Originally published in 2009:
I’ve spent several hours this month with the late Leon Morris. It has been time well spent. You will typically find high recommendations for his scholarly work The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. For all of the glowing and deserved recommendations, it is written targeting an education level that most of the church never reaches. Like climbing Everest, you need to bring along theological oxygen bottles to survive the rarefied atmosphere. Recognizing the limiting nature of that work for evangelicals in general, Morris set out to bring the hay down out of the loft so we all might ruminate and benefit from his work. He succeeded.
The Atonement, Its Meaning and Significance is a book about the cross for the rest of us. Morris throws biblical light on the death of Messiah using the lamps of covenant, sacrifice, the Day of Atonement, Passover, redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, and justification. Each lamp has a different hue, emphasizing its own aspect of the atonement. Morris is unapologetic about using a broad palette. Only by using a wide range of biblical language can he paint a rich portrait to help us understand and appreciate the length, breadth, and depth of God’s solution to mankind’s evil and rebellion.
One chapter stands out for me, not for devotional value, but for the devotion Morris shows in pursuing important concepts. I’m thinking specifically of his chapter on propitiation. C.H. Dodd’s efforts to empty the New Testament of God’s personal wrath has had a deep impact on the church today. Morris brings the scholarly material to bear in a simplified manner and contributes several helpful insights. In doing so, he contemplates the differing semantics of propitiation v. expiation. Morris makes a strong case that our understanding of the atonement is meaningfully diminished if we omit God’s righteous indignation. This one chapter is enough to display the profound insights that Morris developed over years of interaction with Dodd’s work.
Morris combines a clear writing style with delightful little glimpses of his own personality. I could almost see him shake his head or chuckle a little under his breath. A couple of times his wry sense of humor rises to mock our foolishness. The book is about 200 pages long. It’s helpful. I recommend it for your consideration. Following are some morsels served up to whet your appetite.
“The cross is central to Christianity.”
“The witness (to a covenant) was not an independent figure who could speak up and testify to the fact and terms of the covenant. The witness was rather something that served to remind the participants of what they had done.”
“Every Christian enters the covenant by faith, and here the references to the covenant with Abraham as of continuing force are important. Abraham is the classic example of faith for the New Testament writers and to be involved in the covenant with Abraham means to live by faith as that patriarch did. Not all the descendants of Abraham were caught up in his covenant with God, and Paul specifically makes the point that in the sense that matters Abraham’s children are those who believe, whether they are his physical descendants or not, whether they are circumcised or not. And, of course, a consideration of the place of faith in the covenant calls us to consider the reality of our faith. Without faith, there is no membership in the covenant.”
“Ancients like me remember that during the years of the Second World War we were frequently called upon to make sacrifices to assist our country. That meant forgoing comfort and pay rises and it involved making do with inferior substitutes instead of insisting on the superior article; on occasion it meant going without something altogether.”
“The worshipper laid his hand on the head of the (sacrificial) animal. The Hebrew verb means something like leaning on the animal. It was a firm contact, not a casual touch. The meaning of this is disputed. Some hold that it meant that the worshipper was identifying himself with the offering. If this is the way of it, the action said, ‘This is my sacrifice. This is the animal I am offering.’ It certainly did this at least. But others think that the action was a symbolic transferral of the sins of the worshipper to the animal, so that when it died it was taking the punishment due to the worshipper for his sins. It was being treated as the sins it bore deserved. They hold that this is the obvious symbolism and that it is supported by the fact that in later times at least there are passages which tell us that, as the worshipper laid his hands on the animal, he confessed his sins. It is not easy to see what the laying on of hands means if there is no symbolic transfer to the animal which was to die of the sins being confessed.”
“Nobody who came thoughtfully to God by the way of sacrifice could be in any doubt but that sin was a serious matter. It could not be put aside by a light-hearted wave of the hand but required the shedding of blood.”
“The term (redemption) as used in the all-pervasive Greek culture of antiquity had its origin in the practices of warfare. When people went to war in ancient times they lacked the refinements of our modern civilization. They had no atom bombs, no poison gas, no germ warfare. But in their own humble way they did what they could to make life uncomfortable for one another. One of the happy little customs was that, when battle was over, the victors sometimes rode around the battlefield rounding up as many of the vanquished as they could. Then they took them off as slaves. It meant a tidy profit and an increase in the spoils of war, though I guess the new slaves did not like it much.”
“The two concepts (propitiation and expiation) are really very different. Propitiation means the turning away of anger; expiation is rather the making amends for a wrong. Propitiation is a personal word; one propitiates a person. Expiation is an impersonal word; one expiates a sin or a crime.”
“An important idea in the New Testament is that righteousness may be imputed. There are grounds for imputation in an Old Testament passage, that in which we read, ‘Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness’. This presents a problem to some modern people, because we so firmly believe that righteousness is an ethical quality. It is ‘being good’. In that sense, it is nonsense to talk about righteousness being imputed. Everyone who aspires to this kind of righteousness must merit it for himself, by right living. It cannot be ‘credited’ or ‘reckoned’ or ‘imputed’ to him other than in some fictitious and fanciful sense. But when we see righteousness as basically legal, as ‘right-standing’, it is another matter. A standing or status can be conferred. The narrative says that God conferred this status on Abraham because of his faith. Paul uses this as his classic example of justification by faith. Abraham received his ‘right-standing’ not on account of any meritorious action but simply because he trusted God.”