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Reflections on theories of atonement (Part 3)

April 6, 2010

My father was Methodist, but didn’t go to church…my mother was Catholic, a person of deep faith although we only attended mass sporadically…when I got married we just didn’t see church or faith as an important part of our lives…

 The pastor of my church molested some younger kids…took his own life

 My dad was in and out of prison on drug charges…never had a real job

 My grandmother’s boyfriend molested me when I was younger

 My wife walked out of our marriage for another man

What is the Good News to the persons in these situations and countless others?  How does our view of the atonement impact the way we talk about the good news with particular people in particular situations of brokenness?  How might we represent the Good News for broken humanity in a way that is not reduced to a six-line narrative.  From the starting point of scripture, what does Jesus offer?  What is salvation?

Jesus always couched the words Good News, not in terms of personal salvation, but in terms of the kingdom of God.  He went through cities and villages proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God (Luke 8:1).  In a middle of the night conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus says you can’t even see the kingdom he is talking about without being born from above.

Evangelicals in particular have latched on to the “born again” language when talking about salvation.  Romans 10:9 would also be used to frame the way in which you enter the experience of salvation.  “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  Another verse that is often used to frame the conversion event would be 1 John 1:9.  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 

If we pay attention to other things Jesus said about the Good News, we begin to grasp that Jesus was not really talking about an event, or a particular way to move the marker on our eternal security gauge from lost to saved.  For example, in Matthew 16 Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  Jesus is talking about being saved.  It has to do with dying and following. 

These words of Jesus are even more significant when we take into consideration their context–Peter’s confession (with his mouth) that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.  Was this where Peter entered the road of salvation, or was it when he left his nets.  Or was it when he rebuked Jesus for talking about being killed?  Or was it when he denied him three times around a charcoal fire in the courtyard of the high priest?  Or was it when Jesus restored him with a stinging question—Peter, do you love me?  When was Peter saved?

One gets the sense with Jesus, that salvation cannot be reduced to a particular formula or language set.  On another occasion, a rich ruler asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”  (Luke 18:18-23)  Sounds like he is asking Jesus how he can be saved.  Jesus does not invite him to bow his head and pray the sinner’s prayer.  Jesus reminds him of the commandments which describe a way of living.  Be faithful to your spouse.  Don’t kill other image bearers.  Don’t take what isn’t yours.  Be honest.  Honor your parents.  The rich ruler has gone to church all his life and feels like he is a pretty good person (perhaps especially when compared to others who haven’t done nearly this much).  Now preacher Jesus provides a smashing altar call worthy of any Evangelical worth their salt.  He says to him, “You still lack one thing.  Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” 

Jesus, is “treasure in heaven” some kind of code for being saved?  Alas, we are asking the wrong question.  We need to listen to the next part of the invitation to be saved.  “Then come, follow me.”  And we (if we are good Evangelicals) will want to ask, so was the rich ruler saved or not!  With Jesus, that doesn’t seem to be the central question.  The primary concern of Jesus is not whether a transaction has occurred, but whether or not we are following him in all of life. 

In another place (Matthew 18:3), when his disciples wanted to know who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus called a child over.  He said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  So entering the kingdom of heaven has something to do with humility, with being willing to learn and grow.  Sounds like a process. 

It is interesting to note that the one prayer Jesus teaches to his disciples is not one that will give the template for getting people saved.  Rather it has to do with our relationship with God and our relationship with the earth.  We notice that he teaches the prayer to disciples.  Perhaps that is not insignificant.  Being saved has everything to do with being a disciple.  Being a disciple speaks more of a process of learning in relationship with Jesus than of a particular entry point of salvation.  So Jesus says, “Pray then in this way:    

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread.  And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.  For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  (Matthew 6:9-15)

The central prayer Jesus teaches his disciples has everything to do with salvation.  But the salvation Jesus teaches us to pray for seems to have more to do with heaven coming on earth than us going to heaven.  It seems to have more to do with daily bread and forgiveness of debts than it has to do with escaping hell.  Salvation is about so much more than Jesus paying my ransom on the cross so that I can go to heaven.  Salvation has to do with participation in the life of the ages, which is about bread, forgiveness, healing. 

If we read on in the New Testament, we see other aspects of salvation.  On the day of Pentecost when Peter takes up the mantel of preacher, attempting to explain the gift of the Holy Spirit within the context of the tradition of Israel and Jesus, those listening were cut to the heart.  So they ask the question, what should we do?  Peter replies, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven…” 

Here salvation is situated within a response of repentance.  Can there be salvation without repentance?  Are there stages to repentance?  Do we take steps in the direction of full repentance before we fully grasp all that we need to repent of?  Undoubtedly so.  Repentance is an orientation, an attitude of the heart, a way of living.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. 

Repentance is not isolated from the life of the church.  Salvation is in the community of believers, not as independent beings relating to God on our own.  So Peter says, “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven…”  We don’t baptize ourselves.  So baptism requires submission into a communal life.  We would rather be saved on our own terms.  Where we can pick and choose how we will relate to the God.  We would rather be independent…emergent Christians than stay in difficult relationships where salvation is worked out in messy community with sinners like us.  We would rather be saved without the church.

But Peter, aren’t my sins forgiven when I confess them.  Why must I also be baptized?  Is it not enough that I acknowledge my sins?   Resurrection does not happen without death.  Baptism is the way we ritualize this in the church.  One of the first things I die to as a follower of Jesus is my independence, my right to pick and choose how salvation and grace will be mediated in my life.  Paul develops this kind of language in Romans 6.  “What then are we to say?  Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?  By no means!  How can we who died to sin go on living in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Baptism is an expression of my willingness to die.  Die to chaotic, broken, independent self.  Die into the body of Christ–which is always being poured out for the life of the world when it is true to Jesus.  We die so we can be raised to new life.  And the new life is not an independent life.  It is a life that is given for the other…for the world that God loves.  Our baptism orients us to this life. 

Baptism is into Christ.  Christ has a body.  The body of Christ is graced with many members, each who bring their story and gifts into the Eucharistic…missional life of the church.  Paul writes about our baptism as an entry point into this life in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13:  “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” 

For the early Christian community, baptism is the entry point into new life in Christ.  There is not prior conversion experience required.  Eucharist was reserved for the baptized in the early Christian community.  Chapter 9 of the Didache, an early Christian confession of faith (dated by most scholars in the late first/early second century), makes this clear: 

“But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord…” 

As we listen to the witness of scripture, we are given a language that orients us to expand our understanding of salvation (atonement).  At one ment with Jesus has to do with cross, has to do with following, has to do with baptism, has to do with participating in the eucharistic life of the church…. 

Salvation is inextricably tied to our physical life in this world.  Salvation is about the here and now.  Salvation is about a journey of healing and freedom because brokenness and oppression are real.  Jesus does not separate salvation into a spiritual realm, removed or in another time from our lives in this world.

So our physical lives matter to our understanding of atonement, not because we earn salvation, but because our physical life in creation is where salvation is being effected.  Salvation has everything to do with eating disorders, broken marriages, sexual abuse, greed and violence…  It has everything to do with whether I am flipping people off or lashing out when they make me angry.  It has everything to do with how my embodied life synergizes with the life of Jesus or the way of death. 

James McClendon says it so well: 

The story you are living out now is the story related to the text.  History is real, history matters, exactly because in God’s mysterious way the past is the present.  So the church of the New Testament is the church now; time, though not abolished, is in this manner transcended, and the church that reclaims its past stands today before the great final Judge as well.  “This is that” and “then is now.”  (Doctrine:  Systematic Theology, p. 466)

The question in relation to salvation is not so much when did I get saved, but rather how am I being saved?  That has everything to do with my embodied living.  Is the Bible more than a book on the coffee table?  Do I regularly gather for worship with God’s people who are attempting to live as if “this is that” and “then is now.”  Do I fast and pray?  Do I love my neighbor as myself?  Do I seek first the Kingdom of God?  Do I love my enemies?

This view of salvation (atonement) might be compared to marriage.  Am I married (saved) the day of the wedding ceremony?  Or are we married when set up a home, take out the garbage, cook meals, have sex, work at parenting together….  I was married, I am being married, and I will be married.  Marriage is both an event and a journey.  As we have consided the witness of scripture and the church, it seems that salvation is a lot like that.

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