I’m going to start this post with an admission: I don’t understand atonement. I don’t believe that any of the various popular theories adequately describes the mystery of the cross. Penal substitution, moral influence, Christus Victor, the ransom theory, and others all point to elements of the atonement that we should take seriously, but none ultimately de-mystifies the atoning work of Christ on the cross. (By the way, C. Stephen Evans offers a great discussion of atonement in The Historical Christ and the Jesus of Faith.)
Apparently I’m not the only person who has felt this way throughout the history of the Church. It’s noteworthy that while the Church canonized somewhat specific doctrines on the nature and saving work of God (the Trinity and Incarnation), no theory of atonement ever gained canonical status. The necessity of atonement was taken for granted. Yes, we are separated from God by sin, and, yes, the death of Christ makes it possible for us to be united with God in love again. Exactly how Christ’s death achieves this, however, has remained an open question.
I don’t understand atonement, but I believe that Christ’s atoning work on the cross was necessary to heal creation of the brokenness caused by sin, and to allow people like you and me to know and love God in the way that God has always intended. Yes, we really do need atonement.
This claim–that we need the atoning work of Christ to be reconciled to God and live rightly–is deeply counter-cultural. Western culture holds individualism as one of its highest values. Protestantism contributed a great deal to this by moving the locus of authority from the teaching office of the Church to the individual as biblical interpreter. This is not to lay the blame entirely at the feet of Protestantism. Rather, the Reformation was part of a larger cultural movement that exalted the authority of the individual over other forms of authority, such as tradition. Sometimes we talk about this as “modernity,” sometimes as the European Enlightenment. Whatever we call it, this movement gained considerable steam in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Think of the theology of Schleiermacher, or the “code hero” of Ernest Hemingway, accountable only to himself. Throughout the 1960’s the emphasis on the individual continued to permeate the culture, and today it is an assumed truth that we receive by cultural osmosis.
What does individualism have to do with atonement? A culture as individualistic as ours teaches me that I am the arbiter of my own moral life, the true judge of my own character. There is no higher goal than to be true to myself. If this is the case, then I don’t need atonement. There’s nothing wrong with me. Any attempt to tell me that I somehow need to change is only a hegemonic attempt to control me by some person or institution.
This perceived level of individual autonomy, however, is an illusion. We are all shaped by outside influences and institutions and by the mores of our culture. We are shaped every day by advertising, social media, and peer groups. We are shaped by our genetic coding. And from a Christian perspective, we are shaped by sin.
Sin is both real and powerful. In Romans 5-7, Paul talks about sin as a cosmic force that imposes upon us the irresistible tendency to act in ways that oppose God’s will. It is so powerful, he says, that even though we may know the right thing to do, we just don’t do it. We may even want to do the right thing and still do wrong. Chapter 7 culminates in a cry for help followed by a shout of victory: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
There is something within us, something powerful, that leads us away from God’s will. If you don’t believe me, just go to your preferred news website, and you will find a catalog of sins: murder, hatred, adultery, envy, greed. Yet it is not simply in these “newsworthy” offenses that we are to locate sin. Each of us, if we are honest, can look at our own lives and see places where we know we haven’t lived the way in which we should. I certainly know that’s the case for me. A friend of mine likes to quip that sin is the only empirically demonstrable Christian doctrine.
We really do need atonement. We really do need to be reconciled to God. Bonhoeffer derided what he called “cheap grace.” Cheap grace, he said, can never truly reconcile us to God. A faith without atonement in which we simply will ourselves to better behavior and act as if our past sins simply fade into the ether without consequence ignores the depth and power of human sin, and the lengths to which God would go to redeem us. No, sin is truly powerful, and God’s love is truly great, and the collision of these resulted in the costliest of all grace, the death of the incarnate Son.
Good Friday is a time when we reflect upon our shortcomings before God and confess our sins. It is a time for self-examination, repentance, and prayer. It is a day when we give thanks for the costly grace of the cross. I would encourage you to join me in this prayer of the Orthodox Church, or, if there is a prayer of confession that you find more meaningful, to pray that instead. Regardless, pray something.
O Lord my God, I confess that I have sinned against You in thought, word and deed.
I have also omitted to do what Your holy law requires of me.
But now with repentance and contrition I turn again to Your love and mercy.
I entreat You to forgive me all my transgression and to cleanse me from all my sins.
Lord, fill my heart with the light of Your truth. Strengthen my will by Your grace.
Teach me both to desire and to do only what pleases You. Amen.