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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Atonement



Before I even get started on this, I have to admit that I want to combine atonement (article 6) with justification, regeneration and adoption (article 9), but I'm going to resist.  Because of that, this post will feel at least somewhat unfinished to me, and it might feel that way to you, as well.  I am trying to think of it in the same way I think of the time and care we should put into the Lenten season, and particularly Holy Week.  If atonement draws us in to the story of Good Friday, then justification, regeneration, and adoption point us to Easter.  So often, we want to rush ahead.  But it is worthwhile to sit with the consequences of atonement and to take some time for quiet reflection rather than moving ahead too quickly.  In the Church of the Nazarene, Article 6 reads as follows:    

VI. Atonement

6. We believe that Jesus Christ, by His sufferings, by the shedding of His own blood, and by His death on the Cross, made a full atonement for all human sin, and that this Atonement is the only ground of salvation, and that it is sufficient for every individual of Adam’s race. The Atonement is graciously efficacious for the salvation of those incapable of moral responsibility and for the children in innocency but is efficacious for the salvation of those who reach the age of responsibility only when they repent and believe.

(Isaiah 53:5-6, 11; Mark 10:45; Luke 24:46-48; John 1:29; 3:14-17; Acts 4:10-12; Romans 3:21-26; 4:17-25; 5:6-21; 1 Corinthians 6:20; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Galatians 1:3-4; 3:13-14; Colossians 1:19-23; 1 Timothy 2:3-6; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 2:9; 9:11-14; 13:12; 1 Peter 1:18- 21; 2:19-25; 1 John 2:1-2)

At its heart, atonement is about what Jesus did to reconcile God and humanity.  There are numerous atonement theories that focus on different possible explanations for Jesus' crucifixion.  Was it a payment?  An act of vindication on behalf of God's honor or justice?  A show of victory?  An example of ultimate obedience?  A substitution? 

Arminians lean toward an atonement theory that suggests Christ did not pay the penalty for our sin but, instead, suffered for us as a substitution for our suffering.  The implication here is that to pay the penalty would have atoned for all sin, making redemption unnecessary.  By acting as a substitution, instead, the understanding is that we may choose this reconciliation but that we should then turn from sin, because we recognize the gravity of it.

Interestingly, this has me thinking about the different ways in which we exhibit the cross in various faith traditions.  Of particular relevance might be the tension between a crucifix and an empty cross.  The importance of an empty tomb, I can understand.  It's a deal breaker.  But I'm fairly certain the cross is never empty.  We don't have any evidence, in Scripture, of what happened to the cross after Jesus' crucifixion, but in all likelihood it was not left at Golgotha as a symbol of Jesus' death.  In fact, it may have been used for other crucifixions, before and after that of Jesus.  What makes the cross what it is to us, in the Christian tradition, is that Jesus hung on it.  And yet, we so often worship before an empty cross.  Perhaps there is something to the crucifix, where Jesus' blood never stops spilling to cover our sins.

But I have digressed just a little bit.

Article 6 is significant, because the way we define atonement says a lot about the way we understand grace... and God.

Regardless of why or how, we recognize that Jesus did make atonement for sin, reconciling us to God.  I'm not sure why we feel the need to emphasize that this atonement is for human sin, sufficient for Adam's race.  While I would agree that it certainly is, I am left feeling a little bit dissatisfied, because I think atonement covers more than just people.  In I John 2:2, we read, "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (NIV).  Have we limited the atonement?  Since I believe that God will redeem everyone and everything that can be redeemed, I would venture to say that we have.  I don't think I want to do that, and I also don't think this was necessarily an intentional limitation.  We must, however, be careful with our words.

It's the second sentence that really gets me, though.  There are two issues that jump out immediately.  First, we recognize atonement as efficacious (effective, successful) for three groups of people; those incapable of moral responsibility, children in innocency, and those who repent and believe.  I am in complete agreement that atonement is efficacious for all of those groups.  What I struggle with is the earlier article in which we defined people as continually bent toward sin from birth, but now we seem to make exceptions.  I think we need to make our language read in such a way that this does not become confusing to people.  Also, perhaps ironically, we do not define this age of responsibility.  I presume this is because we can't.  As long as we recognize that it is not up to us to determine who can't and who won't accept the atonement, I think this part of our statement is acceptable.  Do we recognize that?  I don't know.

The second issue I have here is that we describe the atonement as graciously efficacious for those who are incapable of moral responsibility and for children in innocency, but we only describe it as efficacious for those who repent and believe.  Perhaps this is merely an oversight, but it lends itself to a way of thinking that indicates that those who accept and believe might be more worthy of atonement.  I would hate to think that we believe that Jesus owes it to us to bring reconciliation between God and humanity if we accept it.  Speaking for myself, I am definitely a part of the group who has reached the age of responsibility, and I would like to admit that atonement is graciously efficacious for me, as well.  I do not deserve it.

L.     

10 comments:

  1. The area I want to address is how we Nazarenes have sometimes spoke negatively about the crucifix. I understand emphasizing the empty cross because of the empty tomb, but without Christ going to the cross there would be no such thing as Atonement. The whole focus of a Catholic service is the Eucharist. What could possibly be wrong with remembering that Christ had to go to the cross in the first place before the resurrection could become a reality?

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    1. Bryan - I agree. There is nothing wrong with remembering that Christ went to the cross! Without his death, there is no resurrection! As a child, I was told that the crucifix was "wrong", because Jesus was no longer on the cross, but I think this kind of view takes away from the idea of atonement being continually available to us. Thank you for your thoughts.

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  2. I don't want to detract from your great comments about the cross, but I'm not too sure about your analysis of the Arminian view of the atonement. Arminians have traditionally been associate with the governmental view, associated with Grotius. I found a decent overview in the theopedia. Hope this helps: http://www.theopedia.com/Governmental_theory_of_atonement

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    1. So... I'm reading this article about the governmental theory of atonement... again... and I feel as if it's a little bit contradictory. I admit that I struggled with this as I was writing my original post. The points I'm seeing here are: *Jesus' death was not a substitute for our punishment (I can go with that). *It was to appease God's wrath (Having a little bit more trouble with that one). *The dominant attribute of God is love (Yes, but how does that relate to the purpose of the crucifixion being to appease God's wrath). *God is not *required* to punish sin (Wow. Yes. But nobody talks about that). *And then, wait for it, Jesus' death served as a substitute (I thought we just said that Jesus' death did *not* serve as a substitute... someone needed more words here, but perhaps you can refer back to my thoughts on Christ's death as a substitute for our suffering but not necessarily for our punishment). *"The death of Christ was not a punishment, it made punishment unnecessary" (Wow again, but who preaches this? I guarantee you that this kind of thinking... and speaking... is exactly what gets me into so much trouble with people who are horrified that I "don't believe in hell"... even though I do believe hell exists, albeit in a radically different form than is ordinarily taught). *Turning from sin is what allows for forgiveness (OK). *"The purpose of Christ's death was not to satisfy the demands of God's just nature" (Great! So, why the line about appeasing God's wrath?). *"Christ's death enabled God to forgive sins or remit punishment in a way that would not have unfavorable consequences or adverse effects on humans" (And, I love this...). *"Christ's suffering serves as a deterrent to sin by impressing on us the gravity of sin" (Yes... but I'm wondering if suffering on this level, as merely a deterrent, is justifiable).

      As a recap, here's my original paragraph that prompted this particular discussion: "Arminians lean toward an atonement theory that suggests Christ did not pay the penalty for our sin but, instead, suffered for us as a substitution for our suffering. The implication here is that to pay the penalty would have atoned for all sin, making redemption unnecessary. By acting as a substitution, instead, the understanding is that we may choose this reconciliation but that we should then turn from sin, because we recognize the gravity of it."

      What, specifically, am I missing from the governmental theory that is a deal breaker for Arminians? I'm guessing it is the line, "The implication here is that to pay the penalty would have atoned for all sin, making redemption unnecessary." If you look at the statements about God not being required to punish sin and Christ's death making punishment unnecessary, then this is, in fact, what Arminians believe. *But* we also have the statements about turning from sin as a requirement for forgiveness. The obvious question here, for so many people, will be, "Why would we turn from sin if there is no punishment?" What an excellent question for people who do not adhere to holiness, Kingdom building, redemptive action, partnership with God, etc.

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    2. While it is fair to say *Arminians* have been generally associated with the Governmental Theory, because Grotius was a student of Arminius, I don't think that is necessarily at all the case with *Wesleyans* - at least insofar as Wesley's own views are concerned.

      Because as Nazarenes we often identify as "Wesleyan-Arminian" it could be easy to confuse, or conflate, the two. Even so, I think the distinction is a bit too technical, and the discussion is best centered around a broader Wesleyan-Arminian-Holiness way of thinking. In this case, the Governmental view is an important one in the discussion, but so are Christus Victor, Recapitulation, and to some degree Moral Influence. As Diane Leclerc has written, "Wesley is interested in the objective reality of the Atonement, but also equally interested in the subjective influence on us. He borrowed from several different theories on different occasions to make his point." I think we in the Wesleyan/Arminian/Holiness tradition would do well to take the same approach. I think that's what L. is doing in examining the different aspects in both her comment above and the OP.

      One thing I think might be helpful, actually, is to attempt some kind of synthesis of atonement theory that gives us some key aspects to agree on while leaving open room for various and diverse ideas and interpretations beyond the key or core components. Basically, something altogether new called the "Wesleyan Theory of Atonement." Now that would be quite a project. But I think it could be really important to bringing those of us in this movement together, as how we view sin and atonement really does make a huge difference in our approach to life, theology, and the practice of faith. But even ahead of that is our view of God and of love. Oord's work is really important in advancing that towards something a faith that makes sense, I think.

      I love the last two lines in your comment above, L. Really good stuff (and worth a whole post to explore...hint hint...)

      For readers who may not be familiar with atonement theory, Rich's source is a good one, and the main page for atonement can be found here: http://www.theopedia.com/Atonement

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    3. I think Diane's quote is really important to this discussion, and I agree that we might benefit from a new atonement theory, altogether. It seems like most (if not all) of the theories we have are more centered on wrath than love... I think we have sometimes allowed our view on atonement to shape our view on the attributes of God, but perhaps it should be the other way around.

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    4. Yes and yes to this, L. It begins with who God is, and who God is begins with love. The "Loving Action" Theory of Atonement. Let's write it! :)

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  3. Lisa,

    Rather than defend the governmental theory, let me affirm your suggestion that perhaps there is no best "atonement theory," but rather that there are theories, or even aspects, of the atonement.

    It seems to be that the real problem is that we have a practical theology of the atonement that relies so heavily upon the more Reformed notion of penal substitution, which really makes God some sort of divine child abuser, killing his son just to appease his wrath for some cosmic, legal transaction.

    Instead, all "theories" point toward biblical perspectives on the atonement and give us glimpses into its multifaceted approach. And, of course, a Wesleyan view is one that aligns all theories with the organizing principle of love.

    I also think it is worthwhile to consider how the resurrection is part of our view of the atonement. It so often gets left out of those discussions, but I think is essential for Wesleyans to consider. Our atonement does not stop at some legal transaction that enacts forgiveness, but gives us a real hope of being renewed, restored, and given a certain recreated heart that has a new capacity for love.

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    1. First three paragraphs... See my comment above...

      In regard to the resurrection, what you've said is exactly why I was tempted to combine atonement with justification, regeneration and adoption. I think it is reasonable to discuss these things together, but I think we have limited atonement to *only* what Christ did to "take care of" the sin issue and have created a different set of theological principles to discuss what *we* do, how we change, etc., after that.

      I'm not sure if we should insist on linking these things more directly or if we should explore them separately in order to give adequate time to both, with some silence in between...

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  4. As I was reading the above link to theopedia.com, I came across these paragraphs to add to the discussion.

    Propitiation versus Expiation

    Propitiation literally means to make favorable and specifically includes the idea of dealing with God’s wrath against sinners. Expiation literally means to make pious and implies either the removal or cleansing of sin.

    The idea of propitiation includes that of expiation as its means; but the word "expiation" has no reference to quenching God’s righteous anger. The difference is that the object of expiation is sin, not God. One propitiates a person, and one expiates a problem. Christ's death was therefore both an expiation and a propitiation. By expiating (removing the problem of) sin God was made propitious (favorable) to us.

    This is an important aspect to remember!





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