Meanings of Atonement

Meanings of Atonement

From the outset of Christ’s Church, Christian thinkers have tried to understand and explain exactly what happened on Calvary. They were able to begin with the Old Testament and in particular with its practice of the sacrifice of animals for the sins of the people. On the day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) the people acknowledged their sin before God and the fact that they could not make amends sufficient to restore their broken relationship with God. There was collective and personal repentance. The sacrificial animals had to be perfect in shape and form. They cost something representing the spiritual fact that sin is serious and is not lightly dealt with. The death of the animal was thought to be the means of atonement acceptable to God. The animal’s death was substituted for the deserved death of human sinners and this was graciously accepted by God as the rite worked in reminding people of their sins, enabling them to recognise them and repent of them and to be forgiven for them.

As Christian teachers reflected on what had happened to Jesus at Calvary, they expressed the understanding that Jesus had been the perfect human sacrifice, once for all time, for the sins of the world. God took human sin so seriously that atonement had to be made. Humans could not do this for themselves and so God in and through His Son Jesus, did this for us. That was why Jesus died such a terrible death and why his blood was shed. Paul and others reasoned too that Jesus’ sacrifice was of a different quality from that of animals. Animal sacrifice was a ritual to help Jews acknowledge their sin. Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection actually made a perfect atonement - at-one-ment - because this was the Son of God Himself doing so. No-one else could make this connection for humankind. Only Jesus and he did so.

Other interpretations also became part of the understanding of the Church. These were not rival explanations but complementary explanations. The idea of redemption or ransom was important to Peter, for example. Jesus redeemed a lost humanity through His death and resurrection. Humanity was in the pawn shop as it were, in hock to sin and unable to get out. Humanity was captive and Jesus paid the redemption price to set humanity free.

Another theme is present in the New Testament. This is the idea that Jesus did battle with the devil and overcame the devil and defeated the devil once and for all time so that humans may never be consumed by or dominated by evil. Jesus took captivity captive. Jesus was the bait and the devil swallowed it not knowing that the devil would be defeated by over-reaching. It seemed that on Calvary that evil had won the day. But that was not the case. Jesus rose in triumphant resurrection to expose the limits of the power and influence of the devil. Humans of themselves do not have the strength to resist evil and overcome sin and wrong but they can name and claim Jesus as their champion and be victorious in life through His victory and eternal strength. Lots of hymns reflect this understanding of atonement.

CMP 339

In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, we have the victory
In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus, demons will have to flee
Who can tell what God can do? Who can tell of His love for you?
In the name of Jesus, Jesus, we have the victory.

Saint Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 21 April 1109) was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. He devised an explanation of Jesus’ death which reflected medieval feudal society. Serfs were indentured for life and they had no means of escape or freedom. The owed their labour to their feudal Lord. They could never earn enough to buy their freedom. So humans owed God obedience but because of their inherently sinful nature they could not fulfil this obligation. Jesus came to earth and paid the price for thus setting humanity free from spiritual serfdom. God did this because of his nature as just and fair.

Another medieval thinker, Peter Abelard lived from 1079 - 1142/3). He had a colourful life and with Heloise shared one of the great tragic love affairs of the medieval Church. They indulged in sex before marriage and were forced to give each other up she to be a nun and he to become a monk. This human experience made him think of Jesus’ Atonement in terms of love and self-giving example rather than penal substitution. Jesus is a model for everyone’s actual life to follow - the highest example. Jesus’ Himself said that there is no greater love than that of a man laying down his life for his friends.

At the Reformation, John Calvin took a strict substitution line on the Atonement. Humans are depraved. God requires the punishment of human sin. Humans cannot pay. Jesus paid for our sin. God accepted that payment. Humans are therefore enabled to be forgiven through the shedding of Jesus’ blood and His death. Substitutionary punishment is the most extreme interpretation of what happened on Calvary. It provokes many questions. What kind of God requires the brutal death of His own Son? Is this not a kind of child sacrifice - something that Abraham did not have to make? Who wants to know a God whose nature requires punishment?

This is an interesting issue. A few serious Christian thinkers today consider that the death penalty should be restored as a measure of how sacred human life is and how serious the taking of life is. Certainly many feel that the sentences handed down for murder and manslaughter are pathetically weak and seem to give little value to the loss of a human life and the suffering of families on these circumstances.

Scottish Protestant Christianity has been influenced by Calvin’s harsh view. Punishment for wrong doing has been part of our psychological history. “Be sure your sins will find you out”. When we look at our society today, however, it seems as if there are no real sanctions for wrong doing especially in relation to young people. Gone is respect and honour and instead there is an inversion of the natural order of punishment for wrong doing.

Communicating Christianity today in Scotland does not emphasise such negativities as God and sin and eternal punishment. The Free Church still talk this way and Brethren and Baptist churches do also. Thus we are mockingly referred to in these quarters as lesser Babylon. We are seen as a broad church on the wide and slippery slope to perdition. We should be concerned. Taking Calvary lightly is not an option - not even for us.

The Church of Scotland had its own romantic counterpart to Calvin’s rigorous application of the meaning of Christ’s death. John McLeod Campbell was Minister of Rhu near Helensburgh from 1825 - 31. He was a deeply spiritual thinker. He wished to encourage people in faith and emphasise the positive rather than the negative aspects of God’s nature and love for all. He saw the people as dour and dull and negative in their Christian expression. He devised an interpretation of the Atonement to set them free. It was not Jesus’ death that atoned for sins but His perfect confession of the sins of humanity. Gethsemane not Calvary was where the atonement was made. McLeod Campbell was tried for heresy and found guilty and defrocked and expelled from the Church of Scotland. He was supported by members of his erstwhile congregation in a small independent Church in Glasgow. In 1856 he published his book 'The Nature of the Atonement'. The Church had changed and recognised that McLeod Campbell while not having been a strict Calvinist had not deserved to be found guilty of heresy. His thought was different but it was not unchristian. This was acclaimed and he received an honorary DD from Glasgow University. Heretics did not get DDs. The Moderator of the General Assembly visited him towards the end of his life and apologised and presented him with an inscribed silver salver recognising his value as a Christian thinker.

Explanations of Christ’s atonement are several, each emphasising part of the whole truth. Evangelicals today emphasise God’s prior love in sending Jesus to this violent and sinful world and invite response to God’s love rather than out of fear of eternal punishment. But Christianity is also weak now in this land and our own Church is compromised by political correctness.

Let you and I therefore not take Calvary lightly. It is a serious matter and a deadly one. But our Gospel is that this was all done for us by Jesus so that we would not have to do this for ourselves. So in the end more than anything we are asked to receive Jesus’ sacrifice for us as His gift and we can surely do that.

Robert Anderson 2017

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