The “Heart” of the Atonement (Part 5): Expiation Model

Sacrificial Lamb betterReductionist theologies do not serve the church well. That’s why, despite my sincere belief in the importance in the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, I have expressed real concern over calling it the “heart” of the atonement. It’s not that I disagree with the sentiment, but I fear that it often leads to a myopic view of the work of the cross. In this series I have been attempting to explore the multi-faceted glory of the cross of Christ. When we are able to see its beauty from a myriad of angles we can more fully appreciate the doctrine of the atonement. Various models have been used to explain this doctrine, and many have great value for the church. The expiation model allows us to see the beauty of the cross from yet another angle.

Expiation is an important and unique term within theological language. While it compliments the terminology of propitiation it’s important to see the distinct characteristics of expiation. Throughout history there have been many attempts to conflate the terms, largely because of the distaste of some scholars for the concept of “propitiation.” In the 1930s professor C.H. Dodd argued that propitiation, a term meaning to bear wrath, was a pagan term that was reinterpreted in Judaism as expiation. Expiation means the removal of sin. So Dodd wrote:

Hellenistic Judaism, as represented by the LXX, does not regard the cultus as a means of pacifying the displeasure of the Deity, but as a means of delivering man from sin. (Bible and the Greeks, 93)

This reconstruction has been the subject of many critiques, and has often been found wanting. It’s an interesting discussion for those who are academic nerds like me. The important point for our purposes, however, is that the two terms are distinct and yet both are important. Often when conservative scholars discuss this distinction they do so because they want to emphasize the importance of propitiation, but that can leave us wondering if expiation is even worthy of our consideration. It is my contention that is most assuredly is. Expiation talks about the removal of sin from the believer, and while propitiation may be the means of that removal we still need the terminology of expiation.

Throughout the Bible sin is spoken of as something that defile us. It is something that makes us unclean, something that stains us. In Jeremiah 2:22 the stain of guilt remains on those who try to wash it away. In Jeremiah 33:8 we find the mercy of God on display as He declares that He will cleanse His people from the guilt of their sins. The same is true in Ezekiel 36:33. In Hebrews 9:13 and in Titus 1:15 unbelievers are referred to as those who are “defiled.” In Psalm 51, verse 2, David prays to the Lord saying, “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” And 1 John 1:9 beautifully describes how confession and repentance in the life of the believer results in being “cleansed” from all unrighteousness. Sin leaves a stain, a spot, a filth that cannot be removed no matter how hard we try. Like Lady Macbeth’s “damned spot” it persists no matter how much we scrub.

The nature of the stain itself is important too. The stain of sin is its mark of guilt and shame that can enslave us. We are truly guilty for our sin and that guilt creates a separation between us and the God of the universe. We also have a sense of shame, an internalization of the effects of sin. Guilt stems from what we do; shame stems from who we think we are. The two go together because who we are and what we do often go together. What I do derives from who I truly am, particularly who I truly am in relation to God. The weight of this stain, however, can be crippling. Justin and Lindsay Holcomb describe the effects of shame in all its disturbing detail, they write:

Jean-Paul Sartre accurately describes shame as “a hemorrhage of the soul” that is a painful, unexpected, and disorienting experience. Shame has the power to take our breath away and smother us with condemnation, rejection, and disgust. Shame is a painfully confusing experience – a sort of mental and emotional disintegration that makes us acutely aware of our inadequacies, shortcomings, and is often associated with a shrinking feeling of failure. Shame can be simultaneously self-negating and self-absorbed: “All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face.” What emerges from the core destructive perceptions of self are relational fears of rejection: “Shamed people feel exposed. Although shame doesn’t necessarily involve an actual observing audience that is present to witness one’s shortcomings, there is often the imagery of how one’s destructive self would appear to others.” Shame is utterly isolating. (Rid of My Disgrace)

The question then, for the soul tired of their shame and guilt is this: who can rescue us. The answer comes in the gospel when we understand the expiation model of the atonement.

It is not just that I choose my sin, but it is that my sin destroys me, stains me. I need cleansed and the expiation model of the atonement explores the beauty of Christ’s death for our cleansing. God set up from the very beginning with His people of Israel a process of cleansing them from sin. It was called the Day of Atonement. In the book of Leviticus we read:

For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins. (Leviticus 16:30)

The Day of Atonement was given to offer to Israel a cleansing from the stain of their sins, yet it could not perfectly fulfill that desire. The author of Hebrews explains:

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:11-14)

It is by means of Christ’s death on the cross that the stain of our guilt and shame are ultimately taken away. We are purified, cleansed, and washed there! This is a doctrine we desperately need to hear and understand in the church. Christ doesn’t just forgive our sins and take our punishment, he washes away all the guilt and shame we have earned for that sin. The truth is that while many Christians grasp the former truth the do not live in light of the latter. The expiation model of the atonement can help us better serve one another.

In my counseling I often meet people who struggle with the reality that they have truly been made clean from past sins. The harbor shame and guilt for years for things that they have done wrong. They allow others to hold those past sins over their head, and they allow Satan to haunt them with the ghosts their evil deeds. They are identified by the shame they once bore for their wickedness. The gospel, however, says that they don’t have to be. Like a person who has lost an arm but still feels an itch where that arm used to be, so many people have a phantom guilt and phantom shame. The guilt and the shame have been removed from them by the death of Christ, but they still feel its itch. The expiation model of the atonement, when embraced and celebrated, can bring great relief to struggling Christians. While I firmly support and believe in the importance of PSA, if we only ever talk about the doctrine of the atonement from that perspective we will miss out on great truths that bring great encouragement to us as believers. Love and celebrate the doctrine of expiation, it is a freeing doctrine.

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