As we continue heading towards the cross in our Lenten journey, those who claim to be Christ-followers traverse a landscaped called atonement. We cannot help but do so. We may argue at length with each other on just how a new relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the world has come about. But the unshakable reality is, that in some way, Jesus Christ dying on the cross atoned for our sins.
I like to think of atonement by simply breaking the word apart: at-one-ment. Through the cross we become at one with God. In the one person who was both fully human and fully divine we are reconnected with our maker. As John Richard Neuhaus put it, “what was separated is now at one” (Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, p. 15).
Today we often stumble in our failure to take seriously our separation; namely sin. We tend to slide by theories of atonement and settle into a facile understanding of Jesus the great teacher because we are uncomfortable facing the reality of our lives. We are sinners. I am a sinner. I have within me a propensity to place myself ahead of the Lord God. So do we all.
Think of the standard images for atonement. The term salvation comes from the battlefield. We are knocked to the ground and about to be run-in by a spear-wielding enemy. Just then, someone steps into to take the blow and dies to save our life. We are saved! Or think of redemption, the image comes from the slave market. It is an especially powerful image for those caught in the grip of an addiction. We are being auctioned into slavery for our sins – our willful separation from God. Someone, Jesus Christ, steps in and pays the price for our freedom. Or again, consider the term Paul uses in Romans – Justification. We are in court and held to account for our failures, our sins. Any plea that we are mostly a nice person is easily thrust aside. The evidence is clear. We are guilty of sin, of separation, from God. As the gavel is pounded down, Christ steps in and sets the verdict aside declaring us justified, that is made right by his actions.
While hardly a complete list, each image referenced points to the seriousness of our separation from God. They signal a far different reality than the need for just a little correction. They give evidence of a radical flaw in our makeup; a flaw so deep that none escape. This truth was demonstrated recently by Pope Francis when he posed the question about himself. “‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ I am a sinner. This the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”
It is the cross rising before us in the distance that makes us face fully and truthfully the reality of sin; our propensity to be our own gods. It is the cross standing before us in the distance that challenges our naïve assumptions of our own essential goodness. Consider just one list of false gods that clamor to reign over us, over the very best of us!
- Individualism – the story that “I” am the center of the universe
- Consumerism – the story that I am what I own
- Nationalism – the story that my nation is God’s nation
- Moral relativism – the story that we can’t know what is universally good
- Scientific naturalism – the story that all that matters is matter
- New Age – the story that we are gods
- Postmodern tribalism – the story that all that matters is what my small group thinks
- Salvation by therapy – the story that I can come to my full human potential through inner exploration (taken from The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight; pg. 157).
The Christian conviction wrapped up in the theological concept called atonement is that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus somehow this sin has met its match. Sin is still real. It is still present. It still needs to be faced, confessed and repented of; but its power is ultimately broken. Heading towards the cross we are challenged to face the seriousness of our separation. Only then can the joy of Easter morning be fully embraced.
I will continue on the theme of atonement in my next blog as we together head toward the cross … and beyond! I close with a pungent quote from Stephen Seamands: “For at the cross we see Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, being mocked, tortured, and finally murdered by the sons and daughters of men. We see humanity defiantly turned against God, the creature, in all of its prideful arrogance, seeking to annihilate the Creator. The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to “think of all the hostility he endured form sinful people” (Heb 12:3) as he endured the cross. Here our deep-seated, burning hostility toward God is fully exposed: Our hatred is so intense we would kill God if we could. In our determination to be autonomous and independent, to be our own gods, we would go so far as to get rid of God so we could take his place. Here we see not “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” as Jonathan Edwards put it in his famous eighteenth-century sermon, but “God in the hands of angry sinners.” The cross reveals how hell-bent we are and how heinous and horrible sin is” (Stephen Seamands, Give Them Christ, pg. 62).