Christ as Prophet
The prophetic vocation is not only to accurately predict future events, but more fundamentally, to speak God’s actual judgment and deliverance into history. Although Jesus is the “prophet like Moses” promised in Deuteronomy 18:15, he is not simply another Moses. He speaks on his own authority, which is the same as the Father’s; he forgives sins in his own person; he not only has stood in God’s counsel but has eternally and personally come from God. Jesus speaks God’s active word as the prophets did, but wholly unlike them, he is himself the hypostatic Word of God. He is the message as well as the messenger.
Christ as Priest
Christ’s priestly ministry is inseparable from his representation of the elect in the eternal covenant of redemption. Christ was “born under the law”—whether the covenant of creation or its recapitulation at Sinai—“to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5 ESV).
A. Christ’s Priestly Life
Jesus was appointed everlasting High Priest “after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, 10 ESV)—that is, according to the “better covenant” of God’s unchangeable oath to Abraham rather than the Mosaic covenant’s Levitical priesthood, which depended on the mediation of sinful human beings (Heb. 7:11–22).
Jesus is both the great High Priest and the spotless, once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin. Beginning with the incarnation, he continually accomplished his Father’s will on our behalf as the unsurpassable thank offering. This is his active obedience or law-keeping (Matt. 20:28; John 8:29; Heb. 10:7). Simultaneously, he bore our sins—especially the curse of sin and God’s wrath for sin—as the unrepeatable guilt offering. This is his passive obedience or suffering.
Christ’s Priestly Death: The Meaning of the Cross
While the event of the cross cannot be divorced from the accounts of Christ’s life, teaching, and ministry that precede it in the Gospels, none of the other important aspects of Christ’s saving work can be established unless his death is acknowledged as a vicarious substitution of himself in the place of sinners. Christ’s cross is a sacrifice and satisfaction for sin. Though God’s sinful, covenant-breaking people could do nothing to reconcile themselves to God or avoid his sentence of just condemnation for unfaithfulness, Jesus offered himself on our behalf to usher in the new covenant whose standing is dependent on his steadfastness rather than ours. Blood atonement lies at the heart of both the offense and the wonder of the Christian proclamation. God’s motive is not abstract or arbitrary (much less bloodthirsty); sacrifice for sin and loving gratitude to God are fundamental to the covenantal context of God’s holy and righteous law. The substitutional nature of sacrifice is clearly seen in the Mosaic law’s description of the transference of sin and guilt before God to sacrificial animals (e.g., Lev. 1:4; 4:20, 26, 31; 6:7), vicariously representing the worshipers and their need for atonement. In Christ’s life and death, we have a thank offering that restores what we owe to God and a guilt offering that propitiates God’s wrath.
Christ’s cross is also a military conquest—despite all appearances, Christ was the victorious King even when Satan and the powers of this evil age thought they had won their age-old war with God. The meaning of the cross is multifaceted. All of the following have been proposed as theories of the atonement, and while each by itself has significant problems, several identify something important about Christ’s work—although the truth in any of them hangs together only in light of the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice.
- Ransom theory—Because of human rebellion, Satan became our rightful lord; Christ triumphed over Satan by luring him into the trap of killing him at the cross (thinking Jesus was a mere man), though he would triumph in resurrection (through his deity).
- Recapitulation—Christ redeems by becoming the true Adam and representing in himself the true life of humanity before God on our behalf, even unto death.
- Christus Victor—Through the seeming defeat of the cross, Christ conquered all the demonic and sinful powers arrayed against God.
- Satisfaction theory—Christ’s crucifixion was his just payment for sin’s affront to God’s dignity and majesty.
- Moral influence theory—Peter Abelard’s view, taken up by Socinians and many Enlightenment thinkers, that the purpose of Christ’s death was to provide a powerful example of God’s love for sinners that would provoke our repentance and imitation.
- Governmental theory—Hugo Grotius’s view that Christ’s death is not substitutionary or atoning but rather the basis on which the righteous character of God’s will and his rule are exhibited.
In modern theologies, various versions of the moral influence and governmental theories have dominated, in principle or in practice. These views have gone hand in hand with a denial or downplaying of the doctrine of justification—forgiveness is necessary only in light of real personal transgression. In all of their iterations, they rest on three false premises.
- A denial of God’s wrath and the necessity of his justice being satisfied.
- A rejection of the possibility of vicarious substitution in the relationship between God and sinners.
- An emphasis on the exemplary, at the expense of the expiatory, character of Christ’s death.
We should therefore bear the following points in mind when defending the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. The cause of the atonement lies in God’s own pleasure and love; God’s free expression of his love and mercy, as well as his holiness, justice, and wrath, flow from his own character, and none can be pitted against the others. Sin is not merely a weakness that needs to be reformed but also a guilt that is incurred, invoking covenant sanctions. The atonement is grounded not only in God’s moral character and freedom but in the united determination of the persons of the Trinity; vicarious atonement is misunderstood as a vengeful Father taking out his rage on a passive Son. Christ’s sacrifice is both a guilt offering and a thank offering, a whole life of representative service.
Finally, the question of the extent of the atonement has been answered in three ways in the history of the church: universalism, hypothetical universalism, or definite (limited) atonement (defined above). The following are the two main arguments in favor of definite atonement. It emphasizes the relationship between the Trinity and redemption; those who are actually redeemed in time have been mercifully chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. It emphasizes the efficacy and objectivity of Christ’s saving work; Christ did not die for the abstract possibility of the redemption of sinners (although his death is sufficient to atone for all sin whatsoever); rather, he died for the concrete accomplishment of the redemption of everyone who belongs to him.