I’ve been thinking about atonement.
Especially in light of the upcoming Missio Alliance gathering in DC, and the “Future of the Gospel” theme (#futuregospel), I’ve been pondering what it might look like embrace a radical, missional, evangelical kind of atonement.
This little blurb from Dave Fitch was, as always, provoking:
What I think Fitch is getting at here is what is usually called the Christus Exemplar theory of atonement, where Jesus, and especially his act of self-sacrifice on the cross, is seen as primarily an example of selfless love to be followed, and not necessarily a supernatural saving act. Thus, faith “like” Jesus will better equip us to save the world as we follow Jesus’s example. Faith “in” Jesus for the salvation he accomplished and is accomplishing is therefore lost.
For Fitch, there is not enough “Christus” in Christus Exemplar.
Recently, Tony Jones launched a good addition to the atonement conversation in his little book, A Better Atonement. His primary aim, it seems, is to counter the necessary elements of original sin and a wrathful, punishing Father inherent to the Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory, which is currently heavily emphasized in neo-Reformed preaching and writing (Piper, Driscoll, et al.). I share Tony’s concerns about this so-called “gospel-centered” emphasis.
But his conclusion that a non-substitutionary atonement is the best way forward is problematic for me, not just scripturally, but for the reason Fitch describes in his quick missive on Facebook: we begin to lose the accomplishment of salvation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Evangelicals have always leaned on a substitutionary kind of atonement. “He died for me, took my place, suffered the penalty I deserve, paid the price, and set me free” – this is the anthem evangelicals sing. The question is, does this substitutionary emphasis need to be jettisoned for a better kind of atonement?
Tony agrees with Scot McKnight in his book, A Community Called Atonement, that the historic theories of atonement are like golf clubs in a bag – different situations and contexts call us to lean on different theories at different times. But Scot’s book (in truth, one of my favorites) offers us a summary way to understand atonement in general that doesn’t risk losing any of the key elements. He says that atonement is best understood as “identification for incorporation.”
And this is indeed substitutionary. Better yet, it retains the vicarious nature of Jesus’s work on the cross. Jesus did indeed die vicariously in the place of sinful humanity, suffering the weight of the world’s sin, brokenness, and injustice (my injustice!) as a sacrificial lamb in that supernatural moment. Indeed, he even suffered under the Father’s wrath, which is, rightly understood, God’s “giving up” of humanity to the destructive consequences of its chosen path (Ro. 1, etc.). The full weight of the world’s brokenness, and the Father’s anger over it all, was present in the Son hanging on a Roman execution stake. By this atonement, we are reconciled to God out of our state of separation, rebellion, shame, and forsakenness. We are forgiven and set free.
But, that’s not all. Because the life of Jesus the Messiah was a vicarious life, too, recapitulating the life that Adam – and all of us – should have lived. In the life of Jesus, God identified with us all the way down into our brokenness and sin, becoming like one of us, facing the temptations and trials we face, and overcoming all of them in our place. In this sense, we mustn’t forget the mystery that the atonement is the crescendo of this identification – God humbling himself to the point of death, even death on a cross, all out of love for the broken creation. Far from “cosmic child abuse,” this is God himself mysteriously suffering under his own forsakenness.
And not just that: the resurrection is vicarious, too, achieving and setting into motion for us the promised new (indeed, eternal) life – a restored and made-right life! – that begins when we place our faith in the salvation Jesus accomplished, and is completed on the final day when the King returns to put the world to rights. The cross is the hinge moment for this bigger narrative of new creation and a broken world set right again, all accomplished by Jesus the Liberating King.
With this vicarious atonement, we heed Fitch’s warning against merely looking to Jesus for inspiration as we endeavor to save the world ourselves. But we also avoid the pitfall of a strict Penal Substitution emphasis – which makes the anger of the Father toward an originally-sinning creation primary and overly dichotomizes the work of the one God on the cross. We avoid the resultant individualism that evangelicals have often perpetuated which sees only a judicial transaction that pardons me as a guilty sinner before an angry judge. I hope we avoid wrong images of what God’s “wrath” entails, what hell is, etc., too.
Further, McKnight points out that the vicarious identification of Jesus with us in life, death, and resurrection is all for the purpose of incorporating us into the people of God, the new creation! The salvation Jesus accomplishes is about incorporating us into a new resurrection community created and empowered by the Spirit of resurrection to join God in his right-making in the world, until the final day. This is a radical vision that results in the formation of church communities that embody Jesus’s life in the world, patterned after his teaching and, indeed, his example, welcoming all into the experience of salvation in the Messiah.
Thus, it is a uniquely missional vision, too – moving us outward into the salvation that God is already at work to create by the reign of Jesus and the work of the Spirit.
In chapter 5 of my book about Dexter, I said it this way:
The blood of Jesus is a powerful, creative force, not a morbid, unseemly judgment. In this great act of atonement, the Messiah, God’s Son and second self, takes on the full weight of humanity’s destructive independence in a single crescendo-like moment, stopping the deterioration of creation dead in its tracks by fully identifying with us and taking on all our injustice. The cross is, thus, the sublime mingling of justice and grace, God’s own body mysteriously broken with all the brokenness of the world, the Son mysteriously absorbing the Father’s own anger and disapproval over how things have transpired, ushering in radical forgiveness for broken people and unleashing the spiritual power for healing and right-making. Jesus contained “all the fullness” of God, and, in that moment – a beautiful irony – he also contained all the fullness of sin. The result is a thunderous collision of worlds, rending the division between earth and heaven, launching an entirely new creation on a new life’s mission of setting the world right again.