What do Presbyterians Believe about the Atonement?
By Isabel Rogers
Reprinted from the April 1994 issue of the Presbyterian Survey (now Presbyterians Today)
All real religion presupposes the grim and inescapable fact of sin; the language it speaks, in judgment and mercy, is the language of atonement. Communion with God is the very goal of [our] being, but this is impossible without reconciliation to God. Atonement means, therefore, the creation of the conditions whereby God and [humanity] come together. - J. S. Whale, Christian Doctrine
Atonement — creating the conditions for reconciliation. But what causes the alienation that makes reconciliation necessary?
It is clear in the Bible and in all of Christian theology that our communion with God is broken by sin, and there is no theological tradition that takes sin more seriously than our Reformed/Presbyterian tradition. Sin, said Calvin, is pride. It is not just doing "sinful acts" that break God's law; it is wanting to be in charge of our own lives. It is refusing to trust God for our security, and trying instead to build our own.
God has created us with the happy privilege of living trustfully, knowing that life is in the hands of a sovereign God who loves us, who cares for us. When we do trust God and trust life, we can be open to our neighbors, willing to take the risk of loving them generously. That is what God wants for us.
We refuse to believe, however, that we really can rest our lives in God; we think we can do a better job of running things than God can. And so we strike out on our own, doing our best to protect ourselves from all the things that threaten our security. We seek control over other people's lives; we figure that is the only way we can really be sure of them. We "love" people jealously and possessively; if they belong to us, we assume, we will be secure. We want our group to dominate other groups; that makes us feel big and important and in charge.
It is a hopeless endeavor. It simply does not work. We turn away from the God of steadfast love, whom we can always count on, but we find that we cannot ultimately count on any human beings including ourselves for security. Painful as this is for us, it is infinite pain for the God who loves us. It is like the pain of a parent watching children doing self-destructive things; children must be free to grow up, but a parent weeps when they go astray. So God's heart is broken to see us being so much less than what God intends for us, to see us hurting each other and hurting ourselves, when we could be living together as neighbors and loved ones, in freedom and joy.
We have betrayed God, and so have cut ourselves off from divine companionship, from that "communion with God which is the very goal of our being." There must, then, be reconciliation, but we cannot bring it about: it is we who have destroyed the relationship. It is God who must create the conditions in which God and we can be brought back together again.
If God is merciful, we might ask, why can't God just forgive our betrayal, and let us come on back without any fuss'? But we know from our own experience that if a beloved friend betrays us, we cannot just casually say, "It doesn't matter." That would be cheap indulgence, a sign that we don't really care — that we are not concerned that this person has been so much less than they could and should be. No, real forgiveness is costly; it is the work of the person who suffers pain and shame in the friend's failure, who yearns for reconciliation but who also demands the best and finest of this erring loved one.
We are sinners, and it is God who must forgive. And God's forgiveness is costly forgiveness, forged out of God's grief and pain at our failure to be the loving people God created us to be. Now, there is a sense in which God always, eternally, suffers for our sins. The prophet Hosea discerned this with great clarity. In Hosea's chapter 11 God talks about watching the beloved people Israel bring destruction upon themselves because of their disloyalty to their covenant with God. And Hosea's God cries out in agony, "my compassion grows warm and tender," or literally in the Hebrew, "I suffer, I grieve" for my people.
This happens over and over and over again: God always suffers agony when we sin. Christ is "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world," says John in Revelation 13:8. That means that God's work of atonement did not begin at Calvary; there is an eternal dimension to God's gracious work of creating the conditions for reconciliation. But it is also true that this eternal atonement broke into history at the Cross and became historically real--became incarnate.
The great Scots Presbyterian Donald Baillie put it vividly, in God Was in Christ:
God's reconciling work cannot be confined to any one moment of history. We cannot say that God was unforgiving until Christ came and died on Calvary; nor can we forget that God's work of reconciliation still goes on in every age in the lives of sinful [people], whose sins he still bears … The cross of Christ [is] the point in human history where we find the actual outcropping of the divine Atonement … It is not that the historical episode is a mere symbol of something 'timeless'; it is actually a part (the incarnate part) of the eternal divine sin-bearing … The Christian message tells us that God was incarnate in Jesus, and that his sin-bearing was incarnate in the Passion of Jesus.
God in Christ has paid the price. Atonement is a reality.
God has to do it all. We caused the alienation; it is God who must, at great cost, create the conditions that bring about reconciliation. Do we, then, do nothing? Are we mere pawns on God's cosmic chessboard?
By no means! God must initiate, but God calls us to respond. The call comes as we hear through the church the story of the Cross and come to realize that in this once-for-all historical event the eternal God was incarnate--the God who always and eternally bears our sins. And what comes through to us is that it's our sins we're talking about; "it's not my brother nor my sister but it's me, O Lord." So we realize that our frantic efforts to run our own lives, our refusal to trust anyone but ourselves — all of this is utter failure. It wreaks pain and destructiveness in our lives and the lives of those around us, and it brings infinite pain to the God who created us and loves us more even than we love ourselves. We know we must give up and let God take over once again.
God uses this realization to draw us back into that communion with Godself which, as J. S. Whale tells us, is the very goal of our being. And when we are at home with God, we can be at home in God's world. We can trust life; we can risk loving people, letting ourselves be vulnerable to them. We can rejoice in our oneness with all of the creation, seeking not to dominate and exploit nature but to live responsibly with nature. God has brought us home, and we can live in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners' gain.
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
'Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor;
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.
What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever;
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love to Thee.**
** "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux.