Did Athanasius Believe in Penal Substitution?
At this juncture, I want to consider specific objections to my understanding of Athanasius. Specifically, I will explore Athanasius’ use of the terms ‘debt’ and ‘satisfaction’ in De Incarnatione 9 and 20. Athanasius says:
‘For being over all, the Word of God naturally by offering His own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by His death.’
What do penal substitution supporters say about this? What did Athanasius mean by these terms? In what sense was there a ‘debt’ which needed to be paid? And to whom? Or what?
Penal substitution advocates like Jeffery, Ovey, and Sach enlist this language of ‘satisfaction’ from Athanasius. By inflicting death on human beings, was not God satisfying His own need to punish sin? And by sending Jesus to die on the cross, didn’t God exhaust that punishment? At least for some? The three authors say:
‘At one point, while alluding to the apostle John’s explanation of why Christ came into the world in John 3:17, he states that Christ (‘the Word’) accomplished our salvation by suffering the judgment due to the guilty world:
‘Formerly the world, as guilty, was under judgment from the Law; but now the Word has taken on Himself the judgment, and having suffered in the body for all, has bestowed salvation to all’ [quoting from Athanasius, Discourses Against the Arians 1, chapter 8, paragraph 60].
‘This is a straightforward statement of the doctrine of penal substitution. According to Athanasius, the whole world is guilty of failing to keep God’s law, but Christ took upon himself the judgment due to us, and suffered in our place for our salvation.’
These three authors believe that (1) Athanasius held up human ‘guilt’ as the problem God saw, (2) God both measured and called down penal judgment of death for that guilt, (3) Jesus died instead of us, taking the divine penal judgment that God would have otherwise poured out on human beings, and (4) this deflection of punishment constitutes ‘salvation.’ But if this is true, then ‘death,’ which Athanasius in that passage identifies as synonymous with the judgment, should be deflected from us. So why do human beings still die?
If you’d like to see the full quote from Athanasius, and how Jeffrey, Ovey, and Sach are misusing it rather badly, stay tuned for a future post. I’ll venture into Athanasius’ Discourses Against the Arians next.
The Debt We Owe to God
In penal substitution, God transfers the penalty and the underlying ‘debt owed’ from human beings over to Jesus, so that we as human beings no longer have to pay the debt ourselves.
But in Athanasius’ mind, each of us owes God our own death. That sounds surprising and even bizarre. Why? Is God vindictive? Does God begrudge us life? No: Because death is the necessary prerequisite for us to be rid of the corruption of sin that is in our human nature. Sin is a disease and disorder. It’s a parasite living in us. Only death could kill this thing that is killing us. In fact, even Jesus needed to die, because he took on the very same human nature we have. Then, Jesus could offer us his resurrected new humanity, which is freed from the disease of sin. This is what Athanasius says in his early work, On the Incarnation:
‘1. For the Word, perceiving that no otherwise could the corruption of men be undone save by death as a necessary condition, while it was impossible for the Word to suffer death, being immortal, and Son of the Father; to this end He takes to Himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word Who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all, and might, because of the Word which had come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible, and that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the Grace of the Resurrection. Whence, by offering unto death the body He Himself had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from any stain, straightway He put away death from all His peers by the offering of an equivalent. 2. For being over all, the Word of God naturally by offering His own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by His death. And thus He, the incorruptible Son of God, being conjoined with all by a like nature, naturally clothed all with incorruption, by the promise of the resurrection. For the actual corruption in death has no longer holding-ground against men, by reason of the Word, which by His one body has come to dwell among them. 3. And like as when a great king has entered into some large city and taken up his abode in one of the houses there, such city is at all events held worthy of high honour, nor does any enemy or bandit any longer descend upon it and subject it; but, on the contrary, it is thought entitled to all care, because of the king’s having taken up his residence in a single house there: so, too, has it been with the Monarch of all. 4. For now that He has come to our realm, and taken up his abode in one body among His peers, henceforth the whole conspiracy of the enemy against mankind is checked, and the corruption of death which before was prevailing against them is done away. For the race of men had gone to ruin, had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to meet the end of death.’
Jesus’ human body was the ‘body capable of death.’ So, what is the debt that Jesus satisfied? To die, and to do so as a human being. Jesus, too, was ‘mortal.’ Jesus had to take on a corrupted and dying human nature, and die in it.
Death as Our ‘Frenemy’: God Makes Death Do Us Good
Again, why death? God exiled human beings from the garden to prevent human beings from immortalizing the corruption of sin in themselves. This is why God considers what would happen if human beings ate from the tree of life, that ‘he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever…’ and doesn’t even complete His own sentence (Gen.3:22). He chokes on the thought.
The second century theologian Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130 – c.202 AD), who ably defended Christian faith against the gnostic heresy which asserted that Jesus did not have a truly human body, says:
‘Wherefore also He drove him out of Paradise, and removed him far from the tree of life, not because He envied him the tree of life, as some venture to assert, but because He pitied him, [and did not desire] that he should continue a sinner for ever, nor that the sin which surrounded him should be immortal, and evil interminable and irremediable. But He set a bound to his [state of] sin, by interposing death, and thus causing sin to cease, putting an end to it by the dissolution of the flesh, which should take place in the earth, so that man, ceasing at length to live to sin, and dying to it, might begin to live to God.’
The third century theologian Methodius of Olympus (died 311 AD) says the same thing:
‘In order, then, that man might not be an undying or ever-living evil, as would have been the case if sin were dominant within him, as it had sprung up in an immortal body, and was provided with immortal sustenance, God for this cause pronounced him mortal, and clothed him with mortality… For while the body still lives, before it has passed through death, sin must also live with it, as it has its roots concealed within us even though it be externally checked by the wounds inflicted by corrections and warnings… For the present we restrain its sprouts, such as evil imaginations, test any root of bitterness springing up trouble us, not suffering its leaves to unclose and open into shoots; while the Word, like an axe, cuts at its roots which grow below. But hereafter the very thought of evil will disappear.’
Gregory of Nazianzus, the younger fourth century contemporary of Athanasius, called ‘the theologian of the Trinity’ who was one of the three ‘Cappadocian fathers’ responsible for the updating of the Nicene Creed of 325 AD into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 AD which all churches use, also says:
‘Yet here too he makes a gain, namely death and the cutting off of sin, in order that evil may not be immortal. Thus, his punishment is changed into a mercy, for it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment.’
In other words, God was motivated by love for humanity. He was not retaliating. He was not ‘inventing’ a punishment which had nothing fundamentally to do with the sin itself. Death was bound up intrinsically in the fall because Adam and Eve forced God’s hand. God, who is always motivated by love for us, and our good, had to withdraw the garden from the world. He had no other option.
Athanasius knew the writings of Irenaeus, and probably Methodius as well, and these writings taken together attest to a common oral foundation in Christian teaching. This is why he recognized in On the Incarnation 8.1 that God preferred human death over immortalized sinfulness.
‘1. For the Word, perceiving that no otherwise could the corruption of men be undone save by death as a necessary condition…’
In other words, once the corruption of sin had set in to human beings, death was the only way to rid it from us.
But Not Just to Die
But Jesus didn’t just come to die. First, Jesus came to live a fully human life, and pass through its various life stages so as to succeed where humanity had failed. He had to bring human nature to a point of maturity, so he could share his mature human nature with us by his Spirit. In Discourses Against the Arians 2.66 – 67, Athanasius says Jesus came to correct the ‘imperfection’ which has set into human nature from the fall:
‘The perfect Word of God puts around Him an imperfect body, and is said to be created ‘for the works;’ that, paying the debt in our stead, he might, by Himself, perfect what was wanting to man.’
The Alexandrian theologian does not say Jesus came to ‘suffer the torture which was due man,’ as if God accepted ‘suffering’ as a currency exchange for ‘perfected human nature.’
‘Oh, you don’t want to obey Me?’ says God (in this hypothetical scenario). ‘That’s okay, because I’ll make you pay for it by suffering, and then I’ll be satisfied.’
Absolutely not: Pain does not constitute the ‘debt.’ God is not a ‘currency exchanger.’ And He does not accept two forms of ‘currency.’ God only accepts the ‘currency’ (so to speak) of obedience.
But let’s carefully understand why. God only accepts obedience, not because He is just an exacting, rigid authoritarian who is a moral perfectionist for His own peace of mind. Rather, God is our wise divine healer (Mt.9:12 – 13; Lk.5:31 – 32) who is ruthlessly against every ‘cancer cell’ in our bodies, who demands that we fully cooperate in His treatment plan by His Son and Spirit, because He wants our deepest good, even when we don’t.
Thus, Athanasius says Jesus came to ‘perfect what was wanting to man.’ By which he means: the healing of human nature. God only accepts our whole selves, saturated with His Spirit. This includes a godly death as the capstone to a godly life, which only Jesus could live out. An individual person’s death by itself, and in and of itself, is necessary but not sufficient, says Athanasius.
Debt and Debt-Forgiveness in Scripture
Okay, you might say. So Athanasius didn’t believe Jesus paid a ‘debt of suffering.’ But was Athanasius right about that? What does the Bible say?
The Old Testament background to ‘debt’ already shows God placed severe limitations on ‘debt’ as a phenomenon. Yes, it is true that you could incur a debt to someone else. You could hurt them, and therefore owe them (1) service until they are completely healed, or (2) some proportional compensation (Ex.21:18 – 19, 22 – 24, 28 – 36). You could steal from them, and therefore owe them two to five times the amount you stole, to rebuild trust (Ex.22:1 – 14). God taught the Israelites that they could incur a ‘debt to restore.’ This is part of His restorative, not retributive, justice.
This debt was serious. God forbade Israel from selling and trading debt as an impersonal commodity, because the debt was irreducibly personal between the two parties. This is why God outlawed Israelites from selling or trading indentured servants (Lev.25:42). Debts cannot become commodities, dragging us along with them to new owners.
In fact, God absolved people of debt to each other. Debts of all sizes. God absolved ordinary debts every seventh year (Dt.15:1 – 18). He absolved changes of land ownership that had occurred because of debt every fifty years (Lev.25:1 – 55). God required that able family members pay the ‘redemption price’ in two situations (Lev.25:47 – 53). This was the kinsman-redeemer (Hebrew goel) practice, which is indeed an institutional foreshadowing of Christ, and I will comment on this later. But the kinsman-redeemer operated within a role bounded by God’s overall attitude towards debt.
Significantly, even if no kinsman-redeemer was available, land was returned to the family on the jubilee year anyway (Lev.25:23 – 28), and an Israelite indentured to a foreigner as a servant would simply go free (Lev.25:54). God ordained this simply because He had delivered His people Israel out of Egyptian bondage (Lev.25:38, 42, 55; Dt.15:15). And debt of whatever sort was a kind of bondage and enslavement. Debt interfered with the Israelites’ reception of the garden land, which God wanted to re-gift to them over and over again. God saw debt as interfering with His restoration and renewal and re-gifting of His creation order. For an Israelite, forgiving debts made you like God.
God also forbade debt from having an interest rate attached to it, between Israelites (Ex.22:26 – 27; Lev.25:35 – 38, Dt.23:19). In God’s view, there is no reason why lending money (especially to a poor person) should make more money for you. Why should you profit from someone else’s misfortune? Interest rate lending insults God’s vision of relationship. The enormous practical impact was that interest-rate lending, which was the leading cause of slavery in the ancient world, and possibly the modern one, too, was abolished in Israel. The brilliant theoretical impact was that God outlawed the possibility that an Israelite would have to pay an infinite debt.
This quick glance at the Old Testament shows that God recognized the reality of debt as a category of bondage, but did not place primary emphasis on specific amounts. In the end, debt was a foreign power to be overthrown. Debt was not a legitimate power that needed to be ‘satisfied.’ And debt could not become infinite.
Is God a Debt-Collector Whose Second Currency is Human Suffering?
Which brings us to penal substitution, and the idea that God must satisfy His infinite retributive justice as part of His nature. From the Old Testament data alone, you can start to see why penal substitution is so problematic.
Penal substitution makes God an infinite debt-collector, and reinforces it with a debt-oriented economy, too, as I’ve written about here. In Western jurisprudence and culture, financial debt and legal transgression are linked. So in a Western cultural context, transposing the language of law, transgression, and punishment into the key of money, debt, and repayment seems quite natural. In fact, when one thinks of hell, the penal substitution paradigm can easily be shifted from one of God inflicting punishment on humans in a penal hell, to God extracting repayment from humans in a debt-collection hell – both in the currency of suffering. The payment we owe God for our rebellion and moral failure is ‘infinite’ because God effectively sets ‘an infinite interest rate’ against us.
All this is hopelessly inconsistent with how God treated ‘debt’ in the Old Testament.
Two critical and wrong assumptions in penal substitution are:
- God is a currency exchanger. He first demands obedience. And when He doesn’t receive obedience, He accepts a second currency: human misery and suffering, either ours or Jesus’. This ‘satisfies’ God.
- God cares more about ‘human works’ that are ‘paid by people’ than He does about the intrinsic condition of the human being, from whom the works flow out.
The contrast with the church’s original theology, though subtle, cannot be more acute. In medical substitution:
- God cares primarily about the intrinsic condition of the human being. But our choices shape our natures and desires. Neuroscience, for example, tells us that when people watch pornography, it affects our brains and future desires. Thus, God demands obedience for our good to His relational vision and the commandments that flow from it. God made us in His image; He calls us to grow in His likeness.
- God values ‘human works’ only insofar as they have an impact on human persons and human nature. He does not measure ‘human works’ as a type of currency. And He does not accept human suffering as a substitute for flaws in human nature. God is not a currency exchanger.
An analogy might help: God loaned us an artistic masterpiece, which we defaced, and we now have a ‘debt to restore’ the artwork. We have to undo the damage we inflicted on it – except that the artistic masterpiece is ourselves, our own human nature.
Does the Bible really teach us these things? Absolutely.
Human Nature, Not Just Human Actions
As shown by Genesis, God is very concerned about the state of our human nature:
- In the genealogy of Genesis 2:4 – 4:26, God made a developmental humanity, not a static humanity. God called us to grow physically, intellectually, relationally, and spiritually. We were invited to eat (internalize) the fruit of the tree of life, which would have impacted our human nature in profound ways, not the least of which was sharing in God’s immortal life (‘live forever’ in Gen.3:22). This developmental paradigm remained true after the fall, and is even more evident because of our negative development.
- Our choices can affect our human nature to varying degrees. Adam and Eve sinned by corrupting themselves with the desire and power to define good and evil for themselves (Gen.3:1 – 7). Cain shows that indeed, the desire to define good and evil from one’s own self, along with the whispers of covetousness, are now internal to us (Gen.4:6 – 8). With Adam and Eve, by contrast, the serpent needed to provide the whispers externally.
- God responded to the corruption of human nature by withdrawing the tree of life, removing the possibility that people could make their sin immortal (Gen.3:20 – 24). God shows that His warning of death was real. But it was a consequence motivated out of His love, and it was intrinsic to Adam and Eve’s disobedience, not extrinsic to the sin as if God invented and imposed an arbitrary and harsh punishment. God’s choice of death over immortalized sinfulness shows His concern for human nature. Death, severe as it is, demonstrates God’s love for us.
- Human beings could ‘curse’ their own human nature. Cain corrupted himself even further than Adam and Eve by killing his brother Abel. As a result, Cain was unable to bring life out of the ground (Gen.4:11). Other people could still work the ground, curiously, which shows that Cain didn’t damage the ground – he damaged his own human nature. Significantly, God described the cause for the land’s lack of responsiveness by telling Cain, ‘You are cursed from the ground.’ Previously, God pronounced curses on the serpent (Gen.3:14 – 15) and the ground (Gen.3:17 – 19), but not Adam and Eve per se, although the conclusion is implicit because they began dying. Now, the word ‘curse’ is explicitly applied to a human being. Cain’s other-harm was intrinsically related to self-harm that further alienated himself from the fabric of reality.
- The next literary section of Genesis, 5:1 – 6:8, shows human nature as both corrupted and further corruptible. Each person dies (although God gave Enoch special treatment), which shows the presence of the inherited disorder and corruption. And God’s diagnosis of human hearts in 6:5 – 6, not to mention their outward violence, shows that people were making choices to further corrupt themselves.
These points above need to be taken absolutely seriously, even as a hermeneutic to govern the reading of the rest of Scripture. After all, almost all readers of the Bible accept that we are supposed to remember that each human being is made in the image of God, from Genesis 1:26 – 28, even though the Bible chooses not to repeat that phrase over and over again. That is a hermeneutical choice based on responsible exegesis (even if you hold to a comparatively later date for Genesis, you still have to deal with the canonical editor who arranged the material in its final form). Most readers recognize that the ‘thistles and thorns’ from the fall are still in effect. That is a hermeneutical choice based on responsible exegesis. Some insist that we read ‘gender relations’ from Adam and Eve, either from creation, or from the fall. That is a hermeneutical choice based on exegesis, one way or the other.
So if the opening segments of Genesis tell us about the ‘condition of human nature’ and God’s deep concern for it, then we need to make a hermeneutical decision to read the rest of the Bible in that light. When we do, we will see texts and themes in Scripture leap out with new power and precision.
- Whenever God spoke directly, or revealed Himself in some form, the person saying either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to God impacted their own human nature in some profound way. This is why Moses’ face shone with light when He saw God’s glory (Ex.34:29 – 35). But other Israelites could not come up the mountain to meet with God (Ex.19:21 – 25) after they refused God’s first trumpet call ‘to come up to [and on] the mountain’ (Ex.19:13; Dt.5:5). Nor could the Israelites obtain God’s permission to enter the promised land from a posture of regret and fear, after they initially failed to do so from a posture of trusting God (Num.13 – 14). Something changes in people themselves as they make choices, like the wife of Lot (Gen.19:26) or Pharaoh (Ex.7:13; 8:15, 32; 9:34; cf. Mt.15:18 – 20; Mk.7:21 – 23; Rom.1:21 – 32; Gal.6:1 – 2; Eph.4:17 – 19; Phil.2:12 – 13; 1 Tim.6:9 – 10), which makes further positive experiences of God possible or not.
- Whenever God took life within Israel, or to protect Israel, we need to ask what those people had done to their own human nature. When God intensified His presence in Israel, He provoked negative reactions from certain people. They threatened Israel’s physical existence or spiritual purpose in some way. So when God took their lives to protect Israel – really, to protect the lineage of Jesus – He was protecting these people from further damaging their human nature, until ‘Holy Saturday.’ ‘Holy Saturday’ is the day on the church calendar when Jesus’ human soul entered the realm of the dead to call for those souls there to receive him (1 Pet.3:19; 4:6; Eph.4:9). Thus, God was not consigning those people to hell and taking away their choice. He was hitting a pause button on their lives and preserving their last possible choice. (See the links titled The Troubling Acts of God on this page.)
- God designed the Sinai covenant to cultivate Israel’s partnership to diagnose and document the problem with human nature. God reproduced some Eden-like conditions in an intensified microcosm via the Sinai covenant. He declared to Israel that they personally owed Him the ‘debt to restore’ their human nature: to present themselves to Him ‘circumcised of heart’ (Dt.10:16; Jer.4:4) through their partnership with His word and Spirit (Ps.104:29 – 30; 106:30; 139:7; 145:10). In fact, ‘circumcision’ characterized Abraham and Sarah’s journey of faith to ‘cut off’ sinful attitudes which had until then prevented them from being a new Adam and Eve of sorts (see earlier blog post series on “Circumcision and Atonement”). Because of the contamination of sin within us, which we inherited from our first parents (Ps.51:5; Lev.12), we are so obligated, which was institutionalized and intensified in a particular way for Israel through the Sinai covenant.
- Even as fallen people, the Israelites developed the Jewish wisdom tradition. God’s commandments are for God’s creation to live and grow by, as both are fitted together in God’s wisdom (Dt.4:5 – 8; Prov.8:22 – 36). Our hearts are tablets on which we are to write God’s commands (Prov.1:23; 2:10; 3:3; 6:21; 7:3). We are meant to internalize God’s commandments, to grow in wisdom ourselves, because this develops our human nature.
- Israel was to diagnose choices that were particularly awful. Some Israelites damaged their human nature so badly that they were stoned, declared ‘cursed,’ and placed on a tree (Dt.21:22 – 23). Placing their body on a tree did not curse them. They cursed themselves by their own prior choices. This alludes to the grotesque sin of Cain, who was a ‘stubborn and rebellious son’ indeed (sons are explicitly mentioned in Dt.21:18 – 21, which provides context for v.22 – 23). Cain was cursed without being hung on a tree. Yet because of his own choices, he cursed his own human nature and alienated himself from the land. Thus, the one whose body was hung on a tree reminded the community of Cain’s self-alienation from the land. The body was denied an honorable burial momentarily, which was only a symbolic act since it was buried eventually. But hanging the corpse on a tree was a public announcement that this person had made choices to damage their own human nature so badly s/he had been alienated from the land, that is, half of the source of Adamic humanity, and the physical fabric of reality. Thus, when Paul read Dt.21:22 – 23 in connection with Jesus hung on the cross (Gal.3:13), he recognized Jesus as identifying what was cursed about our existence: our human nature. The cross did not impose an additional curse on Jesus.
- Beginning with Moses, Israel diagnosed the disease as requiring God’s surgical intervention. They recognized that no one would be able to succeed in presenting our humanity to God cleansed and purified (e.g. Jer.17:1 – 10). So Israel began to declare that God had to circumcise their hearts (Dt.30:6), or give them a clean heart (Ps.51:9 – 10), or write His law on their hearts (Jer.31:31 – 34) or give them a cleansed, living heart connected with His Spirit (Ezk.11:18; 36:26 – 36; 37:1 – 14), or place His Spirit in them to abide there (Isa.59:21). This is how they conceived of their duty to God, the ‘debt’ they owed to God, and how God Himself had to ‘pay’ it by providing it for them.
So Jesus did in fact ‘pay’ God what God was ‘owed’ by every single human being: their human nature, kept clean and perfected by the Spirit of God. Jesus did what we could not. Jesus lived the life we couldn’t live. He died the death we couldn’t die. But Jesus did not ‘pay’ God in the currency of suffering. He paid in the currency of obedience and human nature. He ‘condemned sin in the flesh’ (Rom.8:3), that is, his own ‘flesh,’ which the apostle Paul experienced as containing a resistance to God (Rom.7:14 – 25). He resisted every temptation (Mt.4:1 – 11; Lk.4:1 – 13; Heb.4:15) and killed the ‘old self’ and raised up a new human nature in his own body (Rom.6:6), ‘circumcised of heart’ (Rom.2:28 – 29; Col.2:12), and ‘made perfect’ (Heb.5:9a), because he was the true Israelite who came to be the ‘climax’ of the Sinai covenant (Rom.10:4) and the source of a new humanity (Heb.5:9b).
Christ, therefore, reiterated with new force the fact that we each owe God a ‘debt to restore’ our human nature:
‘So that the requirement of the Law [i.e. ‘circumcision of the heart’] might be fulfilled in us’ (Rom.8:4)
‘So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh…’ (Rom.8:12)
This ‘debt to restore’ human nature kicks in for those who ‘go backward in time’ and go back under the Sinai covenant, but without the assistance and assurance of Jesus:
‘I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law’ (Gal.5:3)
What happens to us if we fail to properly pay our ‘debt to restore’ to God? God eternally demands the perfection of the masterpiece He created, and keeps offering the help He offers, namely His Son and Spirit. God has always been trying to burn away and cut away something from within us, with our participation. The fiery sword that once stood outside the garden (Gen.3:24) became the mantle of Jesus, who symbolically burns with fire and cuts with the sword of his word (Rev.1). In the framework of medical substitution, those who reject Jesus can only be trying to build, construct, repair, modify, defend, possess, justify, and make excuses for their own human nature independently from him. If they become addicted to their own sin and whatever condition they’ve produced within themselves, then when they meet Jesus face to face on the threshold of eternity, they will be frustrated beyond belief that he insists that they surrender their addictions and receive him. What believers gladly receive as a purifying fire that melts away dross and impurities, unbelievers will perceive as a fiery and furious rejection of something they were carefully nursing and now cling to for their very identity. He loves them just the same, but his love will feel to them like torment. (Click here for more analyses of the theme of fire in Scripture and how the earliest Christians explained hell and why.)
Jesus Was Our Kinsman-Redeemer, But What Debt Did He Pay?
With that in mind, let me make some comments about the kinsman-redeemer practice from Leviticus 25. Penal substitution advocates tend to assume that the kinsman-redeemer practice means that Jesus paid a ‘debt of suffering’ that we owed to God. Is that what Jesus meant when he spoke of offering his life as a ‘ransom’ (Mt.20:28; Mk.10:45; cf. 1 Tim.2:5 – 6)? I don’t think so, and here’s why:
- First, the kinsman-redeemer responsibility did not cover any and all possible debts an Israelite might incur. The kinsman-redeemer, and even the jubilee in its entirety, did not apply in cities (Lev.25:29 – 30). God wanted Israel to be a ‘new Adam and Eve,’ restored to a new garden land. Jewish Law remembers the city of Cain (Gen.4:17 – 24), the city of Babel (Gen.11:1 – 9), and the other cities built by Nimrod the conqueror (Gen.10:8 – 14). Cities were associated with human sin, and therefore human violence, and therefore human bloodshed. Even the exceptions prove the rule: (1) God protected the Levites in their cities (Lev.25:32 – 34), because their association with sin and bloodshed in the sacrificial system also placed them at a remove from the garden land, despite their good service; (2) the cities of refuge were for involuntary manslaughter offenders, reinforcing the theme of bloodshed causing alienation from the land. In the Torah, cities remind us that we live in some degree of alienation from the good garden land. Following this vision, God took no responsibility for certain debts accrued by Israelites who insisted on living in cities.
- Second, the kinsman-redeemer, if one was available and financially able, assisted a family member to reclaim the land which was ‘sold’ to another (Lev.25:23 – 28). In Jewish Law, land was owned by God and passed down by the Israelites to their children. The practice of completely privatized and individualized land ownership was a foreign and pagan idea to Israel because it interfered with God’s practice of re-gifting the garden land to all His children. While this particular detail might be integrated into a penal substitution framework (e.g. ‘Jesus suffered to reclaim planet Earth’), it fits even better with medical substitution: Jesus is the new Adam, who properly reclaimed human nature through a human process of obedience to the Father. As the new Adam, Jesus is the source of saved human life (Heb.5:7 – 9), and recovered Adamic authority (Gen.1:26 – 28; Mt.28:18 – 20), so he re-gifts the garden planet to his people.
- Third, the kinsman-redeemer assisted a family member to repay a debt of servanthood if that debt was owed to a foreigner (Lev.25:47 – 53). Foreigners were not within the Sinai covenant and were not obligated to forgive debt when the Jewish calendar rang the chime of debt-forgiveness (Dt.15; Lev.25). But foreigners could purchase a contract of labor offered by a poor Israelite, apparently paid-for up-front (Lev.25:47). An Israelite seeking to be free from this contract had to pay the remaining debt, and a kinsman-redeemer could help. This fact demonstrated God’s concern for Israel to have amicable and honorable relationships with non-Israelites. It also demonstrates how God called upon a human kinsman when a foreign institution intruded into the life of Israel, or placed an Israelite in the service of an actual foreigner. In this sense, the kinsman recalled Moses, and anticipated the messianic deliverer. T.F. Torrance suggests that the kinsman-redeemer role was ‘applicable to redemption out of bankruptcy.’ But I fear he was overly enthusiastic. Speaking of ‘bankruptcy’ in this way – without a specified form and creditor – is an unfortunate overgeneralization and risks misuse of the analogy for the purpose of christology. The kinsman-redeemer was not responsible for any and all bankruptcies.
- Fourth, in both of the above cases, the indebted Israelite still had to contribute whatever s/he could first (Lev.25:26, 49 – ‘or if he prospers, he may redeem himself’). This ‘partnership’ or ‘collaborative’ aspect of redemption can be connected very easily to medical substitutionary atonement theory, in which we must contribute our very selves within Jesus’ own offering of himself (Rom.6:15 – 23). Penal substitution advocates, however, concerned that we not ‘contribute to the redemption price Jesus paid for us,’ or ‘add to grace,’ remove the partnership and collaborative element of the kinsman-redeemer when they make it an analogy to Christ. This important detail tells against penal substitution.
- Fifth, the kinsman-redeemer did not acquire the debt or transfer the debt from the creditor to him/herself. As Leviticus 25:42 shows us, debts do not become commodities to be traded. They cannot become ‘bonds.’ Debt cannot be bought and sold, dragging people along with them to another master. Debt is deeply and irreducibly personal. The kinsman-redeemer law did not change that.
- Sixth, the kinsman-redeemer helped the indebted Israelite pay his or her own debt. The kinsman, in fact, gave to the indebted Israelite, who then, depending on the situation, either (a) paid for the redemption of land to regain the parental ability to re-gift the land inheritance to children, or (b) paid the debt owed to a foreigner for the remaining labor which was contracted. This again aligns with medical substitutionary atonement theory much better than penal.
- Seventh, the kinsman paid something, but did not suffer bodily or passively. He or she simply gave out of the (agricultural) abundance God had provided through his or her own partnership with God. Only active obedience substitutes for a deficit. Passive obedience via suffering does not substitute for a debt.
By itself, the kinsman-redeemer practice needs to be situated within Jewish Law as one practice among many that God used to fight back the power of debt. What was debt? Debt was a foreign power that interfered with God restoring Israel to the ‘creation order’ picture of being a ‘new Adam and Eve’ in a ‘new garden land.’ When we keep that in mind, then we can answer the question, not just of what the kinsman-redeemer represents, but what debt represents. What is ultimately the foreign power interfering with God returning us to the garden land in the truest sense?
Death? Yes, of course death is included in the problem. Death is a foreign power that is a self-inflicted wound upon our human nature (1 Cor.15:26, 54 – 55). And death is called ‘the last enemy.’ ‘No man can by any means redeem his brother’ from death, says Psalm 49:7 – 9. So by becoming a man, the Son of God became our kinsman, and as God, Jesus did what only God could do: deliver his human nature from death, so he could do it for others:
‘Death shall be their shepherd… But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me’ (Ps.49:14 – 15).
In Jesus’ ‘ransom’ language and in the later New Testament ‘redemption’ language, Jesus paid a debt to death, as a human being. He paid it on behalf of the human nature that he took on himself, personally. He did this so that, in his resurrection, he could give to us out of the infinitely abundant life God has provided him. Therefore we, too, who are still indebted, can pay our own debt to death for our own sakes.
But death is not the first enemy, nor the deepest enemy. The corruption of sinfulness is ultimately the most sinister foreign power interfering with God returning us to the garden land. God makes even death serve His good purposes, because through death, the even more foreign parasite – i.e. the even deeper wound of sinfulness – can be killed within our humanity. To the Christian, death is a friend before it’s an enemy. For Jesus used death to conquer the sinfulness that Paul noticed inside himself and everyone’s human nature (Rom.7:14 – 25). Jesus rid his human nature of that corruption of sin through his obedience and death, so that we can receive his new, purified, and cleansed humanity by his Spirit (Rom.8:3 – 11). Jesus is our kinsman-redeemer, to be sure, not because he paid a ‘debt of suffering’ that God would have otherwise extracted from us, but because Jesus gives out of the abundant life that God provided him. We receive the benefit of the Son living in perfect partnership with the Father by the Spirit. Once again, Jesus helps us pay our ‘debt to restore’ our human nature to God.
Three Parables of Debt, for Comparison-Oriented People
So what happens to this language of ‘debt’? Here is how Jesus used ‘debt’ as a metaphor for sin and salvation: in a tongue-in-cheek way. He used debt language in Matthew 18:21 – 35 and Luke 7:36 – 50 in response to comparison-oriented people.
In Matthew 18:21 – 35, Simon Peter asked how many times he needed to forgive someone else for sinning. Jesus responds by telling a story about a king’s servant who owed the king an outrageous sum: ten thousand talents:
‘A talent is the largest monetary unit (20.4 kg of silver), equal to 6,000 drachmas, the wages of a manual laborer for fifteen years. Ten thousand (“myriad”) is the largest possible number. Thus the combination is the largest figure that can be given. The annual tax income for all of Herod the Great’s territories was 900 talents per year. Ten thousand talents would exceed the taxes for all of Syria, Phoenicia, Judea, and Samaria. The amount is fantastic, beyond all calculation.’
Ten thousand talents would be about $3 billion in 2017 dollars. By comparison, this servant violently demands a fellow servant pay him back a hundred denarii, which ranges from about $1000 to $2100. The absolute differential is staggering, making the smaller amount paltry and ridiculous.
Jesus’ point here? Don’t even try to calculate forgiveness in terms of events: Jesus’ response of forgiving ‘seventy times seven’ times means more than 490 literal events! Why? Because God finds it ridiculous to ‘calculate’ sin in terms of ‘quantifiable debt.’
Jesus did the same thing in the second instance, Luke 7:36 – 50. Simon the Pharisee compared himself favorably against the sinful woman who wiped Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair. Jesus asked him about two more modest amounts: 500 vs. 50 denarii. Arguably, Jesus was more moderate because Simon the Pharisee’s comparison was more moderate. Simon didn’t seem to be asking about interpersonal forgiveness per se. The presenting issue was the physical contact between Jesus and the woman. The sinful woman provided water for Jesus’ feet, which was typical and expected for a host in that day, except she did it through her tears of love. Simon the Pharisee had not offered water from a bowl, despite the fact that the location was his own house. Simon the Pharisee thought he had about one-tenth the sin of the sinful woman, at best, probably. But Jesus inhabits this self-perception only momentarily, to draw Simon out of it.
Did Jesus accept this assessment on Simon’s part? The differential might be interesting on some level, but ultimately wasn’t relevant. Jesus was declaring his power to forgive sin (absolve debt) categorically. In fact, Jesus was asserting his divinity here. The relative or precise amounts of ‘debt owed’ was not the point. Jesus’ point was that Simon had failed to even meet the cultural obligations of a decent host. Jesus was God in the flesh sitting in Simon’s dining room, pointing out Simon’s very pointed personal insult and cultural offense. Jesus’ ‘debt’ comparison was simply a way of moving past how Simon saw the situation, which was about who was touching whom, into how Jesus saw it, which was about who provided hospitality for whom.
Jesus’ point here? Don’t compare yourself favorably to others. You will blind yourself to the reality of how you’re actually insulting Jesus and being inhospitable towards him.
Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager in Luke 16:1 – 8 is more involved. But there too, he addresses an explicit comparison the Pharisees were making between themselves and ‘sinners and tax-collectors’ (Lk.15:1). Hence the master in the parable, who enjoys the perception of being a debt-forgiver, is clearly informed by the debt-forgiveness laws of Israel, and has no motivation to tell the truth about the lying steward. The steward benefits because others perceive him as having acted in the master’s ultimate interest of generosity, thus he will be welcomed and even re-employed. Jesus is using a ‘how much more than’ logic. If the steward of the parable was shrewd by declaring debts forgiven, how much more would the Pharisees be shrewd to join Jesus and declare debts forgiven by God? After all – and this is Jesus’ sticking point – they had already been ‘fired!’
To sum up: When Jesus used ‘debt comparisons’ with people, it was only temporarily, and only because they themselves were using that category inside their own heads. Like the declaration of debts forgiven – no matter the size or scope – on the day of atonement in the year of jubilee (Lev.25:9), debt served its limited purpose. It represents a foreign power, like the Egyptian Pharaoh, trying to hold people back from being led by God back into the garden land for renewal and restoration. Debt does this by being a general experience, but loses its accuracy when people try to read too much into owing ‘a lot’ vs. owing ‘a little.’
A Prayer of Debt-Forgiveness and Indebtedness
When Jesus used ‘debt’ as a general category, he saw our ‘debts’ to each other as a power to be overthrown, like how the Old Testament understood it. This is ostensibly why we pray, ‘as we also have forgiven our debtors’ (Mt.6:12). And since Jesus instructs us to pray that way, he assumes we are actually doing it (Mt.5:42).
Jesus saw ‘debt’ to God as being categorically addressed, if not overcome, by his personal coming and giving of the Holy Spirit. In the Lord’s Prayer, God is glad to give His children the daily bread of the Holy Spirit, if you ask, regardless of what you did yesterday. The Father, says Jesus, hears our prayer of needing bread and food in the prayer of Lk.1:1 – 4; the Father is more eager than a care-about-the-reputation-of-our-village neighbor to help you show hospitality in 11:5 – 8; the Father is more eager than earthly fathers to give food to their hungry children in 11:9 – 12. Jesus gets to the point in 11:13: ‘how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?’
In other words, in Christ and by the Spirit, God sees our ‘debt to restore’ our human nature but He doesn’t take an adversarial relationship against us. Of course He doesn’t: The type of ‘debt’ we owe God requires that He give us His Son and His Holy Spirit anyway!
We have a ‘debt to restore,’ not a ‘debt to suffer.’ Which Jesus enables us to ‘pay!’ Our ‘debt’ is not ‘satisfied’ by Jesus ‘paying the punishment through his death’ (satisfaction of retributive justice a la Luther and Calvin, but transposed into a financial key). Nor does Jesus ‘render payment to God through his life of honor’ (satisfaction of honor a la Anselm).
What does every human being owe God? Our human nature, cleansed and purified with His help. What does God help us pay? What we owe Him: ourselves.
Athanasius and Scripture
Once again, Athanasius of Alexandria was right. Jesus indeed satisfied the debt by his death. Meaning this: When the Son of God took upon himself human nature, says Athanasius, he also incurred the ‘debt to restore’ that human nature. And he did. He ‘paid’ it. Jesus not only restored that human nature to the condition Adam used to have; he elevated it to the even better condition Adam was supposed to enter. Adam and Eve were supposed to eat from the tree of life. Jesus put that immortal, God-saturated, resurrection life into every cell in his human body. Adam failed at his job, but in Christ, God offered him a promotion.
Jesus ‘paid the debt’ each one of us owes to God. But let’s be precise: He ‘paid’ the same ‘debt to restore’ that we still owe. In fact, Jesus helps us each one of us ‘pay our debt’ to God, by God’s grace, in a deep and profound way. After all, as Leviticus 25:42 shows us, debts are not transferable. They cannot become commodities, dragging us along with them to another master. They are deeply and irreducibly personal. No one else but you can pay your debt to God. But Jesus came to join me, within myself, thank God. He already paid his ‘debt to restore.’ Now he helps me pay mine.
But praise God: For even my ‘debt to restore’ is finite, not infinite, as the anti-usury commandments suggest. God perceives no debt to infinity, and allows no such thing. For I am a finite being, and my sin, while serious, is not the totality of my being. So my sin is categorically finite and logically ‘smaller’ than my being.
Should We Use the Language of Debt in a Metaphorical Sense?
Talking about our ‘debt to restore’ references the problem of sin. It refers to our obligation to God. But let’s put some parameters around our language. Talk of our ‘debt to restore’ must include God’s posture towards our sinfulness (surgical wrath) and God’s desire to cleanse us (healing love), firmly separating the object of His wrath from the object of His love. Hence, our ‘debt to restore’ is an appropriate analogy to use for our relationship with God so long as sin is present in us. The great news, declared to us through Jesus’ resurrection, is that this ‘debt’ will one day come to an end.
If you want to speak this way, then: Yes, Jesus ‘satisfied’ death, by dying a faithful death which perfected his faithful life. Death was always a foreign power. Adam and Eve imposed death upon themselves because they forced God’s hand, out of His love, to protect them from immortalizing their sin. So, yes, God made use of death. Each person still owes God the ‘debt to restore’ their human nature, which involves a ‘debt to die a faithful death, after living a faithful life.’ But that obligation can only be expressed in and through Jesus, by the Spirit.
Jesus ‘satisfied’ God, too, but in a very specific sense – again, with reference to condemning sin within his human nature. He was victorious over the sinfulness within himself, which is what the Sinai covenant was designed to guide Israel to do (Rom.7:7 – 25; 8:3 – 4).
However, I would recommend that you only speak this way when you have a longer time to explain it properly. At least in Romans, the apostle Paul makes clear he is ‘speaking to those who know the Law’ (Rom.7:1). If you were surprised by something in this article, perhaps that means you didn’t really know the Jewish Law before. That also goes for the Jewish narrative: You would also need time to explain how Adam and Eve brought death out of life, but how God brought life out of death again. Otherwise, you’d potentially support a misunderstanding of God – a misunderstanding too easily supported by Western culture’s debt-collector, who often has the prison system behind him.
Eventually, language about our ‘debt to restore’ must eventually be eclipsed by language about union with Christ. Our union with Christ by the Spirit is stated in terms that leave behind the language of transactions altogether, into the language of union and being. On the one hand, Christ is ‘in us’ (Jn.14:18 – 20; Col.1:27; Rom.8:9 – 11; 2 Cor.4:6 – 12). So, Jesus shares with us the gift we could not earn, which God would never withhold: his perfected humanity, by his Spirit. Jesus takes what is his and pours it out into us, because the Father loves us.
At the same time, reciprocally, we are ‘in Christ’ by the Spirit (Jn.14:20; Eph.1:3 – 14). So, out of his bond with us in our humanness, Jesus takes what is ours and presents it to the Father, and for the Father. Though we are still imperfect and damaged, Jesus cleans us up ‘within himself’ (Jn.13 – 17) and presents us perfected and restored to the Father, because that is the Father’s good will that he came to accomplish (Eph.5:26 – 27; Heb.8:1 – 3).
We have to use this ‘union’ language to reflect our intrinsic nature from God’s perspective and not just exchanges or transactions. And because God’s love for us in our totality as His children is more comprehensive than what He had to do because of our sin.
God has always wanted to draw us into His Triune relations. The Father wants us to be in the Son by the Spirit, ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Pet.1:4). So the tree of life must have been the equivalent of Jesus, basically. God specially inhabits a part of his creation so that we can participate in His life, so that we can make God’s life a part of our human nature. Jesus draws us by our human nature to the endless, infinite movement of love between the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
The language of ‘satisfaction’ also needs to stop when its purpose is done, at the threshold of the holy of holies where we glimpse light streaming from the unending fire which is the eternal Triune God (Ex.3:2; Song 8:6). God, being infinite love, is never ‘satisfied.’ Why not? I think about it this way: I may be delighted and overjoyed with my children. But I am never ‘satisfied’ with them, because I still have more love to give them. Moreover, my wife and I, in the bond of our love, have more love between ourselves in which they can participate. Is a living, dynamic, and ever-deepening love ever ‘satisfied’?
God created us from the overflow of His love. And His ongoing loving concern for us flows out from Him infinitely. Jesus lived the life we couldn’t live, he died the death we couldn’t die, and he returned to the Father the gift we couldn’t give – the gift God Himself gave to us in the first place: our very being, to be perfectly united with Him forever.
I feel love for others because God loves them. I feel love for the Father because the Son, by the Spirit, loves the Father through me. I am not the origin of the love that I give to others, or to God. God is. I am emphatically not the origin of God’s love, and certainly not the final destination. I am only a participant. So I say, ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God’ (Gal.2:20). God reaches so far deeply into me that He heals my nature and fulfills me in union with Himself.
In Scripture, ‘debt’ is a conceptual category observed in human transactions. Therefore, it is carefully transformed in Scripture, as Athanasius shows us. When it is used to discuss our relationship with God, it metaphorically communicates a certain type of obligation. That obligation is real. But it can only serve as a limited pointer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through Whom new life flows over and over, cascading without end, without reservation, unveiling a realm where all is gift beyond accounting.
 Athanasius of Alexandria, De Incarnatione 9.1 – 2
 Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), p.169
 Athanasius of Alexandria, De Incarnatione 9.1 – 4
 Ibid 3.5. Previously in De Incarnatione, Athanasius brings up the topic of the fall in Genesis 3. If ‘dying you will die’ (Gen.2:17) is now the condition of every human being, then Jesus had to live under that condition, too: dying, he would die.
 Ibid 13.9; 17:7; 20.1, 4 (‘yet being mortal, was to die also, conformably to its peers’); 23.2; 31.4; 44.6, 8
 Only in this way would God’s pronouncement in the garden about the consequences of the fall be strictly true. Can God lie? No, Athanasius avers. It cannot be: ‘But just as this consequence must needs hold, so, too, on the other side the just claims of God lie against it: that God should appear true to the law He had laid down concerning death. For it were monstrous for God, the Father of truth, to appear a liar for our profit and preservation.’ (7.1) What held true for humanity writ large also held true for Jesus in particular. For the Word of God to come into human flesh, He had to take on dying, mortal, fallen humanity which owed a debt to God – ‘to maintain intact the just claim of the Father upon all’ (7.5) – and so to die. This made God consistent and truthful. In 31.4, Athanasius says that Jesus ‘could not but die’: ‘For if He took a body to Himself at all, and— in reasonable consistency, as our argument showed— appropriated it as His own, what was the Lord to do with it? Or what should be the end of the body when the Word had once descended upon it? For it could not but die, inasmuch as it was mortal, and to be offered unto death on behalf of all: for which purpose it was that the Savior fashioned it for Himself.’
 Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies 3.23.6.
 Methodius of Olympus, From the Discourse on the Resurrection, Part 1.4 – 5
 Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 45. Maximus the Confessor (580 – 662 AD), the great Byzantine theologian and commentator on Gregory of Nazianzus, says, ‘The phrase “And now, lest he put forth his hand and take from the Tree of Life and live forever,” providentially produces, I think, the separation of things that cannot be mixed together, so that evil might not be immortal, being maintained in existence by participation in the good.’ (Ad Thalassios, Question 44.5)
 Athanasius of Alexandria, De Incarnatione 54; De Decretis 14; Apology Against Arians 1:39, 2:70; 3:19, 3:33, 3:53; Epistle to Serapion 1:24; De Synodis 51; Epistle to Adelphi 4 quoting Irenaeus’ preface to Against Heresies 5. Khaled Anatolios, ‘The Influence of Irenaeus on Athanasius’, Studia Patristica 36 (2001), p.463–76 considers the question of Athanasius’ reliance on Irenaeus. Eusebius of Caesarea named Irenaeus as one of two writers whose theology was eminently reliable: ‘Who does not know the books of Irenaeus and Melito which proclaim Christ as God and Man?’ Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 5.28.5, cited by Thomas F. Torrance, Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), p.75. J.A. McGuckin, ‘The Strategic Adaptation of Deification,’ edited by Michael J. Christensen and Jeffery A. Wittung, Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), p.96 – 97 notes that Alexandrians Clement, Origen, and Athanasius either echo Irenaeus’ language or quote him directly, and the Cappadocian theologians Gregory Nazianzen, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nyssa do as well.
 Athanasius of Alexandria, De Incarnatione 9.1
 Athanasius of Alexandria, Discourses Against the Arians 2.66
 T.F. Torrance, edited by Robert T. Walker, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p.45
 M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in Leander E. Kech, senior editor, The New Interpreter’s Bible (NIB) Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p.382.
 The denarius was first introduced in the late Roman Republic (about 211 BC) and was initially worth 10 donkeys. It weighed 3.9 grams. The size of the coin seems to have stayed basically the same, but Nero lowered the silver content of the coin. It was the main coin of the Roman Empire until the antonianus coin was introduced in the 3rd century AD. Its purchasing power in terms of bread in the first century has been estimated at US $21, from 2005, though it is very difficult to estimate because of the debasement of the silver and the difficulty in calculating purchasing power parity. With that qualification, 100 x $21 = $2100.