On the Atonement (its means and results)

As we approach Advent and Christmastide, it's a good time to be reminded that Jesus Christ, in himself, is our atonement with God. Thus we understand that the Incarnation (Advent-Christmas) along with the Cross (Good Friday), Resurrection (Easter), Ascension and outpouring of the Spirit (Pentecost) are all fundamental to both the means and the results of the Atonement.

"The Adoration of the Shepherds" by Jordaens (public domain via Wikimedia commons)

In his book Face to Face, Volume Three: Sharing God's Life, theologian Marty Folsom explores twenty metaphors used in Scripture to unveil the rich, varied meanings/implications of the Atonement. Here, quoting from this enlightening book, is a brief summary of each metaphor:

1) A demonstration of love

"God does not need to be conditioned to love us.... This means that the cross must go much deeper than any attempt to buy off God.... Firstly and foremost, atonement is a demonstration of love.... In love, God acts to give friendship its ultimate meaning--laying down one's life for a friend." (pp. 282-283) 

2) A different kind of justice

"God's justice seeks restoration.... God's justice always aims at making right in relation; justice is the righting of relation, not compliance to a law.... The cross makes sense in a personal world where the Creator acts at all time and in all ways to restore even the faults that ate not God's, but belong to those who are beloved." (pp. 284-285)

3) An act of covenant confirmation

"What Jesus did on the cross fulfilled Israel's language of covenant-making.... [Jesus] knew he was the Lamb of God to be sacrificed; he gave up his life, and no one took it from him.... Jesus did that once for all on the cross, the atonement was confirmed for all time to all people. It is the final yes that says no to human separation." (pp. 285-286)

4) Tied to the sign of circumcision

"Circumcision was the sign of entry into the covenant; atonement was the ongoing renewal of that same covenant... Jesus's crucifixion was the bloody circumcision of God.... Jesus on the cross speaks to us saying: "I carry in my body the fleshly cutting that will be the sign of the covenant for you." (pp. 286-287)

5) A ransom

"[Atonement] envisions buying slaves out of imprisonment.... Jesus ransomed us out of the slavery of imprisoned lives in the many forms we slide into.... He meets condemnation with freeing reconciliation, fulfilled in his resurrection, which confirms that human judgment is not the final word." (pp. 287-288)

6) Victory over death

"Jesus has shown that death is not final.... Jesus demonstrates that ultimate power is self-sacrifice. He overcomes oppression and control by not living in fear of kings or death--he is victor over all.... On the cross...Jesus overcomes all the fears that would stop us in life and death." (p. 288)

7) Attunement of human life to God's life

"We acknowledge that we are out of tune with God... dissonant and disconnected from God's voice, God's will, and awareness of God's presence..... Through his physical death on the cross, and his life beyond, [Jesus] enacts what it means to be attuned by the Spirit... Being in tune is [for us] a present participation in Jesus's song now being sung." (pp. 288-289)

8) Overcoming our humiliation and shame

"When our weaknesses and failures are exposed, we hide... for fear of rejection. In the garden, Adam and Eve found they were naked and exposed. As a second Adam, Jesus hung on the cross, naked and shamed, identifying with human frailty...[affirming] to the first Adam, 'I am love and will not let you go; I will not fail you, and I will heal you.' Shame is swallowed in the gift of forgiveness." (pp. 289-290)

9) A form of God taking on empires

"Jesus submitted to the worst death that could be brought by [the Roman] empire, and overcame its brutal claim of victory by rising again to life.... He is the true king of this world, who overcomes all earthly empires, and whose kingdom-wisdom is not of this world.... The cross gives us the umpire of peace, not empires of power." (p. 290)

10) God's identification with human suffering

"Through the spectacle of the cross, we know that God understands human pain. The God who created the universe is not distant, but suffers with us." (p. 291)

11) Facilitating a homecoming from alienation

"By coming to earth... [Jesus, like the prodigal son] goes to the place of separation, where all humanity lives--and as our embodied humanity, he takes all human failure into himself. He is not God in glory; he is God in radical connection with our soiled, Adamic flimsiness. In the far country, he takes on all our saccharinity and over-indulgence--he really takes on our nature so that humanity's nature will be brought home." (pp. 291-292)

12) Forgiveness of guilt

"Our fear and default agendas drive us to behavior inappropriate to love.... We bear condemning bruises as a result.... Even so, we are blind to our need for forgiveness, preferring instead to hide.... God's loving atonement evicts the threat of punishment; God has taken it away by taking it into God's self. The burden of guilt and shame is assumed by the intervening God.... We are free because Jesus has taken our place. The atonement is substitutionary.... God's affirming voice hangs grace on the cross, offering acceptance that clears the air for renewed communion." (pp. 292-293)

13) Reconciliation

"The atonement was not about balancing books in heaven. Rather, God came to acknowledge and overcome alienation. In the event of the cross, God runs to the conflict, names it, embraces it, and promises to never let our inadequacy stop God's freely offered love. God makes a way home.... Reconciliation's fulfillment removes barriers that divide.... Jesus's death is the end of all dividing walls as he takes on himself the alienation of all human divisions and dies the death that is the consequence of all human division. Then he rises again with a new humanity that is unified in him." (p. 294)

14) Our old nature dies as it is crucified

"In Jesus--the new Adam--comes reconnection with God, a new nature, and a self-release to love God, others, and self in freedom. Jesus's death is on our behalf, as he does for us what we cannot do --change our orientation from egocentric self-service to heterocentric other-service.... We are companions with the one who made us, loved us, and is daily with us to resurrect the image of God in us to be conformed to his image as we share his life." (pp. 295-296)

15) Incarnational atonement

"God takes on what is ours to transform us as one of us..... Jesus is exhaustively inclusive in his incorporation of all humanity into his death and life again. As all died in the first Adam, so all are made alive in this second Adam, who renews God's original intent.... His primary task is to heal our rift in one embodied person.... He entered our frail life and made it his own. He died as one of us. In him, heaven and earth are reunited." (pp. 296-297)

16) The 'Great Exchange'

"God takes all our brokenness and failure, and gives us God's life in return.... He takes what was ours and gives us what was his.... The atonement takes our deathstyles, and gives us back our lifestyle of freedom and joy not of this world." (p. 297)

17) The atonement grounds the practices of Baptism and Eucharist

"Jesus knew that his death and rising would be echoed in the acts of participation we call sacraments. In our baptism, we die with him that we may be raised with him..... Jesus' death and resurrection act together as the one true Baptism--we share his in our own act of being baptized.... Likewise, at the Last Supper Jesus formatted his disciples' thinking as they shared his meal of bread and wine. Eating is a way of remembering that allows us to continually participate in his death and resurrection.... We remember the past, share his present, and hope for his future fulfillment." (pp. 297-298)

18) Propitiation and expiation

"These are images about satisfying the wrath of God or making a sacrifice on behalf of sinful humanity. They are powerful in portraying the costliness of sacrificial love. But we cannot merely see these as transactions or payments required by God to make God happy. Rather, they point to a provision by God to clean our conscience from dead works to serve a living God [Heb. 9:14]. In approaching this view, we must stay consistent with the love of God. We must not impose an angry, legal god here, or we will miss the meaning of atonement. Jesus says, 'For love of you, I stand in your place. I bear the burden of the consequences of human rebellion. I cover all the guilt, and bear you home as one covered in grace. Enter now into my Father's presence.'" (p. 298)

19) Overcoming alienation

"Jesus Christ, as one person, spans the distance of relational separation, joining God and humanity. He does this in his life from eternity to eternity and in human history. But seen more deeply, he affirms the commitment of his Father, who boldly addresses the human urge to rebel and run away. Jesus dispels our inclination to alienation, the urge to 'have it our way' that sabotages connection between us. He bodily embraces the sorrow of separation with the ultimate statement of restoring reply; he shows us undying love in his dying, finishing the bridge that only forgiveness builds.... God does not shame us into coming home or try to reason us there. God simply acts so that reconciliation is completed, and asks us to act in light of that reality." (pp. 298-299)

20) The cross reverses death

"Jesus brings the death of death. If all died in the first Adam, the gift of life in this second Adam is much greater. His is a life-giving death. But to comprehend the sheer, self-giving love of Jesus, we must give ear to the Spirit, who facilitates a fine-tuning so we can return to life, hearing the Father's heart through the Son's voice from the cross as reverberated throughout history. In raising the Son, the Father pronounced a verdict on death. Death, as it was sparked in the garden of Eden, is conquered. Jesus' death confirms that death is the human experience, and God does not eliminate it. But in Jesus's identification with actual death, he also shows that life is the final world.... We do not know what it is like on the other side of the grave. But the cross says there is life.... From the cross, Jesus says: 'I am dying. I have chosen this death; no one can take my life from me. But I know what you do not. I will live. I have been given life by my Father, and the Spirit will raise me up again, I will forever be the demonstration that life is stronger than death; personal connection is victorious over alienation and its side effects--I am the Lord of life even as I die.'" (pp. 299-300)


For additional posts on the topic of the Atonement, click herehere, and here.