Tag Archives: substitutionary atonement

Jesus our substitute: Receive the grace for Lent

UC Riverside, where I got my B.A. in history and met my lovely wife, is just down the hill from Arrowhead Springs, now the former headquarters of Campus Crusade for Christ. So our college campus was crusaded quite a bit by young men, primarily. They dutifully delivered the Four Spiritual Laws from their holy mountain.

Cru people in their Four Laws T-shirts.

One of my roommates had just become a Christian in a rather random, personal way when he was accosted on campus by these Evangelicals. They were talking about Jesus, so he thought he should talk to them, since he was now a Christian. Then he couldn’t figure out how to get away from them as they made their pitch, going through their boiled down, mass-produced elevator speech about  substitutionary atonement. When he got back to the dorm, he was furious with me. “This is what you got me into?” I think he waved the booklet in front of my face.

I don’t think I had a lot of answers for him. But since he was smart and mad, I listened to his critique. And then we all got into a study of the booklet which is still making an impact on me, and which leads me to this fourth exploration of atonement explanations for Lent.

What do Gospel charts teach?

The Four Spiritual Laws tract starts with: “Just as there are physical laws that govern the physical universe, so there are spiritual laws that govern your relationship with God.” We thought:

  • Laws? We’d already picked up on Paul’s disdain for law.
  • Laws that govern? We weren’t sure that God was not governing the universe personally and couldn’t figure out if we needed laws to govern our relationship with God if Jesus wasn’t doing that himself.

When we got to the page above, we were not immediately confused because we trusted Jesus to be the way to eternal life. But the chart just did not sit quite right.

  • We already knew there were other ways to describe what Jesus did in the Bible.
  • We weren’t sure there was a gulf that needed a bridge, since we lived in Creation.
  • And even then, “pay the penalty for our sins” just seemed strangely violent if God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our life, yet is also obliged to roast us in hell if we don’t find it and follow it.

But, honestly, I think the biggest problem we had was when we got to the train. The train made me feel, in particular, like I was getting the wool pulled over my eyes.

  • We definitely did not think we could accept a Christianity supposedly based on fact. Even as undergrads we knew that facts are rather squishy; even we debated the relative meanings of words all day. And none of us could really think of the Bible as “fact” that did not need a second opinion from God and others.
  • We tried having each car at the front of the train. Faith probably got the most votes. But we also thought “God is love” was more connected to feeling, so maybe the caboose should be first.
  • But then we thought a train going somewhere was too linear and that was our problem to begin with. So we put the train cars on a circular track and that made the most sense. At one time or another, they each took the lead.

The problem with penance

As far as the various explanations of the atonement, the one which might be best attested in the Bible is substitution. Paul did not turn it into a graphic, but he describes it well. Before Anselm, the explanation had a more personal, metaphorical feel to it, something like a parable Jesus might teach. Then the Reformers get a hold of it in the 15-1600’s.

The Protestant Reformers refine Anselm’s “satisfaction  theory,” which also has a substitutionary feel to it, and focus it on justice. The gist is: There are laws God needs to follow to be authentically just. And one of them is that sin must be punished. Plus there is a more personal “law:” humans need to feel sorry for breaking the law, not just do penance and think that takes care of their sin.

Penance might be a word you can’t even define now, but it was a big deal then. Martin Luther got a protest going against the corrupt Church of his time when he could no longer stomach the “penance” system. You’ll see a theme start growing here: penance, penalty, penal substitution. “Penal” means: “relating to, used for, or prescribing the punishment of offenders under the legal system.” The gospel of the reformers who win the Reformation wars is, “Humankind is on the wrong side of the law. Jesus stands in for them and receives their punishment. He endures God’s wrath. Just be sorry and stop sinning.”

Luther was a  33-year-old theology professor at Wittenberg University on October 31, 1517 when he walked over to the main church and nailed a paper of 95 theses to the door, hoping to spark an academic discussion about their contents. He had said more provocative things in a lecture earlier, but this posting became a key event that ignited the Reformation. The first thesis of his 95 was about penance.

The penance system Luther experienced got started because the early church was trying to figure out what to do with people who were baptized into Christ and then sinned. Tertullian (c.155-c.220 AD) decided they were forgiven for original sin and saved, but they needed to satisfy the debts they incurred subsequently. The church was an alternative community, so they basically came up with their own “penitentiary.” What should a person pay to get back into the good graces of the Church and be restored to fellowship after they have sinned? They work out a major application of “step three” in Matthew 18: “If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.”

There were (and still are) three main steps to penance: confess to the priest, be absolved in the named of Jesus and the Church, do something to demonstrate you’re seriously sorry and intend not to sin. Sometimes this was just, “Say this prayer,” or “Give alms.” But sometimes it was like a court sentence where you were out of the church and brought back in incrementally. At some point you can stand in the back of the meeting. Then you able to sit in the audience. Finally, you get the OK to take communion again. You can see that this was mainly “doing penance,” not necessarily feeling penitent. By the time of Luther, the church was offering indulgences for donations to shorten time in purgatory where dead people with built up sin had to stay before they’d worked it off and achieved heaven. (I was just surprised by a recent Netflix movie about this). I think this felt like drive-through forgiveness to Luther. Plus the whole process was administered by a faceless institution that ran like the Roman Empire.

The reformers were trying to make things work better according to the Bible and not according to some development fund manager in Rome. Their movement unwittingly rode the wave of the communication revolution the printing press brought in (Luther might have had tons of Instagram followers). I also think they were the flower of the individualism tree that was planted when Aristotle became the continent’s favorite philosopher.

Penal substitution wins at Dort

100 years after Luther went public, Calvinists are becoming the premier interpreters of the Reformation. John Calvin was trained as a lawyer and it shows in his theology and ministry — and even more in his descendants. Calvin turns justification by faith into the legal argument it remains. Mary Lane Potter says, “Calvin’s theology may be accurately described as a lifelong meditation on the law of God.” His successors take obedience to the law to a new extreme. I think their behavior points out why I think penal substitution is not adequate to stand on its own or to be made into a reductionistic booklet.

You’ve probably never heard of the Synod of Dort in 1618-19 (short for Dortrecht, in the Netherlands). It is a meeting called by the Dutch Protestant Church for  Calvinist leaders from across Europe to affirm the famous five points that undergird orthodox Calvinism. You can summarize the five articles in their statement with TULIP if you mix up the original order:

  • Total Depravity – “Man” (not trying to fix the sexist language for them) is completely touched/affected by sin in all that he is (in nature he is completely fallen), but is not as bad as he could be (in action, i.e., not all people murder, etc.). Furthermore, this total depravity means that the unregenerate will not, of their own free will, choose to receive Christ.
  • Unconditional Election – God elects a person based upon nothing in that person because there is nothing in him that would make him worthy of being chosen; rather, God’s election is based on what is in God. God chose us because he decided to bestow his love and grace upon us, not because we are worthy, in and of ourselves, of being saved.
  • Limited Atonement – Christ bore the sin only of the elect, not everyone who ever lived. Christ’s blood was sufficient for all, but not all sin was imputed to Christ. Christ’s blood is sufficient to cover all people. But the sufficiency relates to his divine value which is different than our legal debt. Sin is a debt since it is breaking the Law of God. In limited atonement, Calvinists are saying that there was a limit to whose sins were imputed to Christ in a legal sense.
  • Irresistible Grace – The term suggests a mechanical and coercive force upon an unwilling subject, but this is not the case. Instead, it is the act of God making the person willing to receive him. It does not mean that a person cannot resist God’s will.  It means that when God moves to save/regenerate a person, the sinner cannot thwart God’s movement and he will be regenerated
  • Perseverance of the Saints – We are so secure in Christ, that we cannot fall away.

The other advantage of the TULIP acronym is that it arranges the five points of Calvinism logically and progressively and gives a read out of substitutinary atonement, with each point contingent on the other, as follows. If humans are totally depraved, then they are unable to make an initial response to God. God must call people to salvation through unconditional election. God must also provide the way of salvation by the death of Jesus Christ. He makes salvation secure by the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. He keeps his saved ones secure so they will inherit the eternal life he has promised them.

The Synod of Dort sounds like a theological study group. But it is also (and, I think, primarily), a legal, political meeting. With the synod, the Calvinists anathemize the Arminians who rose up to protest the increasing legalism and politicization of the Calvinists. Arminius was a Dutch Reformed theologian whose followers published Remonstrance in 1610, which is the opposite of TULIP.

A portrait of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt by Michiel Jansz van Miereveld

The acts of the Synod were tied to political intrigues that arose during the Twelve Years’ Truce, a pause in the Dutch war with Spain. The Arminians were accused of propagating false doctrine AND perceived as ready to compromise with the Spanish. The Dutch Calvinists were not ready to deal. So Arminianism was considered by some to be not only theologically unsound but also political treason. The synod concludes with exile for theological opponents and execution for traitors — another episode in the ongoing Wars of Religion in Europe.

After the Synod rejected the teachings of the Remonstrants as falling outside the bounds of the Reformed confessions, a political condemnation of the statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt followed. He was a high official and had been the protector of the Remonstrants. For the crime of general perturbation in the state of the nation, both in Church and State (treason), he was beheaded on May 13, 1619, only four days after the final meeting of the Synod. With this process, the Dutch Reformed Church rid itself of Arminianism, but the ideas escaped to England where they were embedded in the budding movement called Methodism.

The fact that the application of the synod’s findings were implemented by judges and resulted in execution exemplifies my problem with today’s prevailing doctrine of penal substitution. It continues to be exclusive and interested in not only God’s sovereignty but its own. The teaching of it continues to be like an ongoing legal argument, as most people who have argued about predestination in a Bible study will attest. I see the Calvinists as the descendants of Constantine, who conquered in the name of the cross, the symbol of power over the powerless.

Give us a plan for our dialogue, Lord

The fiercely argued ascendancy of substitutionary atonement as the premier explanation of the gospel remains. Richard Rohr shows that Arminians vs. Calvinists is not a new argument in the church. Augustine and his followers fought with the “pelagians” (like John Cassian), and Dominicans argued with Franciscans (Rohr).

We need to keep having loving dialogue because we are not all built the same way and differing views need to be integrated in the peace of Christ, not allowed to become red or blue talking points. I connect the players in the Synod of Dort with Jeffrey Russell’s helpful distinction of the movements of “prophecy” and “order” in the medieval church, the Arminians being more on the “prophecy” side. I think the Calvinists are part of the general takeover of Eurocentric thinking in the 1600’s and onward by the “scientific” left brain; but the left brain is necessary to the whole, just should not rule.

The church has always had a helpful dialogue about the many, deep meanings of the atonement, which describe the grace of God — a grace which speaks to individuals and people groups in all ages and all places. The work of Jesus is bigger than our understanding and perfectly obvious to our needy hearts. The idea of “substitutionary atonement” is in the Bible and in the dialogue of the Church from earliest history [atonement explanations]. I’m not a fan of the corrupted version made in the image of Eurocentric thinking from the 1600’s. But I accept the grace of God in Jesus who bears my sins and sets me free from guilt.

So let’s end with a meditation on the death of Jesus for us, a song that came out in 1609, a decade before Dort. Maybe it unites us all — it has quite a diverse background. The tune is by the German Protestant composer, Hans Leo Hassler. The words we sing are a rewrite by a 26 year old Presbyterian minister in 1830. The original lyrics were attributed to the warrior mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, but are now attributed of Arnulf of Lueven (ca 1250), Lueven being a town just a couple of hours south of Dortrecht in Belgium. The original poem is long and includes all sorts of body parts, but the head is what became most vivid and lasting.

Here is the second verse for your prayer:

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
‘Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

Your worth: Check your attachment style before you decide

I am writing on Good Friday, when millions of Christians consider the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The most popular interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s death is well-attested in the Bible: Jesus is “dying for our sins,” as my collection of atonement explanations can show you.

The story goes: We have become creatures unworthy of God’s love, since His justice cannot tolerate the betrayal of our duty to worship and serve him as we should. There are many more specific sins we carry, as you can probably  enumerate, which just makes things worse.  The good news is: we become worthy as God sees us through the lens of Jesus. We are free to live up to our new, official status as individuals saved by the grace of God.

This particular atonement explanation is especially good news for people with the “secure attachment style” they developed as a child. As for the rest of us, we might want to have another look.

Your attachment style matters

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth did us a favor by exploring how we arrive at our sense of worth when they came up with “attachment theory.” This theory of infant development is so common, you’ve probably investigated your own style. I think such investigation is a good idea, as long as you don’t think the label you discover is more than a suggestion or a starting point.

When you consider what the death of Jesus means for you, your attachment style makes a difference. If you do not have a “secure” attachment style, you already felt unworthy of love when you heard about Jesus. So the story above resonated: “I need a Savior because I am unworthy of love.” I have had clients say, “I am perpetually unworthy. My only worth is what God imputes through grace by the work of Jesus.”  Their theology dovetails with their lack of self-esteem. If you keep the theory in your head and don’t let it get muddled up with your feelings, it kind of works; just don’t look too deep.

If you have a secure attachment style, the preacher may have to do quite a bit of work to make you feel unworthy so you can receive the Lord’s worth. I grew up hearing very convincing speakers who made me feel guilty and terrified if I did not confess how bad I was and get saved. But, I have to admit, I felt the love of God long before I was listening in on adult church meetings. I kind of added on “substitutionary atonement” to my general sense of living in God’s grace. Jesus has always been more of my friend than my lawyer.

Your view of yourself may cloud your view of God

One of my favorite descriptions of the atonement is the famous story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. God is described as a worried father of two sons. Neither are securely attached. That might be due to the fact no mother is mentioned in the parable. When their father talks to each of them, he needs to convince both of their worth.

But they were never unworthy. Their father was always sharing everything he had with the older son and was anxiously watching for the younger son to return. God sees us as children whether we are at home, sulking, or coming up the road, skulking. As a parent and grandparent, I understand the Lord’s story of love and hope much better than the courtroom picture of being freed from the consequences of my sin so I can appear before God with impunity. My children were loved little sinners. I saw the best in them.

The work of Jesus is described in various ways in the Bible and that may not be a  mistake. It seems like the ways are tailored to the intended audience and come from a particular style of person. I’m arguing that people with different attachment styles see themselves, God, and the atonement differently — that is realistic and good. I also think it is better to come to God as oneself instead of cramming yourself into a one-size-fits-all rubric from the 1600’s! What’s more I think we need a different side of the atonement at different developmental stages of our lives. At eleven years old, when I was baptized “as an adult,” I needed more substitutionary atonement than I do now.

The Bible’s view of our worth

No one writing the Bible is shy about naming the sinfulness of humanity. If we did not have the Bible, the Spirit of God could use today’s headlines to convince us of our bondage to evil. At the same time, she could use each individual as an example of the wonder of creation. It does not take long to meet up with the work of God alive in each human when you get to know them. In my work, I get to know a lot of humans intimately, and each one, even in their suffering, is amazing.

The Bible shares my view of humans, I think. The writers all obviously think they know God and have something to say, so their personal sense of worth is intact. When they talk about other people, they often reinforce the fact that God sees her creation as good. Jesus talks about his work as rebirth, assuming there is a seed planted in each of us that can multiply. Psalm 139 famously says,

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

Our own sin and the sin committed against us does wreck us. We need to be saved and we can’t do it on our own. But once I get next to Jesus, I think it is a sin to keep seeing myself as contemptible. Being responsible for being contemptible may be the terrible lesson we learned as a child from which Jesus is trying to save us! If we continue to insist we are unworthy of God’s love, that might be more about our attachment style than God.

Some kids in Mary Ainsworth’s attachment experiments, when left alone with a stranger for a few minutes,  were quite unsure they would again be lovingly received by their mother, or if she would even come back!  They sound like the son who was coming back from feeding the pigs who only imagined getting back into the household as a slave. Other children in the experiments were so sure they would not be cared for, they didn’t even look for any care and stayed alone. If I stretch it, they seem a bit like the other son feeling all alone in the back yard while a party was going on in the house.

Paul, who was certainly good at sinning and felt sin at work in him even when he was writing his dense letter to the Roman church said, as he was ending up his treatise on the work of Christ:

[Y]ou did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:15-17).

Again, in those lines, there is that intimate, parental image right at the climax of his argument. There is no condemnation. The law of the Spirit is greater than any other law. You were always meant to be a child of God and now you know that, not in theory but in experience.

When Jesus bent to taste your death with you, it was surely because he felt you were worth it, wasn’t it? You were worthy even before you were born. You were the sinner worth dying for standing in front of the cross looking at Jesus helplessly. You were always the wonder he knew you could become, just as you were created to be. I don’t think God needs a Jesus lens to look at us. I think it’s we who need the new lens.

The love story about God and us: Another version on Netflix

I have slowly been watching The Last Kingdom on Netflix. I hope they don’t disappear it before I am done. It is a surprisingly religious show which my wife should like. But it is also bloody, which she does not like. So I watch it on very rare occasions when I am watching TV alone.

King Alfred’s daughter in need of a rescue

I won’t tell you the whole medieval plot: soap opera, action/adventure, theological Ted talk all rolled into one. The heart of the plot, usually, is what it means to love. Last night King Alfred had to decide whether to give all the treasure of Wessex to ransom his kidnapped daughter from the Vikings (a daughter who fell in love with a Viking and spiced up the plot, since we all hate her husband). Alfred asked his wife if he were being selfish not to let his daughter die for the sake of the country and impoverishing peasants to get the silver required to pay off his enemies. She told him, “Your honor and hers cannot be ruined by the shameful spectacle of leaving the symbol of God’s anointed in the hands of the pagans.” Another advisor told him he was, indeed, betraying his duty as king for the love of his daughter. It was another interesting Christian thought problem. Should the king sacrifice everything for the love of his child? Should the child sacrifice herself for the good of the country? Is justice or love the main question? Is there another way?

Much of the conundrum (in a TV show!) circled around the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement” which began to develop into the preeminent doctrine it is about the time Alfred was king. I am not a fan of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as it is generally taught, although I work with it since it is one of the atonement explanations offered in the Bible [here is a short explanation of all of them]. At the basis of the explanation is the idea there is always a law to be honored, a principle to be served, some justice that must be satisfied. Jesus pays the ransom due; he takes the judgment we deserve; God sacrifices his own son to save us from the consequences of sin.

This can sound legal and distant, just the facts. It already happened, just receive the gift. In King Alfred’s case there is a deep love to be expressed. He will give all his treasure, even at the risk of denying his vocation as king and risking the capacity of his beleaguered country to survive, because he wants his daughter back. People take the love out of substitution, as if the whole thing is happening in a courtroom. But The Last Kingdom offered a scene that shows how it is the king’s love that offers everything to the evil in which the child is held. He is working with the evil deal that runs the world. He satisfies the false justice and does it extravagantly for the sake of his beloved child. God did the same for all of us in Jesus.

There are other explanations, other ways

As if turns out, the still-pagan warrior who is pledged to Alfred (for a variety of reasons) manages to free the daughter and upend the Viking conquest plans. There are many other ways for God to rescue us, too. The plotline of God’s love for humanity is extensive.

Aethelflaed saved

Sometimes I feel like a pagan warrior surprising one of my Christian clients with an escape route they did not imagine. The worst side of the dogma of substitutionary atonement is the idea that we are so bad we are about to be sentenced to death for our many sins. Justice must be satisfied, because King God must preserve the basis of his kingdom, which is his holiness, his sovereign rule, his law. My clients often feel like a stench in God’s nostrils (as they have been told they are). At best, their inner critic is always matching them up with who they should be according to the law instead of the wretch who causes the blood of God’s Son to be shed. In their heads they know they have been saved, but it is hard to dislodge the deep wound of shame for causing Jesus to die — especially since they are quite sure they will sin again.

On the other side of Christianity, the one before the Roman Empire became the Roman Catholic Church and beget all the other Eurocentric churches, lies J. Phillip Newell and his deep appreciation for Celtic Christianity. This pre-Roman faith is still soundly Biblical but not infected so deeply with the law-oriented dogma with which so many are familiar. Here is his experience of sloughing off the worst aspect of substitutionary atonement as taught in the church of his youth.

I had an epiphany moment in my early adolescence. It came through someone else [than God] who looked to my heart, my mother’s mother. She lived with us when I was a boy. Granny Ferguson, from Banffshire in Scotland, was a presence of unconditional love in my life. I could do no wrong in her eyes even though she knew full well I was a mischievous “scallywag,” as she called me. But she looked at my heart. I knew that to her I was precious….I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was nothing I could so that would make my granny not love me. And so my epiphany moment came when I realized that Granny was more loving than the God of my religious tradition.

I had been given the impression that God somehow required payment to forgive, whereas I knew that my granny would never need to be paid to forgive me. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and the general religious atmosphere that surrounds the dogma, struck me as a violation of everything I most deeply knew about love, that it is entirely free. Who are the people who have truly loved us in our lives? Could we imagine them ever needing to be paid to forgive? In my mind, it was like the prostitution of God, payment for love. I did not have theological tools at that time to unpack the implications of this realization, but I knew deep within myself that there was something wrong with my religious inheritance.  – Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation by J. Philip Newell (2008)

King Alfred thought his daughter was precious (and so did the Viking who saved her life from abuse in captivity!). She was loved. That’s why she was going to be ransomed. That’s why he made a binding deal for her, as was customary in that time. That’s why King Alfred was willing to give everything.

Love is the heart of the story

But I think Newell has a better answer for the depressed, anxious, fearful and angry Christians I meet in therapy. It may take a long time for many of them to become porous enough to feel the love of others or the love of God. It could take a long time to let the idea of being precious to someone or to God get through their wall of constant self-criticism. They are living the famous line from Groucho Marx: “I do not want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.“ Self-loathing may be human, but elements of the church have made things worse. As a result of bad teaching, many of us look at ourselves in ways God, like Newell’s granny, never would.

Rather than seeing Jesus receiving the sentence we deserve, which is more a reduction of the Bible explanation than the whole of it, I think I might prefer to see Jesus as a wild warrior, driven by love, available at just the right time, against all odds, to save us from what has us in its clutches – like the grip of condemnation that keeps some of my clients committed to their captivity. Many depressed, angry, critical Christians are stuck working out a piece of logic in which the facts are all stacked against them and God is so interested in justice he will kill anyone who stands in its way. They perform goodness to stay off his radar or exact justice to please him. But they would rather be loved. Thank God that is really at the heart of the story!