Thinking about models and concepts of the Atonement

I want to think here a bit about the Atonement. I stumbled upon this topic a couple years ago while reading my daily portion of Oswald Chambers’ classic devotional book, “My Utmost for His Highest”. I am seeing that how we think about the Atonement fundamentally influences our expression of the Gospel message. That is a reason why I think the atonement is an important area for renewed scrutiny, something I have been studying over the past months.

The Atonement is an area of doctrine that considers what Jesus accomplished upon the cross. I want to direct the conversation to consideration of a couple questions.

What is the message that most effectively represents what Jesus accomplished on the cross? That message becomes “the Gospel” that is offered to people!

What is the need of man? What is broken or lacking?

What is God’s concern that He was taking care of with the atonement by Jesus?

I was trained as a sales rep in Silicon Valley. Permit me to inject some sales and marketing lingo in the discussion here. The activity of sales is finding out what your prospect needs, and then showing them how your product or service meets that need. Without a felt need, people aren’t motivated to make a buying decision.

I heard an interesting observation a couple months ago in my reading, that during the first 1,000 years of church history, the focus was on the life of Jesus. Then there was a shift of focus upon the death of Jesus. When you think of that in terms of “product marketing”, how and why did the church’s message change? Take a look with me at a couple things I came across in the New Testament.

Remember the EF Hutton commercial slogan “When EF Hutton speaks, everyone listens”? Someone representing the EF Hutton investment firm in the commercial would offer some financial advice in a conversation in different public places and everyone around would hush and listen. I found an “EF Hutton” moment in Acts 5:20. Some number of the apostles were apprehended by the high priest and his cronies, who put them under guard in a local jail. Then the angel of the Lord opened the prison doors at night and led them out. Now the EF Hutton moment when the angel tells them “Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.” I was intrigued what the heavenly messenger told them to talk about.

Then in John 20:31, the apostle states his purpose for writing his gospel “But these are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”

In John 5:40 Jesus tells his Jewish listeners “And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.”

I came across an observation about Martin Luther written by Leonard Verduin:

“We meet in Luther, to put it theologically, a very heavy emphasis on the forensic aspect of salvation and a correspondingly light emphasis on the moral aspect. Luther was primarily interested in pardon [for sins], rather than in renewal [of life]. His theology [Reformation] was a theology that addressees itself to the problem of guilt [of sins committed], rather than to the problem of pollution [of life inherited from the first Adam]. From “The Reformers and Their Stepchildren”. 1964 p. 12

One of my favorite books in the past couple years and one I highly recommend is by Dennis F. Kinlaw, “Let’s Start with Jesus” that presents three metaphors to describe the nature of the relationship God desires with us. He writes in his introduction (and two more quotes following), “I began to realize that the juridical metaphor that was so liberating in the Reformation is biblical enough, but that is not the only metaphor that the Scriptures use to explain the heart of what Christ died to do for us”.

“We see that salvation is God’s gift to restore us to fellowship. Christ died to do more than get us past the judgment and help us escape hell. He became incarnate and died on Calvary’s cross to remove any impediments that would hinder us from being comfortable in his presence and to change us so that we can enjoy him in self-giving love now and forever. Any understanding of the atonement that does not make provision to get us ready for that intimacy with him is inadequate, incomplete, and only partially biblical”. p. 68

“God wants humanity to share in the communion of love that is the inner life of God. That does not come easily. The gospel makes it very clear that the reason for the incarnation and atonement was to prepare us for just such communion with God”. P 44

Back to the question of how the emphasis of the church moved from the life of Christ that he offers to us to an emphasis on the death on the cross – I found some very readable insights in a scholarly work by James A. Fowler.   The 16-page paper is entitled “Concepts and Models of the Atonement”. He describes briefly (and understandably!) over fifteen concepts of the atonement and provides a very engaging account of how these concepts developed over the centuries.

Back to some practical considerations, and this entire discussion gets very practical! When you “share the Gospel” with someone, where are you going to start and with what kind of invitation are you going to end? I suggest that if we give this subject some thought, we could develop a much more compelling expression of the life that Jesus has purchased for us than is currently being presented by the current widespread emphasis on penal substitution.


One response to “Thinking about models and concepts of the Atonement

  1. Insightful and thought provoking,that should cause us to pray for His spirit to show us how to proceed.

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