What is the gospel's uncompromising core belief? What is the line in the sand for the heart of the Christian faith? See if you agree with me.
Line in the sand: atonement
Let's unpack that word. We deserve punishment for our rebellion against God (penal justice). But while we were still sinners Jesus takes this penalty in the ultimate act of love (substitution). His death wipes our penalty clean (atonement). As a result we have a restored living relationship with the Creator (peace/reconciliation). This is good news! (Search for "Two Ways to Live" for a summary or read Greg Gilbert's excellent book "What is the Gospel?")
Christians over the past 2000 years have made this the line in the sand. As Pastor Donald Macleod says in his book Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement, "Indeed, the reason that no council was ever convened to settle the doctrine of the atonement was that these positions (unlike, for example, the deity of Christ) were never challenged in the early church. The early churchtook it for granted."
Athanasius (c. 296-373) has one of the earliest comments on the topic. He says, "It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent." This theme others, such as Aquinas (c. 1224-74), continue, "All the ancient sacrifices were figures of that true sacrifice which the dying Christ offered for us."
Throughout the Reformation men like Luther focused on Christ's righteousness being given to us and our penalty placed on Him. Luther (pointing to Galatians chapter 3, verse 13) explains, "If the sins of the entire world are on that one man, Jesus Christ, then, they are not on the world."
The Scripture verses these men point to consolidate this line in the sand. As we look at the sacrificial system explained in Leviticus, and the fulfilment outlined in the book of Hebrews,it is clear the central issue in this Bible framework is the concept of penal substitution and atonement for sin (Hebrews chapter 9, verse 13-14).
Old Testament confirms it
In the Old Testament this is seen by people's sin symbolically placed on the heads of animals. Sin deserves death, as the law requires for justice (Genesis chapter 15 and Leviticus chapter 4, verse 20). So, the animal is sacrificed in the place of the person. The Passover (Exodus chapter 12) is a visual display of atonement and points forward to what Christ does as God's judgement passes over His people. InChristian thoughtIsaiah chapter 53makes this connection between sin and the Christ being crushed for our iniquities.
New Testament confirms it
Jesus fulfils all these Old Testament verses, atones for sin and gives His people peace. So when Paul tells the people of Corinth (1 Corinthians chapter 15, verse 3) that of "first importance Christ died for our sins" he is pointing to this line in the sand. As Mcleod concludes, "justice was executed on Jesus, and that execution of justice is the basis of our forgiveness." This whole salvation act centres on the atonement. To change this core belief is to change the gospel.
A different view
Throughout church history there have been several different views on salvation and the line in the sand. But here is a "new" one.
C. Baxter Kruger explains sin in his book Jesus and the Undoing of Adam – not as rebellion against God needing atonement – but as a diseased mind. "Adam [in the fall] had changed, and he now projected his pain, his anxiety onto God, thereby creating a mythological deity, a legendary god".
The problem of sin, he explains, is a wrong belief about God, a fallen mind. "The human race is now lost in the most terrible darkness, the darkness of its own mind. It is locked into a cycle of anxiety and projection and misperception." So we can't really know God, he says, because of our diseased minds, not because of any issue of a rebellion against God as seen by Adam's actions in Genesis chapter 3 or God being distressed at the sin of people (Genesis chapter 6).
Another theory comes from John Crowder, as explained in his book Cosmos Reborn: Happy Theology on the New Creation, "The most demonic TV dinner doctrines microwaved up every Sunday – the idea of penal substitution." He defines this concept of atonement as, "God really hated you, but since He savagely massacred His own Child, He's decided to love you as long as you pray this prayer..."
So how do these pastors see God's justice forsaking Jesus in His cry on the cross? Crowder explains:
"Jesus never once said that the Father had abandoned Him. Instead, He asked a question. He asked your question: 'Why?' Jesus on the cross was not declaring that God had abandoned Him. He was stepping into the full psychological calamity of our fallenness... He was asking your question... The only enmity between you and God was in your fallen mind."
There is, according to these current ideas, no atonement needed by that big happy Santa in the sky. He just wants us to get our thoughts right via the great psychologist, Jesus.
The line in the sand
Atonement is the line in the sand. In these examples, sin has been redefined. As a result Jesus' sacrificial death and the atonement are fundamentally changed. It's a different gospel to the one the church fathers understood and to the Bible's central storyline.
As Macleod concludes,
"Christ died under judicial sentence; and he died only because he assumed the guilt of all the violence man had ever perpetrated. Substitution is not the problem. It is the solution. Christ suffered as the great debtor to law and to God; and in doing so showed the power, wisdom and dedication of divine love which was willing both to face wrath of man and bear in itself the whole cost of our redemption."
This is the line in the sand that the Church has stood firm on for 2000 years. It is the central message of the Bible's storyline. If you change this, you change the gospel. The result is God's immense love (John chapter 3, verse 16) is watered down. Or, as an old preacher once told me, "they could be the first person in 2000 years to come up with this new idea, or they could be just plain wrong."
Jeremy Dover is a former sports scientist and pastor.
Jeremy Dover's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-dover.html