We must not interpret Paul’s metaphors of salvation literally.

The Cross

This is an article in the series on the atonement.

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


Metaphors of Salvation

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 interpret them literally.  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 (Col 1:12)
      • Rescued from the domain of darkness (Col 1:13)
      • Transferred to the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col 1:13)
      • Redeemed – paid the required price (Col 1:14)
      • Reconciled – as to an old friend (Col 1:22)
      • Received Christ Jesus the Lord (Col 2:6);
      • Made complete (Col 2:10)
      • Circumcised with a circumcision made without hands (Col 2:11)
      • Buried with Him in baptism … raised up with Him (Col 2:12)
      • Made alive together with Him
        – were dead in your transgressions (Col 2:13)
      • Raised up with Christ (Col 3:1 – died with Christ Col 2:20; 3:3)
      • Canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us (Col 2:14)
      • Chosen of God (Col 3:12)
      • Forgiven (their sins – Col 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. Col 2:7).

Justification

Another famous metaphor that Paul uses is Justification.  Reformed theology, emphasizing this metaphor, holds 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 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.

God’s love for mankind

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 (Col 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 by literally interpreting one metaphor of salvation, the Forensic View of Atonement paints a very un-Biblical view of God.

Reconciliation

Reconciliation is another one of Paul’s powerful metaphors of salvation (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 interpret Paul’s metaphors literally. These are all descriptions in a 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 as Atonement in the KJV of the New Testament is simply reconciliations.

Atonement does not mean to pacify God’s anger. God is not angry.

Summary

In the last few centuries, Atonement has come to mean making amends to propitiate wrath. To many, Atonement is what Christ did to reconcile the Father to us and soften His wrath. 

But that was not the meaning of the word when it was put in the first English Bible. At that time, many centuries ago, “atonement” did not describe a process but meant to be in a state of unity: to be AT ONE.

The Greek word in the Bible that is sometimes translated as “atonement” also does not mean what atonement means today.  That Greek word means ‘reconciliation’.  The basic meaning is to establish friendship.

It was the forensic doctrine of salvation, which presents God as angry and the death of Christ as a sacrifice to pacify God, that slowly changed the meaning of “atonement” over the centuries.

Christ did not die as a sacrifice to pacify God.  The blood of the Cross did not change how the Father feels about us sinners.  God, because He loves us, sent His only Son to be “the Lamb of God.”


Introduction

Making amendsCommonly, in the last few centuries, Atonement has come to mean making amends, paying a penalty to meet legal demands, to propitiate wrath, or to adjust one’s legal standing. To many, Atonement is what 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 not the meaning of the word in the Bible.

Original Meaning

Dictionaries agree that the word Atonement is a made-up word, namely ‘at-one‐ment’. That’s how 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 when you have succeeded in ‘one-ing’ people, then, hopefully, they will remain in a state of oneness. It is THE STATE of being ‘at one’ that is atonement, NOT THE PROCESS of ‘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.

Katallasso

The only place you’ll find the word “atonement,” in the King James Version, is in Romans 5:10. But, in the Greek, it is the very common word ‘katallasso’. In this word, there’s no hint of making amends.  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 basic Greek word is usually translated as “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.

Why the Meaning Changed

There’s only one dictionary that really gives 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.

It was the forensic doctrine of salvation that changed the meaning of “atonement” over the centuries.  This doctrine teaches that somebody must pay for sins committed.  It 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).

How we should understand Atonement

Christ did not die as a sacrifice to pacify God.  It is not God that had to change.  The blood of the Cross did not change how the Father feels about us sinners.  The opposite is rather true, namely that the blood of Christ was the means by which the Father reconciled His creatures to Himself (Col 1:20).  We must change.  It is not God that is angry; it is His creatures that “were enemies” (Rom 5:10) and “hostile in mind” (Col 1:21).  In the Bible, God is never reconciled to us; it is always us that are reconciled to God, through Christ (Col 1:20).  God, because He loves us, sent His only Son to be “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29) to bring His people back to Him (John 3:16).

See the articles Christ’s death reconciled us to God and Why Jesus had to die for further discussion.


    • Other Articles

      Why Jesus had to die

      Atonement – How does God erase sin?

      Other Topics

        • All articles on this site
        • DANIEL
            • The Antichrist in Daniel 6The Antichrist in Daniel, which is the same as the beast in Revelation, arises out of the Roman Empire; it is not Antiochus Epiphanes.
            • The 490 years of Daniel 9 7Liberal scholars claim that this prophecy describes the Greek king Antiochus IV, two centuries before Christ. In Dispensationalism, the prophecy culminates in an end-time Antichrist. In the traditional interpretation, which dominated before liberalism and Dispensationalism, the prophecy focuses on Jesus Christ.
            • Is Daniel a fraud? 8Critical scholars teach that Daniel was written after the events it claims to predict.
        • REVELATION 9The ultimate purpose of this website is to explain these prophecies and, finally, the mark of the beast.
            • General Topics 10Does Revelation describe events chronologically? Must it be interpreted literally? The temple in heaven, Christ’s Return, Hear/See Combinations, and the Numbers in Revelation
            • The Seven Seals (Rev 4-7) 11There was a book in heaven that not even Christ was able to read because it was sealed up with seven seals. But, by overcoming, He became worthy to break the seven seals and open the book. Why was Jesus not “worthy” to open the book before He “overcame?” And how did His death make Him “worthy” to open the book?
            • The Seven Wars (Rev 12-14) 12This is the apex of Revelation. Revelation 12 provides an overview of history from before Christ until the end-time, Revelation 13 culminates in the end-time persecution, and Revelation 14 describes God’s response.
            • The Seven Last Plagues (Rev 15-16) 13The seven last plagues will be preceded by the end-time Christian-on-Christian persecution and followed by Christ’s return. Is the purpose simply punishment or do the plagues have a higher goal?
            • Revelation’s Beasts 14Revelation has three beasts with seven heads and ten horns each; a great red dragon (Rev 12:3), the beast from the sea (Rev 13:1), and a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names (Rev 17:3).
            • Babylon – Mother of Harlots (Rev 17-18) 15Babylon is mentioned only once in the first 15 chapters (Rev 14:8) but the seventh and final plague targets her specifically (Rev 16:19). Then Revelation 17 and 18 are dedicated to explaining who and what she is.
            • Revelation 17 verse-by-verse
        • TRINITY
        • SALVATION
        • THE LAW
        • DEATH
        • OTHER
            • Why does evil exist? 25And why does God not make an end to all evil?
            • The church began as a Jewish sect.26Key events that transformed the church into an independent religion
            • The Return of Christ 27When? How? Has His return been delayed?
            • About Author 28I do not hold any formal theological qualifications. Since I am not part of any religious organization, I am free to present the truth as I understand it. These articles are the result of my personal studies over many years.

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    The word does not mean to pacify God. It means a state of unity: at-one-ment.
  • 2
    To explain how Jesus’ death is the solution, we first have to understand the problem.
  • 3
    Christ died without sin, while suffering the worst possible temptations. This solved a problem in heaven.
  • 4
    Words such as redeemed, reconciled, justified, and reconciled are metaphors and must not be taken literally.
  • 5
    Christ died to demonstrate that it is just of God to justify sinners by faith alone.
  • 6
    The Antichrist in Daniel, which is the same as the beast in Revelation, arises out of the Roman Empire; it is not Antiochus Epiphanes.
  • 7
    Liberal scholars claim that this prophecy describes the Greek king Antiochus IV, two centuries before Christ. In Dispensationalism, the prophecy culminates in an end-time Antichrist. In the traditional interpretation, which dominated before liberalism and Dispensationalism, the prophecy focuses on Jesus Christ.
  • 8
    Critical scholars teach that Daniel was written after the events it claims to predict.
  • 9
    The ultimate purpose of this website is to explain these prophecies and, finally, the mark of the beast.
  • 10
    Does Revelation describe events chronologically? Must it be interpreted literally? The temple in heaven, Christ’s Return, Hear/See Combinations, and the Numbers in Revelation
  • 11
    There was a book in heaven that not even Christ was able to read because it was sealed up with seven seals. But, by overcoming, He became worthy to break the seven seals and open the book. Why was Jesus not “worthy” to open the book before He “overcame?” And how did His death make Him “worthy” to open the book?
  • 12
    This is the apex of Revelation. Revelation 12 provides an overview of history from before Christ until the end-time, Revelation 13 culminates in the end-time persecution, and Revelation 14 describes God’s response.
  • 13
    The seven last plagues will be preceded by the end-time Christian-on-Christian persecution and followed by Christ’s return. Is the purpose simply punishment or do the plagues have a higher goal?
  • 14
    Revelation has three beasts with seven heads and ten horns each; a great red dragon (Rev 12:3), the beast from the sea (Rev 13:1), and a scarlet beast, full of blasphemous names (Rev 17:3).
  • 15
    Babylon is mentioned only once in the first 15 chapters (Rev 14:8) but the seventh and final plague targets her specifically (Rev 16:19). Then Revelation 17 and 18 are dedicated to explaining who and what she is.
  • 16
    The conclusion that Jesus is ‘God’ forms the basis of the Trinity Doctrine.
  • 17
    For the first more than 300 years, the church fathers believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father. The Trinity Doctrine was developed by the Cappadocian fathers late in the fourth century but the decision to adopt it was not taken by the church.
  • 18
    Including Modalism, Eastern Orthodoxy view of the Trinity, Elohim, and Eternal Generation
  • 19
    Discussions of the Atonement – How does God do away with sin?
  • 20
    How people are put right with God
  • 21
    Must Christians observe the Law of Moses?
  • 22
    Must Christians observe the Sabbath?
  • 23
    Are the dead still alive and aware?
  • 24
    Will the lost be tormented in hell for all eternity?
  • 25
    And why does God not make an end to all evil?
  • 26
    Key events that transformed the church into an independent religion
  • 27
    When? How? Has His return been delayed?
  • 28
    I do not hold any formal theological qualifications. Since I am not part of any religious organization, I am free to present the truth as I understand it. These articles are the result of my personal studies over many years.