This is a condensed version of the ‘What the Atonement Did” series I wrote a few years back. This version appeared in the March 2007 edition of Next-Wave.
We evangelical Christians talk a lot about atonement stories, throwing out theories of penal substitution, ransom, recapitulation, and so on. These are all good, but, this is all talk about the mechanics of salvation: how it works… how God did what He did… how we are forgiven. The hows are important to think about, but they must not replace the what: what Jesus’ sacrifice did… what it accomplishes in our lives… what hope it makes real to us.
If that last paragraph seems nebulous, let me put it this way: we talk a lot about how the car works (the parts and their functions, the gas millage it gets, the way internal combustion works inside the engine, etc…) but we are scarcely talking about why the car was made in the first place, namely to transport us around.
Maybe it’s just me; maybe everyone else is hearing conversations about what atonement is and not just how it works. All I know is a very important word seems to be missing from our speech when it comes to verbalizing the atonement: reconciliation.
In 2 Corinthians 5.18-21, this is the word Paul chooses to define the service God has given him (and us) to do. Paul’s entire proclamation of the good news is centered upon God reconciling us and the world to himself (2 Corinthians 3.4-18). This is the “what” that the atonement accomplished, this is salvation. I want to look specifically at two texts that can help us focus on what atonement accomplished as we continue to explore and talk about the different atonement theories/stories.
Simon Peter’s Second sermon (Acts 3.1-26)
Tragedy does not process well. We constantly need a reason that bad things happen, be they hurricane, the death of a loved one, or a baby born into this world broken in a physical way. To our minds, these things are judgments from God because of some misconduct. One of the clearest expressions of this type of thinking is the question posed by the disciples when they encountered a man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9.2) Jesus responds to this compulsion to declare others unworthy with story (Luke 18.9-14) and deed (John 9.3-41), and exposes it as the ungodliness it truly is.
Just outside the gateway into the temple, Peter and John find a man whom I’m sure plenty of people who passed by him every day keep thinking about what sin he or his parents must have committed in order to be judged in such a tragic way. He is a physically broken man, and this brokenness keeps him from entering the temple to pray with the rest of the people of God.
Peter addresses the man and gives him the reality of the power of the glorified Christ. What more dynamic way to announce “Yahweh has reconciled man to Himself” than to take away what people see as a separation from God due to some “unworthiness”? This is more than just some “power evangelism” tactic. It is an acting out of the invitation for all who are spiritually broken to come and be friends with this God who has reconciled man to Himself (2 Corinthians 5.20-21).
Peter’s first words to the astonished crowed stand in stark contrast to the notion that man’s power and piety earn God’s favor. This once broken man now leaps in praise only because of Jesus, the God-man. Faith in the authority, total character, and work of Jesus Christ is the only reason this man now has perfect health (vs 16). Make no mistake: it is all about Jesus, and Peter and John are no more than ambassadors on behalf of Jesus. Their message is from Jesus and the deeds done are an extension and affirmation of all that he has accomplished: reconciliation.
The core of the evangelistic (think proclamation of good tidings, not proselytizing) call to respond to the name and work of Jesus is found in the call to repent (vs 17-21). These verses give us the heart of reconciliation: God has come not to bridge the gap between us and He, but rather to erase the chasm all together (blotting our sins out), bring us new life (times of refreshing), and to include us in the shalom He is establishing (the time for restoring all things). This is offered for all who will repent and turn to God, and this is exactly what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 5.18-19. Simon’s second speech (and the miracle that sparks it) points us toward the reality of reconciliation. It gives us a picture of the reconciliation that the person and action of Jesus actually accomplished.
John’s definition of love (1 John 4.7-21)
A life that has been reconciled to God is called to commune with other people in a way that teaches the world the shalom that God originally established. To put it another way, we who have been reconciled to God are those now called to love-one another.
Genesis 1.31 records God as looking over the finished work of creation, complete with the crown jewel of humanity, and being satisfied and pleased. Adam and Eve lived deeply with God and had a whole relationship with Him and each other. The fact that there was community between people was and essential part of God’s very good creation. Everything was as it was suppose to be… for at least a few lines of the story. Then the original shalom was broken, and from Genesis 3.6 on the situation we find ourselves in is where reconciliation is needed. (3.6-8) Our first action in this state of need is ashamedness and fear: we are ashamed of our naked self before other humans and we now fear the presence and intimacy of Yahweh.
Unashamed nakedness in the Genesis story is not about clothing. It is about acceptance, or (more accurately) communion in love with others. See, before the need of reconciliation, man and woman were naked and unashamed. Moments after entering the state of sin, they were self aware of the exclusion they risked in others eyes. The need to hide our nakedness is a self-oriented awareness that will attack others when their nakedness and flaws show in the hopes that no one will notice how naked and flawed I am. We hide. We point and blame. We excuse and justify ourselves, all in hopes that someone else will suffer exclusion so that we can still be OK, still be accepted (Genesis 3.9-13). This is the state of companionship humans now share, and this is not what God called good. We were not meant to engage in this self serving posturing trying to preserve what good image we think we have fooled man and God into seeing.
Agape is God’s answer to both issues raised in the garden: ashamedness and fear.
Loving-one-another is God’s command to His people. We do not do this based off of a small idea of love, as if it was a warm fuzzy or some stoic action of discipline “for their own good”. We are called to love-one-another as God has loved us. The word for this is agape, and it has been displayed before us in the death of the incarnate Son of God: Jesus the Christ. Loving-one-another is equated with knowing and loving God. Loving-one-another is the reconciled response to the ashamedness before others and is based upon the manifestation of agape that is Jesus’ accomplishment of the reconciliation of us to God.
Fear and Friendship (2 Corinthians 5.18-21)
Just as our fig loin cloths did nothing to heal our ashamed-ness, hiding could never take away the fear we have of intimacy with Yahweh. We were made to abide in Him and to have Him abide in us. This cannot ever happen if we fear. So, Jesus reconciles us to God, and that reconciliation ushers us into the reality of the un-earned, relentless love that Yahweh has toward humanity. John is urging us to stay here, to abide in this agape. Put down your bags, take off your coat, and just stay for this is the home you were created for. Fear? There’s no place for that here.
We fear intimacy with God because He is judge and we know it. I can’t even handle judgment from people, let alone God excluding me from His table. And this is the heart of our fear: exclusion.
Adam hid in the garden God had planted for him because he couldn’t face up to the fact that he was cut off and had no place to abide. He tried to pawn his exclusion off on Eve by passing the blame in hopes that judgment would fall on her instead. She in turn passed it off to the snake, and we all have been passing around the blame ever since. We saw Peter address this sinful human habit in Acts 3 and here John whispers hope to our hungry hearts.
Jesus accomplished reconciliation between God and man. In other words, there is nothing to fear because Jesus took our sins away, opened the way to our only true home, and made us friends with the Most High God!
We have nothing to fear because God is not waiting to punish us for our bad deeds, and neither is He waiting to see if we are good enough to get into the cool kid clique. He is offering us what he created us to have: intimacy with our creator. This is reconciliation; It is the imposable-to-earn, relentless love that Yahweh has for you, me, and everyone who has ever had the spark of life. When we are talking about how salvation works, we can’t ever forget that salvation is based only and completely upon the agape Yahweh has for us.
In the passage we started with, Paul told us that the only message we have to proclaim is this: God has reconciled man to Himself, therefore we entreat you to become a friend of God. We have seen how Simon Peter demonstrates the reality of this reconciliation and invites people to come and take part in it. John spoke to us about the reason God reconciled man to Himself. He told us God’s agape casts out our fear, bringing us intimately close to God, and that we should therefore agape one another.
This all is a really big deal. If we choose to ignore it we are choosing to ignore the hope Abba God has been whispering to us ever since the garden. Reconciliation is about relationship: restored deep, whole, and healthy relationship with Yahweh and the first bloomings of unashamed, naked relationships with other people. This is what the atonement accomplished. We must reorient our hearts and minds to embrace the whole picture of “what the atonement accomplished” rather than just the myopic view(s) of “how atonement works”.
Still, we can never lose sight of the atoning sacrifice that is Jesus. If in our eagerness to embrace reconciliation we skip over Jesus’ death and resurrection, we do injustice to the very idea of reconciliation, and choose to embrace the injustice of universalism. If we decentralize the Cross of Christ in any way, we quickly find ourselves off balance and out of step with Abba’s dance of salvation. The relationship reconciliation brings about is only possible because of the atonement.
Peter, Paul, and John all saw it: Jesus’ death did something that can only be described as salvation. To truly believe in the reality of God’s reconciliation of man to Himself is to embrace Jesus as the reason we can stand in this grace. It is to shout praises no matter the sufferings we face because of the hope poured into us through the Holy Ghost. And what is this hope? This hope is that just as the blood of Christ (Jesus’ death on the cross) has wiped us clean from sin, the reality that Jesus now lives gives us blessed assurance that we are at peace with our Abba God, who is steadfast love but does not leave injustice unpunished (Exodus 34.5-8).
This is the only/best hope of all! Take this truth deep into your heart: while you were an enemy of God and had nothing to offer and no ability to offer anything anyways, Yahweh did the unthinkable: He acted where you couldn’t! You couldn’t make yourself right with Him, so God Himself made you right with Him by dying so that you would live, and then living again to give you the hope of a life that is forever in friendship with God.This is what Paul means when he stated “Jesus our Lord… who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification”. This is what Jesus our atonement sacrifice did so that you and I and all humanity might be reconciled with God.
The entire scope of reconciliation is huge, yet it all rests on one man: Jesus, our atoning sacrifice. We cannot ever divorce reconciliation from the event that caused reconciliation to be real. Like wise, we cannot become so convinced that we can box the atonement into our explanation of its mechanics that we forget what Jesus did for us while we are still in our weakness. Jesus is our hope, and it is through Him alone that we boast, sing praises, shout, and keep in a general state of Hallelujah to the Glory of Yahweh, our Abba God.