Atonement, the Prodigal Son and ‘Why So Serious?’

cross_2There is no doctrine so entrenched in Christianity as that of the Substitutionary Atonement (also known as ‘Vicarious Atonement’ or the ‘Penal Substitution Theory’). In simple terms, this is the teaching that, on the cross, God’s wrath against sinful humanity was absorbed by Jesus—that the payment for sin was made to God by Christ; that this blood sacrifice appeased a holy God and saves us from certain (eternal) condemnation/torment.

This is a major (or may I say MAJOR) theme in many Christian circles, more so amongst fundamentalists. When I was a student at a leading fundamentalist university, this was hammered home to us in every sermon, in most classes, in many prayer meetings. It was not ‘a’ but ‘THE’ central tenet of The Faith and demanded a serious analysis, on a regular basis, of one’s place in the overall scheme of sin and salvation.

And serious it was. One would be out of line to show a smile in a church service or during the singing of a hymn. People had been expelled at this university for daring to treat a song about Jesus in a ‘frivolous’ manner. (see the video that got two students expelled and a third a severe reprimand here.)

And so they sing solemnly, seriously, it seems with a burden that is weighing them down. (Have a look at these two videos of a ‘performance’ of a well-loved (fundamentalist) hymn here and here.)

Here are the words for those of you following along at home (the sheet music is here.):

His robes for mine: O wonderful exchange!
Clothed in my sin, Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage.
Draped in His righteousness, I’m justified.
In Christ I live, for in my place He died.

Chorus:
I cling to Christ, and marvel at the cost:
Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God.
Bought by such love, my life is not my own.
My praise-my all-shall be for Christ alone.

His robes for mine: what cause have I for dread?
God’s daunting Law Christ mastered in my stead.
Faultless I stand with righteous works not mine,
Saved by my Lord’s vicarious death and life.

His robes for mine: God’s justice is appeased.
Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased.
Christ drank God’s wrath on sin, then cried “‘Tis done!”
Sin’s wage is paid; propitiation won.

His robes for mine: such anguish none can know.
Christ, God’s beloved, condemned as though His foe.
He, as though I, accursed and left alone;
I, as though He, embraced and welcomed home!

(His Robes for Mine by Chris Anderson and Greg Habegger ©2008 ChurchWorksMedia.com All rights reserved.)

Here is an insight into Chris Anderson’s understanding that has prompted this composition:

“Verse 3 focuses on the grand doctrine of propitiation, the fact that God’s wrath was not merely deflected from us by Christ, but was rather absorbed by Him in our place. Jesus Christ bore the infinite wrath of God against sin, satisfying God’s wrath and enabling sinners to be forgiven—and justly so. Isaiah 53:10-11 describes it this way: God looks on the travail of Christ’s soul and is satisfied by it. His wrath has been exhausted on Christ. The doctrine of propitiation is taught Isaiah 53, Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2 and 4:10, et al.” (source: http://blogs.mbu.edu/praisemen/songs/his-robes-for-mine-authors-thoughts)

I have a HUGE problem with the language used (and the theology implied) in this song: ‘Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage,’ ‘Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased,’ and ‘Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God’ among others.

But then I realise that this comes from that classic Biblical story:

A man who had two sons. One demanded his share of the inheritance and then went off and spent it, in a far country, on riotous and loose living. The father, enraged with a fiery anger against that son, took his brother and turned him over to the torturers and finally the executioner. Only when the elder brother had died, paying the penalty that the father demanded for the younger one’s disobedience, was the father able to open up his heart in love and welcome the younger son home and once again grant him the blessings of being a part of the family.

No, I don’t have that story in my Bible either. That, on so many levels, goes against my understanding of God. And if we understand Jesus to be the most accurate depiction we have of God in Scripture, then we must accept that God is loving and compassionate. He would forsake his own Son only as much as he would forsake us, his children. He would not demand a penalty to be paid vicariously any more than the father in the real parable would have demanded one son pay for the sin of another. That is a primitive view–a tribal understanding–of God rooted in a culture set in ancient history and grounded in stories handed down from generation to generation over fires and in marketplaces.

Many argue that this understanding of what took place at the cross is helpful to Christians in certain situations. Scot McKinght in his book A Community Called Atonement illustrates the many theories of atonement (Substitutionary Atonement being one) as being like a set of golf clubs where one club (say, a wedge) may be good for a particular situation (like, for example, if you land your ball in a sand trap), but not practical or helpful in others (as in driving). While this may be true in a metaphorical or illustrative sense (though this may be open to interpretation as well),  I don’t believe it is very helpful in explaining anything of the nature of God or God’s interaction with humanity.

The problem is that we have ‘Set the members of the Trinity against each other—as when the Son is described as the object of the Father’s wrath on the Cross. Others stretch the concept to charge that penal substitution language amounts to “divine child abuse”—where an angry, cosmic Father beats up his meek and helpless Son—hardly the biblical imagery of the relationship of the Father and the Son.’ (source: Christianity Today) God becomes a deity with a schizophrenic tendency or bipolar disorder (and, as we know, without proper medication, either one of these illnesses renders an individual quite unstable.)

Joking aside, if we accept that God is love—If we accept the story of the Prodigal Son to be an illustration of how that love works itself out in reality—then we must not be so hasty to take on the ‘traditional’ view of atonement as fact. Certainly, it can be argued, some of the New Testament authors seemed to believe this was so. But a look at Jesus and his revelation of who the Father is cannot be dismissed. Rather, it should be the cause of much joy, celebration and excitement: All are welcomed—sinners and saints, elder and younger brothers, tax-gatherers and Pharisees—not because Jesus satisfied an angry God, but that God has sought and found us and brought us into the embrace of love and grace.  Welcome home!

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