In his book What the Bible Really Teaches, Keith Ward spends a chapter on “the sacrifice of Jesus.” He wants to contest the popular view that Jesus had to die as a kind of blood sacrifice to appease or deflect God’s wrath–a view, Ward argues, that’s at odds with the biblical view of what sacrifice is.
According to Ward, sacrifices in the Old Testament are not inherently efficacious. That is, there’s nothing inherent in shedding animal blood or sending a goat into the wilderness that compels God to act or be disposed toward us in a particular way. To think this is to confuse religion with magic, and to adhere to a view of sacrifice that the Bible condemns as idolatry.
Instead, says Ward, the sacrificial rituals of the OT are divinely established means for renewing fellowship and communion between God and human beings. They “work” because–and only because–they are appointed by God for this purpose. The value of these sacrifices consists in our symbolic identification with what is sacrificed as a form of whole-hearted self-offering to God. The forms these take are, in a sense, irrelevant. Hence the prophets’ condemnation of punctilious observation of the ritual law when it is not animated by the spirit of justice and compassion.
These include sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, as well as atonement for sin–and the latter are mainly concerned with unintentional infractions of the ritual law. There is no suggestion, Ward argues, of an atonement-sacrifice that can cancel out intentional sin. “Biblical sacrifices for sin do not pay the punishment due to sin, nor do they remove such a punishment” (p. 122).
If this is true, then how should we think about Jesus’ sacrifice? In line with the biblical view of sacrifice, Ward says, Jesus’ sacrifice should be understood as his total self-offering to God, a self-offering that is the divinely appointed means for uniting humanity to the divine life:
What Jesus offers [in his sacrifice] is not an animal-substitute, but himself. He expresses the heart of true sacrifice, the total offering of a life to God. This does not in itself entail that Jesus should die. But Jesus was prepared to face death as the price of his obedience to the divine will in a world that had turned from God. The death of the cross is the final, most complete expression of Jesus’ self-offering to God. It is not that the shedding of blood was necessary before humans could be united to God. That would be to revert to a magical transaction view of sacrifice. It is rather that his whole life, and his loyalty to his vocation even to death, was a full offering of humanity to God, so that God could unite humanity to the divine completely in him. (p. 124)
But Jesus was more than a martyr, and his life was more than a perfect act of self-offering to God. His obedience “has a double significance”:
It exposes the hostility of the “world” (the world which rejects God) to God. And it expresses the sharing by God of the suffering of that estranged world. Because the world rejects God, it rejects Jesus, the incarnation of God. The cross represents what the world does to God. Jesus, in freely accepting obedience to God’s will, becomes the expression of God’s suffering, accepted at the hands of disobedient humanity. Jesus’ obedience draws upon himself the disobedience of estranged humanity. In this sense, God does require that Jesus dies–but only because God knows that a complete obedience, in a disobedient world, will inevitably lead to rejection and death. (pp. 124-5)
the death of Jesus is not the placation of an angry God. It is the opposite. It is the expression of the unrestricted love of God. It is the full expression of human obedience to the divine calling, and at the same time of the divine humility that shares the human condition. (p. 125)
In the death of Jesus, God bears the hostility of disobedient humanity, but in the resurrection God demonstrates that such hostility doesn’t have the final word. Jesus’ life of self-offering is a “perfect prayer” to which God responds with the resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit. This is the means, ordained by God, for restoring relationship between God and an estranged humanity.
I’m very sympathetic to this overall view, but I might make one slight qualification. Sometimes, maybe because of his desire to distinguish biblical sacrifice from “magical” notions, Ward almost seems to imply that it’s completely arbitrary what means God chooses to restore the human-divine relationship. In part, this is a salutary reminder that the Incarnation is rooted in God’s love and freedom; it’s not something that compels God to be merciful. But surely most Christians (including Professor Ward) would want to say that there’s something especially fitting about this restoration occurring by means of a human life that enacts, in history, the eternal love of God and the perfect human response to that love.