Sometimes a sermon comes with a disclaimer; this is one of those times. So here it goes:
This sermon may contain more advanced theological concepts and language that may prove challenging for some hearers.
I know this will be a turn-off for some of you. And I truly am sorry. I hope I will do a good job explaining and defining concepts so they can be easily understood. But the Bible is clear that it is not healthy to consume spiritual breastmilk for our entire lives. There comes a time where we learn the value of substance. We read in Hebrews 5:14 that “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (ESV).
So if we believe (as we claim) that sermons are intended to help us mature as Christians, I’ve got to give you something to chew on from time to time.
The big theological concept we’re going to be attending to this morning is atonement. At risk of oversimplifying, atonement is being reconciled to God. This english word was itself built for this purpose. Atonement is a compound of three parts—AT-ONE-MENT. It means being “at one” with someone (and “at one” means “in harmony”), so atonement means being in harmony with someone. And in the case of religious conversation, it means “being in harmony with God.”
Or, as a theology professor of mine once put it—Atonement = God + Humanity + Salvation
Atonement is one of those big concepts that our human, finite brains have trouble grasping. So like all big concepts (like the concept of “God” for instance), we understand it through analogies and metaphors. Over the last two millennia, there have been six dominant ways of understanding this work of Jesus, with at least three of them depicted in part in today’s reading. Since they are analogies or metaphors for a deeper, broader, bigger reality than we can comprehend, none of them is perfect. That’s why having a variety of images is helpful.
Yet there are quite a few Christians who claim only one of these is correct—and this despite the biblical presentations of other images. I have even been told a few times I’m not really saved because I refuse to confess that there’s only one image of atonement that is perfect and true.
It’s hogwash. When the thief on the cross asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom, Jesus doesn’t respond: “Today you will be with me in paradise, provided you affirm a penal substitutionary theory of atonement.”
As I said, our reading today contains a few of these images—or “theories” of atonement. So I want to take just a couple minutes to introduce you to these pictures of the work of Jesus. And then we’ll wrap it up by recognizing that the possibility of salvation opens us up to hope in God.
The first of these images is the Ransom Theory. This is one of the oldest images to be articulated by the Church, and the picture is just what you might expect.
The devil has kidnapped humanity, holding us hostage and threatening us with harm.
God chooses Jesus to be the ransom paid to the devil to set us free.
Christ is paid to the devil, yet in the resurrection, God tricks the devil with the old switch-a-roo.
In our scripture reading, we find the Ransom Theory represented in the 18th-19th verses, which read:
it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed [that word means “ransomed” or “liberated”] from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ (NIV11)
As with all these images of atonement, this one finds its power in that the image is rooted in the life situation of Christians at the time. When a theologian named Origin fully articulates this around AD 180, Christians are a powerless and oppressed people. For this reason, the Ransom Theory continues to appeal to Christians living under dictatorships and those struggling with addiction.
The second imagery I want to discuss is called the Satisfaction Theory. This analogy for atonement emerges in Europe almost a thousand years later, when the life of the common Christian there was based on the feudal system of kings and queens, of lords and ladies, of knights, and of peasants.
As a man named Anselm wrote about it, he remarked how the Ransom Theory didn’t make sense:
Why would God have to pay anything to anyone? God is God!
And moreover, God isn’t a cheat.
So in reading his bible, Anselm came up with a different image—one that fit quite well into the world in which he lived. Here’s how he imagined atonement:
In our sin, we have insulted God’s honor.
This “Fall” has sent the whole order of creation into a chaotic spiral down.
God (like the lord of the manor) demands satisfaction.
And this should come from us, but it is too great a price for any of us to pay.
In fact, it is so great a price, only God can pay it (though God is not guilty).
That means only a God-man can do it (someone who is both God and human). Though God doesn’t have to, God provides a way, through Jesus, who was both fully human and fully God.
We can see this image hinted at in v.21:
Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God (NIV11).
In other words, Jesus’ work opens the door for us to trust in God; it “satisfies” the “offense” so we can again be in right relationship with God.
3. Moral Influence
Around the same time, another image of atonement came to be articulated. A man named Abelard described what he called the “Moral Influence Theory.” Like Anslem and the Satisfaction Theory, Abelard wanted to address some of the failings of the earlier Ransom Theory. He argues for a more prominent role of love in the whole conversation, and argues that Jesus showed us how we are to live.
Christ, he argued, died for sinful humanity out of love for us, making the cross a demonstration of the extent of God’s love.
This is then to be our model: If you follow the God of the universe, you will become love; if you follow Christ, you will be an example of love in the world.
One of the many verses supporting this picture is found later in 1Peter, in chapter 2. Starting in v.21, we read that “Christ…[left] you an example, so that you might follow in his steps… [skipping to v.23]… When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten” (ESV).
Abelard argued that we are to follow the model set by Jesus, and that it is by following Jesus’ model that we are reconciled to God—it is by loving as we are loved that we experience atonement.
4. Penal Substitution
Still with me I hope? The next image I want to present is The Big One. No the best one, necessarily—but The Big One. What I mean is: this is the one that is sometimes used to clobber people who realize that analogies and metaphors never tell the whole story. I’m talking about the Penal Substitutionary Theory.
In Penal Substitution, the image is of a courtroom and a trial. It goes like this:
There is divine law, and any lawbreaker must pay for breaking it. The punishment is death.
We have broken the law, and God (who is apparently under the law and bound by it as well) has issued a death sentence.
Jesus takes our place on death row, suffering our punishment in our place.
His death is the payment for our breaking God’s law.
While it may not seem explicit, this theory is represented in v.19 of our scripture reading, as Jesus is compared to “a lamb without blemish or spot” (ESV). This is a shortcut way of referring back to the sin offerings of the Old Testament, prescribed by God as a way of symbolically enduring the punishment for our sins. In the sacrificial system, our sin was symbolically transferred to an animal that then dies and is presented to God.
To help you understand the Penal Substitution Theory, think about these verses from Isaiah 53:
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5 ESV)
The fifth analogy for understanding atonement was introduced in the late 1500’s by a man named Soccinus. This one gets called the Example Theory, and it is somewhat similar to Abelard’s Moral Influence Theory that we discussed earlier. Soccinus argues:
Christ died rather than walk away from what he understood his true duty to God
He would not stop telling the truth about God, even if it got him killed.
In the same way, we are to follow his example in being speakers of the truth too.
A glimpse of the Example Theory can be found alongside the Moral Influence Theory in 1Peter 2. In parts of verses 21 and 22, we read:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.
6. Christus Victor
Now there is one final image I want to mention this morning. Though I saved it for last, it is really the most ancient. It’s called “Christus Victor,” which means “the victory of Christ.”
The image this is based on is that of a battlefield. It goes like this:
Christ sees us trapped in battle with darkness and joins us, like a front-line general
Satan uses his super-weapon (death) and kills Jesus
We then spread out in fear, thinking we are defeated
But God pulls out God’s own secret weapon (the death of death), signaling the end of the line for the powers of darkness
As this imagery of atonement testifies, it is through both the cross and the resurrection that victory is won for those who believe in Jesus. I could quote any number of verses here, but the most comprehensive presentation of this imagery is found in the book of Revelation, as John visualizes both the past and future defeat of the powers of darkness in this apocalypse. The picture of Jesus presented in chapter 19 starting in v.11 fits particularly well with the Christus Victor understanding of atonement.
Saved from Ourselves
Still awake? We’re through the heavy stuff. Pat yourself on the back.
Now here’s what I want you to take away from all this: Grace.
You see, a central dimension of all these explanations and analogies (and there are far more that you can find with the help of the Google)—a key component of them all is that we cannot make ourselves right with God. We cannot do it ourselves. Our nature…… our striving…… our aspirations are somehow contrary—or insufficient—or unable—to get us to that place we were created to occupy in relationship with God.
Drastic measures had to be taken on our behalf.
Drastic love had to enter our world and lives in order to save us from ourselves.
All of these theories of atonement—all of these images of this particular work of God and Jesus—they all point to the need for grace—the unmerited favor of God. No matter how we explain it, the only way we can comprehend the possibility of salvation is for us to realize that God must save us. We cannot save ourselves.
But they all also testify to the fact that God wants to save us. They tell us that God will go to tremendous lengths to save us.
And because of this hope of salvation that we have—a hope rooted solidly in who God is, rather than the present circumstances and choices of our lives—we can indeed find hope in hard times.