2 – Atonement Theology and the Early Church

Home Learning Hub Early Church & Discipleship 2 – Atonement Theology and the Early Church
It’s amazing that we have said that the Gospels do not contain a coherent atonement theology. In evangelicalism, we have typically assigned such theology to Paul. This has left us with a rather technical and legal construct on atonement, largely impoverished, without the inclusion of the much richer Gospel accounts. The resultant atonement theory seems almost disconnected to our real life, irrelevant to the human condition, and unable to inform genuine living in our world.

Scouring through the Gospels for “Paul’s atonement teaching,” we don’t see much. There is the statement of Jesus, that he “didn’t come to be served, but to serve and to give himself as a ransom for many.” But this isn’t a rescue from an angry God, as we have said Paul teaches. This is a rescue from satan, the kidnapper, the law in our conscience, who demands the ransom.

Christ’s Cross Self Explained

There is also the Lord’s Supper in Luke, where Jesus shares the bread and the wine, his body and blood. If we interpret this backwards from our view of Paul, we take this as the satisfaction of God’s own legal demands, rather than Jesus calling us into his self-giving, to share life with the world. The new covenant is one of grace, which we are called to share, replacing the law of retribution in our hearts. A legal view of the atonement truncates it significantly, almost deleting its entire meaning.

The drama continues to unfold in John. Here, the model of the cross begins with foot washing. This counter culture of service is set in the developing background of worldly politics and the rise of the satan, of accusation, treachery and scapegoating. The final piece in this drama is the injustice of both the religious and political worlds, failing to stand with Jesus as the innocent outcast.

This is the drama in which our atonement theology is set. Atonement, the substitution of Christ into our violent worldly systems, to become the guilty scapegoat in our place, reveals the world’s false claim to justice, and exposes its satanic base. It exposes our violent hearts and cultures, at the root of our religious and political practices, that bring injustice to the weak and death to the world.

True atonement theology exposes us today. It shows that our religions and nations still often fail to come to the aid of the outcasts of our world. We still excuse this with the same rational we see in the Gospels, that of self-preservation. But seeing atonement theology as it really is, exposing the scapegoating satan in our relationships, opens us to the possibility of reconciliation to the true God, of real discipleship, and even the possibility of world transformation.

The history in which the cross of Christ played out, in the politics of religion and state power, explains its meaning. Ignoring this history, and seeking its meaning in some other theology, misses the point. By becoming our substitute, Christ opens us to see a new king, a new way of kingdom, of service instead of injustice.

Atonement in the Gospels

The best way to understand the atonement is to look at the history in which it is set. This history explains it. The history isn’t one of God visiting his wrath on Jesus, but one of God coming among his people in Christ and being rejected. The wrath and rejection was entirely by us humans. God’s part was to forgive, to show patient endurance, rather than retaliation.

The atonement we see in the Gospels is one where Christ puts himself in our place. Not in the place of the rich and powerful, but in the place of the rejected and outcast, in the place of sinners. This starts with his conception out of wedlock.

Already, he is identifying with the rejected sinner, the woman cast aside by the religious society. He bares the prostitute’s sin, by being identified with her and suffering her rejection from the community, as if it were a covenant exile. This represents Israel’s exile under the Old Covenant for their sin. Jesus identifies with Israel’s covenant rejection, demanded by the accuser.

“He was despised and rejected… surely he took our pain and bore our suffering. Yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgression and crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him and by his wounds we are healed.”

Likewise, with the woman caught in adultery. Jesus identified with her in her sin. In the face of the Pharisees, he took her shame upon himself. He bore her reproach. It was the same with the man born blind, and the leper. By identifying with these people, Jesus bore their estrangement from the community. He put himself in their place. He bore their sin, by which the law and the community had cursed them.

Free Forgiveness

And in doing this, he gave to these same people the free love and forgiveness of God. This isn’t a love that leaves the sinner the same, as the Pharisees charged, as we also often charge. Jesus answered, “He that is forgiven much, loves much.” They saw in Jesus the acceptance of God coming to them. This is how his atonement, his coming into our place and taking our sin, changes our hearts.

Think of the prostitute who washed his feet with her tears, or the woman who poured perfume on his head. Their reproach from the accuser fell upon Jesus, and the authorities, those who controlled the classes and wealth, wanted to kill him. Think how this has sometimes enlightened leadership in our time, drawing leaders towards the poor. This was done at the cost of the incarnation, in which God bore our sin, became our substitute, to bring us relief.

He went to sinners’ homes, sharing their shame. He said to the outcast, “Your sins are forgiven you, take up your bed and walk.” He was rejected for identifying with the sick, but the sick received forgiveness and new life. The forgiveness was free. As for the Prodigal son, no offering was made. God forgave without any compensation for the law or for his honour.

Atonement on the Cross

Eventually the hostile crowd could stand it no more. They turned on Jesus, who loved the common person. All their wrath against sin, all the wrath of the law in their hearts, was vented against Jesus in our place. All their hatred for us landed on him. And it was our own hatred too. It is in all our hearts. And what did Jesus do? He forgave it instantly and freely on the cross. God, in Christ, bore our sin and forgave it.

So, if there is any Prodigal Son’s brother, who feels God isn’t righteous and must execute the law against sinners, God can say to that satan, that he has borne it for us all. He has delivered us from the law, from the wrath of God, which satan, seated in our own conscience, demands. God forgives us. He takes the law out of our hearts, and puts grace in its place.

Discipleship and Atonement

It wasn’t just Jesus who bore the reproach meant for sinners. It was also Mary and Joseph, with child before marriage. It was also his disciples, who identified with God’s free forgiveness and began to take the estranged and rejected into their homes. It happens to us today, when we take in the enemies of our nation and show them freely the love of God, no matter the propaganda or theology 14 against them. We take in the rejected and often suffer for it. This is genuine atonement theory, working in our own daily lives.

Atonement in the Sermon on the Mount

It’s amazing that we could attempt to establish a theory of the atonement without Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Here, Christ gives the rational for his work, his redeeming way of life. Everything we understand about his atoning life is explained in this sermon. Whether we look forward to Paul, or back to the Old Testament, it is in this sermon that atonement comes to light.

His teaching is set within the Jewish context of the Passover, the Exodus from Egypt. This is what the Jews were hoping for again, this time from Rome and their other enemies. The Passover was achieved by a substitute, coming between them and the destroying angel. The substitute took the wrath of the enemy in himself, which is what Jesus did throughout his entire ministry and death.

Our Exodus into Love

The sermon begins with what we call the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the merciful, those who mourn, who thirst for justice and work for peace. These are the ones who look for another way of life, different to the self-centeredness of the Egyptian and Roman system. These are the ones Jesus makes atonement for.

But for those who are full, who cling to the present conditions, whose investments are too committed, who aren’t looking for the Exodus, the atonement means nothing. They don’t recognize it. Their hope is not in looking for a kingdom of justice in community, but in clinging to the advantage they have. Their certitude is in the world’s system of economics, which brings division to humanity.

Into this world of brutal justice, Jesus steps as our Passover. It takes the lamb of God, the spotless lamb, to open our eyes. By siding with the outcasts of the world, the foreigner, the sick, the poor, the women and the sinners, Jesus draws against himself the wrath of the self-centred powers. This substitution, this putting of himself in the place of the outcast, opens our eyes to the injustice of our world.

And it announces that the new Exodus has begun.

Reconciled with God

We leave our Egypt, to embrace the shema, to love God with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves (Deut 6:4-5, Mark 12:29-31). The resurrection of Christ brings this movement to its zenith. It shows that God rejects the injustice of our world, by overturning its verdict of crucifixion. This reveals the new world God is building, on a new justice of mercy. There is a new rule, “freely you have received, freely give.”

The perfect lamb, without spot, takes the judgement of the world, showing the world’s bankruptcy. This atonement, this standing in our place to take the wrath of the world, brings us back to God. It strikes at our heart, sets us free from the world’s blinding selfishness, and the death it brings, and calls us almost irresistibly to follow Christ out of Egypt to our neighbour.

Every time we cast aside the weak, fail to care for the homeless, re-establish our world divisions, neglect those suffering injustice, we are repeating what we did to Christ. Our hearts respond to his Spirit, we are called out of this system, to embrace a new way of living, a new vision, a new way of looking at our world. We are now reconciled with God, because this is who he is.

Redemptive Discipleship

The rational of atonement is seen throughout the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus calls his disciples to his form of redemptive living. He insists on us taking up our cross. This is where the cross/ atonement theology of Christ is laid open. When we turn our cheek, go the second mile, forgive and serve our enemies, we are drawing them into a renewed relationship. Whether this works or not, it is the nature of God. This is how God responds to his enemies, whether they receive him or not.

This way of living is reconciling. This is what Jesus did on the cross. He reconciled us to God by taking our punishment against him, and forgiving it. Instead of retaliating, he opened the possibility of new relationship. In forgiving us, he drew us back into the presence of God. The cross was the place where the wrath of the law, the wrath of God in our own hearts, was expunged. We acted in wrath and instead of getting law and wrath in return, we received grace.

This is the reconciling life God calls his disciples to follow. When the world acts against us, instead of countering wrath with wrath, we counter it with grace. This disarms the wrath. It brings down the principalities and powers of wrath in our hearts and systems. It pours coals or fire upon them. God’s form of redemption and reconciliation is outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon explains the cross of Christ and calls us to follow him as his disciples.

Legal Demand Overturned

Rather than the cross being God’s demand for wrath against sin, the Sermon on the Mount teaches the opposite. We certainly must read this before we go to Paul’s teaching on the atonement. The cross isn’t the wrath of God, but God’s answer to our wrath. Jesus taught, “It has been said, ‘an eye for an eye,’ but I say to you, turn the other cheek. If anyone sues you for your shirt, give him your coat as well.”

Jesus threw out our human demand for justice. He set up a new world. Not the knowledge of good and evil, where we accuse each other, but free forgiveness, where we seek to restore and justify each other. If Jesus taught us not to demand legal justice, compensation for the law, why would God demand legal payment for sin on the cross?

Jesus taught us to forgive freely, without payment, because this is what our heavenly Father does.

Throughout the sermon, Jesus teaches his disciples his own redemptive practices. Retribution, from our personal views of legal justice, produces a world of hurt, where violence and injustice go on in a vicious cycle. So, we abandon that form of justice, and take up the form we see on the cross of Christ. Self-giving for others, forgiveness, without one word of plea for self.

Birthing a New World

We correct others, by instead correcting ourselves. We see to the log in our eye, and this is an example, a calling for others to follow. This is like Rene Girard’s memetic desire teaching. People mimic the violence and self-righteousness of others. So, we set up a new life to mimic, one of selfcorrection. If people follow this, we don’t have to correct others. This takes our self-righteousness and violence out of the system. If people don’t follow it, we still follow it, because God does.

Jesus teaches us how to draw enemies into a reconciled living, instead of fighting against them. The way of fighting, which Israel followed all through the Old Testament, didn’t help. It sowed injustice, which always brought up a new round of enemies in the future. We tried the way of law, the way we wanted, and it didn’t work. So now, this is God’s way, shown us through his incarnation.

The teachings of Jesus bring out the teachings of the Prophets, about justice through restoring the weak, rebuilding a reconciled community. In this community, healing takes over from war. “The fruit of justice shall be peace.” This is the core of Torah. It is the kingdom of God. The principle of it is the cross. As disciples, we copy and mimic Christ, taking up our cross to reconcile our local and global communities.

This is the cross Paul speaks about, which he calls us to follow in our relationships. If we start our atonement theology with Paul, without understanding his source in the Gospels, we get confused in our discipleship. We get confused about our image of God. Is God demanding legal compensation, or not? Does he demand the legal punishment of sin, or not? Is he calling us to accept a doctrine of atonement, or to radical atonement living as disciples, bringing healing to our world?

The point of the cross is to show us what our discipleship and new world look like. Christ substituted himself into our place, to take the violence of the world against the sinner and outcast, to forgive us all for what we did to him, to take law and judgement from our hearts, which we have used unjustly against the weak. He delivers us from the law, to live a new life of forgiveness, rejecting the divisions of our world powers, instead bringing mercy to the outcast, and hope to the world.

Non-pagan God

I think the problem with our theology, is that we think God’s justice involves his direct punishment of sin. “I am angry, but if I have a substitute to die in your place, I will forgive you.” This is the way of the gods, not the way of God. Christ came to reveal this pagan scapegoating, as nothing more than human injustice.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, God’s justice was that he forgave Israel, even when Israel turned against him. He came and took freely the sin of the world and our sin against the law in himself. His justice is that he isn’t like man. He doesn’t repay us as we have treated him. He shows mercy, he forgives. This is God’s justice and this is the justice he calls us to follow.

God’s just punishment against sin, is to allow sin to run its own course, that leads to death. But he does all he can to turn man from this course. He calls the church to be like him.