In the last few years, Christian writers have been taking a look at the phrase “forgiveness of sins” and relating it to the community of Israel. That is, Israel considered itself to still be in exile, waiting for God’s redemption. They were under the oppression of Rome, living as captives in their own land. This, Jewish religious leaders taught, was God’s punishment on the nation that would only end when there came a time of true repentance.
So, modern writers say, when we read about forgiveness of sins in the New Testament, we should be thinking in terms of the nation’s sins (Israel’s sins), not an individual’s sins. Because of this, the atonement is not a personal atonement, with Jesus bearing each individual’s sins, but community atonement. These scholars reject statements like, “Jesus went to the cross to pay for my sins.”
There are many moments in the story of the New Testament where this concept not only fits, but seems to be the best explanation. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is focused on community guilt (and shame), not the individual. Few in the crowd would have played a direct role in the crucifixion of Jesus, yet the whole crowd reacted in horror when they realized what had been done. That’s community sin.
But there are other stories that focus on individual sin. When Jesus comes face to face with a paralytic and says, “Your sins are forgiven,” that’s not about Israel’s sins. He was addressing the man’s personal situation. The woman with a flow of blood. Zacchaeus. There are numerous instances where Jesus is seen to be focusing on an individual’s sin.
And when Ananias talks to Paul about being baptized to wash away his sins, those are Paul’s sins. He was blameless as regards the Law, he’d acted in good conscience throughout his life, yet he had sin that needed to be washed away.
If you want to get technical, I am closest to what is known as “covenantal substitutionary atonement.” (Don’t you love those theological terms?) As part of that, I believe that Jesus died for my sin, that I was separated from God by sin, and that my faith response allows me to be seen as holy. I also believe that individuals need to understand that they personally need a Savior, or they will not be able to live in God’s presence.
We need a better grasp of what it means to be part of the community of the saved. But we don’t get there by rejecting individual responsibility before God.