And so it goes, and so it goes, and so will you soon, I suppose...
So what is God’s plan for right standing? It is to trust in what God has done through Jesus the Christ. Romans has already set out what the plan is. First, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Paul never really spells out the specifics of how Christ’s death works. When 1 Corinthians 15:3 says that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,” Paul is not laying out some specific teaching about Christ taking our place. The word “for” simply means he died to deal with them. Paul does not say exactly how.
One picture he gives us is the transference of the curse of our sin to Christ on the cross. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13). Paul seems to imply in 1 Corinthians 1:23 that the cross stood at the center of his preaching, making the logic of Galatians 3:13 very significant to understanding Paul’s thinking. In this picture of the cross, Christ does not take our punishment, but he takes our curse. Like the scapegoat of Leviticus 16, our defilement (not our debt or punishment) is transferred to Christ.
We also find the picture of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice here and there in Paul’s writings. The most explicit is in Romans 3:25, “Through his faithfulness, God displayed Jesus as the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood” (CEB). This translation is debated, with the NIV and the NRSV going with the more common “sacrifice of atonement.” The reason the CEB translates it as “place of atonement” is because the word Paul uses regularly refers to the cover of the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, the place where blood was taken once a year by the high priest to atone for the sins of Israel (cf. Leviticus 16:14). One way or another, Paul is thinking of Jesus’ death in sacrificial terms.
Atonement is reconciliation by way of an offering. The idea of Jesus’ death as such an offering pops up throughout Paul’s letters. Romans 8:3, for example, likely speaks of God sending Jesus as a sin offering. 1 Corinthians 5:7 thinks of Christ as a Passover lamb sacrificed for believers. The inner dynamics of sacrifice are often difficult for us to get our heads around. Sacrifice fits roughly in the category of “satisfaction” theories of atonement, where Christ’s death satisfies the wrath of God, “propitiates” it. But it is not clear that Paul connected these dots. In some ways, C. S. Lewis’ picture of a “deep magic” that is mysterious and inexplicable may come closer to a less defined sense that the order of things was restored through the offering of blood.
Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was also significant for Paul in getting us right with God. “If Christ has not been raised,” Paul writes, “you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). In Romans 4:25, Paul says that Christ was “raised to life for our justification.” Perhaps hiding behind such statements is yet another Christian theory of atonement, namely, the “Christus Victor” or “Christ the conqueror” view. Paul speaks of death as the last enemy for Christ to defeat, one that he will definitively defeat at the time of the final resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20-28).
Again, it is difficult for us to get into Paul’s head. After all, Paul did not think of death as a person or Sin as a person. It is mysterious to us how exactly Jesus’ victorious resurrection might defeat of Sin and death. Indeed, just because Paul found such language natural does not necessarily mean that he could explain the specifics of how it worked either. Nevertheless, “the sting of death is sin” (1 Cor. 15:56) and “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:2, NRSV). Somehow, Christ’s resurrection entails the defeat of these forces against us.