Ideas on the Atonement Contrasted

This and the concluding article next month were presented first at the Theological Seminary and subsequently before several groups of ministers, and is being published in response to many urgent requests.—Editors.

R. ALLAN ANDERSON, Secretary, General Conference Ministerial Association

The atonement is absolutely central in the Christian message. But because it comprehends so much, it is not easy to state succinctly. Many interpretations of this theme have been set forth by theologians through the centuries, each of which con­tains some truth.

Other aspects of Christology, such as our Lord's deity, His incarnation, the resurrec­tion, and the ascension, have been crystal­lized into creeds. But the involvements of the atonement have made it much more difficult to set it forth as a concise doctrine. Yet in preaching the everlasting gospel we ministers need to be able to present this subject clearly and convincingly. Therefore patience and sympathetic understanding are qualities of grace we all need as we begin our investigation.

The Doctrine in Church History

During the first thousand years of the Christian Era much was written and taught concerning the atonement, but it remained for Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury, to formulate it into a well-organized doctrine. Many features in his interpretation are commendable, yet he is at variance in some respects with the clear Pauline concept. It will help us, perhaps, to classify the various interpretations of theologians under three main headings:

  1. The classic, or New Testament, con­cept.
  2. The Latin, or Roman Catholic, con­cept.
  3. The liberal, or modernistic, concept.

The Anselm, or Latin, Theory

It will be well to note the Latin inter­pretation first because this was the teaching that the early Reformers attacked. In this theory Christ is portrayed as satisfying the demands of justice, but what is stressed is the idea of appeasement. Much emphasis is placed on the human side of Christ. Hav­ing offered Himself as a man, it is possible for God now to be merciful to the human race because, by the sacrifice of Christ as man, there is now reconciliation. Accord­ing to this teaching, not man but God is the object of the atonement, which is looked upon as a price to appease His anger. And further, although the payment has been made, man must himself do something for his own salvation, for only thus can he be saved. This teaching makes the atonement a preliminary to salvation, which now be­comes possible or attainable.

From this, certain other Roman Catho­lic doctrines such as penance and the mass sprang up. Tertullian, whose writings con­tained Roman Catholic doctrine in em­bryo, once said: "How absurd it is to leave penance unperformed and yet expect for­giveness of sins! . . . The Lord has ordained that forgiveness is to be granted for this price: He wills that the remission of the penalty is to be purchased for the payment which penance makes."—De Pcenitentia, ch. 6. Quoted by Gustaf Auten in Christus Victor, p. 81.

This theory certainly is a corruption of the gospel, for it led men to seek by fasting, voluntary celibacy, and martyrdom, ways of earning merit or even an overplus of merit, thus giving them a right to what Christ by His passion and death provided. Christ having compensated for man's orig­inal fall through His sacrifice, man now has a new chance; but he must still endure penance as a prerequisite to forgiveness for present sin. He also needs someone to say mass for him after he is dead, for no matter who he is he must pass through purgatory before entering heaven.

The union of the human and divine natures in the person of Christ gives, they say, greater value to our Lord's sacrifice. While there is truth in this last point, yet to represent God as standing distantly, and as a stern judge demanding satisfaction or appeasement, is a tragic misrepresentation of His character. Our heavenly Father is not exacting a just compensation for man's default before He can be merciful. It was mercy that moved His heart to make the sacrifice. Nor does the Bible picture our Saviour as an attorney, pleading before a stern Judge in an effort to move Him to pity or compassion.

It was this distortion of the New Testa­ment message that led the Reformers to challenge the whole system. "The atone­ment is something with which man has absolutely nothing to do," declared Luther. "It is already done for him." In this he was right. Not all his followers, however, were as clear in their understanding of the subject, and their failure to comprehend and emphasize the real truth of God's tre­mendous conquest on the cross permitted the continuance of certain humanistic ideas emphasized by Erasmus and others, which later became the foundation of the modern­istic, or liberal, school of theology. Now let us briefly turn our attention to this school of thought.

The Liberal, or Modernistic, School

This system represents God as the em­bodiment of divine love, and therefore ea­ger to forgive. Moreover, in harmony with the evolutionary concept the human race is getting better and better. Consequently all demand for punishment is removed. Christ is declared to be the ideal man who has given the world a nevir revelation of God as a kind, even indulgent, Father. Dr. Rash­dall says: "The death of Christ justifies us, inasmuch as through it charity is stirred up in our hearts." "Christ has taught us to think of God as a Father who will forgive men their sins in proportion as they have repented of them."—The Idea of Atone­ment in Christian Theology, pp. 438, 461.

Such concepts of Christ's atoning work make it dependent upon the ethical facts of divine love as revealed in our human lives, rather than on the recovery of a lost kingdom. Archbishop Ekman of Sweden, for example, emphasizes that the real atone­ment of mankind is the conversion of the human race! And with that conversion having already taken place representatively in Jesus Christ, He now pleads man's cause before the Father. Then it is claimed that purity and righteousness are spreading among men; therefore God has no further displeasure with mankind as a whole. He no longer despairs of the human scene and is now able to reconcile Himself to man­kind.

These teachers even make the Bible itself "a progressive record of man's endeavor to find and reconcile himself to what he be­lieves is eternal and sacred reality." "When man was a savage," they say, "he had a savage religion; but now that he has be­come civilized he has a civilized religion." Thus, "in process of the centuries man has been discovering the truth of God accord­ing to the maturity of his own mind."

But further, "man is a progressive dis­coverer of religion" possessing two natures, a higher and a lower; the lower nature be­ing 'the seat of sin," and the higher "shad­ing into the divine." With Christ as the ideal, or representative man, we are to seek to follow this perfect Example. Thus the emphasis on the atonement is shifted from what God did for man, and makes it de­pendent on what man does for himself.

The Classic, or New Testament, Teaching of the Atonement

In contrast with these two schools of theology is the New Testament teaching of the atonement. The writings of the apostles reveal God as in conflict with evil and winning a glorious victory. Paul says Christ has conquered the whole citadel of evil and has triumphed over satanic powers that have held mankind in bondage and suffer­ing. From this conflict He emerged a victor over all the powers hostile to His will, and brought eternal redemption to our lost world.

In the New Testament the atonement is revealed from first to last as a work of God, not of man. True, man is the object of it all, but it nevertheless springs from the heart of God. What happened at Calvary happened while we were the very enemies of God (Rom. 5:8). It is natural, of course, that the Spirit of prophecy is in perfect agreement with this. Note just two of many such statements:

The atonement of Christ was not made in order to induce God to love those whom He otherwise hated; and it was not made to produce a love that was not in existence; but it was made as a manifestation of the love that was already in God's heart. . . . We are not to entertain the idea that God loves us because Christ has died for us, but that He so loved us that He gave His only-begotten Son to die for us.—ELLEN G. WHITE, quoted in Questions on Doctrine, p. 676.

The Father loves us, not because of the great pro­pitiation, but He provided the propitiation because He loves us. Christ was the medium through which He could pour out His infinite love upon a fallen world. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself." God suffered with His Son, in the agony of Gethsemane, the death of Calvary.—Ibid., pp. 676, 677.

The Scriptures reveal the atonement as something that affected not only the earth but the whole universe. What Christ did on the cross does not affect men primarily as individuals; it affects the whole world of men. Mankind stands differently related to God now because "by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life" (Rom. 5:18). As far reaching as was the condemnation, so far reaching is God's justification through the death of Christ.

He took in His grasp the world over which Satan claimed to preside, and restored the human race to favor with God.—Ibid., p. 680.

This restoration to God's favor changed the whole situation. It was a judicial, or legal, change. It becomes an experiential change only as individuals accept of His love, and by grace become citizens of His kingdom. It is wonderful but true that while we were the enemies of God we were reconciled to Him by the death of His Son. The Jews looked forward to the day when God would judge the godly, or the right­eous. But by contrast the New Testament reveals God as justifying the ungodly. Note the depth of truth in these statements:

But the plan of redemption had a yet broader and deeper purpose than the salvation of man. . . . It was to vindicate the character of God before the universe. . . . The great contest that had been so long in progress in this world was now decided, and Christ was conqueror. . . . With one voice the loyal universe united in extolling the divine administra­tion.—Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 68-70.

And at this glorious completion of His work, songs of triumph echoed and re-echoed through the unfallen worlds. Angel and archangel, cherubim and seraphim, joined in the chorus of victory.—ELLEN G. WRITE, quoted in Questions on Doctrine, p. 680.

Such graphic language leaves no room for misunderstanding. The Scripture and the interpreting statements of the Spirit of prophecy reveal that God, throughout the history of our world, has been in tremen­dous conflict with evil powers, not just ab­stract ideas. This dualistic or dramatic view is the clear teaching of the Scripture. In the writings of the apostles the whole drama of redemption is seen against a dualistic background, with the author of sin des­perately defeated at the cross and com­pletely outmaneuvered by the resurrection.

When with the cross before Him, the Saviour ut­tered the sublime prediction, "Now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up, shall draw all men unto me," He saw that the great apostate, who had been expelled from heaven, was the central power in the earth. Looking for Satan's throne, He found it set up where God's should have been. He saw all men worshiping the apostate, who inspired them with rebellion. The inhabitants of this world had prostrated themselves at Satan's feet. Christ declared, Where stands Satan's throne, there shall stand my cross, the instrument of humiliation and suffering.—Ibid.

However, while the sacrificial part of the atonement was as great in magnitude and effect as creation itself, and was definitely finished on the cross, yet the apostle Paul shows that complete reconciliation will not be finally accomplished until God shall "reconcile all things unto himself" at the end of the age. And this ultimate reconcilia­tion, like our individual salvation, is ac­complished "through the blood of his cross," or by virtue of the atoning sacrifice. (Col. 1:20.)

Systems of Theology Contrasted

Liberal theologians, or modernists, speak of this dualism, or the dramatic conflict between the spiritual forces of good and evil as a carry-over from the demonological mythology of the -Middle Ages. They do not deny that the New Testament teaches it, but they nevertheless declare that this was only "an accommodation on the part of Jesus and the disciples to contemporary ways of thought."

Latin theologians, on the other hand, while recognizing this dualism in the New Testament, fail to comprehend its full sig­nificance. The continuous and conscious torment of the impenitent being a vital part of their teaching, they consequently find no place for a finally cleansed universe. But anything less than this is not only repulsive but does violence to the Word of God. Moreover, as we have noticed, they emphasize particularly the humanity of Christ, declaring that it was as a man that He accomplished something for men, whereas the Scriptures reveal that the atonement, though accomplished for man, was nevertheless accomplished by God without man's help. In fact, God reconciled the world unto Himself, He being both the reconciler and the reconciled. And this rec­onciliation, or atonement, was something in which man had absolutely no part. (Rom. 5:11). It concerned the salvation of man, but it sprang wholly from God. And while He was making that reconciliation, or atonement, at Calvary, no one in all the world other than Christ Himself under­stood what was happening on that dark day.

Appeasement Idea Emphasized

The Latin theologian teaches that al­though God had an important part in the reconciliation, He is not the sole agent; man also has a part, for it was not as God, but as man, that He accomplished the work of salvation. This may be regarded as a fine distinction, yet it lays the foundation for the whole appeasement concept so vital in Roman Catholic theology.

The clear message of Paul and the other apostles shows the cross as the climax of a long conflict, and the victory gained there is the manifestation of God's eternal pur­pose of grace, involving the incarnation, the sinless life, and the willing surrender of our Lord to the claims of death.

In the Latin interpretation the death of Christ on the cross is regarded as something that merely makes atonement possible. The daily sacrifice of the mass, as well as pen­ance and absolution through the ministry of a human priesthood, is also essential. But this is really a denial of the once-for-all and all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ, and it brought forth the protest of the Reformers. Evangelical Protestantism, ever since the sixteenth century, has placed much empha­sis on a complete sacrificial atonement, or "the finished work of Christ" on the cross. Sometimes we as Adventists shy away from the expression "the finished work of Christ" because of our desire to emphasize His priestly ministry. But used in this sense it states the truth, as it is set forth again and again in the writings of Ellen G. White.

Our great High Priest completed the sacrificial offering of Himself when He suffered without the gate. Then a perfect atonement was made for the sins of the people.—Ibid., p. 663.

No obligation was laid upon Him to undertake the work of the atonement. It was a voluntary sac­rifice that He made.—Ibid., p. 665.

There is one great central truth to be kept ever before the mind in the searching of the Scriptures—Christ and Him crucified. Every other truth is in­vested with influence and power corresponding to its relation to this theme.—Ibid., p. 662.

Now while these and many other such statements do not include all that is in­volved in the atoning work of Christ, they do emphasize the centrality of the cross. In summing up the foregoing concepts of the atonement we could say:

I. The classic idea pictures God as sov­ereign of the universe in conflict with evil on the stage of history. The atonement is a divine victory over the powers that have always held men in bondage. And though God's grace was existent before the founda­tion of the world, it became immediately effective at the time of man's fall, and was consummated in Christ's victory at Calvary.

2. The Latin theory, while giving some place to the dualistic concept, makes God more remote. He is pictured as a stern judge who must be appeased. And Christ having died, thereby compensating for man's default, it is now possible for God to be merciful to man.

3. The liberal, or modernistic, concept emphasizes God as the embodiment of di­vine and unchanging love, who showed men how to endure hostility and hatred. And if men will but cooperate with Him in the program of world betterment, then evil will some day be fully overcome.

The first reveals the atonement as a movement of God toward man. The second reveals Christ Jesus as man making ap­peasement to God for all men. The third teaches the atonement as a movement of man toward God.

Wider Aspects of the Atonement

Now let us consider the atonement in the light of Scripture. The word atonement is really an Old Testament word, but by com­mon usage among Christians today it has come to represent what Christ did on the cross. In Adventist terminology, however, the atonement has a broader meaning, em­bracing not only the sacrifice but also the high-priestly ministry of our Lord and the final disposition of sin. This includes the destruction of Satan and his followers, re­sulting in the complete eradication of sin from the universe.

This wider concept, while recognized more or less by individual theologians, is, unfortunately, not understood by Christians generally. But more unfortunate still is the fact that so many have failed to compre­hend our Adventist position. This has led many to oppose us and even to classify us as a non-Christian cult. Perhaps we should not blame them wholly for misunder­standing us, because we have not been as careful in stating our position as we should have been. Some of our writers have de­clared at one time that the atonement was not made on the cross, but is the final work of Christ in His ministry in the heavenly sanctuary. When later writers declared that the atonement was made on the cross, the denomination was charged with teaching a dual atonement—one on the cross and one in the heavenly sanctuary. It is important that theological terminology be understood if Christians are to understand one another. In fact, it is imperative that we as Advent­ists define our terms on this subject, for the atonement is the very heart of the ever­lasting gospel.

The Hebrew word kaphar, first found in Genesis 6:14, means "to cover," and is here translated "to pitch." It is really an Old Testament word, and used in relation to the forgiveness of sins it became prominent in the Mosaic sanctuary and its services. The blood of the slain animal represented both the covering and the cleansing of sin.

Confession and forgiveness of individual sins was described in such language as, "the priest shall make an atonement for him, and it shall be forgiven him" (Lev. 4:31). Individual offerings were brought to the sanctuary daily. And for those who came, every day was in a limited sense a day of atonement, the blood symbolizing both the individual's faith and the priest's work of remission.

The sanctuary thus became the place of record, confession, and forgiveness. Then on the tenth day of the seventh month, called the "day of atonement," final dis­position of the recorded sins was made. And this climaxed in the scapegoat bearing away from the camp the whole dark record of sin. Individuals who on that day refused to humble their hearts and make confession of sin were separated from the congrega­tion, for this was a day of cleansing.

Salvation Understood Before the Cross

Protestant theologians, in general, inter­pret this service of types as teaching that sins committed in Old Testament times were only provisionally forgiven, but were completely disposed of at the cross—the slain goat typifying the death of our Lord and the live goat, or scapegoat, foreshadow­ing His burial. In one of our best-loved choruses this thought is expressed:

Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me; Buried, He carried my sins far away—the carrying away signifying His burial. "The New Testament saint can now know the full joy of salvation," they say, "because the sin question has been settled." Such interpretation, however, tends to overlook the fact that through all Old Testament times men were forgiven, not just pro­visionally but actually. And they, too, knew the joy of full salvation. Although the full price of our redemption was not paid until Christ died, yet in anticipation of His aton­ing death they, as verily as Christians today, experienced the joy of forgiveness and fel­lowship with God. Isaiah rejoiced that he was clothed with the garments of salva­tion and covered with a robe of righteous­ness (Isa. 61:10).

God's attitude toward sin and the sinner is no different now from what it was when Adam sinned. In fact, long before man sinned God had purposed his salvation. Before the foundation of the world God's covenant of peace was established. (2 Tim. 1:9.) Salvation is the same in any age. The types of the Old Testament (animal sacri­fices) are now replaced by the Christian memorials (baptism and the Lord's Sup­per), but Christ is the center of it all. To claim, as one theologian does, that sins in the Mosaic age were only "covered" and not "taken away" reveals a limited concept. It is true that the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sins (Heb. 10:4) and that Christ is the "Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), yet it is well to emphasize again that the Lamb of God was "slain from the foundation of the world" (Rev. 13:8). The Holy Spirit was as real in the lives of men like Moses and Elijah as He was in the lives of Peter and Paul. The atoning sacrifice, while only foreshadowed, was nevertheless understood and appropriated. Sins must have been dealt with even before the cross.

To Christ "give all the prophets witness." Acts 10: 43. From the promise given to Adam, down through the patriarchal line and the legal economy, heaven's glorious light made plain the footsteps of the Re­deemer. Seers beheld the Star of Bethlehem, the Shiloh to come, as future things swept before them in mysterious procession. In every sacrifice Christ's death was shown. In every cloud of incense His righteousness ascended. By every jubilee trumpet His name was sounded. In the awful mystery of the holy of holies His glory dwelt.—The Desire of Ages, pp. 211, 212.

And in all this the atonement, or remis­sion and reconciliation, was central.

As ministers of the Advent Movement we have been urged to a much deeper study of this subject. Note just a few statements from the Lord's messenger to us:

Ministers need to have a more clear, simple man­ner in presenting the truth as it is in Jesus.—Evan­gelism, p. 188.

O that the atoning work of Christ might be care­fully studied!

O that all would carefully and prayer­fully study the word of God.—The Review and Herald, Nov. 29, 1892.

The sacrifice of Christ as an atonement for sin is the great truth around which all other truths clus­ter.—Evangelism, p. 190.

It should be the burden of every messenger to set forth the fullness of Christ.—/bid., p. 186.

The efficacy of the blood of Christ was to be pre­sented to the people with freshness and power, that their faith might lay hold upon its merits.—Ibid., p. 191.

To try to confine the full meaning of the atonement to our Lord's great tran­scendent act on the cross is almost as limited an interpretation as was the effort on the part of some to confine it to the ministry of Christ in the most holy place of the heav­enly sanctuary. And all limited interpreta­tions are to be regretted.

Of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Advent­ists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world.—/bid., p. 188.

Are we foremost among our fellow Chris­tians in uplifting Jesus as our sin-bearer? We should be; but it is altogether possible to put our emphasis on related or even secondary issues while the great heart of the Christian message is left for others to proclaim. In the light of these statements let us rethink our responsibility.

(To be continued)


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R. ALLAN ANDERSON, Secretary, General Conference Ministerial Association

January 1959

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