Peter Kirk has been involved in some extended debates about the atonement, and you can read about it here and here. Peter has written some good stuff on understanding the atonement. I have generally just been saying that we must recognize our ways of explaining the atonement as metaphors, and not as the reality. A metaphor is good, and is the only way we can talk about God, but when you place the metaphor above the reality, or make the metaphor into the reality, you get into a sort of doctrinal idolatry. I say that not to provoke, but simply because there is an important similarity. In the idolatry that involves the worship of a physical image, the danger is that one mistakes symbol for reality, and starts to give adoration to the created thing, rather than the creator. This in turn tends to get everything else out of balance. The same thing happens with a metaphor, which will better illustrate some things than others. If the metaphor replaces the reality at the center, then one’s entire vision can get skewed.
So what do I believe must be at the center of our view of the atonement? Since we are always short of speaking absolutely correctly about God, there is a danger in defining this, but if I can grab something from all of the metaphors and all of the Biblical writers it would be this: God did it. That is the focus of scriptural statements. Protecting that one fact is the focus of many Biblical rebukes. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul didn’t say that it’s OK for you to do a few extra works, just so long as you also trust in Jesus. He said that putting your trust in those works meant that you were denying Jesus (Galatians 5:2).
Elsewhere, however, he said that he would become “as one under the law” (1 Cor. 9:20) to reach those who were under the law. The circumstances were different at the church in Corinth. There was even a party there (“I am of Christ” – 1 Cor. 1:12) that made a special point of pride of being followers of Christ. What’s wrong with that? Well, if you set yourself up as superior to others because of your status, then there’s very much wrong with it. The whole first epistle to the Corinthians stands against the notion that any physical, temporal thing about us makes us superior to others.
A key fact about the “foolishness of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1) is that I don’t get to be at the center any more. I’m saved by grace, pure grace, and I am not superior to anyone else spiritually. I can know more about some things. I may be able to do some things better, but as far as being God’s child, I have nothing whatsoever to boast about.
The very human temptation, however, is to make me feel superior. This temptation comes in many ways. Doctrines of holiness can easily become means of making a superior category of believers. I’ve encountered churches where the intercessors were an exclusive club of superior believers. These folks had made their call to pray for other people into a badge of superiority. But our desire to be superior for any reason has been eliminated, because God broke past the barrier between infinite and finite in the person of Jesus Christ. That profound thought led Paul to say,
(26) You’re all God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. (29) For as many as have been baptized into Christ are wearing Christ as a garment. (28) There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (29) For if you belong to Christ, then you’re Abraham’s seed, and according to the promise–heirs! — Galatians 3:26-29 (my translation)
Our distinctions have been wiped out in the incarnation. We want to revive them. We want to feel more special than others. But all our versions of “special” have been torn apart, bulldozed, leveled in the cross of Christ. We are all equally recipients of grace. I teach a doctrine I call infinite ignorance. God is infinite, there is an infinite amount to be known about him. I know something of God, but when you subtract any finite amount from infinity, infinity still remains.
The same thing goes for grace. Infinite grace has been poured out on us. My brother or sister in the faith may have required more grace than I, but when you subtract that difference from infinity, infinity remains. Our distinctions are meaningless under the infinite outpouring of grace.
Now if we can keep focused on that one point, I think we will get less out of balance. It doesn’t mean that right and wrong doctrine don’t matter for anything. It doesn’t mean that right or wrong behavior don’t matter. It’s just that they don’t matter for salvation, because that is God’s business. It means that they don’t make me or you closer to God.
We try to escape this in so many ways. For Paul in Galatia it was folks who thought that Gentiles needed to become Jews first in order to be Christians. They had to keep Torah, be circumcised, obey the food laws, keep feasts, and so forth. Paul had no problem with Jews being Jews. He had a problem with that distinction being made important for God’s salvation.
The individual believer pursuing holiness is placed in danger of seeing that holiness as a way of earning God’s favor. The fact is that holiness is part of the grace that God gives. It is a result of God’s favor, unearned by you, and not a badge of distinction.
We can try to make our position superior by means of doctrine. Doctrine learned and taught as our best efforts to understand and receive from God is wonderful, but when we try to make our doctrinal knowledge a badge of superiority over someone else than we have fallen short of the reality of grace. That includes my own doctrine. These words are just my stumbling way of trying to express the experience of the grace of God, and I can recognize how poorly I express it even as I write it. But even when I think the words are flowing beautifully, when I feel my writing is inspired, if I believe that makes me superior to the person who teaches a view of penal substitutionary atonement that makes my blood boil, I have fallen short of the mark set by God’s grace.
I can’t earn it by spiritual discipline, I can’t earn it by theological knowledge, I can’t earn it by a life of ethical decision making. I can only receive it by grace, with no point of pride left to me whatsoever.
There’s the scandal of the cross. Christians are confronted at various times with the dilemma of a mass murderer who, with his final breath, accepts Jesus Christ as savior. “Will that man go to heaven?” we are asked. Too often we stumble. It’s too hard to accept that the mass murderer might find himself in heaven next to a saint who spent a lifetime giving and suffering. But such is the reality of grace. Such is the scandal of the cross. God is about redemption, not about punishment. This doesn’t mean there are no consequences, and no punishment. It does mean that in God’s view vengeance isn’t in the driver’s seat; grace is. If that person sincerely seeks God’s forgiveness and receives God’s grace with his last breath, no matter how horribly evil he has been, he receives. Infinite grace always trumps finite evil. If that’s too scandalous for you, you need to spend some more time at the cross.
In Turkey recently three Christian workers were brutally murdered. The widow of one of them has expressed forgiveness in an interview on Turkish television (source – scroll down to bottom or search text for April 20, 2007). That’s grace in action. That’s not easy. Humanly, I suspect it’s not even possible. But there it is.
The cross is a scandal. Live with it!