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).


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 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.