Covenant, Cross, Justification, and Christus Victor

I was asked a question, through email, recently about N.T Wright’s view of Justification. Since I wrote a long answer, I figured I would post it as well on our blog.

N.T Wright has a great book that I though was extremely useful called The Climax of the Covenant. In this book he outlines how Jesus and the cross were the climactic event of God’s covenant with Israel. The law was there simply to point out sin (the wrong) and provide insights on how to truly bear and steward the image of God. God’s covenant with Israel, in this perspective, is not that Israel as a people, nor the law, nor sacrifices, etc., were the answer or solution to sin, only that the answer and solution to sin would come through Israel. N.T. Wright’s analogy for this was that Israel is like the bomb squad whose job is to manage the bomb until the time is right then lay it at the foot of the cross. His point was more often than not Israel believed they were also to diffuse the bomb and this is not the case. So covenantal theology that understands the covenant and how Jesus fits as the story of Israel’s climax is a core point.

The second is a more holistic understanding of sin (the wrong). For this the law court metaphor works quite well and I think brings even deeper understanding than most evangelicals allow it to. To fully understand the law court analogy we have to have the judge (God), the defendant (humanity) and the plaintiff (satan) all present. For this an analogy from The Lion, The Which and the Wardrobe is helpful. I think C.S. Lewis was onto something with how he presented this scenario.

When Edmund, representing humanity, comes into the camp Aslan takes him and speaks with him. Aslan then comes out and announces that the matter with Edmund has been settled (between Aslan and Edmund), Aslan had forgiven him. All of this without a sacrifice and without a substitution (yet)… Then the White Witch enters and says not so fast Aslan there is a matter that needs to be settled according to the law, she (the law and satan) still had a claim against Edmund. As we all know Aslan takes his place thus dealing with the claim the White Witch (satan) had on Edmund (humanity) once and for all.

This view I think is a much more biblical presentation of penal substitutionary atonement. It is penal only in the sense of the matter of the law, and substitutionary in that Jesus took our place in the matter of satan’s claim on humanity thus setting us free once and for all. But it does not present an angry God or one where we are starting off on the wrong foot with and someone needs to take the punishment to fulfill God’s wrath. It is more about settling the matter with the one who brings the claim up because of the law.

So back to the courtroom setting. Because of the scenario above, the matter has been dealt with. Satan has accepted the substitution once and for all and released his claim thus acknowledging the matter has been resolved and he will not bring it up again. There is to be no re-trial.. Satan believed that the Son of God who is the only person who can threaten his Kingdom was going to be killed (and not raised again) and was a fair trade for all of humanity.

So Justification in light of all of this is simply God finding humanity to be in the right and of no wrong doing. N.T. Wright points out what is different from most evangelical views, including those like John Piper, which is that justification is not about imputed righteousness in that we somehow become or attain righteous attributes from God. It is simply only that we are found in the right and to be not guilty (even though we still are because we still sin) God does not even acknowledge it is there, it is gone, forever, not just covered, transferred, etc. There is no longer any claim against us because of Jesus because the accuser lost the right to accuse us any more in accepting the substitution.

This, I would contend, even when reading Paul’s covenantal theology and even his understanding of sin, law, courtroom, etc., that this view is the way Paul understood all the Jewish heritage, with the amazing act of the cross and now into the Kingdom where God is becoming King through Jesus (his words) because of the resurrection (Jesus’s coronation) of the Kingdom that is inaugurated but not yet consummated.

10 thoughts on “Covenant, Cross, Justification, and Christus Victor”

  1. Kurt Willems

    Excellent! I’ve written about the CS Lewis connection in the past, but I like how you integrated NT Wright’s work into the mix. I still need to read “Climax of the Covenant.”

  2. Ruth Martin

    The whole idea of a penal, capital-punishment “doctrine” is completely absent from any of Jesus’ own teaching recorded in any of the Gospels. Also, if you carefully study the book of Hebrews, you cannot miss the repeated testimony that “the old covenant DID NOT WORK, and therefore, Jesus had to create an NEW one.” Tying yourself to the old covenant, which has been plainly labeled obsolete in the New, is a recipe for confusion, and unwarranted blame and “guilt-trips”.
    Check out the PNT word study #23, or better yet, comb through the Gospels yourself and make a list of the reasons why JESUS said he came! You might be surprised.

  3. Ben Bajarin

    Thanks Ruth, I have tried quite hard to explain the cross in a way that is nothing like PSA but for some reason people cling to it. I think the Chrisus Victor view is the most powerful.

    And yes Jesus was very clear he came to overthrow and cast out the enemy to defeat the works of the enemy. It’s all about overthrowing through sacrificial love. Now our task is to join that movement.

  4. Ruth Martin

    Less of Wright and Lewis (or any other “theologians”) and more of the New Testament would make things a lot less complicated. There is no need to “explain” the cross. It was the result of Jesus “taking on” the powers — both natural and supernatural. But HE WON, and in him, so did we. The whole courtroom deal is Old Covenant, not new. And I would seriously question whether Satan has EVER “agreed” to ANYTHING. He has no choice! He is definitively defeated — actually, in light of Hebrews 2, he is already destroyed. May we all learn to live in that reality!

  5. Ben Bajarin Post Author

    Thanks again for your comments on this matter. I am very interested in your perspective of Hebrews 2 and satan already being destroyed.

    I got the impression he was bound but not necessarily destroyed. His power destroyed, etc. But in light of the Parable of plundering the strong mans house I assumed he was bound.

    I have no strong opinion of how the end of this plays out other than current rapture theology is wrong. I don’t believe in a phased approach to the day of the lord. But other than that I have no strong opinion.

  6. Jimmy

    I believe Mrs. Martin was referring to this Bible verse, Ben:

    HEBREWS 2:14 “Therefore, since the children have shared human existence [lit., flesh and blood], he also shared with them in the same way, in order that, through death, he might (once and for all) destroy the one who has the power of death — that is, the devil –”

    It literally say Satan IS destroyed. Plus, when you’re dealing with God, if He says it, it’s as good as done…whether it happens 1 second later, 10 years later or 1000 years. Or another way to look at it is if you’re a believer in Christ Jesus, you know with certainty where you’re going when you die. YOU KNOW. It’s done dada. It’s the same with the Devil. He was destroyed the moment he defied God and was thrown out of Heaven. He may not have known it, but he was completely and utterly destroyed.

  7. Tim

    I know this thread is quite old, but as far as I can see you’ve just advocated a more nuanced version of penal substitution. I’m quite happy with this, but you seem to identify your view with Christus Victor in the comments, which is slightly misleading (though I imagine not intentionally so). I think a combination of the two views is the better way forward. Christ is victorious over sin, death, and the devil through his penal substitutionary death. Perhaps Christus Victor is the most powerful way of communicating the benefits of Christ’s vicarious death in western culture (which I doubt) but it depends on PSA in a fundamental way. I think your characterization of imputation is slightly off too. When we are justified through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us, it’s not that God ignores our sinfulness, rather he resolves the sin problem by unifying us to Christ as our federal head. On the subject of the place of God’s wrath in PSA, Thomas McCall wrote a fantastic little book on this called ‘Forsaken’. I think it addresses all of the problems you have with PSA really well. Peace, Tim.

    1. Dan Martin

      I think you’re probably right, Tim. I haven’t discussed this in a while with my friend Ben (the author of the above), but I happen to think that Wright’s position–however enlightening it is on many subjects including the Resurrection–still puts too much emphasis on the necessity of the O.T. law in the narrative arc of God’s redemption. I think rather, a great deal of the sacrificial system in the O.T. was merely God’s accommodation of a set of practices/beliefs that were so ubiquitous in the old world that God never needed or required, but was willing to accept from the people. Perhaps God did this in order to demonstrate the futility of the people’s own, invented means of approaching him.

      But already in the O.T. (particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah, but also elsewhere) God was already demonstrating — not merely foreshadowing — the futility of that system and his own lack of interest in it. That message came to its fullest fruit in the person of Jesus, of course. My own view of Christus Victor is that death was so completely embedded in people’s mind — both death of sacrifices and their/our own deaths — that God determined the only way to eradicate it was a resurrection. So the only thing “necessary” about Jesus’ death was that you can’t be raised from the dead if you aren’t first dead. In this action, Jesus was never a “substitution” for any of us; rather, he was the “first fruits” of what God intends eventually to do to all of us (1 Cor. 15:20-26, which is solidly in a Christus Victor context).

      1. Tim

        Hi Dan,
        Thanks for your quick reply. I can see where you’re coming from in terms of God accommodating to human practices in certain contexts. In fact, I think the principle of accommodation can be quite useful in the resolution of certain theological problems, but I’m not sure it should be applied so heavily to the OT sacrificial system (I side with Wright on this one). The sacrificial system as it is seems to be divinely ordained as a foreshadowing of the means of atonement. Christ didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17-20).

        But less of my views on the place of OT sacrifice. I appreciate your concern to show how death is overcome by resurrection but I don’t think that solves the fundamental problem. As far as I can see, the fundamental problem for human beings is sin, which then results in death. Getting rid of death doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, though certainly resurrection is necessary to salvation in its fullness. To take Ben’s lead in using C. S. Lewis as an example, take the end of ‘The Magicians Nephew’. The White Witch eats the apple granting her eternal life but her heart problem is still a problem and destroys the life that she will continue to have. Aslan says, “That is what happens to those who pluck and eat fruits at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The fruit is good, but they loathe it ever after.” And “…length of days with an evil heart is only length of misery and already she begins to know it. All get what they want; they do not always like it.” As far as I can see, some form of PSA is the only way to resolve the sin problem, but then I’m committed to some form of retributive justice. Tim.

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