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My thoughts on the Atonement and imperatives for a Gospel Community

March 14, 2012

Without getting ensconced in the minutia of the theological debate, I’d like to contribute a brief thought to this larger discussion. You see, I don’t think we can under-estimate the importance of what was accomplished on the Cross and how it plays into the Gospel communities we are forming and sending out on mission. As I believe we all know, we want more than the right answers to important questions; we desire to embody those things within Christian community. And not just some of it but the fullest picture and expression of it. The Word became flesh. While we are not the “Incarnation,” we can become an incarnational Gospel presence.

But as with all things, we tend to gravitate towards the aspects we are most comfortable with or more fully appreciate.

Here is what I mean: While there have been a decent number of explanations of Atonement and what was accomplished through the Cross (see Scot McKnight‘s book called A Community Called Atonement for a brief, but good overview), by and large, there have been two pre-dominant and widely held views:

  • Penal Substitutionary (substitution in our place and forgiveness)
  • Christus Victor (Christ the Victor conquering all his enemies)

As you might know, there has been much discussion in the past few years from both sides of the aisle, and what I’ve come down to is this: It’s not choosing between either of these, it’s embracing that both of these are central to what Christ accomplished on the Cross.

Penal Substitutionary: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-15)

Christus Victor: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (the next verse, Colossians 2:16)

The dominant view of atonement for the first 300 years of the Church was Christus Victor. Was Penal Substitution still there? DEFINITELY. But it was weighted towards the former, not the latter. Clearly there was a shift, and particularly for evangelicals, there is a heavy weight now towards Penal Substitution.

We shouldn’t have to pick between the two but understand that any healthy, Biblically-based, ecclesiologically sound community is going to embody both aspects within the life of any Christian community.

Penal substitution is about forgiveness and being put back into right-standing with our Father, being ONE with Him again. Christus Victor is realizing the battle against sin, sickness, Satan, sadness and strife HAS BEEN WON! Jesus is our champion and that future is already breaking into our reality even now and he is asking as to participate in that reality with him. (That’s why Jesus so emphatically asks us to pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”)

In heaven there is no sin; in Jesus there is forgiveness.
In heaven there is no sickness; in Jesus there is healing.
In heaven there is no Satan; in Jesus there is deliverance.
In heaven there is no sadness; in Jesus we find joy.
In heaven there is no strife; in Jesus we find peace.

All of this was accomplished through the Cross.

So think about this through the lens of a Missional Community (MC)…a group of 20-50 people on mission together. We’ll use a more “radical” MC to prove the point.

Let’s say the Missional Community is looking for the Kingdom to be present within a network and they are seeking to bring the reality of what was accomplished on the Cross specifically to Prostitutes:

  • Penal substitution: God wants to forgive prostitutes and bring them back into right-relationship with him. He wants this so much that he doesn’t just want it for heaven…he wants it NOW! He wants to be ONE again with them right now, right here, today. But with the barrier of sin standing in the way, there must be pardon and forgiveness. Wouldn’t that be good news for a Prostitute? And what if there was a community that, acting as the Body of Jesus, released by his death and resurrection, could embody this forgiveness that one could taste, touch, feel, smell?
  • Christus Victor: There are systems of addiction and injustice that keep prostitutes in this profession, even for those that might want to escape this life. His death and resurrection are the means of deliverance from the chains of addiction and freedom from the systems of injustice. But our response is framed by the words of Jesus himself: “From the time of John the Baptist, the Kingdom has been forcefully advancing and violent men lay hold of it.” Our call is to receive the victory of the Cross and appropriate the power of the resurrection to see these chains broken and these systems overturned. Wouldn’t that be good news for a Prostitute? And what if there was a community that, acting as the Body of Jesus, released by his death and resurrection, would seek to end these systems of sin and injustice?

Our communities need to be a sign and foretaste of the fulfilled Kingom life that we share with God for all eternity. And it’s very good news that this life can begin today.

So if we’re going to talk about the Cross, it means we must talk about what was accomplished on the Cross in its’ fullness and what that means as we are living as the Body of Jesus.

We can’t settle for some of it. Jesus didn’t die for some it. He died for all of it.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. teddoering permalink
    March 14, 2012 3:16 am

    Needed this word today. Thanks for posting!

  2. March 14, 2012 3:52 am

    Great stuff…it’s always encouraging to find good, healthy, solid points of the “both/and” to embrace, instead of creating false, unnecessary “either/or” scenarios that hinder us from grasping & living out all the God has done & continues to do. Thanks Mike…

  3. March 14, 2012 4:10 am

    Awfully important stuff. I think there are actually two more aspects of the atonement. But first allow me to add to the more basic assumptions. Christus Victor is focused on Christ’s victory over Bondage. (Disease, fallen nature, etc.) Penal Substitution is the payment for True Moral Guilt that demands Justice but Christ is our Substitute.

    Those two are, I agree, critically important. Kallas adds Rebelion to the mix and says that the answer to Rebellion is Christ’s love that Converts sinners to Repent and turn around to a new life. Conversion is the favorite focus of Wesleyan Holiness Believers. Bondage and Victory is favored by Calvinists and Guilt with Justification of Catholics and Lutherans. (Not a perfect fit of course because none of us stay locked in to our theology.)

    I ad a fourth dimension of the Fallen state and a fourth dimension to the Atonement. The problem is Shame and the answer is Adoption in English but huotasia, or “Placed as an eldest son” in Romans 8:14. Shame in the Bible is not limited to low self esteem. It means very much what Asians mean when they discuss Shame; “A loss of face” that deeply indicates “Removal from the family Identity”.

    Shame is a corporate notion where Guilt is individual in meaning. When Adam and Eve sinned they had to leave the garden. Today, our sin brings a sense of being removed from God’s Family. Thus, repentance and confession are not enough to remedy the Shame one experiences in life. We must also renew our minds about huotasia and grasp the meaning of eternal life in God’s family. See my book, The Healing Release of the Holy Spirit at sweetenlife.com

  4. March 14, 2012 4:13 am

    I forgot to say that all four aspects of fallen nature and the atonement are paradoxically in play at all times and must be faced with the correct tools in order to advance in progressive healing and growth. (Sanctification)

  5. March 14, 2012 10:34 am

    Sounds like Covenant (Penal Substitution) and Kingdom (Christus Victor) to me. Someone should write a book about that 🙂

    Actually, until your post I had not seen the cross in C&K terms… many thanks for helping me join the dots!

  6. March 14, 2012 12:11 pm

    Good summation Mike. It strikes me, having participated in some of this debate in our small conference, that those who are really emotionally tied (and that IS the reality) to the more recent view have an investment in that view because it is very much an other worldly, future oriented reality. It doesn’t push us to deal with the coming of the kingdom now, where we live. Therefore it is less weighted incarnationally.

    Furthermore, it is more weighted toward the private, individual life. It is about MY life and MY salvation – thus the justice picture, and the responsibility and call to work for justice, to get involved with the broken people and systems around me, is not so strong.

    In other words, paradoxically, though the theology of the penal-sub view seems all about sin, it is so inwardly oriented that it allows me to avoid really talking about the impact of sin as sin pushes me toward ego-categories and away from social engagement – a separation we do not see in Jesus, Paul or in the Gospel writers.

    So yeah, we really need to live into both these understandings in order to avoid the worst problems of enculturation. The Gospel is so much more than life insurance, it moves us toward God’s kingdom shalom and to enacting the kingdom of justice under the Lordship of the Risen One.

  7. March 14, 2012 1:26 pm

    I don’t often leave a comment just to say how much I liked the post. But this is one time I’m doing just that. I’ve never subscribed to the either/or model and I really appreciate the way you’ve framed the conversation.

  8. March 14, 2012 2:34 pm

    C. Larry Shelton (who thinks in similar ways to Mike’s conclusions) has written a helpful academic book on linking atonement to the narrative of covenant, and then applying it to our 21st C mission context is: ‘Cross and Covenant – Interpreting the Atonement for 21st Century Mission’ (Paternoster 2005)

  9. March 14, 2012 10:22 pm

    Thank you for not only thinking theologically but for connecting the importance of our theology to our mission. 🙂

  10. March 23, 2012 2:33 pm

    Immense… Simply immense. Theology that’s accessible, meaningful without sacrificing its depth – well done Mike, a blessing to read.

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