Restoring Fellowship With God
Requirements: causing us to despise evil, humbling us, leading us to trust in God, cleansing us from the stain of past sin, cleansing us from corruption and the desire to sin, establishing a covenant (binding agreement) between us and God, planting the beginnings of eternal life inside us, satisfying both justice and mercy, and making us children of God. God's goodness is the foundation for our restoration, which God accomplished in the Word of God becoming man as Jesus; his life, death, and resurrection; his ascension; and his sending of the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes focusing on one area of the atonement leads to neglect in another area, even to criticizing the importance of the big picture. But it is no legitimate complaint to target a theory that explains one part of the atonement and mention that it does not explain all of it; it was probably never intended to. For example, some have criticized the Christus Victor theory – that Jesus has won victory over the adversaries of mankind (for example, death). Given the sign value of the resurrection, it is clear that Jesus has won the victory over death; this is most certainly true. That one theory does not address all the points that need to be discussed, but that does not make it untrue. It complements other theories, it does not compete with them. Athanasius, writing in On the Incarnation of the Word of God, refers to a number of different theories of atonement and different aspects of atonement and does not confine himself to an either/or view of atonement theories.
Why A Sacrifice Instead of Simple Forgiveness?
When we look at our own guilt for various things we have done, we know that our simple regret – as genuine and miserable as it may be – neither works to destroy the evil that is in us nor satisfies those we have wronged. While on the surface the idea seems attractive that God might forgive us without any punishment, if that had been the case then we would have concluded that wrongdoing was not really that serious. And we would have concluded that wrongdoing was not very serious based on what (in that case) would have been fact – that God simply shrugged and forgave. Now, shrugging and forgiving may be fine for a small and accidental thing. But there is a lot worse going on in this world than small and accidental things, and a notable percentage of people are involved at least occasionally in these larger and more deliberate wrongs.
Given that God has the power to heal all the harm done and restore peace and cleanness to all the souls (both the wrongdoer and the wronged), it would be arbitrary if God chose a line of badness and said "beyond this, I will not forgive." But what if God opens his power for all people who turn to him, not just those who were not that bad in the first place? (Some who read this may not suspect much wrong within their own souls, so I write as to those who consider "the worst of sinners" to be someone else. Those of us who follow the example of Paul should be ready to consider ourselves as the worst of sinners, not looking down on anyone else as worse than ourselves, as Paul said of himself.) If God only forgave those who were not so bad in the first place, then how could we escape the view that he saved those who were good enough? How could we deny that they owed their forgiveness in part to their own goodness – or worse, to their superiority over those who were lost – as much as to God’s mercy? But if God was willing to redeem anyone, no matter how serious the offense, then how would justice be satisfied? What is the worst punishment that justice can ask? There is no crime for which justice may ask a worse punishment than death, especially the slow, painful, brutal death of the cross. Jesus’ punishment – the extreme punishment of death, reserved for the worst of crimes – is sufficient to satisfy justice for the most serious of offenses. In this way our atonement has left no doubt that the wrongs being atoned are not a slight matter but are in fact dreadful. In this way our fear is quieted as to whether our particular sin is beyond the price that was paid. In this way our atonement increases the disgust for wrongdoing, rather than decreasing it, in those who understand their forgiveness.
Why Sacrifice Jesus? Why Sacrifice the Son of God?
A sacrifice would need to be someone sinless; otherwise we could never be certain that this person did not simply pay for his own crimes. Notice also that the atonement would leave us in the unique debt of the one who atoned for us, as much to that one as to God. It is fitting that the payment should be taken on by God himself. If our debt had not been taken by God himself, then we would have had cause to honor another as much as God, and cause to doubt God’s love of us, if he had created us but left it to someone else to redeem us. In providing for all wrongdoers, our atonement makes plain that we are indebted to God’s goodness rather than our own. It demolishes boasting about our own goodness and restores us to humility; all alike are in need of mercy. And in God’s providing atonement himself, our atonement restores our trust in God rather than sending us to look elsewhere for our redemption.
Much of this article was originally published on the CADRE Comments blog as part of a serial article response to Michael Martin's article, "Why The Resurrection Is Initially Improbable", Philo Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring-Summer 1998. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin at this time, the entire response is available here.