Something a bit more positive about the atonement, still in the form of notes. Click ‘full post’ for text.
‘Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For ‘consciousness of sin’ is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.’
So wrote Wittgenstein, and this remains one of the clearest descriptions of what I take Christianity to be – it is something which actually takes place in our lives (it transforms our lives) – it is not theory-driven (as if we have been given the equivalent of laws of physics, just relating to those things that cannot be seen); rather it is directly driven by a change of life. This is one of the major reasons why I think atheists just don’t ‘get it’. They misunderstand the grammar of faith – but that’s a separate argument. Trouble is, a lot of self-proclaimed Christians also don’t get it – in precisely the same way. “A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer. (Karl Barth) It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to express it. Practice gives the words their sense.” (Wittgenstein again). I think what I want to say is: those who insist that penal substitution is the way – sometimes the only way – to understand the atonement are ‘gesticulating with words’. The words are floating free of a transformed life. The advocates remain trapped within the world.
But that is still a bit negative. What I want to do is say a bit more about what this ‘salvation through faith’ might mean. And to begin, I want to talk about sin.
Sin I see as something very real and concrete and actively harmful and destructive. (This is why I am more and more persuaded about spiritual warfare, and why what the Church Fathers write in those terms makes abundant sense to me, especially as it is linked to sacramental worship). I do not see sin as something abstract, something restricted to a ‘spiritual sphere’ separate from our daily life. It is not a theoretical construct. It is the name we give, it is the vocabulary we use, to discern, describe and defeat all that enslaves us and prevents us from displaying the image of God in the world.
Jesus saves us from that.
It is sin which crucifies Jesus. The prince of this world, the powers and principalities, see Jesus as the enemy and they use their powers to destroy him. He pays the price of sin: in other words, those values which are limited by the world express their hatred of all that Christ stood for by reacting against him with all the forces that they could command. So Jesus is rejected and despised by society (his social level quality is destroyed) and then his life is taken away from him (his biological level quality is destroyed). The world takes the worldly values (social approval, biological life) and removes them from Christ. That is the crucifixion.
The resurrection proclaims: there is more to life than this.
The devil is defeated. He has over-reached himself. Consequently, to embrace Christ, to believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, is to immediately relativise the biological and the social – all the powers and principalities of the world. That is what makes martyrdom possible: the devil is dethroned. No longer can the existing social and religious practices be seen as final. God cannot be captured.
More than this: the character of God is seen in Christ. The judgement goes two ways, not simply that the devil is cast down, but Christ is lifted up (John 12.31-32).
Our societies are irrevocably bound up in sin – that’s what I take the doctrine of original sin to refer to. We are all implicated, and we cannot get free. We cannot discern anything outside of the world of sin except for revelation. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.
To turn to Christ is to say that Christ is truth – and therefore that the world is not, that the devil is the prince of lies. It is to say that the way of Christ is possible, and real, and more deeply rooted in creation than expediency. The church is composed of those who recognise this – who live in the light of the resurrection. It’s not a matter of words, it’s a matter of priorities and the shape of a life.
If you forgive, then you believe in the resurrection.
If you affirm and succour the poor and broken-hearted, you believe in the resurrection.
If you resist the idolatries of the world, and fight for justice and mercy, you believe in the resurrection.
“Not everyone who calls me Lord shall enter the Kingdom, but those who do the will of my father who is in heaven.”
“What must I do to inherit eternal life? Go and do likewise.”
One way of understanding God is to say: this is what I am most committed to, this is what I most deeply and profoundly believe.
I have seen lives – in those who profess Christ and those who do not – which are literally crippled and stunted by an acceptance of worldly value. Those voices which say ‘I am bad’; ‘I do not deserve to be loved’; ‘If only I could do… then I will be worthy and loveable’.
These are the voices of demons. These are the internalised voices of worldly values. This is the realm of the accuser.
The difference between law and grace is: law says ‘do X’ and then you are worthy/ loveable/ redeemed. Grace says you are worthy/ loveable/ redeemed – now you can ‘do X’.
God sent his son, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
When that difference sinks into the heart, when it is truly accepted, that is when someone believes in their heart that God raised Jesus from the dead. That is when they are saved. That is when they are set free from their sins. That is when their faith has healed them.
And the consequences are visible. It is like a vomiting out of illness. The back extends a little straighter. The eyes are brighter. The tension leaves the body. And the Spirit comes. Now we can forgive – not with clenched teeth and ‘yes I really ought to forgive’ but genuinely from the heart.
This is not a matter of saying ‘Abracadabra’ in order to open the doors to heaven. This is heaven coming down to earth, and the angels rejoicing over the one sinner who repents. For repentance isn’t simply a mental shift – it is the turning around of the heart and the life, it is changing the way we do things. It is Zacchaeus refunding those he has defrauded – ‘this day salvation has come to this house’.
Salvation is not a matter of ensuring a quantity of souls in heaven – as if we were misers hoarding gold to fend off starvation. Salvation is something that takes place in a human life here and now – it is the present shaped by eternity. This is eternal life – life that is not subject to the constraints of the world.
Jesus saves us from our sins.
Until the resurrection dawns in our hearts we are dead in our sin – we are still bound up in the ways of the world that destroy life.
By his wounds we are healed.
In him is life, and light, and that light is the light for all people.
Salvation is to be dead to sin but alive to God through Christ. This is to have abundance of life (Jn 10.10). This is to be filled with joy and peace, the peace which the world cannot give.
1Come, let us return to the Lord •
who has torn us and will heal us.
2God has stricken us •
and will bind up our wounds.
3After two days, he will revive us, •
and on the third day will raise us up,
that we may live in his presence.
4Let us strive to know the Lord; •
his appearing is as sure as the sunrise.
5He will come to us like the showers, •
like the spring rains that water the earth.
6‘O Ephraim, how shall I deal with you? •
How shall I deal with you, O Judah?
7‘Your love for me is like the morning mist, •
like the dew that goes early away.
8‘Therefore, I have hewn them by the prophets, •
and my judgement goes forth as the light.
9‘For loyalty is my desire and not sacrifice, •
and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’