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!
There is no doubt that this book will not provide definitive, final answers on this atonement topic, as that would be asking too much. But until the existing erroneous translation distortions related to this topic are removed, we will not be able to grasp the original Hebraic thought that is the true biblical atonement understanding. It is this Hebraic view that is this author’s intent to uncover. No doubt this work will fall short, but maybe it will provide the impetus for a greater scholar to stand on this author’s shoulders and do better.
Before attempting to unravel this seemingly complex topic, it would be wise to review how and why it became so complex to begin with. The topic of atonement is not simple due to the multitude of concepts that have been added to it. At its core the idea is simple – atonement is about reconciliation between a person and God, about a person receiving forgiveness so a relationship can be restored. That is the fundamental idea before other elements get added.
Once theologians like Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and multiple others, got involved and wanted the Bible to fit within a framework of a deterministic God (think, predestination) and the total depravity of man (think, uncontrollable sin nature), then things got complicated. Simple words and simple concepts were no longer enough to make their theology work. Additional theological terminology and expanded concepts had to be added.
The PSA doctrine uses these complex definitions and distortions:
(These points are general reflections common to PSA, and will not apply to every single PSA proponent, teacher or preacher.)
- Sin is more than a choice to disobey, it is fundamentally a sin nature.
- Righteousness is often considered as being external to us, even foreign, alien, extrinsic; it is not a genuinely personal choice to obey God and do right, as this is considered humanly impossible due to our sin nature.
- Justification is God declaring us legally (forensically) righteous by means of a transaction. Justification is not the act of correcting or setting right.
- Imputation is transferring righteousness from Jesus’ divine righteous account to ours.
- Wrath is God’s perpetual default mode, directed toward all who have not had their records cleaned and credited with the righteousness of Jesus.
- Infinite justice is a supreme attribute of God, the cause of God’s perpetual wrath.
- Expiation is an act of God, removing sin and guilt from our record (not from our life) by means of a payment.
- Propitiation is to appease God by means of the work of Christ, wholly disconnected from us.
- Faith must be a simplistic belief, often no more than a mere mental assent, as anything beyond this will be categorized as works.
- Works are anything you do to please God.
- Grace is a theological term, it is God granting something to wretched humans.
- Forgiveness is a legal and/or accounting transaction of God erasing your record of sins, it is impersonal, not relational.
- Ransom and redemption indicate a literal payment transaction that Jesus made to God on your behalf.
One of the biggest problems in studying the atonement is that the Bible has been translated with words that have become theological terms today, yet in its original time of writing were not theological terms. One simple example is the word “grace”, which was simply the common word “favor”, void of additional theological meaning. The same can be said for words like “saved”, which really means “delivered”, and “faith”, actually meaning “an active, motivating, compelling belief”, not a mere intellectual assent as PSA proponents tend to claim. With this added theological baggage, a verse that could have been translated as “we have been delivered by [God’s] favor by means of faith” becomes instead, “by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Grace and faith are loaded with theological terminology, allowing it to be read within various theological frames of thought. The Bible then becomes a complicated book for experts of theology to spin one way or another according to their favorite bias. Thus, simple theology becomes complex. In reality, most of the Bible was written with the intent that it be read audibly to a crowd of common folks, most of whom were illiterate, not trained theologians and professors.
The same theological translation terminology applies to the subject of atonement, except with several additional levels of complexity added to the confusion. Words like “propitiation” and “expiation” are used instead of common words like “appease” and “compensate”, respectively, and this allows theologians to swoop in with their expertise in trying to simplify these terms while also inevitably, intentionally or not, spinning the teaching to fit their preferred theological claims on the subject. It is not that “propitiation” and “expiation” are incorrect terms in their proper context, but rather that less technical words could be used with less confusion.
One clue that led to opening this author’s eyes on this subject is the fact that the Spanish Bible does not use the word “atonement” at all, as this is a word which was coined by William Tyndale (1494-1536), no doubt with good intentions, by joining the English words “at, one,” and “ment”, to indicate two opposing parties coming to one mental agreement. But in Spanish, there is no such “atonement” word; instead, the theological word “expiation” is used, which prevents the reader from grasping the background Hebraic cultural and linguistic framework. The intentions of the translators may have been sincere and good, which is not in question here, but theological terms cause a mental blockage in being able to grasp the ancient use of terms and concepts because the reader becomes accustomed to reading the text through later theological jargon and presuppositions instead of struggling to grasp the original cultural and linguistic concepts. The use of theological terminology may be well-intended, but it inevitably leads the readers and entire church systems down misguided paths. It is high time that this problem be corrected, and this book is but a feeble attempt to point out these problems and provide some much-needed resolution.
Since the topic of atonement has become complicated with this baggage of terms and concepts, we must deal with each of these topics like layers of an onion before arriving at the more simplistic understanding that seems to have been the original biblical model. If the original biblical model is explained first, those who have these other word definitions and concepts will quickly dismiss the explanation. Of course, this will surely happen anyway, but for those who are willing to take a second look at these topics, they will be able to see that there is a simple, coherent atonement explanation that is faithful to the text and faithful to the character of a loving God who is also just, even wrathful when needed, while being forgiving, merciful, kind, and patient.
We must identify atonement biases and presuppositions and try to go back to the Hebraic and Greek texts, studying without committed theological preconditions and presuppositions as we try to discern the understanding and intent of the people in Bible times. How did they communicate linguistically? What was their culture? What was already underlying as unstated common knowledge that we may not be aware of? How did they define these terms, and how did these beliefs affect their personal and social behavior? What were their expectations and God’s expectations at that time?
Until we are willing to set church denominational systems aside and wrestle with the raw data of the culture, history, language, and lives of the Hebrew people, we will never resolve the topic of atonement. Consider Paul’s argument to the church of Rome, a church which was debating and struggling between Jewish and Roman thinking:
“Then what advantage has the Jew? … much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” Romans 3:1-2
A rejection of the Hebraic/Jewish context of the Bible will lead us down winding paths that will split into many theories, be ever searching, but never able to come to the truth. The answer is in the Bible, if we are willing to set our pet theologies aside and humbly learn from the original sources. With this in mind, let’s continue on this journey by examining these topics and the relevant biblical texts.