The Silence of the Lambs
I admit I am at a bit of a loss regarding where to go with this series on the atonement. The whole reason we initially delved into the Old Testament and its Levitical sacrifices was to lay some groundwork for turning to the Epistle to the Hebrews, since that is the New Testament’s locus classicus when it comes to the idea of priestly sacrifice. But as I look over the epistle and consider its relevant texts, I can’t seem to find a passage that even hints mildly at the idea that one of the ways that Christ fulfilled the Old Covenant was by receiving the divine punishment for man’s guilt and sin. Like, the idea is nowhere to be found in the whole letter, there’s not even a 50/50 passage that could conceivably be taken in that direction that I could consider and show how to interpret it in a more Catholic way.
The letter’s Catholic already, it’s almost as if a Catholic wrote it or something. . . .
For example, the sequence of events at Calvary, as portrayed by Hebrews, consisted simply of Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice, followed by our sin being expiated by God:
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. . . . Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (2:9-10, 14-15).
The tasting of death for every man in this passage results directly in the bringing of many sons to glory. The more statements like this we consider, the more it almost sounds automatic, as though the offering as such, all by itself, was satisfying enough to accomplish this feat, even without divine fury being rained down upon it.
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek (5:7-10).
We see here something similar to what I highlighted in the post on the way Jesus and the apostles spoke of the crucifixion in the Gospels and Acts: The only role the Father is mentioned as having in the crucifixion is that of allowing the actions of wicked men to accomplish their purpose, and then to come to the Son’s rescue in the resurrection. But more to the point, in this passage we again get the idea that the suffering and sacrifice of Christ, in and of themselves, are effectual for securing eternal salvation. Nothing has to be done to the offering in order for it to expiate sin in the form of unleashing divine wrath. It’s accepted as is.
But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (9:26).
Again, the sacrifice as offered is enough to put away sin. The obedience and humiliation of Christ displayed throughout his earthly life were not merely to prep the sacrifice so as to make it fitting for wrath-bearing. The sacrifice is inherently worthy (“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain…”) and therefore effectual for putting sin away.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 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. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. (9:11-15).
What was it that secured eternal redemption? It was the entrance of Jesus into the Holy of Holies with his own blood to offer. As the writer says, the blood of Christ purifies our consciences, and his death redeems us from previously committed transgressions.
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. . . . But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (9:24, 26b).
We see again that according to the inspired author, the appearance of Jesus as the Lamb in the heavenly sanctuary is what expiated sin. no mention here of that sacrifice bearing divine wrath.
When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (10:8-10).
What is it that sanctifies us? The mere offering of the body of Christ — his sacrifice, as given and not as punished. Finally,
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (10:11-14).
So sufficient was Jesus’ sacrifice that, when offered, he could sit down at the Father’s right hand, knowing that his single offering perfects for all time those who embrace it.
My point in adducing all these passages is to highlight the fact that, despite being the most relevant texts in the NT’s most relevant book when it comes to this matter, none of them mentions, or even breathes a hint of, the idea that a central component in the sacrifice of Christ was his bearing the guilt of man and wrath of his Father. Now is this in some sense an argument from silence? Yes, it is. But it is a significant silence, much like the silence we observed from Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts about this issue. It is a silence that Catholics expect but Protestants need to explain, for if penal substitution were true, silence about it in Hebrews is embarrassing, while if it’s false, such silence is j u s t what you’d expect.