Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Atonement Theory and Atonement Fact: Part II

Posted on March 25, 2014 by Howard Snyder

Way back in May 2013 I posted a Seedbed blog on atonement and promised a Part II. Since then people have been asking: When? Well, here it is.

The focus here is on a few specific biblical texts, but this is part of an ongoing larger discussion. (The original blog is here: http://howardsnyder.seedbed.com/2013/05/25/atonement-theory-and-atonement-fact-part-i/).

Atonement is woven all through Scripture. It is part of the large story of rescue, redemption, covenant, and the promise of creation restored that runs throughout the Bible and that centers above all in Jesus Christ.

There is of course an Old Testament theology of atonement, culminating in the great Day of Atonement. However my focus here in Part II is on some familiar New Testament passages that are and often cited when discussing God’s work through Jesus Christ in providing atonement for the sins of the world.

I focus especially on three passages: Hebrews 2:9-18 and 1 Peter 2:21-25 and 3:18. (Perhaps more later.) None of the texts I deal with is from Paul, unless Paul wrote Hebrews.

Hebrews 2:9, 14-18 – Destroying the Devil’s Work

But we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. . . .

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

The phrase “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” is clearly representational and substitutionary. It is another way of saying “he died for us,” highlighting the accent of God’s grace. The passage ties incarnation (including lived life) and atonement together. Jesus shared our human life “in every respect.” Drawing on Old Testament atonement theology, the author says Jesus by his death made “a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.”

Hebrews doesn’t fully explain how this can be. I think it is unexplainable. But it does add an amazing claim: That “through death” Jesus was able to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (echoing 1 John 3:8, “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.”)

Like much in biblical theology, this claim has an already/not yet aspect. Satan and evil seem still very present in our world, and in history. So, as with kingdom theology generally, the meaning seems to be that Jesus won once-for-all the decisive battle, but the full effects of this have not yet come to fulfillment in time and history. But they will! “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:25).

Note that destroying the devil (or the works of the devil) has to mean more than the salvation of souls for eternal paradise. If atonement meant exclusively the spiritual salvation of souls, the works of the devil would not really be destroyed. Rather they would in some sense be acknowledged, as redeemed souls leave the ruined creation behind and escape to some other realm of existence, leaving a wrecked and burning mess. That is not creation healed and not biblical.

The key point in this passage however seems to be: Jesus in his incarnation, life, and death became like us so that he might redeem and heal us and all creation from the pain and effects of sin by coming, living, dying, and rising for us, in our place. Jesus’ resurrection is the victory that seals the efficacy of atonement.

1 Peter 2:21-25 – Atonement  –> Discipleship

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

This passage is remarkable in the way it combines Jesus as example and model with Jesus as sacrifice for sin. Clearly the emphasis is on the ethical meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death. Personally, I believe this is what most impressed Peter—understandable, given his personality and history. (The obvious Old Testament background here is Isaiah 53.)

The logic of this passage is clear: Since Jesus died for us, bearing our sins and healing us, therefore we are both called and enabled to live a righteous and just life in the same spirit of Jesus: A life marked by self-giving rather than self-justification or retaliation. Since God “judges justly” (both in the case of Jesus and of us), we willingly suffer abuse, leaving any retaliation or “getting even” or “score settling” to God.

In context, Peter is addressing slaves (verse 18), but clearly he has a wider application in mind, as the switch from “you” (verses 18-21) to “we” (verse 24) makes explicit.

In terms of atonement theology, Peter here affirms the efficacy and substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death (“suffered for” us; “bore our sins in his body on the cross”). But his primary point is ethical. It is discipleship: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example.”

Can we not see then that these are two essential parts of one whole? Atonement theology without discipleship is only half right. In fact less than half right, for if we ignore the discipleship implication we actually undercut (in effect, annul) atonement efficacy. We empty atonement of its meaning by cutting atonement theology into separate pieces.

The theological tendency is often just this: To isolate the efficacy of Jesus’ death on the cross from its larger meaning, the larger narrative, so that the essential aspect of Jesus’ substitutionary atoning death is turned into the fullness of the meaning of atonement. A part substituted for the whole. In Scripture, the point of Jesus’ atonement is precisely what Peter here affirms: Jesus “bore our sins so that we might live for righteousness.”

Atonement theology without this wholeness is not really biblical. Rather it is a shell, a formula, and often an escape. It becomes, not the gospel, but a substitution for the gospel!

1 Peter 3:18 – Bringing the World to God

As we might expect, we find something similar in the next chapter, in 3:18: “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”

Here the discipleship accent is less explicit. We have something closer to what we might call traditional recognizable atonement theology.

Except for one thing. Peter does not say here that Christ suffered for us in order to forgive our sins. That is of course implied, but it is not what the passage says. Rather Peter writes, “in order to bring you to God.” This is what Jesus does, not only in his atoning death but also in his incarnation and earthly life—and what he continues to do through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and will do ultimately when he returns “in power and great glory.”

Jesus, the incarnate Son, brings us to God. Verse 18 here is incased in discipleship meaning. Both before and after this affirmation of Jesus’ atoning death, Peter calls Christians to live out the meaning of being “brought to God.” Verse 9: “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessings.” Then at the beginning of chapter 4: “Live for the rest of our earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God” (4:2).

For Peter, as for all New Testament writers, to be “brought to God” means to be incorporated into the body of Christ and to live accordingly.

In sum: Peter teaches the same thing in both chapters 2 and 3, with only slightly different nuances. Peter keeps coming back to the central point: Jesus gave himself for us, so we can (by the Spirit) and must live together in the world as the very body of Christ.

So by extension the church, as body of Christ living out the atonement, has the great mission of bringing the world to God. Thus the church finds its mission within God’s great plan (oikonomia) for the fullness of time to bring all things in heaven and earth together under the authority and leadership of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10).


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