Some Meanings of the Atonement

April 29, 2012 2 Corinthians 5:13-21, 1 Peter 2:21-25

Last week I drove to Green Bay on highway 41. Twice I passed a billboard that said this, "Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world." I forget what organization placed the billboards. It is a bold claim, one that Christians are used to hearing. We may be so used to hearing this idea that we do not realize how strange and striking it is. The first letter to Timothy contains these familiar words: "This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: 'Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.'" Most of us have been hearing that all our lives. Imagine reading this billboard with no knowledge of Christianity—would you find this an attractive, inviting message?  Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world.

The theological term for the billboard's way of understanding the significance of Christ's death is "atonement." That is that Christ's death on the cross atoned, or made amends, for the sins of the world. Another way to conceive it is that our sins put us in debt to God, and Christ's death on the cross paid that debt in full. More precisely, Christ's death was a "substitutionary atonement;" Christ took our place, substituted for us, paid our debt to God. We hear this idea often on Sunday morning during the assurance of pardon "he himself bore our sins in his body on the cross..." It's a strange idea—several strange ideas, actually.  That sins we have committed are forgiven by Christ's suffering and death. Or maybe you imagine that our sins somehow died on the Cross when Jesus died.

More than 20 years ago when I was preparing for my final examination before Presbytery, this is the last step in becoming a Presbyterian minister. I feared being asked about the atonement more than anything else. It's a strange idea, I have never been completely satisfied by the traditional explanations of what Christ accomplished on the Cross. Fortunately, no one asked about the atonement. My examination came at the end of a long meeting and people just wanted to get home. I passed.

And as soon as I was on the other side of the room, the side from which I could ask the questions of candidates, I asked them to explain the atonement.  "What does it mean to you that Jesus Christ died for your sins?" I would ask. Part of me was hoping that some bright, eager recent seminary grad could explain this to my satisfaction at last. Another part of me wanted to see someone on the cusp of ordained ministry struggle with this notion as I had—and as I continue to. And struggle they did. What I came to appreciate was someone who really struggled with putting into words the notion that Jesus' death somehow was and is a benefit to each of us, and all of humanity. Once the candidate had the "deer in the headlights" look I knew they were ready for ordained ministry.

We struggled with this idea at Bible Exploration Tuesday afternoon. I asked two questions before we read the two lessons for this morning. The questions were "what did Jesus accomplish on the Cross?" and "How does this work?"  We first read the lesson from 1 Corinthians and it made us even more confused. Somehow Christ's death was meant to bring peace, or reconciliation or to settle relationships between God and humankind. The variety of translations around the table gave us a number of different ways to understand God's intention for Christ's death. Still, if you look earlier in this reading Paul hardly makes this notion clearer. Christ became sin for our sake so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God. How does that work? I've never been satisfied with an explanation of this.

At another point Paul writes, "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!" Those are also words you hear on Sunday morning during the assurance of pardon. And I wonder what it means to be "in Christ." How does one enter Christ, or how does one allow Christ into oneself?  I'm very curious, even driven by curiosity, to understand how this works—how Christ's sinless life and suffering death somehow imparts a benefit to each of us.

Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to understand the significance of Christ's death. In this morning's affirmation of faith a number of them are mentioned. One way is as the sacrifice of a lamb. Remember, on the night of the Passover, each household killed a lamb and put its blood on their doorposts, to show God to pass over the houses of the Hebrews. The blood of the sacrificed lamb protected the Hebrews from death.

Another image is of a shepherd giving his life for his sheep. Or a slave being ransomed. I understand the idea of someone paying off another person's debt—which is another way Christ's death has been described through the ages.  I used to fantasize about this one when I was paying off my student loans. Why would the bank care if I paid off my loans or someone else did? But I have a harder time envisioning someone accepting a prison sentence or a death sentence on someone else's behalf.

The final metaphor for what Christ accomplished on the cross that appears in the Confession of 1967 is "victory over the powers of evil." This one comes the closest to being a satisfactory explanation to me. Christ died on the cross because he embodied and lived God's love totally and completely.  That love was a threat to both the civil and the religious leaders—so they had to kill Jesus because of their fear.  We can all understand that people and crowds and even nations do terrible things when they are afraid. But in this case, fear did not have the last word.  God showed love for all of humanity—even those parts of humanity that killed God's son, by showing in the resurrection that love could not be killed. That love is stronger than death, and fear. The resurrection is God's statement that good will triumph over evil that love conquers all. And this message could only be this clear and strong on the other side of the Cross.

A recent book by Rob Bell called "Love Wins" offers a number of other metaphors for understanding the crucifixion. Some of them are

A defendant going free;

A relationship reconciled;

Something lost being redeemed;

A battle being won;

A final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again; and

An enemy being loved.

Some of Bell's metaphors are similar to ones that we find in our confession.  Still, the part that has nagged at me about this for years is "how does this work?" How do I—or how does anyone—appropriate the benefit of Christ's death on the cross? It just doesn't real fair to me that Christ should suffer because of my sin. It just doesn't seem fair that someone else should go to prison because of the crimes I've committed. Part of this is my unwillingness to see the magnitude of my own sin. I haven't been all that bad after all. Or to see the scandal of grace that God through Christ offers it to everyone.   Personally, I don't think I need all that much, could I just have a little please, so you can use the really big grace on someone who's much worse than I? I could even suggest some people who need it a whole lot more!

Wednesday night I was reading a magazine article that actually helped me move closer to having a satisfying understanding of Christ's death on the cross for us. I realized that on this issue I had been looking at things too literally. I'd been asking how the grace of Christ is passed on to me through Christ's death on the cross. I wanted to understand the mechanics and economics of this transaction.  The magazine article said we should view God's word more like love letters than mathematical formulas. That contrast—and my willingness to read a love letter from God, and stop looking for a rational explanation—helped me just to chill out a little bit on this issue.

And in all honesty I probably should have done that a long time ago.  If you look at the first line in our affirmation of faith this morning, you'll see this "God's reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways..." That word mystery is a big clue for Presbyterians.  I can only think of three other topics which Presbyterians declare "mysteries" and just choose not to fuss with any further.

The first is how Christ is present when we celebrate the Lord's Supper.

The second is the holy mystery of love between two people.

And the third one, will be part of the building tour later this morning—that water that somehow keeps flowing up from the ground into the walls in the basement. 

When Presbyterians are overmatched, when we really understand and accept that we can't ever fully explain and understand something, we just let it remain a mystery. And that's where I am when it comes to explaining what Christ's death accomplished.  There are a lot of images that help us see parts of the whole truth, but in the end it's a mystery.