Metaphors of salvation

Paul used a very rich variety of metaphors and symbols, including many metaphors of salvation. We must be very careful not to literalize his metaphors.

How a person is saved, is explained differently by different people:

In Christian circles we often hear that a price had to be legally paid, and Christ paid that price by His blood.  But words such as “redemption” and “justifications” are only metaphors.  We should not literalize them.  Paul uses many other metaphors for how God saves sinners.  For instance, in the letter to the Colossians, he also says that the believers have been:

  • Qualified to share in the inheritance of the saints (1:12)
  • Rescued from the domain of darkness (1:13)
  • Transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son (1:13)
  • Redeemed (1:14 – paid the required price. )
  • Reconciled – as to an old friend (1:22)
  • Received Christ Jesus the Lord (2:6);
  • Made complete (2:10)
  • Circumcised with a circumcision made without hands (2:11)
  • Buried with Him in baptism … raised up with Him (2:12)
  • Made alive together with Him (were dead in your transgressions 2:13)
  • Raised up with Christ (3:1 – died with Christ 2:20; 3:3) -)
  • Canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us (2:14)
  • Chosen of God (3:12)
  • Forgiven (their sins – 1:14; 2:13)

Some of these expressions are very symbolic.  Others, like the forgiveness of sins, are more literal.  Paul used a very rich variety of metaphors and symbols.  He sometimes even changes his metaphors in mid-sentence (e.g. 2:7).

Another famous metaphor of Paul is Justification.  Reformed theology, clinging to the word Justification, hold to the Forensic View of Atonement.  The Justification metaphor appears often in Romans and Galatians, but is not used even once in Colossians, probably because the Colossians Christians were Gentiles, and Justification was the way in which the Jews thought of how people are saved.  They recognized their sins and saw God as their judge, before which they stand guilty.  But they also thought that they were justified (put in a right legal standing with God) by the works of the Law (by the rituals, sacrifices and ceremonies prescribed by the law).  This included circumcision and ceremonial washings.  They thought that these things will compensate for their sins and legally justify them before God.  Therefore Paul used forensic metaphors when speaking to Jews, arguing that one is not justified by the works of the Law, but simply by grace through faith.

But the Forensic View of Atonement under-emphasizes God’s love and mercy for mankind.  It is often explained from pulpits that Christ stands between God and man, continually pleading His blood for the sins of His people.  This is a horrible distortion of the good news.  To mention a few:

It is the Father who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light, rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Colossians 1:12-13).

God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16).

Christ is the Lamb of God (John 1:29).

Jesus said, “I do not say to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you” (John 16:26-27)

Therefore, by over-emphasizing and literalizing one metaphor of salvation, the Forensic View of Atonement paints a very unbiblical view of God.

Reconciliation is another one of Paul’s powerful metaphors (Col. 1:20-21, Eph. 2:16; Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:18, 20).  He presents God as our friend from whom we have been alienated (Col. 1:21), and to Whom we must be reconciled.  This God has done through the cross.  The difference between a believer and a non-believer isn’t merely forgiveness; it is reconciliation.

The point is that we must be very careful not to literalize Paul’s metaphors.  These are all descriptions in human language of what happens when we put our faith (trust) in God.  We learn something of reality from each of these metaphors, but we should not promote one at the expense of the others, or interpret any of them unduly literal.  As discussed in the article titled “Disarmed the rulers and authorities”, the problem that was solved by the Cross is much more complex.  See also the discussion of the word “Atonement”, where it is explained that the Greek word translated Atonement in the KJV of the New Testament is simply reconciliations.

TO: General Table of Contents

Atonement

Atonement has come to mean paying a penalty to meet legal demands. When the Bible was first translated to English Atonement referred to the state of being in unity – being AT-ONE.

Making amendsCommonly, in the last century or two or three, atonement has come to mean making amends or paying a penalty to meet legal demands, to propitiate wrath or to adjust one’s to legal standing.  To some atonement is the thing Christ did to reconcile the Father unto us and assuage His offended wrath.

But that is not the original meaning of the term, and it is definitely not the meaning of the word in the Bible.  The only place you’ll find the word, in the King James Version, is in Romans 5:10. But the word in the Greek is the very common word ‘katallasso’.  There’s no hint of making amends in this word.  It means ‘reconciliation’. Holman’s Bible dictionary defines this word as follows:

Reconciliation … specifically the reconciliation between God and humanity effected by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.  … The New Testament rarely uses a word for atonement. The basic Greek word is usually translated “to reconcile”.  The basic meaning is to establish friendship.

Therefore Romans 5:10, in the NASB, reads:

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom 5:10).

The dictionaries agree that this word ‘atonement’ is a made-up word, namely ‘at-one‐ment’. That’s the way the word started.  It was based on a verb, ‘to one’. Two people are fighting, and you are sent out to ‘one’ them. Not ‘win’ them; to ‘one’ them.  And then when you have succeeded in ‘one-ing’ people, then, hopefully, they would remain in a state of oneness.  It is the state of being ‘at one’ that is atonement, not the process ‘one-ing’ people. Atonement therefore means to be in harmony or unity.  That is what “atonement” meant when the Bible was first translated into English.  In the Bible it is God, because He loves us, that sent His Son (“the Lamb of God”-John 1:29) to bring His people back to Him (John 3:16).

There’s only one dictionary that really give the history of the word, and that’s a multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary. It shows how, for a long time, it was used in its original sense of being at one, reconciling people to harmony; friendship is often mentioned, unity, and so on. Now, later on somehow, it was changed to mean ‘making amends, paying penalty’, and that’s the way it’s commonly used now.

So how did the meaning of the word atonement change so much?  It was the forensic doctrine of salvation that changed the meaning of “atonement” over the centuries.  The forensic doctrine of salvation teaches that somebody must pay for sins committed.  TIt presents God as angry and the death of Christ as a sacrifice to pacify God.  It was because the reformers had this understanding of the purpose of Christ’s death that the meaning of “atonement” has slowly changed over the centuries to “reparation for an offence or injury” (Merriam-Webster).

But that is not how we should understand the purpose of Christ’s death.  It is not God that must change.  The blood of the Cross did not change how the Father feels about sinners.  The opposite is rather true, namely that the blood of Christ was the means by which the Father changed the hearts and minds of His creatures; to be reconciled to Himself (Colossians 1:20).  It is us that must change.  It is not God that is angry; it is His creatures that are “hostile in mind” (Colossians 1:21).  In the Bible God is never reconciled to us.  Colossians 1:20-22 indicates that God, through Christ, reconciled all things “to Himself” (1:20).

Please also see the article Christ’s death reconciled us to God for further information.

TO: General Table of Contents

Colossians 1:20-22

Summary:  These verses can be analysed into the following statements:

  1. Before Christ’s death there was “war” between God and His intelligent creatures; both on earth and in heaven.
  2. That war was caused by the aggression of God’s intelligent creatures against Him.
  3. God was not angry with His enemies.
  4. To bring an end to the war, God changed the minds of His enemies by providing evidence through Christ’s death.
  5. The intelligent beings in heaven also needed the evidence provided by the cross
  6. God forgives completely.

1:20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. 1:21 And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, 1:22 yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—

Before Christ’s death there was “war” between God and His intelligent creatures; both on earth and in heaven.

Through Himthe Father reconciled “all things to Himself” and also “made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him” (1:20).  To reconcile therefore means to make peace between God and His alienated intelligent creatures.  This is also seen in verses 21 and 22, where it is stated that the Colossians previously were “hostile in mind”—which indicates a lack of peace—but now are “reconciled”.  Since God had to make “peace”, there previously was war.

The blood of Christ not only reconciles humans to the Father; even the “things in heaven” are reconciled to the Father through His blood (1:20).  This means that there also was war in heaven.  The Bible is generally silent on the war in heaven.  With the exception of a few places (Job 1:6-; Eph. 1:10; 3:10; Col. 1:20-22; etc.) the Bible only describes events on earth.  But right at the beginning of the Bible we read that Satan came to deceive our first parents.  Sin therefore did not originate on earth; the rebellion against God started elsewhere: in what we may call heaven.  Revelation 12:7 describes that war as between two groups of angels:

And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon. The dragon and his angels waged war

This “dragon” is a symbol for Satan (Rev. 12:9).  Satan and his angels are alienated from and hostile towards Him, to quote from Colossians 1:21.

It is this war that spilled over to earth when Satan deceived our first parents, and which is continued today:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places“ (Eph. 6:12).

That war was caused by the aggression of God’s intelligent creatures against Him.

Notice the ‘before’ and ‘after’ conditions of the Colossians:

Before they were reconciled, they were “alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds” (1:21).

After they were reconciled and at “peace” with God, they were “holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (1:22), i.e. the absence of evil deeds.

It is not God that is described as “hostile”, but His intelligent creatures.  God is perfectly good.  “Evil deeds” are acts of aggression against God.

God was not angry with His enemies.

Since “Him” and “His” in the current verses refer to Christ, these are things which the Father did “through Him”.  It is important to note that it is God that made peace with His enemies; His enemies did not make peace with Him.  The Father took the initiative and through Christ unilaterally acted to reconcile His enemies to Himself.  This means that it is not the Father that is angry with His enemies; it is His enemies that are angry with God.  They are trying to exclude Him from their lives in all possible ways.  A common method is to insult God by using His name in vain, and even to use His name as a swearword.

Some people conclude from the Bible that God is angry and that Christ died to pacify Him.  The current verses present His enemies as angry, and God as the One that seeks reconciliation.  God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (John 3:16).

To bring an end to the war, God changed the minds of His enemies by providing evidence through Christ’s death.

The previous verses explained who Christ is.  By using the word “through” four times, the current verses (1:20-22) shift the focus to what God did through Christ, indicating that Christ was the Means of reconciliation:

The Father “through Him … reconcile all things to Himself … through the blood of His cross; through Him” (1:20).  That includes the Colossian Christians, who were “reconciled … in His fleshly body through death” (1:22).

We should not think that His literal blood has any magical power.  “Through the blood of His cross” (1:20) means “in His fleshly body through death” (1:22).  “Blood” is therefore a symbol of His death.

The question now is how Christ’s death succeeded “to reconcile all things to Himself” (1:20):

According to Colossians 2:15 the cross made a “public display” of the “rulers and authorities”.  These are supernatural beings. (See discussion of 2:10)

According to Romans 3:25-26 the cross made a “public display” of Christ to demonstrate His (the Father’s) righteousness; to show the Father as just in spite of the fact that He justifies (forgives) people.

In Revelation the victory of “Michael and his angels” over “the dragon and his angels” is expressed as that the “dragon” and “his angels” were “thrown down” (v9) from heaven (v8) to earth (v12).  Since Satan is represented as accusing “our brethren … before our God day and night” (Rev. 12:10), his being “thrown down” (v9) from heaven (v8) implies that the cross of Christ made it impossible for him to further accuse “our brethren”.  The analysis of Revelation 12 concludes that this victory was won through “her child“ (Christ), when He “was caught up to God and to His throne” (Rev. 12:5).

For the following reasons it is therefore proposed that God reconciled His enemies with Himself by changing the minds of His enemies by providing evidence:

  • Christ’s death is said to be a “public display” (Col. 2:15; Rom. 3:25-26).
  • Christ’s death is said to be a demonstration of God’s righteousness (Rom. 3:25-26).
  • Christ’s death is said to have made an end to Satan’s ability to accuse “our brethren” (Rev. 12:8-10). As stated by Colossians 2:15, the cross “disarmed the rulers and authorities”.

To combine these thoughts: by accusing “our brethren”, Satan was actually accusing God of injustice for forgiving (justifying) “our brethren”.  Somehow the public display and demonstration of both Christ and the “rulers and authorities” through the cross made it impossible for Satan to further accuse “our brethren” because it has been shown the justice of God.  In other words, Satan’s arguments were proven false by the public demonstration of the cross.

To take this idea further, we need to ask what Christ’s death revealed of Christ, of God and of Satan.  This will not be discussed now.

If the cross made peace, why are we still involved in the war?  In the words of Revelation, peace came to heaven when Satan was cast out of heaven, but he was given more time on earth (12:9-12).  Why?  This issue is addressed in the discussion of the seals in Revelation.

The intelligent beings in the heaven also needed the evidence provided by the cross.

This brings us to the perhaps surprising conclusion that the intelligent beings in the heaven also needed the evidence provided by the cross.  The war that is started in heaven is ended on earth.  The struggle that you and I are involved in, has cosmic implications.

God forgives completely.

Lastly, the Colossian Christians were reconciled “to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (1:22).  As verse 23 indicates, this must still happen.  But the point here is that God will not hold the sins of His people against them.  God is the great Physician.  He wants to heal us of a deadly cancer.  Yes, our evil deeds are aggression against Him, but once we are healed from this cancer He will not hold it against us.

Atonement

Another way in which the Bible expresses the “reconcile”-concept is “make atonement”, as indicated by the following definition of “atonement”:

Atonement: reconciliation … specifically the reconciliation between God and humanity effected by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.  … The New Testament rarely uses a word for atonement. The basic Greek word is katallasso, usually translated “to reconcile”.  The basic meaning is to establish friendship. (Holman Bible dictionary)

The original meaning of “atonement” is “at-one-ment”, which means to be “at-one”, which means to be reconciled.  That is what “atonement” meant when the Bible was first translated into English.  In the Bible it is God, because He loves us, that sent His Son (“the Lamb of God”-John 1:29) to bring His people back to Him (John 3:16).  But the forensic doctrine of salvation caused the meaning of “atonement” to change over the centuries.  The forensic doctrine of salvation teaches that somebody must pay for sins committed.  This doctrine presents God as angry and the death of Christ as a sacrifice to pacify God.  Therefore “atonement” has today come to mean “reparation for an offence or injury” (Merriam-Webster).

But that is not how we should understand the purpose of Christ’s death.  It is not God that must change.  The blood of the Cross did not change how the Father feels about sinners.  The opposite is rather true, namely that the blood of Christ was the means by which the Father changed the hearts and minds of His creatures; to be reconciled to Himself (1:20).  It is us that must change.  It is not God that is angry; it is His creatures that are “hostile in mind” (1:21).  In the Bible God is never reconciled to us.  The current verses (Col. 1:20-22) indicate that God, through Christ, reconciled all things “to Himself” (1:20).  And in Romans 5:10 we read:

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Rom 5:10).

Colossians Table of Contents

Next: 1:23-28