It is a basic error of modern evangelicalism that it has over-compressed the biblical narrative in order to provide a simple, user-friendly “gospel” for the practical purposes of personal evangelism, pastoral instruction, and the highly subjective forms of worship that prevail in our churches. My concern here is much less with the simple gospel—“Jesus died for my sins” is a good enough post-biblical shorthand—than with the horrible deformation of biblical thought.
The doctrine of atonement is a good example. Evangelicalism has taken the three-dimensional political narrative of atonement that we find in the New Testament and reduced it to a two-dimensional theory of personal salvation.
I have put this point of view across recently in a piece on Atonement, without the theoretical nonsense and another on Paul’s argument about the atonement of Israel in Romans 3-4. I also intend to write a piece on redemption in Ephesians 1-2 in the next couple of days. This is just a summary with a couple of simple diagrams.
The argument is basically that the New Testament understands the death of Jesus for Israel and the death of Jesus for the Gentiles in different ways. Roughly speaking, Jesus’ death was an atonement for the sins of Israel which secondarily removed the obstacle of the Law against the participation of Gentiles in the people of God, which many of them received as a free gift.
We may picture it in this way. Israel’s house is burning—this is the fire of God’s wrath (I apologize for having to use the word, but it’s there in the New Testament). The door of the Law is firmly closed, allowing neither Jews out to find salvation nor Gentiles in to become part of the covenant people. The outlook for the whole biblical program looks grim.
However, Jesus gives his life as a ransom or redemption or act of (penal substitutionary) atonement in order to save the house from being completely reduced to ashes. These are not theological abstractions, of course. Israel’s “house” would eventually be burned and razed to the ground by the armies of Titus, but Jesus had provided a new temple—a new place where a rescued remnant might worship God in the Spirit.
In the process, however, the heavy door of the Law is destroyed. Therefore, there is nothing now to keep Gentiles from entering the house. If they believe that God is doing something extraordinary in the world through this renewed people for whom Jesus died, they are free, as Paul says, to become members of the commonwealth of Israel and share in the promises made to Abraham (Eph. 2:11-22).
Indirectly, Jesus died for them—this certainly would not have become possible if Jesus had not died; and they must leave behind the old self, “which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Eph. 4:22). But really “salvation” and inclusion—and of course the Spirit of God—are just gifts of God’s grace.