My intention was to write a fairly straightforward piece on the connection between forgiveness of sins and the death of Jesus for my Lexicon of theological terms in narrative-historical perspective, but it’s become too unwieldy to fit into one article. In Forgiveness and the wiped out document nailed to the cross I put forward a simple overview of the argument, with crude diagrams, and a reading of Colossians 2:13-15, where Paul links the forgiveness of sins to the cross by way of the metaphor of an erased document. But I think, now, that I will also deal with forgiveness in the Gospels, Acts, Paul and Hebrews in separate posts. I’ll then put a final summary piece in the Lexicon for good measure.
To repeat, the basic contentions are: first, that in the core narrative of the New Testament Jesus’ death is viewed as a death for Israel rather than universally as a death for all people; and secondly, that forgiveness of sins is tied not to Jesus’ death as an atoning event but simply to repentance and belief in what the God of Israel was doing to transform the status of his people in relation to the nations.
Forgiveness of sins in the Gospels
John the Baptist is the prophet who will give “knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk. 1:77); he offers a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” in view of an impending judgment on the nation (Mk. 1:4; Lk. 3:3). In John there is no mention of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but John the Baptist identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29).
In some sayings of Jesus forgiveness is made conditional upon the forgiveness of others (Matt. 6:14; 18:34-35; Mk. 11:25; Lk. 6:37; 11:3). The sins of a paralyzed man are forgiven on account of the faith of those who brought him to Jesus, who, as the Son of Man, has been given authority on earth to forgive sins (Matt. 9:2; Mk. 2:5; Lk. 5:20; cf. Jam. 5:15). Jesus’ teaches in parables as a sign of the spiritual blindness of the Jews, who will not turn and be forgiven (Mk. 4:11-12; cf. Is. 6:10). A “woman of the city, who was a sinner”, is forgiven because she loved much (Lk. 7:37, 47).
Only in the Last Supper do we find a connection between the forgiveness of sins and Jesus’ death: “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). The connection with the Passover celebration, the combined reference to the blood of the covenant (cf. Ex. 24:8; Zech. 9:11) and to Jeremiah’s “new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:31), and the likely allusion to Isaiah 53:12 make it clear that this is a death for the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. The Gentiles are not in view here. Significantly, perhaps, the connection with the forgiveness of sins, which is found only in Matthew, is also missing from Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
Finally, the risen Jesus tells his disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (Lk. 24:47), which anticipates the development of the theme in Acts. In John Jesus gives the disciples the authority to forgive sins (Jn. 20:23). There is no reference to his death here.
If we may venture to summarize…
- As the Son of Man or Servant of the Lord who will suffer because of the sins of Israel, Jesus has been given authority to forgive the sins of those who repent and believe in what God is doing.
- This forgiveness is consolidated in a “new covenant” with Israel, which is sealed not by the blood of oxen but by Jesus’ death. Zechariah 9:11 is helpful here: because God is bound to his people by a covenant sealed with blood, he will save his people, he will set the prisoners free. Because Jesus was faithful and obedient to the point of death, God will forgive those who believe in his name, who identify themselves with him. To quote David Brandos again ( Paul on the Cross: Reconstructing the Apostle’s Story of Redemption ), though he is speaking of Paul’s understanding of the cross:
…Jesus’ death is salvific not because it satisfies some necessary condition for human salvation in the way that most doctrines of the atonement have traditionally maintained nor because it effects some change in the situation of human beings or the world in general; rather, it is salvific because God responded to Jesus’ faithfulness unto death in seeking the redemption of others by raising him so that all the divine promises of salvation might now be fulfilled through him. Through Jesus’ death, a new covenant-community (the church) has been established, in which people from all nations may now find salvation and forgiveness of sins as they live under his lordship, led by the Holy Spirit.
- The authority to forgive sins is then passed on by Jesus to his followers. Because Jesus’ death established a new covenant for God’s people, a new deal with God, which would ensure the survival of the family of Abraham at a time of eschatological crisis, they have been authorized to pronounce forgiveness on God’s behalf to all, Jews and Gentiles alike, who repent of their sins and believe in the narrative of Israel’s redemption.