Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fuzzy on the Atonement ...

I often receive questions from students and ministers about the atonement. Here's an edited version of one such email:

"I’m still fuzzy on atonement... [especially concerning] how atonement should be communicated to unbelievers... [I recently heard a preacher] go over substitutionary atonement as what we should be sharing with people to get them saved. Then, after his explanation of that, they had folks from [the church] parade up with signs that they would flip over (eg. Side A-sinner/Side B-saved; side a-broken, side b-whole; side a-living for myself, side b-living for God; side a-cancer, side b-healed.) It was really moving. I know that atonement is at least substitutionary in that Jesus does something for us that we can’t do ourselves. [This preacher] was more particularly talking about Jesus taking the punishment from God that we deserved—that God is able to forgive us because of Jesus taking the fall for us on the cross. As I watched, though, I had a hard time seeing the connect between God’s ability to forgive us because of Jesus’ taking our penalty and some of the life changes that were on the cards. And I wonder why God can’t forgive because of his mercy and not need someone to take the penalty... Ok, John. Tell me what to believe ;-)."

Here's how I responded:

Yeah, its kind of inherently fuzzy, so don't feel bad about that. Although I can't tell you what to believe, I can share some thoughts that may be helpful.

The first is to make a distinction between substitution and penal substitution.

Substitution is the genus: the notion that Jesus takes on something of ours and gives us something of his. The fathers called this the "wondrous exchange," and it permeates the pages of the New Testament. Any account of reconciliation that undermines this pattern is inadequate.

Penal substitution is a species of substitutionary thinking, whereby the penal (forensic/judicial) metaphor is the dominant motif for collecting, ordering, and presenting the substitutionary pattern of exchange. Satisfaction (honor) and Sacrificial (blood, covenant) are additional species of substitutionary thinking, each of which may or may not be easily compatible with the penal motif. All of these motifs appear in scripture, and it is a matter of reasoned judgment of how to employ them. See the introduction to my paper "The Priest Sacrificed in Our Place" for some reflections on relating these species of substitutionary thinking.

The practical pay-off of this distinction is that while you search for more adequate, relevant, and/or illuminating motifs to describe the atonement, be careful to keep the logic of substitution in the background and be open to the breadth of metaphorical explanation it permits. If the judicial metaphor doesn't do it for you, that doesn't mean you should drop substitutionary thinking altogether. Regarding the image of the people with the posters, you can see how that expresses a kind of substitution, provided you believe these changes were wrought by Christ and he in some sense bore the negative side (and bore it away!). The logic of substitution is not restricted to what happened "there and then"; it also characterizes what happens "here and now" on the basis of what happened there and then. In more technical terms, substitutionary thinking provides an arc of continuity between the atonement and justification. Both are substitutionary exchanges, one achieved by Christ in his life, death and resurrection, the other worked out in us by the Spirit of Christ in our particular life-histories.

As for the matter of whether God "needs" the cross to forgive, there is much speculation on the matter, but I am inclined to think in terms of what God has done and infer his character from that, rather than than the other way around. In other words, God became man to die and rise for us, so apparently God can do such things. The cross is the manner and mode of establishing his covenant, which in a principled, speculative sense he doesn't "need" to do, but he did do it, so it must be the way. I trust God's judgment on this account. This is probably not a satisfying answer, but I suspect that going down the speculative road of what God must do or what other options he had will be even less satisfying (we have no information on this; we only known what God has done and must reason from there). The common presentation of the atonement as some kind of "bind" or "problem" in which God is caught and solves with the incarnation and cross is misleading at best, and perhaps has pernicious results. I prefer to just narrate what God has done for us and call people to a life of joyfully obedient witness to such a Lord.

Any thoughts?
Are these distinctions and implications helpful?
Do they make the atonement more or less fuzzy?
What additional insights have helped you speak intelligibly of the atonement?


Michael Jordan said...

Hi John--

This is my first time commenting on your blog, which I enjoy very much. Found out about it through Lance Peeler's blog--Lance and I go to school together at Drew. I also think you and I have a shared interest in Houghton College, my alma mater.

Anyway, just was moved to post on your very helpful thoughts here. I'm not a systematics guy and always have struggled with atonement issues. It's helpful to me to see a quick "digest" here.


Mike Jordan
Exton, PA

Darren said...


This is a nice bit of distinction between what atonement is and is not. I am currently working on outlining an adult ed. course on the atonement (focusing on comparing and contrasting the major metaphors), and this is helpful.

You are exactly right, I think, to note that the scarlet thread throughout any way of talking about the work of Christ is not its penal nature, but its substitutionary nature. Whether it is suffering punishment, satisfying honor, offering a sacrifice, defeating enemies, rendering a ransom payment, etc., the heart of the atonement is that God has done for us that which we could not do for ourselves.


Anonymous said...

The doctrine of substitutionary/penal atonement has some problems. This doctrine's supposition is that a possible solution of mankind's being in the conundrum of death might be obtained by a satisfactory human sacrifice. This conjecture might be practical if the requirement of "there is no remission of sins without the the shedding of blood" not be required. The contradiction the conjecture of assuming the crucifixion of Jesus might have perfected the theoretical assumptive of substitutionary atonement is the fact that his life was taken by bloodshed. If the crucifixion of Jesus had caused his death without bloodshed substitutionary atonement's practicality might be relative to Jesus' crucifixion. However this doctrine's flaw is exposed by the preexisting fact that whenever any male human's life is taken by bloodshed God demands a direct accounting to him for the action of taking a male human's life by bloodshed. See Gen. 9:5.

The doctrine of substitutionary atonement attempts to nullify the unreasonableness of Jesus' crucifixion by the flawed conclusion that is satisfactory to God and obscures the fact of Jesus' crucifixion of being an accountable sin but only directly to God because of bloodshed. For isn't it a fact that even Jesus says that guilt relative to sin is still the remaining outstanding issue AFTER his crucifixion, Jn. 16:8, but your concept of salvation insist that Jesus' crucifixion has appeased God enough for a relief of sin's penalty?

What the doctrine of substitutionary atonement does not teach you is that because of Jesus' life having been taken by bloodshed the law of God has been changed by the addition of one word. By the addition of this word God according to his oath in Gen. 9:5b NIV, demands the same accounting regarding the sin of crucifying Jesus from each man to be saved from the penalty of eternal death. The only possible Way to obey the Acts 2:38 command, Repent, is by repenting of the one sin of Jesus' murder in order to be forgiven of all sins. There is no other solution for mankind's fate of being in the conundrum of death.
Theodore A. Jones

Mike said...

As one who spends waaaay too much time reading and thinking about soteriology, I wanted to tell you that I appreciated this entry was good, John. The usually unanswered questions of how atonement, justification, sanctification, vocation, Christ (including his life and resurrection!), the work of the Holy Spirit, us, Creation and the Eschaton are all related to one another serve continually to muddy the theological waters when it comes to speaking about any one of them in abstraction. In essence, I think that we are all horribly confused when it comes to talk about salvation. Thanks for your navigation of one small port in a sea of wonderful mystery.