So among the academics, a long-running debate just keeps on going: What is the right way to understand what Jesus has done for us? What is the best way to think about it and explain it? Some favor the "penal substitution" theory of atonement, focusing on how Jesus takes our place as sinner to receive punishment and fulfill justice. Others favor the "Christus Victor" theory of atonement, exalting Jesus for having won the victory over sin, death, and hell. There has been debate -- sometimes heated argument -- about how it all works, about what each theory explains better and what the other leaves out. Some would say there is some distortion of God's character if the wrong understanding is accepted. Others say that these two theories can both be true, and can both explain part of the picture.
But while we're on the subject of things that are left out by these different views of atonement, it bears mentioning that both of them leave out how God restores us, and how we come to lead new lives. These are seen as a different topic. Some questions aren't really addressed, questions like:
- What does baptism have to do with the forgiveness of sins?
- How do we come to new life?
- What does it mean to be children of God?
If one or the other of these theories -- or even the pair together -- is taken as the whole of what the Bible says about our being reconciled to God, then certain parts of the Bible do not fit comfortably. If the whole picture of judgment is that Christ is our substitute, then there is not really much point to Jesus having told the parable of the sheep and the goats as a picture of the last judgment. If the whole picture of forgiveness is a matter of trading places, then how best can we explain the apostles' call, "Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins"?
Many are drawn to speak of Christ as victor and Christ as substitute because these keep the focus on Christ. Help comes from God, not from ourselves. Goodness comes from him, and we depend on his mercy. The risk of focusing only on God is that we can lose sight of what it has to do with us; but the risk goes both ways. As soon as we look at ourselves and how we fit into the picture, we start sounding as though it depended on us, our efforts, our goodness. We easily lose sight of God. Some people, focusing on the human side, have entirely lost sight of God's forgiveness.
At this point I hope I've explained why I think there's room for more to be said about atonement, about the questions left open or left on the sidelines. There are topics that are treated as if they don't belong in a discussion of the atonement, when clearly they're part of the picture of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. And the Bible as a whole has some prominent "leftover parts" when viewed only through those lenses. In my next post (not counting the "prayer" series) I hope to introduce a "restoration" perspective on atonement.