Heading Towards the Cross: The Workings of the Cross – Atonement

There is an old story passed on to me years ago by an Army veteran in a congregation I served.  If I recall it correctly, a company of soldiers was dug-in on a hill and receiving a great deal of lethal shelling from the enemy.  Through the explosions, a soldier dived into a foxhole.  Hugging the ground his fingers touched metal.  He pried up a little pocket cross.  As the shelling lessoned, he look across the foxhole and notice that the person he shared it with was a chaplain.  “Say Chaplain,” he said, “how do you make this thing work anyhow?”  Atonement is about how this thing – the cross, crucifixion and resurrection – works.  It is about how we become at one with God.

Make no mistake about it.  The cross looms over the landscape leading to Easter.  How the cross works in the equation that leads us from the incarnation of Christmas to the joy of Easter morning and beyond is what this journey called Lent is about.

The cross is the epitome of Roman power and might.  It is the essence of human sin and suffering.  It is an unescapable reality of the Christ faith.  “Jesus said to everyone, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them’” (Luke 9:23-24).

I like the way the famous Anglican Church pastor John R. W. Stott put it: “There is then, it is safe to say, no Christianity without the cross. If the cross is not central to our religion, ours is not the religion of Jesus.” Or take the great quote of the German Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer who so valiantly resisted the evils of Nazi Germany: “The cross is laid on every Christian…. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 89).

That phrase of Bonhoeffer’s – “he bids him come and die” – is justly famous for this is exactly what Bonhoeffer did.  Furthermore it is justly famous because it pushes us back on the meaning of the cross and the basic teaching of Jesus – “take up [your] cross.”

All of this is a way of getting at how salvation becomes effective, how it all “works.”  It is significant, I think, that the early church insisted on doctrine of incarnation with Jesus confessed as fully human and fully divine as embedded in the great creeds. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; … he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human” (The Nicene Creed). They battled over the precise meaning of the Holy Trinity giving us the great threefold rendition of the Apostle Creed. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, … And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; … I believe in the Holy Spirit” (The Apostles Creed).

But, when it came to understanding salvation, what we properly call atonement or at-one-ment.  They reached for a series of metaphors and refused to adopt just one definition or understanding.  Each metaphor points back to the crucial transaction that takes place in the crucifixion and in the resurrection.  Consider the listing that Scot McKnight lifts up in his marvelous book A Community Called Atonement.

  • Recapitulation – “he [Jesus] became like us that we might be like him” (Attributed to a number of early church theologians including Irenaeus and Athnasius)
  • Ransom/Christus Victor – Jesus’ identification with us in death breaks our captivity to sin
  • Satisfaction – Jesus identifies with our sinful nature (this metaphor is closely akin to Substitution)
  • Substitution – Jesus did something for us that we could not do for ourselves, “He died instead of us and for our sins so that we could be raised with him to new life” (McKnight, p. 111).
  • Representation – “We both die and rise with Christ (inclusive representation) and he dies and is raised instead of us but for our benefit by incorporation (exclusive representation)” (McKnight, p. 112).
  • Penal Substitution – Christ died instead of us and died for us by paying the “price” for our sins.
  • Demonstration – Jesus’ death was the supreme demonstration of God’s love making it possible for us to take up our cross and live a life of love & service to others.

The list is hardly exhaustive and is fraught with complexity.  I would argue that the early church got it right in insisting on not just one metaphor but a series of metaphors.  Put differently, it is a serious mistake to take one of the above (or some version) and lift it alone as the sum total of what we understand atonement – at-one-ment – to be.  The “way it works” to go back to my opening image is more complex and more varied than any single metaphor.  In its great wisdom the early Church understood this truth.  My plea is that Lent finds us wrestling with these great themes.  They are still vitally the stuff of life today … especially in this bruised and battered world of ours.

On a very different subject, I want to pass on some good news.  The Central Texas Conference has received a grant from the General Board of Global Ministries.  The RELCC (Racial Ethnic Local Concerns Committee) grant is for a part of the covenant relationship with the Eastern Mexico Conference in which Eastern Mexico sends a team of worship leaders to lead a weekend worship retreat at El Buen Samaritano.  The retreat is designed for worship leaders seeking training/resources for leading Hispanic worship.  Rev. Sam Macias and Rev. Lilliana Padilla were instrumental in the development of this idea and have worked with the Conference centers of both Mission Support and Evangelism & Church Growth to set up this ministry project.  We give thanks for the generosity of GBGM and all here who have worked on setting this up!

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