In the classic How to Read a Book it is said that to improve one’s knowledge of any subject, exposure to books that are intellectually challenging is necessary. This makes sense because substantive growth in any discipline requires a reach beyond one’s capabilities. Jonathan Rutledge‘s book Forgiveness and Atonement is that book for me. On the analytical front it did not disappoint. The layers are many, his arguments thick, and it required dedicated, single-minded focus in every chapter.

For example, varied models of forgiveness are compared (instrumental versus intrinsic), conditions for forgiveness highlighted, and similarities and differences between human and divine forgiveness are on offer. In addition, the problem of sin and the resulting state of guilt is given considerable space. Before deciding which atonement theory best fits the application of forgiveness, Rutledge is careful to distinguish between retributive and restorative views of justice. Axiological retributivism and deontological retributivism over and against non-retributive models are skillfully unpacked in relation to justice. Along with detailing criteria for what constitutes punishment, an analysis of substitution and group agency ontology is helpfully expounded. The well-rehearsed problems between penal theories of atonement and divine justice are evaluated and critiqued, along with some trenchant and (to my mind) keen reservations about Bill Craig’s work on atonement.

Closest to his own theory of atonement is a non-retributive penal substitutionary theory, labeled “communal penal substitution” with a restorative twist, which I find compelling (riffing off Joshua Thurrow’s most excellent paper, “Communal Substitionary Atonement“). To explain this view, Rutledge invites readers into a thought experiment that should not be unfamiliar to most who follow the Christian narrative.

Suppose all humans have sinned, such that they are individually guilty of sins. Suppose further that they are all members of a unified community known as Humanity. In virtue of their sins individually and corporately, death follows as a sort of natural corruption and consequence. Even though God could intervene to prevent the members of humanity from undergoing death-i.e., something which would also result in the death of Humanity once its members had all died-he instead appropriates these natural consequences of sin as a punishment for Humanity. Why does he do this? Well, he does it because death imposes a limit upon existence; that is, a limit which increases the likelihood that members of Humanity will pursue their own flourishing. After this initial pedagogical punishment has been understood for some time, however, God the Son takes on flesh as the divine-human person Jesus. As fully human, Jesus is a member of Humanity, and in virtue of his perfect life, he accrues a rightful representative status within Humanity; that is, he embodies a version of humanity as God intended it to be from the start. As a representative, God opts to punish Jesus in place of all the other members of Humanity because he knows that visiting the punishment upon one representative member will result in greater flourishing on the whole than the other punishment would have. Thus, Christ serves as a substitute bearer of our punishment as our representative. But importantly, when Christ is punished, Humanity is punished as well (i.e., even if its members are not individually punished). And thus, for those who choose to accept Christ’s status as their representative, they participate in Christ’s punishment since they thereby exclaim that through Christ and with Christ, they will become a new Humanity no longer involved in the ways of sin but committed to a life of cruciform living. (p 152)

This scenario provides elements that are necessary for a wholistic view of an atonement theory. Rutledge explains:

“It contains within it clear instances of substitution, representation, and participation. But it also contains a clear understanding of death as a punishment for sins along the lines of appropriated natural consequences. Moreover, the reason given for adopting the natural consequences of sin as a punishment are grounded in the goal of flourishing: namely, a restorative rationale” (p 153).

Still, the communal penal substitution model falls short of Rutledge’s own theory of atonement, since it does not adequately take into account the notion of sacrifice. The last two chapters are dedicated to detailing his position. While his view is far more nuanced and complex than I can capture here, some highlights are provided which I hope will pique reader interest.

First, “a sacrificial explanation of the atonement grounded in the Hebraic sacrificial system” is key (p 177, emphasis original). The yom kippur sacrificial system is mapped onto the problem of sin showing the importance of Christ’s life in addition to his death. Of course the death of Christ is also part of the sacrificial system or the yom kippur motif. The book of Hebrews makes this clear (Heb 9:11-12). However, since Humanity fails to carry out the divine vocation of reflecting God’s glory to creation and also back to God (the problem of sin; cf., Rom 3:23), then a life lived that is representative of all Humanity and perfectly succeeds in carrying out that divine vocation is required. Therefore, the whole of Christ’s life (in its consummate resurrected state) should also be viewed sacrificially. Answering, “Why did Christ have to die?” Rutledge states:

His death was the first part of a sacrificial, ritual process that culminated with the resurrected Christ ascending to the heavenly temple…and offering his perfectly lived human life as a sacrifice for Humanity and its members’ original sin. (p 187, emphasis mine)

Second, the cross of Christ and God’s covenant are connected by Passover (which, incidentally but importantly, predates yom kippur. Cf., Ex 12; Leviticus 16). In the New Testament John 1:29 declares that Christ is the “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Rutledge makes some astute observations that are noteworthy.

If one understands [John 1:29] to indicate that Jesus is sacrificed as a lamb for sin, then we run into a difficulty. Among the explicitly permissible animal sacrifices for a sin-offering … in Leviticus, the lamb is never mentioned. Indeed, if we take yom kippur as our relevant context, then the animal that takes away the sin of Israel is not a lamb, but rather, a goat. But not only is the lamb the wrong type of animal to cite in the context of yom kippur, the goat that takes away Israel’s sin is not sacrificed either. He is taken out of the camp and led into the wilderness. Thus, understanding [John 1:29] as indicating that Jesus is a sin sacrifice in the form of a lamb that takes away sin proves a bit difficult. On the other hand, if one understands [John 1:29] to equate Jesus with a Paschal lamb, further difficulties arise, for in the Passover, the lamb which was slaughtered by the Hebrews did not serve as a sacrifice or covering for sin. Rather, it served as a sign to ward off the angel of death through identification with Yahweh. (p 188, emphasis original)

What Rutledge cautiously concludes is that John 1:29 is rich theologically in “mixing metaphors” that link together multiple aspects of atonement and converge to harmonize “the inclusion of motifs from both Passover and a yom kippur scapegoat” (p 188).

He next illustrates why the reference in John 1 is aligned with the Passover lamb of Exodus 12. In Exodus 12 “the choice of the lamb for slaughter in the Passover was not coincidental, but rather, it was intentional,” since “the Egyptians were well-known as worshippers of the lamb (among other animals).” Thus, as a “prominent symbol of Egyptian political power and authority,” the slaughter of the lamb by the Israelites was used to undermine Egypt and secure Israel’s allegiance to Yahweh (pp 188-189). Similarly with the symbol of the cross. Rutledge ties together specific elements of both the old and the new covenants concluding:

We can see that, just as the original Passover freed Israel from Egypt and the hands of the angel of death, giving birth to the covenant between Israel and Yahweh, so too Jesus’ Passover proclaimed God’s sovereignty over Roman rule, and more importantly, death, which initiated a chain of events culminating in the new covenant and giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. (p 189)

In connecting forgiveness with the scapegoat, Rutledge notes that it is a vivid illustration of the “reality that Yahweh would no longer count Israel’s sins against them,” thus showing the effect rather than the means of atonement (p 193; cf., also n 55, p 198, following Kaiser). The scapegoat can be viewed as an indirect parallel pointing to the reality of forgiveness offered by the cross of Christ. The guilt incurred by the offense, which serves as a barrier to union with God, is removed and, therefore, no longer part of one’s moral history (though the offense remains a part of one’s personal history). Here is how the work of Christ factors into this rubric:

Christ does not literally take upon himself our guilt and carry it away in the mode of a scapegoat; instead, the normative barrier to God’s union with us is dealt with by Christ’s ritual sacrifice. But after that normative barrier has been removed, God forgives us, and seeks union with us, because it becomes good for us to be treated in such a way by God, who chooses to love us. (p 194, emphasis original)

The final chapter completes the composition that Rutledge composes by illustrating what restoration and forgiveness looks like. I quote Rutledge at length:

How does divine forgiveness change the relationship between God and those he forgives? … First, God ceases to count Humanity and its members’ sins against them, and such a change in treatment involves immediate changes now in the relationship between God and those forgiven by him. Chief among these is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; that is, God enters into the very life of such individuals in a radically intimate way. But not only does the Holy Spirit come to indwell Humanity and its members, the Holy Spirit also bestows upon us grace on occasions that allow us to cultivate virtues and ultimately flourish. Thus, divine forgiveness and the relationship that comes into being with it between us and God is one that deals directly, and ultimately, with the characterological and internal consequences of our sinful actions. And while such change remains incremental and slow, as in the experiences of all of us I presume, it is ordered eschatologically towards the reception by all of us of a glorified and incorruptible body like unto Christ’s. (p 203, emphasis original)

There is more. Much more. But I must conclude this protracted post by pointing out something that I’ve written on previously, namely, whether repentance is a necessary condition before forgiveness is granted. My reading of Rutledge indicates he would agree that it is necessary. Making use of the distinction between one’s personal history and moral history (previously mentioned), he eloquently states that the reason for requiring repentance

is not some sort of worry about retributive justice so much as a desire to treat the wrongdoer in a way that is consistent with loving the wrongdoer: namely, by treating them in a way that is most likely to bring about their ultimate good or flourishing. Thus, if I love my enemy, then I am willing to forgive them, and I will endeavor to bring them to the point of repentance, at which point forgiveness becomes good for them. Thus, once forgiveness comes about, the problem of one’s relationship to one’s past sins is dealt with by properly treating them not as part of one’s moral history, but as a part of one’s personal history. (p 206, emphasis original)

I find this not only theologically rich but pastorally significant. Early on in the book, Rutledge labors to show that part of divine love entails the willingness to forgive, which I maintain is necessary for any robust and biblically faithful account of God’s nature. The above quote makes that position explicit.

As I said, there is so much more in the book than this post has captured. Forgiveness and Atonement is a sweeping and thorough treatment on crucial elements pertaining to atonement and forgiveness. And, it is truly a masterful contribution to the recent surge in discussions on atonement theory for those already familiar with this space. Not only will readers learn a great deal about atonement, but also grow in understanding of that glorious and concomitant doctrine known as forgiveness. Forgiveness and Atonement gets a hearty recommendation from me!


This video is very helpful in getting at the details around Rutledge’s views.

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