The Kingdom of God and the Atonement

The Good News that Conquers Our Predicament, part 10

So far, I’ve insisted we understand two inter-related “predicaments” in order to understand the gospel: (1) The cosmic dimension of the Fall, effecting all aspects of God’s good creation, and (2) the brokenness of relationships because of the Fall, shattering the Shalom that God intended for his good creation.
“It is all creation that is included in the scope of Christ’s redemption: that scope is truly cosmic. Through Christ, God determined ‘to reconcile to himself all things,’ writes Paul (Col. 1:20), and the words he uses (ta panta) preclude any narrow or personalistic understanding of the reconciliation he has in mind…The scope of redemption is as great as the scope of the fall; it embraces creation as a whole.” (Wolters, Creation Regained, p. 59)
So, how does the atonement work into this bigger understanding of the gospel? Well, there are a number of images painted in Scripture to explain the atonement. We can break these models of atonement into these basic categories:

“Exemplar / Moral Example”
This model of atonement says that Jesus’ teaching and ultimately his death serves as a moral example of what it means to be loving people. We find this teaching is Scripture: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). This model focuses on helping us overcome our ignorance about what really matters in the world. It pictures the importance of sacrifice to living out Kingdom ethics in order to transform the world. As opposed to the way those in the world seek to change the world (through power, through manipulation, through force), the way Christians influence for good in the world is through sacrifice (through "laying down our lives").

When I look at this atonement model, I find that it is more an outworking or result or lesson of the atonement than the actual heart of the atonement. If taken alone, it does not explain how a human being (who is naturally selfish and seeks his or her own power) would have the ability to follow Christ’s example. It inadequately understands the heart of the matter—that humans are sinful and need to be changed in a drastic way in order to live out the Kingdom mandates.

“Unfortunately, evil in the world lies much deeper than mere ignorance. It rests in radically self-centered persons who need not just knowledge but divine forgiveness and power to change. Evil also resides in demonic forces and the social structures they have helped distort. We need a powerful Savior who can conquer the forces that enslave us.” (Sider, Good News and Good Works, p. 96)

“Penal Substitution”

This model of atonement says that Jesus’ role is as our substitute, “the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18) so that sinners that stand condemned before a holy God as guilty and worthy of death and hell can be declared “not guilty.” Through Christ, we can have our sins forgiven by way of the justification that comes through our individual faith. Because we are forgiven, our relationship with God is reconciled and we are assured of eternal life with God instead of eternal punishment in Hell. This too is taught in Scripture: “For there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith” (Romans 3:22a-25a). “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

When I look at this atonement model, I find it critical for understanding how Christ forgives and justifies, but also inadequate to explain the entire gospel. It certainly explains the glory of Christ’s death on our behalf, but it does not explain how this relates to the gospel of the Kingdom.
"If you ask anyone from that 74 percent of Americans who say they have made a commitment to Jesus Christ what the Christian gospel is, you will probably be told that Jesus died to pay for our sins, and that if we will only believe he did this, we will go to heaven when we die. In this way what is only one theory of the ‘atonement’ is made out to be the whole of the essential message of Jesus. To continue with theological language for the moment, justification has taken the place of regeneration, or new life. Being let off the divine hook replaces possession of a divine life ‘from above.’" (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 42)

“If one reduces the atonement merely to Jesus’ death for our sins, one abandons the New Testament understanding of the gospel of the kingdom and severs the connection between the cross and discipleship. The result is the scandal of professing Christians whose sexual practices, business dealings, and political attitudes are no different from those of non-Christians.” (Sider, Good News and Good Works, p. 97)

Evengelicalism has so focused on penal substitution as the sole understanding of the Atonement that we have truncated the holistic gospel to merely “forgiveness of sins.” While this is critical to understanding the biblical gospel, it alone too easily leads to imbalance in our faith and practice.

“Christus Victor” (the Classic Model)

As Gustav Aulen stated it in his book of the same name, this model of atonement says that Jesus’ role is as conqueror of evil – demonic beings, social systemic evils, personal sin that holds us in bondage, and the curse of death. The reason this is called the “classic” model by Aulen is that he says this was the dominant model in the early church. This model of Atonement, along with the others, is also one that is taught in Scripture: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8); Jesus became a human “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).
“The territory in dispute, the creation of God, has been invaded by God’s adversary, Satan, who now holds creation as an occupied territory with military force. In Jesus Christ, God launches a counteroffensive to reclaim his rightful domain. By the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the victory has, in principle, been achieved…The battle between the sovereignties is what Abraham Kuyper called the ‘antithesis,’ the spiritual warfare between God and Satan.” (Wolters, Creation Redeemed, pp. 69-70)
When I look at this atonement model, I am impressed with its overall dramatic description of the cosmic battle between good and evil. It definitely seems to me that this is the overarching story of the entire Bible.

However, those who hold to this model sometimes focus so much on the systemic and demonic evil forces that are at work in the world (which we need to have as a major aspect of the atonement) that they do not emphasize the personal aspects of sin. The “social gospel” that seeks for Christians to live out Kingdom virtues by defeating injustice wherever they see it is a major part of the gospel (and has been lost by American evangelicals in the last century), but it also needs to be based in a deep-rooted understanding of personal sin.

When sin is seen to reside primarily in social structures, “the result is utopian schemes for building a new person and a new society without realizing that the radical evil in persons undermines such dreams.” (Sider, Good News and Good Works, p. 98)

It’s not a matter of either/or (as the debate had been framed in the 20th Century among fundamentalists and liberals); it’s a matter of both/and. A gospel that does not both deal with personal sin and societal sin is not the whole gospel.

What I have been trying to do in this series is define the gospel in bigger terms than the usual atonement theories afford us. It has been my contention that when we understand that a LOT happens in the gospel, we keep from truncating it.

When we see the Atonement in terms of the Kingdom, we can capture all the aspects of the atonement in the models just described.
  1. Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom (the beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount, the parables) are meant to explain what Jesus’ gospel is meant to accomplish. It goes beyond the mechanism of atonement (forgiveness, victory, substitution), and embraces the purpose of atonement.
  2. Jesus’ substitution for sinners is seen in light of his role as the messianic King. The Messiah is the Suffering Servant found in Isaiah, the anointed one who frees us from exile due to our sin and provides us an exodus from our bondage to sin, the evil one, and the curse of death. Forgiveness is not the end in itself; it is the means to inner transformation so that we can receive the Spirit’s power to live according to Jesus’ Kingdom principles in order to bring about justice and shalom to the world around us.
  3. Jesus’ victory over evil, then, invites us into the battle that is still going on. As Oscar Cullmann said, just as “D-Day,” the 1944 invasion of Normandy, was the decisive battle that assured a “V-Day” of victory, Jesus’ death and resurrection assured the victory that will come when Jesus returns. We now live between “D-Day” and “V-Day,” assured of victory, but still fighting the battle.

The goal is to see the atonement as that which redeems the cosmic creation and restores shalom in all our relationships.
“The messianic approach to the atonement underlines the community-building aspect of Jesus’ saving work…Jesus not only preached the gospel of the kingdom, he formed a new kingdom community...establishing a reconciled community is central to God’s plan of salvation.” (Sider, Good News and Good Works, p. 99)

Today’s post draws a lot on the teaching of three of my favorite books on the Kingdom: Good News and Good Works: A Theology for the Whole Gospel by Ron Sider (Baker Books, 2004, originally titled, One Sided Christianity? By Zondervan in 1993), Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview by Albert Wolters (Eerdmans, 1985) and The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God by Dallas Willard (Harper SanFrancisco, 1998).

Links to the entire series:
1: Define the Predicament, and You Understand another Facet of the Gospel

2: Predicament #1: The Lack of Shalom
3: Evil Bondage in the Place of Shalom

4: EXODUS and the GOOD NEWS of FREEDOM in Paul


6: Another of Humanity’s Predicaments: Broken Relationships

7: The Prophesied Kingdom of God

8: The Kingdom of God Restoring Israel from Exile

9: The Kingdom of God Healing Broken Relationships

10: The Kingdom of God and the Atonement

11: The Kingdom and the Mission of God’s People

12: What is my view of the Kingdom of God?

technorati: ,

1 comment:

Ted Gossard said...

Thanks again Bob, for this helpful reflection, along with the good quotes, on this topic.

Ths kingdom community reality seems weak, to me, among us evangelicals. We're so much immeshed (and immersed) in other identities, we forget our chief and real identity, which, of course, is as the kingdom community of Jesus.

Thanks again for these thoughts, and stirring my own thinking.