[Note: I am attempting to keep these SBD installments under 2000 words each, but that is–of course–quite inadequate for the topics covered. Consequently, these contributions are more programmatic than they are explanatory or defenses of the positions stated. You may access the whole series at my Serial page.]
Jesus accomplishes the divine mission to make all things new by reversing the curse.
Atonement, the at-one-ment, identifies God’s reconciling act that restores shalom between God and humanity. While there are many theories of atonement in the history of theology, what follows is my four-fold classification that is partly based on a chart by Gabriel Fackre in his The Christian Story (1:133). These categories have the potential to see the whole of God’s atoning work rather than narrowly focusing on a specific dimension of that work.
Ultimately, however, the mystery of the atonement lies beyond the images and metaphors Scripture offers. The mysterious reality which lies behind the fact that “God was in Christ reconciling the world” (2 Corinthians 5:18) is beyond our finite minds. Theology, especially in this case, is ultimately doxological and the mystery generates wonder and awe for those who believe.
The Incarnation: Union of Divine and Human
While in the West with few exceptions theologians have focused on the death of Christ, the Eastern churches have stressed the incarnation as an atoning work without neglecting the passion and resurrection of Jesus. The significance of the incarnation for atonement is the union of God and humanity through the incarnation. By this act God reclaims the creation as something good and worth redeeming. God enfleshed testifies to the goodness of the flesh and that it is no barrier to God’s communion with humanity. This is one reason the Feast of Transfiguration is so significant in the East compared to the West.
Human beings, united to God through the incarnation, experience immortality and life in the resurrected and glorious (transfigured) body of Jesus. Materiality does not hinder the experience of life, even eternal life. Humans were designed—even in their materiality—for life with God. They were designed for theosis—a participation in divine communion within and despite their finitude.
The incarnation of Jesus means that God has recapitulated all of human life through the human life of Jesus from birth to death. God has renewed every aspect of human development and graced it with divine presence. Every aspect of human life has been made new again. The incarnation brings life as the eternal life of God has entered human history to enliven everyone. Life has begun again and this life has been united with the Eternal Life.
The Ministry: The Kingdom of God
The mission of Jesus is clearly articulated in Luke 4:18-19. His messianic mission is to bring “good news” (gospel) to the poor, prisoners, blind, and oppressed. It is not merely a message, but actions. God in Jesus acts to redeem. It is divine grace.
It is Jubilee! What Jubilee should have meant to Israel throughout its history breaks into the world through the ministry of Jesus. Jubilee–released prisoners, good news for the poor (e.g., debt release)–has arrived with the presence of the kingdom in the person of Jesus.
At the “big picture” level, this is the reversal of the “curse” (Revelation 21:5; the brokenness of the world). All that the curse means in the broken creation is reversed in the ministry of Jesus. It is his mission; it is why he was sent. It is what he preaches and what he does.
Luke 4:40-43 along with 4:18-19 are programmatic in Luke’s Gospel. It is the mission of Jesus to practice the kingdom of God. He heals the sick and declares the presence of the kingdom of God in the world. His ministry is the “good news of the kingdom of God,” that is, that the kingdom of God has come near and when the kingdom comes near the brokenness of the world is healed. The curse is reversed.
The “kingdom” here is not the structures and organization of an institutionalized church. Rather, the kingdom is the reign of God in the world; when God reigns the curse is overcome, when God reigns barriers are destroyed, when God reigns diseases are healed, demons bound and death destroyed, when God reigns people groups are reconciled, when God reigns the poor and oppressed get justice.
The ministry of Jesus is a proleptic enactment of the eschaton. In other words, the new heaven and new earth (where there is no curse) has broken into the fallen cosmos in a way that declares and promises the future. The ministry of Jesus is the presence of the future; the future breaks into the present as Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom and heals the sick. The ministry of Jesus is God’s promise of a different kind of world, a future world where there is no more curse.
The “good news” (gospel) of the “kingdom of God” is not, at this point in the ministry of Jesus, the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the means toward the end of the reality of the kingdom of God. That reality is “good news.” That God intends to redeem, renew, and restore the creation and community is good news. God inaugurates, implements and consumates the kingdom in the world through the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
The Gospel of Luke calls disciples of Jesus to participate in the mission of Jesus (Luke 10:9, 18, 23b). Just as Jesus declared the message that the “kingdom of God is near” (which is the “good news of the kingdom”) and healed the sick (reversing the curse), his disciples follow him into the world to announce the nearness of the kingdom and to participate in curse reversal. Disciples proclaim the good news of the kingdom and heal the sick.
Healing the sick is but one instance of the presence of the kingdom. Doctors, nurses and medical professions are instruments of the kingdom of God even when they don’t know it as they “heal the sick.” Environmental scientists are instruments of the kingdom of God even when they don’t know it as they protect and preserve the environment. Educators are instruments of the kingdom of God even when they don’t know it as they dispel ignorance and equip students for responsible living within the world. Social works are instruments of the kingdom of God even when they don’t know it as they work for social justice among the oppressed and neglected.
At bottom, disciples continue the ministry of Jesus. As instruments of the kingdom, they are a means by which God reigns in the world for peace, healing and reconciliation. Disciples participate in the mission of Jesus to reverse the curse as the kingdom of God grows and fills the earth.
The Death of Christ: Died For Our Sin
Christ died “for our sins” (Galatians 1:4) and Christ died “for us” (Romans 5:8; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Galatians 2:20; 3:13). The mystery of the atoning function of Christ’s death lies behind these two sentences. Four points, to my mind, may summarize the meaning of this confession.
First, God removed sin from people through Jesus Christ. The death of Jesus expiated sin. Sin is no longer a barrier between God and humanity. Having removed sin, God created a holy place in our hearts for the indwelling Spirit (Ephesians 2:18-22).
How did the death of Christ remove sin? Paul uses several metaphors. One is a commercial. God canceled the debt of sin. God nailed the debt to the cross. God canceled our certificate of indebtedness at the cross (Colossians 2:14-15). Another metaphor is legal. God no longer charges us with sin. The indictment has been revoked and we acquitted. God reconciles the world by not counting sin against us (2 Corinthians 5:19). Another metaphor is, in fact, the story of Israel itself where God redeems Israel from Egyptian slavery, and in this new Exodus moment faithfully redeems humanity–through the Messiah–from the bondage to sin and woundedness in the world.
Yet, how can God declare the guilty “not guilty”? We need to say more.
Second, God identified with sinners in Jesus Christ. God came near, joined us in our fallenness, and identified with sinners. The holy God shared the shame, pain and death of this broken world. God’s first act of identification was the incarnation itself and was continually exhibited in the ministry of Jesus.
The cross, however, is the moment of God’s ultimate self-humiliation. There Jesus was “numbered among the transgressors” (Luke 22:37). There Jesus “became sin” for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). There he became a “curse” for us (Galatians 3:13). There he “bore our sins in his body” (1 Peter 2:24).
But what does it mean for Christ to identify with sinners? We need to say more.
Third, God substituted God for sinners in Jesus Christ. The cross is not fundamentally a human sacrifice. Jesus, as God in the flesh, sacrificed himself for humanity. God is the substitute. The Triune community itself experiences the hideousness of sin through the Godforsakenness of the crucified one. The Triune community offered its own life, community, and fellowship for the sake of reconciliation with the world they loved.
God deals with sin in Jesus Christ within the Triune community’s own life rather than externalizing that alienation or consequence. God experiences the torment of sin rather than inflicting that torment. The Lord of glory cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). The Triune community internalized the horror and alienation of sin rather than laying it on humanity in eternal wrath. This is the love of God that sent the Son into the world as a “propitiation” (expiation?) for sin (1 John 4:10).
Why did God not just “forgive” without substitution? We need to say more.
Fourth, God satisfied God in Jesus Christ. We do not satisfy God. Only God can do it. God acts in character and with integrity (2 Timothy 2:13). God’s own faithfulness is God’s ground of action. Therefore, out of mercy and great love, God decided to justify the ungodly but in a just way. God determined to demonstrate justice in redeeming humanity while at the same time demonstrating love.
The cross is the moment of God’s self-satisfaction. God set forth Jesus Christ as the means of dealing with divine justice or, what Romans calls, wrath (Romans 3:25-26). God’s own self-satisfaction was necessary if God was to remain both just and justifier. God’s work in Christ is a divine self-propitiation (mercy seat) whereby the Triune community absorbs the eschatological wrath due us. The faithfulness of God meets in the faithfulness of the Messiah to expiate humanity from its bondage to sin. God dealt with sin by taking it up into the Trinity’s own life where its power was destroyed. The Triune community sacrificed its own unbroken bliss so that broken people might join their communion and the broken cosmos receive healing.
I am not sure I can say much more.
The Resurrection of Jesus: Raised for Our Justification
Jesus was raised for “our justification” (Romans 4:25) so that we might be saved by “his life” (Romans 5:10; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:15). But first it was the justification of Jesus himself. When God raised Jesus from the dead the judgment of death (curse) was reversed and the just one vindicated. This is the “mystery of godliness” (1 Timothy 3:16). Death did not win. The resurrection of Jesus destroys death. His resurrection is our resurrection.
First, our resurrection with Jesus is the presence of God’s transforming Spirit. The life we now live is not our own–it is the resurrected life of Jesus (Romans 6:11; Galatians 2:20). We live in the power of the life-giving Spirit who has given us “new life” in Christ. The presence of the Spirit is God’s gift by which God transforms us into the image of Christ. Thus, the present experience of the transforming power of the Spirit bears fruit in us and is a foretaste of our full redemption by the power of the Spirit in the future resurrection (Romans 8:11-12).
Second, our resurrection with Jesus transforms our experience of death. Since God has defeated death, we no longer fear its hostile grip. Consequently, our experience of death is transformed from hopelessness, fear and despair into hope, expectation and anticipation. Though we no longer fear death we hate it as it defaces God’s good creation.
Third, our resurrection with Jesus in our “spiritual” bodies enables full communion with God in the eschaton. Since God has raised Christ with a “spiritual body,” we yearn for our spiritual bodies when we will experience the fullness of God’s Spirit in the new heaven and new earth. Indeed, the indwelling Spirit is our promise that we will be raised, and the power of the Spirit that now works in us to transform us into divine glory will transform our broken bodies into the glorious body of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:21). Our present mortal, weak, and fallen bodies will be transformed into immortal, powerful, and glorious bodies. We will have “spiritual bodies,” that is, bodies energized and empowered by the full transforming presence of the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).
The resurrection is God’s pledge to perfect the world in new creation. God acted decisively to reverse the effects of Good Friday. The resurrection is God’s pledge of eschatological reversal in a new heaven and a new earth. The resurrection is new creation.
In Jesus Christ, God was incarnated among us to unite God with materiality, mediated the redemptive presence of the kingdom of God through ministry, suffered with us and for us, and was raised for us. Atonement is God’s work. The gospel is what God has done in Jesus Christ. We do not “do” the gospel. The gospel is God’s work of atonement whereby God reconciles us through faith. God is the actor and we are the receiver. God accomplishes redemption and we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8).