The “Heart” of the Atonement (Part 8): Holding to the Center While Appreciating the Diversity

Sacrificial Lamb betterHow do we get so unbalanced in theological discussions? How do we end up emphasizing some things to such a degree that it diminishes the importance of others? My frustration with much discussion about the doctrine of the atonement in contemporary theology is the ongoing suggestion that there is only one viable angle from which to explore the doctrine. Such a reductionist theology puts the church at a disadvantage. So, even while I have reaffirmed in these studies the centrality of penal substitutionary atonement, I do not want to see us forsake the diversity of perspectives on the cross. If we keep in mind that theology is a work of progression we can hold to the center while also appreciating the diversity of angles.

Theology is a work of movement. That is to say that theology is about application to life. We never simply state doctrines as simple propositions. Rather, we explore their implications and applications. Theology is about doing life in a way that honors God. The Christian life is theology on the move. This means that wherever we start with any particular doctrine we are seeking to move towards its center or out towards its applications. With the doctrine of the atonement this means that we can connect the diversity of models to the center, and we can apply the center to the diversity of applications.

If we start at the center of the doctrine of the atonement, exploring penal substitutionary atonement, then we will eventually need to move to the myriad of implications this doctrine has for our lives. So, Christ’s vicarious atonement leads us to consider how He also removes our shame and guilt from us (expiation). It leads us to consider how he conquers our enemies of sin, Satan, death, and hell (Christus Victor). We move from the center to the myriads of direct applications. Because Christ has paid the penalty for our sins and reconciled us to God we have new identity, new power, and new hope. The heart of the atonement should naturally lead us to consider the diverse implications of the atonement. This is a practice in case-sensitive theologizing. We are seeking to apply the doctrine of the atonement to all the various aspects of our world and lives. Some of the people I counsel firmly believe the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, but they nonetheless feel enslaved to their anger. The apostle Peter takes the freedom we have from sin and applies it to this area of our lives, telling us that Christ serves as our example (1 Peter 2:21-23). Others need to believe that there is hope of freedom from the curse of this world and the oppression of Satan (Col. 2:13-15). Case sensitive theology seeks to apply doctrines in appropriate ways, moving from the center to its diversity of implications.

At other times, however, we might move from the outer edges of the doctrine back to its center. Theology is a work of progression, we are always moving. Sometimes we start at the edges, where people are and move them towards the center. We start where we are with our desire for freedom from guilt and shame. We might build that case looking at what the Scriptures say, but until we know the solid foundation upon which this implication rests, namely the payment for sin made by Christ, we won’t stand confidently. I need more than just the assurance that I am not guilty, I need to know how that can be possible. The Scriptures tell us it is possible because Christ bore the guilt for us, in our place, he took the punishment we deserved. He was our propitiation (Rom. 3:21-26). We move from the edges of the doctrine back to its center to ground our confidence in the work of Christ on our behalf. We are always moving in our theologizing.

The truth is as we read the Scriptures we find the diversity of models embraced by the authors of God’s Holy Word. You can’t read the Bible and conclude that there is only one way to speak of the atonement. While we may logically build the case, and develop a system of theology that puts PSA at the center we cannot avoid the myriads of descriptions the Bible uses to speak of the atonement. If we are going to be faithful to the testimony of God’s Word, then we need to be ready to speak with the same level of diversity. Reading the Bible and seeking to apply doctrines to real life is the way that we hold to the center while also appreciating the diversity of angles. As usual, considering more carefully God’s Word and God’s world helps us do theology better.

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