Does Atonement Work?
Last week I finished Scot McKnight’s A Community Called Atonement and I’m nearly finished Mark Baker and Joel Green’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. Both of these books have been very helpful in articulating a view of the atonement that is broad and deep enough to address the depth of our need as human beings and as a planet. Both deal with the various theories of the atonement, both examine the limitations of human language and the role of metaphors, and both look at the relevant biblical texts. Both offer ways of thinking about and living into the atonement that are profoundly hopeful.
One of the most interesting questions from A Community Called Atonement is found in the first chapter: “does the atonement work?” On some understandings of the atonement, this question is impossible to answer this side of the eschaton. The only way to find out if the atonement “worked” for this or that person is to see if they make it to “heaven.” The efficacy of the atonement can only be verified in the next life.
What McKnight’s question suggests is that there are ways of discovering if the atonement “works” right now. It implies that the end game isn’t cognitive acceptance of a fact about the cosmos (Jesus died for your sins) but real concrete change in the world. This, not post-mortem bliss, is how we tell if the atonement “works.” McKnight laments the fact that in many cases the atonement simply isn’t working:
The bad news, the anti-gospel as it were, is that the claim Christians make for the atonement is not making enough difference in the real lives of enough Christians… as compelling proof of what the apostle Paul called “the truth of the gospel.” Does this new relationship with God really transform the individual? Does this work of Christ and the Spirit to forgive sins and empower Christians make them forgiving people or morally empowered people? Does the claim of the gospel extend to what can be observed in the concrete realities of those who claim to be its beneficiaries?
One the other end of the spectrum, it was interesting to see a commenter on a recent post from a “Christian Counter-Cult and Apologetics Ministry” draw attention to a very different discussion taking place at his site. It’s pretty standard stuff (you can follow the link trail from the comment if you’re so inclined) and even includes a bizarre conversation about whether or not someone who doesn’t believe (sufficiently? properly? whole-heartedly? gratefully enough?) in penal substitution could be saved (!). I didn’t read very much of it, but what I did see got me thinking.
The main question it provoked—and I’d be curious to hear your feedback on this—is this: how important do you think it is to God that we understand/articulate the nature of the atonement “correctly?“
In my brief scan of the comments section of the post written by my “counter-cult” friend, it seemed to me that for some folks, the absolutely crucial thing that God is after is that we have the correct understanding of precisely how the cross secures our salvation. There is a minimum cognitive requirement that we must bring to the table—we must believe the right things “rightly” enough. If we don’t, our salvation just may be in jeopardy (I’m not joking—I read comments to this effect in the post referred to above. Of course, these comments were cloaked in “only God can judge” language, but in the meantime suspicion certainly seemed warranted for those who dared to question the primacy of penal substitution).
I simply do not think that the primary standard by which God will judge us is the degree of certainty and cognitive clarity about the nature of the atonement that we manage to conjure up before we die. I cannot imagine God asking me, on judgment day, “did you manage to precisely calibrate your understanding of the atonement, giving sufficient prominence to penal substitution while allowing for the possibility that other (less central) metaphors were also operative?” I can (very easily) imagine God asking: “Did you do justly? Did you love mercy? Did you walk humbly? Did you love your neighbour as yourself? Did you give of yourself to the least of these?”
My sense is that if our answers to these latter questions are on an affirmative trajectory, that will be a good indication that the atonement has worked, is working, and will work.