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.