God proves his love for us
in that while we still were sinners
Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8)
There is a prevailing notion of redemption that sees Jesus as the “whipping boy” who gets all the stripes in place of us all, who are the real culprits. He is looked upon as the “substitute,” the “scapegoat” as it were, who bears the burden of all our sins and absorbs all the wrath of his offended Father-God so that we could be spared from the punishment that we all deserve.
This notion has caused no small amount of discomfort among Christians who want to take their faith seriously. Could they be blamed for feeling that way? The notion seems to turn Jesus into a masochist and his Father into a sadistic and bloodthirsty deity. This is not exactly our idea of a sound, self-sacrificing love, and this is certainly not Paul’s notion of redemption. Yet we still hear it preached from the pulpit or extolled in pious Christian hymns and poetry.
Rather than trace the development (or distortion) of doctrine, let us go back to the thought of Paul, the earliest writer of the New Testament and the first ever to articulate an understanding of the saving death of Jesus Christ. It may come as a surprise, and certainly a relief, to see what a far cry his notion of redemption is from what has been outlined above.
Paul’s thoughts in his letter to the Romans may seem difficult to unravel at first sight. It may help to know that in Romans 1-11 Paul is trying to make a single point, arguing in a pattern of concentric circles. He is demonstrating humankind’s condition with and without Christ, with various arguments to strengthen and drive home this main point. In Romans 7 he describes the human being’s helpless plight under the power of sin and in Romans 8 begins by speaking of God’s initiative to save humankind from this impossible condition. In a single verse, Paul is able to articulate what redemption is all about. He tells us in Rom 8:3 (RSV)—“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin (i.e. as a sin-offering), he condemned sin in the flesh.” This is a loaded verse and needs to be unpacked.
The Jews consider the law as capable of freeing them from sin and death and of putting them in a state of rectitude before God. Paul denies this. He argues that even if the law supplies knowledge of sin and points out the proper action that human beings should take, it does not give them the power to actually get rid of sin. The law is impotent when faced with the resistance of human flesh that is sold to sin. Sin is conceived of by Paul as a power which feeds parasitically upon human weakness and whose effective power in human affairs is limited to the flesh. The human flesh is sin’s point of entry and its nesting place. By the mere fact that human beings are “flesh,” they have an “inclination to sin” and the law is powerless to change that situation. Only an action of God can rescue humankind from this helpless situation.
…sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh
God’s action is totally unexpected—he sends his own Son. The qualifier “in the likeness of sinful flesh” is Paul’s way of expressing Jesus’ complete identification with humankind in its fallenness. The notion of “flesh” in this passage is quite neutral. It does not speak of the human being as guilty, but simply refers to human nature in its weakness and corruptibility, its being subject to temptation, to appetites and desires, and finally to death, which Paul calls the “wage of sin.” Jesus assumes our sinful flesh for it is the only “arena” where sin could be engaged in battle and destroyed. It is in this sense that Paul sees Jesus as the “representative-man.”
The work of reconciliation between God and humankind is not carried out by an outside Savior, but is the working out of supreme love and obedience in human nature. After the failure of the first Adam, God still achieves his purpose for humankind, not by undoing the first effort and starting all over again, but by working through humankind in its fallenness—that is, in the person of Jesus, the representative-man. He is the second Adam, similar in every way to the first, except for one thing. The first Adam is sinful flesh for whom sin is a lived reality. The second Adam is sinful flesh for whom sin is a possibility. In the expression “likeness of sinful flesh,” the word “likeness” is connected with the adjective “sinful” and not with the noun “flesh.” Jesus was real flesh, and his flesh appeared to be an ally of sin, but it never was.
…and for sin (i.e. as a sin-offering)
The same Hebrew word (hatta’t) can be translated both as “sin” and “sin-offering,” the latter referring to both the sacrificial ritual and the animal that is offered in atonement for sins. This brings out more vividly Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ death in terms of cultic sacrifice, which is in continuity with, and in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Just as Jesus, in his death, represents humankind in its fallenness, so Paul sees the sin-offering as representing the sinner in his/her death to being a sinner.
And so Paul says, “thus God proves his love for us.”
Excerpted from Glimpses of Paul and His Message
Bernardita Dianzon, FSP, is a member of the Daughters of St Paul. She obtained her Licentiate in Sacred Scriptures from the Pontifical Biblical Institute and her Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Loyola School of Theology, where she also teaches the Letters of Paul and biblical Greek.
About the image:
Paul the Apostle (Gregorio Sciltian, 20th century); Photo by Sergia Ballini, FSP