The Atoning Work of Jesus: Joel B. Green
For many, it is difficult to understand how the death of one man, considered to be sacrificial, can be a covering or atonement for sin. Still, this is what Christians believe Jesus did for them. Through his death on the cross Jesus reconciled, redeemed, conquered, and was a propitiation for our sins. How to understand and define some of these concepts has kept many scholars and pastors busy for some time. This interview with Joel B. Green is not going to focus on some of the hot topics of debate but we wanted to ask questions regarding broader aspects of the atonement that run through the Gospels and Paul's letters to see how these reflections apply to believers. Joel B. Green is the Associate Dean of the Center for Advanced Theological Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and has written and edited more than 40 books including the New International Commentary on the New Testament. More of his publications will be listed below. Although there may be points of disagreement with the particulars of Dr. Green's views on the atonement, though none are detected here, I do appreciate his voice in the conversation and believe that he has many helpful things to say and consider as the Church reflects on the atonement. One thing is for certain, Jesus died that we may have life, and this death/atonement is being expressed in a variety of ways, as Green has written, "This encourages us to believe that no one model of the atonement will fit all sizes and shapes, all needs and contexts where the church is growing and active in mission. This means, ultimately, that the next chapter of this book is being written in places throughout the world, where communities of Jesus' disciples are practicing the craft of theologian-communicator and struggling with fresh and faithful images for broadcasting the mystery of Jesus' salvific death." - Dan & Casey
AT: Do the Synoptic Gospels teach an atonement theology?
Dr. Green: Yes, the Synoptic Gospels support an atonement theology. When Jesus says that “it is necessary” that he go up to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the Jerusalem leadership, and that he be executed, he refers to the necessity that he live out his life fully in sync with God’s saving purpose. When the Gospel writers interpret the suffering and death of Jesus in accordance with Israel’s Scriptures, they both show how best to read those Scriptures and demonstrate that Jesus’s death is nothing less than the outworking of God’s project to save the world.
How the Gospels speak of Jesus's death in these terms differs from Gospel to Gospel, though one particularly important scene is found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. I refer to the Last Supper -- a meal pregnant with the imagery of Passover and exodus in which Jesus announced that the new exodus, God’s decisive act of deliverance, was coming to fruition in his death, the climax of his mission. With his words over the meal, Jesus developed the meaning of his death in language and images grounded in the constitution of Israel as God's covenant people (Exod 24:8), the conclusion of the exile (see Zech 9:9-11), and the hope of a new covenant (Jer 31:31-33), so as to mark his death as the inaugural event of covenant renewal.
AT: Does Paul emphasize Christus Victor in his letters?
Dr. Green: In various ways, Paul emphasizes the cross as an act of God’s gracious initiative and urges that, in Christ, God brought salvation to the world. For Paul, human beings are slaves to sin and death, and therefore stand in need of deliverance. Accordingly, among the ways Paul speaks of the saving significance of Jesus's death, he presents the cross as God’s victory over the rulers of this world. This emphasis may be most profoundly stated in Phil 2:5-11, where Paul anticipates the final victory of God in Christ, when every knee shall bow to Christ Jesus the Lord. I think immediately, too, of Colossians 1:13-14, where we read that God rescues us out of darkness and brings us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, identifying that rescue act as our salvation.
AT: How does the atonement apply to believers both individually and corporately?
Dr. Green: Jesus's death on a Roman cross has significance for the whole world, the entire cosmos of God's creation, and this includes everyone in the human family. The cross of Christ is the means by which God restores Israel and embraces the Gentiles within God's family, the means by which God reconciles the world to himself. Jesus's crucifixion thus stands as an invitation to all, both to receive God's salvation and to orient our lives in ways that embody Jesus's offering of himself on behalf of others. In this sense, then Jesus's death concerns our relationships with God as well as our lives in the world, so that our atonement theology simply must be worked out in ways that relate to day-to-day existence.
AT: How has the death and atonement of Jesus changed your life for the better?
Dr. Green: Jesus's death changes everything. Jesus's death is the means by which I am able to come to God at all, Jesus's death is becoming the lens through which I understand God's character and the nature of God's agenda in the world , and so Jesus's death continually calls me to a life that is cruciform and diaconal -- sacrificial and service-oriented. My relationships with my family, within my church, in the classroom and with my colleagues, with my neighbor, with people from other racial and ethnic and socio-economic groups, and, indeed, with all of God's creation are being transformed by the crucified Christ.