Heading Towards the Cross: The Offense of Substitutionary Atonement

I readily confess that one of my favorite more contemporary Christian hymns/songs is “In Christ Alone” (written in 2001).  Its emphasis on the centrality of Christ and the trust the Lord rarely fails to move me to a deeper conviction and engage me in a stronger commitment.  It is one of those songs that feeds my soul.  Even typing the words, the great, first verse anchors my being and brings me before the Lord in peace.

“In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.”

The second verse moves into an affirmation of the incarnation. “Christ alone, Who took on flesh, Fullness of God in helpless babe!” Yet, from there it plunges into claims of atonement that are often an offense.

“This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid –“

The third verse embraces the resurrection in full-throated glory and the fourth verse moves the listener to the heights of discipleship in sanctified commitment.  Yet the last half of the second verse remains as an in-your-face declaration of substitutionary atonement.

In my last blog, “Heading Towards the Cross: The Workings of the Cross – Atonement” I noted the variety of metaphors which speak to the issue of how the cross “works” or how we are atoned – if you will, “at-oned” with God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. I made no claims that my list was exhaustive (the list was largely, though not exclusively, taken from the writing of Scot McKnight in his book A Community Called Atonement). I emphasized how the earliest Christians refused to settle for a single metaphor or image understanding of atonement and salvation.  Through a refusal to settle for a single metaphor and an equal refusal to jettison any one biblical image under the inspired guidance of the Holy Spirit, those earliest Christians led us to a great and uncomfortable truth.  We wish to pick the image we like and slide quickly by the rest. Such is a mistake of biblical proportions.

In particular this conflict can be noted around issues relating to substitutionary atonement.  Substitutionary atonement is the notion (metaphor or image) that Jesus did something we could not do for ourselves.  He paid the price for our sin.  In short form it goes something like this.  A righteous, just, and holy God cannot simply ignore the disasters and evil consequence of sin.  The price of sin must be paid.  Christ, the one sinless human being (fully human and fully divine!), on the cross paid the price that just and righteous God required. God’s wrath is not against humans but against sin.  It is the logical consequence of love’s full embrace.  To demand that God’s wrath towards sin be ignored is effectively to live in a delusion of sin’s effect on human life and living.  By way of illustration of sin’s power we simply need to point to the civil war waging in Syria this very day.  Or, should we chose something closer to home, we can easily note the rising homelessness in the world’s most prosperous nation (including right here in Fort Worth!).  These are the real world consequences of sin and they can be ignored or papered over.

Yet notions of a wrathful God make us, especially those of the old mainline (now sideline) – shrink back in unfeigned disgust.  We recoil at the very idea of God’s wrath needing to be satisfied.  It makes God look vengeful and needless cruel. (Years ago I heard someone refer to it as “divine child abuse.”  In a recent article Dr. Bill Bouknight recalled that “back in 1993 at the infamous Re-Imagining Conference, a Union Seminary professor said, ‘We don’t need to hear about somebody hanging on a cross, and blood dripping, and all that stuff.’  And when those words were spoken, the interdenominational audience exploded into applause.  Obviously, the message of the cross is still as offensive as St. Paul found it to be—‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (I Cor. 1:23).”  He went on to note that “The official position of the UMC is clearly stated in Article XX of the Articles of Religion: ‘The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction but that alone’ (Bill Bouknight, The Atonement Controversy).”  Furthermore, scriptural references are too numerous to be ignored.  “God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. He did this so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:3, CEB).  “…he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2, NRSV).  “People are destined to die once and then face judgment. In the same way, Christ was also offered once to take on himself the sins of many people. He will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27-28).  “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain, and by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9, CEB). The list could go on but the reader can get the drift.

Whether we like it or not, substitutionary atonement cannot be ignore.  H. Richard Niebuhr’s great quote will preach at lent!  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross” (H. Richard Niebuhr from The Kingdom of God in America).  At the same time it is important, vitally important, that we do not boil our whole understanding of salvation down to substitutionary atonement.  What the first Christians refused to do, so should we refuse to do also.  There is room and application needed for all of the various understandings (theories/metaphors/images) of atonement.  We need to embrace the whole of the gospel not just part of it.

The offense of substitutionary atonement comes for much of our age because it, substitutionary atonement, takes sin so seriously.  This is a truth we need to recover not only in our peaching and teaching but in our lives and confession.  “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (I John 1:8-10).  We suffer from a surfeit of cheap grace.  A grace that costs little and means less.  Paul had it right, “we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:23-24).

The song, In Christ Alone, has it right, “Here in the death of Christ I live” (verse 2, last line).

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