Things That Didn’t Get Said: further reflections on the atonement

Today at Vintage, we held a theological symposium of sorts, which you can listen to here, or you can search iTunes for Vintage Fellowship. In our journey through Romans, we have encountered the idea of the atonement, what the death of Jesus accomplishes for us. So, today, we decided to pull back and consider the atonement from a broad theological perspective. We talked about how the best stories can be told and retold from various vantage points and with different emphases. The story of the cross is no exception. Throughout its history, the church has told the story different ways.

Ransom: The death of Jesus bought us back from the power of the Devil.

Release: The death of Jesus freed us from the power of sin and death.

Redemption: The death of Jesus paid a price we could not pay on our own.

Representation: The death of Jesus exemplified God’s love for us.

Reconciliation: The death of Jesus provided a way for us back into relationship with God.

Re-Creation: The death of Jesus inaugurated a new world and reality.

In the hour or so that we discussed these, there were several important considerations that didn’t get mentioned explicitly. They are too important to just ignore, and so I thought I would blog them. Anyone, those who were at Vintage today and those who weren’t, are more than invited to join the conversation.

Metaphors

Throughout our discussion today, we referred to the various ways to tell the atonement story as “theories.” This is quite common, but the more I think about it, the more unfortunate I think it is. I think it would be better to refer to them as “metaphors.” 

Theories compete with one another, causing division and argument. Theories typically attempt to be a comprehensive explanation of something and can be easily rejected out of hand. Metaphors are different. Metaphors shed light and spread understanding without explaining everything. 

If we think of the various atonement stories as metaphors rather than theories, we can learn from each of them, recognizing that each has something to teach us even without telling the whole story. As metaphors, the stories of the cross are limited and yet complimentary.

Hebrew Sacrificial System
A couple of times this morning, we mentioned the Hebrew sacrificial system and the idea of telling the story through the lens of Jesus being the Lamb of God. What I intended to do and yet failed to do because of time (and my faulty memory) was to place this metaphor as a viable alternative to penal substitution. Penal substitution sees the atonement as a price paid on behalf of a guilt party by an innocent party within the divine courtroom of a just Judge. When penal substitution is told in such a way as to present God the Father as an angry, vindictive being, it can come off as bad news, not good news.

And yet, the themes of substitution are present throughout the Scriptures. In the Hebrew sacrificial system, the guilt of sin was transferred to an animal which would be slaughtered so that its blood could be a covering for sin. Jesus is the substitute for the sacrificial lamb, whose blood covers our sin so that we can be forgiven.

Universal Component
Today, like often happens in atonement discussions, we focused almost exclusively on the personal benefits of the atonement. We failed to explore the universal implications of the atonement. The death of Jesus is not just life for me. It impacts, in biblical terms, all tribes, tongues, and nations. The death of Jesus impacts the planet and the cosmos. Whenever we tell the story as purely a personal story, we miss the important universal components of the story.

I feel like we just began to scratch the surface this morning of what could (and maybe should) be a full semester of discussions. Thankfully, we have a lifetime to explore together all that the death of Jesus means to us.

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  • I would recommend N T Wright’s book “Justification” for anyone wanting to enter the current conversation about atonement.