The Glory of the Atonement

Continuing with my atonement reading, I just finished reading The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological, and Practical Perspectives, ed. by Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III (IVP Academic, 2004), a collection of essays on the atonement in honor of Roger Nicole. Its a fantastic book, one of the best contemporary theological books I have ever read. Its quite dense, nearing 500 pages with 20 essays, consistently of good quality. It examines the atonement from three angles: the Bible, church history, and practical theology. In the biblical section, the essays by J. Alan Groves on Isaiah 53, D.A. Carson on Romans 3:21-26, and Richard Gaffin on atonement in Paul are particularly helpful. In the church history section, Henri Blocher’s treatment of Calvin is masterful. Bruce McCormack on Barth is typically interesting and suggestive, but I find it frustrating when he defaults into his usual refrain of how evangelicalism has succumbed to “substance metaphysics” (essentialism), but don’t worry, because Barth is here to rescue us in the following extremely obscure way … ugh. There is enough of truth and insight in it to make it worth reading – for example, it is well worth pondering his insistence that in order to understand the work of Christ, one must have a vital understanding of his person, including a firm grasp in the problems being wrestled with at Chalcedon, not merely a superficial memorizing of the answer the Council came up with (346-7). But in the end, in my opinion, both his essentialism/actualism distinction and his diagnosis of evangelicalism are too rigid, and his presentation of Barth as a solution is over-extended. Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay on the atonement in postmodernity is also fascinating, but ultimately I found it ambiguous in its response to postmodern objections. All in all, this section was outstanding – and how interesting to have a treatment of Bavinck on the atonement! The only thing that could have improved this historical section would be an analysis of views of atonement across ecclesiological lines – Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, various types of Protestant, etc. Both essays in the concluding practical section (Packer and Ferguson) are similarly outstanding. I would recommend someone begin the book with them. 

Nicole’s Postscript on Penal Substitution identifies the notion of substitution as the “linchpin” of atonement – that is, the mechanism which makes possible the function of all other various components of the doctrine ((445-447). This echoes the view of John Stott in The Cross of Christ, who detects for four prominent atonement motifs in the New Testament (propitiation, redemption, justification, reconciliation), but argues that the idea of substitution is “the essence of each image and at the heart of the atonement itself” (quoted on 215)Gaffin notes that substitution includes both inclusive substitution (representation) and exclusive substitution (strict substitution) – both “in him” and “for us.” I’d not been aware of this distinction before. I’d like to trace out the logical correlation between these two more fully in my mind. I’m wondering if they correspond, roughly, to Christ’s active and passive obedience. I also keep thinking about what I mentioned in my last post, that in the phrase “penal substitutionary atonement,” the word “substitutionary” has a broader and more expansive, wrap-around meaning than the word “penal” (though both words are very important). As I put it there (and it took a lot of mental energy to get to this sentence): all that is penal is substitutionary, but not that is substitutionary is penal. Putting substitution at the center, rather than strictly penal substitution, allows Christ’s active obedience as our federal head and covenant representative not to be displaced in his great work of atonement. It also allows Christ’s broader life and temptation in Gethsemane to come more clearly in relation to atonement.

Another aspect of the book I appreciated was its able defense of the notion of propitiation. Especially helpful were Emile Nicole (Roger’s nephew) on kipper in Leviticus 17:11 (cf. 50), J. Ramsey Michaels on I John 2:2, 4:10 (114-116), and Groves on Isaiah 53 (he shows how the humanness of the sufferer is the major issue in this passage – if it were an animal suffering, no one would deny the presence of a cultic notion of atonement in this passage [68, 87]). Gaffin was also helpful on propitiation. What makes his treatment so convincing is that he locates propitiation within the larger context of sin, particularly in its penal and legal aspects, and divine wrath against sin (cf. esp. 145-153). In light of these clear biblical realities, the notion of propitiation becomes virtually impossible to dispute. Gaffin cites George Smeaton’s still relevant quip from 1870: “the question of divine wrath is at present the great point in debate on the subject of the atonement” (150). I think this is true today: as our understanding of divine wrath goes, so will our understanding of atonement: and so much of the revisionist literature really stems from a reaction against the notion of an angry God who needs to be placated.

Gaffin also shows, responding to Colin Gunton’s The Actuality of the Atonement, how frequently resistance to the notion of propitiation rests upon a false dichotomy between divine love and divine wrath, and/or a false dichotomy between our judicial/legal standing before God our relational/covenantal standing before God. In a similar way, Waltke also shows from Psalm 51 that it is an error to pit the cultic and the personal/relational against one another, here and throughout the Psalms (cf. 59). Much resistance to the notion of propitiation depends upon this kind of either/or thinking that is foreign to the biblical writers. Thus we’re told God is a God of love, not wrath, and the cross is about relationship, not juridical standing, and that the aim of atonement is transformation within us, not a legal transaction outside us. But in each case the two options are not mutually exclusive, for wrath and love are not contrary (in God or anyone else), our judicial standing before God affects our relationship with Him, and our objective standing is the basis for our transformation into the image of Christ. On this last point, Beeke shows how for Bavinck, atonement is only able to deal with the effects of sin (death, guilt, misery, captivity to Satan, disintegration of relationship, etc.) because it first deals with sin itself, as it stands before God, objective and judicially, the object of His wrath (340).

Much reaction against propitiation also engages in caricature, in which, e.g., the Father and Son are pitted against one another, or in which an angry Father is reluctantly placated. But as multiple authors point, in Scripture God propitiates Himself in a work in which all persons in the Trinity work in harmony. Propitiation is more the effect than the cause of God’s love. As John Murray puts it, it is not that the wrathful God is made loving, but that the wrathful God is loving, and thus propitiates His own wrath (157-8). Kistemaker’s essay in Hebrews makes the further point that emphasizing expiation over and against propitiation labors under the difficulty that in the logical order of the various components of atonement, expiation depends upon propitiation: Jewett observes, “if one reduces the language of Scripture from ‘propitiation’ to ‘expiation’ in all instances, one must still answer the question, ‘why should sins be expiated?'” (167). Jewett goes on to argue that logically, expiation without propitiation should lead to universalism.

My favorite quote comes from James Denney, quoted by Packer on 414-5:

“If the Atonement … is anything to the mind, it is everything. It is the most profound of all truths, and the most recreative. It determines more than anything else our conceptions of God, of man, of history, and even of nature …. It is the inspiration of all thought, the impulse and the law of all action, the key, in the last resort, to all suffering …. It is that in which the differentia of Christianity, its peculiar and exclusive character, is specially shown; it is the focus of revelation, the point at which we see deepest into the truth of God, and come most completely under its power. For those who recognize it at all, it is Christianity in brief; it concentrates in itself, as a germ of infinite potency, all that the wisdom, love and power of God mean in relation to sinful men …. The Atonement is a reality of such a sort that it can make no compromise. The man who fights it knows that he is fighting for his life, and puts all his strength into the battle. The surrender is literally to give up himself, to cease to be the man he is, and to become another man …. The cross of Christ is man’s own glory, or it is his final stumbling block.”

Wow. Those last four sentences will change my life. The atonement is the kind of reality that, if accepted by us at all, will have all of us. We can either reject it, or allow everything to be submitted to it and re-defined by it. It is a truth too great to be set along other truths, to be incorporated into a broader system, to be moderated by other considerations. God incarnate crucified for me. All my ego, all my pride, all my measuring of reality, all my intellectual pursuits, must bow to this. Lord, I surrender all that I am to you. Let me die to myself, and find life in you. “May I never boast except in the cross of Christ, through which the world was crucified to me, and I to the world.”

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  1. In his book, Free of Charge (Zondervan, 2005, p147), Volf writes: “Since Christ is our substitute, after reading ‘one has died for all,’ we’d expect him to continue, ‘therefore none of them needs to die.’ Had he written that, he would have expressed the idea that theologians call EXCLUSIVE SUBSTITUTION. According to this view, Christ’s death makes ours unnecessary. As a third party, he is our substitute, and his death is his alone and no one else’s.But that’s not how the Apostle thought. Christ’s death doesn’t replace our death. It enacts it, he suggested. That’s what theologians call INCLUSIVE SUBSTITUTION.”

    Rather, the question is what we mean by substitution.The problem with liberal doubletalk cannot be fixed by simply noticing that Christ died only for the elect.Not all liberals are Arminians who condition the salvation of a sinner on the sinner. Many liberals are universalists who say that God will save everybody because Christ was the substitute for everybody.What we need to think about is the nature of the substitution.If Christ’s death replaces people’s death, why does II Cor 5:15 say that all died? My answer is that “all died” is how the text tells us that the death of Christ replaces the death of all.

    Since the death of Christ comes to count as the death of the elect, once the elect have been joined to that death, another death is not necessary.I’m not sure what “enact” is supposed to mean, and perhaps the word is chosen for its ambiguity, but nobody else but Christ can or will die as punishment for another person’s sins. And if Christ’s death gets counted as the death of the elect, the death of the elect is a death like Christ’s death because it IS Christ’s death.It is not some other death. It is one death, counted as the death of all the elect.

  2. The two best books on the atonement are by Smeaton. From his The Apostles Doctrine of the Atonement : To understand what is meant by dying with Christ, we need to see the connection between the previous chapter and Romans 6. In Romans 5:12-19 Paul described our standing in Christ, and then he added “where sin abounded, grace much more abounded.” Anticipating the objection that would be made to such a view of God’s grace, Paul says, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” and then he rejects that thought with total abhorrence of the idea.

    But not content with his mere “God forbid” rejection of the thought, he then goes on to prove that this type of perversion of grace could not logically follow for a reason which touches the deep elements of God’s moral government, and makes it totally impossible. Paul argues from a fact-the great objective change of relation that comes from dying with Christ.

    We need to ask, then, what Paul means by these expressions that he
    uses, on which he makes his point so strongly (verse 12): “dying with Christ”, “dying to sin”, “buried with Christ”, “crucified with Christ”. One particular verse of Scripture will give us a key to the meaning of the above phrases: For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 2 Corinthians 5:14

    In this passage, Paul uses two expressions interchangeably; that is, “He died for all”, and “all died in Him.” He is describing the same thing from two different points of view. The first of these expressions describes the vicarious death of Christ as an objective fact. The second phrase speaks of the same great transaction, in terms that indicate that we too have done it. So then, we may either say, “Christ died for us”, or “we died in Him.” Both are true. We can equally affirm that He was crucified for us, or we were co-crucified with Him.

    We are not referring here to two acts-one on Christ’s side and another on ours. Rather,we have but one public representative, corporate act performed by the Son of God, in which we share as truly as if we had accomplished the atonement ourselves.

    It is a mistake to not carry Romans 5 into Romans 6. If we carry the thought of the representative character of the two Adams from the one chapter into the other, then the difficulty vanishes.