Payment or Forgiveness? Putting the Gospel Back into the Atonement

This post originally appeared on The Missio Alliance Blog on June 8, 2015.

By now it has become fairly common for many evangelicals to have expanded their understanding of the gospel to include the good news about the Kingdom of God, and about a new way of life that is made available in the Spirit because of Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection. This should be celebrated! And the message still needs to be proclaimed throughout our culture and the whole earth, for that matter, but it is really great that there has been some headway made on this front in many churches, thanks to scholars like N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and many others before and after them.

At the same time, a problem remains within these same evangelical circles concerning the way we think about the gospel. The “Kingdom-of-God critique” does succeed at making the gospel bigger and more contextualized. It reveals that the good news is for all of creation, and not just human beings, and it situates the story of Jesus within the larger history of Israel as its climax and completion. This is very good, but we still need more.

Because, despite this welcomed and necessary expansion of the good news, it is not fundamentally corrective enough. Which is why it has been picked up fairly easily and simply “added on” to the “forgiveness-of-sins-gospel” – what Scot McKnight calls the “soterion gospel.” [1] It’s kind of like when preachers say, “The gospel isn’t just about going to heaven when you die.” To which everyone then replies in their minds, “well, sure, but if Jesus had to pay for my sins in order for God to forgive me, isn’t it still the most important part?” And based on that logic, the answer is “Yes, it is.” Which is why the logic itself has to be challenged. The question is, how is the forgiveness of sins understood in the first place?

Tony Jones has recently written a book entitled, Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution. This is because Tony thinks that this is pretty much the most important question facing Christian theology right now, and I agree with him. Tony calls the dominant atonement theory in many churches the “payment model,” more commonly known as penal substitution. In this post I want to very briefly compare and talk about two ways of imagining a substitutionary model of the atonement. In short, what I think we need is a substitution model that isn’t penal. Because, for one thing, without substitution, I think we lose something central and essential when it comes to our reasons for being Christian altogether. And for another thing, “penal” sounds way too much like “penis.”

The most popular way of understanding substitution goes something like this: using a courtroom analogy, we owe God a debt or payment for our sin as punishment for it that we ourselves cannot possibly repay. Therefore, God sends Jesus to take our place and pay it for us – namely, by suffering the punishment for our sins. And it is because of this that God is able to forgive us.

In an interview with Gary Moon a number of years ago, Dallas Willard said this about penal substitution: “It is true that human beings have sinned, and this sin is ultimately an offense against God. The question is how this can be set right.” [2] The problem with penal substitution, for Willard, is that it “presents God as someone who never [really] forgives.” Because “if you get off the hook, it’s because someone paid for it,” Willard explains – not because you were truly forgiven. It takes the gospel out of the gospel! If someone owes me a debt, and a friend pays it instead, I may very well decide to call it even, but that does not mean I have forgiven anything. In fact, the whole exchange has still taken place according to the law.

One of the most damaging outcomes of this kind of theology, in my experience, has been how it can lead people to feel, whether consciously or unconsciously, like God doesn’t really love them. Now, some well-known pastors in neo-reformed churches are fond of the rejoinder that God loves us exactly as we are right now – not some future version of us. True enough, but the theology of many of these preachers doesn’t jive with this statement. It would be more correct if they said, “God loves you just as you are right now, because when God looks at you, God sees Jesus – not you.” No wonder this logic can leave people afraid of God and moralistic in their practice of faith!

The other way to understand substitution, as “non-penal,” might go something like this: God is indeed grieved over our estrangement from right-relationship with him. God is angry when we hurt each other and when we idolize impermanent things. God’s love has been wounded, and for this God is rightfully “wrathful” toward our sin. But in God’s love through Christ, that sin is “paid for” by God simply eating the cost of it, so to speak — not by having someone else pay for it. This is not cheap grace. It still comes at a huge price to God. It is “paid” by God stepping in to take the blow that we are levelling against ourselves and against God. God does not kill Jesus. We do. Our sin and violence does. And the performative demonstration of this is the cross, which is the ultimate expression of injustice, alienation and betrayal of God and others. It is both the symbolic and the real history of what God has always already been willing to do, which is not to demand payment, but to incur the debt of sin into his own being. In this way the “debt” is vanquished.

I find the way Brian Zahnd has put it here to be illuminating: “At the cross we discover a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. The cross is where God in Christ absorbs sin and recycles it into forgiveness. The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives” (emphasis added) [3].

Of course, some will understandably ask where this alternative theory comes from in Scripture. And I would first point out that the payment model isn’t spelled out in Scripture either. It too is a theory. Many times when we read about sacrifice, ransom, the shedding of blood for forgiveness, or Christ’s “dying for our sins,” we assume we already know what is being said because we’ve been taught a particular theory as the one true meaning. So we aren’t able to hear anything different.

Secondly, a genuinely Trinitarian understanding of God is what allows for an enriched and more biblical, as well as more traditional, concept of grace and salvation. God in Christ (their agency can never be divided!) takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), to use John the Baptist’s words, and then converts it into a peace offering (John 20:21). This is actually what it means to be loving, to live life in the Spirit, and to live in the Kingdom of God: to become the kind of people who are able to transform for others what they cannot transform for themselves. All of their resentment, negativity, fear, and hate is consumed and swallowed up rather than reciprocated. And so God in Christ subsumes our evil and does not return it. By this we are enabled both to be freed from it, as well as to free others from it – which is also a good job description for the church!

But maybe nowhere in the Bible is forgiveness better illustrated than in the parable of the Prodigal Son. When the younger brother abandons his family and asks to receive his inheritance only to go and squander it, the costliness of the father’s consent to this request is unimaginably high. The burning passion he must have felt against his son’s rebellion and dishonoring behavior was surely inexpressibly painful and enraging. And yet, at the center of all the conflict within the father’s heart remains an unconditional offer of forgiveness even before the son decides to return. What the return activates is simply the process of relational reconciliation, not the efficacy of payment for the debt that he owed. The father has already “paid” the debt with his love in all his time of waiting – love which is big enough to “satisfy” the sin and grievances of seventy times seven sons! Technically though, it is not payment of debt, as many of our praise songs would suggest, but forgiveness of debt. This difference makes all the difference.

[1] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2013/04/24/you-might-have-a-soterian-gospel-if-you/

[2] http://conversationsjournal.com/2010/04/getting-the-elephant-out-of-the-sanctuary/

[3] http://brianzahnd.com/2014/04/dying-sins-work/