3 Points that Reveal Luke’s Theology of Atonement

January 17, 2013 — 3 Comments

Many scholars today believe the Gospel of Luke offers no theology of substitutionary atonement. In other words they hold that Luke does not present Jesus’ death as doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Greg Herrick states,

The reason for the scholarly movement away from a vicarious interpretation of the death of Christ in Luke-Acts is due to the fact that apart from two passages Luke never appears to make that equation.  That is, apart from these two passages, he never explicitly links the death of Christ with forgiveness of sins.  The problem is further compounded by the fact that the two passages in question, namely, Luke 22:19-20 and Acts 20:28 are fraught with both textual and interpretive problems.

It’s not my intention to rehash all the issues here.  You can find excellent overviews here and here.  Instead I want to offer an entirely overlooked way through the haze.  It’s my contention that Luke does present Jesus and his death as overturning the curse placed upon us due to Adam’s sin.  Luke does this by depicting Jesus as a new victorious Adam.


1. Luke presents Jesus as a new Adam.

This is beyond a doubt Luke’s purpose in the placement and arrangement of Jesus’ genealogy.  Unlike Matthew who places his genealogy at the outset of his gospel, Luke places it immedietly after Jesus’ adult baptism and just prior to the temptations.  It’s thus bookend by the issue of Jesus’ sonship.  In the baptism God declares Jesus to be His “beloved Son” and in the temptations Satan challenges Jesus on precisely this point.  “if you are the Son of God…”

Also instead of beginning with Abraham and working forward to Jesus, as Matthew does (Matthew 1:1-16), Luke genealogy begins with Jesus and works backwards to Adam (Luke 3:23-38). The net effect makes his genealogy a list of sons rather than a list of fathers and points to Adam rather than Jesus.  Of course Luke’s intention is not to diminish Jesus but rather, in light of the context, to make a comparison between Jesus and Adam.  Both are said to be God’s son.

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2. Luke presents Jesus as tempted like Adam.

Jesus’ three temptation follow immediately after the genealogy. If Luke intends to present Jesus like Adam than the temptations could not have been better placed. But Jesus’ success here is merely the beginning of a battle that will continue in the later part of Luke. Luke tells us that after the temptations the devil, “left him until an “opportune time” (4:13).  In Luke, Satan finds this opportunity at the beginning of the crucifixion plot, entering into Judas Iscariot (Luke 22:3).

This suggests that the events surrounding the crucifixion are themselves a continuation of the temptation. Certainly there are echoes of the devil’s challenge at the trial when the leaders ask, “Are you the Son of God…” (22:70).  And it’s Jesus’ bold “Yes!” which seals his fate and overcomes the desire to save his own skin.

As with the other gospels Jesus confession is juxtaposed with Peter’s denial. If Peter’s denial is due to, as Luke tells us, the sifting of Satan (22:31-32) then there is little doubt Satan is also present in this challenging question to Jesus.  It echoes the devil’s challenge in the earlier temptations.

3. Luke presents Jesus undoing the curse of Adam.

At Jesus’ death, the centurion declares, “surely this man was innocent!”  Here Luke differs remarkably from the centurion’s confession in the gospels of Matthew and Mark.  In those accounts the centurion says, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Owing to the fact that Luke has already declared Jesus to be the Son of God, it is doubtful that Luke wants to downplay this fact here.  Instead it appears the verdict of innocence is in some sense connected to Jesus being like Adam, the Son of God.

For Luke, Jesus’ innocence is not simply in reference to the crime for which He has been charged but His victory over all temptation. What Christ has done in his persistent innocence is to reopen the way closed by Adam. Jesus final words to the thief on the cross are directly connected to this second Adam motif, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” “Paradise” is the same Greek word used elsewhere in Septuagint and the book of Revelation for the “garden” of Eden.

Several of these points have been noted by others (here and here) but as of yet I have found no one who sees in Luke’s Adam the key to Luke’s theology of vicarious atonement. Does Luke teach that the crucifixion of Jesus satisfies God’s punishment for sin? Absolutely. Jesus is the victorious Son of God who’s final victory over temptation reverses the curse of Adam.

Matthew Scott Miller

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