Romans (Part 40) – Atonement Part 1 (13:11)
Paul had concluded Romans 13 with a call to wake up. In our slumbering movement through life, we easily become prey to those sinful influences he describes. He urges instead to walk in realization of new life, and he does so by telling us to put on Christ. How do we put on Christ? And . . . didn’t we already do that when we first professed faith? Why is Paul first telling Christians that salvation is nearer than when we first believed and then following that to put on Christ? Both those activities we talk about in our Christianese as things already accomplished at conversion. It seems we have so much concentrated on how to get in our club that we have lost focus on what our club is about. Is the gospel—the good news—about how to get in or about the purpose we have once we are in? The gospel, Paul has argued throughout Romans, is not the individual assurance that a person will not suffer in hell. The gospel is that Jesus is Lord. The work that Jesus did to give him that title—to establish that declaration—is God’s work from the beginning: to make right what had missed the mark. To realign our thinking with God’s purpose, then, requires a clear, stable, sure foundational understanding of what that work of Christ is. And so, what is the atonement?
Taken in strict idea of the English word, the little word play that we often hear is correct—the atonement means an at-one-ment, a coming together or a reconciliation. That definition is also primarily what is behind the Greek katallage, which we translate as atonement. But the Hebrew gives us a bit more, offering two words primarily translated as atone or atonement: kaphurand kippur (from which we get Yom Kippur, the Day of the Atonement). Both these words go beyond simply reconciliation to include the removal of whatever was causing the estrangement and separation in the first place.
This idea, then, is what Jesus accomplished for us. As the Council of Trent (sixth session) described it: “Whence it came to pass, that the Heavenly Father, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort [2 Cor 1, 3], when that blessed fullness of the time was come [Gal 4:4], sent unto men Jesus Christ, His own Son who had been, both before the Law and during the time of the Law, to many of the holy fathers announced and promised, that He might both redeem the Jews who were under the Law and that the Gentiles who followed not after justice might attain to justice and that all people might attain to justice and that all people might receive the adoption of sons. Him God had proposed as a propitiator, through faith in His blood [Rom 3:25], for our sins, and not for our sins only, but also for those of the whole world [1 John 2:2].” And that is no problem for any of us. We understand that as the reason for the atonement. We (or, most of us steeped in true, biblical Christianity) believe Jesus came to do just that. Where we as Christians begin to confuse the issue is in describing exactly how what Jesus did accomplished this purpose. What activities exactly were a part of the atonement and how exactly did they effect redemption so that we could “attain to justice” and “receive adoption as sons”?
The church has a history of this discussion, but it was never before at the defining forefront as much as it has been today (over the last several decades). Based on the writings of the early church fathers, the main idea early held was that people had been held in captivity by sin. Jesus paid the ransom to redeem people from that captivity, returning them to God. Of course, we see this idea in Mark 10:45, describing Jesus as the one who came to give his life as a ransom for many, and in Ephesians 4:8 as Jesus “leads captivity captive” in an expression of rescue. But in attempting to understand the whole ransom concept a little better, some theologians strained further to complete the imagery. If Jesus paid a ransom, to whom did he pay it? Some, such as Irenaeus, settled on a payment to Satan, thus redeeming those caught by him in captivity. But the church did not examine this issue much; the great heresies of Arianism, Apollinarism, Sabellianism, and Docetism were taking all its investigative efforts.
Around AD 1000, a Benedictine abbot, philosopher, and theologian took issue with the idea that Jesus paid a ransom to Satan. The ransom, Anselm argued, instead was paid to God. Anselm lived in a time of feudalism and therefore understood God and human covenant commitment in much the same way as a feudal lord and his vassals in which the vassals promised fealty to their lord in exchange for rights of life (tenant and protection). Sin, in Anselm’s view, was dishonor shown by the vassals to their lord. The lord (our God) demanded satisfaction from the vassals (humanity) for the dishonor, but the vassals had no ability to rectify the dishonor except to lose their lives. God, in love through his son, became human (became a vassal) to provide that satisfaction for others and satisfy the dishonor to God. This idea, called the Satisfaction Theory of the atonement, held sway (despite some onslaught from Abelard’s Moral Influence theory) for the next five hundred years.
Among other things that the Reformation advanced was a modification of Anselm’s Satisfaction idea. While holding on to the central focus of satisfaction, the feudal landscape gave way to the court of law. It was not God’s honor as a feudal lord that was harmed but rather God’s justice that was attacked by the disobedience of lawbreaking. The scenario remained the same: the lawbreaking had to be met by a penaljudgment to obtain satisfaction of God’s wrath against the injustice done him. Still the people could not pay without loss of life. Therefore, God in love sent his son to receive the judgment penalty as a substitutionfor the people. God poured out his wrath on Jesus, and Jesus, receiving the wrath and dying, satisfied the penal judgment, resulting in justice having been served so that humans could be accepted.
This reformation idea of law-court atonement, holding elements of penalty(wrath of God resulting in death), substitution(Jesus instead of created human), and satisfaction(God’s sense of offended justice having been made right by penalty paid), became refined over the next five hundred years into the most prevalent idea of the atonement in traditional Christianity today: the Penal Substitution idea of the atonement.
The Penal Substitution theory (P/S) is so forcefully demanded in many circles today that any other view is labeled from a mild “false hermeneutic” to a harsher “heresy,” condemning Christians of opposing ideas to excommunication (e.g., church discipline, separation) and to a charge of totally misunderstanding God’s way of forgiveness and acceptance. For example, on ReformationTheology.com’s website, the following statement is made about Penal Substitution atonement:
In all of our zeal to contend for every doctrine of the Bible (as commendable as such an attitude is), we would do well to remember that only a relatively few doctrines are so vital for the purity of the gospel that, to deny them is, in essence, to corrupt the good news of salvation in Christ. It is only fitting that, when we see these doctrines under attack, we give the primacy of our attention to defending them. And such a doctrine is the biblical conception of the atonement; that is, the conception that the atonement involves the substitution of Christ for us, by which, having taken upon himself our sins, he willingly undergoes the righteous wrath of the Father in our place. In other words, it is vital that we contend for an account of the atonement which views it as penal (that Christ satisfied the penalty of the law, as the righteousness of the Father demanded) substitution (that he underwent this penalty in our place). Any other model of the atonement will both fail the test of biblical witness, and leave us without an adequate plea for forgiveness and acceptance with God.
While I would agree with the statement in its first part in which it generally argues that the atonement is a vital issue for Christianity, the statement’s second part extends the vital essence to a particular interpretation of the atonement beyond the necessary elements of Jesus as God, Jesus as human representative, and death as necessary for relief of sin’s hold. The statement’s second part specifies that God’s wrath had to be poured out on Jesus and that the penalty for sin had to be paid. That extension of vital doctrine declaration from the major elements of the atonement to the specific interpretation of how those elements are satisfied is the fault of the statement and the fault of any who would charge another with heresy for not believing in interpretive detail.
While the major trajectory of atonement ideas over the last 2000 years followed from Ransom theory through Satisfaction to Penal Substitution, several other concepts that are somewhat involved in those ideas have been emphasized as standalone issues by others. For example, as already mentioned, Abelard, emphasized the Moral Influence idea, saying the atonement teaches how much God loves. We are sick (not disabled) in our spiritual condition. By the example of Jesus, we are moved to accept forgiveness by seeing God’s love.
The Mystical view understands Jesus as overcoming the sin nature through the Holy Spirit’s empowerment toward God consciousness, which in turn inspires us. The Commercial theory, like Satisfaction, sees Jesus’s atonement as being of infinite honor to God. Jesus gives that expression of honor as a gift to humans. The Recapitulation idea views Jesus, through his life, as summing up (Eph 1:11) all things by replacing Adam’s disobedience through life by his obedience. Another theory, the Example idea (seen also in the Moral Influence theory), understands the atonement as Jesus teaching through his life of faithful obedience—how we should live.
While each of these appears to have some biblical support, each separately does not seem to be enough to satisfy all biblical implications and therefore all our questions regarding how the atonement works. Two other ideas have arisen in the past one hundred years to challenge the P/S idea. One is the Governmental theory, begun by Hugo Grotius, a lawyer and logician rather than a theologian. It sees Christ as not punished on behalf of humankind but rather punished to demonstrate God’s extreme displeasure with sin in that he punished his own sinless and obedient son as a propitiation (i.e., the turning away of wrath by an offering). While it has many adherents among current evangelicals, it also fails to give adequate justification as to why punishing obedience gives God satisfaction over disobedience. If sin is supposed to be transferred to Christ before the punishment, how does that transference work? In other words, how can God justifiably attack one without sin as if the guilt magically floated over from another guilty one. And then, how does that remove the obstacle with the original sinner?
Another currently popular idea (although actually originating very early along with the Ransom theory) is one called Christus Victor. The idea views the ransom, instead of as a transaction, as a rescue or liberation (along biblical redemption thought line). It emphasizes a dramatic battle between good and evil in which Christ on the cross wins for the good. But again, how? How does Christ’s death effect a rescue for sinners? Why does Christ dying win a victory over sin? How is that victory applied to humans? (I think there may be answers here, but the overall idea must be combined with some others.)
So, then, instead of just picking at the theories on the table until we can’t think of any other objections at the moment, starting from the biblical narrative and moving forward may give us more satisfaction in concluding how the atonement works. Much of what we understand about the atonement is based on interpretation, and therefore we may say the same things but understand them differently. “Why would that have to happen?” someone may ask. “All we need to do is interpret the Bible literally and plainly, right?” Well, no. For example, if I ask, “Did Jesus pay for our sins?” many people would reply yes. In fact, I would reply yes. But there is not one verse in the Bible where we read “Jesus paid for sins.” In fact, there is not one verse in the Bible that has the word Jesusand any of the words pay, pays, paid, or paymentand sinsalong with it. So how do I know Jesus paid for sin? I know it by how the whole is interpreted. (And that has to be explained because even though I said I believe Jesus paid for sin, I did not say Jesus paid the penalty for our sins. So even my“plain statement” requires explanation.)
So let’s start at the beginning with something we’ve talked about many times before—God’s purpose for creation. Our first step is to understand creation’s purpose. God created for a reason, and that foundational reason is then what upholds everything else in our understanding of God’s relationship with us. The reason God created (as we’ve mentioned several times in previous summaries) was to enjoy an everlasting love relationship with his image bearers. We see love emphasized throughout the Bible—and not only emphasized but emphasized beyond other virtues. The beloved disciple states that God is Love in his first epistle (1Jn 4:8, 16). And we are told by both Jesus and Paul that love sums up and fulfills the entire OT Law (Mt 22:36–40; Ro 13:9; Ga 5:14). Love is also THE mark of God’s relationship (Jn 13:34–35; 1 Jn 4:8). In Gal 5:22, love heads the fruits of the Spirit. (While this statement alone doesn’t prove that love is greater than other fruits, the idea certainly could be countered if love had been placed further down the list.) In 1 Corinthians, Paul concludes that love is the greatest of virtues (13), even emphasizing the worthlessness of other virtues if love is not present (1–5). And Paul also insists that nothing has the power to pull us away from God’s love (Ro 8:31–39).
So, since love is giving of yourself for the benefit of those loved, and everything good is from God, we can conclude that all God’s communication to us is love. That idea, in fact, is the purpose for God creating us as image bearers. We had to be like him in order to relate in love.
So this is the first step—understanding creation’s purpose. If we get to our atonement idea and base it on some concept that cannot be traced back to God’s purpose of love relationship, we will most certainly have concluded wrongly.
Our second step examines the human condition before sin. We learn in Genesis 1 that God created us as image bearers. He did so for that creative purpose of relationship—we needed to be like him in order to relate to him in common interest. How does this image bearing work?
The following chart shows us the construct and activity.
We see that God is multiple in his existence (persons) yet one in essence (his infinite truth, goodness, and beauty). So too are we made to be one in essence yet multiple persons. Our one essence, however, cannot also be infinite truth, goodness, and beauty. That is who God is, and though image bearers, we are not God. Our one essence is the physicality we share—this universe of matter and energy that is at times exclusive to our bodies yet at other times not. Additionally, the air we breathe and water we drink constantly moves in and out and around us all. But we are individual in our persons. And God has made our persons to relate to him—his essence—just as he, in his persons, operates according to his essence. We comprehend his truth through our individual conceptual intelligence. We understand his goodness through the conscious morality he has given us. We recognize his beauty through our critical aesthetic. And once comprehended, we may concur with that truth, goodness, and beauty by concluding so in faith, and continuing to hold that conclusion in hope. Those are all individual elements to take in and hold what God reveals of himself. But further, in our persons we are also able to communicate that TGB in communal love—a giving of ourselves in TGB to others (both to God and to other persons).
This picture is the relational reality God has designed for us. It is based on who God is (his TGB). It is conducted through a giving by God through revelation of himself—revelation of his divine nature (TGB) and his eternal power (expression of loving care), as Paul mentions in Romans 1.
We read of this structure of intended interaction to fulfill the creative purpose of everlasting love relationship in Genesis 2. (Of course not explicitly stated but provided through the real but also metaphorical activity, of which we will discuss a little more in our next installment.)