“…Christ Died for Our Sins in Accordance with the Scriptures…”


What was God Doing on the Cross? [Part 3]

A commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks” results in both an appreciation for the diverse ways that the Bible speaks about something and in the recognition that the Bible often speaks more frequently and forcefully about something in some ways than it does in other ways.  Take the Lord’s Supper for example.

cupIn their “Word to the Church on the Lord’s Supper” (1991) the Commission on Theology of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) identified “five strands of meaning” in our observance of communion as people of Biblical faith: (1) Remembrance; (2) Communion of the Faithful; (3) Sacrifice; (4) Unity; and (5) The Feast of the Reign of God. And Dr. Byron Lambert, a Stone/Campbell Church Historian from a different branch of the family actually identified ten!  A Biblical understanding of the Lord’s Supper has got to reflect a breadth of meaning just as wide and deep as that of Scripture itself.   That’s what a commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks” demands of those of us who affirm it.

But when you do this, it also becomes apparent pretty quickly that not every “strand of meaning” the Bible introduces is equally weighted.  And this is the other thing that a commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks” leads to – an honest recognition of Biblical emphases.  Just as it would be Biblically inaccurate to speak of the Lord’s Supper in just one way, so it would be just as Biblically inaccurate not to point out that when the Bible speaks of the Lord’s Supper that the first thing it almost always says is something about remembrance.


“Do this in remembrance of Me” is engraved on so many of the Lord’s Tables in the churches of our tribe because of this fact. Remembrance is certainly not the only thing that the Lord’s Supper means to us Biblically, but it is almost always the first thing.

In recent weeks, as part of my own spiritual preparation for Holy Week, I have been using my weekly blog to think out loud about the meaning of the cross. Two weeks ago I wrote about how it is that what God in Christ did on the cross cinches for me the foundational Gospel claim that God loves us. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This “strand of meaning” for the cross has a name, it’s called the “Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement,” and because I seek a faith that is Biblical, I embrace in it.

Last week I wrote about how what God in Christ did on the cross both underscores the Gospel’s claim of “Emmanuel,” that “God is with us” as “Christus Dolor” (the Christ who suffers with us) and establishes the Gospel’s announcement of God’s victory over the principalities and powers through Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the third day.  This “strand of meaning” for the cross has a name too, it’s called the “Christus Victor” or “Classical” Theory of the Atonement, and because I seek a faith that is Biblical, I embrace it as well.

coffeeBeing able to hold onto more than just one thought at a time is a skill necessary for people of Biblical faith because the Bible never says just one thing about any topic. The way the Bible teaches its truths is by putting different ideas into faithful conversation with each other, and it is by eavesdropping on that exchange that we begin to plumb the depths of God’s self-disclosure to which Scripture itself is both a witness and a result.

Coming at Scripture in this way leaves me spiritually frustrated with those who want to artificially restrict the conversation. In my experience, this happens in two very different ways.  It happens when somebody tries to tell me that something in the Bible is cut and dried –  neat and clean – black and white – either/or – when clearly it is not.  I find that it’s most often my theologically conservative friends who are guilty of trying to restrict the conversation in this way.  But this also happens when somebody tries to tell me that something that is in the Bible isn’t really there, or, if it is, that it isn’t spiritually or intellectually legitimate and therefore isn’t deserving of our serious consideration.  I find that it’s most often my theologically progressive friends who are guilty of trying to restrict the conversation in this way.  Both approaches, it seems to me, are failures in speaking where the Scriptures speak. Take the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement.


Both my conservative and my progressive friends seem to want me to restrict the conversation when it comes to this idea these days. The conservatives want me to think and talk about it exclusively as the only proper way to truly understand the meaning of the cross of Christ, while my progressive friends don’t seem to want me to think or talk about it as having any legitimacy at all as a way of trying to make sense of the meaning of the cross.  When you come down to it, they are both trying to restrict the theological conversation, and the result is that they both make me want to scream!

petersTed Peters, the Professor of Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, in his essay on the “Models of the Atonement” [http://www.plts.edu] — and what a fine, fair and incredibly reader-friendly essay it is — explained Substitutionary Atonement this way –

When the word ‘atonement’ comes up, we most frequently rely on the model of “Jesus as our satisfaction.” Variants on this model are called “substitutionary atonement”, “penal substitution”, or even “blood atonement.” The work of Christ in atoning for our sins renders us forgiven, or just, or justified. The blood of Christ renders us clean, righteous, ready to stand in God’s presence. Why does Jesus’ death accomplish this? Satisfaction of the need for cosmic justice is one theological answer…

 …Our word ‘satisfaction’ comes from St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who wrote a book, Cur Deus Homo? asking: why did God become human in Jesus Christ? Anselm began by describing the world as God originally created it. It was a world of order, a world of justice. All things were ordered in harmony for the benefit of God’s creatures. It is God’s will that we creatures enjoy lives of fulfillment, felicity, and blessedness. Human disobedience in the form of sin, however, has disrupted the world order. Like defaulting on a mortgage, humanity cannot pay what it owes to make amends. As a result, justice requires that humans be disqualified from enjoying the blessedness God had originally planned. Does this mean God’s will has been thwarted by human sin?

 God, however, wants to press on. God wants to deliver blessedness despite human sin and still in harmony with the order of justice. God confronts a dilemma. Neither God alone nor humanity alone can pay the debt to satisfy what is required by the order of justice. On the one hand, if God simply forgives humanity for its sinful disobedience, then this would throw the order of justice out of sync. It would introduce disorder into the creation. So, God can’t just write it off and forget the loss. On the other hand, the human race cannot fix what is broken either. The damage is too severe. No human being has the moral capital to repay the debt. Only justice in the form of retribution can repair the broken creation. But this means humanity will get punishment rather than blessedness. What’s a loving God to do?!

 An offering to satisfy justice must be made from the human side; but only God has the capacity for making such satisfaction. Because only God is able to make the offering that we ought to make, it must be made by a combination of the divine and the human. Therefore, concludes Anselm, the incarnation is necessary to accomplish salvation. Now we know why God became human.

 Professor Peters notes that this “idea of satisfaction is a narrow theological concept, which is used to interpret a large collection of verbal symbols in the Bible: blood, lamb, sheep, the Good Shepherd, scapegoat, the “lamb upon the throne,” high priest, and such.” Which is to say that it’s one of the ways that Scripture speaks about the cross, and therefore should be a voice — not the only voice, mind you — but at least one of the voices, and maybe even one of the louder voices in our conversation about what the cross means and what the cross accomplishes.

Scot McKnight’s brilliant analogy of the golf bag full of different clubs explains shows how this works –

golfEach “theory” of the Atonement is, like a particular golf club, better suited to some situations than others. Ministering the gospel is like playing a round of golf. Just as a golfer knows when to use a driver, a wedge, or a putter, the way we proclaim, teach, or share the Good News should be adapted to the situation. You can hit the ball out of a sand trap with your driver, but why would you if you had a wedge available? The strength of the golf-bag metaphor is that it asks us to stop being partisan toward one particular theory of the Atonement and to minister with the best tools at hand. [“Your Atonement Is Too Small” – David Neff – May 20, 2008 – www.christianitytoday.com]

And so when the problem is ignorance – not being sure about how the God who is there really feels about us – the “club” that I go to is the moral influence theory of the atonement. What Christ did on the cross “proves” that God loves us, and shows us just how much.

And when the problem is the evil that holds us and the whole world in its sway, the “club” that I go to is the “Classical” “Christus Victor” theory of the atonement.  On the cross Christ confronted the powers of darkness that enslave us, and by getting up on the third day, He triumphed over them.

And when the problem before me is the very real separation that the rebellion of sin has created in my relationship with God, and my relationship with others, and my relationship with myself, and my relationship with all of creation, the “club” that I go to is the “Substitutionary” theory of the atonement. On the cross God Himself removes the barriers that hinder all of my relationships.

Next week in my final posting in this series on “What Was God Doing on the Cross?” I will name the three essential Biblical truths that I personally find that the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement preserves for me better than the other theories of the atonement do.  But suffice it for now to simply say that I am glad that it is one of the clubs in my spiritual golf bag.   Because my own need for forgiveness is great, my appreciation for the Substitutionary theory of the Atonement is deep.

Richard Mouw wrote about (“Getting to the Crux of Calvary” – Christianity Today – June 4, 2012) overhearing some young ministers at a conference discussing their conscious distancing of themselves and their ministries from the traditional Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement.  Dr. Mouw said that he thought that it was a terrible mistake.

This is not to say that every sermon preached has to be an invitation to bring our guilt to the Cross of Calvary… The fact is that the Bible presents the work of Christ as a many-faceted event, setting forth a variety of images for the Atonement: self-giving love, the forgiveness of enemies, payment of a debt, the ransom of captives, victory over the demonic principalities and powers, and so on… I would not have worried about the comment that I overheard from those young pastrors if they were simply celebrating having a golf bag full of theological clubs, and resolving to use the victory-over-the-powers club more effectively in appropriate situations. But instead, they said that they “seldom” talked anymore about substitutionary atonement, and to me, that sounded like a basic mistake in theological golfing.

And to me as a big “D” Disciple, it sounds like a fundamental violation of our commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks.DBS+


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