For most Christians, from professional theologians to lay women and men, the word “atonement” refers to the means by which Jesus’ death on the cross saves us and reconciles us to God. Was that death a punishment? a sacrifice? an example? a victory over powers? Some people have insisted strongly on one of these perspectives, often over and against the others. Recently, some discussions of the atonement have tended to be more generous, incorporating multiple theories, models, or images from the New Testament and Christian tradition into a more comprehensive—and therefore less precise—account of the atonement.
However, the fact that there is no theory or model of the atonement called “covenant,” “covenant-renewal,” “new-covenant,” or something very similar is, or should be, rather surprising. These terms refer, after all, to a biblical image connected to Jesus’ death—originating, it appears, with Jesus himself at his Last Supper—and the source of the term “the New Testament.” The latter fact rightly suggests, indeed, that “new covenant” is what the New Testament is all about. The neglect of the new covenant in discussions of atonement is likely due to an over-emphasis on the theological question of how Jesus’ death brings about atonement, salvation, etc.—the mechanics, so to speak. But this is not, I would submit, the focus of the New Testament. To put it a bit differently, I would suggest that most interpretations of the atonement concentrate on the penultimate rather than the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ death. This ultimate purpose is captured in texts like the following: [Mark 10:35-40; John 12:32; Rom 6:3-6; 2 Cor 5:15, 21; Titus 2:14; Rev 1:5b-6].
In texts such as these, we see that the ultimate purpose of Jesus’ death was to create a transformed people, a (new) people living out a (new) covenant relationship with God together. Moreover, this people will not simply believe in the atonement and the one who died, they will eat and drink it, they will be baptized into it/him, they will be drawn to him and into it. That is, they will so identify with the crucified savior that words like “embrace” and “participation,” more than “belief ” or even “acceptance,” best describe the proper response to this death. (Even the words “belief ” and “believe” take on this more robust sense of complete identification.) But most models of the atonement stop short of this goal, focusing on absolutely necessary but nonetheless penultimate issues, such as forgiveness of sins or liberation from evil powers. To put it even more starkly, some discussions of the atonement may be compared to arguments over which type of delivery is best in dealing with a difficult birth situation—forceps, venthouse (suction), C-section, or whatever—when the point is that each of them effects the birth of a child, each solving the problem from a slightly different angle. But it is the result (a healthy child) that is most important, and it is the child, not the delivery process, that ultimately defines the word “birth.”
(This is not meant to underestimate the value of carefully exploring the meaning of Jesus’ death from various angles, but to urge a proper ultimate focus.)
In this book, therefore, I aim in a modest way to help in correcting the problem of penultimate models of the atonement by proposing a new model that is really not new at all—the new-covenant model. (I have no connections with the developing theological movement within some parts of evangelicalism [especially Reformed Baptist circles] that calls itself “New Covenant Theology” as a via media between “Covenant Theology” and “Dispensational Theology.”) In fact, this model may legitimately lay claim to being the oldest interpretation of the atonement in the Christian tradition, going back to Jesus, the earliest churches, and the earliest Christian theologians (i.e., Paul, the evangelists, etc.). I will argue that this is not merely an ancient model in need of rediscovery, but also a more comprehensive, integrated, participatory, communal, and missional model than any of the major models in the tradition. It overcomes the inherent rift in many interpretations of the atonement between the benefits of Jesus’ death and the practices of participatory discipleship that his death both enables and demands. I contend throughout the book that in the New Testament the death of Jesus is not only the source, but also the shape, of salvation. It therefore also determines the shape of the community—the community of the new covenant—that benefits from and participates in Jesus’ saving death.
The purpose of this book, then, is not to develop some new theory about the mechanics of Jesus’ representative, sacrificial, nonviolent, and/or victorious death “for us.” There are plenty of those around, and many of them have great merit. Rather, the purpose of this book is to show some of the connections between the themes of atonement, new covenant, participation, and discipleship in the New Testament, focusing especially on the participatory practices of faithfulness, love, and peace. At first, this trio sounds like a new version of the Christian tradition’s three theological virtues of faith, love, and hope. It is, rather, the same triad articulated in a new (but not really new) way. What I will argue is that, throughout the New Testament, faith, as a practice, is about faithfulness even to the point of suffering and death; love, as a practice, has a distinctive, Christlike shape of siding with the weak and eschewing domination in favor of service; and hope, as a practice, means living peaceably (which includes nonviolently) and making peace. Thus the summary triad “faithfulness, love, and peace” is appropriate.
The surprising part of this interpretation of the theological virtues to some readers will be the notion of hope as a practice, and specifically hope as practicing peace. But a moment’s reflection on the theo-logic of this idea should reveal its inherent plausibility. The greatest form of hope in the Bible is for a new creation in which violence, suffering, tears, and death will be no more. We see this expressed in such lovely, inspiring texts as Isa 65:17–25 and Rev 21:1—22:5. Those who have this hope for a new creation and, more to the point, those who believe that this new creation has already been inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, will begin to practice its vision in the present. Accordingly, the practice of hope is the practice of peace. This sort of practice may be referred to as anticipatory participation. Such participation, however, stems not only from hope about the future (a purely proleptic participation), but also from participation in the death of Jesus that makes such hope possible by creating peace.
With this emphasis on participation, and thus transformation, I will claim that the New Testament is much more concerned about what Jesus’ death does for and to humanity than how it does it. The New Testament employs a wide range of images and metaphors to portray God’s gracious action in Christ’s death. Yet this stunning array is part of a remarkably coherent picture of his death as that which brings about the new covenant (and thus the new-covenant community) promised by the prophets, which is also the covenant of peace. Many of the traditional and more recent models of the atonement related to the New Testament’s various metaphors can be taken up into the more comprehensive model I am proposing as penultimate aspects of the ultimate purpose of Christ’s death: the birth of the new covenant. Life in this new covenant is life in the Spirit of the resurrected Lord that is shaped by the faithful, loving, peacemaking (and therefore hope-making) death of the same crucified Jesus. Of course there is no Christian hope (or reason for faithfulness and love) without the resurrection of this Jesus from the dead. At points the resurrection will emerge explicitly, but even when it does not, we will assume its reality and significance throughout the entire book.