I had the opportunity to attend church as a worshiper this morning, to hear the Word read and proclaimed (rather than standing and sharing/teaching from the Word). It was a good experience, all the more so because the preacher shared a variety of biblically influenced truths that I found insightful. One tangential comment in particular stood out for me, a point of the message that just touched on the notion of “atonement.”
Whether we know it by its doctrinal name or note, the concept of atonement is central to most Christians’ faith. And, paradoxically, though it is central, it is also enigmatic.
At its essence, atonement refers to the biblically shared concepts that…
- sin exists, and keeps us separated from God and
- Jesus’ death on the cross, and subsequent resurrection, were God’s way of forgiving us our sin, so our relationship with God could be reconciled.
This is the core of Christian faith: sin separated us from God, and through the mysterious crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus our sin is forgiven.
Let’s Talk About Sin
Before I share a few words about atonement, let me clarify what I mean by “sin.”
We’ve heard the word used in a lot of different ways, and sometimes think in terms of “sins” (i.e. those little white lies, those little things we do wrong) and “Sins” (i.e. murder, theft, those big things we do wrong” and “Sin” (i.e. the “dark side of the force”). Scripturally, there is support to think of sin in the following ways:
- Sins are those things we do that go against the will of God. Or, perhaps more importantly, sins are those actions we engage in that go against the intentions of God.
- Sin also refers to a powerful presence around us, sometimes personified – even anthropomorphized – as Old Scratch, Satan, the devil, Tom Cruise. When the Apostle Paul writes about sin, he often refers to it as a dark presence around us, very much like the “dark side of the force” in Star Wars.
- Sin separates us from the fullness of life and relationship with God, with others, and with creation. Thus, whether it be actions we do, or a powerful presence that exists independent of us, sin keeps us from the fullness of life that God desires for us.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that human beings are purely sinful. I trust the intent of Scripture that not only are we created “good,” but also in the very image of God. (John Wesley goes to great lengths describing the many ways we can interpret that we are created in God’s image.) I do recognize that we human beings are broken and messed up, and that, by whatever means we were/are broken, we aren’t fully the people God desires us to be.
Sin is a part of our being broken and messed up. We tend to be naturally inclined toward sin. For example…
my toddler son is naturally inclined toward hitting his mommy and me, and we have to help him recognize this is not a good thing…
my thoughts are naturally inclined in directions I don’t want them to go, and I have to consciously re-direct them to what is good, pure, lovely, etc…
So sin is a reality, and it keeps us distant from God. We’re taught this is because God is holy – that is, “without sin” – and so sinful humans cannot approach him. I also understand that sin keeps us from God because since God is holy, we’re afraid to be in his presence… we don’t want the light of God to expose the darkness we carry around with us.
So to be in full relationship with God, something has to be done about sin…
Theories of atonement
Atonement is the action of God that (somehow) does away with sin and reconciles our relationship. And there are, in fact, a variety of Christian doctrinal explanations as to how atonement works, each emphasizing different passages of Scripture. In short, the three primary theories often shared are:
- Substitutionary (or Vicarious) Atonement – Jesus died on behalf of sinners, paying a debt we couldn’t pay. This theory says that Jesus received the judgment that was due to us. This is probably the most commonly understood, or at least most commonly articulated (in hymns, Christian music, sermons, etc), theory of atonement.
- Christus Victor – Jesus fought an epic battle with Satan and evil, and the resurrection is the proof of his supernatural victory over both. Some explain this theory with the modern concept of “bait and switch,” suggesting that just when Satan thought he was going to win, he lost.
- Moral Influence – Jesus’ death on the cross was the ultimate demonstration of God’s amazing love. This theory devalues language of debt or sacrifice, instead sharing that if we look to the cross and know God’s love, we’ll experience salvation.
Here’s the thing, though: no one really knows how Christ’s death atones for our sin. Although there are several references to this in the New Testament, and even some oblique references in the Old, Christian doctrine has never officially declared any one theory the correct one.
Part of this morning’s message, then, got me thinking about atonement.
Another Approach To Atonement
As he shared about God’s forgiveness, Rev. Godfrey referenced Romans 8:3, which I’ll share in context here:
1There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
This pericope expresses some of Paul’s understanding of the nature of our salvation, ie. atonement. However, the key word that stood out for Godfrey, and strikes me today as well, is that God sent Jesus “to deal with sin.”
Godfrey shared that he’s capable of fixing some things around the house, but there are times he needs to call on someone more knowledgeable. Like when something in the pool pump broke. So he called his “pool dude” – I find it humorous to hear a retired pastor using the term “dude,” by the way! – to take care of it. To deal with it.
Now, the pool dude couldn’t deal with the problem by looking at the pump and calling “be thou fixed.” He had to work on it. He could identify what was wrong, and knew what had to be done to make things work.
Likewise, God cannot look at the presence of sin in our world and just call out “be thou forgiven!” In order to help us be set free from the power of sin, God had to deal with sin. God could identify what was wrong, and what needed to be done, and how.
Now, here is where I got to wandering in my own mind: just as Godfrey might not know the ins and outs of how to fix the pool pump, I don’t think human beings know the first thing of what would be needed to fix our relationship with God. We might be able to identify that it’s broken, but we need someone who knows how things work – or how things are supposed to work – to identify and fix the problem.
Through death and resurrection, Christ dealt with the problem of sin. And, frankly, I find that that is good enough for me. If I trust them, I’m not going to ask my pool dude, plumber, or mechanic all the details of what was wrong when my pool, toilet, or Ford. I’m going to trust they knew how to identify not only the root cause of the problem, but also the best way to fix it.
In the same way, when it comes to some theory of atonement, I can share positive aspects as well as negative critiques, but I’m not going to worry about which one is correct. Or how Christ’s death led to my forgiveness. Because I trust God – and, for me, this is the root of faith, trust in God – I trust that God identified the root cause of both sin and/or my separation from God, and that the steps God took – incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension – were the right ones.
So, I guess if I were going to express my own “theory of atonement,” I’d call it the “God Dealt With It” theory. And since I know that God is far better than my mechanic, I don’t need to know the details. I can just trust that this thing called “sin” that gets in the way of me and God has been dealt with.
So what’s left is for me to continue to learn from and live for Jesus, that I might grow even closer to God.