Atonement

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Romans 3:1-31

How do we build good relationships? Christians believe that the underlying cause of all the discord in our lives is human sinfulness. And before that can be overcome, something else has to happen. We cannot be reconciled until a more basic work is done. The name of that work is atonement.

There is a problem in the world. Everyone longs for peace, love and friendship. But everywhere we look – whether among nations, in our own society, even in our families – we see conflict, alienation, division and brokenness.

In our last Words of Hope program we looked at the idea of personal happiness and what produces it. We saw that happiness does not primarily depend on how much money you have or how famous or successful you are. Happiness comes from having relationships – a personal relationship with God, loving relationships with other people.

So how do we build good relationships? As Rodney King asked, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Christians believe that the underlying cause of all the discord in our lives is human sinfulness. And before that can be overcome, something else has to happen. We cannot be reconciled – either to God or to one another – until a more basic work is done. The name of that work is atonement.

Atonement might not strike you as being the most basic necessity for human happiness, but that’s exactly what the Bible says. But what is atonement? What does this theological term mean? We asked a theologian – Professor of Reformed Theology Dr. Leanne Van Dyke, of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

INTERVIEW WITH LEANNE VAN DYKE

David Bast: We’re thinking about the idea of atonement which is a big word maybe for some people. How would you define that word or explain what it means?

Leanne Van Dyke: Some people have heard the word atonement explained as a combination of three little words: at one ment, and they think, “Oh, that can’t possibly be what the word actually means,” but surprisingly it is. It’s an invented English word from back in the 15th century. It is a word that refers to the gracious effects of God’s saving action through Jesus Christ and it does mean that we are then made one. So the core meaning of atonement is the unity that is achieved through Jesus Christ on the basis of God’s love. And the very meaning of the word is right there and how it’s put together.

David Bast: All you have to do is split it up and you get it.

Almost from the beginning the cross has been the main symbol of Christianity. It’s no accident. The cross is a physical and visual reminder of the death of Jesus Christ, and that is at the heart of biblical Christianity. Christians believe Christ died as a necessary sacrifice for sin, in other words, as a means of making atonement. Atonement cannot be separated from the cross of Jesus Christ but both the cross and the idea of atonement itself are controversial. Many people are turned off by these concepts. Words of Hope’s David Bast explores these ideas further in a conversation with Dr. Van Dyke.

David Bast: You mentioned the cross just now and a death and obviously it’s the death of Jesus that we’re talking about. What is it about that? I mean, what happened there that makes that the place where atonement occurred and makes it central to the whole idea of atonement?

Leanne Van Dyke: In shortest scope what happened there was that in Christ God took up the sins of the world, all the brokenness and rebellion of the world against God, and overcame it so that we may be free, but the exact workings of that has been put in quite a wide variety of ways, even in Scripture in 2 Corinthians chapter 5 right at the end of the chapter. It’s one of the classic statements of the cross. Paul is trying to explain how it is that the cross is our salvation, and he says right at the end of the chapter, “God made him [Christ] to be sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.” I think that’s the most succinct summary of the gospel.

David Bast: Even if we can’t explain all the mechanics of that exactly. There’s something still of mystery here because it’s the workings of God within himself. Now it’s easy to kind of caricature that and many of the old gospel songs talk about “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.” We all grew up singing those, and there’s certainly truth there but that has led some Christians even to sort of criticize the traditional view of Jesus offering his life as a payment or a ransom, or even though again that is New Testament language.

Leanne Van Dyke: Yes, it is. Many of us grew up singing hymns about being washed in the blood of Christ. And some folks hear that language and they say, “That’s outrageous! What does that mean?” Other folks say, “Well, Jesus won a victory.” And somebody might say, “What do you mean – there was a battle? What battle?” Other people might say, “Jesus ransomed us.” An objector would say, “What? We were kidnapped? I didn’t know I was kidnapped!” So these all are the kind of ways we use to talk about the cross, but none of them are intended to be this literalistic explanation.

David Bast: They’re picture language. They’re images.

Leanne Van Dyke: These images of battle and cleansing and ransom and taking our place and healing love that scripture uses and that the Christian tradition uses, all of these are just Christian believers efforts to put in some language what happened, in Christ, through God’s love on the cross. And why it had to be a cross, a painful, public execution, is very hard to give one clear answer to. It seems that this is the way that God chose for us to be saved, and I don’t know of any thoughtful believer who doesn’t really puzzle over that.

David Bast: Right, but what would you say about those who went so far, and many do today, as to say, “Well, we don’t really need an atonement at all. People can be saved by just turning to God or by making a good effort or by finding him in their own religious tradition, whatever it is, we don’t really need . . . it may be that Jesus was a wonderful man and he died a martyr’s death but don’t give me this atonement idea.

Leanne Van Dyke: I’ve discovered that people tend to view the atonement, the cross, especially the sufferings and the death, from one of two directions. Some people, and they’re the ones that usually object to the cross, they want a kind of “prove-it” attitude. They say, “Prove why this was necessary. I’m not going to even consider believing this unless you can show me that it had to be this way.” This is a dead end.

The other way is the way of Christian faith: this did happen for me, for us, and for our salvation, as the Nicene Creed put it, and then the question doesn’t become “prove it” but “let’s talk about the kind of word images and language and doxologies and expressions that can best put it into words.”

David Bast: I think of Paul’s doxology in a way, the poignancy of what he said in Galatians when he talked about the Son of God “who loved me and gave himself for me.” And we may not be able to prove all the reasons why it had to be that way, but we know that it was that way, and that’s the groundswell of our own gratitude and love for him. That line has always captured me “and gave himself for me” and he wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t had to do it.

Leanne Van Dyke: Yes, exactly, another great line from Hebrews when Christ is portrayed as “in all ways suffering with us, sin excepted” that Christ knows all of our weaknesses except sin. So there we have a comfort that Jesus really does know us, this is not some distant Savior that swoops in and swoops out again. Here is someone who has taken on our humanity except for our sin and is able then to heal our humanity. I find it enormously comforting and poignant and evocative and powerful.

David Bast: So maybe the old songs aren’t so far off after all, that are drawn to the cross, there’s something about the cross that attracts us and brings out our love in response to his love.

Leanne Van Dyke: Yes, and sometimes it brings out people’s sharp objections, but then I think Christian believers need to find some way to talk with these folks and reassure them that the whole point of this was the love of God, not a vindictive God, not a wrathful God, not a God seeking revenge. The whole point of this cross, as odd a thing as it is, was for the sake of God loving us back into relationship with God.

David Bast: One of the, maybe we could call it caricatures, of the atonement or the cross is the criticism that’s sometimes made that this is a wrathful God, an angry God, wreaking revenge on an innocent man, and it doesn’t even work. How can someone pay for someone else’s sin? That isn’t moral. That isn’t just. This isn’t justice at the cross that’s happening. What do you say to that?

Leanne Van Dyke: God did not pour out wrath on the well-beloved Son on the cross. God poured out wrath on the sin and rebellion and disobedience of the world.

David Bast: So we almost have to think of . . . there was wrath there. It was judgment and it was anger, but it wasn’t falling on Jesus, it was falling on the sin that he was bearing, if we could make that sort of mental distinction.

Leanne Van Dyke: Right. What the relationship is between the wrath of God and the love of God is really an important one. It’s not that God’s love only was able to come in after God’s wrath was taken care of on the cross. Just the reverse. God’s wrath was sort of an instrument or a means for God’s love to be really effective, and the way for God’s love to be really effective was for wrath to destroy sin. Wrath is underneath the great big umbrella of God’s love, and wrath then operates as part of God’s plan, but God is a God of love, not wrath, but wrath is what has to take care of sin so that the world, people in the world, can be brought back to a relationship with God.

David Bast: I think we can even understand that in terms of our own love. Our own love can never be indifferent to moral considerations or to right and wrong. Or as much as we love, we can never simply stand by and approve of horrible things that maybe those that we love even can do.

Leanne Van Dyke: The important thing to remember then, of course, is that God isn’t us. Our wrath and our love – we sometimes get it goofed up. We confuse things. We operate out of sinful motives. Our wrath turns out not to be an instrument or a means of our love very well at all. But God does not have this problem. God isn’t subject to fits of rage. God’s wrath really is a completely godly way of dealing with sin so that God’s love can win.

A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE

As a teenager Elie Wiesel was caught up in the holocaust and imprisoned in a concentration camp. One day unaccountably he was taken out of the camp and brought to a hospital. They led him into a room where a horribly wounded German soldier was lying. The soldier had been wounded on the Russian front and as he lay dying he demanded that he be allowed to talk to a Jew, any Jew. And so young Elie was chosen as the representative of his race to come and stand before this German soldier.

The soldier, gasping in his pain, began to tell his story, and it became clear that what he was looking to do was to clear his conscience before he died. And so he told of the unspeakable things that he himself had done and the even more unspeakable things that he had seen being done to Jews in Russia and in Poland, and then he stretched out his hand toward Elie and he said, “Please forgive me before I die.” So here is a fifteen-year-old suddenly asked to represent his whole people and to speak on their behalf to one of their tormentors. For a moment, Elie just stood there silent, looking at that outstretched hand. And then he turned on his heel and without a word walked out of the room. Years later when he described this in a book, he then turned figuratively toward his reader and asked, “What would you have done?”

You see, sometimes words are cheap and words alone are not enough. It’s not enough just to say, “I’m sorry” in order for sin to be really forgiven. It’s not even enough for God to simply say, “I forgive you.” Oh, hey, don’t worry about it, that sin you committed, that lie you told, that thing you stole, that reputation you trashed, that friend you betrayed, that earth you raped, that genocide you perpetrated, don’t worry about it, it’s okay, no big deal, I forgive you. Even God can’t say that without betraying himself and without dismissing us and our lives as simply meaningless. God can’t dismiss sin without also dismissing us.

Theologian Richard Newhouse wrote this about atonement. “After such a separation there can be no easy reunion. Reconciliation must do justice to what went wrong. It will not do merely to overlook the wrong. We could not bear to live in a world where wrong is taken lightly, where right and wrong finally make no difference. In such a world we, what we do and what we are would make no difference. Spare me a gospel of easy love that makes of my life a thing without consequence.

Atonement is not an accountant’s trick. It is not a kindly overlooking. It is not a not counting of what must count if anything in heaven or on earth is to matter. God could not simply decide not to count without declaring that we do not count. So that brings us to atonement. What is it?

Four quick truths:

  1. In order for sin to be forgiven something must be done about it, something has to happen. Something needs to be paid in order for sin to be forgiven, in order to show how monstrous it is, how unacceptable in order to satisfy somehow, to uphold the justice of God, something must be done.
  2. Whatever it is, we can’t do it. We are incapable of paying the price that is demanded, of making the satisfaction, of accomplishing atonement for ourselves. The wages of sin is death. The only thing we could possibly do would be to die eternally in hell, and even that wouldn’t really make atonement. That would simply execute the punishment.
  3. Someone else has paid the penalty for us. This is the heart of the gospel. This is what the New Testament is all about. This is what Paul is saying in Romans 3. God has managed to find a real righteousness, not based on our performance and our failure but based on the infinitely precious sacrifice that Jesus Christ has made by shedding his blood on the cross. At the cross righteousness and mercy intersect. Justice is upheld and sin is punished, and atonement is made at that precise point.
  4. We must put our trust in him. This sacrifice of atonement is offered through faith in him, in his blood. We must believe and entrust ourselves. In Christ there is real forgiveness because a real atonement has been made. Outside of Christ there is nothing remaining but sin and death and hell, and the way into Christ is by faith. It is by taking all that you know of yourself and trusting your life into his hands and committing yourself to live for him. There’s no other way to find real forgiveness. It’s not enough just to say “I’m sorry” because sometimes words are cheap.

The death of Christ is at the heart of the Christian gospel, as we’ve heard. But how do we connect personally with this historical event? Faith becomes the vital link that makes atonement meaningful, but faith isn’t always easy.