UnknownOver the centuries theologians have developed numerous models for expressing the saving significance of Jesus’ death. We have sketched out several of these models, ever so simply I freely admit, in several blogs the past few weeks. I have concluded, along with Joel B. Green, Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, that: “No interpretation of the atonement can be regarded as the only authentic one, not least because no one model or metaphor can exhaust the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion” (Fuller Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2012, 3, italics are my own). I urge you, friends and readers, to grasp the importance of Green’s statement. You should realize that by opposing the simple clarity of this conclusion that you are likely opposing other important Christian truths, especially the unity of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Joel Green suggests that this was true even within the time in which the New Testament itself was written since several different models seem to clearly be at work in the apostolic texts. This was true as well in the patristic church as I’ve shown. This was profoundly true during the time of the ecumenical councils and creeds, since the Christian church never selected or preferred one interpretation over another as the definitive view of Christ’s death.

I gave an illustration of my point about Christ’s death and forgiveness yesterday by referring to a woman whose husband committed adultery. This sinful husband then asks his bride to forgive him and help to restore and save their marriage. As great as the love and forgiveness of the woman who chooses to forgive her adulterous husband is, this amazing act of love doesn’t remotely compare to God’s forgiveness of us in our sin. James P. Danaher adds, “There is no adequate human version of forgiveness that equals the sacrifice of the cross” (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear, 100).

He’s right. Illustrations come to mind. Take, for example, a rape victim who not only forgives the man who rapes her but then marries her abuser. This is an outrageous example I realize but this illustration fails. For such forgiveness to happen the rape victim would have to forgive the perpetrator, receive the pain that he caused to her body and soul and then consciously seek the grace to die to her fear. Even her dignity and reputation would be forever altered if she made this choice. Imagine this for a moment. The kind of forgiveness that I am writing about, in terms of God’s forgiving us, is not like anything that we commonly know. We tend to think of forgiveness in a rather easy-going way – if they say they are sorry then we just “forgive” them – at least in modern Christian culture. We sin, God forgives. As the phrase goes, “My job is sinner and God’s job is forgiving.” But what the rape victim would have to do in this illustration is adopt the kind of forgiveness that will require “painful death.” Says Danaher, “Such an act of forgiveness and love, along with the pain and death that come with it, is exactly what Jesus so beautifully manifests on the cross” (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear, 100). On  again, I urge you to read this sentence closely.

Do you know why we think so little of Christ’s sacrifice for us? I’ll give you one hint. It is not because we didn’t explain penal substitution correctly in terms of an evangelical theological debate. The reason is that we do not think that we are such great sinners. The forgiveness that we need, so we think, is not all that great! We have never murdered anyone. We have never raped anyone. We are decent human beings who just need some fixing up here and there so we admit that we do need God’s help. But we are not as sinful as Scripture says we are; truly sinful before a holy, righteous. loving, covenant-keeping God. But Jesus plainly teaches that we have all committed heart adultery. And Matthew 5;21-22 says that if we hate someone we’ve murdered them. But this whole equation just seems so wrong if we are honest. We reason that what you think is not that harmful since no one is deeply hurt by what we privately think.

But what if we were omniscient and knew of every unkind thought that our spouse or friends ever had about us? What if we knew every time that our spouse preferred the company of someone else? If we were all-knowing creatures then our limited capacity for forgivenness would leave us with no long-lasting relationships. God, however, is just such an omniscient being. He knows our every wayward thought and yet he loves and forgives us in Christ (Eyes That See, Ears That Hear, 101).

But here is the point that we dare not miss if we confess that Christ’s death is central to Christianity. God’s thoughts toward us flow from a divine heart of eternal love. (This is true even in his correction of us.) He loves us so much that he willingly took the pain of our brokenness and his Son became human flesh so that he could truly share in our human nature at the deepest level. He became like us except for sin. In so doing he suffered all the pain necessary to forgive us. Then he gives us his Spirit and adopts us into his family. I suggest that this restoration process, what biblical writers call reconciliation, is at the very heart of the true meaning of Christ’s death on the cross.

The Anglican priest Robert Farrar Capon had a great way of saying this type of truth so well. A friend posted a quotation from Capon on Facebook last week following his recent death. I copied the quote and paste it here as a conclusion for your prayerful consideration.

Saint Paul has not said to you, ‘Think how it would be if there were no condemnation”; he has said, “There is therefore now none.” He has made an unconditional statement, not a conditional one—a flat assertion, not a parabolic one. He has not said, “God has done this and that and the other thing; and if by dint of imagination you can manage to pull it all together, you may be able to experience a little solace in the prison of your days.” No. He has simply said, “You are free. Your services are no longer required. The salt mine has been closed. You have fallen under the ultimate statute of limitation. You are out from under everything: Shame, Guilt, Blame. It all rolls off your back like rain off a tombstone.”

It is essential that you see this clearly. The Apostle is saying that you and I have been sprung. Right now; not next week or at the end of the world. And unconditionally, with no probation officer to report to. But that means that we have finally come face to face with the one question we have scrupulously ducked every time it got within a mile of us: You are free. What do you plan to do? One of the problems with any authentic pronouncement of the gospel is that it introduces us to freedom — Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three.

Next Week: How Penal Substitution Actually Fails in Helping Us to Rightly Grasp the Meaning of Christ’s Death for Us

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  1. Stephen Crosby September 19, 2013 at 7:36 am - Reply

    The contemporary hubbub over atonement theory, while intellectually intriguing, makes as much sense to me as one facet of a diamond thinking it’s the only one. Take away the facets of a diamond and all that is left is a clear rock: beauty, design integrity, and functional UNITY are lost. Whenever the ego leads us to strive for doctrinal supremacy . . . ours is the only facet . . . the ekklesia loses beauty, design integrity and unity. Jesus’s kingdom is based on life or death, not “right and wrong from the Bible.” I can be “right doctrinally” from “the Bible” and be incarnate death. I can be wrong “from the Bible doctrinally” and be a vessel of light and life. This offends religious sensibilities. All of us who could be considered “theologians” need to sit down, sit back, take a deep breath, and examine ourselves. Seems to me that if I have “the correct “understanding of the atonement” intellectually, but lack the subjective reality of the thing I believe i am correct on, I am a walking vessel of spiritual death, regardless of my “rightness in doctrine.” I have followed this current debate with keen interest for some time, and have my own persuasions “doctrinally.” At the end of the day however, after reading all the opinions and perspectives I am left with: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” — isolated, dis-integrated, relationally alienated, diamond facets all jockeying to be the only one.

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