Almost 4 years ago, I wrote about my belief that, if there is an overarching model of the atonement it is the victory of Christ (Christus Victor), but penal substitution is a very important aspect of Christ’s victory. So the two are not alternatives, they fit together wonderfully.
That idea has continued to make very good sense to me and I’m always encouraged when I read material that reinforces and nuances it for me. An instance of this occurred when I read D. A. Carson’s article, “Adumbrations of Atonement Theology in the Fourth Gospel” (JETS 57/3 :513-22).
Carson examines closely the thesis put forward by Terence Forestell in The Word of the Cross: Salvation as Revelation in the Fourth Gospel. Forestell is proposing “that the theology of the cross in John is displayed not in some theory of vicarious sacrifice but in the theme of revelation” (Carson, 513). It troubles Carson that Forestell’s book “has been remarkably influential in shaping the way many scholars have talked about the cross in John,” although few have followed him all the way (513). Carson’s exegetical work on 7 passages in John’s Gospel is very helpful. He does not deny the importance of the revelatory work of Jesus which Forestell emphasizes so strongly. Indeed, he grants that “the theme of revelation is richly prevalent and highly evocative” (522). But Carson does well to point out that John’s soteriology makes much more of the cross than one gathers from Forestell’s portrait.
It is precisely in the atoning death of Christ that God has revealed himself to us. The cross and resurrection are the climactic self-disclosures of God, not because they hang there naked at the end of history to serve as self-disclosures of nothing but the vaguest sense of divine sentimental love, but because at the climax of redemptive history God supremely reveals himself to be the loving, sin-bearing God anticipated by the trajectories of old covenant revelation.
Forestell himself identifies John 1:29 as the greatest challenge to his thesis. For John the Baptist “points to Jesus with the words, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,’ substantially repeated in 1:36” (518). Forestell “admits that the terminology does in fact ‘suggest a sacrificial victim,’ (The Word of the Cross, 194; cited 519)” and he treats the literature on this text extensively, but he interprets it primarily as a reference “to a cultic interpretation of Jesus’ death in the liturgical practice of the Johannine community” (The Word of the Cross, 194; cited 519).
This is where my own interest was particularly roused by Carson’s critique, by the significance John 1:29 possibly has for my thesis that the penal substitutionary work of Christ is an aspect of his victory over evil and the evil one. Carson writes:
But another interpretation of John 1:29 refocuses the issue somewhat. Several have observed that Second Temple Judaism sometimes spoke, rather confusingly, of a warrior lamb. God’s people may be likened to a weak lamb, sheep sent to the slaughter, but one day this lamb will be a warrior. I suspect that that is what John the Baptist has in mind, and that is why the Greek verb for “takes away” (sin) is not the usual one in atonement contexts. Jesus is the apocalyptic warrior lamb—and he will take away sin, sure enough. But John the evangelist, in line with his capacity to point out how people can speak better than they know (witness Caiaphas in John 11), believes that John the Baptist is also speaking better than he knows: Jesus is indeed the Lamb of God who takes away sin, but in a manner wholly unexpected by one who expected that the Messiah would come with thundering judgment (e.g. Matt 3:9–12). Confirmation of this view becomes pretty strong if we hold that John the seer, the writer of the Apocalypse, is none other than John the evangelist. For then we cannot overlook the fact that in the glorious vision of Revelation 4–5 the only one who can bring about God’s purposes in judgment and redemption by taking the scroll from God’s right hand and opening its seals is the Lion/Lamb—and that Lamb is simultaneously a slaughtered, sacrificial Lamb, and one with seven horns, symbolizing the perfection of all kingly authority. John the evangelist, I submit, knew all this, and that is why he believed that John the Baptist spoke better than he knew. (519).
The Apostle John’s writing may not be sufficient to ground my hypothesis about Christ’s victory as overarching metaphor of the atonement but, at the very least, he gives us a powerful reminder that Jesus is both Lion and Lamb. He is the one who successfully defeats all of his enemies, and his supreme act in accomplishing that victory is the laying down of his life to ransom sinners and to deliver them – from the fear of death, from the condemnation which our transgression of God’s law brings upon us, and from the power of the evil one whose right to hold us in bondage is secured by the law of God (Col 2:13-15).