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!

Losing Faith

I don’t know about you, but I have a faith problem. My faith problem is simply that I often lose my faith. It’s not a matter of maintaining appearances–I can do that awesomely; after all, I am a pastor’s son. I can look happy and spirit-filled at the drop of a hat.

No, this is far deeper, raw and honest; it’s a place where I find myself all too often.

Maybe it’s the books I read. People have said stuff to me like, “Don’t read (insert name here)’s books. Your faith can’t last if you expose yourself to such dangerous ideas.” Maybe its the blogs I visit and the topics they discuss like post-evangelicalism, post-modernism, post-Darwinian thought, post-Christian, post-colonialism, etc. Maybe its the stuff I put in my ears–words that tell me I need to think freely, have an open mind, be more inclusive, love more/hate less. . . .

Regardless, apart from the fact that there are certainly elements of danger every time I open my mind to entertain a new thought, I would say the greater danger remains in trying to maintain a status quo, an attachment to a system that just doesn’t work and is losing its credibility more each day. I can’t buy into the Evangelical culture any more than I can buy into consumerism, wanton capitalism, or corporate warmongering.

Ideals aside, it’s still Good Friday (and I digress).

Today we remember the cross, the sacrifice of Jesus, the rigged execution of the God-man who came to be revered as Lord,  King and Saviour.

It is a dark day and, perhaps, “Good” Friday is too sanitised a version of this story. This particular day was horrible, terrible, dark, depressing. It was a  time of pain, of loss, of an end to a promise. . . .

The disciples fled.

The women wept.

The soldiers mocked.

The earth kept spinning into night and the one who promised it all had died.

God had left the building.

There was no more promise, no more hope, no more kingdom.

Sometimes I feel like I’m living that day.

Sometimes my faith gives way to anger, pain, regret. Too often God is distant,  silent, unknowing and uncaring. This is my own personal Good Friday . . . or Monday,  or Thursday, or Sunday. . . .

How about you?

(To be continued)

Christ

I cannot talk about the season of Advent–or any season on the church calendar–without speaking of Jesus. He is the centre of all Christian celebrations.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, or Sarcastic Lutheran (as she is known on her blog) preached the following on Christ the King Sunday:

Yet when it comes down to it the most reliable way to legitimately know anything at all about the nature of God is to look to how God chose to reveal God’s self in Christ.  And most notably we see who God is in how God chose to reveal God’s self on the cross.  And just to be clear: The cross is not about God as divine child abuser sadly sending his little boy off to be killed because we were bad and well, somebody had to pay.  Because the irony about viewing the cross this way is that the whole thing was about God saying  pay attention – don’t avert your eyes from the cross.  This this is the logical end of your value system. Here is where it will always end. In the suffering of God.  Here is the extent I will go says God to defy your idea of me as a vengeful God.  If you think I am about smiting your enemies then think again for I will not lift even a finger to condemn those who hung me. I will simply not be known as the God of vengeance.  I will simply not allow you to project your puffed up human traits on me as though I’m a bigger better version of the best parts of you or a bigger badder version of the worst parts of you

On the cross we don’t see a legal transaction where Jesus pays our debt.  We see God. The Word made flesh hangs from the cross. And let there be no mistake – this is Christ the King. And while his scornful and shameful death is insulting to our idea of a king and a God the divine royalty of Christ is simply unassailable.  by us or anyone else.  because sometimes things are so holy that they cannot be desecrated try as we might.

In the previous chapter of Luke as Jesus sits at table sharing his last supper with his friends they break out in an argument over who will be the greatest.  Jesus says “the greatest of you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves…I confer on you says Jesus to his faltering friends “I confer on you a kingdom so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and you will sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.

Even Jesus speaks of his kingdom and of thrones and judgment.  Yet today on Christ the king Sunday we see that Christ’s kingdom is comprised of thieves and Christ-deniers.  Today on Christ the King Sunday we see our king enthroned yet the throne is not one of gold and jewel but of  blood and puke stained wood and the crown is not one of gold and jewel but of twisted thorn. And as his crown is piercing his brow it is from here the King of Glory judges the world who put him on a cross.  From his rough hewn throne of a cross Jesus looks at the world…those who betrayed him, those who executed him those who loved him and those who ignored him and he judges it all.  The pronouncement is made and the judgment is ….forgiveness.  Forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing is, as my friend Justin reminded me this week,  an eternally valid statement. From his cross Christ the King loves the betrayer, the violent, the God killer in all of us. Because his divine self was unmockable.  Protected and apart and unmanipulatable by our opinions and value systems.  And it finally is only a God who enters our human existence and suffers our insults with only love and forgiveness who can save us from ourselves.  It is only a self-emptying God who walked among  as Christ Jesus, who, in the words of St Paul, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,  humbled himself to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Read the entire sermon here).

*   *   *

Brian McLaren on The Propitiation Question:

. . . [T]he question itself is problematic because it rests on assumptions about God and God’s nature that need to be examined. Many of us saw that – to use your terms – there is original blessing in the Bible, and there is the reality of sin – and it doesn’t make sense to minimize one to magnify the other. That made a lot of us look for a deeper question – and for me, that question is, “What is the biblical narrative really about?” If it’s about “sin management” – dealing with the “problem” of sin as a legal problem, we’ll read the Bible in one way. If it’s about creation, liberation, reconciliation (and, I might add, incarnation) … we’ll read the Bible differently.

So what is your straight, non-sidestepping, no-holds-barred take on “The Propitiation Question?”

The best way I can reply, since I think the category of propitiation is often defined within an unhelpful and other-than-biblical narrative, is in the form of some questions:
1. Who was the primary audience for the suffering and death of Jesus? Was it intended to bring about a change in God, or in us? Since I don’t think God needs to change, but rather we do, I’d vote for the latter.

2. Where do we centrally locate God the Father on good Friday – in and with the political and religious leaders, condemning and torturing Jesus? Or in Jesus, suffering injustice with and for us? Again, I’d vote the latter.

3. Does Jesus, in some mysterious way, absorb/redirect the hostility of God towards us, or the hostility of us towards God? Again, I’d vote for the latter. (I think this is what C. S. Lewis was after in his idea of “the perfect penitent.”)

In each case, perhaps a case could be made for the former; there are ways we could say there is truth in the former. But I think the weight of meaning is found in the latter option. Many people see everything from within the conventional narrative and so they can’t even imagine Jesus being important apart from it, and that’s a major reason why, I think, they are so adamant in defending it.

Salvation

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...
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“If we are to be God’s people together, we must make room for conversations that we may not always agree with, but which allow all who are on the same journey a voice and a right to say, think and believe.”

Salvation is one of those often-used words in Christianity that can have so many different meanings and nuances of meaning. The most-often used is that of being “saved” from sin. I seems to go without saying in Evangelical circles that salvation is THE entire purpose of Jesus’ advent and death, and that this salvation is a personal and individual act of praying a certain prayer to “invite Jesus come into your life.”

I must confess that I am questioning a lot of the underlying modern-day assumptions about this teaching. Further, I need to admit that I don’t see a solid Biblical basis for a good amount of teaching on this subject. Rather, I’m afraid I see things such as “the sinner’s prayer,” “a personal Saviour” and “inviting Jesus in” as quite recent additions to the church’s historic understanding of salvation.

And whilst I am thinking about these things, I must also consider how much of what I believe is based on the paradigm I have been brought up to embrace.

Here is a conversation with a few questions which I read recently on another blog:

[Question:] I guess what I’m wrestling with is the question “Does Jesus play a crucial role in our salvation?” Consider this: What if Jesus had never been born and life for the Jews had progressed, or regressed, on into the 1st century and beyond? Could we still be reconciled to God and others? Couldn’t we realise our error, recognise God’s wisdom and repent? Or did we need a personal Savior? Or consider that Jesus had never been crucified, lived to be an old man, fell and broke his hip and died of pneumonia in the hospital. Couldn’t we still be reconciled with God and others without him dying on the cross?

[Response:] This is a serious and important question, and I don’t think I could do it justice without writing a whole Christology … To some degree, I think you’re asking about “penal substitutionary atonement theory” . . .  Let me try to rephrase your questions like this:

Was the only reason Jesus came to save us from the wrath of God, to avert God’s wrath so we wouldn’t be tormented in hell forever?

Which is related to this question:

Does Jesus offer anything of value besides his blood to assuage the wrath of God?

Which is related to this question:

Is God unable to forgive sin without inflicting pain on someone?

When facing questions like these, you make a choice before you even start answering: do you try to answer these questions within conventional paradigms . . . or outside them? In my experience, when you step out of conventional paradigms, the questions begin to evaporate and different questions present themselves, questions like these:

What would it mean for God to be revealed in a vulnerable human being who is tortured and killed by religious and political elites?

If Jesus had never revealed God “in the flesh” as he did, what would we not know today?

In what ways does Jesus’ death intensify and strengthen our call to repentance and transformation?

I know I will be labelled as a heretic by some simply for the reason that I am giving a voice to someone’s questioning an important Biblical truth. I don’t think that’s fair, but you are fully within whatever right you think you may have to do so.

If, however, your criteria for orthodoxy is broad enough (and I hope it is) to include all who confess to a historic faith as stated in The Apostles’ Creed, then let me say that I affirm with full conviction every statement made in the Creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Amen.

Maybe it’s time we put our labels aside and look at the content of the heart (in the words of Dr King) rather than the colour of our theology-skin (possibly this is not so good a picture, but the thought is there).

If we are to be God’s people together, we must make room for conversations that we may not always agree with, but which allow all who are on the same journey a voice and a right to say, think and believe. We may see a doctrine in a different way, or express our opinion using different words or shades of meaning. And, in allowing one another freedom to discover the faith for themselves, we may just find that they have something to share that would be of value to us on our own journey.

That is, if we determine we are on a journey and not willing to settle into a lonely existence where only one voice–our voice–is heard.

Atonement Theories

If you’re interested in the various theories of atonement, or perhaps simply want to know the difference between the Ransom, Penal/Substitutionary and Moral Influence theories, http://www.conversationsjournal.com published an excerpt of an interview with Dallas Willard (whom they refer to as ‘America’s C.S. Lewis’). You can read the interview here.

A quote at the end of the article stood out to me:

‘These are just incredibly terrible images of God, and you end up with people who are thinking the miracle is that God loves me. No, no—the miracle would be if He didn’t love you because He is a God of love, not a God of wrath who occasionally “lets up.”’

Praise God for his wonderful love!

Nick & Josh

I just found this podcast via Emergent Village. It’s quite challenging and sometimes confronting, even though it seems like it’s recorded on a phone line. The current episode features a three-way interview with Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle and Bishop John Shelby Spong. The major discussion topic is where Christianity has seen change in the lifetime of these three and where they see hope for the future. The discussion takes a side track speaking about atonement and the reason for Jesus’ death which, of course, Bishop Spong enjoys speaking his (rather controversial to Evangelicals) views rather than listening to the other two. I think Bishop Spong talks too much but has some fascinating perspectives– and some things I just can’t agree with. Have a listen via iTunes or on the Nick & Josh website.