In Scripture, death is not merely the work of demons, it is also “the wages of sin” (Rom. 6:23). Unfortunately, for many modern people, sin also sounds like an old-fashioned concept, and especially when combined with the idea of divine wrath. Surely, you might say, we’ve moved past the old notion of a vengeful God who demands blood atonement? After all, when we attend a concert or sporting event, no one begins by leading an animal to the front and slaying it for all to see (Ozzy Osbourne notwithstanding). So why does Paul link death to “sins” that deserve “wrath” (Eph. 2:1, 3)?
One answer is simple. Sin kills. It dehumanizes people, destroys creation, and defames God’s name. Sin always carries consequences—even if these repercussions are sometimes no more than the natural outcomes of our actions. Case in point: If you drink a keg of beer, you will suffer the wrath of a hangover. But that’s hardly because God is sending vindictive wrath-rays toward your forehead. In other cases, God’s wrath over sin does seem more active, personal, and forward-looking—as when Jesus threatened something worse than millstones around the necks of those who harm “little ones” (Luke 17:2). In either case, the result is clear: sin ultimately leads to death more surely than smoking to lung cancer, drunk driving to a DUI, Cheetos to orange fingers.
Still, the question remains: Why must death result from sin? If God is loving and powerful, why couldn’t he simply overlook offenses? Why doesn’t God simply forgive humanity just as a loving parent forgives their child without requiring death or blood atonement? I will return to the blood question in a later chapter. But suffice it to say that God doesn’t get his jollies by watching creatures bleed out. The link between blood and atonement has a different purpose than cosmic sadism. Scripture teaches that God bears patiently with humans, even when we deserve judgment.
The Lord is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and rich in love.
The Lord is good to all;
he has compassion on all he has made.
But love cannot ignore evil forever. Part of holy love is a zeal for justice. For example, we would all agree that to torture puppies, light a national park on fire, and abuse children ought to carry penalties. For a court to excuse these actions would not be compassionate. It would highlight a corrupt system and a complicit judge. Imagine looking at the horrific crimes of a man like Harvey Weinstein and saying something like, “Because I am merciful, I am going to let you off with a warning.” No. Love and justice are not antithetical to penalties.
So, too, with sin. If there is a problem with our modern viewpoint, it is summed up by the medieval theologian Anselm, when he remarks to a questioner, “You have not yet considered the exceeding gravity of sin.” In the Bible, sin is not just a naughty action done by individuals or the breaking of an arbitrary rule. Sin piles up to become cosmic treason and it gathers steam to become an enslaving and oppressive power at both personal and systemic levels. When this happens, “Sin” takes on a capital S.
Parts of the Christian tradition (often conservative, white evangelicals) emphasize the individual aspects to our sin-problem: things like lying, lusting, and adultery. Meanwhile, other camps (often more progressive and diverse ones) emphasize the social and systemic sides of sin: things like institutionalized racism, abusive power structures, and governments that become “beast-like” in oppressive ways (Rev. 13). In reality, sin is both personal and social. It entraps us like an unbreakable addiction or a cruel slave master.
To focus only on systemic injustice allows individuals to justify their faults while decrying institutions. Conversely, to focus only on individual sin allows the church to justify complicity in systems, companies, and political parties that become oppressive, even while we congratulate ourselves for being faithful spouses or hardworking, God-fearing citizens. Sin is both individual and systemic in its implications; hence, Scripture cares about both personal morality and corporate justice.
This is an excerpt from How Jesus Saves: Atonement for Ordinary People by Joshua McNall. In both the book and accompanying videos, McNall addresses this great Christian doctrine with simplicity without sacrificing the nuance this topic demands.
- College or Young Adult Ministry
- Small groups
- Neighborhood Bible studies
- Sunday School
In these pages you will:
- Come to understand the meaning of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection
- Engage with a book that is highly readable and written in ordinary language
- Appreciate the goodness, beauty, and truth of God vis-a-vis atonement doctrine
*Jeremy R. Treat, “Exaltation in and through Humiliation: Rethinking the States of Christ,” in Christology Ancient and Modern: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 114.