N. T. “Tom” Wright has just released another paradigm-shifting book suggesting a new, more scriptural way of understanding the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright delves deeply into how the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus accomplishes our salvation.
Wright’s book is densely filled with insights about how to understand countless scriptures — so much so that I find it it a bit overwhelming, although I read the book while ill, largely in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices — and so maybe my view is a bit skewed.
This series of posts is partly review, partly summary, and mainly my own ruminations as I try to fit Wright’s theories into what I already know on the subject.
Moreover, Wright’s book assumes that the reader is at least somewhat familiar with previous books by Wright — which is not necessarily the case. Therefore, these posts also serve as something of an introduction, providing background material not necessarily in The Day the Revolution Began but from earlier Wright books or other sources.
Finally, this is also my way of helping myself learn the material. I take the book apart and put it back together to see if the re-assembled book looks like the original. I know of no better way to master new material.
I will try to note where a discussion is entirely from me or another source, so that Wright isn’t blamed for my own thinking.
This will be a rather leisurely stroll through a host of (hopefully) interesting lessons that culminate in a deeper understanding of the atonement. And so I’m proceeding on the theory that the journey is often of more value than the destination. That is, the lessons that build up to the conclusion are themselves well worth your study time. In fact, they might make into a pretty good small group or Bible class study even if you had no interest in the atonement.
This approach allows me to meander a bit to teach the underlying lessons more thoroughly than is really necessary to reach the atonement conclusion. After all, if you decide to visit the Grand Canyon, it’s not a bad plan to stop at all the other national parks and monuments you run across on the way there and to enjoy them as if they were each a destination worth the trip on its own. (They are.)
The Romans Road to Salvation
The traditional view of the atonement, and a very common way of presenting the “gospel” to potential converts, is the so-called Romans Road to Salvation, because each step is backed by a prooftext from Romans.
The Churches of Christ agree with this teaching, by and large, except we would be careful to add repentance and baptism (from Acts 2:38) so that it meshes well with our Five Step Plan of Salvation.
The teaching is along these lines:
- We are all sinners.
- God hates sin.
- Sin must be punished by death.
- We can’t go to heaven when we die if we have even a single sin charged against us.
- Forgiveness of our sins is therefore essential to avoid hell and obtain heaven.
- Jesus died on the cross to suffer our punishment — death — for us.
- If we believe in Jesus, our sins are forgiven by Jesus’ sacrifice.
- Because our sins have been forgiven, we go to heaven when we die.
- We should seek to mature in Jesus by finding a church to attend, studying the Bible, praying, and avoiding moral sin. But none of this earns heaven, which is fully earned by our having a clean slate thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
Among theologians, this theory is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), the gist being that Jesus takes our punishment for us so that we can have a clean slate with God. Among evangelicals, it’s the most commonly taught theory and routinely used in presentations to potential converts.
Problems with PSA [expanded from Wright’s critique]
There are truths in this presentation, of course, but there are problems, as well.
First, this presentation makes God into a punisher without grace. The grace that we receive is from Jesus — who thwarts God’s initial plans to punish us. It sets Jesus and the Father at odds. In fact, a common revival sermon pictures God as a judge prepared to sentence humans to death for their sins, when Jesus appears for the defense, offering to give his life for the humans, rescuing humans from the wrath of God. The price for Jesus taking our place is simply faith in Jesus, that he really is God’s Son.
Second, how can it be that Jesus can take our punishment for us? I mean, in the human legal system, I can’t have someone else serve my time for me or be executed for me — because that would not be just. How is it be just in Christian theory? What makes it possible for someone to die for me? Neither the Jewish nor Roman legal system allowed such a thing, so this would have been a very foreign concept to the original readers of the NT.
Third, why doesn’t God just forgive me? Why does a price have to be paid? Is there a cosmic law that’s higher than God that requires retribution? How can there be a law higher than God? After all, during his earthly ministry, Jesus seems to have just forgiven people without having yet died or any substitution having taken place. What is it about the forgiveness obtained on the cross that is different from the forgiveness given by God to Abraham, by Torah on the Day of Atonement, and by Jesus? (This question is usually answered in terms of the cross having a retroactive effect across time and space, which is quite possible and arguable from Hebrews, but the Gospels and Paul’s epistles don’t present it that way. What are we missing?)
Fourth, the entire presentation omits the church and the Kingdom Sin is entirely personal, between me and God. There is no “one another” in the presentation. In fact, the presentation doesn’t give a reason to do anything as a Christian other than stop sinning, and even that is not well argued. After all, if my sins are all forgiven at the cross, my ticket to heaven is already punched. Why bother to do more?
Fifth, the presentation is all about personal morality and says nothing about mission, purpose, or — to use Wright’s word — vocation. We are saved so that we’ll go to heaven. We go to church and live moral lives to avoid being disqualified. Prayer is a response to a command. God’s love is contingent on my remaining in grace, which depends on knowing and obeying the rules. And in many presentations, it’s denied that rule keeping adds anything to my qualification for heaven.
Sixth, under this theory, there is no need for an OT. Large portions of the NT become meaningless. In the Church of Christ presentation, all that matters is ecclesiology (how to conduct the assembly — the Five Acts of Worship — and organize the church) and ethics (how to live a moral life) — pushing us toward a proof text theology. And we struggle to explain how grace co-exists with a requirement that we attend the assembly, contribute money, and be good people with a sound theology.
Seventh, under this theory, we worship a God who’d just as soon see us damned — but for the intervention of Jesus to rescue us. And so we become like the God we worship — looking for foot faults and mistakes to damn others. We understand that love is commanded, but love that proceeds solely from fear of damnation is actually self-love — meaning we pretend to love others in order to keep our slates clean — and the absence of real love shows.
In short, our weak atonement theology (how Jesus’ work saves us) is at the root of many of the spiritual ills that beset the modern church, especially the Churches of Christ. We no longer live in a culture in which church attendance is assumed to be an obvious duty — and so many converts don’t see the point of attendance when our conversion teaching doesn’t give much of a reason to go.
Wright wrestles honestly with these questions and builds a different way of looking at the key passages and what really is going on. He doesn’t deny that much of the traditional view is true — God really does hate sin, for example — but urges us to rethink atonement theology.