He was pierced because of our rebellions and crushed because of our crimes. He bore the punishment that made us whole; by his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5 (CEB)
As I mentioned, I was at the Great Escape middle school camp last week. As with most camps and retreats, there was an invitation extended to accept Christ as Lord and Savior. At Great Escape, we call this Commitment Night. Students are invited to make a commitment to Christ (or to recommit their lives to Christ). Commitment Night is done well and is very meaningful to the students. Many talk about it in the Statement of Faith they write for Confirmation.
The talk leading up to the invitation is focused very clearly on the Gospel. As in prior years, the speakers focus heavily on atonement theology (Christ’s death for the forgiveness of our sins). The speaker this week – whom I really liked – was very graphic in his description of Christ’s death. And as he began, I was turned off.
As we moved into a time of personal reflection before being gathered for the invitation, I asked myself, “Why do I have such a hard time with atonement theology?” I didn’t disagree with anything the speaker said.
But is this all there is to say when it comes to the Gospel?
Do I struggle with atonement theology because I don’t want to accept my part in it? Is it because I don’t accept the gravity of my sin? These are questions I’ve been asking myself since last Thursday night. And while I certainly should take aspects of my sin more seriously, I don’t think this is the key factor in my difficulty with lifting up atonement theology as the primary message of the Gospel.
I believe that my sin separates me from God. I believe that my sin is an act of rebellion and idolatry against God. I believe that Jesus reconciles me to God through his death and resurrection. It’s just that I have a hard time accepting that a horrific death was the whole point of Jesus’ life.
For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. – Romans 10:10 (NRSV)
When I read the whole of Scripture, there is little about the system of sacrifices. Not even Leviticus and Numbers are completely consumed by them. The story I read in Leviticus and Numbers is about leading a life of faithfulness and trust. It’s about being compassionate to others and extending the hospitality Christ offered us. While there is substitutionary atonement (one dying on behalf of the other) in the sacrificial system, it was also about supporting the priests and their families and the basis for thanksgiving and feasting within the community.
Part of what bothered me last week is that the speaker never mentioned the resurrection. It was all about the violence of the passion – without the life of the resurrection. Can the Gospel exclude the resurrection? Isn’t it just as important as the crucifixion?
What would the Gospel be if I shared it?
Created by a holy God, we are an unholy people. We all sin and our sin separates us from God. Through faith, we are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Gospel in four movements (written during a class discussion)
God is the Creator of all things and all people. We were created in love and joy in the image of God, our Creator. In love and joy, God desired to know us and be known by us.
God created the world good, but given choice, we chose evil. We wanted to be like God. In doing so, we broke the relationship with God.
Even though we did not choose God, God continues to choose us. God remains faithful even when we are not. Although God could demand our obedience and love, God allows us to choose whether we will know and be known by God.
In love and joy, God the Creator became one of the created, became one of us – known to us as Jesus – so that we would have a way to know God – and to know ourselves. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God created a way for us to choose God once again. Through faith, we are restored – in love and joy – we are restored in our relationship with God both in this life and in the life everlasting.
But couldn’t this also be the Gospel?
The woman, full of fear and trembling, came forward. Knowing what had happened to her, she fell down in front of Jesus and told him the whole truth. He responded, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease.” – Mark 5:33-34 (CEB)
Couldn’t the Gospel be the father who brings his son to Jesus and confesses his own inability to believe while at the same time surrendering that which he loves most (Mark 9)? Couldn’t it be the Gerasene demoniac that Jesus sets free (Luke 8)? Couldn’t it be Peter walking on the water and sinking when sees the storm but still calling out to Jesus (Matthew 14)? Couldn’t it be the faith offered by the woman who washes Jesus’ feet at Simon’s party and the forgiveness Jesus offers in response (Luke 7)?
While I feel like it is a kind of theological superiority to bias myself so much against the atonement and crucifixion narrative, I also hear it so much that I don’t know that my voice is needed to proclaim it.
As I said, it’s not that I don’t believe it. It’s not that I don’t preach it (because I have and will continue to do so). It’s just that I don’t think that’s all there is. Atonement theology – especially without the resurrection – urges us to believe out of guilt. But I’m not sure faith based on guilt is really faith. And I don’t think it will last in response to the difficulties of life.
What’s your Gospel? What is it about Jesus that caused you to have faith and change your life? What part of the story is it that captured your heart? It may be the passion. But it may also be when Jesus looked at you and loved you (Mark 10).
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. – Romans 11:33-36 (NRSV)