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by Arthur O. Roberts
Editor's Note: This article was compiled from several monthly Roberts' Reflections, and sent to me by the author for publication here. Arthur O. Roberts is a retired George Fox University professor, nationally recognized theologian, Quaker scholar, and former mayor of the city of Yachats, Oregon.
Maybe it's a while since you reflected upon classic theories of the atonement, seeking to explain how Jesus Christ is, to use an historic Quaker phrase, "the procuring cause" of salvation. Christ is our Savior in respect to sin, our Lord in respect to righteousness (justice). As Paul wrote, "just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 5:21). Grace means that God's help is needed and that it is freely offered and gratefully received. How does Jesus' death bring us to righteousness? (You may have seen a more extensive version from a few years back, but a review wouldn't hurt, would it? So let's examine these theories one at a time).
1. Christ ransoms us from the devil. This theory seems to smack of religious primitivism. But behind this social metaphor (more current, unfortunately, than we want to acknowledge) lies a truth about how Jesus' death saves. Think about recent holding of hostages, for whom ransom cannot be paid lest more hostages get taken; or about rulers who pay off drug dealers to get their children back. This theory pictures people getting trapped by evils from which Christ rescues them. Early Christians said Jesus was God's bait to hook Satan, and that Jesus was the price God paid Satan to release us hostages. Jesus is put in hell's stockade for our freedom--like the children's game "steal sticks." But hell couldn't hold him, as the Resurrection demonstrates. Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many is how Biblical writers phrased it (Mark 10:45, 1 Timothy 2:6). Sin is conquered, evil is defeated. So each Easter gladly we sing "Up from the grave He arose, victory o'er his foes."
We rejoice when God breaks down the Berlin wall, or South Africa's apartheid barriers, or delivers the poor from economic bondage, or offers the homeless a habitat, and finds human instruments for these purposes. We rejoice when God sets political prisoners free. Carnality isn't just generic.
350 years ago George Fox wrote: "Friends, whatever you are addicted to, the Tempter will come in that thing. . . . Stand still in the Light and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone." (#10, Canby Jones, Pastoral Letters). Addictions take specific shapes: drug abuse, gambling, sexual lust, greed for possessions, athletics, work, luxury, power trips, self-centeredness, phobias, a vengeful spirit, and (fundamentally) pride.
People delivered from bondage generally rejoice and praise God, although, curiously, some pine for Egypt's junk food after deliverance from its slavery. People delivered from traps of their own setting or from those set by others do not usually wallow in neurosis, complaining that others get the breaks. Nor do they quibble about models of deliverance. Hearing Jesus' voice they take up their confining bed and walk! Free at last! That's what ransomed people sing when Egypt's addictions lay behind them.
2. Christ satisfies Divine honor. Nearly a thousand years ago an English theologian wrote a pamphlet Cur Deus Homo, "Why Did God become Man?" Anselm used the metaphor of royalty insulted to explain the atonement. His reasoning went like this. Privately a ruler may wish to forgive an insult, but the state's honor is at stake, so the sovereign cannot. By this analogy sin so grossly insults God it requires more than humanity can muster to satisfy the claim. Accordingly, God accepts the sacrificial death of Jesus, who as human (one of us) takes the rap representatively, and as God satisfies the enormity of the insult. Thus God's honor is preserved and Divine love demonstrated.
Anselm's answer poses problems. God seems to resemble a petty dictator bothered by sassy serfs. But remember, metaphors point to realities beyond them, not to analogical equivalence. Look at the territory of human experience for which this theory provides a relief map: sin is an enormous affront to the universe God created. Ponder historical circumstances of social insult that sustain this picture of atonement. Jousts between jilted lords, eighteenth century dueling (e.g. Hamilton vs. Burr), or nineteenth century gunfights in the West. The mystique for the latter continues within contemporary culture.
In the old city of Prague, in 1618, a group of Protestant nobles threw a Hapsburg prince from a window. The noble was not even hurt, a circumstance Catholics attributed to angels and Protestants to luck in landing on a haystack. The insult precipitated a war that lasted thirty years. Violence in Europe, America, Asia and Africa illustrates the vicious cycle of ethnic insult and retaliation. Nazi genocide of Jews and Gypsies outraged the world, and the Nuremberg trials condemned these "crimes against humanity." Sadly, the Holocaust corrupted some of its victims--like abused children who themselves become abusers. Consequently Moslem and Christian Arabs are insulted by such actions as Israel leveling olive orchards for Jewish settlements, requiring passes, and deporting citizens who complain. Think of the insult to humanity when parents drop progeny over cliffs or set them afire, or chain them up, or lock tots in the house for a night on the town. Or when berserk persons spray a playground with gunfire, or little boys murder a toddler for the fun of it, or a serial rapist chops up his victims. Or corporate financial schemers victimize retirees who trusted them with their life savings. In all such cases the public, not just the family, is outraged. Like Abel's blood such insults cry from the ground for retribution. Such acts insult humanity made in the image of God. They insult God.
This metaphor of atonement, then, helps us identify with the Heavenly Parent whose children who are now trashing the earth, slaughtering each other, and rebelling against His Kingdom. On the cross God's honor is affirmed, and so is humanity's. Sin is judged and righteousness raised up.
In the life, death, resurrection, and continued lordship of Jesus Christ exercised through the Holy Spirit, God satisfies the insult of sin in ways both just and loving. Jesus is the peace child, symbol and agent of reconciliation. Governance has been placed upon this child's shoulders as Isaiah foresaw. Pagans lord it over one another, but that's not God's way, taught Jesus. Whoever would lead must serve. Jesus himself came not to be served but to serve.
Jesus saves by becoming the servant, by enduring suffering, not inflicting it. This is grace greater than our sin. Jesus' death suffices. God's honor, is satisfied and so is ours. We do not need to slaughter our neighbors, however heinous their crimes, nor reject morality. Human governance can offer justice in a context of love and not through totalitarian control or anarchical tolerance of greed and power. To update the satisfaction metaphor, justice is reaffirmed.
3. Christ substitutes for us. According to this theory of the atonement, Christ takes the punishment we deserve. He bore the curse laid on us for having broken those principles which in our mind we accept. This view isn't about paying extortion money to the Devil or salvaging Divine honor, but about breaking Divine Law. Again, the point of this metaphor isn't to compare God to a harsh judge, but to show the significance of Jesus' crucifixion. Persons insulated from guilt for having breached the moral law, won't be touched by this view. But persons of conscience, having with shame and sorrow acknowledged sin, may be instructed in the meaning of Christ's death.
When George Fox languished in gaol for religious freedom a young friend offered to take his place. Oliver Cromwell, hearing of this substitutionary offer, asked his councilors, "which of you would do the same for me?" No one volunteered. When God asked who would take the rap for the worst of us, Jesus replied, "I will." Of his own choice he bore our punishment, even to death.
This substitutionary view is popular among Christians today, which means that we ought to ponder it carefully. Otherwise it becomes another term for cheap grace: we get to walk away from the consequences of our sins because heavenly granddaddy pays the fine. We crucify Christ afresh by such presumptions on God's grace. "Sinning at Christ's cost" is Penn's indictment.
One feature of the substitutionary view is that Christ identifies with humanity. Jesus is tempted just like we are, yet without sin. He sweats out his fears of what happens to good people in a bad world. Gethemane is watered with real tears. He is one of us. And by his stripes we are healed. A person who stands up for a broke or errant brother or sister receives more than a cheery thanks. Bonding occurs. The lives of benefactor and benefited are linked. Recipients of grace follow Christ as Lord by taking up the Cross, by enduring hardness, by joining in the Lamb's war, by being light and leaven in the world. They become agents of reconciliation, they accept the offer to become co-heirs with Christ in the Kingdom. They, too, demonstrate substitutionary love.
4. Moral influence. A fourth way to explain how Christ's death procures human righteousness is called the "moral influence" theory. As stated by a 12th century monk, Peter Abelard, the theory goes like this. For grace to be really free and unmerited, a loving God must bear the burden of human sin without attaching conditions, such as having to pay off the devil, assuage insults, or exact fines for breaking Divine law. God's unconditional love is so powerfully revealed in the life and death of Jesus that it awakens within sinners a reciprocal response. "We love him because he first loved us." This metaphor also draws upon social experience. A smile earns a smile, those who treat others respectfully receive respect. Love can't be bought, bargained for, or stolen.
There are questions about this theory, too. How can the death of Jesus effect moral transformation if it just depends on our attitudes? Do people just dispassionately decide for good or evil? If they are that good, then what difference does Jesus' death make? Carnality seems insufficiently accounted for. Another objection is that it puts Jesus in series with other charismatic martyrs whose death is influential.
Despite these problems there is merit in the view. If one thinks of Christ's crucifixion as a one shot deal, so that our love must be awakened by re-telling a two thousand year old event, then one might say the theory is too subjective. But what more powerfully motivates us than unconditional love? Why should love be demeaned as causally insufficient to account for God's transformation of our character? Especially when one recognizes that the Church is Christ's body. The one in whose name we conclude our prayers is not my Lord only and Lord of the Church, but also Lord of history and Lord of the cosmos? Who or what can offer a better hero to follow? Love is energy, and suffering love the strongest. The writer of Hebrews says: "In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering." (Hebrews 2:10-11)
We will never remove mystery from the atonement. But these metaphors of atonement may help the mind realize how the death of Jesus brings us to righteousness. We will be better Christians because the mind has been whetted on the lodestone of mystery. The ransom theory of atonement shows salvation as release from traps of tyranny and addiction. The satisfaction theory pictures Jesus as conservator of bankrupt humanity. The substitutionary theory shows the Cross regenerating human goodness. The moral influence theory highlights the power of God's unconditional love, manifested in Jesus.
A colleague at George Fox, Phil Smith, stretches theological convention to posit a fifth theory of the atonement. With his permission I share it with you to add to the historic four.
5. Jesus, the Peacemaker. The dramatic situation now is a battlefield. God appears again as the righteous king, and the human race as rebels against his legitimate rule. Much like Augustine's account of the Fall, sinners are united only in their rebellion against God; human "community" is fractured by all sorts of selfishness. God fights to win the rebels in the most surprising way, by becoming the defenseless Lamb of God. "Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals. Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne . . ." (Revelation 5:5-6)
Since we have now been justified in his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:9-11)
The peacemaking picture resembles Abelard's moral influence picture, in that God reaches out to the rebels. But the peacemaking picture more clearly explains why God's efforts at reconciliation led to the cross. As in Jesus' parable, the death of the Son is the rebels' idea, not God's, and represents their most determined attempt to thwart God's rule.
He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, "They will respect my son." But the tenants said to one another, "This is the heir. Come, let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours." So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. (Mark 12:6-8)
In the peacemaking picture, God allows sinners to expend the full energy of their rebellion. They have rejected his law, rejected his prophets, and now they reject him. (A preacher using the peacemaking picture would emphasize Christological dogma: in Jesus' passion, God himself was spat upon and tortured by sinners.) In killing the Son and heir, sinners have carried their rebellion to its greatest possible extent; they may even think they have won something of a victory over God. But the Son rises from the dead, and his entreaty is not silenced. "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." (Revelation 3:20)
Each of the atonement pictures insists on the solidarity of sin. So does the peacemaking picture. It wasn't just Pilate, his soldiers, the religious establishment of Jerusalem, or Judas who killed Jesus. All of us who rebel against the sovereign rule of God join in the rejection suffered by the Son, and the reconciliation he offers extends to all of us. Our part is to admit that we have exhausted our powers of self-direction (we've used all our ammunition, as it were) and submit finally to the rule and fellowship of God. We need to surrender. The atonement cannot easily be explained, but it can readily be experienced. To this I witness with profound joy. I hope this is your witness, too.
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