Chapter 14 – The Gospels and Atonement Passages

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

The four gospels have various passages that are either used to teach the Penal Substitution Atonement doctrine, or are ignored because of their contrary statements. Here is a look at most of them.

Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Mark 11:26 “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.”

Luke 11:4 “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.”

The above passages, spoken by Jesus, are very contrary to the PSA doctrine because 1. The timing is out of place for PSA because Jesus had not paid anything, yet he is teaching as if the listeners could obtain true forgiveness at that present time, prior to his death. The timing would also be out of place if these statements had been made after the cross because we must still continue to ask forgiveness for sin (such as in 1 John 1:9), which indicates that Jesus did not provide a one-time forgiveness for all sins, past, present, and future. 2. Under PSA, God’s forgiveness has to do with being paid with the death of Jesus and cannot be conditional on our forgiveness of others.

Matthew 7:21-23 ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

This is one of the teachings of Jesus as part of his famous Sermon on the Mount. He makes at least three important points: 1. entrance into God’s kingdom is for those who do the will of his Father, 2. there are many who know about him and in an intellectual sense of faith embrace him for their personal purposes, yet 3. these individuals do not submit to his teaching and instead do works of lawlessness. This is a key passage because there are those who misapply other passages, like Romans 10:9-11 “because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” The Romans text is taken as the primary text without accepting that the author of Romans is assuming that the person who is doing these things is actually putting them to practice in real life. The Romans passage is not a magical formula of minimal mental belief combined with making audible statements about Jesus. The example given in Matthew 7:21-23 clearly shows that belief in the name of Jesus is understood as authoritative in the follower’s life, that the one who truly follows him will function lawfully according to his teachings. Jesus rejects the idea that mere intellectual belief, intellectual faith or affirmation is sufficient. The faith must be functional in the believer’s life, and this can be observed because his followers will not live lawless in the eyes of God.

Matthew 20:28 “Even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The Greek word for ransom is “lytron”, and its primary usage was in reference to a release, not necessarily a payment. By giving his life for service to God and others he took part in releasing them, freeing them from their bondage to sin and to a very legalistic religious bondage imposed by the religious leaders who made rules far in excess of the Mosaic law.

If the word “ransom” is to be taken literally, then this brings up many serious questions, such as,

  1. Who was holding humanity hostage?
  2. How did the previous person gain legal custody to be able to sell us?
  3. How can someone be so strong as to hold humanity hostage to the degree that God needs to pay to release them?
  4. Where do we read about this transaction?
  5. Did a blood payment to release the hostages get transferred to the kidnapper?
  6. If Satan is the kidnapper, does Satan have the blood or life of Christ?
  7. If God is the kidnapper, does not this result in additional absurdities?
  8. Who bought us, Jesus or God?
  9. What exactly was literally bought? (Souls? Spirits? Bodies? Legal rights?)
  10. If someone turns from the faith, are they sold back? Does the Devil (or God) get a refund? What would be refunded – blood?

A short but serious study of the way the Hebrew people used the terms “ransom” and “redeem” will reveal that these are very often intended to be analogies, illustrations, not intended to be used in a literal sense. For additional discussion regarding the terms “ransom” and “redeem”, please refer to Chapter 10 of this book.

Both of these passages of Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45 have a translation difficulty when they are read in their full context, copied below. These are parallel passages of an account when there was a discussion about future positions in the coming kingdom of Christ, yet Jesus turned their dreams upside down with his response – but his response is still within the original topic under discussion. Please notice that the topic under discussion had nothing to do with atonement or sin, it was about positions and power.

“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, bowing down and making a request of Him. And He said to her, “What do you desire?” She said to Him, “Say that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine shall sit, one at Your right, and one at Your left.” But Jesus replied, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to Him, “We are able.” He said to them, “My cup you shall drink; but to sit at My right and at My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father.” And after hearing this, the other ten disciples became indignant with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles domineer over them, and those in high position exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wants to become prominent among you shall be your servant, and whoever desires to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom, for [anti] many.” Matthew 20:20-28 NASB

The Greek word [anti] can mean “for, against, contrary to, in opposition to, instead of, etc.” There is a considerable range of options, so it is not advisable to be dogmatic about a single choice, especially since the greater context under discussion was regarding positions of authority in the anticipated kingdom. Here are the main options:

“…to give His life as a ransom, instead of many.”

“…to give His life as a ransom, contrary to many.”

“…to give His life as a ransom, against many.”

“…to give His life as a ransom in place of many.”

“…to give His life as a ransom, for many.”

Note that verse 28 starts with just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…”. The “just as” indicates a continuation of what he had just asked them to do, to be a slave in service for others. The entire topic was a contrast between a worldly pursuit of power versus being willing to be a slave, and obedient unto death. Nothing in this passage indicates that the topic of atonement was even remotely under consideration. Furthermore, the idea of penal substitutionary atonement had never even been taught in the Old Testament, so they had no reason to think along that line at all. They believed that Jesus was going to take the throne and rule as Messiah; they had no thought of him dying to pay a penalty for sin.

Luke 24:46-47 “and [Jesus] said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for [eis/unto] the forgiveness [aphesin/release] of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

In the Luke 24:46-47 passage we literally have repentance into or unto [Greek, “eis”] the release of sins. Repentance in this context is turning away from sin, and the result is that sin is released, or stopped. It can be argued that the Greek word “aphesin” can be understood as forgiveness, which is true. But the literal meaning is release, and forgiveness is only a figurative meaning of the word. Perhaps both release and forgiveness are in view because to release sin is what brings about God’s forgiveness. Regardless of the preferred meaning here, the greater point being made is that repentance is which brings about the release and/or forgiveness of sin. Penal Substitutionary Atonement is not what brings about the release and/or forgiveness of sin, only repentance and regeneration (discussed below).

Matthew 26:28 “For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Mark 14:24 “And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.””

Luke 22:20 “And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

These passages are often read as if Jesus would make a covenant with God by which God would be able to pardon our sins, implying that God could not forgive until Jesus enabled Him to forgive. However, there are three Greek words that change everything here. One is the English word translated as “for” in the phrase “for forgiveness” in Matthew 26:28. “For” here is the Greek word “eis”, a preposition that means “into” or “unto”, meaning a movement into or toward something.

The second Greek word is translated as “forgiveness” in Matthew 26:28, and is the Greek word “aphesin”, which literally means “to release, to let go.” In a lesser figurative sense, it can mean to forgive in the sense of the offended party letting go of an infraction against him, in the sense of choosing to not demand revenge or restitution. But if the action is on the side of the one who committed the infraction, as it is in this verse, then it is the sinners, the “many” who do the letting go, not God, the one against whom the sin was committed. The third word is in the phrase “for many”, which is “peri pollon”. “Peri” (as in “perimeter”) means around, concerning, with respect to. The blood of the covenant is shed, not for God’s sake, but “concerning many”, for our sake.

Given the context and the Greek, this Matthew 26:28 verse could have, and probably should have, been translated as, “For this is my blood of the covenant which is shed concerning many unto the release of [their] sins.” In other words, the blood covenant is something that people can enter into, and by doing so they agree to release their sins, which is to stop sinning! (Comparable to a covenant of marriage where each agrees to be “forsaking all others…”.) This matches perfectly all the Old Testament passages of God promising to forgive those who forsake sin (2 Chron. 7:14, Is. 1:18, 55:7, Ezek. 18, etc.), and does not have God demanding blood as some divine retribution or payment for man’s sins. The plan is to assist mankind so that they would stop sinning, stop offending God, and thereby they can be reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. There is no reconciliation without stopping the rebellion, the sin.

Entering a blood covenant requires a cessation of sin against the other party of the covenant, and if an infraction does occur there is an obligation to seek restoration, just as a marriage covenant requires a cessation of offenses against the other party. There are terms and expectations and a relationship within the covenant, and when there are infractions, the responsible party must take measures to stop committing the infractions and seek reconciliation.

If contrary to the above explanation, the verse is accepted as most translations have it, stating, “For this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins”, then a careful examination of the statement brings forth several problematic questions:

  1. With whom is this covenant made? Between Jesus of Nazareth and God?
  2. If Jesus is giving his blood to God for a covenant, then is one of the terms of the covenant that God must agree to forgive sins? Why does God need a covenant so He can forgive?
  3. If Jesus is giving his blood as a payment to get God to agree to a covenant, then we may ask, “When did God say He would accept this arrangement?” He had never asked for human blood and explicitly stated that the taking of an innocent life is an abomination to Him (Proverbs 17:15, Exodus 23:7, Deuteronomy 23:7).
  4. Why do all the other blood covenant verses indicate that this covenant has his followers as parties of the covenant and not God? (“This cup, which is poured out for you, is the new covenant in My blood” Luke 22:20, “This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you Hebrews 9:20, “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified…” Hebrews 10:29.)

Once all these considerations are examined, it becomes quite clear that the intended statement of Jesus in Matthew 26:28 was, “For this is my blood of the covenant which is shed concerning many unto the release of [their] sins.” It was probably not about Jesus getting God to forgive sins.

The parallel passages in Mark and Luke, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” and “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” do not contain the phrase “for the forgiveness of sins.” This is interesting in a curious sense, since if what Jesus is about to do is explicitly for the primary purpose of paying for the sins of humanity, you would think that this key point would not have been missed or dropped, as PSA hinges everything, the entire gospel message, on this payment for sin idea. Here is the ideal opportunity to make a bold statement regarding this cosmic payment for the sins of humanity, but neither writer makes any mention of the idea!

Luke 23:34 “And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.””

The statement “Father, forgive them” was made by Jesus while he was being crucified. If Jesus was in the very process of paying God for the sins of his executioners, God would have known that He was getting paid at that very moment, so it seems rather silly to ask for their forgiveness at that time. It seems more plausible that Jesus did not consider that he was making any payment for sin and simply had compassion on the ignorant executioners, knowing that they were merely following orders.

John 1:29 “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!””

When PSA teachers read this verse, they think it says, “Jesus is the sacrificial lamb of God who pays for the sin of the world.” But that would be a complete distortion of what was understood in the Jewish mind. When the Jews heard John the Baptist make the statement, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”, they had no Old Testament scriptural context to be thinking in terms of penal substitution. Rather, they would have thought that Jesus is figuratively the lamb that God has provided, who serves as the means or mechanism of reconciliation between God and men by leading men to remove sin from their lives.

First, the phrase “takes away” has to do with “airōn”, which is literally “removing”. In this sense, Jesus was to function as a lamb that served in the process of removing sin from the world. “Removing” in this sense has nothing to do with transferring, as sins are not physical objects that can be literally transferred. You cannot transfer love, hate, virtue, anti-virtue, or sinful actions. If you remove the sinful habit of lying from your life, you are not transferring lies from one place to another, it is simply understood that you are stopping the habit of lying. Jesus functions in the same manner, as someone who stops us from our sinful habits by removing them.

The “lamb of God” in this verse needs to be understood in a Jewish/Hebrew framework. A lamb was considered food for meals. When a lamb was offered to God it was often eaten, at least in part. In these instances, the lamb was a special lamb, unblemished, considered to be God’s lamb. The meal was seen as a social event as the sweet aroma of the grilled lamb ascended to the sky, the habitation of God, who was the special honored guest.

Sadly, those who are ignorant of Hebrew thought confuse “…the lamb of God” as a payment for sin. No, the lamb being offered was because the offeror had forsaken a sin and was offering the lamb as a reconciliation gift to God. The lamb was not a payment or a substitute! The lamb was not being punished for any sin, but was shared as a meal between friends, where God was welcomed to be present. The lamb offering was relational in its effect (comparable to giving a box of chocolates or flowers as a token sign of desiring reconciliation), not a payment of any kind.

In Jewish thought, to reconcile a friendship it was typical to eat together as a sign of being in harmony. Neither the altar nor the sacrifice were to be used as a substitute for sin, as sacrifices were to be done after the sin was taken care of. For example, Jesus taught, “Therefore, if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” Mathew 5:23-24 NASB. Note that the offering was not to be given as a substitute for being reconciled to the brother!

Another example of offerings being a sign or token of first having removed sin from one’s life is found in Psalm 51: “10 Create in me a clean heart, God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me…16 For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You do not take pleasure in burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, God, You will not despise…19 Then You will delight in righteous sacrifices, in burnt offering and whole burnt offering; then bulls will be offered on Your altar.” NASB Notice that the breaking and cleansing of the heart come first, and only after that are the sacrifices acceptable. Sacrifices were not a substitution for first removing the sin from the heart and life of the sinner!

God desires obedience, not sacrifices. In contrast, sacrifices were sometimes wrongly used in an attempt to propitiate (pacify/bribe) God without first removing sin, and this is a perversion of God’s ways. We read God’s anti-propitiation message to the perverted people in ancient Judea in Isaiah 1:10-20:

“Hear the word of the LORD, You rulers of Sodom; Listen to the instruction of our God, You people of Gomorrah! 11 “What are your many sacrifices to Me?” Says the LORD. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and I take no pleasure in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats. 12 “When you come to appear before Me, Who requires of you this trampling of My courtyards? 13 “Do not go on bringing your worthless offerings, incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath, the proclamation of an assembly—I cannot endure wrongdoing and the festive assembly. 14 “I hate your new moon festivals and your appointed feasts, they have become a burden to Me; I am tired of bearing them. 15 “So when you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; Yes, even though you offer many prayers, I will not be listening. Your hands are covered with blood.16 “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from My sight. Stop doing evil, 17 Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor, Obtain justice for the orphan, Plead for the widow’s case.18 “Come now, and let us debate your case,” Says the LORD, “Though your sins are as scarlet, They shall become as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be like wool.19 “If you are willing and obedient, You will eat the best of the land; 20 But if you refuse and rebel, You will be devoured by the sword.” For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

John 19:30 “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

The statement “It is finished!” is often a part of PSA teaching, as if Jesus is proclaiming that he has finished making the sin payment with his blood and the debt has now been paid in full. If this was the case you would have expected the disciples and other followers of his to jump for joy, for they would have finally been forgiven, justified, ransomed, redeemed, reconciled, propitiated, and expiated! But that is not the context at all. What he means by, “It is finished!” is that he can’t take the suffering any longer, he gives up trying to live, and then breathed his last.

Jesus had previously been beaten, tortured, and had suffered significant blood loss. Death by crucifixion is mostly death by asphyxiation, where the one being crucified must push up with his legs to be able to stretch and get a breath. This takes a lot of effort, and with nails through the feet, each breath would be accompanied by extreme pain. After several hours of this, he is finished trying to live. He announces, “It is finished” to those around him and then “he bowed his head and gave up his breath [pneuma].” The words “It is finished” simply mean, “I quit”, or “I am finished”. There is no secret theological meaning here at all about having finalized some accounting for sin, a transfer of righteousness, or a completed payment. No, this is the final exclamation of a man who was being tortured to death. Sad words, very sad indeed, but of no atoning significance in some scheme of penal substitution.

John 20:31But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

The above verse is not used by proponents of PSA, but it is mentioned here because if PSA was what the gospel is about, then the verse should have been written as saying, “But these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus has paid the price for your sins; and that by believing this you may have forgiveness of sins.” No, the Gospel of John was written to proclaim Jesus as God’s Messiah, God’s promised deliverer, and that by believing in his authority we would have life.

A key historical point to consider regarding the four Gospel books is the fact that in none of these, nor in the entire Old Testament, do we see any teaching or proclamation regarding people expecting someone to come to pay for their sins so God would forgive them. The blood-payment-for-sin doctrine is totally absent, except that it is assumed and read into the sacrificial system with circular reasoning. The people were certainly on the lookout for God’s promised Messiah, and some believed that he would be a suffering Messiah, while others did not, but nobody seemed to have ever thought that someone needed to pay for their sins with a bloody human sacrifice. The disciples did not think this, the religious leaders did not think this, the prophets did not think this, nor did any of the Patriarchs. The PSA idea arises much later, outside of the Scriptures, and is being read into these passages, leading to massive distortions and misunderstandings.