The Problem of Focusing Exclusively on Atonement

By | April 18, 2013

Evangelicals tend to focus on the atonement of Christ. This is certainly an important aspect of Christ’s work. However it is not the only thing Jesus did nor is it the only aspect of the cross. But evangelicals often seem to think that “Jesus died for your sins so you can go to heaven” is the entire story.

From what I understand this dates back to 19th century revivals, in which preachers began to encourage their listeners to pray a prayer for salvation rather than be baptized and follow Christ. Evangelists want a simple, “elevator pitch” gospel that they may get someone to agree to in minutes. The doctrine of atonement fits this. However it is a big problem to focus on making converts rather than disciples. But I think evangelicalism has focused on the former because it appears to be easier than the latter. (It also supports many pastor’s idea of church, which is to have a lot of people attending the Sunday morning service.)

I believe that focusing on the atonement has some concerning flaws. Penal substitution in itself refers to one person receiving the penalty deserved by another. Christ does this for us. But this has led many to a certain angle of understanding Christ’s sacrifice. It goes something like this: “God is perfect and holy; he can’t stand sin nor even look upon it; it makes him so angry that he requires a punishment to be made in order to overt his wrath; Jesus takes this punishment for us and removes our sins so that God will allow us to have a relationship with himself.” While the latter part does seem like good news (gospel) to a certain extent, it only does so in light of bad news. I think this is why this gospel never felt very much like good news to me.

In the view I describe above, God is more angry than anything and apparently doesn’t like us at all—at least not unconditionally, not as we are. However I don’t think these ideas are either biblical nor true. It seems that people throughout history have had an innate understanding of not being good enough for God and a subsequent fear of God. With this view, it’s understandable why many people will “pray a prayer”, attend church occasionally, give a bit to charity, etc. Essentially, they try to do what they can to appease God so that he won’t punish them. (This sounds a lot like pagan religions, doesn’t it?) But who actually wants to get too close to this angry, perfectionist God who can never be pleased? Is it any wonder more people don’t want to get to know God better? And of course many conservatives perpetuate this impression by thinking their highest priority is to point out everyone else’s sin.

But the story in the Bible has God going to extraordinary lengths to love us. And it’s not extraordinary because we’re so detestable. God loves us because he made us and he made us very good. Yes, we haven’t lived up to this, but that doesn’t mean we’re utterly garbage. To say so is to insult God’s work I believe. It’s true that we can’t fix ourselves, but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything good in us. What kind of god would God be if he loved complete trash? Make no mistake—we’re created in God’s image. While broken, we still have the goodness of our original design. This is why God takes murder so seriously in Genesis 9:5-6.

I believe we need to focus more on the goodness of God and his kingdom, and on Christ and his love. If people can be inspired by this, they will want to draw closer to God and to align their life and actions with his kingdom. They will understand that they don’t live up to God’s goodness but will be lifted up by his mercy. This is the good news that Jesus preached: the kingdom of heaven has come: blind people see, deaf people hear, enslaved people are set free, outcasts are included, etc. God’s love is so lavish that it pours out to all kinds of unlikely people (though there is still punishment for the truly wicked; a lack of this would not be loving). Really the only people who are threatened by this and don’t see it as wonderful, are those who think they’ve made themselves better than everyone else.

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