Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Meaning of the Atonement

Throughout the modern period, numerous theories have been advanced to explain the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ. God must have had a "reasonable" and "systematic" purpose for sending Jesus. Thus came the example theory (Jesus died to inspire us to obedience), the satisfaction theory (His death satisfies God's demand for justice), and the ransom theory (His death "pays off" Satan who holds us captive), to name a few.

By far, the most popular theory is the substitutionary atonement theory. We should have died on the cross for the sins we committed. Someone had to pay the penalty, so Jesus died in our place.

My struggle with these theories is that they each impose forces upon God that are outside of Him, and thus, by definition, bigger than Him. As if God is forced to answer to some higher law or rule about justice or atonement or sin. Jesus' death has to be more than the answer to a cosmic math problem or a means of plugging a hole in the cosmic plan or a weight to level a cosmic imbalance. The modern approach leaves us with the problem solved, but with a less-than God who is subject to a higher force or rule.

Here is where a postmodern approach might help us. Postmoderns embrace the mysteries that go beyond logic and reason and embrace the mystical relationship that exists between God and humankind. With this in mind, we can read with great interest verses like Romans 5:8 - "But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Or I John 3:16 - "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us."

Could it be that Jesus' death is first and foremost his way of simply saying to us, "I love you." Our sin problem is that we've turned away from God and turned to ourselves for find meaning in our living. Out of this narcissistism has come a fundamental distrust of others - how can we trust others to do what is best for us if they are really like us - out for themselves? The Lie Adam and Eve chose to believe is that God's design for us could not be trusted. You have to look out for yourself. Trust no one.

So how does God show us that he cares far more for our well-being than we can care for ourselves even in our most narcissistic moments? He comes to the world and gives up for us the one thing we could never give up - self. He dies on the cross as if to say, "I care so much for you that I care nothing for my own life in comparison. Your life comes first for me. You can trust me. Please trust me." God chooses instead to lavish love upon us to draw us to him.

As I think about a world that is lost and love-hungry, I wonder how it is that we expect people to turn to God after hearing a rational, formulaic explanation of Jesus' transaction on the cross. How much more would this hurting world, full of deep mistrust and narcissism, respond to an undeniable display of selfless love. Let's lay aside our theological finepoints and point the world to a God who loves so much that he simply is willing to die for us to prove his love is true.

3 Comments:

Anonymous allinthesameboat said...

But if that's your gospel message; without acknowledging/repenting of sin and the need for a savior. Then the message you send is that I'll get into heaven no matter what. Great! God loves me, I'll continue to get my love in all the wrong places and still party with the saints in eternity.

It's true - the mystery that God loves the sinner...and the reality of the cross is that God has been preparing us for his sacrifice all along. His table declares his death until he comes again. Its a sacrificial love, through which we receive the atonement Rom 5.11

9:04 PM  
Blogger RevDave said...

Who said that repentance of sin wasn't a part of the gospel? The question is "Why did God send His Son to die?" Was it to complete a cosmic formula, or to show us how much he loves us. He "demonstrates" his love through the cross SO THAT we will choose to repent of our rejection of God (sin) and accept Him as the Savior and Lord over our lives. If everyone "gets into heaven no matter what" then God has no need to demonstrate anything. But it proves my point... we think that if we don't pound on people about their sin more than we speak of God's love, we're not really presenting the gospel. Sadly, that's not how Jesus did it. He didn't climb in pulpit to yell at people about their sin. He climbed on a cross in silence instead. What did Jesus think was more effective?

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Josh said...

You are right, he did not do it like that. But he used the Law of Moses to bring about the knowledge of sin. (ie. Rich young ruler, woman at the well) With the law he brought accusation. So while he did not yell at them he was quite forward about sin.
Another thing, God is love. But he is not love to the exclusion of everything else. He is righteous and holy and wrath filled.
But I think you are right we need to be charitable, loving, and kind in the process.

BTW, I vote substitutionary attonement. God set the rules in motion. He is acting within the construct of His own design. Man fell, God gave the Law, Man fails at the Law, the Law is the schoolmaster, finally Christ fulfills the Law by fulfilling the requirement of it. Tetelesti! So you see, there is nothing outside of God acting upon Him in the substitutionary attonement "theory".

Love still fits beautifully with in it. I'll prov it; Christ loved me so much that He was willing to take the mocking, beating, spitting, torture and the wrath of Almighty God that was due Josh Elsom. He is perfect and beautiful, I am wicked and depraved.

5:55 AM  

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