Yes, we really do need atonement.

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.)

crucifixion iconApparently 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.

18 thoughts on “Yes, we really do need atonement.

  1. David, even if you don’t understand atonement, do you think that Jesus HAD to die in order for God to accept us, or was it more an example of faithful obedience? In other words, was Jesus’s death the consequence of his actions, rather than a requirement of God? In the Garden of Gethsemane it appears that Jesus didn’t want to die but gave in to God’s will that He (Jesus) proceed forward, knowing that whatever was to come would be terrible for Him. Do you think Jesus could have just walked away that night in Garden, lived out his life, and thus we would never have heard of Him?

    • Britt, your questions about atonement (as the various theories about it) assume that we will ever be able to fathom God’s ways in this lifetime. You ask: “was Jesus’s death the consequence of his actions, rather than a requirement of God?” This reflects a denial of the Holy Trinity; Jesus *is* God!

      We shall never, on this side of the ‘mortal coil,’ understand the ways of the Almighty. He tells us as much through the prophet Isaiah: “8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (chapter 55).

      What this says to me is that we must humbly accept our subordinance to our Heavenly Father, and love & trust Him while we seek to act according to His will (without trying to figure everything out).

      • revjr, my simple questions don’t deny anything – quite the opposite. They refer directly to what’s recorded in scripture and it seems to me go right to the heart of atonement.

        The Gospels say that in Gethsemane, Jesus prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as You, not I, would have it.” Then, “If this cup cannot pass by, but I must drink it, Your will be done!” Jesus said this prayer three times, checking on the apostles between each prayer and finding them asleep. Then on the cross Jesus asks, “My God, why have You forsaken me?”

        Certainly these particular scriptures have been debated for centuries by people more educated and spiritually enlightened than me, and can’t be addressed adequately in a blog post. However, I’m still interested in David’s and other people’s opinion. To not ask these questions is to ignore scripture, wouldn’t you agree?

  2. Amen. I too have worked through all of the various theories of the atonement and came to the conclusion, while most of them capture a vital aspect of the atonement, none of them capture the atonement in all of its fullness. And like you said, there is a lot of holy mystery involved in the atonement. We speak of what we know – what has been revealed to us through revelation – and we also acknowledge that there is a lot that we do not know about the resurrection. Like the old hymn, there are some things that will only be understood “farther along.”

    It’s kind of ironic, but Aslan’s death in the lion, the witch, and the wardrobe helped me to understand the atonement in a deeper way than any of the theories. Lewis focused on transgressions and the need for justice to be met, the need to be set free from the curse of sin, and to release creation from the tyranny of the evil one. Lewis combined a lot of different scriptural aspects into one whole. It’s a beautiful picture of what Christ did on behalf of us.

    • I’m familiar with all the theories of atonement as well. The one theory that has never made sense to me is the idea that Jesus’s death achieves some sort of justice. If I commit a crime and you agree to be punished for it, in what way has justice been served? It seems to me that in that scenario two injustices have just been done, even if you agree to do it.

      • Actually, what you have just said, Britt, helps me to understand what atonement is, if it’s God agreeing to be punished for what someone else has done, not me or you.

      • You’re absolutely right it’s not justice in regards to Jesus; it’s the righteous being condemned for the righteous. He didn’t deserve any punishment at all but chose to take ours. That’s love.

        People get caught up in the whole “my sins don’t deserve that” personal view. Whatever the amount of sin you have committed, the fact is that the whole of humanity is separated from a holy God because of sin. This is His creation, we are obliged to follow His laws (and we should; He is all good; there’s no darkness in him), and we all break those laws. We have transgressions; we have sinned and those sins demand justice.

        Christ has not only made atonement for those sins but he has also created a way that we might be freed from the power of sin within us. Through Christ’s atonement, we can be reconciled to God and be blessed with the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit changes our heart (takes away our “heart of stone” and replaces it with a “heart of flesh” – a heart that desires to obey God fully because it is a heart filled with the love of God).

        That’s the glorious Trinitarian gospel. Well, it’s not Trinitarian yet. I have to mention that God the Father into the world – not to condemn it but to save it.

    • Josh, you reply that Jesus accepting our punishment was an act of love. Maybe so. However, that ignores that God decided people needed to be punished in the first place, but then decided to punish an innocent party (Jesus) instead. That satisfies no need for justice because it’s not just.

      Perhaps one might reply that God took our punishment upon Himself. However, that makes no sense to me. To illustrate with an absurd example: You do something I don’t like. I decide you need to be punished for it. I decide that I’ll punish you by hitting you with a stick. Then instead of hitting you with the stick, I hit myself with a stick.

      That’s not even logical and satisfies no need for justice. In my opinion, the theory of substitionary atonement sets us up for manipulation through guilt. I’m not a theologian and I have no degree from seminary, but I think other theories of atonement make much more sense.

      • There is a penalty that must be paid. You ever did something wrong, got arrested, and received a sentence because you did wrong? I hate to say it but I have (and I thank God that he saved me from the lifestyle that caused that). Thank God, Jesus paid my sentence.

        It doesn’t make sense? Well, as Paul says, the foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of man. You would not be the first one to not get why God would do such an act of love.

        Also, your example of hitting someone with a stick doesn’t really match up with the realities of life. What about the sins of dishonoring parents, abandoning one’s family, lying, stealing, hating, slandering, sexual unfaithfulness, apathy, addiction . . . you know, the real things that are found in life?

        Anyways, the atonement needs to be understood in the grand narrative of scripture. Sacrifices in the OT were made to do away with guilt and make worshipers able to enter into the presence of a holy God. That’s the way He created us to live – in His presence.

        I agree with you that the other theories should not be left out. That’s why I said that Aslan’s act of sacrificial love in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe speaks to me so profoundly.

        I do see how that it could be used in a manipulative way. I have been in contexts where the message was “accept the get-out-of-hell-free-ticket” and you will be O.K. in the afterlife. Not good. But just because a doctrine is used wrongly doesn’t mean that it should be discarded. I went through a time in my life when I felt negatively towards the substitutionary atonement theory so I feel you. But I encourage you to just read the scriptures carefully and take in the message. Some sort of substitutionary formula is definitely there. I just don’t see how God can forgive us without some sort of justice being met for our transgressions. Sweeping sin under the rug is man’s way; not God’s way. Sin is serious and it has to be dealt with.

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  4. Josh, you reply that “there is a penalty that must be paid.” However, my point is that God made the rules and the punishments, but He’s not trapped by them so that He MUST punish someone or Himself as a substitute. God makes the rules, the rules don’t make God.

    The Hebrew Bible gives examples of God forgiving without the need for punishment or sacrifice (Ninevah), which of course is what Jesus taught us to do. Are we required to be more forgiving than God/Jesus?

    I think that for a person who has done heinous crimes, psychologically the idea of someone is being punished in his place might provide some relief from feelings of guilt. On the other hand, it might make that person feel even more guilty (we see that phenomenon in Church when we try to guilt someone into being saved).

    The Church is in decline. If we can’t explain our doctrines clearly then why would someone who is not familiar with the Church be persuaded to join or come to Christ? I don’t think a substitutionary understanding of atonement is compelling to the average modern person. Countering that its a mystery or beyond our understanding is not compelling, either.

    • God is above His rules? I don’t agree with that at all. God is all good; there is not a bit of darkness in Him. His decrees and commands flow out of His character. How could He rise above rules and commands that flow out of His character. That would not be rising above but sinking below – and God doesn’t do that.

      You need to be careful with that whole idea that God just arbitrarily makes His own rules and that He can change them or negate them if He wishes. There is good and there is evil. That is an ontological reality. For God to turn away from something good would be for Him to turn to something evil.

      Did God forgive all of the people in Ninevah with one fell swoop or would it be more accurate to say that He withheld His wrath because the unleashing of His wrath would harm those who didn’t deserve it? I personally think that the book of Jonah is all about the need for Israel to remember it’s calling as a “holy nation” and a “kingdom of priests” – they were to be out calling the nations to walk in God’s light instead of wishing judgment on them (like Jonah). But that’s a different topic.

      In regards to psychological guilt, that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about guilt that is incurred because of real transgressions. Some people FEEL guilty about such things and others don’t.

      I agree with you that a substitutionary atonement of scripture might not draw people to Christ but you know what? Salvation is God’s work – it’s not ours. You can come up with the best plans to draw people and they will walk on out the door. Look at the UMC in America. There have been millions of dollars spent on evangelistic programs and little to show for it. The UMC is losing 100,000 members per year.

      But, on the other hand, the UMC in Africa is growing by 300,000 a year. They don’t have money, influence, and they face persecution and death at every corner. But they’re growing and they have joy. If you go to one of their revival meetings, what do you think you’ll hear? I can tell you. You will hear about Christ’s justifying act upon the cross.

      By the way, do you come from a Wesleyan context? If so, how do you view prevenient grace (God drawing people to himself) and justifying grace (God justifying the believer so that they might be forgiven of their sins and enter into a new relationship with God)?

      • Josh, suffice it to say that you and I disagree theologically. It’s a tragedy that instead of developing a compelling theology for the 21st Century, the Church is only growing in less modern societies like Africa and South America. Consider that someday those societies will be modern like today’s West. What theology will we present to them then that makes sense? The Church is putting off the inevitable and instead needs to rethink it’s theology. You and I will just have to agree to disagree, my friend. Peace.

      • Britt, do you hear the ethnocentrism and the cultural superiority in your reply? The Western world is deteriorating before our very eyes – economic collapse, moral collapse, drug addiction, sex addiction, suicide, high murder rates. You need to get out and spend some time in Africa and South America before you start think that their societies and ways of life are inferior to ours. Gosh man, I am just blown away that you would make such a remark.

        Also, the churches in America that are growing are almost all orthodox in their theology. They’re just teaching and preaching the good old gospel. That concrete evidence goes totally against the idea that the Western modern world needs a “new” gospel that fits its tastes.

        I’m sorry but I just see no logical way that you can defend the position that the church should try to remake the gospel in order to market it to people. That kind of approach is exactly what millennials are running away from. Also, that approach sounds like something a business consultant would come up with – not an apostle.

        I am glad that you acknowledged that we are coming from very different theological backgrounds. I think it is very important that we openly and honestly state those things so that we do not get involved in needless battles that don’t do any good. It’s just better to be open, honest, and courteous – and part ways if needs be. At the very least, we will have learned something about our own positions and others.

  5. I don’t think Jesus meant for us to debate what he did! God so loved the world that He sent His one ans only son… I think Chrisians turn people away by debating their views and saying this is the way.

    • Josh, it seems you have a lot of advice for me. For example, that I need to read particular scriptures and commentaries, as if I haven’t read and studied them. Also, that I need to spend time in South America and Africa before commenting on them. Actually, I’ve been to all seven continents. I guess on the Internet, a person never really knows who they’re talking to.

      Regarding South America and Africa: if you think a lack of education, belief in superstition, economic desperation and rampant disease doesn’t factor into the Church’s ability to grow in developing countries, then we simply disagree. Conversely, if you think that Western society’s progress in these areas hasn’t contributed to the Church’s decline in the West, then again we disagree.

      Regarding church growth in the West: mega-churches are good at marketing, social media, organizing activities, and easy answers. More importantly, are they actually gaining new converts? Rather, it seems they’re mostly gaining market share, i.e. members from other churches.

      I think the Church needs to rethink some of it’s theology for the 21st Century in order to revitalize the Church. You disagree. Therefore, let’s respectfully agree to disagree and leave it at that. Peace.

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