The Concept of Propitiatory Sacrifice

Written By:  Bob Brinsmead

The concept of propitiatory sacrifice, of the Christ dying for our sins, was first put forward by St. Paul. It is not correct to say it did not appear until centuries later. The idea is clearly there in Galatians and Romans. “For God designed him to be the means of expiating sin by his sacrificial death…” Romans 3:24.  C’com, And again, “Christ died for our sins according to the scripture?  i Cor. 15:3; i John:  “He is the propitiation (atonement) for our sins…”   Yes, the idea of the just dying for the unjust is clearly there.  And what about the whole line of reasoning in the Book of Hebrews that Jesus is the sacrifice to which all the animal sacrifices of the OT era pointed – plus references to the story of Abraham offering up his son which prefigured God offering up his son.

What is not spelled out in the NT is a legal kind of rationale or theory of atonement – that was the part that was worked on for centuries, with some of the standout names being Tertullian, Anselm and Calvin.  It is to be noted that most of the great theologians of the church had a legal background of some kind.  There has been no advancement in the theory of atonement since the substitutionary theory was articulated with great clarity and logic by John Calvin.

It is intriguing to note that there is no atonement theology in the writer who contributed the largest body of NT material – and that is, the author of Luke and Acts. In this autho,r salvation is not predicated on the death of Jesus as some kind of sacrifice for our sins.  You don’t read anything of this in the book of Acts which records(or purports to record) some of the earliest Christian preaching, such as Peter on the day of Pentecost and Paul on Mars Hill etc.

The NT focus on the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin.  It arose largely because the early Christians were hard pressed to present some kind of apology for the death of their Messiah.  Although it has recently been proved that it was not entirely original, the crucifixion was still a scandal that demanded explanation. The early Christians tried too hard to explain the scandalous anomaly.  It was as bad or as hard as it would be for us trying to make a hero/spiritual leader out of someone who died as a drunk in a brothel.  The humiliating end of the little Jesus movement by the crucifixion of the leader was as humiliating and as shameful as this!  But the explanation they came up with has been shown not to be entirely original.  The idea of a dreadful martydom being an expiation for Israel’s sin was expressed by those who suffered under Antiochus Epiphanes 200 years before.  It was expressed again by a Judah character about 30 BCE and another Messiah figure who was slaughtered by the Romans some years before Jesus.

There are a number of arguments that can be marshalled against the theory of atonement in the death of Jesus.  One of the most powerful is the teaching of Jesus himself.  He stood in the tradition of the OT prophets who raised the ire of the priesthood by speaking out against the sacrificial rituals.  It is an interesting fact that Paul himself does not refer to the Damascus road experience.  Some doubt it because the author of Acts does not altogether tally with other NT material.  If it was historically genuine, then the “resurrection” appearance to Paul was not a physical encounter anything like the one reported in three of the Gospels.  Remember that in i Cor. 15 Paul does not teach the resurrection of the old flesh and blood body, but talks about a pneuma (spirit) body.  Jesus therefore did not appear to Paul in any flesh and blood body as in the Gospel appearances.

The one big argument against the atonement theory is that the whole concept legally is based in the principle of payback, making amends, making satisfaction for wrongs done, payment etc.  A God who forgives on the basis that the debt has been paid, does not really forgive at all.  You can’t find this idea of forgiveness in the Prophets.  Here God simply forgives because God is God of such compassion and generosity.  Even in Judaism, there is no teaching of forgiveness on the basis of atonement.  This is truly the archilles heal of distinctive Christian teaching.

My full paper reviewing the atonement including its history is found in my Xmas Essay 2000, Archives Section Theology,

Comment from Henry


Thank you very much for this great summary of propitiary sacrifice.  I must confess that it was the one thing that was still occasionally nagging at me while plowing under nearly everything I had learned from Lutheran Christianity. Your post has helped me to throw the final shovelful on it.  I must add that the story of Luther enjoying being able to call his loving Creator “Pa-Pa” in his last days makes me wonder if his journey finally brought him to a better consciousness that was far beyond all that he had written and preached and fought so hard for.  That simple acknowledgment pretty much says it all, and I think we can all learn from it, even if someone prefers “Ma-Ma.”

And as to Paul, in spite of leading people astray by building the foundation of Christianity, something expanded upon later by gospel writers and councils of bishops and more lawyers.  I wonder if he too finally realized that his Damascus experience was not so much about an appearance but rather an encounter with a generous, unconditional mercy, love, and acceptance.

The appearance part needed all his skill as a lawyer to explain it away by using what he knew best, the Torah and its call for a sacrifice for sin.  It must have been logical for him to assume that the appearance was only possible because the sacrifice was perfectly acceptable to God.  And so he taught that it was faith in his Christ’s atonement that negated the demands and threats of that Law.  Besides, he was probably a bit “stuck on himself” for being chosen as an Apostle, thinking of all his formal training which the others did not have and therefore were unable to deduce this connection.  I think it was this very thing that caused him to miss what the appearance was really all about – unconditional acceptance in spite of Saul’s previous behavior.  It was an important thing to overlook, but I’ll bet that he too finally grasped it during his last days.

The patience that our Creator has with us, even with those who believe they are “in the know” and have the credentials to prove it, amazes me no end!  One day, upon coming to the Light, perhaps we will all have reason to rejoice over this overwhelming scandalous Love, even more than we do here and now.  The only difference will be that some will have more reason to celebrate than others.  As Herb would probably say, “At least they knew enough to do something.”