Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A1. God chose Christ's death as the means to reconcile the world to himself.

This is the first post in a section on atonement in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first set had to do with God and Creation (soon to be self-published), and I have just finished a section on Christology.
God chose Christ's death as the means to reconcile the world to himself.

1. In Christian history, there has been a spectrum of Christian perspectives on atonement. Atonement is the reconciliation of humanity to God by means of a sacrifice. Unlike the Trinity and the nature of Christ, there has never been a universal council where a specific perspective on atonement was endorsed as the Christian perspective.

There are four main perspectives, none of which necessarily excludes the others. The ability to combine these probably speaks to why Christianity has never chosen one exclusively.

The first is arguably the oldest and relates to Jesus' death as a sacrifice. That is the conviction that Jesus' death in some way satisfied the order of things, including the wrath of God toward sin. A second perspective involves substitution on some level, with Jesus taking our place in some way. A third theme is that of Christ's victory over Satan and the powers of evil, including the defeat of death. Finally, there are approaches to atonement that focus on God's love for us and his desire to woo and influence us toward him.

2. The New Testament teaches that "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). Similarly, Jesus says in John 14:6, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." And in the book of Revelation, no one is found in all creation who is worthy to open the scroll to initiate both the final judgment and salvation except the Lamb of God, Jesus: "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth" (Rev. 5:9-10, NIV).

It is thus the consensus of the New Testament that God has chosen Christ as the only path to be reconciled to himself. As it was put in the Protestant Reformation, "Christ alone" (solus Christus) is the only means by which such reconciliation can take place. The default state of humanity is one of alienation from God. Christ alone has made reconciliation possible.

A later article will explore the question of how Christ's death is appropriated by those who are reconciled to God. There is a spectrum of positions, ranging from those who believe Christ only atoned for a limited few who will are predetermined to make a conscious decision for God to those who believe God gives every a chance to be reconciled in one way or another to those who believe Christ's death automatically brings salvation to every last human being.

For the moment, we affirm that God has decided that Christ's death would be the only means and path by which a person can be reconciled to him. We might additionally point out that the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition does not believe in "limited atonement." That is to say, we do not believe that Christ only died for some individuals, those whom God has predetermined to be saved. [1] The Wesleyan-Arminian tradition holds that Christ died potentially for everyone who has ever lived, even though in actuality not everyone will appropriate that atonement.

3. In most of church history, the assumption has been that humanity could not have been reconciled to God without atonement taking place in the way it did. In the late 300s, Gregory of Nazianzus put it in this way, "What has not been assumed has not been healed." In other words, if Jesus did not fully assume our humanity, he could not heal us of the disease of sin.

In the early 300s, Athanasius put it this way, "God became human so that humanity might become God." He did not mean that we would literally become God (that would be heresy). He meant that Jesus' incarnation was what made it possible for us to become like God in our moral character and in the restoration of God's image in us. [2]

There is a certain logic to this tradition. We will explore the "substitutionary" element of atonement in a later article. This is the idea that in his life and death Jesus identified with our humanity and took on our sin.

However, if taken too literally, this line of thinking seems to contradict a robust sense of God's sovereignty and his omnipotence. If God is all powerful, then he is able to heal us miraculously of our sins by his divine command, by divine "fiat." [3] To say anything else seems to deny God's omnipotence.

Similarly, if God is sovereign, then surely he could have forgiven us of our sins by an act of his divine free will. To say otherwise seems to imply that God is not free to do what he wants, since we know that he wants everyone to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). He does not want to punish my sins more than he wants me to be saved or else there would be no possibility of salvation at all.

We must therefore conclude that God has chosen for atonement to take place through Christ, not that atonement had to take place in this way. As we will see in later articles, it certainly made sense for God to reconcile the world in this way. There is a logic to it. It satisfies the order of things that God himself created. [4]

But we would claim that it was ultimately God's free choice to reconcile in this way. To say otherwise seems to deny either his sovereignty or his power.

God freely chose Christ's death as the means to reconcile the world to himself.

Next week: A2. In his death, Jesus showed us the love of God.

[1] "Limited atonement" is a belief of many in the Calvinist tradition. It is the "L" in the so called TULIP, that captures the general sense of salvation for high Calvinism. T=total depravity, U=unconditional election, L=limited atonement, I=irresistible grace, P=perseverance of the saints.

[2] Sometimes called "theosis."

[3] "Fiat" is Latin for "let it be."

[4] In this last set of comments, I have gone beyond Wesley. Wesley was still quite Calvinist when it came to his sense of atonement.

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