The Importance of Old Testament Ideas of Sacrifice in a Christian Understanding of Atonement

This is an article I wrote for a seminary class on Christology and Atonement, which I have found to be particularly relevant in many discussions – especially the part towards the end about “expiation” vs. “propitiation”.
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The Christian doctrine of atonement is an attempt to achieve an understanding of the event of the crucifixion of Christ and the benefits of Christ gained for believers by his death. Atonement theories deal with the question of how an historical even in a specific place and time – the crucifixion of Jesus Christ – can somehow constitute universal saving power in perpetuity, as the New Testament claims that it does (1 Jn 2:2, Heb. 10:10-14). Unarguably, it is from the sacrificial system of ancient Israel that we have inherited the framework and terminology of the Christian idea of atonement. A consideration, therefore, of the Old Testament ideas of sacrifice gives insight into and shapes our view of what was accomplished through the crucifixion.

The Christian claim from scripture and tradition is that Christ’s action constituted God’s gift of salvation, and was not merely illustrative of it. Gunton points out that sacrifice is the primary New Testament metaphor regarding the crucifixion. The early church interpreted Jesus’ death in sacrificial terms, which developed out of a context of the temple cult. It is important to remember that the setting in which Jesus and the early Christians lived was one in which the Old Testament sacrifices were still being offered; in fact, these sacrifices were being offered during practically the whole period of the composition of the New Testament. The antecedents of New Testament ideas of atonement are found in the Old Testament sacrificial system. The book of Leviticus, therefore, gives some of the clearest insights into biblical religion and is fundamental to the New Testament’s understanding of atonement.

In the Old Testament, sacrifice is the divinely appointed way of securing atonement, and the need for atonement exists because humankind is estranged from God by sin, hence the need for reconciliation or ‘at-one-ment’ between humans and God. An important understanding in the Old Testament is the distinction between the holy and the common, the clean and the unclean. One of the duties of the priest was to distinguish between these (Lev. 10:10). Cleanness in the Old Testament understanding has little to do with hygiene; it has to do with imperfection, a distortion of existence. Examples of what would make someone unclean were things like contact with a dead body, a bodily excretion, and committing acts of sin or lawbreaking – either intentionally or unintentionally. God is the super-holy and should anyone unclean come near God, they are liable to be destroyed. Sacrifice was God’s way of removing human uncleanness, so that people could be restored to fellowship with God.

Leviticus lists five main sacrifices: the burnt offering, the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering and the guilt offering. Each of these, besides the grain offering, included the shedding of the blood of animals. Each was a sacrifice in the metaphorical sense, in that they were of significant cost to the person who presented the sacrifice, which drives home the idea that atonement has a high price and sin is never to be taken lightly. The sin offering and the guilt offering were for the purpose of atonement for committed sins. The sin offering was particularly focused on purification, whereas the guilt offering carried more of the metaphor of compensation for wrongdoing.

In each of the animal sacrifices, the blood of the animal is shed, and the animal dies. Thus, it is clear that in the Old Testament it was recognised that death was the penalty for sin (Ezek. 18:20), but that God graciously permitted the death of a sacrificial victim to substitute or ransom for the death of the unclean person. Herein we have the basis for the substitutional and representative death of Jesus as a sacrifice on behalf of humankind. This same understanding of substitutional sacrificial death which results in atonement can be found elsewhere in the Old Testament, e.g. in Ex. 32, where Moses seeks to make atonement for the sin of the people by asking God to blot him out of the book which he has written. However, in the Old Testament sacrifices, it is not the death of the animal which is the climax of the rite, but rather what is done with its blood. The blood of the sin offering acts as a spiritual cleanser. Jesus’ blood is also spoken of as that which cleanses from sin, e.g. 1 Jn 1:7. In the Old Testament sacrificial system, the sacrificed creature was required to be unblemished, representing perfection, hence the importance in the New Testament that Jesus was without sin (2 Cor. 5:21, Heb. 4:15, 7:26, 9:14, 1 Pet. 2:22, 1 Jn 3:5); otherwise he would not have been qualified to be an atoning sacrifice.

God says in Leviticus 17:11 of the atoning blood ‘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 this we learn that although human estrangement from God is because of human shortcomings, God took the initiative to provided the means for atonement. This idea carried into the New Testament view of atonement, in which, once again, God is the one who provides the means for our atonement by sending Jesus to be our atoning sacrifice.

Furthermore, the greatest day in the Old Testament calendar was the Day of Atonement, which was so significant that it became simply referred to as ‘the Day’. On this day, special sin offerings were made by the high priest for himself and for the whole nation. One of the elements of the Day of Atonement was the scapegoat ceremony in which the high priest laid his hands on the goat and confessed all the sins of the people, thereby symbolising the transferring of the nation’s sins onto the goat. Herein we have the basis for the understanding of making atonement for a large group of people at one time, rather than only for individuals, as well as the idea of transference of sin and guilt onto an innocent party – both of which are central to the Christian concept of atonement, in which our sins are transferred onto Jesus, and he who knew no sin becomes sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21, Is. 53:6, Jn 1:29, 1 Pet. 2:24).

The importance of Old Testament ideas of sacrifice in the Christian account of atonement are perhaps nowhere more greatly pronounced than in the letter to the Hebrews, which David Ford calls ‘the most fully developed theology of the death of Jesus in the New Testament’. The great concern of the letter to the Hebrews is to show that the Old Testament sacrifices were inadequate except as types, which foreshadowed and pointed to Christ. This is proven by the fact that they cannot provide entrance into the holy of holies, nor free the conscience from guilt. Rather than remedies for sin, they are reminders of sin, imposed until a time of reformation. (Heb. 9:6-10, 10:3), which has now come in Christ, who was the true and final sacrifice, after which no more sacrifices for atonement are needed (Heb. 10:11-14).

Furthermore, according to Hebrews, Jesus is not only the atoning sacrifice, but he is also the fulfilment of the high priest, who enters heaven (the reality of which the holy of holies was merely a representation), not with the blood of bulls and goats, but with his own blood. (Heb. 9:23-26). Thus, Jesus’ death is not simply seen as having been the result of wicked men rising up against him and overcoming him because he was not able to resist them, but as an intentional sacrifice, which Jesus came to present, in order to make atonement for humankind (Mk 10:45).

However, it is not only the letter to the Hebrews which reflects this understanding of Jesus’ crucifixion as being an atoning sacrifice. References to atoning sacrifice, which use the language and imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system are found throughout the New Testament. He is spoken of as the true passover lamb (1 Cor. 5:6-8) and as a sin offering (Rom. 8:3). Jesus spoke of his blood as the blood of the covenant which was poured out for the forgiveness of many (Matt. 26:28).

Historically, Christian accounts of atonement have been culturally mediated, deriving from their socio-political contexts, and reflective of prevailing philosophical ideas. In this sense, it is understandable why Christianity, born in a Jewish context, would have drawn so heavily on Old Testament ideas and imagery of sacrifice. In modern times, the idea of a sacrificial cult in which blood has to be shed in order for forgiveness of sins to take place is generally considered crude, primitive and unsophisticated, and it has been suggested that Christians should take on different views of the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, for example an exemplarist view, in which we learn from Christ the virtue of self-sacrifice, and are moved by his act of self-sacrifice to repentance and faith and are motivated to live a life of holiness. Wellhausen’s moral evolution account has contributed to this line of thinking, in which he claimed to see a critique of cultic practices present in the prophets. However, since most of the prophets were also priests, they were involved with sacrifice and were rather criticising the practice of making offerings in the wrong spirit rather than critiquing the cultic practice of sacrifice itself. Another modern emphasis on sacrifice is that it be understood metaphorically in terms of a ‘gift’. Fiddes points out that this is a slippage form the ancient use of the term which formed the context for early Christian reflection on the death of Christ. Even in Old Testament times, there was precedent, e.g. in the Psalms, to speak of sacrifice in metaphorical terms (‘spiritual sacrifice’), but this was not a substitution of the literal animal sacrifices. In fact, early Christians drew on both the spiritual sacrifices and the literal sacrifices to provide a backdrop and meaning for the death of Jesus.

During the Reformation, one of the theories of atonement which became popular was that of penal substitution; that the law of God demanded punishment from those who breached it and that God, as a strategy of love, effectively propitiated himself in Christ, satisfying the demands of his own justice. The attraction of this theory has been that it does appear to explain how the death of Christ is a final and decisive event, and after his death the anger or truth of God needs not be propitiated again. However, the shortcoming of this theory of atonement is that when we consider the Old Testament sacrificial system, what we find is that atonement is centred around cleansing the unclean person from that which makes them unclean, rather than about dealing with the reaction of God against sin. If we are to claim that the Old Testament sacrificial system is the basis for the Christian understanding of atonement, then we must recognise that the Old Testament sacrificial system was not focused on dealing with God’s reaction to sin, but with removing sin and making the unclean clean. Fiddes contends that when Romans 3:25 says that Jesus was ‘propitiation by his blood’, that the word translated propitiation (‘hilasterion’) should rather be understood as ‘expiation’ (‘to wipe away’), because God is always the subject of the process of atonement, never the object. Although the word ‘hilasterion’ means ‘propitiation’ when it is used in other texts of the period, Fiddes claims that when the New Testament writers use it they are intentionally changing its meaning to mean expiation, which is what the Old Testament atoning sacrifices describe. Certainly the Bible does depict God being angry against sin (e.g. Rom. 1:18). But even though God does feel anger and wrath towards sin, when he acts to make atonement he is not acting to satisfy his anger, but to remove sin. Those who refuse to appropriate this atonement will remain unclean and estranged from God.

It is clear that the writers of the New Testament drew heavily on the imagery of the Old Testament sacrificial system in regard to the significance of the life and death of Jesus. This imagery was not only used by the writer to the Hebrews, but is also found in the writings of Paul, Peter, John and the writers of the Gospels, who give us examples of Jesus speaking in such terms about himself. If then the Old Testament sacrifices are the basis of our Christian account of atonement, we can gain insight into what the crucifixion of Christ did and did not mean when we consider the purposes and effects of the Old Testament sacrifices.

Beckwith, R.T., ‘Sacrifice and Offering’ , in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn, ed. by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 1035-1044
Carter, D., THY303 Christology and Atonement in Historical Perspective (Cheltenham: University of Gloucestershire, 2012)
Currid, J., K. Nobuyoshi and J.A. Sklar, ‘Leviticus’, in ESV Study Bible, ed. by L.T. Dennis, W. Grudem, J.I. Packer, C.J. Collins, T.R. Schreiner and J. Taylor (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2008), pp. 211-256
Fiddes, P.S., Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989)
Gunton, C.E., The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989)
Goldingay, J., ‘Old Testament Sacrifice and the Death of Christ’ in John Goldingay, (ed.) Atonement Today, a Symposium at St. John’s College, Nottingham (London: SPCK, 1995), pp. 3-20
Marshall, I.H., A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996)
McGrath, A.E., Christian Theology: An Introduction, 4th edn (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007)
Morris, L.L., ‘Atonement’, in New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn, ed. by I.H. Marshall, A.R. Millard, J.I. Packer, and D.J. Wiseman, eds, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd edn (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 102-104
Morris, L.L., “Theories of the Atonement”, Monergism <; [28/06/13]
Wenham, G.J., The Pentateuch, Exploring the Old Testament: Volume 1 (London: SPCK, 2003)

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Old Testament Ideas of Sacrifice in a Christian Understanding of Atonement

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  2. Some interesting ideas but you tragically reject penal substitution. I uderstand the goal of atonement is removal of sin, but to deny the wrath of God on evildoers and His simultaneous love leading to redemption waters down the significance of the Lamb of God’s sacrifical death.

    1. Clark, let me be clear: I do not reject penal substitution.
      Here’s an excerpt from the above article:
      “In each of the animal sacrifices, the blood of the animal is shed, and the animal dies. Thus, it is clear that in the Old Testament it was recognised that death was the penalty for sin (Ezek. 18:20), but that God graciously permitted the death of a sacrificial victim to substitute or ransom for the death of the unclean person. Herein we have the basis for the substitutional and representative death of Jesus as a sacrifice on behalf of humankind.”
      Notice what I said: Death = penalty for sin. Penalty – Penal. Then I say in the same sentence: substitute. Substitute – Substitution. Do you see it now? Penal Substitution. Right there in my article.
      So please don’t accuse me of “tragically rejecting penal substitution.”
      Obviously passages such as Romans 1 refer to the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who by by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. I in no way deny that or minimize it.
      In this article however, my primary focus is to bring out the role of expiation in the OT sacrificial system. This does not negate penal substitution. Have a nice day.

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