Whenever someone says the Old Testament points forward to Christ, I always want to dig into that a little bit to find out what they mean. As I pay more attention to this claim, it very often means that the Old Testament points forward to the penal substitutionary theory of the Atonement. In other words, everything in the Bible is basically about the problem of individual sins and how God is going to deal with it.
Sure, I think there are issues with this theory as a standalone or even primary view of the Atonement, but that’s not really what’s on my mind.
The question I have is: is dealing with individual sin the primary concern of the Bible and is it the primary defining characteristic of Israel’s history, the advent of Jesus, and the experience of the New Testament church?
On the one hand, I want to affirm that dealing with sin is certainly a big issue. By no means am I trying to say that it’s not important or that the theme only shows up in a handful of passages.
But what I am thinking is that dealing with individual sins is a small part of a much larger picture that is more definitive of the Bible’s central concerns and Jesus’ ministry – that being the advance of the New Creation and God’s plan of filling a good world with His image.
I think we see this reflected in many ways.
For example, in the Mishneh Torah, the rabbis identify 613 commandments in the Torah. Out of that number, 101 deal with sacrifices – and that’s all the sacrifices. A much smaller portion deal with sin offerings (http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm).
And so, what we see is that the Law has a concern about dealing with sin, but it’s a fraction of the Torah’s vision of the life of the people of God. The Torah defines a new world and a new identity for Israel. Dealing with sin is necessary for that world, but it does not wholly define that world.
As we look to the Old Testament prophets that call Israel (as a nation) to repentance to change her practices (as a nation) to conform with YHWH’s desires, we always find this in a larger context of God delivering her from her enemies to restore her as a people so that she might be what God had always intended her to be – a holy community who brings blessing and light to the nations. It is repentance and forgiveness for a larger purpose in the world in concrete history, not an end unto itself, and certainly not to escape Hell.
When we look at Jesus’ ministry, we see the same thing. If Jesus were primarily meant to be a payment for sin, that could have happened at any point. Jesus could have been killed as a child. He could have even killed himself on the Temple altar in a fit of typology. But, instead, he spent time proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom and actually implementing it, creating a growing sphere around him of the new world God wanted. When he was killed, he was executed as an insurrectionist by the Roman Empire using their version of capital punishment. Because his conflict wasn’t merely with sin, but with an entire, Satanically-ruled world system. He was a casualty in that war, although he certainly didn’t stay that way.
There’s a sense in which our individual sins did not put Jesus on the cross, but the world we helped to create did.
Sin does get a lot of air time in the New Testament, but once again, it’s in the context of building a certain kind of community. Gentiles are sinners. So are Jews, but some don’t think so. You have to deal with that if they’re going to be the people of God, together. You have to deal with how people can be justified apart from the Law. You have to deal with lifestyles established before coming to Christ. You have to deal with a sinful Empire full of excesses and joys for people who will join it and full of suffering for those who don’t. And, yes, you have to deal with the daily, gritty ups and downs of people trying to make their way together in a new calling for which many of them are ill-prepared. Paul looks over a congregation of Gentiles who just got back from a Roman orgy and thinks, “This is the future of the people of God in the world. We’ve got a lot of work to do.” So, you have to talk a lot about sin.
And sin is a reality that affects us all, individually and corporately. And if you have the Spirit, your sins trouble you, possibly more than anything else in life. And well they should, as long as you use them as opportunities to repent and do better next time and don’t wallow and self-flagellate in them.
But as we think about Jesus, what our Christian life together looks like, what our message is, and where we spend our theological capital, I can’t help but think forgiveness of sins is only a piece of proclaiming the kingdom and the coming of a new world and what that could mean for this present world. An important piece, but part of a much larger and holistic project.