A gracEmail subscriber writes: “I recently came across some of C. S. Lewis’ comments concerning his denial of the ‘penal, substitutionary’ view of atonement. I have never heard atonement explained in any other way. This led me to research a former and greatly respected professor who also basically denies the ‘penal substitutionary’ view. Is this just a minor disagreement or does it involve an essential truth of the Christian faith?”
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Christians everywhere proclaim that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the holy God forgives sinful human beings and restores them to right relationship with himself. That accomplishment is called the “atonement.” It is a reality which is of the essence of our faith, an “essential truth” in the most literal sense. But while orthodox Christians (those who perpetuate core apostolic Christianity as recorded in the New Testament, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox) agree in affirming the atonement, they are not of one mind when asked to explain exactly how Jesus’ life and death brought about that happy result. Believers through the centuries have offered a variety of theories about “how” Jesus’ life and death reconciled God and sinners.
It should not surprise us that explanations of the atonement differ. We cannot even explain the marvels of God’s earthly creation. For example, scientists disagree whether light is best described as a wave or a particle. And while scientists spin theories, common people continue to see. It is not necessary that we understand light in order to enjoy its benefits. Similarly, we do not trust in any explanation of the atonement but in God who came in Jesus Christ and made it a reality. There is a great difference between trusting in God as Savior and in explaining the intricacies of his saving work. All our explanations are fragmentary at best, for now we see through a glass darkly.
The Apostle Paul contemplated God’s strategy to rescue sinners from all nations and confessed: “Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and unfathomable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33). Our reaction might well be the same when we consider any of God’s mighty works. We cannot explain how God created the universe, delivered Israel from slavery, became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ, reconciled sinners by Jesus’ life and death or raised him from the dead. But that really does not matter. On the day of judgment, God will search our hearts, not grade our essays. Meanwhile, our most appropriate response to God’s works is not to spin a theory but to burst forth in doxology. In worship and in awe we exclaim: “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! (Rom. 11:36.)