The atonement has fallen on hard times. In a day when theological “taste” means more than truth, Jesus’ blood atonement in a substitutionary death smacks unsavoury. It’s flavoured with too many unpalatable themes: the wrath of God, punishment for sin and treason, and a gruesome crucifixion. It isn’t that atonement theology is newly distasteful; after all, eighty-five years ago H. Richard Niebuhr summated the mainstream theology of his day, saying: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without the cross” (193). Such thinking, both then and now, calls for acquiring a taste for the atonement because it’s the staple diet served up at Jesus’ table.
It seems, however, that these hard times for the atonement are only getting harder. For instance, we hear fresh rumblings for a more “productive” theology. Confessional theology, we are told, is too “reproductive” — reproducing the same old “slaughter-house” doctrines. Such static dogma needs to give way to creative approaches to the work of Jesus, productive concepts with attractive features; the kind that appeal to our tastes or, better, our prevailing anxieties, like the exploitation of the underprivileged and environmental concerns. Jesus’ death needs to address such things and with favorable outcomes, so we are told. Indeed, a modern gospel for modern man.
Yet it isn’t just theologians and their devotees declining atonement theology. Many in the Church don’t understand the meaning of the atonement either and, so, undervalue it. To such ears, especially in a culture that decries all forms of violence, a blood sacrifice for sin may sound barbaric. And to teach it to children perhaps borders on criminality. It’s little wonder why the atonement has all but disappeared from contemporary theology and modern pulpits. But since atonement is found in the epistles of Peter and Paul, and since the Holy Spirit illuminates this doctrine in the book of Hebrews, and since its ample references in the Old Testament find fulfilment in the New, and since a crucified Jesus was drained of his blood as the Passover Lamb only to manifest it in Holy Communion, then it must be recovered and boldly proclaimed as the gospel of God. Atonement is the sine qua non, an essential condition, of the gospel.
One text in which we find the atonement on the lips of Jesus is the short parable of “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector” (Luke 18:9-14). Jesus tells this parable to some people quite certain that a blood atonement was unnecessary for them because “they trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (v.9). As Philip Ryken observes, Jesus tells a story about two men, two prayers and their two destinies — one to condemnation, the other to justification.
“Two men went into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (v.10). While Jesus paints a fascinating picture of the Pharisee who, while boasting of keeping the outward law, seems oblivious to the divine standard of perfection in the inward parts, it is really the tax collector that brings the atonement into focus.
Mercy and the Atonement
Unlike the Pharisee who was given to inordinate self-love and self-justification over-against others, it was the tax collector who went home justified. Rather than counting on his own merits, he entreated God for mercy: “the tax collector stood at a distance, and would not even look up to heaven, but beat his own breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner’” (v.13).
Note the parts of the tax collector’s prayer: God, a sinner, and the mercy that came between them. It’s the notion of mercy that leads us to the atonement, and it is the atonement that provides a foundational basis for the justification of sinners.
When he prayed “God,” he meant the covenanting Creator who was awesome in holiness and righteousness. This was apparent by the tax collector’s posture – he kept distance; he refused to look up to heaven. This was because he had a proper fear of God’s holiness and his own lack of righteousness. Spatial referents come into play that lead the reader into sacrificial considerations. The Pharisee is nearer to the Temple’s altar but further away from God, the source of justifying righteousness. The tax collector, although further from the altar, stands closer to God in faith by pleading for mercy. The reason for his fear and faith was that he knew he was a sinner. The Greek uses the definite article: The tax collector believed he was the chief of sinners before God and Israel. Rather than comparing himself over-against others, as the Pharisee did, the tax collector measured himself against the perfect standard of God’s holiness, demanded by the law. Against that standard – the only one that truly matters – he knew himself to be guilty, unclean, and unrighteous. He could only appeal to God’s grace for an act of mercy.
“God’s mercy” brings us to the most striking feature of the tax collector’s plea. He says in verse 1 the equivalent of, “God, be mercy-seated to me, the sinner” (ὁ θεός, ἱλάσθητί μοι τῷ ἁμαρτωλῷ). The Greek verb here for “have mercy” is memorable — ἱλάσkομαι, and it means to propitiate or expiate, that is, to atone for sins by a blood sacrifice. In a single word, the tax collector cries to God to look upon him through the lens of Leviticus 16 and 17’s atonement narratives.
In Leviticus 16, the high priest was to make annual atonement for the sins of God’s people. He was to begin by offering a bull to atone for his own sins as well as those for his household. Then he was to take a perfect male goat and sacrifice it as a sin offering for the people of God:
[The high priest] shall kill the goat of the sin offering that is for the people and bring its blood inside the veil and do with its blood as he did with the blood of the bull, sprinkling it over the mercy seat and from the mercy seat (Lev. 16:15).
The term here for “mercy seat” also is rightly translated as “atonement cover.” The passage then continues with numerous references to the atonement.
What the tax collector recognized was that the goats represented God’s sinful people, of which he was the chief. But he also understood that, in a symbolical fashion, the sins of the people were transferred to the goat by way of divine arrangement through priestly imputation. Treasonous sins were imputed/imposed upon the animal, and with them their guilt. The animal did more than represented the people, it was a substitute for the purpose of sacrifice — a blood atonement. It was necessary to put the animal to death because once the sin of the people were transferred it had to die, for “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Sin breeds and begets death; it warrants and necessitates justice against the one who has committed high treason against the Lord of heaven and earth. Once the goat bore the sins, it succumbed to the penalty for sin, but also made a blood atonement because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22).
Sprinkling blood on the mercy seat evidenced that an atoning sacrifice had come between God and sinful man.
The tax collector saw himself immersed in the narrative of Leviticus 16, but especially the rationale of chapter 17. There God says, “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.… For the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life” (Lev. 17:11, 14). The reason blood took away guilt was that it showed that God had already carried out jis just penalty against sin — “the blood was the proof.” The priest then sprinkled that blood on the “mercy seat,” which was the golden lid atop of the Ark of the Covenant located in the Most Holy Place within the temple. It is called the mercy seat, because thereupon sat, as it were, the presence of God. Sprinkling blood on the mercy seat evidenced that an atoning sacrifice had come between God and sinful man; it literally came between God and the law beneath. To all this did the tax collector appeal.
And yet, in a sense, he didn’t. He seems to have looked past the Temple to an ultimate action of God, whereby the blood of the atonement brought completion, total satisfaction, indeed, safety for the chief of sinners like himself. The blood of bulls and goats couldn’t do it because animals are not equal to humanity, they cannot truly represent human beings any more than a cow can represent a defendant in a court of law. This is why the people were prohibited from “eating [i.e., drinking] the blood” of those sacrifices (Lev. 17:10-14). Put differently, they were not to have union with that blood. It remained distant from them, much less in them. And, so the tax collector could stand outside the Temple with its sacrificial system and, looking beyond it, appeal to God’s perfect atonement, His once-and-for-all atonement that would be, at the same time, the blood of communion by one who could represent Israel — the Messiah of God.
Expiation and Propitiation
Still, the atonement narratives in Leviticus taught that when the sacrificial blood of the substitutionary life was placed between God and sinners, then two things were accomplished. They are expressed through the essential theological terms “expiation” and “propitiation.” Expiation refers to covering sin and assuaging guilt. David speaks of expiation in Psalm 32: “Blessed is the one who sins are forgiven, whose transgressions are covered… you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Ps. 32:1, 5). Once the blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat, forgiveness was granted and no further guilt that remained: The sins of God’s people were expiated… for that year. The tax collector not only desired to have his sin covered but to be counted not guilty and, so, no longer feel and think of himself as guilty. Expiation was essential to the hope of justification. But he wasn’t just looking for it that year, he desired it to be effectual over the course of his lifetime.
Then there’s propitiation — the turning away of God’s righteous anger. It explains what the atoning sacrifice accomplishes: wrath assuaged. Divine wrath is not a violent emotion, the passion of a hothead. As a divine attribute, it’s a holy and righteous indignation to the opposition to his rule and being. God’s wrath explains why the high priest only came into God’s presence with the blood of the sacrifice. But once atonement was made, then sin was expiated, and God was propitiated. Yet all of it was without finality. There was an “only insofar as” limitation to those sacrifices of old. Daily as well as annual sacrifices needed to be made until God cut a new covenant in blood and dealt with sin once-for-all and, significantly, provided the righteousness necessary for justification. Such righteousness could be found in the blood of the righteous one, “for the life is in the blood.”
The blood of the atonement would wash sinners into the new covenant, clothe them, and cleanse them.
The tax collector, not entering the Temple but standing outside, appeals to God by way of the grander narrative of His grace, reaching back to a time when the Creator made a sacrifice in Eden and clothed our first parents in the promissory but bloody garments of God, an event replicated when Moses sprinkled the Israelites with the blood of the covenant (Ex. 24:8), putting them under the blood. The tax collector trusted that God himself would be present in a man who would be the representing Davidic king and mediating Melchizedek priest, providing the blood of the atonement as a substitutionary sacrifice that would cover not only the altar (the cross) but also clothe the people of God (baptism). The blood of the atonement would wash sinners into the new covenant, clothe them, and cleanse them. They would be baptized in the blood (Gal. 3:27).
Here is the remarkable point of Luke 18:9-14: This is what Jesus’ character of the tax collector was praying for when he said: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” He solicits mercy in light of a sacrifice of expiation that would be at the same time a propitiation. He pleas for that to be between God’s wrath and his guilt. To put it more accurately, he begged for God to be—somehow beyond the temporary measures of temple sacrifices—mercy-seated toward him with finality by mercy-seating himself as Messiah, that is, by providing his own atonement sacrifice and, further, being washed by that blood and drinking it. It was his only hope of being justified. Only in the blood of God-in-Messiah could there be the eternal life (John 6:54; Acts 28:20), for the eternal life is in the blood.
An Ultimate Engagement with Sin
Among other things, in this parable, Jesus directs his auditors, including us, not to the sacrifices of the temple but to align ourselves with the tax collector to gaze beyond the temple altar to the promise-making, promise-keeping God who foreshadowed an ultimate engagement with sin when the Lord God passed through the bloody pieces divided by Abraham (Genesis 15). We are to align ourselves with the one who has faith in God-in-Messiah to achieve the atonement with which we may have our union, that is, communion in the blood. Christ’s life is in the blood, this is to say, the eternal life is in his blood, and he gives it on the altar of the holy cross to make atonement for our souls. That blood or, plainly, the flesh and blood of Jesus is in Holy Baptism and it constitutes the self-giving of Christ in Holy Communion. Through Immanuel, God has dealt decisively and finally with sin by mercy-seating himself amid a blood atonement, and, at the same time as king, facilitates representative righteousness by fulfilling all the law through obedience, obedience that led to even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). In Jesus’ account of the gospel, the tax collector’s faith toward God-in-Christ’s act of mercy sent the man home justified.
Jesus tells this parable is so that we might know that God is mercy-seated toward us through his crucifixion. His death was our substitute. His cross is our mercy-seat. And Jesus’ use of ἱλάσθητί even may have intended a graphic correlation. The Romans occasionally used a sedile, a small plank or post on which the crucified could pause while suffocating in the exhaled position. It was meant to prolong the agony of death. The Shroud of Turin, for example, evidences that crosses, if not the very cross of Christ, had a sedile. Significantly, a sedile was also euphemistically called a “mercy seat.”
Jesus tells this parable is so that we might know that God is mercy-seated toward us through his crucifixion.
Whether the cross of Golgotha bore a sedile or not, the tree of crucifixion is the mercy seat of God — our expiation and God’s propitiation. And now, through the “Sacrament of the Altar,” the blood of the atonement manifests for us so that we may have our communion with the sacrificed Lamb (1 Cor. 10:16). This is why the New Testament so often describes the death of the Messiah as a sacrifice, and why he ever appears before the throne of God as “the Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Rev. 5:6). The New Covenant wants us to understand his atonement in light of the sacrificial system of the Old. The Father, out of his great love for us, transfers—imputes—our sin and guilt onto Jesus his Son, so that he becomes sin and a curse for us, a curse of judgment who was nailed to a tree – so that we go home to God justified, having been washed in his righteous blood. When we say that Jesus’ sacrifice saves us, we mean that his death accomplished exactly what the mercy seat accomplished and so much more as the once-for-all blood atonement.
Indeed, the atonement is an acquired taste. Acquisition of it comes by way of owning the gospel in all of its assertions. While many today may be tempted to emphasize that Jesus’ death was representative of perfect obedient love for us to the Father, even to the demands of the cross, nevertheless, while that secures the active righteousness of Jesus on our behalf, a substitutionary blood atonement was required to remove sin and immerse us in the life of Christ. You cannot have one without the other. A half-baked gospel of representation turns out to be no gospel at all. Instead, “the whole counsel of God” includes both a bath and meal in Jesus’ blood by way of atonement.