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Metaphors of Salvation

The most basic question posed by Christianity is: “Why did Jesus have to die?” I do not mean to make the simple gospel overly complex, but how could the life and death of one person—no matter how perfect—be credited to the account of another person? After all, the basic rules of justice and fair play demand that an offender pay the penalty for his/her own indiscretions. If Christ’s death is to be seen as a payment for human sin, to whom is the payment made? Does God the Father demand the payment? Or is it made to Satan? What kind of God demands a blood sacrifice when it seems that granting forgiveness is all that is required?

Is it Just a Matter of Culture?

The ways in which Christians have understood the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ have changed during the centuries. Some of the early church fathers (like Irenaeus and Origen) viewed Jesus’ death in terms of a ransom. When one considers the huge number of slaves in the Roman Empire, it is not surprising that this was seen as a particularly meaningful way of looking at the reason why Jesus had to die. In addition, Jesus himself had said that he had come to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).

By the time of Anselm, an Archbishop of Canterbury in the eleventh century, social conditions had changed to the extent that the ransom idea was largely discarded in favor of what came to be known as the satisfaction theory of the atonement. For Anselm, the feudal system shed light on why Jesus had to die. He viewed God as a feudal lord and sin as an insult that had dishonored the divine majesty. Sins could not be merely forgiven; they had to be compensated for or “satisfied.” Only one equal with God could adequately compensate, yet the compensation had to be made by a human. Hence, Anselm’s book, Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Man?), affirms that Jesus was truly God and truly human. Still, one is left with the impression that for Anselm, Jesus’ death was of greater benefit to God than it was to humankind.

Along with Anselm, the sixteenth-century reformers, Luther and Calvin, saw sin as an intruder into the universe. Sin was seen as “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4) and death as the consequence (Rom. 6:23). God’s anger against sin meant that the penalty of sin had to be paid and “it seemed clear to them [the reformers] that the essence of Christ’s saving work consisted in his taking the sinner’s place.”1 This substitutionary view of Jesus’ death is very much based in such biblical passages as Romans 5:19—“For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.”

In the last century or so, many Christians have begun to question the whole idea of substitution. How could sin and its penalty—let alone right living and dying—be transferred from one person to another? And what kind of God would demand the death of his own Son? Surprisingly, these moderns have turned back to the ideas of Peter Abelard, an eleventh-century contemporary of Anselm. Abelard, who was deeply affected by this tragic love affair with the beautiful and talented Héloise, rejected any idea that Jesus’ death was needed to satisfy God’s wrath. Rather, God willingly took onto himself the burden of sin, and that willingness “awakens in people gratitude and love for God.”2

It seems obvious that the various theories in regard to the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ arose out of differing social and cultural conditions. But do the biblical writers favor one view over another?

Biblical Metaphors of Salvation

The New Testament writers, in fact, used a wide variety of word pictures to describe what Jesus’ death accomplished for them. Such expressions as salvation, justification, reconciliation, adoption, and forgiveness may come across to us as “heavy” theological words, but such was not the case in New Testament times. Salvation, for instance, had a “secular” meaning that denoted deliverance from some king of danger, or even the healing of a disease.

Justification is another biblical metaphor used by some of the New Testament writers to describe why Jesus died on the cross. It is a legal term meaning acquittal that comes from the world of criminals, law courts, and verdicts. The Apostle Paul is especially apt to point out that humanity stands at the judgment bar of the universe as condemned criminals (for example, 1 Cor. 6:9–11). Rather than God appearing to ignore sin, he is portrayed as dealing properly and justly with sin and sinners. We “are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.…[H]e [God] did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:24–26). Justification is the declaration that although we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), we are “counted” by God as being upright and right with God because of our union with Jesus (Rom. 4:3). Today, the tern justification is rarely used in everyday language, except as part of “computerese” where justification carries with it the idea of making the margins of a document straight. Perhaps that tells us something of the changes in status and potential that the heavenly Keyboarder makes in our lives.

Of course, the Bible uses terms other than justification to explain how humankind is put right in Jesus Christ. Another model is that of reconcilation, which finds its origins in human relationships. Family and friends have become estranged; a close relationship has been fractured. We have become “God’s enemies” (Rom. 5:10). Yet God reaches out to restore the broken friendship. He has “reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18).

Adoption is another picture that comes from the world of human relationships. We are seen as aliens, strangers, and orphans with no hope of finding a home (Eph. 2:12). While we are still in that helpless state, God adopts us right into his family; not as paid laborers, but as sons and daughters who call him “Father” and who have the same rights as natural-born children (Rom. 8:18; Gal. 4:4–7).

From the sphere of financial transactions, debts, and creditors comes the metaphor of salvation that is encompassed in the idea of forgiveness. In response to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” Jesus tells the story of the two debtors. One debtor owes a fortune to the king, whereas the other owes a pittance to the first debtor. Where they are the same is that neither is able to pay their debts. We are the first debtor on whom the king has taken pity and “cancelled the debt” (Matt. 18:21–35). Of course, the tragedy of Jesus’ story is that all too often we do not extend to others (the second debtor) the kind of forgiveness offered to us in the fact that “Jesus died for our sins” (Rom. 15:3).

Putting the Metaphors Together

It seems clear that all of the theories regarding the atoning death of Jesus Christ arise out of the struggle to express the meaning of what Jesus did on the cross in terms that have currency in a particular cultural setting. Thus, the satisfaction theory, for instance, has little appeal to contemporary people.

It is also true that the New Testament writers used word pictures that they borrowed from the home, society, business, and the courtroom. These expressions are intended to convey meaning to the original hearers of the New Testament. But are such terms as justification, salvation, adoption, reconciliation, and forgiveness—not to mention others—as meaningful to us as they were to the early Christians?

In fact, the biblical writers obviously struggled to present the marvelous good news of God’s love revealed in the death of Jesus. Why else would they use such a wide variety of models? Finite language cannot completely capture the infinite. Just as sweethearts exchange not one photograph, but many, so we capture a glimpse of what Jesus did in a word picture sketched by Paul, and another in a parable retold by Matthew.

Our cultural situation is far different from that of the first century. Yet while things have changed totally, nothing has changed! Although I may not identify myself in the feudal model of Anselm, I am able to see myself in the stories of the prodigal son and the unforgiving debtor. I accept by faith that, whereas I was guilty, God now counts me as innocent; whereas I was an outcast, I am now a child of God; and whereas I was in debt, I am forgiven because of what Jesus has done on the cross. Can I totally explain it? No, but I know it to be true.3

For Discussion or Reflection

  1. Which biblical model of salvation speaks most powerfully to you? Why?
  2. Construct a modern-day parable that illustrates why Jesus had to die.
  3. Seventh-day Adventist Christians seem particularly “allergic” to models and metaphors. Why?

Notes and References

1. Leon Morris, “Theories of the Atonement,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1984), 102.

2. R. L. Linder, “Abelard, Peter,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1.

3. This article is slightly adapted from Ray Roennfeldt, “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?” in Robert K. McIver and Ray C. W. Roennfeldt, eds., Meaning for the New Millennium: The Christian Faith from a Seventh-day Adventist Perspective (Cooranbong, NSW: Avondale Academic Press, 2000), 65–68.

Ray Roennfeldt teaches in the Faculty of Theology at Avondale College, Cooranbong, NSW, Australia, and is president elect of the college.

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