On the Plains of Moab Blog
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March 15, 2012, 9:20 AM

The Many Sides of Atonement

This past Sunday, I preached from a very rich text in Isaiah.  The Fourth Servant Song (52:13-53:12) is usually read in our pulpits during Holy Week, most especially during Good Friday services.  The words here in this Song reveal the depth and costliness of God's involvement in our salvation:  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by his stripes (beatings) we are healed!

My aim to this on Sunday was to drive home this thought that the Servant died for YOU and he died for ME.  It is cool to see how Isaiah gets real personal in verses 2-6 with the 1st person plural pronoun : "we," "our" and "us."  I just changed the wording up during the sermon and read it a little bit more up close and personal, shifting the pronoun to the 1st person singular - "I," "me" and "my."  I did this to Christ!  His death was my fault.  It was my sin that did it, yes mine!

And so, even though I did not really dwell technically upon the topic of the atonement of Christ, my understanding I trust, came through loud and clear:  There is an inescapeable element of substitution and payment for sins in the death of the Jesus.  In the history of theology, this understanding of the work on the cross has been understood as "substitutionary atonement," or "vicarious atonement," or "penal substitution," with the overall work coming under the headings of "expiation" (i.e. canceling out of sins) and "propitiation" (i.e. the satisfaction of God's judgment/wrath).  (Gotta love theology!)

But the perennial rub is that far too many Christian teachers, preachers and scholars have been repulsed by this understanding of atonement, even in the face of a mountain of scriptural warrant for the thought.  A few years ago at a conference, that unfortunately had the financial support of our own denomination, a speaker noted in reference to substitutionary atonement, "I don't think we need a theory of atonement at all....Atonement has to do so much with death....I don't think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and wierd stuff." (Q&A with Delores Williams at the Re-Imagining Conference in Minneapolis, MN, 11/05/1993).  All I can say is, "Grrrrrrrrr."

Moving along, other theories of atonement have been put forth throughout the history of the church.  There are several, but two seem to stand out and cover most of the theological bases.  The first is what has been called the "moral influence" theory.  This view says that the death of Christ on the cross was a demonstration of God's great empathy for humanity.  He so identified with us and our pain, that he came down and lived among us and suffered and died.  We should be moved by God's great love for us!  We can never be the same as we respond with gratefulness!

The second view has been called, among other things, Christus Victor (Christ the Victor!)  This view holds that Jesus came and conquered the forces of sin, death and the devil.  Ephesians 6 speaks of this spiritual warfare and victory.  Christ has emerged the winner, and we ride in those great coat-tails.

For many theologians, when it comes to theories of atonement, it is either my way or the highway!  Either it is this, or nothing!  However, I beg to differ here!  I do believe that substitutionary atonement is clearly taught in Scripture, and that to deny this would be in effect, a denial of the Gospel.  However, I will also contend that there is indeed a flavor of the other two understandings of the atonement present in the work of Christ on the cross.  Jesus giving up his life was indeed motivated by his great love for us!  AND...his death on the cross was indeed the death knell for the forces of evil in the spiritual realm -- The victory on the cross was the death of death and the expulsion of sin.

Both of those views go well with substitutionary atonement!  Together, they give us a fuller picture of Easter.  What glory!  As I mention in the title to this post, there are many sides of the atonement.  It is rich.  I pray that this powerful truth from God's Word would continue to take your heart captive!   


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