between God and men what does he say? He doesn’t say the one mediator is Jesus who is divine. He says the one mediator is the man Jesus Christ. When your eye is primed to see it – when you see what’s there, not just what you’re expecting – the Bible can be really surprising. Again, I want to be clear: I don’t think Paul is denying Christ’s divinity (nor am I). I’m simply pointing out that that which renders our redemption possible is Jesus’ humanity. There is one mediator between God and sinful humanity, it is the man Christ Jesus. That which rendered Jesus’ suffering and death effective for us is his humanity. Why is this the case? Because Jesus was the first truly human being, the archetype of humanity.
THE SON OF A 1ST CENTURY JEWISH GIRL
Herbert McCabe, the late Dominican priest, theologian and philosopher, provides some incredible insight here. He writes:
But the gospel, the good news, is that just as man brought evil into the world, so it was man who saved the world (cf. Romans 5:12ff). The love of the human being Jesus Christ for his Father, his obedience and faithfulness to his mission, which was simply the mission of being human, being the first really human being, and which led him to his judicial murder by the colonial power, this love and obedience earned for him his conquest of death and, for his brothers and sisters, their rescue from sin and death. This man was indeed the eternal Son of the Father; yet we are not saved immediately by that. We are saved by his human sanctity, the grace by which he was wholly obedient to his Father in heaven… Of course, as with every human being, his humanity could only be perfected by God’s grace. But by God’s grace this man saved us by loving obedience to his Father’s command to be human. And by this obedience, even unto death, in contrast, as Paul says, to the disobedience of Adam (cf. Romans 5), he earned for himself the grace to conquer death and rise from the tomb. And, overflowing from this by the same grace, he earned for his sisters and brothers to join him in his resurrection. Now all this was made possible, not because Jesus was eternally son of God but because he was son of a woman. 2
Drawing largely from Romans 5, McCabe argues that it was the humanity of Jesus that renders the death and resurrection as effective for our redemption. We are saved by Jesus’ sanctity as a human being. We saved by this man because of his one of act of righteousness referring to His death on the cross, “the judicial murder by a colonial power.” It was Jesus’ faithfulness to his mission of being human that not only earned for him his vindication from the Father in the conquest of death via the resurrection but also opened the door from death to life for sinful humanity through faith in the mediator, the man Christ Jesus. Certainly his humanity was perfected and came to full bloom by God’s empowering grace but it’s his humanity that renders his atonement effective for us, not his divinity.
As with Paul, McCabe is not denying the divinity of Jesus. He clearly acknowledges that the man Jesus Christ “was indeed the eternal Son of the Father.” Nevertheless he simply asserts that we are not saved by that. Jesus’ suffering and death are effective for our salvation not because he is the eternal Son of God but because he was the son of a first century Jewish girl.
Now, McCabe is not just making this stuff up; he’s simply rehearsing a line of thinking from St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Doctor of the Church (see Summa Theologica, Tertia Pars, Question 48, articles 5-6 (ST III, Q 48, A 5-6):
But in all cases St. Thomas finds the rationale of the atonement in the loving obedience of the man Jesus. He is very insistent that it is Jesus as a human being who does the work of our salvation, acting of course through the grace of God and acting as the instrument of God, but acting as a human being, a saint. It is this loving obedience displayed finally on the cross that merits for Jesus his resurrection and the salvation of his followers. We are not saved by the intervention of a god but by the great sanctity of one of ourselves, a sanctity great enough for his prayer for us to be heard. 3
WRAPPING IT UP
Now that we’ve explored quite a bit of terrain, it’s helpful to go back to where we started and answer the two questions posed at the outset. Recall that C.S. Lewis rightly acknowledged that Jesus being both God and man does not cause his suffering and death to lose all value in terms of qualifying him to make atonement. Nevertheless, Lewis’ discuss raised the issue of the role Jesus’ humanity actually serves. What, exactly, is the advantage that Jesus has? Why is it that Jesus is stronger than us?
In terms of being able to accomplish our redemption, I’ve argued that Jesus is stronger than us not because he is divine but because he is fully, truly human. His humanity is his advantage; that’s why he’s stronger. He is not stronger because he’s somehow less human than us but because he’s more human. It is as McCabe writes: “Not Adam but Jesus was the first human being, the first member of the human race in whom humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love.” 4 Though Adam was the prototype of humanity, being chronologically first, he is not the one in whom humanity came to fulfillment. Jesus is. Jesus is the archetype of humanity, the first truly human being. He is the obedient one, the first fruits of the resurrection, the one mediator between God and man, the man whose life was defined solely by radical, self-sacrificial love.
C.S. Lewis writes that “in Christ a new kind of man appeared” and with him a new kind of life. 5 It is a life not diminished by sin and death. This new kind of life is the fully, truly human life. It is this life, the fully human, truly human life of Jesus that renders the atonement effective for us. It is the man, Jesus Christ, who saves us. We are saved by one of our own.