How is Sin Taken Away?

The best one sentence summary of the theology of the Gospel of John may be John the Baptist’s introduction and summation of the work of Christ, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This short sentence contains reference to both Passover and the Day of Atonement, blending the two in a uniquely Christian manner, so as to simultaneously sum up the efficacy and result of the work of Christ, while indicating the scope of salvation (the world) and the nature of sin and evil. The Passover lamb, which is thematic in John and is tied to the “hour” of crucifixion, is referenced in the next chapter: “The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (John 2:13). The Passover lamb is not a sin bearer, and yet this result (specifically tied to the Day of Atonement) is pictured as resulting from Christ’s Passover work. In brief, John is identifying the life God provides in Christ (the work of the Lamb in Egypt celebrated in Passover) as the means of “taking away the sin of the world.” The life of God as the rescue from sin and death is the means, with one result (among many) being sins are taken away. This cannot be read as punishment and payment but, as with the Gospel of John as a whole, the picture is of a real-world resolution to the problem of sin and death (life displacing death, light breaking into darkness, the bread of heaven provided in the wilderness, the storm calming voice of “I am” in the midst of the storm).

The goat of Leviticus who “bears away sin,” the Azazel Goat, has the singular function of symbolically carrying away sin and dumping it into the abyss. The way sin is gathered up to be loaded onto this goat is not found in this goat, but in the other goat, the Goat of Yahweh, which does all of the work and provides the explanation. The Yahweh Goat is the one whose blood is taken into the temple as representative of the cleansing life God provides. God had provided Abraham the life of Isaac, he had provided life in the face of death in Egypt with lamb’s blood applied to the door post, and the same symbolism is at work in the Yahweh Goat. On the other hand, the Azazel Goat sums up the negative result of the positive work of the Tabernacle, the priests, the Goat of Yahweh, the story of Abraham and the lamb of Passover. That is, John is explaining or summing up the primary work of Christ in terms of the Passover lamb, which is not part of the Day of Atonement. There is no mistaking the Passover lamb for the Azazel Goat and there is no danger of blending their work (or there should not be), as these are never brought together in Yom Kippur. The work foreshadowed in the story of Abraham, the story of the Exodus, and the Tabernacle and Temple is the positive part of the story.  Life and love through the Lamb, bears primary weight in this sentence and in the theology of John, while the taking away of sin is a result and not a means. The lamb is not a sin bearer and is not involved in Yom Kippur, but by linking the Lamb with atonement, John is tying the weight of the entire Jewish tradition to the singular “lifting up” of Christ. Cross, resurrection, and ascension are the singular cure to John’s depiction of the death centered darkness definitive of sin.

There are several dangers looming in misunderstanding how the sacrifice of atonement is taken up by Christ. We might assign the primary weight to the Azazel Goat and thus see Jesus’ death primarily in terms of the scapegoat. But of course, the Azazel Goat could never serve as a sacrifice or offering as it was unclean. The primary work of the Temple and Tabernacle was connected with the Yahweh Goat, or the notion that God provides life that cleanses the Temple of death (in my previous blog, here, I debunked the notion that God desires death), and with this cleansing, the scouring of sin can be put upon the head of the Azazel Goat and led off into the wilderness.

The action is not with the Azazel Goat, who is led passively off into the wilderness, but is with the Yahweh Goat which echoes the original sacrifice which Abraham did not make on Moriah, but which God will make on Golgotha. It is God who originally brings life from out of the dust or from those as good as dead. When Abraham offered Isaac, it was his own possibility for life, for making his name great, for survival, that is being offered. It was not Abraham’s life per se as he was as good as dead. It was not Sarah’s life; her womb was dead (Romans 4:19-20). Isaac represented their possibility for life in the face of death. This same provision from God is reflected in the cleansing from death through life blood in the Tabernacle and Temple. What is taking place with the offering of Isaac, is what is always ritually taking place in the Jewish sacrifices. When the priest ritually applies blood to the temple furnishings, he is applying the blood of Isaac as the antidote to death. All of which points to the true provision of life in the midst of death: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood” (Hebrews 9:11-12).  Here is God providing his own life – the symbol of sacrifice. He does not provide life through death but in spite of death and he overcomes the orientation to death definitive of sin through his life.

To confuse the result and means of John’s declaration (and of the Jewish sacrificial system and the work of Christ) is not simply a technical mistake but an ontological error, in that it lends a determinate substance to death sin and evil. It is the equivalent of letting the devil call the shots or of picturing God having to negotiate with death. It puts what amounts to nothing (sin, death and evil) in ontological competition with God. Certainly, Christ was treated like a scapegoat by sinners but describing the work of the sinners and their sin, as if that explains the work of Christ, is like explaining the work of the Tabernacle, priests, and sacrifices only in terms of its scourings. It would be the equivalent of describing my gardening activity in terms of weeding and weeds. Heaping up a wheel barrow of weeds and burning them says nothing about what is being grown. Burning weeds does not produce carrots and peas.[1] Carrying away a goat load of sin and death says nothing about the main activity. And while dead weeds may be the primary fruit of my gardening, to confuse the Azazel Goat with the Goat of the Lord is quite literally to confuse the demonic with the divine. The wilderness of Azazel was connected with a demon (it may have meant “fierce god”) and this demon goat bearing all of the sins of Israel is taken to miḏbār, the polar opposite of holiness or to ’ereṣ gezêrāh – “a land of separation” “a land cut off” (Lev. 16:22) which came to be associated with the pit (sheol).[2]

Strangely though, in the notion of penal substitution, the work of both goats and the work of Christ is described in terms of the Azazel Goat, as if this goat does the work of the Yahweh Goat. John Stott, for example, describes all of the work of Christ as sin bearing and punishment and specifically links it to the Azazel Goat. He warns that some “make the mistake of driving a wedge between the two goats, the sacrificed goat and the scapegoat.”[3] What Stott seems to miss is that there was originally to be an absolute separation, as described in the place the goat is taken (literally to the “land of separation”). Stott concludes, “In this case the public proclamation of the Day of Atonement was plain, namely that reconciliation was possible only through substitutionary sin bearing.”[4] The Azazel goat does all the work and the entire institution of Tabernacle, priesthood and sacrifice (all that is done within the Tabernacle) is summed up in what was done outside the Tabernacle and Israel.

Stott is following John Calvin, who acknowledges that the resurrection of Christ might be the sign intimated as a carrying off sin, but he rejects this conclusion: “I embrace, however, what is more simple and certain, and am satisfied with that; i.e., that the goat which departed alive and free, was an atonement, that by its departure and flight the people might be assured that their sins were put away and vanished.” Calvin reduces the work of the atonement to the goat that bears the “offscouring,” calling it “the only expiatory sacrifice in the Law without blood.”[5] He understands this is a direct contradiction of Hebrews 9:22 (“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”), and yet he presumes to carry over the work of the Yahweh Goat to the Azazel Goat, going so far as to sum up atonement in the second goat and even calling it a sacrifice (again, this unclean goat could not be sacrificed and could never serve as an offering to God). But this makes room for his notion that Christ suffered in Hell on the cross: “In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death.”[6] The point in penal substitution is to reduce the work of Christ to sin bearing punishment, which puts all the meaning on the wrong goat and in doing away with the significance of the Yahweh Goat, it misconstrues the meaning of both goats.

Stott misses how the writer of Hebrews marks this point of separation (between the goats) in the work of Christ. “The author of the letter to the Hebrews has no inhibitions about seeing Jesus both as ‘a merciful and faithful high priest’ (2: 17) and as the two victims, the sacrificed goat whose blood was taken into the inner sanctuary (9:7, 12) and the scapegoat which carried away the people’s sins (9:28).”[7] What Stott and Calvin miss in Hebrews, they miss in the original depiction of atonement, and that is the Yahweh Goat (the singular sacrifice, or in John the Lamb) does all of the active cleansing. This is clear in John the Baptist’s phrase, as the Passover lamb is not associated with bearing sin, and yet this Lamb accomplishes what the Yahweh Goat also accomplishes.

So too in Hebrews, the sin bearing is a consequence of the sacrifice. In the writer’s sequence, “Christ was sacrificed once”, like the Yahweh goat, and this accomplished the work “to take away the sins of many” (9:28). Jesus might be identified with the Yahweh Goat, and the work he accomplishes might be identified with the Azazel Goat, but Jesus is not subject to, but conqueror over Sheol (the pit, the wilderness, the point of separation). He empties out the category entirely (once and for all) and does not suffer eternally, as in Calvin’s depiction but empties out the category by providing life where it was formerly absent.

In John, Jesus compares the pain of his death to that of a woman in labor – the pain is resolved with the birth: “Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:21-22). This fits with the overall theology of John, which is not focused on the weight of the negative power of sin, but on the overcoming of sin with life.

From the beginning of John, the Logos is not a preincarnate abstraction but is the “I am” (the name of God, as described in the Targums) that is light, that is sustenance, that is assurance, that is life. This light shines in the darkness of death most clearly from the cross. Here, the substance of two worlds collides. The world built on the immanent frame of Israel (“the Jews,” Nicodemus, Judas, etc.), the immanent frame of Rome (Pilate and Caesar), or simply the absolute nature of death, would close off the world and possibility of the “I am.” But John lends no ontological weight to the power of evil and sin. It can be gotten rid of through washing (13:1-7) or in taking up the servant attitude it can be counteracted in belief and love. The ontological weight of the “I am” is enough to provide living water in the midst of the desert, to provide manna from heaven, to calm the storm, to bring healing. Jesus does not lay down his life as a payment for sin but “for the life of the world” (6:51) and for the life of the sheep (10:11). He does not pay up with death but through his life given to all, he provides heavenly bread, his life, for sustenance (John 6).

As John Behr notes, “Christ’s life-giving death on the cross, is not understood by John as a response to sin but rather as principally deriving from the love that God himself is (cf. 1 John 4:8) and has for the world (3:14–16).” It is this love “that has liberated human beings from the condition of being slaves to that of being friends (15:15), members of the household of God, enthroned in the Temple as sons alongside the Son, and the commandment that Jesus gives as his own is simply ‘that you love one another as I have loved you’ (15:12).”[8] In this power of love, life defeats death and this is what rids the world of sin. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).


[1] The garden analogy fails slightly, in that the Lamb accomplishes the work described in the clean-up activity, as if planting carrots and peas were enough to push out the weeds.

[2] “גְּזֵרָה (gĕzērâ). Separation, not inhabited. Used in Lev 16:22 of the “land of separation” (ASV and RSV “solitary land”) into which a live goat was taken and abandoned on the day of atonement. It was so called because the area was cut off from water (KB) or from habitation. Later Jewish teachers interpreted gĕzērâ to mean a precipice from which the goat was to be hurled down.”Smith, J. E. (1999). 340 גָּזַר. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., & B. K. Waltke (Eds.), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 158). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2006), 143.

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on Leviticus, 16:7.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes, 2:16,10.

[7] Ibid, Stott.

[8] John Behr, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 192.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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