Written by Daniel Tidwell : January 23, 2008

So, I am a self-confessed word addict. I have relentlessly played since the week it was launched (If you haven’t heard about it yet, take a look. It’s a clever vocabulary building site that generates advertiser money in order to buy local rice to feed people around the world. [I haven’t quite worked out a position on the ethics of using these capitalistic ads to do something good, but we’ll save that issue for later]). One of the words I came across that I did not know was “Saponification.” Basically it means “to make into soap.”

This got me thinking. Saponification. It sounds theological. If I encountered it in a theological book, I might believe it was a term I simply didn’t know. Then I started thinking about how to use the term theologically.

My mind leapt immediately to Jesus. After all, if you’re going to talk about Saponification, well, you might as well start with the center of the faith.

Yep, we’ve been making Jesus into soap for years. Many popular retailers are offering a distilled version of atonement in a convenient bar or liquid form. That’s right, it’s not just available at exclusive corner churches anymore. Now you can “wash your sins away” with convenience.wash your sins away soap

Sadly, it seems that every day I encounter more Christians who believe that this is the heart of the gospel. They think that Jesus came to pay the demanded ransom that God had placed on our heads because of our guilt. Because of this, they regard Jesus’ life and teachings as merely prolegomena to the atonement, seeing the cross as the center of the gospel message.

But what if we affirm with the church throughout the ages, that Jesus is neither soap nor mere sacrifice? Could we see that perhaps God in Trinity decided to invite us into a new way of life—a life springing forth from the life of the Trinity—and that the way we are invited is through the life and love of Jesus?

How amazing to think that God’s love is not limited by legal bounds! That’s why Jesus says, long before his death and resurrection, “your sins are forgiven.”

Jesus shows us a new way to live—a life that is not lived in fear of condemnation, but a life of liberty and grace that boldly walks toward servanthood and death, knowing that the kingdom of God is not a way that leads to worldly success.

God doesn’t pay for our sins and then see us as if we were never sinners. Instead, God sees us as broken and sullied by sin, and willingly embraces us and invites us into community in order that we may be healed and do the same for others. If God needed payment for our sin, then God would not be forgiving us. Instead, God’s love goes beyond what makes any human sense. God forgives us without any payment.

Imagine now what Jesus’ command to love our neighbors and enemies must look like in light of God’s love. This command of love is not to take our brand of soap and try to clean ourselves or others up and make anyone look presentable. No, it is a command to encounter humanity with a love that is well aware of the way that sin has corrupted all of us.

Imagine too what it might do to our justification of the death penalty if we stopped thinking that God demanded Jesus’ blood be shed for us to be cleansed. If God forgives and reconciles on the basis of God’s own character, then we, when transformed by the love of Christ could not look down the barrel of a gun or a legal punitive code at another human being and claim that good is wrought out of violence.

I’m tired of trying to scrub away the problems of the world by wielding Jesus like a bar of Irish Spring. God’s love and invitation into community is so much more than that sad way of thinking. I throw myself into the open arms of Jesus in the hope that he will teach me to walk in this unfathomable kingdom of love.

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14 Responses to “Saponification”

  1. Mark Van Steenwyk on January 23rd, 2008 1:56 pm

    I used to own a bar of that soap. I ran out of soap one day and started using it. :)

    I love this paragraph:

    “God doesn’t pay for our sins and then see us as if we were never sinners. Instead, God sees us as broken and sullied by sin, and willingly embraces us and invites us into community in order that we may be healed and do the same for others. If God needed payment for our sin, then God would not be forgiving us. Instead, God’s love goes beyond what makes any human sense. God forgives us without any payment.”

    I know this is a big question, but what do you think is the significance of the Cross if forgiveness is granted based on God’s character? Why do we need the cross at all?

    (I’m being devil’s advocate here…I’m just curious about how you’d respond).

  2. daniel.t on January 23rd, 2008 2:30 pm

    Well, I honestly think there are several ways we can understand the cross.

    Some may still find it useful to think of the cross as a picture of sacrifice. By this, I don’t mean as substitutionary atonement, but the willingness to lay down your own life in order to love others completely.

    I think the New Testament writers often maintain the sacrifice imagery for Jesus’ work on the cross because that is what they and their readers were familiar with. The sacrificial system of the Old Testament was a symbol that people could really understand. But I think that it was just a symbol. The symbol of offering sacrifice in the Old Testament has more to do with embodying our repentance than it has to do with God’s forgiveness. That’s why God often says that our sacrifices are appalling since they are not mirrored by lives of repentance (most frequently described as seeking justice and helping the poor).

    If sacrifice is a symbol of repentance, then Jesus’ death as a sacrifice to God is not so much about payment, but it is about modeling a way of living and dying that embodies the repentance and new way of life that Jesus introduces in his kingdom.

    The focus should not be placed on Jesus’ death, but in keeping with the early creeds of the church, on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is the fullness of God’s incarnation that should be our focus. Jesus comes to show us God. Jesus gives us a new way of life, a way that is backwards and upside down compared to the way that would lead to success in the terms of the world. The way Jesus calls us to is a way that will get you killed. But it is also the way that will bring resurrection.

    Those are some of my initial responses, Mark.

    I would love to hear what others have to say on this.

    Lets look at each others’ heresies. Maybe we’ll find Jesus in some unlikely places.


  3. Michael Cline on January 23rd, 2008 4:14 pm

    In my opinion, a balancing act between all the images of the atonement is the most profitable rather than just one view, such as this one which leans heavily on a “moral influence” type view (Abelard) . But certainly different times call for different responses, and so maybe I’m just behind the tide of need.

    I’m wondering where the ol’ “bait and switch” theory could come in to play with this post. You know, the ransom theory where Satan was “tricked” into swallowing the Divine hook, whereby he actually loses just when he thinks he’s won. I believe it was first put out by Gregory of Nyssa (but then, I also think that Gregory of Nanzianzus hated it). It’s quite imaginative, and although it has been poked fun at in many times, I think it holds to the subversive nature of the gospel and the Jesus Manifesto.

    The Christus Victor image has gained significant praise in the last few years, and I must admit that my wesleyan-holiness background draws me to it. Of course, Greg Boyd has given this image a boost in the ratings in theological circles and churches.

    I think it’s important that we don’t over react to the substitutionary atonement theories (i.e. Anselm and co.) Some of the more extreme examples focus too much on the “satisfaction” that God just had to get through punishing someone that borders on the line of cosmic child abuse–but not all substitutionary theories are this way. Athanasius was using this language as early as the mid 4th century. We need to just live in paradox and tension and hold MOST of these theories up for further discernment and application

  4. Sara on January 23rd, 2008 8:05 pm

    The author of Hebrews writes that we have come to “Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:24) What are the better things and why the reference to Abel? Just wondering….

  5. Maria Kirby on January 23rd, 2008 10:05 pm

    I think it is ourselves, our own sense of equity, that requires payment for sins. Jesus is substituting himself for us for the vengence others would require from us to pay for what we’ve done to them. We can forgive others because we know that God has taken their punishment, paid their debt in full. When we forgive others, we experience God’s forgiveness -just like in the Lord’s prayer.

    Wade Davis made a statement in the Nov issue of the National Geographic that I thought was profound: “We were all hunting until the Neolithic about 10,000 years ago. Every day, you had to kill the thing you loved most, the animals upon which your life was dependent. It was the first mystery- and I would argue the basis of religion, which was an attempt to explain what happens after you die.” I think the idea of Jesus being a sacrifice goes back to the fundamentals of who we are as humans. It is very interesting to me that life in this universe is not possible without the law of entropy; the very law which causes us to die. Death and sacrifice are the source of life, loosing one’s life enable one to gain life.

    Saponification takes two unlike problem materials; oil and lye, and combines them into something completely different and life saving: soap. Salt is similar. By themselves sodium and chlorine can be harmful, if not lethal. Together they form a compound without which we would be dead.

  6. Jason Barr on January 23rd, 2008 10:35 pm

    I am not completely against the subsitutionary atonement theories, but I do essentially agree with the charge that it at least has and has a tendency to (thought not necessarily that it necessarily and essentially does) leave social violence unchecked theologically, and possibly promotes violence in some ways. See J. Denny Weaver’s The Nonviolent Atonement (Michael, I still need to respond to your comment on my blog about that book, sorry I haven’t yet) for a number of good arguments in that direction. At the very least, substitution cannot stand alone as the atonement theory above all other atonement theories.

    I do have a strong affinity for the Christus Victor atonement motif, again in a fashion strongly influenced by Weaver (which he calls “narrative Christus victor”). I do not really see the substitutionary theory as having much special significance on its own, in fact I tend to also agree with Weaver that its origin within Christendom and its relation to medieval legal thought can be problematic.

    I think the much older theology of recapitulation that goes back to Iranaeus (most succinctly formulated in his statement “Christ became what we are so that we could become what he is”) is much more helpful for us, and it can more easily accommodate the idea of Christ as sacrifice while also affirming Rene Girard’s and Walter Wink’s ideas that Christ is the sacrifice that puts an end to, not perpetuates or eternalizes, the cycle of redemptive violence.

  7. Jonathan Brink on January 24th, 2008 2:24 am

    I think the cross has several purposes. The first of which is the overwhelming evidence that God will stop at nothing to show He is love, and what love really looks like.

    The second is the redemptive quality of the cross where I can trade in my BS for how he sees me.

  8. Edwin on January 24th, 2008 6:32 am

    The imagery of Jesus on the cross as our cancellation note of sin is still a powerful theme for those who harbor and carry the weight and guilt of regret and sin. Having a definitive reference point for forgiveness has always been helpful for me. Hearing someone tell me I am forgiven has the potential to change my perspective and self loathing and cut me loose to live life again, hopefully in new light. I’m certain atonement is fuller and more beautiful than one act on the cross, but the cross certainly brings the beauty of loving sacrifice.

  9. Michael Cline on January 24th, 2008 6:57 am

    Jason, I’ve completely drawn a blank. What book did you need to respond about?

    I was thinking about Irenaeus’ recapitulation as well when I read this. Unfortunately, some of his follower’s took the theory and ran with it into places that he himself might not have gone (for instance, didn’t someone later teach that if this theory is true, Jesus actually must have left earth at the age of 79 or somewhere in there? Otherwise, how could he subsume the life processes of the elderly? In that model, if you were 80, watch out!)

    Also, someone more qualified than me might want to speak about the Eastern Orthodox tendency to view the atonment more in healing frameworks rather than legal or sacrificial. Anyone know more about that?

  10. Jason Barr on January 24th, 2008 2:26 pm

    Michael, I was thinking you had left a comment on my blog asking about Weaver’s book. I was wrong, it wasn’t you. *LOL*

  11. daniel.t on January 24th, 2008 5:42 pm

    Thanks everyone for a lot of great feedback so far on this one. I am more than willing to admit that there are a lot more studied and insightful people who are reading and posting on this site than I am.
    I am filtering through a lot of the various ideas and views that several of you have mentioned. It’s not easy–trying to be faithful to Jesus, read the scriptures in the community of the church, submit our doctrines and ideas to the guidance of the Spirit in our communities, and challenge our communities to rethink the way our doctrines and teachings have led us away from keeping the focus on becoming like Jesus.
    I think I am most passionate right now about how our underdeveloped doctrine of the incarnation has been subjugated to our over-reliance on a doctrine of atonement. Whatever happened to “The word made flesh” dwelling among us. There is something essential to God’s self-emptying in order to take on flesh and live with us that hearkens back to the narrative of the garden, where God walked and talked with us. This is the now and future vision of reconcillliation–to be in communion/community with God and one another.
    For me the cross plays an essential role in this, but not so much in the sense of atonement as in the sense of a demonstration of the depth and quality of commitment and communion that Jesus extends with his incarnational act of reconcilliation, entering our world in order to bring us into relationship with the Triune God.

    Another picture of the cross, born out of the Pauline juncture that, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus,” is that Jesus, entering our life in order to bring us into communion with the life of God, had to die, as all humans do. The particular death Jesus died was a death in keeping with the life he lived. He lived subversively in an empire of this world, and he was killed for it. But Jesus, being in very nature fully God and fully human, took the curse of humanity–sin–into himself. Death entered the Trinitarian community. But death did not have the same impact on the life of God that it does on the life of humans. God’s life takes in the human pain and loss of death, but is not overcome by death. Thus death truly is swallowed up in the victory of God. God’s life continues to be subversive even in death, subverting death itself, rendering death as nothing through the victory of the resurrection.
    Because of this, we have the hope of joining Christ, in the fellowship of his sufferings–a subversive life lived following the way of Jesus’ kingdom, as well as in the joy of the resurrection.

    This is my hope.


  12. Jason Barr on January 24th, 2008 10:26 pm

    Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement strongly emphasizes participation in the community of the Trinity through the incarnation - being drawn into the perichoresis, the “Celtic circle dance” of the Trinity, so to speak.

    It’s definitely worth reading.

  13. Michael Cline on January 25th, 2008 9:06 am

    That would be a sweet read Jason. I’ve read his blog a few times, I need to get some of his stuff.


    I think you are on to something really significant about the incarnation and the atonement. When I throw other theologian’s names and theories, I have to admit that I don’t fully understand them. I just read a lot. :) The name dropping is perhaps a bit overdone and un-useful on my part. Thanks for the article. I would recommend reading some of Abelard’s theory though, because I think a lot of what he came up with is what you are elaborating for the 21st century.

  14. David G on January 26th, 2008 2:13 am

    Saponification usually refers to the process of turning an oil into a soap, so, there’s something to muse on there, too.

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