Why I Don’t Teach “Jesus Died for My Sins”
Atonement & Forgiveness
The Bible teaches us that we are good (Genesis 1). We are called to be in a relationship with God and have the capacity to obey and be faithful (Deuteronomy 30 and a good deal of the Old Testament account). Much traditional Atonement theology forgets this! Paul, waxing poetic about Adam and Eve, says we come by our disobedience honestly…it is everywhere in our story. There is no mention of “The Fall” in the Bible and any fatalism about our current position is utterly unbiblical.
However, there is also sin. This brokenness around and within us leads to selfishness and disobedience: we don’t act in the way that God intends, thus doing damage to others and ourselves. Original Sin is a doctrine developed in the third century by theologians trying to explain our profound struggles. John Calvin (1550) claimed we were so reliant upon God’s grace that we are Totally Depraved. This is over reach, hyperbole/exaggeration designed to push us toward God. I find our traditional/operant understanding of Atonement Unbiblical and Unhelpful.
At Genesis Church our mission is to Outfit Authentic Disciples. In an effort to be similarly activist and practical, and to improve our witness I’d like to recall:
Calvin suggested three ways to understand Jesus Christ and the Cross (We’ll add two more this morning) that we need to keep in balance to offer corrective to over emphasis on any one:
Christ the King (or Victor) uses military metaphor to express how God overcomes evil in Jesus Christ. Revelation picturesquely describes this. The crucifixion defeat is revealed as resurrection victory over demons and principalities. You and I are freed from the Ultimate power of sin. I like this drama, but it places much of the struggle for salvation and wholeness over our heads.
Christ the Prophet (or Moral Influence) makes better use of Jesus’s own teachings in the Gospels. This is a more subjective model dependent upon our own response to his guidance rather than the event at the cross 2000 years ago. Through Jesus we are shown the Great Example of faithfulness and in following are saved from our all-too-human conditions of sinful selfishness etc. Most of the world agrees with this model. Many folks even from other tradition love this Jesus who teaches and inspires. But many Christians want to claim something more unique for Him.
Christ the Priest (Satisfaction Model) is the most common understanding of the crucifixion and the most used model for Atonement. When we hear “Jesus died for my sins” this is what we are hearing. This model is certainly found in the New Testament (making use of some passages in Isaiah as well), but I believe it inadequate, largely irrelevant and ineffectual today.
Some questions about Substitutionary Atonement: Is this even forgiveness? Is God even a Good God if he needs blood to be satisfied? Doesn’t this God go against all that Jesus teaches? Re: “have you accepted Jesus as your lord and savior?” Is Conditional Grace still grace at all? This model is based on ancient feudal understandings of honor and power; who is wronged and how it must all be made right.
The Central Bible story here is the Temple Sacrifice system (that Jesus called completely into question). This model makes God mostly a Judge whose mind needs changing. But God shouldn’t be the problem, we are what needs changing (Duns Scotus: “Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God”)
I have never felt like this is true (unlike all other models) nor have I met somebody who seemed to feel they deserved even the death penalty, let alone Eternal Damnation. I think that is a catastrophic failure of this model. This model depends fundamentally upon GUILT (which we have discovered is a poor motivator for lasting change) and puts immense focus Beyond This Life.
How does this even cosmically work (just what is the logical connection between the cross and us?). I find this model really hard to believe. (Marcus Borg: “This notion that God planned ahead of time to send his son to die for all sin, and couldn’t forgive us without it, though we are saved by believing it is true…is simply “incredible””)
So something historical to keep in the back of our minds. And to keep in perspective with other affirmations about Atonement.
2 more models:
Christ as New Moses Jesus is liberator from sin! In God’s ongoing effort to save us we can choose continued captivity to ego-desires and be stuck in loop of selfishness and violence, or learn to take a chance and break bonds. Much of our human condition, from mental illness, addiction, stuckness in relationship…makes great sense in terms of captivity. This is the prime theological model used by 12-Step programs and psychotherapy. It makes great use of central story of the OT. And much in NT supports this movement toward greater joy, peace, fruits of spirit, and full humanity. Closely related to next model:
EXILE We are looking for a way back home. Our problem is existential/having to do with meaning. More than forgiveness or being made holy or being freed we seek a way to regain security, identity, meaning in a world adrift. We find salvation in a community of like-minded seekers helping each other along the Way. Jesus is our Moses/mentor.
He is our King/Prophet/Priest/Moses leading the Way to Full Life With God!