Ask the Thoughtful Pastor: Atonement and Salvation

The Twelfth Station of the Cross
The Twelfth Station of the Cross via Wikimedia Commons

Two similar questions for the Thoughtful Pastor today from theologically deep thinkers.

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: “What was the saving work that was accomplished on the cross?  The Penal Substitutionary model seems inconsistent with my understanding of a loving God, as does the Ransom model.  I struggle with how Jesus’ death ‘saves’ me, and would love to get your take on the atonement.”

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: “How do I know I am saved? What, exactly is salvation?”

Dear Theologically Deeps: You two do know that I expected this to be an EASY column to write, don’t you? As in, questions like “Is it ok to go to church casually dressed?” (yeah, fine) or “can you differentiate supralapsarian theory from pre-lapsarian theory?” (yeah, right).

But noooo, I get questions like this.

I heard one speaker at a Christian conference say, “Jesus walked on the earth over 2000 years ago and we still can’t figure out what it means to be saved.”

He nailed it.

So let’s just leap into the deep waters here. There are actually multiple theories of atonement, “atonement” being loosely defined as the way we sinful, broken humans find our way back into the holy presence of God. Another word for it is “reconciliation.” Two parties who have significant and possibly even unbridgable differences come together in wholeness and with free hearts, no longer asking for or offering punishment or penance.

The concept of atonement dates all the way back to early Hebrew law and is celebrated today in the Jewish Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement.. This day of fasting and repentance offers time to look closely at both personal and societal sins and to seek to make right what has gone so badly askew in the preceding year.

As those early worshippers confessed their wrongdoings, certain ceremonies would take place that would symbolize the removal of sin and wickedness from among them and would also signal that God had yet once more received them and offered forgiveness. At the time these ceremonies were established, blood sacrifice was the normal form of appeasement before God. The big step forward for the Hebrews is that they used animals, not humans, for their sacrificial ceremonies.

Out of this background ultimately grew the penal substitution understanding of the work on the cross: God has such hatred of sin and need to punish the wrongdoers that only death can satisfy God’s wrath. Jesus’s death then “substituted” for the death of everyone else, permitting us entrance into heaven. The enemy is sin.

You also mentioned the Ransom theory. Here we humans have placed ourselves under the authority of Satan. Jesus offers himself as a ransom for us, essentially making a deal with the devil. “If I die, you have to set them free.” God then fooled Satan by raising Jesus from the dead. Here, the enemy is sin.

Another option is the Perfect Penitent theory. Repentance, the profound changing of mind and action, comes poorly to most us of. So when Jesus accepts death, he enacts perfect repentance on behalf of the human race. Although innocent, he represents all humanity by being punished on our account. The enemy is us, and our collective inability to repent.

The one I have come to favor is called the Powerful Weakness or Foolish Wisdom theory. In this understanding, Jesus becomes totally vulnerable on the cross, offering forgiveness to all who have betrayed him.

This understanding calls us to set down our need for vengeance, to see sacrifice, not violence or retribution, as the centerpiece of God’s kingdom. It displays the pain of forgiveness and its absolute centrality to reconciliation between God and humankind and between people. Betrayal is an experience common to all–and by intentionally offering forgiveness instead of the normal tendency to take vengeance, the world is transformed. Because the act of intentional forgiveness makes us vulnerable to be hurt again, the enemy is invulnerability.

So, to the second question, what then is salvation?

I see it as a three-tiered reconciliation: a return to the place of forgiven intimacy with God, with one another and with the created world. The Bible describes it as the Garden of Eden, a place where we are both fully known and fully loved or, as the Scriptures put it, “naked and not ashamed.”

It means a sense of wholeness, of soul health. Jesus described eternal life as knowing God–knowing in the sense of profound and transformational relationship. It’s both a momentary and a life-long process.



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All questions are welcome. You can email your questions to thoughtfulpastor@gmail.com, “like” her Facebook Page, use this form to send them or message her on Twitter. You can also send a question through conventional mail to the following address: Thoughtful Pastor, 314 E. Hickory St., Denton, TX, 76202.

[Note: a version of this column will appear in the Friday, October 23, 2015 print and online editions of The Denton Record Chronicle.]

One thought on “Ask the Thoughtful Pastor: Atonement and Salvation

  1. Excellent answer Christy. I would recommend two books on at-one-ment as I like to call it. One is “Who Will Be Saved” by Bishop William Willimon and the other is “Recovering the Scandal of the Cross” by Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker.

    Liked by 1 person

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