Friday, January 30, 2009

The Religion and Relationship of the Atonement

As I think about the people I've talked to, heard speak, or read their writings on Christ's atoning works, I realize that there are distinctly two approaches to the cross, and most of us are dominated in our thinking by one or the other. Even when we hear one perspective dripping all over a message, we may filter it through our lens on the cross and apply totally different points. Neither perspective is wrong, and neither is fully right, but they're two sides to the same coin.

First, there is the religious thinker. Theologically minded and committed to analyzing doctrinal nuances, the religious thinker is quick to identify the liturgical beauty of Christ's death. Typically this is flows from a modern mindset, very scientific and ordered. We see definite links being built between the sacrificial requirements and Christ's death. We find significance in the semantics of God's holiness, righteousness, justification, imputation, propitiation, etc. The religious thinker is able to explain the unquestionable validity of our justification by faith according to the religious codes that God Himself has established. And he's right.

Next, however, is the relational thinker. Emotionally guided and driven by the reality and impact of God's love, the emotional thinker finds solace in the wonderful act of mercy and grace that God bestowed on us in order to adopt us as His children. Typically this flows from a post-modern mindset, very compassionate and socially minded. We see emphasis placed on the suffering of Christ, the magnificent sacrifice of God to send His only son, and the heart-melting love story that the Gospel narrative unfolds. The relational thinker finds it impossible to contain his passionate response of love to the Father who first loved us. And he's right.

I've heard it said that "Christianity is not about religion." That's a relational (post-modern) fallacy. As our society swings more and more toward an outright hatred of religion and absolutes, I want to emphasize that Christ died to satisfy the very absolute realities that God had set up in His religious Law delivered through Moses. The substitutionary and sacrificial aspects of the atonement are meaningless without the context of the Law.

Yet, the power of the Gospel doesn't end there. In fact, we must remember why the Law itself was ever bestowed upon Israel, "it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers" (Deut. 7:8, emphasis mine). God is not bashful of the fact that He wants to relate to men and women at the deepest level of emotion. He shares His emotions with us in His word—love, joy, anger, and sadness. There is deep emotion and desire for relationship (note, His desire is not a need born out of weakness as the human desire often is) that surrounds Christ's atoning death. Without the expiation and reconciliation that comes through the cross, the religious context of the atonement is also meaningless.

Doctrine is nothing without grace, and grace is nothing without doctrine.

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