Thursday, September 23, 2021


The synergistic nature of sanctification in the Christian life

Rev. Dr. Douglas Olds

September 2021

Sanctification is our inevitable but free response to the faith-enlivening grace we encounter. It progressively settles the contest between the two dimensions of moral consciousness: death and life—between agon (striving, manipulation, and violence) and shalom (peace, virtue, and charity). It is initiated and guided by the primary cause—the Spirit--who dynamically coaxes the secondary, created human agent’s efforts and beliefs into alignment with those ultimately, divinely willed.

Grace enables moral effort that, when conscientiously processed by the unbound-from-sin believer—as a commitment to strengthen obedience--results in moral progress and growth in sanctification. God is the ultimate enabler and author of sanctification, while we are the secondary participants in the operation of God’s grace in this world and in our lives. By keeping our eyes on Christ, we can judge and correct our moral efforts by the standards he set, taught, and exemplified in his perfect and sinless life revealed in the Gospels.

Barclay (2017, 3.4 emph. added) notes the achievements of John Calvin in describing the synergy of God’s grace as primary cause and the believer’s effort as secondary cause, operationalizing the sanctifying agency of God with the believer following in cooperation and obedience:

Calvin insists that justification is effected through faith without works, he is equally insistent that it is not devoid of good works, and he devotes considerable attention to the process of sanctification. Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s Spirit, we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life (Inst. III.11.1). These two operations are distinct but inseparable…[a] combination of motifs in 1 Corinthians 1:30 is significant: citing this verse, Calvin insists, “Christ justifies no one whom he does not at the same time sanctify” (Inst. III.16.1). Calvin is unwilling to follow the Lutheran distinction between inner saving faith and outer works of service, because the believer’s good works are integral to participation in Christ, whose purpose is to conform believers into his image (Rom 8:29) and thus to transform them into some approximation of the holiness of God (Inst. III.8.1). Calvin’s task — and considerable achievement — is to position a life of good works within the scheme of salvation, without making these works instrumental in obtaining or “meriting” grace, that is, without compromising the priority and incongruity of grace…[H]e laid the foundation for a Protestant theology of grace that envisaged an extended narrative of moral progress as an integral element of the life of faith…While the law sets an impossibly high standard for those unconnected to Christ, its promised blessings are not empty, but are granted to “the works of believers” (Inst. III.17.3). Indeed, the law’s “third use” [see esp. Rom. 7.25], in instruction for Christian believers, can be considered its principal function (Inst. II.7.12). 114 This forges a harmony between “law” and “gospel” in a fashion quite alien to Lutheran discourse. Obedience to God emerges as the hallmark of the Christian life, even if this is carefully glossed as the voluntary submission of sons to a benevolent Father (Inst. III.19.5). With such emphasis on good works as the purpose of salvation, Calvin also … therefore … characteristically insists that the believer’s works, however good, remain “stained” by the pollution of sin.


This synergy in sanctification is the work of the primary cause (God in Christ) carried out by the cooperation of the Holy Spirit-guided person as the secondary cause. In this, the perfect primary cause is never the agent of sin. Holdover eruptions of sin are the responsibility and defect of the secondary cause when the Holy Spirit is ignored or opposed. Before justification, the secondary cause of action (the person) is under the delusion of an alien and evil imposter causation that claims, falsely, that it is primary. That leads to the sins of paganism—finding in nature or in false gods and idolatry a sanction or warrant for continuing in sin. Sanctification is the process of replacing the imposter claims of primary causation with that of ontological truth and accordance with it. Sanctification advances as the person increasingly obeys the promptings of the Holy Spirit and has fewer regressions into past patterns of resistance to these promptings. Sanctification has the secondary cause of earthly events taking on more and more of the nature of the primary cause, bringing about a more recognizably pure primary causation to the human's response to contingencies, thereby furthering the kingdom of God.



Barclay, John M. G. Paul and the Gift. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2017.

[1] An OT phenomenology of spiritual activity that fills or completes is indicated by Ezra 1.1 where the spirit of Cyrus is agitated to complete the Word of God. The verb “agitated” that fills or is fulfilled in Cyrus refers back prophetically to its use in Isa. 45.13 and Jer. 51.11 (Schnittjer 2006). God’s Spirit “clothes” the problematic Gideon (Judg. 6.34), suggesting outer completeness only, an externalized, functional kind. In NT times, the human soul was recognized as the site of God’s active purpose. With the Holy Spirit’s sending to the Church in Acts 4, the comprehensive and filling inner effect of the Spirit processes to bring about God’s purposes.

Saturday, August 28, 2021


“Quieting the Roaring Heat”

Rev. Dr. Douglas Olds

St. Luke Presbyterian Church, San Rafael CA

August 29, 2021

The video of this sermon delivered is at

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 25: 1-10

Precis: The planet is on fire and our hope is not (and cannot be) grounded in technology. Hope comes from the adoption of the atmospheric virtues derived from the values of the Sermon on the Mount.

Preaching ancient scripture “must fade away centuries.” It must announce one decisive thing—“the very deep & essential relationship of the human being to God … the strivings of the living God with the human being, who is ever rebelling, & always creeping away.”

Reading the Bible is very different than musing through a museum or archeological dig. The writings of prophets like Isaiah present humanity’s relationship to God—what the human “does with God & what God does with him, what place he takes in God's plan.”

Dragged through history, the human has made a “home for himself in all sorts of cultural forms, but in his deepest core within which the Bible addresses him, he is always the same. He still follows the same sneaking paths, he still has the same refined methods to push God away from himself quietly, under the pretense of seeking Him. The whole drama of God's coming to the human being & the human's acting towards God” is reflected in stories of suffering and redemption.

“As soon as I have really listened to what God said centuries ago in that [prophetic] word, all the centuries really fade away, & the same God immediately stands before me. I must only [carefully] listen.”[1]

A dramatic loop pictures the sequence of of the human story within the Biblical Prophets:

Human developments start with decline, accelerate, & then bottom out in a retrograde moment of death or displacement.[5] Isaiah’s prophetic writings detail the decline & decadence of Judah’s society & prophesies the brutal siege & forced exile of God’s people to Babylon. Yet characteristic of a prophet of the True God, Isaiah concludes the story with the people of God anchored in God’s loving character & steadfast promises. The pit of death, exile, & despair is not the last word in this loop, but is escaped by God’s redeeming re-reversal, the upward trajectory that sets us right into eternity. Death will be swallowed up by joy.

The end of the Book of Isaiah has the Judahite exiles returning to the promised land accompanied by the Whole Creation’s song:  they return forth in peace accompanied by the exultations of nature:  the fields & the hills will clap their hands in fellowship with the people’s enduring joy.  Amen, &: Thanks be to God.

Yet now, present civilization seems beset by its own dramatic and accelerating decline, threatening the displacement and destruction of vast numbers of vulnerable people and other species. Devastating us are the current invisible pandemic of COVID & materialism’s psychic epidemic of global climate breakdown & injustice.

When I began studying Global Warming in 1992, I quickly became convinced society couldn't simply wait for a technological solution to arise from business as usual. I began proposing a substantial carbon tax on consumption, progressively applied, to reduce combustion and incentivize faster technological substitution of fossil fuels to transition to renewable energy sources. Yet no regulatory price was put on carbon fuels to internalize their social costs, and the technological solutions haven't delivered.

If society had acted prudently in 1990, the trajectory for keeping global heating within 1.5 degrees could have been accomplished over 100 years with far less drastic intervention. But now: “The brutal logic of this cumulative problem [is that] after 30 years of failure [to meaningfully act], global CO2 emissions must now get to 0 within 20 years.”[2]

By 1992, society had entered its “Calgon, Take me Away!” era. Staring into the abyss of the advancing disasters of global heating, without any urgency of action,betrays a luxuriating and heedless culture caught in the snares of death.

Yet contrary to many claims, the Bible is NOT silent on the issue of global heating, nor should we expect it to be. My doctoral work found dozens of applicable texts referring to God’s displaced prerogatives to give shade & cooling--& of the misuse of combustible resources in human consumerism’s pursuit of self-definition and material pleasures. Global heating is Biblically attested as an injustice against God & God’s favored who need rest & comfort—the agricultural and environmental workers in these heating climes. Consider also God’s preferential interest in the poor who live along rising coastlines, children affected by changing vectors of climate-aggravated diseases, & women in rural communities who bear the brunt of carrying water longer distances because of increasing droughts.

In Isaiah chapter 44, the people’s idolatry is explicitly linked with misapplied combustion of fuel.  At the very least, high-consuming Christians are called to exercise virtue and repentant self-denial in their material lifestyles—to put forth a parachute to protect those most immediately vulnerable. Rather than holding on to creature comforts, Jesus gave his life away. Simply wearing a mask protects those most vulnerable to Coronavirus. Aren’t we called to do something about our combustion-intensive lifestyles?

Our Scripture reading from Isaiah this morning makes 3 crucial points: first, that God is a refuge for the poor in shade & quietness that contrast with those Isaiah calls the “ruthless” whose songs are noisy roars. 

Second, heat & noise are linked as similes in English, but the Hebrew preposition intends a more focused correspondence than the English preposition “like.” Heat & noise are consequences of the same human decadence.

Third, in verses 7 & 8, Isaiah announces the end times promises of God—the ascending phase of the dramatic prophetic loop—in the context of removing a covering—a mask, a “shroud or sheet”—that suggests, like the eternal new dawn, the sky surrounding and above us: The refuge for the poor will be realized in the shade & stillness that covers & protects them. 

We can either align ourselves with this plan of God or continue rebelliously and heedlessly treating the atmosphere as a cost-free carbon dump.

To return to the image of the parachute mask, I want to extend that to a sea anchor.  Some sea anchors look like a parachute, so I hope to link in your mind’s eye the pandemic masks we wear for the protection of others with that of a sea anchor we set out  to slow our material appetites and stabilize our collective journey.  As the Church, our souls have a winch anchor deeply secured in the rock of Ages: Which is the character & the promises of God.  Yet I am calling for setting out the addition of a sea anchor in our household living as history declines & storms take over—not only prudently reducing consumption of fossil fuels for ourselves, but in neighbor-love for those most vulnerable. 

Both when we wear a mask & when we reduce fossil fuel combustion, we act in neighbor love & work for the Creator’s enduring and resilient earth.  Both the Book of Ecclesiastes & the Psalms speak of the earth remaining “forever,”(Pss. 148.6; 37.29; Eccl. 1.4) so that humanity has not been granted “dominion” to deplete & degrade its life-sustaining properties. Instead, humans are trustees for permanence and justice. 

Human trustees of the atmosphere exist in a spirit of perpendicularity—parachuting within God’s transcendent power above & prudently dragging a horizontal sea anchor to stabilize the community’s journey towards shalom and health amidst the storms of historical decline.  Perpendicularity of aspect is loving God above and neighbors alongside which is realized in the awareness and practice of what I call the “atmospheric virtues.” 

As an atmospheric virtue, combustion-avoiding quietness practices peace, rest, & anchoring oneself in certain practices & rhythms that help us to connect meaningfully with others & the Spirit of God: Reading Scripture, embracing stillness & trust in the slow work of God. Quietness is a way of perceiving, receiving, and absorbing God’s strengthening presence.  Quietness prepares us to participate in God’s kingdom life.

Other virtues for the care of the atmosphere include patience & “loyalty to place.”  Patience counters our culture of combustion-fueled speed and heat-generating haste.[3] Patience is moral courage and constancy that preserves love and charity in the face of discouragement during the long journey of faithful life. Loyalty to place means that humanity recognizes the false promises of a destiny on another planet. Loyalty to planet refuses to support the manned space program of atmosphere-degrading billionaires singing of ruthlessness in roaring rocket temples to airless gods.

I’ve studied the irreversible effects of aerospace travel on justice & ecological resilience, & as a result, I’ve chosen to reimagine my retirement without exotic jet travel & its combustion-intensive, noisy affectations. Like others, I have given up capitalism’s fantasy of the travel bucket list. And So Now, I fly only for family. 

Loyalty to place is the deep contemplation of God’s will for the earthly situation in which God has placed us—what the prophet Micah (4.4) details as the human goal of “living under our own fig tree,”-- so that we find spiritual peace, provisions, & quiet close to home.  Isaiah’s passage this morning concludes that living with God is quiet rest.

Pursuing quiet, living patiently and loyally, & committing politically as events devolve can be the most poignant of human pursuits.  As spiritual disciplines, quietness, loyalty, & patience reveal to us the character of our needs, our values, & our God-intended selves & make us receptive to God’s healing presence. Quietness & patience combine moral courage with gentleness & humility loyal to where God has placed us. These Sermon on the Mount values are atmospheric virtues. They support community, the sustainability of the atmosphere, & spread a great ‘Christ-like’ dignity over all.

Humanity is going over the climate brink—it has already entered the vortex of global calamities. Intense heat exposes our heart—when we are stressed, our true thoughts & character leak out.

Time is short for human civilization to turn back ecosystem and social collapse from Global Heating and Climate Disruption, as well as diligently and sharply to focus its attention, in light of God’s judgment, on the social injustices from destructive political-economic systems. Perhaps it is too late for civilization, which does not in any way negate the need to continue on living faithfully, for virtue will be tested and refined in the crucible of an increasingly fevered planet:

The pursuit and embodiment of goodness and virtue knows no expiration.

We’re not all in the same boat, but we’re all in the same storm. No individual can turn back the Storm, but we can align our lives with God’s purposes even inside the storm. Christians are called to take real responsibility for the social order in light of the prophetic & historical logic of God,  including our accountability for our failed accommodations with destructive and unjust practices and systems.

Waiting for the light is not simply sitting out the heat.

Instead let us wisely and fruitfully align ourselves with the ascending trajectory of God’s historical plan by our atmospheric virtues of conservation, prudence, & gentle living.  If we find ourselves fallen into the historical pits of descent, let us repent & look to the author & perfecter of our faithful living— our Lord Jesus Christ.

The time to commit to his presence in life renewed & sustaining is always now.

            Yet “As long as our future drives other people to despair, as long as our prosperity means poverty for others, as long as our 'growth' destroys nature –

anxiety, not hope, will be our daily companion.” [4] By our practices no less than our beliefs, Christians are hope’s guides for society’s return to earth’s heavenward track.

May it be so for you & me. 

[1] Johan Herman Bavinck

[2] Lasse Kummer @LasseClimate 8/25/2021 tweet.

[3] Pacific cultures have the idea of “coconut time” since the coconut comes to fruition without hurry or concern for haste. In this,” the coconut symbolizes Christ, since it gives life to human beings, and when it is broken new life springs forth” in the slow and patient work of God.”--Talia, Maina, “Give us the right to dance: towards fatele theology in the context of a sinking mother land." Theologies and Cultures 6 no. 2, 2009, 203-230 (207).

[4] Juergen Moltmann

[5] "Midway upon the journey of our life

I found myself in a dark wilderness,

for I had wandered from the straight and true." 

(Dante Alighieri, trans. Anthony Esolen) 

Sunday, July 11, 2021

 Billionaire Blast Off: A Sunday Sermon

Rev. Dr. Douglas Olds

July 11, 2021

The Earth is God's intended vessel for humanity to sail the living cosmos.  

Billionaire Richard Branson launched himself into space today, immersed in a vanity competition with fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos to commercialize space flight.  The Bible lifts up the virtues (esp. loyalty, patience, and quietness) subject to contempt by these atmosphere-assaulting blast offs of private spectacle and vice.

    Eccl 1.4 is a key text for directing conscience toward loyalty to the earth and our given place on it. The claim that the earth remains לְעוֹלָ֥ם (leʿôlām: “forever”) may signify either an eternal status for this aeon’s terra firma, or it may involve the vestiges of recollection of a terrain’s material agency in an individual’s existence that is networked into soul. Human loyalty accommodates, communes with, and commits to the terrain and atmosphere encountered during its earthly walk. There is no evidence that such a sustaining terrain and atmosphere exist for humanity in outer space so that we can trash this planet’s sustaining processes to get there. The lure of outer space is a deadly illusion tailored for our idolatrous age. Contrary to Elon Musk's assertion, outer space doesn't represent humanity's hope. Outer Space wants our death. Mars wants our death. Those devoted to and swallowed up by mammon demonstrate the idolatrous lure of self-exaltation that brings death.

      Isa. 30.15: “in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Cf. the command to silence in Hab. 2:20 and Zech. 1:7). Silence and patience are aligned and life-giving virtues that counter the political economy of combustion-fueled haste and its ubiquitous, roaring din of engines. In quietness is not so much the absence of activity as the overflowing and healing presence of the Divine.

    Planet busting, death-dealing noise and heat (from aerospace combustion) are linked, in contrast with stillness and shade:

Isa. 25.5: The noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, 

    you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; 

    the song of the ruthless was stilled. 

    Loyalty to planet and place is an eschatological (restoration) virtue, the shalom in re-localization.The latter loyalty counters the commercialized promotion of exoticism, escapism, long-distance travel, and (the putative stabilization of global society by) the expansion of economic integration and scale through combustion-fueled long-distance, “free” trade in goods and services.  

Mic. 4:3–4 (cf. 1 Ki. 5.5) speaks of this restoration virtue embedded in place:

  3He shall judge between many peoples, 
  and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; 
  they shall beat their swords into plowshares, 
  and their spears into pruning hooks; 
  nation shall not lift up sword against nation, 
  neither shall they learn war any more; 
  4but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees.

Loyalty to place is distinguished from and excludes nationalism which tends to idolatry and suspicion of outsiders, to militarism, and to loss of recollection of relationship and the operations of reciprocity, mutuality and shalom situated in the local. Loyalty to place is based, like all virtues, on charity and hospitality fostered by proximity, familiarity, and intimacy. Cf. Prov. 27.10b.

    Loyalty to place functions teleologically to solidify treasured relationships and the communion of natural and social features. Loyalty to place recollects the spiritual marks of material agency in our eternal destinies. Time and duration of proximity cement the meaning, significance, and value and outlook of permanence for what was prior considered impermanent, mortal, or evanescent. Christians serve eternity in the here and now for the “new earth” by loyalty to planet and place, with local terrains and biomes becoming foci for bioregionalism that integrates and incorporates nature’s neglected agencies—animate as well as inanimate.

    The virtues of loyalty, patience, and quietness counter the haste and noise of our inner life (and their projection by us onto social and ambient reality). Virtue develops both character/soul and neighborhoods. Virtue is simultaneously concerned both with moral consequence and with the development of self-initiated direction and growth. In the best case, these atmospheric virtues can roll back the specter of the planet’s (or humanity’s) death. They provide the praxis for self-direction and continuation to live morally and ethically under an outlook of existential despair occasioned by inexorable environmental and political decay exemplified in these vain and vicious billionaires. By virtue we demonstrate our awareness that God does not die even if creatures do. And a Christian’s commitment to demonstrating to God that she will until the end implement goodness and strength of Christian character *on earth* as the result of God’s bringing faith, joy and neighborhood into her individual and social locations. Christian demonstration of this commitment strengthens religious systems and testifies to others in the church’s social location—its neighbors and society—that faith, purity, and freedom shape the understanding of God’s ongoing reality and presence in Christian lives.

    Whereas nature is endowed with resources and environmental capacities that could deliver material sufficiency to all, post-reformation Western Civilization has grounded its political economy on satisfying unmediated appetites for consumption and accumulation by those most willing and able to pay--luxuriating appetites that neither limit themselves to the Creator’s intent for nature nor for the needs for sharing by marginalized peoples and future generations including those of other species. The result is rampant injustices: gender injustice, racial injustice, class injustice, and intergenerational injustice in the contemporary distribution of benefits and costs of the carbon-intensive economy. The Western economy of promoting combustion-fueled material growth to satisfy the private preferences of vanity weighted by the wealthy's ability to pay has created a society in conflict with Jesus’s gospel of the Kingdom of God and the New Earth. 

    The “whole Creation is groaning” (Ro. 8.22) under the weight of intensive combustion's injustices and environmental imbalances derived from an economy of ashes organized to satisfy insatiable desires by Western wealthy and the satisfaction of their unjustified, private, and autonomous preferences.

    Time is short for human civilization to turn back ecosystem collapse from Global Heating and Climate Disruption, as well as diligently and sharply to focus its attention, in light of God’s judgment, on the social injustices and environmental degradation from and idolatry of transgressive political-economic systems. Perhaps it is too late for civilization, which does not in any way vitiate the need to live faithfully, for virtue will be tested and refined in the crucible of an increasingly fevered planet. The pursuit and embodiment of goodness knows no expiration.

The existential implications of human trusteeship inside nature and specifically of the atmosphere—and the imperatives to avoid (economic) idolatry--impel both the cultivation of the virtues and recognition of individual accountability. Accountability may be structured inside the divine immanent (as in the moral assessment of peers or the recollection of history) or transcendent (in one’s final destiny inside God’s eternal being assigned by the transcendent Christ). As the ethics of freedom, virtue brings individuals into alignment with divine reality and excellence, while accountability to the deep moral topography of processive revelation enlists the people of God into the applied work of maintaining the life-sustaining balances and cycles of the atmosphere and water-sustained biomes. Both in directive to virtue and trusteeship and in the teleological pursuit of well-ordered humanity and nature-based aesthetics, inscripturated morality for the aggregated people of God guides both individual lifestyle and social praxis for the fulfillment of the incarnate, sanctified cosmos as Christ becomes all-in-all (Col. 3.11).


Saturday, July 3, 2021

 Biblical Atonement is not Primarily Substitutionary Punishment

Rev. Dr. Douglas Olds

July 2021

Atonement reveals a dialectic—the Biblical primacy of expiation of judgement and the secondary condescension to human psychological needs for avoiding the putative punitive wrath sin merits by instead propitiating an angry God by substitution. Christus Victor primarily swallows up sin and expiates death’s judgement, bearing violence upon his scapegoated person from secondary and deluded, not divine, causes.

Lambert (2016, 136): “Hebrews 2:17 says, ‘Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.’ Propitiation [sic: λάσκεσθαι ] means that Jesus bore the weight of God’s wrath and paid the penalty for all sin.”[1]

“Propitiation” is a tendentious translation of the Greek word “hilasterion” word group. The translation “propitiation” directs us to the looming overhang of God’s punishment and the way human (ritual) acts can influence or turn away his anger. When located in the initiative of humans, propitiation is a religious word that makes God’s acts contingent in some way on human actions or appeasement. Note how religious contingency is contrasted by Jesus (in Mark 2.27) with true worship: human sabbath observance is not a means of grace, but rather the sabbath is the grace delivered to humans on God’s free initiative.

The alternative translation “expiation” focuses on God’s free initiative regarding judgment (Ex. 33.19). The substitutionary sacrifice draws off the judgment of sin as prefigured by God’s instructions to send the goat into the wilderness in Lev. 16.22.[2] This goat is not “punished” nor is it a propitiation of God--a human act intended to turn aside wrath. It may be propitiatory in a pagan religious sense—an animal sent out to “propitiate” the desert demon (the goat “for Azazel” [Lev. 16:8]). It is more likely that this ritual conceptualizes sin as a physical infection where the sacrificial animal receives the contagion through ritual transfer and is then dispatched to the wilderness to apotropaically draw off and purge into the void the sin of the Israelites, a mystery that assuages their consciences by the grace of God’s ordained ritual of abandonment. The substitutionary character of this sacrifice has parallels with the Aqeda—the binding and contemplated sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham which finds its substitute in a ram located in the thicket nearby. The goat in Lev. 16.22 (in expiation that purges the holy place); the ram in the Aqeda (in familial substitution); Judah’s sacrificial pledge of redemption for Benjamin (Gen. 44.32-4); and the Passover lamb (in Ex. 13.11-16)[3] that substitutes for the first-born of the people of God and commemorates redemption from slavery, taken together, provide the ritual and family contexts of (redeeming substitutionary expiatory) sacrifice in the OT.[4]

The way of the Cross—Christ’s expiation of judgment (John 12.31-33ff; prefigured by the High Priest in Num. 16.46-48) is terrible to contemplate. By the Cross, Jesus crosses over the void to make the costly entry into the eschatological temple (Ezekiel 40-48), and by his resurrection returns to lead his followers into its places (John 14.3) of refuge in God’s gracious presence. His expiation of judgement through substitutionary sacrifice has ongoing efficacy—it results in the suspension of God’s judgment even now, assuming we continue to confess and repent.

Sacrifice transfers a gift offered to God from common space to God's sacred place but which first passes through the liminal space of death, purifying it by shaking off or dispersing what is impure. Sacrifice thus has a "direction" and a mechanism prefigured in the OT (see below). Jesus' sacrifice culminates in God's sacred place, heaven. This direction of sacrifice is not a mechanism for punishment, rather it serves for purification and expiation of judgement.[5]

Psalm 51:19 speaks of “right sacrifices.” It is my belief that reading Jesus’s substitutionary sacrifice dialectically—primarily as expiatory and secondarily as psychologically propitiatory--is the proper religious understanding from the dual natures of Christ. The human Son propitiates the Father as only a sinless one could, and as divine and sinless he can expiate (the judgment of) sin by his perfect blood.[6] “Religion” of the human propitiatory type is part of what the Pharisees taught--that by their rigor and elaborate rituals of purity (e.g. Mk. 2.16) they could induce God to act contingently and reciprocally toward them. However, righteous religion involves those observances that demonstrate not self-actualized or -initiated worthiness, but rather is the revealed vehicle of God’s mercy (Luke 18:9-14) that allows us—as redeemed people--to draw near to him in fellowship through prayer, virtue, and right sacrifice (including acts of confession, love, mercy, and praise.

Jesus’ forsakenness on the Cross seems to me better interpreted as the desolating experience (begun in the agony at Gethsemane) of the expiation of judgement in a temporary, isolated and God-voided desert than by how Lambert (2016, 145) proposes, as Jesus’ “payment of penalty” of God’s wrathful physical violence against Jesus’ body. In OT times, it is the Adversary who has the initiative and prerogative to inflict bodily suffering (Job 2.4-7. Cf. the unrighteous witness of Zophar the Naamathite in Job 20 positiing God’s putative punishment of his creatures). Is a penalty of the kind luridly depicted in Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ how God treats his creatures or his Son after the Son’s Sermon on the Mount? If we agree that the anointed servant in Isaiah 42 is the divine Son, we see in v. 3 his divine agency that is radically non-violent and gentle in the ministry of justice that sets the world aright:  A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

How then is God the Father any different in the era(s) of his messiah?

While wrath is attested by various Biblical texts to loom over us, none of the texts picture or propose physical violence and battery against the body with God as the source. Jesus’s parables discuss exclusion, outer darkness, fire that never is extinguished, and the worm that will never die, but no text pictures wrath acted on the body of creatures by means of Imperial brutality except that of piercing. Empires may be God’s agents, but Isaiah notes how they exceed and transgress their warrant in punishing rebellious Israel excessively and brutally (Isa. 47.6).

Contrary to Anselm's theory of atonement, God’s righteousness is not manifest in his punishments. Rom. 1.17, which Lambert (2021) cites as revealing the righteousness of God in assessing “penalty”—and an “infinite penalty for sin” at that (Lambert 2016, 135-6 [12])--rather links God’s “revealed righteousness that is out of/through faith unto faith,” with faith equivalent to trusting allegiance. According to Paul and contrary to Lambert, God’s righteousness is his grace that flows from faithfulness to his creation and which proceeds to imbue in us our faithfulness and allegiance to him. Lambert’s is an inverted reading. He attributes to God a putative righteousness that reveals punitive “penalty” rather than to processing and allegiant grace in Paul. Moreover, Lambert (2021) repeatedly refers to Christ’s “payment” of satisfaction for sin, which appears a questionable rendering of the redemption and ransom Greek cognates of “lutron.” In contrast, the early Church understood that this ransom by Christ was rendered NOT to God but rather to the demonic powers over sin which held humans in bondage. In this latter case, like that of Rom. 1.17, punitive satisfaction of a sin debt as “propitiation” is NOT a feature of God’s righteousness but is occasioned by demonic agents and associated psychological fixations of guilt-ridden human consciences. “Payment of penalty” mistakes the primary cause of God’s grace by confusing it with a secondary causation of human psychology infantilely fixed on “infinite punishment.”

    Eisegeting “penalty” into texts that do not refer to such inverts the message of God’s righteousness revealed in grace and faithfulness to creation rather than in Anselmic conceptions of retributive satisfaction. Rom. 1.17 is a text of revealed righteousness’s circulating grace. 

“Propitiation” may have a secondary function in the “hilasterion” texts as a way of attributing the primary cause of Jesus’s suffering—God (per Lambert 2016, 239)--but that the main meaning in Salvation history is “expiation.” By this mystery, God’s judgment is held in abeyance at the Cross by the supreme faithfulness of Christ’s expiatory sacrifice and in the words of forgiveness on the Cross to comfort humanity--and by the purgative exchange of his blood—an exchange from our life’s contagion into his blood’s purity. By taking on humanity’s sin, Christ has turned aside divine judgement by mitigating sin’s contagion. He bore our infirmities away from us to purge them in emptiness (what Genesis and Isaiah term “tohu”) by the holiness and purity of his blood (Col. 1.20). To the extent he was scourged and suffered the crown of thorns and the suffering of Crucifixion, God is the primary—ultimate--cause, while the temple-imperial complex was the efficient cause (per Acts 4:27–28). Based on the analogy with the Assyrian emperor’s assault on Israel and Satan’s torment of Job’s body, the primary cause is God (Job 42.11b) directing these secondary agents who tragically exceed their warrant in bodily affliction. The atoning sacrificial mechanism is expiation of sin by blood and death’s judgement by victorious, perfect life. Atonement involves the paramount secondary victim revealing himself the primary victor. Its substitutions are organic and transformative, manifesting the ontology and processes of Creation, not passive or violent. Imagining the atonement as punitively violent matters to the (lack of) temporal success in imaging and bringing about shalom in church-directed spheres and mission.[7] Atonement in the comprehensive biblical witness does not prioritize punitive substitution.

A key text supporting the dialectic of the divine and popular interpretations of atonement is Isa. 53.4: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.” Note that it is “we” (Israel’s people) who consider him punished, while the prophet contrasts how the servant of God bears our pain and suffering with that of a popular, but erroneous, attribution of “punishment.” Isa. 53.4 does not support the doctrine of punitive substitutionary atonement,[8] and the concept of “propitiation” as turning away wrath may derive from v. 10’s link of the servant’s affliction with God’s will to make him a “reparation offering” prefigured in Leviticus 1-7.

Contrary to Lambert (2016, 139) finding punitive penalty in 1 Peter 2:24, that verse needs to be read in this context of Isa. 53.4 and the earlier 1 Pe 1.19., neither of which mention punishment or penalty but are focused, as I am emphasizing, on Christ’s bearing our infirmities and the substitutionary sacrificial atonement in the effective mechanism of his blood. The finding of penalty in 1 Peter seems to me eisegesis from previous doctrinal commitments or psychological need. The English word “punishment” in Isa. 53.5 for the Hebrew מוּסָר (mûsār) may not be the most apt. The LXX most often translates this Hebrew word as “paduein” (discipline or correction), and when מוּסָר (mûsār) does carry the connotation of “punishment,” its semantic field reveals it is “Instruction through punishment, which is intended to be remedial.”[9] Remedial NOT punitive.

However, the atonement points to the penalty for transgressions of the OT law codes that called for death: intentional homicide, sexual crimes, and religious crimes against God. While other crimes in the OT did not involve a bodily punishment, such as property crimes that warranted financial penalty as well as other sins that were not to subject to literal punishment except by the lex talionis (Schnittjer 2017, Session 14) that Jesus’ gospel ministry at the Sermon on the Mount had annulled (Matt. 5:38-42). If Jesus by his Word had annulled the lex talionis, how was it in effect at the Cross? The punishment inflicted on Jesus’s body must be seen as the result of injustice by humanity under the influence of the false impersonating of the primary cause, namely the devil and its injustice. While the sacrificial death of Jesus is part of God’s plan for advancing Salvation history, I am not convinced that suffering divine violence as “penalty” is the best descriptor of Jesus’ atoning work.

That some prefer “propitiation of punishment” versus “expiation of judgment” through Christ’s sacrifice may reflect the differences in psychological makeups regarding the need for a substitutionary stand in for the violent penalty that our sin merits in Torah codes.[10] A care seeker who holds to the need for propitiation could be redirected from fear of supernatural agents which hold humanity in bondage (by anxiety at the prospect of physical brutality against the body) to the liberating power of Christ’s atonement that brings spiritual peace and bodily security.

The atonement (which is Christ’s work on the Cross, the becoming “at one” with humanity in the mission of God) culminates with a substitutionary sacrifice in that Jesus offers himself in our place—to draw off our sin (by righteously taking on [becoming] humanity’s sin [2 Cor. 5.21]) which we are unable to do--and it is atoning by this process of expiation. It is not punitive substitutionary atonement.[11] Christ as the spotless Lamb is necessary for the solution to the chronic problem of human sin (which eschatologically merits punishment), but the Cross is an expiation interval that not only dissolves the sin—into the void of death--of those who trust in Christ as their Lord and Savior, but also redeems us from the power of sin and enslavement to elemental spirits (Gal. 4.3,8; Col. 2.8, 20), our participation in sinful structural systems that inhibit the realization of the Kingdom of God. The “lutron” Greek word complex (e.g. Mt. 20.28) and its cognates supports the “ransom” (functional cf. 4 Macc. 17.21-22) versus a “payment of penalty” aspect of Christ’s work. We are liberated from sin by Christ’s redemptive work (cf. Isa. 44.22-3). The punitive violence that Jesus suffered, like that of the first Christian martyr Stephen (Acts 7.54-60), came at human hands—not directly of God, but from the enmeshed temple and imperial establishments enslaved to violent elements and so indeed from the complicit agency of all humanity born into the same slavery and sinful systems (Ps. 51:5).[12]

Finally, punishment is excluded from the agency of God, which is fear-negating love, in 1 John 4.18.  A word study of κόλασις [punishment] demonstrates that it is primarily encompassed in non-canonical texts, and specifically is a feature of intertestamental literature (BDAG 2000, 555). The other NT use of this cognate is Mt. 25.46. Such eternal punishment is not propitiation as it is delivered as a final judgement.  Such a fate is expiated by Jesus’s sacrifice for those who trust in its merits and efficacious and ontological purity, and there is no religious venue or temporal perspective for punishment’s eternal aspect. Punishment is therefore not propitiated in the Biblical witness.

Exploration of one's sense of guilt for sin (and perhaps even against Christ) follows on these considerations, and the sacrificial atonement’s assuaging messages may restore functional vocation and family life through wise and companionable Gospel messaging of forgiveness and redemption, freeing us from our recurrent anxieties


[1] A text pointing to wrath is Lam. 3.1. The concluding prepositional phrase בְּשֵׁ֖בֶט עֶבְרָתֽוֹ contains some grammatical ambiguities regarding agency or source. It can be read dialectically as an attribution of source represented by the metonomy of God’s scepter (“rod”), which elsewhere refers to a tribal group. God’s anger (noted in Lamentations 2) is in 3.1 executed by “his rod,” almost certainly by the secondary cause, human agents among whom God exercises the sovereignty of the scepter. Moreover, it is likely a mistake to read Lamentations 3 Christologically. The receiver of “his” (or “its” [the scepter’s]) wrath in 3.1 is linked to a conscious object whose bones are broken, a condition from which the Messiah is excluded (Psalm 34:20 prefigured in Exod. 12.36; Num. 9.12).

Lamentation chs. 2 and 3 are, like Isaiah 38 (and Psalm 51?) referring to the human result of localized violent conquest, not an application of divine violence onto the person of the Messiah.

[2] Cf. the purging of blood-guilt by dispersion of the people in Ezek. 22.13-17. Also: the collection and physical dispersion of the people’s wickedness by God’s agents for relocation in Shinar [Babel/Babylonia] (Zech. 5-6-11).

[3] By the principle of a fortiori, Christ as sacrifice accomplishes far more in the NT than these OT acts. (See John 1.29, 35; 1 Cor 5.7; Heb. 9.25-6; Rom. 3.25a). Christ’s sacrifice is a cosmic atonement that includes expiation, purging, cleansing, propitiatory, and reparation/redemption functions.

[4] The place of the Aqeda is stated to be Mt. Moriah in 2 Chron. 3.1, the site of the Temple Mount nearby to Golgotha (Schnittjer 2017), a geographical parallel that prefigures the typology of sacrificial substitution--of the ram for the people embodied in the hope of the promised child Isaac--and the sacrifice of the promised child Jesus as a substitute for the people.

[5] Whereas Jer. 26.16; Ezek. 29.4-5; Amos 4.2; Hab. 1.14-17 notes that people are caught like fish to face judgment, Mark 1.17 reverses this image in terms of the Gospel call, absent, at this point, of atonement theology other than the allusion in prior verses to Gen. 22.2. The messianic catch is not subject to condemnation.

[6] Expiation of the effects of sin is strongly suggested by the organic idiom and dynamic analogy of Isa. 25.8 recapitulated in 1 Cor 15.54: that God “swallows up” (piel of בָּלַע ) sin and death.

[It] is etymologically certain that the original meaning of blʿ בָּלַע was to gulp down or to swallow, lit. to snatch with the mouth and to gulp down through the esophagus”… The basic root means …to swallow food rapidly in connection with certain miraculous events: seven thin ears swallow seven fat ones (Gen. 41:7, 24), Aaron’s rod swallows the rods of the Egyptian magicians (Ex. 7:12), Yahweh’s right hand swallows the earth (Ex. 15:12), a fish swallows the prophet Jonah (Jonah 2:1[1:17])… The company with Korah is swallowed up by the ground (Nu. 16:30, 32, 34; 26:10; Dt. 11:6; Ps. 106:17), Israel is swallowed up by her enemies (Hos. 8:8; Ps. 124:3), the inhabitants of Jerusalem are swallowed up by Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. 51:34), and the godly are swallowed up (alive) by sinners (Prov. 1:12).--Schüpphaus, J. (1977). בָּלַע. In Botterweck & Ringgren (TDOT Vol. 2, pp. 137–138, emph. added).

The fulfillment of God’s promise in Isa. 25 and Psalm 20 is fulfilled by Christus Victor on the Cross as an atoning miracle of taking on and metaphorically digesting—as a blood process--the sin that deals death. This organic idiom is more properly understood as exemplifying “expiation” of the causes and effects of death rather than enduring a “propitiating” atonement of penal substitution.

[7] “The idea [Anselm’s theory of atonement] that God cannot show mercy without the satisfaction of his [punitive] justice, and that he views yet an additional crime as constituting such satisfaction, casts a most dubious picture of God.” — Robert Jenson.

[8] The faultiness of a “we” finding or considering a punitive penalty applied to the infirmity bearer in this verse is indicated by the Hebrew lexicography and sentence structure. As Goldingay notes, “(ʾākēn) with which the line begins advertises that vv. 46 testify to a new understanding which the speakers have now come to. (Goldingay and Payne 2006, Vol. 2, 304).

Thus, the bicola structure of Isa. 53.4 is set up by this initial word as a contrast--to contrast the new understanding with an old understanding of suffering, pain, and infirmity. The mid-sentence conjunction “vav” is accordingly almost certainly contrastive, so that “yet” is the warranted translation that opposes what was introduced as the “sureness” of one coming to bear our infirmities. This determination of contrastive ‘vav’ is supported by the semantic sense in the following verb חָשַׁב‎ ḥāša;, “the negative connotation [of which] can also be seen in expressions of purpose” like that denoted in this verse.--Seybold, K. חָשַׁב. (In Botterweck & Ringgren 1986, TDOT Vol. 5, 234 emph. added).

My exegesis of Isa. 53.4ff suggests that linking the bearer of infirmities to divinely-purposed penalty is not the view of the prophet, or at a minimum subject to a new or reformed understanding of the purpose and function of the one who bears infirmities, and thus of infirmities themselves. In vv. 10 and 12, crushing pain accompanies the Servant’s bearing of sin—as one would expect a holy God to experience of amassed sin--but the chapter has this bearing of infirmities imaged apotropaically rather than satisfying retributive justice. Neither of the verbs translated as “bear” in vv. 10 and 12 connote the satisfaction of a penalty. Their sense in each case is that of carrying a burden. The prophet, if he had intended to point to the satisfaction of a penalty for sin, had two opportunities to make a verbal choice to that end. Instead, he repeated the verbal sense noted, highly marking it for his hearers’ (and our) instruction.

Correspondingly, Psalm 22, with its references to the Crucifixion, notes that the infliction of suffering is delivered by human enemies characterized metaphorically as wild and powerful animals. In this profound picture of affliction, God is nowhere attributed its agent—as to fulfill a plan(ned penalty). Likewise, John 19.37 quoting Zec. 12.10 attributes common cause of those who looked on with those who “pierced” God’s servant. The agency of piercing is explicitly attributed to humans, not with God. By implication of this silence regarding divine participation, we may conclude that the responsible agents of the Servant’s piercing are humans.

[9] Branson, R. D., & Botterweck, G. J. יָסַר. (In Botterweck and Ringgren 1990, TDOT Vol. 6, p. 130).

[10] This psychology marks and underlies Jephthah’s sacrificial vow in Judg. 11.30ff. Jephthah links deliverance with nepocidal sacrifice. This tragic agent was ignorant of his father and the responsibility of fatherhood—elemental features of theology and shalom. His psychological dysfunction and theological ignorance brings forth the death of his child. Jephthah’s ultimate tragic flaw is to commend and follow through with human sacrifice for the maintenance of his well-being. Is such a tragic, willful psychology and piety behind human need to see Jesus’ sacrifice as an offering to God that satisfies and delivers from punitive wrath? Debased sacrificial psychology is a problem laid onto the flawed and unbelieving figure of Jephthah whose actions figure as the reverse of the Passover ( Anti-type parallels with the death of Jesus include the unnamed daughter’s virginity (her lack of progeny) and her weeping request for concessions (prefiguring Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane). And yet, Jephthah tragically recapitulates the agonistic ultimacy of pagan piety in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis. His appeasement is pagan sacrificial atonement that deals death, in contrast with Jesus’ triumphant, atoning expiatory sacrifice that gives life in and through his blood.

The shocking story of Jephthah reveals what happens when a man of ambition and eloquence operates inside of God’s real and canonical silence. Such a man creates an idol of his own solipsistic and violent persona which he deems to demand appeasement. Jephthah encapsulates Israelite agonism: he is a brutalizer of his jealous and haughty countrymen, a bargainer with his idea of god, a manipulator and victimizer. The result is his offering his daughter to gain glory, goals, and graces. Yet: Atonement is not appeasement. Sacrificing for the appeasement of a silent god reveals the self-projecting echo chambers of agonistic (not: agnostic) mind and unwise piety.

[11] Cf. the picture of the people’s dispersion in Ezek. 22.13-17. Their blood-guilt is purged by the divine sanction of their exile from the land, not by the infliction of violent wrath upon their persons. Such violence as they may be subject is of a secondary cause.

                A substitutionary punitive atonement obscures the transmission of primary cause becoming secondary causation by our participation in Christ indicated in 2 Cor. 5.20-21 and emphatically contextualized by v. 6.1. More work needs to be done on the processive (“becoming”) nature of righteous causations in those verses without reverting to a simplistic, miraculous emergence (instantaneous status) denoted by the claim of “imputation.” Cf.

[12] To discern punitive violence coming from the hand of God almost certainly mistakes secondary causation for ontology. This can be illustrated by contrasting Edith Hamilton's translation of Aeschylus’ "Agamemnon" ll. 181-183 with Richard Lattimore's. The latter’s rendering of the Greek is more appropriately pagan and less Christianized, pointing correctly to plural "spirits" (δαιμόνων) as the source of "violent (βίαιος) grace." Genesis 50:20 illustrates the dialectic of this confusion, by which we might suspect that the tendency to see the One God as the author of violence is categorically pagan and tragically contrary to ontology.

[12] Lambert 2016, 135: "Only the infinite God could bear the infinite penalty of sins for the human race (Rom. 8:3–4 [sic!]; Heb. 10:12).

Like elsewhere noted, Lambert’s Biblical citations here do not explicitly mention any penalty paid by Jesus, and thus do not explicitly support a doctrine of substitutional propitiation of penalty. While propitiation of penalty may an ancillary dialectic of Christ’s work, the capacity of his divine nature is to accept and bear God’s judgment and, in the blood of his pure human nature, to expiate it. Only the divine Son can bear the divine judgement on humanity.


Botterweck, G. J. & H. Ringgren (Eds.), D. E. Green (Trans.). Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 1977, 1986, 1990.

Goldingay, J., & Payne, D. (2006). A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 40–55. (G. I. Davies & G. N. Stanton, Eds.). London; New York: T&T Clark.

Lambert, Heath. A Theology of Biblical Counseling: The Doctrinal Foundations of Counseling Ministry. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016.

n.b.: The cited page numbers from this source were derived from an electronic pdf and may vary from the published book by a 1-2 pages.

___“Guilt and Repentance.” Presented at the Northcreek Counseling Training Conference, Walnut Creek, CA, September 18, 2021.

Schnittjer, Gary E. The Torah Story Video Lectures: An Apprenticeship on the Pentateuch. MasterLectures. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017.