Atonement maths

Because sin doesn't really weigh anything does it

Posted on June 06, 2017

How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

Hebrews 9:14

I remember it from my childhood and I still hear it occasionally today. The notion that the extent of Jesus' suffering somehow has a direct correlation with the extent of his sacrifice and the totality of a Christian's forgiveness. I have sat through sermons where the details of roman crucifixions have been painstakingly explained as if to say: every lash of that whip was another sin of yours being forgiven. 

And it still rears its head today. I hear it often at prayers during communion. Sentiments such as "We can't comprehend the pain and suffering you went through for us..." seems to betray this theological mathematics which equates His quantifiable level of suffering with the amount of forgiveness or justification He was able to secure on our behalf. 

Online there are even whispers of people saying that perhaps Jesus suffered more pain then anyone has ever suffered, and thats what made his sacrifice effective.

Martin Luther, at the beginning of a sermon about Jesus the great high priest, had this to say about Jesus' sacrifice:

"Though the body and blood of Christ were visible the same as any other material object, the fact that he offered them as a sacrifice was not apparent. It was not a visible sacrifice, as in the case of offerings at the hands of Aaron... Christ offered himself in the heart before God. His sacrifice was perceptible to no mortal. Therefore, his bodily flesh and blood becomes a spiritual sacrifice."

Christ our Great High Priest, Martin Luther

The mystery of how Jesus brought about the redemption of His Church at the cross is precisely that, a mystery. His act of sacrifice cannot be measured by how many lashes he received or how big the nails were. His sacrifice was a spiritual one, it was offered through the activity of the Spirit. This is not to say that his physical pain and death was pointless, but rather to say that something else was going on as Jesus died and gave himself over to sin.

This idea is helpfully made clear to us through the Lord's supper. This relationship of physical reality signifying spiritual reality is what is at the heart of all sacraments. We are commanded to eat bread and drink wine, yet we do not believe that the bread and wine have physical transformative powers of their own. Rather that they symbolise a deeper reality. So we don't eat lots of bread in order to receive lots of grace, and neither did Jesus suffer lots in order to secure a lot of atonement*. 

The bread, the wine, the cross, the nails, are all necessary, physical reminders that something is happening that is beyond human vision and logic. It is too simplistic and not at all helpful to say anything that amounts to "his pain, your gain" - and it makes for a terrible tattoo

The words are mine, the ink is from here