The atonement is, perhaps, one of the most significant doctrines of the church. If it is anything, it is surely the doctrine Christians are most thankful about.
The atonement is the doctrine of the church that describes the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is the description of how Christ saves those who place their trust in him. It is the how Christ’s death makes us one with him (thus atonement can be broken down as “at-one-ment”.
The atonement, besides being one of the most significant doctrines, is also one of the most contested doctrines of the church. The Bible and the early Creeds do not point to one particular description of how Christ saves us and so there is a buffet of interpretations that one may choose from. For instance, some have proposed that Christ has saved us by rescuing us from the grip of Satan, and so they have proposed that Christ’s death and resurrection is a grand, “cosmic battle” of sorts that Christ has one. Others have suggested that Christ takes the punishment that we so deserve. Still others suggest that Christ died to pay a debt (though people disagree about who this debt is paid to). And still there are other “atonement theories” that people have proposed throughout the history of Christianity.
The atonement is a great lot of fun to speculate about and debate, especially considering that there is not one particular answer that must be held in order for someone to be a Christian. It is one of my favorite topics and I love to discover new ways to talk about Christ’s death and resurrection and its effects.
But if the atonement is only understood on a purely theoretical level, we have missed the point of the atonement. Now please know that I am all for theory and speculation, but the beauty of the atonement is that it is meant for much more. The atonement is meant to be a doctrine that saturates and soaks into the very depths of our hearts as well as minds. The atonement is not simply meant to get us to think, but it is also meant to stir our passions and our actions, causing us to pursue the effects of the great work of Christ on the cross.
There are a few things that we must know about the atonement and why it is so important to be more than simply a theoretical doctrine:
- Not every culture understands the atonement the same way: Certain understandings of Christ’s death and resurrection are understood in one culture, but the point may be completely missed in another culture. For example, an atonement theory that focuses on guilt does not compute with a culture that emphasizes shame. A really good resource, if you desire to learn more, would be Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Mark Baker and Joel Green.
- If the atonement is simply theoretical, evangelism looks different: If we only talk about the atonement and don’t attempt to live into its realities we are left with a beautiful hope and a beautiful message that stays within the walls of the church rather than going outside of the church. Also, depending on your view of the atonement, it may inform the very way you live as well as the way you treat other people.
- The atonement communicates the very heart of God: I really want to emphasize this point. Atonement theories are cool and it is awesome to talk about them. But if we do not understand that the atonement reveals God’s very nature we are missing out on what makes the atonement so significant. 1 John 4:7-10 says:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
The fact that Christ came and died so that we might life displays God’s love for us. And it reveals more than the fact that God loves us, but it also reveals that God’s very character, his base nature, is that he is love.
This is what makes the atonement so significant. This is what makes me love the atonement so much. The fact that the death and resurrection of Christ displays God’s very character is such a powerful thing. And so, as we enter this season of Lent, dwell on the love of God, displayed in the atoning work of Christ, in a new way and with a newfound thankfulness.
Next Post: B is for Baptism