4th Essential: The Atonement

The story is told about a man who got on an airplane in New York City bound for Los Angles. He and the other passengers settled into their seats with the help of a stewardess, then the plane took off. As it attained cruising altitude, a recording came over the cabin speaker. A computer generated voice said:

Welcome to the first totally automated trans-continental flight. We took off from New York automatically. We are cruising automatically. We will land in L.A. automatically. There is no pilot, no co- pilot, and no flight engineer; but don’t worry, nothing can go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, go wrong, go wrong…..”

We human beings are keenly aware that something has gone wrong, and it is not just the technology and it is not just the economy. We go out in crowds and we feel alone. We are afraid of those are different from us, because we think they want what we have. We are afraid of those who are like us, because we know they want what we have. We have plenty of enemies, and we are alienated from at least some of our friends. We are often alienated from our friends, our neighbors, our families and ourselves. Most of all, we are alienated from God.

If ever we had at-one-ment with God, with ourselves, with those whom we love, we have lost it. One might ask, “How did we loose this at-one-ment.” The easy answer is sin. In Romans 3, St. Paul says:

None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands, no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one.

The Bible defines sin in a number of ways. First, sin is the willful transgression of the Law of God. The law says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” The moment that we tell a lie or a half-truth about our neighbor or our opponent we have broken God’s Law. Second, sin is “missing the mark.” I shoot at arrow at a bulls-eye and hit the farmer’s cow. I have missed the mark. When we confess that we have missed the mark when we confess our sins saying, that “the good that we have known to do, we have not done.” Third, sin is a failure to keep covenant. In scripture, righteousness is “the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship.” (Note 1: See the story of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38:6-26.) We sin when we fail to live up to the demands of a relationship. All our relationships are different with different people. Husbands and wives have one kind of relationship. We covenant to be faithful to one another, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorry. Parents and children have another kind of relationship. Parents love our children and provide for them We bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the lord. Children honor their mother and father or those who stand in their stead because the fifth commandment is the first commandment with a promise. We have one kind of relationship with our friends and another with strangers. We keep covenant with strangers when we meet them on the street and we are courteous. (1 Cor. 13:5) Friends require more. According to Proverbs 27:10, when trouble comes, the neighbor who is near is better than the brother at a distance. According to Proverbs 18:24 there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. We will go the second mile for our friends and neighbors. Of course, we ask, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus responds that the person who is in need is always our neighbor. (Luke 10:29-37).

All of us have a covenant relationship with God. We are to love God and obey God’s commandments. God has covenanted with us and promised to reward obedience in this world and/or in the next, and to punish disobedience in this world or the next.

The scripture says that we are all sinners. How can God punish us for our sins, and prove himself righteous, and, at the same time, extend to us a second chance to be at one with God? According to our text, God makes at-one-ment through Christ! With this as background, listen to our text, which I believe to be the single best text about atonement in the New Testament. I have taken the liberty of lifting one phrase from the NIV though most of the translation is from the RSV.

20 For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness (of/from)* God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, 22 the righteousness (of/from)* God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as (a sacrifice of atonement) (NIV), to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness…26 it was to prove at the present time that (God) himself is righteous and that (God) justifies him who has faith in Jesus. Romans 3:20-27 RSV (*In Greek the genitive has 13 different uses. One use is as a genitive of source, thus permitting this amplified translation.)

In making at-one-ment between God’s Self and humankind, God has done at least three things that I would call to your attention:

The text says that we are justified by God’s grace as a gift. “Justified” is a legal term. God justifies us when God looks at us, takes account of our sins, and pronounces us “righteous.” God looks at us, but he does not see our sin, he sees only the righteousness of Christ, who has been made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:30) Zinzendorf’s hymn sums this up nicely. That is why we sing it at the end of every graveside commitment service:

The Saviour’s blood and righteousness,
My beauty is my glorious dress,
Thus well arrayed I need not fear,
When in his presence I appear.

The text says that God has redeemed us in Christ Jesus. In the death and resurrection of Jesus all are redeemed us from sin (Isaiah 44:22, etc.) and death (Job 33:28, etc.) and bondage (Micah 6:4, etc.). Paul even says that we have been redeemed from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13). Some people go so far as to say that God has redeemed us from the devil; but the New Testament never goes that far. I think it stops short because the New Testament never admits that God owes anything to anyone or anything, least of all the Devil. When a slave is bought at auction and given his freedom, he is not concerned about who received the price of his ransom. He is concerned with the new freedom he has; and if there is any gratitude in him, he is concerned to please the one who redeemed him from bondage and gave him his freedom. He does not care to whom the price is paid. In Christ we are free to be the person that God always intended us to be. We owe Christ a dept of gratitude. According to 1 Peter 1:18 “(we) were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from (our) fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ.”

The text says that God has “put Christ forward” to make atonement. I believe Paul certainly had the cross in view when he said this, but the cross is not the sum total of the at-one-ment between God and humankind. When Paul says that God has “put Christ forward,” I believe he was talking about the whole of Christ’s life in the flesh—from the cradle to the cross and the grave, through the resurrection and ascension, and beyond. I believe that the atonement or “at-one-ment” began in the incarnation, when the Eternal Word of God robed himself in human flesh and became one of us, casting his lot with our own. Last week we talked about the two natures of Christ, fully human and fully divine. The Eternal Son of God retains his Full Humanity. The parabola of redemption goes like this: Perfect God became perfect man and then perfect Man became perfect God. Christ lifted our humanity into heaven. The incarnation was not a temporary experiment, or a joy ride. In the person of the Eternal Son, God became one of us for all times. In Acts chapter 1, the apostles watch as the risen Christ is taken up into heaven. As they stand staring, two men in white robes appear to them and say:

Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.Acts 1:11

This text is not just or even primarily about the method that Christ will use at his return in glory—on the clouds, but about the form in which he will return. The New Testament teaches that in the Incarnation the Eternal Son of God became one of us, for good. It teaches that in the Resurrection he lifted our humanity into heaven, for good. The at-one-ment between God and man is permanent, and can never be broken. When God despairs of our behavior and tires of the shameful way that we treat one another, God need only look to the Eternal Son to see the kind of human being that we are all intended to be. When we despair of our future, or of life itself, we need only look to Jesus Christ and know that God is on our side, now and forever.

Christian Theology loves the subject of the Atonement, and has suggested countless theories. I would mention four.

The Vicarious Theory of the Atonement maintains that Christ died in our place. According to the Law of Moses, when a man committed an unwitting sin, he would go to his flock or herd, depending upon the nature of the sin, select an animal without spot or blemish, and bring it to the priest. The man would lay his hands upon it, and, figuratively speaking, his sins passed into the animal, which the priest then sacrificed in his place. The animal died for his sin. I believe that it was this ritual that Paul had in mind when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:3 that Christ “died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures.” In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul adds that God “ made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement maintains that Christ had to make satisfaction for our sins and settle our accounts with God. Some theologians have said that Christ had to suffer the total amount of suffering that every human being in every time and every place would have suffered had we all died in our sins. Others have said that as the new archetypal head of the human race Christ had to suffer exactly what one of us would have suffered had one of us died in our sins. Some people have made much of Christ suffering when he was beaten, mocked, scourged and nailed to the cross. It was a horrible. Yet, I suspect the most horrible aspect of Christ’s suffering was not the scourging or the cross, but when he felt so rejected by the Father that he cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) (Mark 15:34)

Some scholars suggests that Christ’s suffering began when he knelt for prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, was sorrowful even unto death, and prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mark 14:36) Others would push even Christ’s suffering back to his birth—to the human condition.

There is still more disagreement as to when Christ’s suffering was over.

Some scholars say that Christ’s suffering was over when he gave up the ghost saying, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) The popular version of the Apostle’s Creed declares that, after his death, Jesus “descended into hell.” This leads one to assume that his suffering continued until his resurrection, on the third day. The Moravian Version of the Apostle’s Creed says that after his death “he went to the place of departed spirits.” This seems to leave open the question of whether Christ’s suffering continued after his death. According to 1st Peter, following Christ’s death on the cross, “he went and preached to the spirits in chains.” Some say this was to give men a second chance, while others categorically deny the doctrine of a second chance. I think it is sufficient to say that Christ was active for our redemption during those three days between his burial and his resurrection, just as he was active for our redemption when he actually endured the pain of the cross. Catholics say that Christ’s suffering continues each time that a priest performs the sacrifice of the mass. James Denny, a 19th Century Protestant theologian said that Christ’s suffering continues to the end of time, for Christ’s true suffering is the suffering of unrequited love. He loves us, believers and unbelievers; but in a variety of ways, we grieve him still.

The Governmental Theory of the Atonement maintains that the cross in the place where God demonstrates at one and the same time how much God hates sin, and loves sinners. To use the language of a favorite hymn, the cross is “the trysting place where heavenly love and heavenly justice meet.” Do you want to know how much God hates sin? He hates it so much that he requires the sacrifice of his Son. Do you want to know how much God loves us sinners? He loves us so much that that he gives the sacrifice of his Son.

The Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement maintains that Christ’s cross in more about an emotional appeal than it is about a judicious and tedious settling of accounts. Its proponents say that Christ upon his cross is the most winsome picture of God. It is meant to draw us to God. As Jesus says in John 12:32, “I, when I am lifted up will draw all men unto myself.” There is a story about two angels looking down from heaven upon the earth. One angel speaks to another and says, “They are all such great sinners down there, how can God ever forgive them?” The second angel responds, “They are all such great sufferers down there, how can God ever forgive God’s Self?” I believe that the cross is not just the justification of humankind before God, it is also the justification of God before humankind. The only God I can believe in is the God of the cross, who dies for our sins, and rises again to give us a future and a hope.

People ask me which theory of the atonement is best. Personally, I think that no doctrine of the atonement is complete without considering each of these four things as an absolute minimum. The truth is that you and I will never be able to plumb the depths of Christ suffering or the heights and depths and length and breath of God’s love.

As I bring this sermon on the Atonement to a close, there are three things I wish to avoid.

First, I wish to avoid putting limits on the atonement. Some theologians actually believe in a limited atonement: that Christ died not for the sins of all, but for the sins of the elect. I believe that Christ died for the sins of the world. His grace is sufficient to pay the price for all our sins. Because this is so, God can “have mercy on whom he will have mercy,” and “compassion on whom he will have compassion.” (Romans 9:15) I am not God. I cannot speak for those outside Christ—that is not my job, and God is wiser and far more just and merciful than I, but I am happy to say that God promises mercy to all those who receive Christ by faith. We live in uncertain times. When all else has failed we can still bank on God’s promises.

Second, I wish to avoid any scenario of the atonement that sets God the Son at odds with God the Father. I once heard a revival preacher describe God as a monster who delights in sending people into a fiery hell, and Jesus as the hero who comes into the world to wrest our Salvation from the hands of an angry God. God is no monster, and the early Moravians saw this. Remember the 1st Essential? It was “the Love of God the Father for the world.” In describing the relationship of the Father to the Son during the crucifixion, the late James S. Stewart, a great Scottish Presbyterian preacher, once told of a painting that hung in the National Gallery in London, England. I have been to the gallery, but, to my chagrin, I could not find the picture. I suppose it was in storage. Stewart said the painting was a picture of the thorn-crowned Christ as he hangs on the cross. His hands are opened wide to receive the nails. The side-wound is clearly visible. He wears a look of abject poverty on his face. He wears the look not because he has lost millions on Wachovia Stock, but because he is experiencing the absence of his heavenly Father for the first time. He is surrounded by clouds and darkness. At first, he appears alone. However, on closer inspection, a second figure emerges from the clouds and darkness. It is God the Father and his hands hold the hands of the Christ, and his tears, drip hot on the face of his son. This is an anthropomorphic representation, but it contains a truth: God the Father, God the Son—and as we shall see next week, God the Holy Spirit are active in our redemption, in perfect concert.

Finally, I wish to point out that the at-one-ment began in the mind of God long before the foundation of the world. In 1 Peter 1:20 we read that “He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for (our) sake.” Yet the atonement is not complete for me or for you until we accept it in faith. God still hates sin, and actively discourages it. God still loves sinners, and actively invites each of us to accept the gift of the at-one-ment that is ours in Christ. It must be received as a gift. We cannot earn it. We cannot buy it. I like the old song which declares.

Nothing in my hands I bring;
Simply to Thy Cross, I Cling!

Is it FINIS?

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.