The “Heart” of the Atonement (Part 3): The Sacrifice Model

Sacrificial Lamb betterThe glory of the cross can be seen from every angle. To focus on only one explanation of the cross is to miss out on the multi-faceted beauty of the work of the atonement. So, while I will go on to argue for the centrality of penal substitutionary atonement in the coming weeks, it is so crucial that we be able to talk honestly and passionately about all the models of the atonement. With that in mind, I want to turn this week to consider the sacrifice model.

It behooves me to make a defense for this as a unique model of the atonement. After all, PSA is a sacrifice model. A sacrifice model in particular is a more generic look at the same subject, though perhaps “generic” isn’t the best word choice. I don’t intend to communicate something negative about the model. A sacrifice model is going to take a broader look at the same angle as PSA, this is going to make its emphasis slightly different. While both sacrifice and PSA are examples of sacrifice the former emphasizes the key aspect of love and PSA emphasizes the aspect of legal payment. While PSA may also demonstrate love and sacrifice may be a penal sacrifice, they tend to emphasize the one over the other. So we might say with Sacrifice that the order of emphasis is a capital “L” and a lower case “p” – because sacrifice, in taking a broader look at the same model is emphasizing love more than legal payment. PSA, on the other hand, is emphasizing a capital “P” and a lower case “l” – because its primary goal is to talk about Jesus’ death as the satisfaction of our God’s wrath against our sin. Both can be spoken of as loving sacrificial payments for sin, they each emphasize more prominently a different aspect of that model. So, all that to say, it is worth our time to consider the broader angle of a Sacrifice Model.

The Bible is one bloody book. Throughout its pages blood is connected to both sin and salvation. So in the Old Testament shed blood reminds us that sin causes death, but the shedding of blood is also given to make atonement for sin. So God spells out in Leviticus 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” From Genesis 3 onward sacrifices become a regular means of worshipping God and dealing with sin. After the flood, Noah makes a sacrifice as an act of worship. Noah knows that he deserved to die too, but God rescued him (Gen. 8:20). Abraham offers sacrifice to God when he enters the new land (Gen. 12:7-8; 13:4, 8), and Job makes an offering for sin by means of sacrifice (Job 1:5; 42:7-9). The Exodus event establish the celebration of the Passover, where a spotless lamb is sacrificed in place of the firstborn male of the Jewish households. In the established monarchy the priests daily make sacrifice, and on the Day of Atonement  there was a special sacrifice made for the sins of the nation as a whole. All this blood in the Old Testament, however, was insufficient to reconcile man to God. For that we needed an even more pure blood.

The sacrifices of the Old Testament ultimately point to and find their fulfillment in the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus is the real lamb of God who takes away sin (John 1:29). Jesus is the true Passover lamb (Matt. 26:26-28). What’s interesting about Jesus’ sacrifice, however, is that he did not die unwillingly or as part of religious system. Rather He sacrificed himself for us. So Jesus, proclaims clearly:

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father. (John 10:17-18)

The Son is not forced into the role of sacrifice. He is not in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jesus’ death is not a cosmic accident that happened to work in our favor. His crucifixion was a predetermined plan to rescue us that He willing participated in (Acts 2:23). Jesus lays down His life. And what prompts Him to do that? Love.

The Bible repeatedly connects the sacrifice of Christ to the heart of God for His people. Not only does the Bible’s most well-known verse make this connection (John 3:16), but many other passages indicate that the cross is the revelation of God’s love. Jesus says that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for your friends (John 15:13), and God demonstrates His love for us through Christ’s dying for us (Rom. 5:8). Elsewhere the Bible motivates our love by the example of the cross (Eph. 5:2, 25; 1 John 3:16: 4:9-10). Christ laid down His life, sacrificed, for us because He loves us.

The sacrifice model may not be ultimately different from something like PSA or other models, it has a thread that runs through the heart of all the models and yet to focus on Christ’s willing sacrifice is to highlight something very important and profound. It is not simply that Christ dies for us, is killed in our place, or even bears the wrath we deserve that is worthy of our reflection. Rather, because Christ does such things of His own accord we ought to worship Him. He does them freely out of the great love He possess for His bride. Salvation comes from love! It is not out of obligation that God saves us. It is not out of necessity or duty, or even mere pity that God saves us. It is a passionate, intentional, active, comprehensive, and sacrificial love. Exploring the sacrifice model of the atonement emphasizes this point for us clearly. Reflect on the love of God demonstrated in the shedding of Jesus’ blood. Reflect on the love of God in Jesus’ willingness to lay down His life for the sheep. For all our theologizing about the atonement, we should not neglect or overlook so simple and yet profound a concept as God’s sacrificial love.


  1. I do not think it is the case that Jesus “bears the wrath that we deserve” because I dot think that the Biblical sacrificial system depends on the principle of vicarious punishment. In other words, I believe it is very hard to defend that the sacrificial victim is provided to be the guilty party’s alternate vessel to bear punishment from the offended party. The main reason for this is that the Bible consistently depicts a sacrificial system in which the sinner/offender himself is the one that slays his sacrifice; it is not the offended party or a representative of the offended party that slays the sacrifice. It is more likely that the sinner’s act of slaying the animal demonstrates that the animal dies under the sinner’s sin itself, not under the punishment for the sinner’s sin.

    (1) In the Passover, it is not God that kills the sacrificial lamb, it is the Israelites themselves that slaughter the lamb. On a vicarious punishment system, we should expect the Israelites to tie the lamb outside the house for the night in expectation that God (or His “destroyer”) would come by and kill the lamb instead of the firstborn of the household. But this is not what happens. Instead, the Israelites themselves, the sinners in need of redemption, slay the Passover lamb. The blood of the lamb then averts the wrath of God when He comes by, but the function of the lamb is not to bear or exhaust the wrath of God in place of the Israelites. I affirm that the death of the animal is necessary to avert (turn away) the wrath of God, but it is obviously not the wrath of God that actually causes the death of the animal. Nor is there a one-to-one correspondence between the slain lamb of the Israelites and the slain firstborn of the unrepentant Egyptians. Those unrepentant Egyptian families who lose their firstborn under the wrath of God do not then get to participate in the Exodus. So those Egyptian families which do provide God with a vessel upon which to exercise His wrath do not have redemption, whereas those Israelite families which do not provide God with a vessel on which to exercise wrath do have redemption. Providing God with a vessel upon which to exercise wrath does not secure redemption. These are important pieces of data in articulating a Biblical definition of “propitiation.” Modern Penalty Substitution advocates define propitiation as “wrath satisfying” or “wrath exhausting,” but the Biblical data indicates that propitiation simply means “wrath averting” without any exercise or outpouring of this wrath.

    We can state the argument formally in this way:

    1. The Passover lamb is a propitiatory sacrifice
    2. God’s wrath is averted by the blood of the Passover lamb
    3. God does not exercise or exhaust wrath on the Passover lamb
    4. In the Bible, propitiation means “wrath averting,” but does not mean “wrath exhausting”

    In many ways, the Passover and the Exodus were the gospel story of the Old Testament, the story of God’s mighty act of redemption to save His people. But the Old Testament Jews never would have included as part of this story, “God punished (or satisfied His wrath) on the Passover lamb instead of us.” If Old Testament Jews would not have thought this, then New Testament Christians should not believe that God punished or exhausted wrath upon “Christ our Passover (1 Cor 5:7).”

    (2) Ritual Sacrifices: The ritual sacrifices in Leviticus also fail to communicate vicarious punishment, for a similar reason: the sinner himself, and not a representative of the offended party, slays a ritual sacrifice. If a ritual sacrifice was supposed to communicate vicarious punishment, we might expect that the priest would be the one to slay the sacrifice, as a demonstration of God’s wrath punishing the animal instead of the sinner. But this is not what happens. It is always the sinner himself that slays the sacrifice, before the anointed priest sprinkles the blood. See the following ten examples from those sacrifices that deal with sin: In a Burnt Offering (Lev 1:5, 1:11) the sinner slays the sacrifice. In a Peace Offering (Lev 3:2, 3:4, 3:13) the sinner slays the sacrifice. In a Sin Offering (Lev 4:4, 4:14, 4:24, 4:29, 4:33) the sinner slays the sacrifice. The priest slays the animal if it is a corporate sacrifice, on behalf of the congregation (of which he is a member), and he does this after slaying a sacrifice for his own sins. When the priest slays a sacrifice on behalf of the congregation, he does so as a representative of Israel, a community of sinners. Recall that he is wearing the mantle with the emblems of the twelve tribes on it. The priest slays the animal as a representative of sinners in need of redemption, not as a representative of the one offended by sin.

    So I think it is hard to defend that it is an act of punishment that kills a ritual sacrifice to satisfy the wrath of the offended party. Rather, I think the act of slaying the animal is an act of remorse. The sinner must experience the costly reality of sin, that sin destroys God’s unblemished creation. The ultimate example of this costly reality is the cross, in which human sin goes so far as to destroy the incarnate Son of God.

    (3) Crucifixion: In the event of the crucifixion we see that it is not God raining down fire and brimstone on Jesus, it is very clearly sinful men that are torturing and killing him. Jesus suffers and dies directly under the sins of sinners. In the sacrifice that gives all the other sacrifices in the Bible their meaning, sinners slay the sacrifice. The wrath of God does not slay the sacrifice. The literal wrath of God is at Jesus’ disposal, as he can call down legions of angels on his torturers in order to save Himself, and he does not do it. He averts the wrath of God when he says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34),” which gives us the ultimate referent for the Biblical definition of propitiation.

    (4) Apostolic Preaching of the Cross: This theme of sinners slaying sacrifices continues in the book of Acts. When the Apostles preach the cross and resurrection, they always attribute the death of Jesus to the hands of sinners, and attribute the resurrection to the hand of God. The logic is, “Sinners killed him, but God raised him.” The Apostles never say, “God punished Jesus.” See the following nine verses: Acts 2:23, 2:36, 3:14-15, 4:10, 4:26, 5:30, 7:51-53,10:39, 13:28,

    Thomas McCall, professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, states, “The pattern of gospel proclamation (in Acts) is clear and consistent: You killed him. But God raised him. We are witnesses. Repent and believe for the forgiveness of sins (Forsaken. P.122).” From the Passover, to the Levitical sacrificial system, through the event of the crucifixion and to the Apostolic preaching of the cross, we have a consistent thread in which it is the sinners that slay sacrifices, and sinners that slay the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus Christ.

    On Penal Substitution, Humanity’s problem is that they deserve punishment, and the positive reversal of fortune is that Jesus intercedes to die in our place to exhaust this punishment. In Acts however, the problem is that human sin is so destructive that it has even led to the destruction of God’s incarnate Son, but the positive reversal of fortune is that God raises His Son from the dead as the catalyst for restoring the world and granting forgiveness of sin. The transition in the sequence of logic, the “but God,” is not “but God punished his own Son to satisfy His wrath so He would not have to satisfy it on us.” The transition is, “but God raised Jesus from the death which we inflicted upon him, and He grants us forgiveness of sins if we confess and repent.” The reversal of fortune that gives us hope for salvation is the resurrection. The fact that Jesus died is only good news because He rose from the dead. See Ephesians 2:1-6,

    “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.
    But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenlys in Christ Jesus.”

    What is the problem? We are dead in our sins. It is not that we are deserving of death for our sins, no, the sentence has been carried out and we are dead. Not about to die, dead. Our doom is not impending; it is upon us. What is the solution? “But God made us alive together with Christ and raised us up with Him.” Jesus’ resurrection is the solution to the problem of sin and the positive reversal of our bad fortune.

    J.I Packer says that the function of calling Christ’s death “penal” is:

    “to articulate the insight of believers who, as they look at Calvary in the light of the New Testament, are constrained to say, ‘Jesus was bearing the judgment I deserved (and deserve), the penalty for my sins, the punishment due to me’ (Packer “What did the cross achieve?”)

    But this is not true. Packer is encouraging Christians to have wrong thoughts about the cross and about God. No one in the Bible has that reaction to the cross, and I challenge you to name someone who does. In the Bible, the cross confronts us not with what God’s wrath did to Jesus, but with what our sin did to Jesus. WE killed Jesus, not God. Jesus says to Paul on the road to Damascus, “Why are YOU persecuting me?” When Peter looks to the cross, he sees his own threefold denial and betrayal of Jesus, not God’s denial of Jesus. Rather, as Peter says, we are to “come to [Jesus] as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is elect and precious in the sight of God (1 Peter 2:4).” Rejected by men, chosen by God.

    Jesus did not go to the cross to suffer divine retributive justice. Jesus went to the cross because divine justice can only grant restitution/restoration to damages suffered by innocent parties. All sinners need to be restored because we are have all destroyed ourselves by our own sin, but no sinner merits restoration because no sinner is innocent. So Jesus must come as the innocent and righteous party and take all of our destruction and death upon himself, so that divine justice will enact the reversal and restoration of all sin’s destruction by the power of his resurrection. God’s justice is therefore satisfied in the resurrection as the reversal and restitution of all the sin that Jesus unjustly suffered. Sorry for the long comment, but I think this is an important issue.

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