Sunday, January 19, 2014

Greatest Common Denominator: Atonement

This series is sketching out what the "greatest common denominators" of Scripture might be on topics of theology. Previous posts were:
The fallen world

What is the greatest common denominator of Scripture on the subject of atonement? Here are some thoughts.

1. God's love
The ultimate basis for all reconciliation between God and humanity is God's love. It is God's love that put atonement into action. In God's sovereignty, we must consider the manner of atonement God's choice. There can be no rules on God saying, "He had to do it this way." God freely chose to offer Jesus/himself as a sacrifice as the instrument. He could have done it by divine fiat because he is God and can create something out of nothing. That's just not what his choice was.

"God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). See also John 3:16.

2. The cross
The New Testament and the earliest preaching of the church saw the cross as the means of our reconciliation to God. "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14).  "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2).

What did the cross do?

a. It absorbed the curse we had because of our sinfulness. "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole" (Gal. 3:13).  Jesus absorbed our curse in that we were cursed. "God made him who had no sin to be sin[b] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).

You can see where someone would think this is substitution, Christ taking our place. But in church history, substitution wandered way beyond anything the NT pictured. If we think of us being defiled and Jesus absorbing our defilement, we will be closer to what the NT was thinking.

b. It satisfied the order of the universe. "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). See also Romans 3:25.

I doubt seriously that any of us really understand how sacrifice worked in the minds of the biblical authors. It's roots in human history stretched back long before any book of the Bible was written. The biblical authors might have come closer to explaining that we do with our rationalizations. To use the words of C. S. Lewis, there was a "deep magic" to sacrifice.

We can talk about satisfying the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18), but this is just a picture, an anthropomorphism. God doesn't throw tantrums literally. We've come to talk in terms of justice, and that probably starts to get at it. But it's really something much deeper, something to do with the order of the universe. Sacrifice somehow satisfies the intrinsic order of things and performs a deep magic.

c. Jesus defeated death. If you look at Heb. 2:14, Jesus defeated Satan, who held the power of death. 1 Corinthians 15 also talks about Jesus defeating death. Again, the Bible doesn't really explain how this works.

3. It is worth noting that most of the references above come from Paul. Matthew, Mark, and Luke really don't have a lot to say about the meaning of Jesus' death, nor does Acts. John has a few more images. This general silence is worth noting, because it suggests that it is legitimate for some Christian traditions to emphasize atonement theory more than others. If some churches emphasize the cross, it is legitimate for other churches to emphasize the moral example of Jesus' life (like Luke) or resurrection power (like Acts).

The OT itself has strands that emphasize sacrifices (Leviticus) and strands that proclaim social justice far more important to God than sacrifice (Isaiah 1, Micah 6, Jeremiah 7). In the same way, "crucicentrism" must be balanced with concerns like social justice and the imitation of Christ.


Susan Moore said...

Cool...the timing of God. Thanks for being obedient!
Been wanting to share this with you, our current 'conversation' reminded me. I thought you and others may find it helpful.

Ken Schenck said...

Is that your site?

Susan Moore said...

No, my site is about my healing, and life growing up as a farm-girl who loved horses. That falling plates site was shared with me by a friend. It is a video that proclaims Him in a simple way using both words and pictures. I have used it for evangelical purposes with good results.

Susan Moore said...

Part 1 of 4.
If I understand correctly, in my church how atonement happens is delegated to 'the mysteries of faith'. Magic is illusory and the stuff of sorcerers, but I know what you mean.
It does seem that denominations have their strength in understanding in the cross, or the moral actions, or the power of Jesus. I think, though, that problems come when the power of God is denied/dismissed/diminished or restricted, because doing so suppresses the truth about God which declares those people to be wicked (Romans 1:18-20). It is the modern way of denying the truth about God by walking backwards into stating a lack of belief in His power. When one denies His power, one automatically denies His resurrection, which then nullifies Him as God and casts Him as a prophet, instead.

Susan Moore said...

Part 2 of 4.
"...and who through the Spirit of holiness was DECLARED WITH POWER TO BE THE SON OF GOD BY HIS RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD: Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 1:4). Anyone can be crucified. Saying, “Father forgive them…” while being crucified doesn't mean a person is the Son of God. His resurrection is the physical act of God which identified Jesus Christ as the Son of God. The words that go with that act occurred back in Matt. 3:17 when Jesus was baptized and was coming up out of the water. The heavens opened, the Spirit of God descended on Him and a voice from heaven identified Jesus as His Son.
Peter 1:18-22 explains the connection between death, and the water of Noah being the water of baptism, and atonement, “It saves you BY THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS CHRIST…”
Peter 1:3 says it, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In his great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope THROUGH THE RESURRECTION of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

Susan Moore said...

Part 3 of 4.
In Matthew, the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, asked Jesus a question about life after death. And Jesus rebuked them for their lack of discernment in Spiritual things, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or THE POWER OF GOD…He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” This same event is also noted in Mark, but references the Sadducees not knowing the Scripture relating to the miracle of the burning bush. Both writers clearly taught that there would be (our) resurrection through Him.
In Luke Jesus relates that the effects of atonement include our resurrection, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I HAVE GIVEN YOU AUTHORITY to trample on snakes and scorpions and TO OVERCOME ALL THE POWER OF THE ENEMY; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but REJOICE THAT YOUR NAMES ARE WRITTEN IN HEAVEN” (Luke 10:18-20).
Therefore, according to Scripture; no power = no God.

Susan Moore said...

Part 4 of 4.
2 Tim. 3:5 describes people in the last days as “having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.”
I tread lightly with involvement in cessationistic churches, because the leaders, in particular, have a form of godliness but deny His power. I think grace covers me because I have left the involved 501-c-3s, but still love the people, many of whom do not deny the power of God and have no knowledge that what they profess to believe includes such nonsense.
It’s curious to me, as I read through various denominational beliefs/distinctions, how each entry will say something like, “We believe…” then go on about something from the Apostle’s/Nicene Creed. Then there may be one entry that begins, in essence, “We don’t believe…” and it will have nothing to do with either creed, and will always be about the power of God working today through some kind of sign, wonder or miracles. The most common expressed power of God that modern 501-c-3s find contemptuous is tongues.

Susan Moore said...

That contempt for the power of God is the residual bit of human rebellion that some who say they are in Christ just can’t seem to rise above; even though Jesus defeated death, itself, by rising from the dead.
Also, I capitalized some of the above words because I have found people who see in scripture only the crucified Jesus and not His power as God are dumbstruck when they realize those capitalized words are in their Bibles, too. The meaning of those words has just have never registered in the person’s brain.

Pastor Bob said...

Romans 5:11 " but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement." As I look at the Atonement it is not just about getting saved for the afterlife. It's about becoming reconciled with God, others, and ourselves.