First a bit of background. I have spent the majority of my life as a Christian (21 years) in various Baptist Churches, and if pressed many of those pastors would probably espouse the theory of penal atonement (formal name for the theory that states that Christ took our punishment). However, no one ever really talked about how the cross 'worked', and would generally quote Scriptures, or talk in terms very similar to those found in Scripture. Such as: Christ died for our sin, or we are saved from our sin, or our sins separate us from God and there is nothing we can do to bridge that gulf, etc. So about 10 months ago, I was listening to the Transition Series by Wayne Jacobson who was the first person I had ever heard describe the workings of the Cross. He described the Cross as cure rather than punishment and this piqued my curiosity, so I have been doing a bit of reading, studying, and thinking about what he proposed. After much reading and contemplation, I would say that I have to agree with him and I hope to lay out my reasons why here over the next couple of weeks.
Second, I want to be clear that I am not saying that God doesn't punish or judge sin at all. The scriptures are clear that there will be a day of Judgement. However, this does not require us to make a conclusion that because God punishes sin that he must punish an innocent victim in order to forgive sins. The theory of penal atonement often reads like God is a divine computer where all equations must be balanced, rather than a sovereign being who has the authority to forgive sin as he pleases. I know that last sentence may cause a bit of angst and leave some wondering why we need the Cross at all. Here is a hint - think of who feels threatened, or feels they might die when God and sinful man come near to one another in the Bible.
Interestingly, Anslem of Canterbury in the 11th century was the first to raise the idea of the Cross as punishment in his book 'Cur Deus Homo'. His theory came to be known as the Satisfaction Theory, which would later be refined into the penal atonement theory by the reformers. So what did people believe for the first 1000 years of the Christian faith? Prior to Anslem, the prevailing theory was known as the Ransom theory which stated that Jesus ransomed humanity from the power of sin, death, and the devil. A more refined modern version of this theory is called 'Christus Victor' which implies that Christ triumphed over sin, death and the devil. This idea is actually portrayed in the movie 'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe'. In the movie, Edward transgresses and because of that his blood belongs to the White Witch. Aslan makes an agreement with the Witch to die in Edwards place and the Witch agrees thinking that she will be rid of Aslan for good and be able to rule Narnia as she pleases. However, she didn't understand that what Aslan was doing would result in his victory over her.
So hear are the major areas that I hope to cover in the weeks ahead:
- Scriptural Language of the Cross.
- Who is the Cross for? Was the cross the sacrifice God gave (we needed), or was it the sacrifice God requires? Could it be both?
- Who does the Cross change?
- Penal Atonement doesn't take sin seriously enough. (I can hear you now thinking -- What in the world is he talking about? -- Stay tuned)
In the mean time here are some sites you can visit if you are interested in your own research.
- Transitions on Lifestream. (listen to session 4, if you don't have time for the whole thing)
- Penal substitution theory on theopedia
- Christus Victor theory on theopedia
- INTERVIEW - Wayne Grudem, Part Six - Did Steve Chalke Blaspheme About the Atonement?
Here are a couple of parting thoughts for you as you ponder this mystery. First, it is a mystery and when our feeble minds try to form words to describe the reality of what happened at the Cross, we automatically begin to make it something less than what it really is. Second, this is an idea that is under construction for me, so I am hoping that others will participate in the discussion to make points I may have not considered, etc. Finally please keep it civil, I will mod out any ad-hominem arguments.
Have fun and feel free to comment.