First of all, Happy New Year! Second of all, Happy Birthday to me! My birthday is today. (In case anyone feels the need to send me a gift, you can get in contact with me for my address.) Anyway, the New Year is a strange time. It is really no different than December 31st, or any other day of the year for that matter, yet people suddenly feel the motivation to change their lives and their circumstances. Nothing about January 1st makes them more likely to obtain that change, yet they feel that it does.
So I have decided to capitalize on this strange time of year by asking you to do just that: change. Specifically with something probably drastic for many people who would call themselves Christians. I want you to stop calling your atonement theory the Gospel. Maybe I should try that one more time in not such academic-nerd-speech. I want you to quit describing how you think the cross works as the Gospel.
Stop and think about that for a second, Think about what you would call the gospel. Now think about how you would say the cross works to save us. Was it the same thing? If the answer is yes, I want you to seriously give some thought to what I’m going to say. I might not be right, but the least you can do is pity me and give me a shot. Okay? Thanks!
Your atonement theory isn’t the only atonement theory
Or in other words, how you think Christ’s work on the cross effectively saves us is not the only way that it has been understood or talked about in the history of the Church. Again, stop and think about that. The way you think of the cross (most likely that God poured out His wrath upon His Son so that He would not do so on us) is not the only way that it has been talked about by the Church.
A lot of people are surprised to hear this. In fact that view is only about 500 years old. That is only 25% of church history (meaning from the time of Jesus until now). So for 75% of the time Christians have been around they have not thought about the cross in that way. In fact, the oldest view that we know of that was most widely held now goes by the name of “ransom to Satan.” In this view humanity was under slavery to Satan because it had sinned. Thus God sent Jesus as a payment to buy back humanity from him. This is taken from Jesus saying that He came to give His life as a ransom for many.
Many of us today would say that is silly. God doesn’t owe Satan anything. He doesn’t need to pay off Satan. God is greater than him. God doesn’t answer to him and would never need to meet Satan’s demand to save anyone. Now while I agree with this, we still have to acknowledge that at one point this was the way people thought the cross worked. This is the answer you would get if you asked some of the Church fathers what happened on the cross.
Okay, so why does that matter?
I’m glad you asked!
If the Gospel is your atonement theory that means the church has been wrong about the Gospel at least at some point.
See what I’m getting at? Let’s say the Gospel is the description of what happened on the cross, and it very well may be. We now have a problem. If what I described earlier about Jesus bearing the wrath of God is right and it is the Gospel, then that means the Church has, at the very least, been greatly off track with the gospel (maybe even flat out wrong) for 75% of its existence. Yikes! Now perhaps that is true and we need to bite that bullet, but I think there is an easier solution to this problem.
The Gospel transcends atonement theories.
By that I mean the Gospel is bigger than any given description of the inner-workings of the cross. Now, not everyone would perhaps agree with the way that I would articulate the Gospel (if you’re interested in reading a little more about that then you can click here). But what I do hope we can agree on is that it definitely isn’t describing the way the cross worked. Rather I think we need to understand that the Church has had a lot of different ways of talking about how the cross “saves.” But they have always been in unison in claiming that the cross and resurrection is where man is reconciled back to God.
We might never understand exactly how the cross functions. Or, on the other hand, maybe we already have. Maybe the last 25% has finally nailed it. But I’m not comfortable with completely trusting that. I am much more confident with stating the bigger truth any theory tries to explain, being that when we look at the cross we can say thank you. In some way Jesus brings man back to God by hanging on a cross, being in the grave, and being raised from the dead.
The litmus test for what is truly Christian for the majority of Church history has been the Apostle’s Creed. This creed doesn’t even begin to have a discussion on atonement theories. If your way of understanding the cross is so essential to the faith and the gospel then it should be expected to have a central place in defining what someone needs to affirm to be truly Christian, but it doesn’t. Let that sink in.
I am with Paul when he says,
“For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins
according to the Scriptures,
that He was buried,
that He was raised on the third day
according to the Scriptures,
and that He appeared to Cephas,
then to the Twelve.
Then He appeared to over 500 brothers at one time;
most of them are still alive,
but some have fallen asleep.
Then He appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one abnormally born,
He also appeared to me.” (1 Cor. 15:3–8)
We might understand how “dying for sins” works a little differently, but we all agree that is what happened. By this point I might be overstating my case. But I’m happy to keep beating that dead horse because I think it’s important. The Gospel is not any way of understanding the cross. We need to widen our lens. Next time you think of the Gospel or look to tell it, take into account that it is much bigger than your understanding of the cross, and it is much bigger than my understanding.
Join Peter in proclaiming that Christ has died, been raised, and is now Lord over all! (Acts 2:36)
Now if you’ve made it all the way to this point (congratulations by the way, I know my writing isn’t always easy to sit through. Next time take a Facebook break) I hope you’ve at least been given something to think over during the start of 2016.
Now whether you agree with me or not, my hope for all of us in this new year is that the message of the Messiah would dwell richly in our hearts.