The Death of Jesus as Sacrifice (Part 2): The Atonement and Justification

My last post, which may now be considered Part 1, was narrowly focused upon the notion of the death of Christ as a sacrificial, expiating atonement.  This is of course not the only aspect of Christ’s death and resurrection that we can contemplate, and therefore, I proceed in this post to examine the notion of the atonement in relation to St. Paul’s teaching of Justification by faith and how we participate in it sacramentally.

The New Testament Doctrine of Justification

Current scholarship emanating from Protestant circles, known collectively as the New Perspective on Paul, has begun to confirm what has always been implicitly understood within the Orthodox Church regarding justification, namely that it is concerned with membership within the covenant community of God, or to put it another way, justification is being in a right(eous) relationship with God, which occurs by being a part of the covenant community of God.  How one enters and remains in this community is how one is justified.

In the Orthodox service of baptism and chrismation, as the priest wipes off the holy chrism with a sponge, he repeats “Thou art justified. Thou art illumined. Thou art sanctified. Thou art washed: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”  The aggregate sacramental action of baptism and chrismation is a person’s justification (even an infant!) in that through baptism, a person mystically participates in the death and resurrection of Christ and is placed within his mystical body, within the covenant community of God. The requirement to be baptized is nothing more than to have faith, “to confess with the mouth that Jesus is lord and to believe with the heart that God raised him from the dead” (Romans 10:9). This initial justification of baptism is maintained by a life of faith. When faith wanes and we sin, we can renew and maintain our justification through the sacrament of confession, whereby our sins are absolved and our baptismal purity is restored.

St. Paul is adamant, in the face of Judaism, that one is justified by faith in Jesus Christ and not by the works of the Law. After the Protestant Reformation, the “works of the Law” were understood to be meritorious good works, whereby people could earn their salvation by performing them.  This was the Protestant charge against Roman Catholic theology, against which they championed “Justification by faith alone.”  Yet this was a misunderstanding of St. Paul, a misunderstanding that many Protestant scholars today have begun to realize.  The “works of the Law” were never understood by the Jews to be meritorious works whereby they could earn their salvation.  Rather, “works of the Law” was a technical term, ma’aseh haTorah, used by the Jews of the Second Temple Period to refer to particular “acts of the Torah” that allowed Jews to enter and maintain membership within God’s covenant community of Israel.  This was first and foremost circumcision accompanied by the various other “acts/deeds/works” that are found in the Torah, the kosher laws, laws of ritual purity, and the ethical code of the Ten Commandments.  These works did not earn a person salvation, but kept him within the covenant community of Israel wherein God gave salvation graciously as a gift.

The problem with this is that, to be in God’s covenant community, one would have to be a Jew or become a proselyte by circumcision.  St. Paul then asserts that one enters and maintains membership in the covenant community of God not by virtue of being Jewish and keeping the Torah but by faith in Jesus Christ. Once one enters the covenant community, now the Church, by faith in Christ, the righteousness required by the Law is fulfilled by walking in the power of the Holy Spirit who empowers all believers to practice “works” of righteousness, “works” which St. James also regards as being essential to being justified (which is why we go to confession when we fail to meet that righteous requirement).

Atonement and Justification

When we now consider the atonement as described in my last post, we find ultimately that it is a work that God initiates and fulfills in order to purify his covenant people from sin.  The expiatory nature of sacrifice purifies and thereby sanctifies the community to a relationship with God.  From God’s perspective, the atoning sacrifice of Christ destroys the sin of all who put their faith in his blood (Romans 3:25).  The uncreated energies of God, manifested toward sin as expiating “wrath” may now be manifested toward the faithful as deifying grace.  It is not as though God’s wrath is assuaged by sacrifice (in a pagan sense), but rather God’s intent to destroy sin is satisfied, for sin is destroyed as it was borne by Christ on the cross.

From the perspective of the worshipper, sacrifice is not about placating an angry God but about eliciting faith from the worshipper, faith in God’s mercy.  Justification is accomplished by faith in God’s mercy, not by the “work” of the sacrifice itself, for the “work” of the sacrifice is accomplished by God himself who offers his Son as the atoning sacrifice.  To reiterate, all of the sacrifices of the Old Testament were not intended as works to placate an angry God, but they were instead intended to elicit faith from the worshipper that God would atone for his sins, which he did on the cross. God does the sacrificing; we only participate in it through faith.

The atoning sacrifice of Christ and justification by faith work hand-in-hand to wipe away our sins and place us in a right(eous) relationship with God. We enter the covenant community of the Church through faith, and through faith we sacramentally participate in the sacrifice of Christ. Through baptism, with Christ we die to sin and rise to life in God, and through the Eucharist we consume the sacrifice of Christ’s body, as the Old Testament priests consumed the sacrifices offered in the Temple, and we place our faith in the blood of the New Covenant. In the Eucharist, we become one body with Christ, and therefore the expiation that he made of sins is made for us, because we become one body with him.

Justification is not a one-time event as many Protestant Christians are wont to believe, but it is instead a life of faith, a life begun at baptism, a life of confession, and a life of Eucharistic communion, as we live in a justified, righteous relationship with God in the covenant community of the faithful.

Eric Jobe

About Eric Jobe

Eric Jobe earned his Ph.D. in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He specializes in Hebrew poetry, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Second Temple Judaism. He is also an instructor of Bible and biblical languages for the St. Macrina Orthodox Institute.



  1. Dear Eric:

    Nicely stated, and a nice addition to Part 1. Another related aspect of the New Perspective that is correct is the idea that Justification (or Vindication) is essentially an eschatological reality. The OT speaks of the Vindication of God’s People at the Last Judgment. There, all will be found either “dikaios” (righteous/vindicated) or “adikaios” (unrighteous/condemned). Because the end has irrupted into the present through the events of Chtrist’s Pascha and Pentecost, Christians enter into that eschatological reality here and now. Yet we also face it in the age to come. This is likewise the “inaugurated eschatology” of Florovsky. Thus, Justification will continue until our own death, at which time we await the final vindication.

    In my short monograph, “Prayer of the Publican,” I connect this theme to the Desert Fathers who applied the Parable of the Publican to their spiritual lives. Through active repentance and humbling of oneself, we enter into the Justification of God.

    1. Great point – yes, eschatology is extremely important here. I’m working on a paper for the Paul and Judaism conference next month at Houston Baptist University, where I will deal with Rom 9-11 in the context of the language of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and one of the major conclusions I have arrived at is that Paul has very similar language regarding election and predestination as the Yahad sect, but he has a radically different eschatology, whereby he turns predestination on its head and completely reorients it.

      I have purchased your book, and I look forward to reading it.

      1. Eric,

        I am quite interested in the paper that you will deliver. I too have found that Paul’s eschatology is Christologically all-consuming in his reading the ancient texts through the in breaking of the Kingdom via the Messiah. Would you be able to make it available?

        1. Probably after the conference in late March. I may try to turn it into a post here at some point in a multi-part post addressing Romans 9-11. So, stay tuned.

  2. These last two posts have been eye-opening for me. I’m a non-Orthodox Christian who has seen comments posted on other blogs by Orthodox converts who insist that the only truly Orthodox understanding of the Atonement is Christus Victor, which I think flies in the face of some of the New Testament testimony. I’m actually relieved to hear that they are incorrect.

    1. Robert, it’s usually safe to assume that absolutist statements like “the only truly Orthodox understanding is…” are probably wrong. Most often the situation is far more complex than most people are willing to admit. Though, in regard to conciliar decisions like the Christological statements of the 7 Ecumenical Councils, it’s okay to be absolutist. 🙂

      But I am very glad you have benefited from the posts.

  3. Eric,

    Thank you for these two posts. As a non-Orthodox somewhere between Wittenberg and Constantinople, I appreciate Old Testament scholarship from an Orthodox perspective, especially to combat many of “the only truly Orthodox” absolutisms and clichés flying around the blogosphere. Orthodox scholars (and simple clergymen too!) who are actually familiar with the sources and contexts are a valuable asset for engaging us non-Orthodox, especially those of you in the fields of OT and reformation studies. Thanks for an informed Orthodox exposition!

    Fr. Aidan Kimel over at Eclectic Orthodoxy has an interesting post on justification as eschatological existence and not merely a one-time event. It can be found here:
    (Go baptism!)

    Sometimes while surfing the blogs I can’t help but think, “I wonder how many non-Orthodox drawn to Orthodoxy have turned away based on ignorant assertions by over-zealous or self-acclaimed posters—especially when it comes to questions of the Scriptures!” I’m thinking in particular of your previous post and the author who wrote that the atonement was “an idea usually traced back to the Book of Hebrews”—Wait, do you mean the Book of Hebrews, you know, the one that was a commentary on how Christ fulfilled all that stuff in Torah, particularly Leviticus, you know, the, uh.. Old Testament…? All snarkiness aside, such a comment demonstrates a shameful ignorance of the Bible, period—and no Bible-believing Baptist granny is gonna take that serious for even a second.

    I also can’t help but feel some of the tension is coming from converts who, having felt like they been lied to by a trusted spiritual figure, throw out everything of their previous faith tradition, despite some of those teachings being found in Orthodoxy (cf. the “everything-that-has-ever-gone-wrong-in-the-west-can-be-traced-back-to-a-4th-century-bishop-in-Hippo-whose-name-rhymes-with-Shmaugustine,”-therefore-throw-out-everything-that-ever-came-from-the-west argument).

    My problem now is sorting Orthodox dogma from pious and well-meaning theolegoumena—I’m not aiming for dogmatic minimalism but it is sometimes hard to nail down what you guys believe, or rather how important such-and-such a teaching is in Orthodoxy.

  4. “We enter the covenant community of the Church through faith”

    This is not what I was taught in catechism and only see this view amongst Evangelicals, I was taught, and believe, we enter through baptism. If we entered the Church through faith then why get baptized? Also, this view–that we enter the Church through faith–excludes the mentally handicapped who are (sometimes) incapable of having faith.

    “and through faith we sacramentally participate in the sacrifice of Christ.”

    Again, I disagree: we sacramentally participate in the sacrifice of Christ through the sacraments (Mysteries), and though we don’t follow the ‘seven sacrament’ model I’ve never read anyone including faith as a ‘numbered’ sacrament before.

    1. We enter the covenant community through baptism, but the basis for baptism is faith. There are exceptions, namely infants who are brought in based upon the faith of their sponsors, and they grow into faith. Mentally handicapped are treated similarly, I would assume. But, St. Paul is clear – we are justified by faith. The sacraments are not magic – they must be joined by our faith for there to be real transformation. “With fear of God, with *faith* and love draw near.”

      I do not mean to say that faith itself is a sacrament. I mean that faith is the mode in which we receive the sacraments. You can’t be baptized if you don’t believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught in the Orthodox Church. You can’t receive communion if you don’t come in faith.

    2. Thomas:

      The word in Greek, “pisteuo,” cannot be confused with reason/rationale. It is more correclty “to trust in.” Children place their trust in their parents, implicitly, from infancy, as do the mentally challenged. In fact, both of these trust much more than adults do. The emphasis on “age of reason” and similar principles in the West, and the definition of faith as “mental assent” has altered our understanding of the word. But while the Mysteries of the Church preserve an objective quality, they are also participated in through our trust in God. We do not have to understand what is going on in these Sacraments (and in fact we will never fully understand), but the Fathers are clear that trusting God is a pre-requisite for participation in His life, whether through prayer or sacramentally.

      With baptism, there is another component. Baptism, for St Paul, replaces circumcision. It is not only a Sacrament, but the sign of the New Covenant Church. A child is entering into a relationship of trust towards God through the faith/trust of his parents. In other words, it is a family affair. But many Church Fathers say that at some point a child begins to affirm this trust in their hearts for themselves. We have to be careful in our understanding of the Mysteries, lest they become magic. All human participation in the grace of God is synergy.

      –Fr Joseph

  5. I don’t know if you are still reading these posts, Eric, but I do have a question to make.

    Certainly, many different images are used with regards to the Atonement in the Gospels, Letters, and Paul. As a Western Catholic myself, I would kindly suggest there is more nuance to St. Anselm than he is given credit for, and that neither he nor Thomas Aquinas were proponents of strictly penal substition. Eleanor Stump does a better job than I can do with that. Needless to say, that’s not what I wanted to discuss, and I don’t agree with Anselm on this topic of meritorious satisfaction either, and other models of salvation were current in the West before Anselm such as Christus Victor in the “Dream of the Rood.”

    Given Ancient and Second Temple Judaism are interest areas of mine, along with the Medieval Period, I am a bit confused by these two great posts. Right now, I am finishing my undergrad in History and trying to decide on a graduate program. Anyways, I have read many Orthodox who reframe Atonement solely around a Christus Victor model – that is, salvific union of God and humanity in the “New Adam” who dies our death-ontological decay and puts to death our corruptibility and allowing us to partake in the incorruptibility of the Resurrection through incorporation in the finally reconstituted Israel – a angelomorphic/eschatological/theotic microcosm of the living Temple (and, in turn, the New Creation), People/Sons and Daughters/Council of God, and New Adam. Thus the Kingdom of God and Resurrection has been enacted in a man – in fact, the primordial and Intermediary Name/Memra. Consequently, per Jarl Fossum and Boyarin, his followers can participate through this new Covenant in personified Divine Name upholding creation and all covenants – specifically, in Baptism. God becomes definitive King, recapitulating the “Divine Warrior” motif of old, and revivifies Creation in His Son (Leonard Greenspoon’s essay on the origins of the Resurrection motif). At least, that’s my reading of the Jewish motifs I have researched.

    Yet the sacrificial language has always posed a problem to this so I tried to stay with Milgrom and Mary Douglas on this topic. I can understand how in the ancient mind blood acts as ritual detergent to cleanse the Temple, the worshipper via the animal, and also the Land/Creation from impurity and sometimes demonic forces like elsewhere in the Ancient Near East. When trying to transfer this to Christ, one is left with some variant of penal substitution wherein God “deals with” (in Wright’s words) sin in the body of Christ as representative of Adam just as God dealt with sin in the Temple.

    1. At least in Milgrom, Margaret Barker, Geller, Douglas et al., the emphasis of the sacrifice is not the death of the animal but the use of its life-blood to cleanse the Temple – and, by extension, the People and Creation – of impurities. Milgrom and Barker seem to want to emphasize this “cleansing” aspect over the notion of substition. If they are right, does this effect how Atonement is seen since, to be honest, “cleansing” in this sense invokes a kind of “magical thinking” sometimes associated with God’s memory of the creation covenant or some inherent quality of blood? I can at least of Scott Hahn, Stephen Geller, and Robert Murray, SJ, as supporting the former, but this seems almost like governmental theory or even Calvinism at worst or C.S. Lewis’ “Deep Magic” at best.

    2. If substitution is in view, then we are still left with why God had to deal with sin through the death of Christ instead of just forgiving us. Some modern Jews, not without reason, have sometimes asked whether Christianity simply invents a problem – i.e., sin which cannot be forgiven apart from blood sacrifice (rather than an equivalent such as prayer, penances, Torah, or good deeds) for the solution. Athanasius’ brilliant answer, and not his alone to be sure but those of Christians before him, was Jesus’ death was not simply about dealing with any individual sin but the cure to ontological decay and reality in favor of the eschaton, i.e., the state of being an ordinary human subject to frailty and death (in Orthodox parlance, “ancestral sin”; Fr. John Zizioulas comes to mind as the modern representative). However, if sacrificial imagery is taken seriously, this whole paradigm is thrown into doubt because, at least in my reading of “On the Incarnation,” the Crucifixion becomes a means to the Resurrection, death the conduit to New Life (Athanasius deals with the objection as to why Jesus couldn’t have a more honorable death if all He had to do was die), to be sure, but not an actual settling of accounts. The Jewish sacrificial system had little to do with death or ontological frailty. This is why Margaret Barker, in my opinion, invoked Milgrom for his “sin as pollution” and “new creation” concept on Yom the Jerusalem Temple as a model for new creation/purgation, but then we are back to magical qualities of blood. I guess my question is: are Athanasius and Fr. Zizioulas misinterpreting Paul? If so, how can that fundamental objection be met?

    Thank you very much. I apologize for the long, confusing post. I’ve been trying to piece this narrative together over about two years or so from disparate sources and conversations I’ve had with books, scholarly articles, theologians, scholars, and bloggers of various religious stripes, and I was wondering what you might make of it.

    God Bless.

    1. Dante, Eric will likely have some thoughts related to the specific studies you have undertaken, but this might also be of interest:

      Having benefitted greatly from reading Fr. Stephen for a few years now, I have come to the conclusion to rightly understand the nature of how of the blood of Christ shed on the Cross cleanses us from our sin (and thus how His Sacrificial death “works”), the OT teaching that “the life is in the blood” and Christ’s teaching in John 6 that “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life within you” are major clues. Christ’s Blood (like our own blood or a blood transfusion does on a physical level in our bodies) vivifies/nourishes and cleanses those who participate in His Death and Resurrection Life through Holy Baptism and faithful participation in the Eucharist (in which are also implied faithful participation in the whole life of the Church).

      This also links Christ’s Identification with us in His Incarnation and Death and our identification with Him in His Death and Resurrection through Holy Baptism to the Orthodox understanding of salvation as union with Him (Who is Life). Our union with Him is only possible as a result of His union with us first (and we were dead in our sins). A consequence of our union with Him is also the remission of our sins, because they are actually progressively purged from us through the life of Christ active within us. This goes back also to the Jewish understanding of sacrifice as expiation, which I suggested in a comment above meant the OT sacrifices were effective in reconciling the worshipper with God in that they represented the offerer’s true repentance and faith. I also cited examples where even the OT denies God requires a sacrifice in order to forgive–rather, it is contrition and repentance He requires. Viewed in this manner, the cleansing of Christ’s blood is not magical–that is, it is not unrelated to our actual repentance and participation in the life of Christ within His mystical Body, the Church, and His actual Presence within the members of His Body.

      1. Yes. Certainly participation in the divine life goes a long way, and that is the rationale behind the Eucharist and Baptism – that is, incorporation in the new covenant, the new Israel, and Creation summed up in Christ. A “blood transfusion” is an appropriate analogy. Even in ancient Israel, participation in the covenant certainly resonates with sprinkling of blood. I got a lot out of Hahn’s “Kinship by Covenant” which emphasizes the Ancient Near Eastern analogy made between covenantal binding and family ties. By virtue of belonging to Israel, one is tied up with the inheritance of YHWH’s sons and daughters first seen in Sinai and Moses’ glorification and re-presented in the Jewish Temple, its priesthood, and the shewbread rites – the origin points for angelomorphic humans in Daniel and the apocryphal works.

        Yet these Jewish ideas of covenantal participation and re-invocation like in the Akedah, the cycle of cleansing-judgment-re-creation at Yom Kippur, angelomorphism, etc. which do seem to have bearing on Christianity seem a little removed from the metaphor of “sacrifice.” In Jewish sacrifice, I would question whether we see a notion of divine transfusion – although I have seen that doubtful case made by Margaret Barker. If it is contrition that God requires and not sacrifices to forgive sins, then one wonders whether the Jewish Temple cult is the best source for the Christian images of sacrifice and how far these can be appropriately stretched.

        It seems a rather free appropriation rather than a one-on-one correspondence. The analogy between Jesus’ Crucifixion and Temple sacrifices seems to be one of expiatory cleansing, wiping away of impurities/demonic pollutants, and the reaffirmation of the Covenant via a sprinkling of blood which unites the definitive people of God.

        If, however, we want to say Jesus is the Lamb of God in the sense that He takes up human sins and then God puts them to death in Him, as if He could not simply forgive them – like the substitutionary notions in the OT sin offerings (which is different, in my opinion, than saying Jesus is the Temple in which the cleansing of creation’s inherent corruption and impurity occurs like on Yom Kippur), then I would say that this is a bit removed from the soteriology presented in Athanasius and more like the penal substitution of the Reformers. Whether we say that God’s dealings with sin is extrinsic or intrinsic – i.e., God’s wrath is directed against the person as punishment as penal substitution (Calvin) or against sin itself in the sacrificial item in substitution, Christ who is in solidarity with us (Wright) or rendered unnecessary because Christ’s merits have restored humanity’s dishonor against God and our ontological debt to Him in solidarity with us (Anselm and Thomas Aquinas; not unlike the Akedah of Isaac or merits of the Fathers in Judaism), the fact remains this is still different than the notion that the primary target of the Christus Victor model which is not individual sins but rather the condition and power of “sin” (singular) – manifested in human frailty devoid of divine life chiefly found in death, corruption, alienation from God which results in fear and idolatry which results in sins.

        In short, Jewish sacrifice remains an appropriate source for the rationale behind the Atonement in either one of two ways: Milgrom’s Temple-cleansing/Yom Kippur model which is more resonant with Athanasius, the primary target being the human condition which is “sin” or the Lamb-as-substitution for the worshipper model which seems more Reformation-like with the target being “sins.”

        If animal sacrifice is meant to represent perfect contrition on behalf of the worshipper in orienting his interior attitudes (which sounds like Abelard’s idea to me), then it would seem (and I have articles on Jewish sacrifice where this is the case) the animal represents the worshipper who vicariously dies in the animal with his sin in a rationale not unlike the scapegoat where Azazel and the impurities which follow him die with the goat sent out in the desert – purifying the Land. This would certainly seem the rationale behind the idea of “buying back” one’s firstborn sons with an offering. If that is the case, then perhaps this would explain the substitution language of Christ wherein the human condition on the whole is put to death complete with its corruption, yet we are still left with the fact that in the Jewish religion human corruption and decay is not identified with sin (as in some permutations of “original sin” in the West) to be dealt with by a sin offering. If it’s corruption that is the target, then Milgrom seems the better solution.

        Upon re-reading your post, you make the point that God is the one doing the sacrificing on our behalf which we participate in by faith, i.e., belonging to the covenantal community sealed and indeed embodied in Christ, the New Israel and New Creation-Temple. Then we have to ask why sacrifice is necessary as if God’s internal mechanism – i.e., justice in governmental thinking, “feudal” honor (better translated perhaps as sense of cosmic justice) in Anselmian thinking – needs sacrifice.

        In short, all theories of atonement seem permutations of each other whether we talk of right government (Hugo Grotius), cosmic order/justice/honor counterbalanced by merit (Anselm, Thomas Aquinas), vicarious faith (Luther), or vicarious punishment (Calvin). The only one which stands utterly apart is Athanasius’ which emphasizes none of these but vicarious humanity and vicarious death which even then is not canceled due to a sense of God’s justice, i.e., inability to go back on His Word.

        Maybe this is a better phrasing of the first post. I’m still thinking on the fly as I wrote this so it may seem incoherent. I’d appreciate any input.


        1. Dante, in view of Fr. James Bernstein’s affirmation that his understanding of OT sacrifice, sin offerings included, when he was an Orthodox Jew, was that of expiation, not propitiation, might some of the scholars you are reading who are interpreting the OT sacrifices this way (i.e., as penal and propitiatory) be reading this back into the Hebrew text based on later Western Christian theological notions to which they have been exposed? Fr. James is not the only former Jew I have heard claim the OT sacrifices for sin are to be understood as expiation.

          Again, drawing heavily on Fr. Stephen Freeman’s work, I will add some thoughts. I can’t comment on the authors you have read, since I’m unfamiliar with their work. I can only give you what Scripture says and reflections on that based on Fr. Stephen’s explanations looking through the lens of the Orthodox tradition.

          The Orthodox interpret the OT sacrifices through Christ and not the other way around. Consider, for example, the account of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus in Luke 24. They were Jews, who observed the ordinances regarding sacrifices, and were eyewitnesses of Christ’s life and death in fulfillment of OT prophecy, but they had no clue this was what the OT was revealing until Christ “opened” the Scriptures to them in a post-Resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus (vs. 45) and showed how they spoke of Him. Accordingly, Orthodox argue we can’t fully understand what the Passover sacrifice was all about (for one example) until we see it through the full revelation of Christ in the Gospels. Only in receiving the gospel can we understand how the Passover images our passing over from death to life though union with Christ. Recall, if you will, that in the passover sacrifice, the blood was smeared on the wood doorposts of the house (making the form of a cross some have pointed out)–a sign foreshadowing Christ’s crucifixion. The portion of the bread of the Orthodox Eucharist which is placed into the Chalice and becomes the Body of our Lord is called the “Lamb.” Note that the Passover lamb was eaten, just as we eat the Body of Christ in the Eucharist (only now with the Blood–Christ is the “Living Bread that came down from heaven”).

          Further, in the NT we are taught that the OT sacrifices are “shadows” and “copies” pointing to Christ. Hebrews speaks of the Aaronic Priesthood and of the OT sacrifices as “imperfect” and states very clearly “the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin” (Hebrews 10:1-4)–this was ritual “purification” only of the “flesh.” (That is, these are imperfect shadows only, not the reality they point to.) It could not cleanse the “conscience” by giving mankind God’s life such that he also could become obedient. It is again reiterated in the NT that it is not sacrifice that God desires (Hebrews 10:5-9), but mankind’s obedience which is fulfilled in Christ. It just so happens that obedience to God in a world where He has enemies may well result in the death of the obedient one (if it furthers the purposes of God to demonstrate His truth and power and bring others to repentance).

          Why was it specifically blood sacrifice that foreshadowed Christ’s sacrifice? Why does God’s “internal mechanism” . . . “need sacrifice”? First, I will point out that we Orthodox specifically reject both Anslem’s notion of any requirement on the part of God analogous to the need of a Lord for “satisfaction” of his “feudal honor” and the Reformer’s notion of the requirements of God’s “justice” where this is understood as the sort of “justice” demanded by the state (which I will point out is for the sake of maintaining social order, not healing the whole person and all his relationships which is outside the state’s purview, but is closer to God’s purpose for the Cross). From an Orthodox perspective, these concepts are alien to the notion of God’s “justice/righteousness” as it is revealed in the Scriptures. Superimposing those concepts onto the biblical texts leads to monstrous distortions of the Scriptures’ teachings (in the view of perhaps most Orthodox and certainly me).

          I also suggest the very form of your question, “why does the internal mechanism of God need (blood) sacrifice” reflects a couple of serious (and related) errors in thinking about the nature of God: 1. It suggests that the internal workings of the Trinity are somehow mechanistic, but they are not; they are Personal. And #2 the wording of your question (“need”) suggests God is bound by some sort of necessity, but being Personal He is, by Orthodox definition, also perfectly free. He is constrained by nothing other than His own nature and will. Rather the question should be “what is the Nature of God, such that this Nature manifests itself as a Blood Sacrifice, when it is incarnate in a Human Being into our fallen world? An Orthodox answer might be God is a Communion of Self-giving love flowing eternally between the three Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity–Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is revealed in Christ to be Self-giving love in His motivation toward all He has created, and the Incarnation of Self-giving love in a fallen world necessarily meant the voluntary passion of God, the Son. Self-giving–the outpouring of one’s life for the well-being of the other–is the very nature of God and of divine love. (“God is love.”) It just so happens that when this kind of love enters our fallen world, sinners hate and try to kill it because it exposes their sin. God willed that sinners succeed in putting Christ to death (impossible apart from Christ’s voluntarily yielding Himself to this) 1) because this was the only way to free sinners from their corruption, 2) because it demonstrated the completeness of His love (“Greater love has no man that this, that he lay down his life for his friends” and we might add to Christ’s statement and remain in the spirit of His teaching by adding “. . . and even for his enemies.”) and 3) because it demonstrated the perfection of His power over death through the Resurrection, thereby releasing the redeemed from their sin in which they were held in bondage by their fear of death (according to Hebrews 2:15).

          Or another form of the right question might be, “Why did God, the Son, need to become Human and die to unite himself with our humanity?” The answer is because we are a) human and b) were dead in our sins, and, in biblical definition, it seems two distinct beings have to have some commonality in order to unite with each other. In order to overcome/heal our corruption, we need to be united with God’s life.

          In conclusion, the Orthodox understanding of the nature of Christ’s substitution is that of St. Athanasius, not that of Anselm or of the Reformers (obviously). Fr. Stephen, expounding Athanasius, presents the Orthodox understanding that man’s problem of sin is not a legal problem, but an ontological one. In Orthodoxy, “death/corruption” and “sin” (as opposed to “sins” which are symptoms and specific manifestations of sin) are synonyms. They are the same thing. Perhaps it is a mistake, then, to understand Jewish thought to teach that death and sin are not also thus connected in meaning just because we do not see Jewish thought connecting these in the way that Western teaching about “original sin” does with its suggestion our problem is really one of guilt before a legal code, not the breaking of a divine law flowing from the nature of our creation by God that is like the law of gravity. As Fr. Stephen points out, breaking God’s “law” in the Orthodox (and Jewish) sense is not akin to infraction of a legal code like a speed limit (for which there are no natural consequences, although there may be guilt before a judge if one gets caught), but like acting without regard to the law of gravity, for which there are immediate natural consequences. Perhaps in Jewish, as well as Orthodox Christian understanding, sin and death are the same thing–or, perhaps more accurately, we should say the same dynamic.

          1. As an historian of the ancient Near East, I would say that sacrifice originates as a pagan ritual, which was adopted by early Israelites arising out of pagan, Canaanite origins. Speaking then as an Orthodox Christian, there is a sense in which God has taken this pagan rite with its iconological ramifications, and has turned it toward something rather different. While pagan sacrifices might have been offered in order to assuage divine wrath or to curry favor with the gods, the sacrifice of Christ is to be viewed as being expiatory. Why sacrifice? Because God operates within the natural, cultural environment of human beings. He condescends to our historically primitive rites, and works salvation through them gradually orienting them toward heavenly, spiritual prototypes.

          2. That certainly makes sense as an historical approach to understanding. Fr. Stephen takes a decidedly spiritual (and pastoral) approach to the subject. Both have their place, it seems to me.

    2. Dante, there is certainly a lot of nuance that one can tease out of the notion of sacrifice, and I do believe that the original and continuing association of sacrifice with paganism was problematic for some, which may be at the root of the predominance of Christus Victor models in the East. I was hoping that one thing I could do in my post was to show how the Christus Victor models and sacrificial atonement could be unified by understanding death as expiation. While life-blood cleansing may be an integral part of the rite (Eucharist), substitution is also an important one, one which I hardly believe can be ignored in the biblical texts. Christ has “become sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.” This is substitution in it’s purist, Pauline sense, and the what is behind his notion of justification. Righteousness does not come by the Torah, but by faith in that substitionary, expiating sacrifice. This article is focused upon that particular aspect of our salvation, though there are many other aspects of it as well.

      1. I’ve been thinking. In Milgrom’s conception of the life-blood cleansing, the Temple is, in his words, a “picture of Dorian Gray” which vicariously participates in the impurities of the Land and the Creation – the Temple constructed on a microcosmic level as it is. The ritual of blood either cleanses the Temple and permits the indwelling of God again or, in Geller’s thinking, reinforces the covenantal bond.

        At the same time, anthropologist Mary Douglas in “The Eucharist; Its Continuity with the Bread Sacrifice of Leviticus” not too long ago proposed that the Creation, the Eucharist, the anatomy of sacrifices in Leviticus, Mount Sinai, and the Jerusalem Temple mirror each other. If Temples are the places where the vicarious cleansing take place and the sacrificial animals mirror Temples, then both Temples and the sacrifices which are analogized with Temples are the places of solidarity with the Land and its impurities and the purification.

        Temples are themselves, it seems, macrocosmic Lambs, Lambs micrcosmic Temples, in that both are participatory vehicles of purification. In that sense, are these “two models” of purification and substitution ultimately one insofar as substitution (the equation between Creation-Land, Temple, Animal Sacrifice, and the Covenanted Community, including the Creation) is a means of access to purification?

        Thank you.

  6. Mr. Jobe,

    My apologies if this question has already been addressed, but I was hoping you could flesh out your evidence a bit regarding what makes this interpretation Orthodox or not.

    Please do not misunderstand, both articles are well written and internally coherent, but from my first read-through I didn’t see any given evidence linking your arguments to Orthodox tradition. (Not until, and only in, your brief reference to a single phrase in the baptismal service.) In your first article, your evidence focuses on vocabulary in the Hebrew Old Testament and your interpretation of St. Paul… but no reference to a Father, or a contemporary Orthodox teacher/writer, no liturgical hymns, etc.

    My point is not to say your argument is un-Orthodox, but only that you’ve not yet given any positive indications that it is. (Only negatively, in that it is an alternative to some Anselmian and Protestant frameworks.)

    This is a subject that has been on my mind for many years as an Orthodox convert from Protestantism, and I would very much like to hear what your response on that specific aspect.

    Thank you.

    1. What makes it Orthodox is not any dependence upon citations but that it fits within the broader context of Orthodox theology. Admittedly, I am not a patristics scholar, so I do not operate within that frame of reference but rather within the general framework of Orthodoxy as I have assimilated it over the past decade. I may be wrong here or there, and I may even offer an interpretation or opinion that is different from the fathers, but I believe very much that what I am writing is consistent with the dogmatic deposit of the Orthodox Tradition. I am loath to be too self-referential with my work. In other words, I don’t so much like explaining the Orthodox Tradition by the Orthodox Tradition, i.e. “It’s true because the Fathers say so.” I want to interface Orthodox theology with the rest of the Christian and secular scholarship, demonstrating thereby that Orthodox theology rises above them and is capable of working within the same academic parameters. Many non-Orthodox people who encounter this material may not be terribly concerned with patristic interpretations, because they have not yet embraced the Fathers as sources of doctrinal authority. Yet, historico-critical and philological scholarship can be an effective means of demonstrating Orthodox theological views in our world today.

  7. Well, as a Brazilian I don’t know If I’ll write in a good English, but I ask you try read and respond me, because I’m meeting the orthodox faith and I was liking it, until read about its vision about the atonement of Christ, and I want to learn more about it.

    I read your two articles about the Death of Jesus. Well, in this article you seem deny God is angry with the natural( nonchristian, unregeneration) man. However, passagers as Ephesians 2. 1-3 clearly asserts God is angry with men.

    ‘And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and WERE BY NATURE CHILDREN OF WRATH, like the rest of mankind.”(Ephesians 2;1-3)

    And if it’s not necessary a punishment of Sin to be saved( as, to me, the orthodoxy view of atonement seems teaches )why does people go to hell? It’s not clear they go to hell because they are sinners and, therefore, deserve this punishment? And If it is so, then It’s also necessary to us be punish, because “By nature we are children of wrath”, and because of this It was necessary God himself became man, for as a man be punished in our behalf, and as He is God His atonement is sufficient to pay every sin of all possible humanities.

    I mean, of course the death of Christ is the death of the death, and the crucified Christ was victorious, but I don’t understad why den the ” penal substitutionary atonement”

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