Atonement: Putting It All Together

Okay. As I said at the beginning, I’m making this up as I go along. Maybe if I’d read more books and learned more vocabulary words, this would all make better sense to me. But I must say I don’t feel entirely satisfied with where things are.

Any theory that presumes that God and Jesus have different purposes is wrong. That’s not how the atonement works.

Therefore, the idea that God wants to damn humanity but Jesus steps in to rescue us by offering himself in our stead is simply not true. There are elements that are true, but it can’t be exactly true because God never wanted us damned in the first place.

(John 3:16 ESV)  16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

(Eph 2:4-7 ESV)  4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,  5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

I think Christus Victor is unquestionably true in suggesting that the cross defeats the powers and so frees humanity from the power of Satan. The devil is in the details, of course, and I have no patience for the ancient debates of Anselm and Augustine and all. Scholasticism is just not very appealing to me. I’d far rather look at the atonement from the Jewish, rather than the Aristotelian, perspective.

But in general, it is true and a necessary part of any theory. I’m not sure it’s complete, however, because I don’t see how it defeats sin. We sin not only because of Satanic temptation and the corruption of the world caused by the powers, but also because we choose to sin. How does God deal with that?

Well, God deals with sin (a) by forgiving sin and (b) by giving us his Spirit to help us resist the temptation. That’s simple — too simple for many — but it’s enough. If I sin against you, you don’t have to kill your son to forgive me. Rather, you yourself choose to forgiven me.

Now, that likely means that you pay the price. If I hit a baseball through your window, you may choose to forgive me and pay the price yourself. It’s your choice. No cosmic law requires a court of law or a scapegoat. You can bear the price yourself.

Therefore, I think there’s a real, powerful sense in which Jesus hanging on the cross is God paying the price himself — just as he promised he’d do for Abraham when they cut their covenant with the blood of animals. This is a better kind of justice — the judge pays the fine for the defendant rather than imposing the fine on some innocent, third party.

And I’m good with the theory that the cross actually taught Jesus obedience. That’s what the Bible says. And if he learned obedience there, he was thereby equipped to truly teach us obedience through the Spirit.

The cross really is necessary to defeat the powers — especially if victory is to be won by God revealing his true nature in Christ. No Blackhawk helicopters allowed. To prove the superiority of submission to violence, God/Jesus had to win through submission. Hence, the cross was essential.

And so I see the driving force behind the cross in the Christus Victor model. But because Jesus had to die, it’s fair for the scriptures to refer to him as a “sacrifice.” He really was because his sacrifice was essential to defeat the powers.

But the scriptures also refer to Jesus as sin bearer. Countless verses refer to Jesus as bearing our sins. In what sense? Well, in part at least, in the sense that it was because of our sins that Jesus had to die to defeat the powers. If we’d been holier, stronger, and not sinned, God would not have needed to defeat the powers. After all, they’d be too weak to matter. He was truly crucified for our sins because our sins forced him to die.

The defeat of the powers does not, by itself, cure our sin problem. That requires that God forgive us. And God does not forgive those who are in rebellion. We have to brought out of rebellion and out of the control of the powers to be forgiven.

God does this most assuredly through the Spirit. As Paul teaches in Ephesians and Jesus at the end of John, the Spirit gives us the power necessary to resist the powers and submit to Jesus — to be faithful — to turn our commitment into reality, our good intentions into actions.

And somehow, the presence of the Spirit in us allows God to give us grace. He credits our faith/faithfulness as righteousness, not because we are perfectly true to the covenant but because our hearts have turned toward God and we’re trying.

This is accomplished through forgiveness — which, by the Spirit, ceases to be a one-time atonement and becomes an ongoing relationship. Why? How does the Spirit’s presence make this difference? How does the Helper mediate grace?

Well, the Helper changes our hearts, writes God’s laws on our hearts, and keeps us from rebellion. He makes us submissive.

But why is this good enough? Well, evidently it’s due to a relationship change, from enemy to family, from stranger to child. God chooses us. He elects us. He adds us to his favored community and gives us his Helper — a piece of himself — to help us make it to the end. We call him Abba.

Why? Well, the only explanation I find is because he loves us. But why us and not those who have no faith? It’s hard to say.

But maybe, as N. T. Wright argues, it’s because God’s goal isn’t merely to forgive us but to shape us into his image. You see, when we get beyond Reformation-era atonement thought, and return to the text, we see repeated statements that we are to become like Jesus. Some are subtle, but the connections become obvious once you see the pattern.

To be a “disciple” is to submit to the teaching of a rabbi with the goal of becoming just like him.

To “follow” Jesus is to submit to him, to do as he does, to go where he goes.

To “repent” is to turn away from rebellion to submit to God by submitting to his Messiah.

To be a “new creation” is to be remade in the image of God — which is also the image of Jesus.

To be “faithful” is to submit to the will of Jesus, who wants us to be a submissive servant just like him.

To enter the “kingdom” is to submit to the kingdom’s king and so become like him.

You see, the idea of becoming like Jesus — not merely to do what he would do as an ethical example but to have his heart and sacrificial submission — unites and enlivens countless other biblical themes.

Now, if the end goal isn’t forgiveness but transformation into the image of Jesus, then forgiveness is an essential step toward transformation. It frees us from our pasts and allows us to pursue Jesus even in our imperfection. It allows us into the presence of God — God the Spirit.

And if the goal is transformation, the cross certainly shows us our goal. I don’t think Jesus died merely to show us what sacrifice means. I think it was necessary under Christus Victor. But the cross serves multiple purposes.

The cross demonstrates the true character of God as submissive and sacrificial. It’s a moral example, but no mere example. Our purpose is to pursue becoming like Jesus, and the cross informs and demonstrates our purpose.

Moreover, ours sins are hung on the cross because the cross is the direct, proximate result of our sinfulness — and the cross is part of the solution. It’s not the entire solution, because our sin problem isn’t really solved until we’re made righteous in reality. It takes the Spirit to do that — but the Spirit is empowered by Jesus’ obedience to teach us obedience.

But the cross is where we receive forgiveness. We don’t just overcome the powers through Jesus. Jesus’ defeat of the powers reduces them from “gods” of the nations to mere demons. They still tempt and do great devilment, but they no longer stand in God’s way as he pursues us.

And God’s desire is to call us to him, through the cross, bring us to faith, forgive us, place us into his community, and transform us.

Is this all? Probably not. Have I articulated a complete atonement theology, dealing with all the verses? I doubt it. In fact, I think it’s likely impossible for a mere human to do such a thing.

I think the images, metaphors, and models we find in scripture point to several intertwined truths, some of which we are capable of understanding and some of which are hopelessly beyond our finite minds.

The ideas of sacrifice, substitution, etc., etc. all point to, not a single reason, but one of many reasons that the cross had to be. And I don’t have to completely understand it to believe it.

But understanding helps us see what the atonement is pointing us toward, what it does. Because I think we’ve undervalued and misunderstood the atonement badly.

As a result, we celebrate too readily when someone is baptized with no clue as to the call to become like Jesus or what that might mean. We’re too focused on getting saved and not nearly focused enough on serving Jesus and becoming like him.

Indeed, even when we hire a minister of spiritual formation, as likely as not, he’s just the guy over small groups and adult education but completely unaware that his real job is to help the members learn to submit, serve, sacrifice, and even suffer like Jesus. In fact, he probably thinks that his job is to make them happy.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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10 Responses to Atonement: Putting It All Together

  1. guy says:

    Jay,

    My understanding from conversations with my priest is that Christ “bore” our sins in that He would continuously sinned against by those in His life–the Romans, the Pharisees, the crowds, the Sadducees, His own disciples–and still, Himself, never sinned. There’s some sense in which Christ’s obedience was part of the mechanism of the atonement, and not in a mere exemplary way, and not in the sense that His obedience was a mere prerequisite to His sacrifice since only a sinless sacrifice would do (that’s still the penal-satisfaction model). But by bearing our sins in that He took on the full weight of humanity doing Him dirty and yet did not Himself succumb to sin–even to the point of obeying God on the cross–that somehow (at least partially) *does* the atoning work.

    –guy

  2. Grizz says:

    Jay,

    you argue against Aristotelian approaches, but how does your approach avoid this “error”? I do not think you actually avoid it at all. You simply take a contrarian perspective and proceed in a rather convoluted attempt to avoid Aristotelian devices while employing them all the same. Perhaps rather than attempting to avoid your strengths here, you would do better to openly employ them to find clarity, rather than taking this painfully circuitous route of ‘avoidance’ that does not, in the end, avoid anything at all. You weaken your case unnecessarily by speculating instead of offering the reasoning Paul employed. Sin demands a penalty. Jesus chose self-sacrificially to become that penalty for all … even knowing that many would reject his gift. Atonement for us is a gift that we mocked even as it was being offered, yet it was given with no less resolve than had we embraced it for what it truly is. Anything less than complete conscious surrender without any reserve – something we struggle with nearly constantly – still falls short of true appreciation for the gift given. We lose focus, we excuse our recidivism with confessions of weakness seemingly geared more towards self-justification than towards any real repentance. We declare ourselves sorry nearly as genuinely as we declare ourselves followers of a Christ we barely take time to know at all. Like the messy child who is amazed at his or her siblings’ seeming innate ability to stay organized, we excuse our lack of self-discipline by our endless confessions of feelings of inadequacy or inability to do any better. God did not make us inadequate or unable to follow Jesus, despite our tearful protestations against our own culpability. We were made perfectly, even at our rebirth, so that there is left no excusing any of our lack of enthusiasm when the going gets ‘real.’ But we still attempt to excuse ourselves while pretending this is what confession is. Forget atonement. We need to understand what confessions is – from the perspective of a loving and yet still Holy GOD … or at least from the perspective of honestly self-appraising and accountable people attempting straightforward relationship with Him. As with the shootings at the theater in Aroura, Colorado we think we can just label some extremely and obviously ungodly ones as being evil, as though we are not evil when we consider our sin any less of an offense to God than the sins of any other. After all, is it any less extreme to sin by mocking God by sitting in an assembly and claiming to be a follower of Jesus when we scarcely ever actually follow Him in between gatherings … offering a pittance of ourselves only when it is convenient while wailing and making a show of concern for the poor and secretly considering them the root of their own problems more critically than ourselves? We excuse our lack of giving by reasoning that we at least give something. We offer others our leftovers while pretending we are really offering God something we value. We call it a sacrifice to give what is truly only a little to us … while critically rationalizing our choice to give less than we think we need for ourselves because our little is more than the needy have ever been in a position to have given. How smug we feel, snugly wrapped in our cocoon of self-rationalized warmth and self-comforting giving. We were given abundance so we ought to enjoy it, right? Isn’t that what we think atonement is about? HE died to save us, so we should take advantage of the opportunity and escape, right? Did HE lay down His life so that we could lay down our leftovers?

    Atonement is either more than an open door to escape peril or else we are left largely unchanged by it at all. OF course, this is more about our response to atonement than it is about atonement itself – the righteous sacrifice for the violation of God’s standard on behalf of another.

    Thanks for trying to mske sense of it for us. You could have just picked up the check for lunch instead, though.

    Blessings,

    Grizz

  3. laymond says:

    Grizz says: “Sin demands a penalty.Jesus chose self-sacrificially to become that penalty for all … ”

    NIV – Jhn 6:38 – For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.
    NLT – Jhn 7:28 – While Jesus was teaching in the Temple, he called out, “Yes, you know me, and you know where I come from. But I’m not here on my own. The one who sent me is true, and you don’t know him.
    NIV – Jhn 8:42 – Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me.
    NIV – Jhn 8:43 – Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.

    People continue to say things like Grizz said, after reading all the scripture that deny what they say. Grizz, what other choice did Jesus have?

    NIV – Isa 42:8 – “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.
    NIV – Isa 43:11 – I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior.
    When we say things like “Jesus chose self-sacrifice” we take the glory of God, and give it to his Son.
    NIV – Jhn 3:16 – “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.
    NIV – Jhn 5:24 – “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.
    The atonement can not be ascribed to anything other than as a gift from God.

  4. rich constant says:

    Moreover, ours sins are hung on the cross because the cross is the direct, proximate result of our sinfulness — and the cross is part of the solution. It’s not the entire solution, because our sin problem isn’t really solved until we’re made righteous in reality. It takes the Spirit to do that — but the Spirit is empowered by Jesus’ obedience to teach us obedience.
    un fortunately!
    you have missed again…
    resurrection brought about gods gospel fulfilled… faithfulness to the will of the father.
    now then judge my hart and take away all the blessings of eph.1:1-18
    except for the withholding of the love of this life of flesh.
    now you get to be god ….the irony blows my mind……

    were all so broken…..

  5. rich constant says:

    we don’t preach gods gospel the mystery of the prophets reviled the way Paul preached we teach the 5 finger discount!!!!

  6. rich constant says:

    p.s.
    do you really think god is going to ask teachers ….what in the hell is wrong with you..
    its the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace…
    not judgement IT’S helping each other AS GOD IN CHRIST HELPED US
    BOY OH BOY

  7. rich constant says:

    OOPS EPH.18:1-20
    HAD TO LOOK

  8. rich constant says:

    ANOTHER P.S.
    the CAUSE
    god had a plan before the foundation of the world.
    christ raised from the dead

    EFFECT
    EPH.1:1-22 or so

  9. rey says:

    “Scholasticism is just not very appealing to me. I’d far rather look at the atonement from the Jewish, rather than the Aristotelian, perspective.”

    Surely you meant Plato not Aristotle. To deny logic (Aristotolean logic is the only logic there is, it is logic, there is no other) is to deny that God created the world, because an illogical world cannot have God for its creator.

  10. guy says:

    Rey,

    You wrote:
    “(Aristotolean logic is the only logic there is, it is logic, there is no other)”

    This is patently false. There is sentential logic. There is predicate logic. There is the Boolean system. The last half of the 20th century has seen the development of Modal logic. Aristotelian logic refers to the particular syllogistic forms systematized by Aristotle, and all of these i’ve mentioned differ from it (and there are more). For philosophers (either logicians or those who work on Aristotle), there really is no such thing as “logic” simpliciter.

    But more to the point, a rejection of the “Aristotelian perspective” does not entail rejection of his logical system. Aristotle wrote about a great deal more things than merely logic. What i took Jay here to mean was the rejection of a certain view of metaphysics. Although, i do think Aristotle’s view is much closer to a Jewish/Eastern view than that of Plato, so perhaps you’re right, “Plato” might’ve been more appropriate.

    –guy

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