Questioning the Sacrificial Foundation of Contractual Theory

The Following is a guest blog by Allan S. Contreras Ríos

Traditional Western theology has passed along the idea that God requires sacrifice in order to forgive humanity’s sins. Does this fit with the teaching of Jesus? Why would Jesus ask humankind to forgive others 70 times 7 (Matthew 18:21-22), but God cannot forgive humankind unless something or someone dies? If God really wants to forgive and restore humankind, why does He require a sacrifice in order to do so? Is something wrong with this understanding and the view of God this entails?

Jeremiah 7:22 says, “for when I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offering and sacrifice.” This verse raises a question about the commonly understood impetus behind the Old Testament sacrificial system (specifically the book of Leviticus). Contractual theology is built upon the notion that God requires the Levitical sacrifices as antecedents to the sacrifice of Christ, but this verse would seem to contradict this understanding.

Contractual theory, in short, teaches humans are sinful (e.g. original sin/total depravity), everyone violates the Law (in which life resides), therefore they are damned. The contract (covenant) between humanity and God was not working, therefore God provides a way out in the sacrifice of Christ, who satisfies God’s justice by taking humanity’s punishment on Himself, and imputing to them His righteousness through faith in His sacrifice.

In this initial blog I want to suggest the basic premise of Contractual theory, and the theory of sacrifice undergirding it, directly contradicts the biblical teaching in the following ways:

1.   Contractual theology presumes life is in the Law (law keeping or fulfillment of the law), contrary to Romans 8:2 which says life is in the law of the Spirit in Christ.

2.   In Contractual theology those who kill Jesus act according to God’s will.

3.   The ultimate purpose of the mission of Jesus in Contractual theology is not to restore all things (as depicted in Acts 3:21 and elsewhere), but to serve as a sacrifice.

4.   Contractual theory assumes God or the Law require satisfaction for forgiveness, while this seems to contradict the very meaning of forgiveness. If justice is done, it would seem, forgiveness is no longer necessary. Why is there a need to forgive if justice was done in the death of Christ?

5. In Contractual theory, humankind has a debt to pay that requires human blood from a demanding God that rejected not only human sacrifice, but in several verses in the Old Testament, sacrifice of any kind.

6.   God demands humankind to forgive their neighbor, but in Contractual theory He cannot do that Himself without the death of someone.

7. Is it justice if an innocent man is killed to spare the truly evil and guilty? Did God require the ultimate evil, killing the Son of God, so as to meet his need for justice? Does human violence against the Creator simultaneously satisfy the justice of God and the skewed sense of justice that put Christ on the cross?

In summary, the biggest problem with many atonement theories is that, as Richard Rohr so beautifully writes, “In order to turn Jesus into a Hero we ended up making the Father into a ‘Nero’.”[1] In other words, where God requires the sacrifice of Christ, God is the original persecutor of the Body of Christ.


[1] Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin, eds., Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007), 208.