No Substitute for Cruciformity: A Review of Lamb of the Free by Andrew Rillera

Ask your average American Christian about the meaning of Jesus’s cross, why he died and what it accomplished, and you’re likely to hear some version of an atonement theory known as “Penal Substitution” or “PSA”. (There are complex socio-cultural and historical reasons for this, but that isn’t my focus here.) This PSA explanation can be expressed in a variety of ways, but some of the core components are that Jesus died in our place suffering the penalty of sin that we deserved so that we don’t have to. The “wrath of God” is also often suggested as a reason for the need for blood. Whether warranted or not, PSA is associated with the ancient Israelite sacrificial system detailed most extensively in the book of Leviticus. Someone might elaborate on their explanation by saying something like, “In the Old Testament, a lamb had to be killed instead of a person, for God to forgive their sins.” This is taken to be the biblical background for the cross: Jesus is the lamb of God who had to be killed instead of humanity so that God could forgive sins.

No doubt someone will say this as an unfair caricature. But I’ve heard this kind of explanation more times than I can count in my over two decades of pastoral ministry. Whether it represents the best presentation its most scholarly proponents would offer is another matter altogether. Laypeople can’t be held to the same standard as biblical scholars, and it’s important to be honest about what people retain from our presentations. There are even much more profane examples I can personally cite. For example, I once attended a Christmas service at a megachurch outside Los Angeles in which the pastor said, “I love you all a lot, but I don’t love you enough to kill my only son for you! That’s how much God’s loves you!” Imagine thinking that makes God seem loving.

Not only does the PSA explanation of the cross portray God as wrathful and violent, it also portrays Jesus as doing something for us that we don’t have to. I’ve witnessed people well up with tears talking about how grateful they are that they don’t have to die for their sins, because Jesus died instead of them. It’s closely related to way many Christians reverence Jesus as their Savior, but don’t feel obligated to obey his teachings as their Lord. It’s much easier to think of Jesus as a historical sacrifice for sins and a distant divine person than it is to embrace Jesus’s Way of the Cross as one’s own.

That’s why Andrew Rillera wrote Lamb of the Free: Recovering the Varied Sacrificial Understanding of Jesus’s Death.

As a former college ministry pastor and now an undergraduate professor, I have seen first- and secondhand how much destruction is caused by Christians because their essentialized substitutionary framework prevents them from even wanting to be conformed and transformed into the cruciform image of Christ. Substitutionary frameworks—whether intentionally or not—corrode the logic of Christian discipleship among everyday Christians. Substitution makes conformity to the cruciform image of Christ incoherent. If Jesus is my substitute, why do I need to take up a cross? Why do I need to have fellowship with his sufferings? Why do I need to be co-crucified?” (p.8)

Disambiguating Sacrifice

Before Rillera can get to the positive vision of the cross he wants to present, he has a lot of ground-clearing to do. American Christians often have very little knowledge of the Israelite sacrificial system, yet many think they know what it entails. Rillera demonstrates that much of what is typically thought to be included are distortions and conflations. For example, it might come as a shock to some Christians to learn that not all sacrifices served an “atoning” function. “It is all too common to think that there is only one purpose for Levitical sacrifice; namely, to atone. However, not all sacrifices have an atoning function. […]there are two main categories for sacrifices broadly speaking: these are ‘the categories of gift-offering-display and/or pollution removal.’ ” (p.28) To drive home this point, the sacrifice most associated with Jesus’s cross, the Passover, is a “well-being” sacrifice, Not an atoning sacrifice.

Conveniently, it is straightforward to recognize if a sacrifice is atoning or non-atoning: if the laity eat from it, then it cannot be an atoning sacrifice. This is how we know, for example, that the Passover is a type of communal well-being sacrifice since it is eaten by the laity. This is why these sacrifices are sometimes translated as ‘fellowship’ or ‘communion’ offerings, since these are a way for the worshiper to commune or have fellowship with God at the sanctuary.” (p.29)

Furthermore, sacrifices that did function as atoning, didn’t atone for moral sins (like the kind that required a death sentence), they purified or decontaminated sacred spaces or objects for God’s presence. Further still, the offering of animals as sacrifice wasn’t about their suffering or death in the place of human beings. Instead, ritual sacrifice performed in the prescribed manner transformed the killing into an offering and the animal’s death into a sacred gift.

Rillera systemically walks readers through a detailed survey of the Levitical sacrificial system to disambiguate “sacrifice” from “killing” and “atonement.” These things are Not synonymous. After that, Rillera differentiates the kinds of sins for which atoning sacrifices could purify or decontaminate and the kinds of sins they could not. The prophets didn’t condemn Israel for ritual impurity; they condemned Israel for moral sins like idolatry and injustice. These are the sins that remained unforgiven—the sins for which Jesus died.

No Substitute for Cruciformity

Ultimately, Rillera’s aim is to remind Christians that Jesus’s death isn’t merely a historical event we can point to and be grateful for. No, Jesus calls his disciples to follow him in the Way of the cross, a cross-shaped life. Christian discipleship isn’t a ‘spectator sport’; every disciple is called to participate in the self-giving love Jesus modeled for us on the cross.

Jesus’s death is a participatory phenomenon; it is something all are called to share in experientially. The logic is not: Jesus died so we don’t have to. Rather it is: Jesus died so that we, together, can follow in his steps and die with him and like him, having full fellowship with his sufferings so that we might share in the likeness of his resurrection. […] In short, while Jesus did die for us, this does not mean that Jesus died instead of us. It means that he died ahead of and with us.” (p.7)

This is why we don’t just watch a priest or pastor receive communion on our behalf, but we partake ourselves. This is why the famous hymn in Philippians 2 isn’t about Jesus being humble so that we don’t have to be. No, the apostles teach us that Jesus’s cross is ours too. “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21) The apostle Paul even says that his own suffering for the sake of the Gospel is a continuation of Christ’s sufferings (Col. 1:24–29). Cruciformity isn’t an optional part of the Christian life; it is the Christian life.

That is why I’d highly recommend this work to all those who are seeking a better explanation for Jesus’s death on the cross. Rillera’s work deserves a wide reading, even if it is primarily geared toward a more academic audience. If lay readers are interested, I’d suggest reading it with seminary-trained clergy. There is a far amount of technical language. But the benefits of this study shouldn’t be confined to those with a working knowledge of Greek or Hebrew. This book has the potential to infuse Christians with a renewed passion for the Way of the Cross.