Atonement: Healed and Restored

Today I want to finish up my series on the healing of the human heart with a celebration of the Atonement (our reconciliation with God through Jesus.) I love the concept, but let me be clear what it means and doesn’t mean for me.

It doesn’t mean what we call the Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement. As the title suggests, this is a theory and only a theory. C.S. Lewis reminds us helpfully,

“Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important these theories are… But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced.”

Mere Christianity

The Mystery of Reconciliation

The Bible does not give a clear theory of atonement; instead, it uses lots of different images and metaphors to help us to try and understand the incomprehensible. Theologians have created complex theories of atonement, but the church has never picked one over the other. Christian belief only says that SOMETHING happened on the cross and in the resurrection that reconciled us with God. This is the ultimate and surprising expression of sacrificial love of an amazing God.

Let me tell you what the Atonement means to me, keeping in mind that my explanation is not the thing itself! In my love of the atonement, I follow the thinking of the Eastern Orthodox church rather than the Western church. They represent an older tradition that didn’t get caught up with scholastic questions of satisfaction and payback. Rather, they simplify the whole idea. They see that God, through Jesus, entered the realm of death, rescued humanity, and pulled us out into life and light. Behind this lies a profound vision of the love of God.

Atonement is Sharing in God’s Life

Bishop Timothy Ware tells us that the best way to understand salvation is through the idea of sharing. God is not a remote and far-away deity, but one who shares his divine life with us freely, and who also chooses to share our life. In the Old Testament, we have the image of God walking with Adam and Eve in the garden, showing us that life with God is meant to be intimate and familiar. Later, we have the image of God dwelling with his people in the temple. Then, in Jesus, we have the Shekinah (the Glory) of God manifested in a person, sharing our human life.

The mystery of the Atonement is that God shares our life all the way. God meets us, not only in our well-being, but also in our pain, suffering, shame and sin. Bishop Ware tells us:

“The Cross signifies, in the most stark and uncompromising manner, that this act of sharing is carried to the utmost limits. God incarnate enters into all our experience. Jesus Christ our companion shares not only in the fullness of human life but also in the fullness of human death, ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ (Isa. 53:4)—all our griefs, all our sorrows. ‘The unassumed is unhealed’: but Christ our healer has assumed into himself everything, even death.”

The Orthodox Way

God heals our broken hearts from the inside out by sharing everything we walk through, offering forgiveness and grace. The image of the Atonement is an imaginative extension of Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). I imagine the Father going after the Prodigal Son, following him all the way to the mud pits where he is feeding the pigs in utter humiliation and shame. In my mind’s eye, I see the Father going into the mud to bring him back. This is the ultimate expression of sacrificial love.

We Are Not Our Shame and Failures

What does this mean for our spiritual lives? It means that we have a new identity. We are not our sin and shame, nor are we our darkness and our failures. Jesus gives us the beautiful opportunity to turn from all these false identities. The word “repent” means to turn away and take on a new identity. It is good news. In God’s eyes, we are not defined by our shame. Even if we still struggle, our true identity is as a new creation. We are inheritors of the kingdom, children of God, saints. These are not just fancy church tags. They express the identity that you need to own and live if you want to grow in faith, hope and love.

I celebrate Atonement because it means we don’t have to earn any of it or work for it. God, out of love, has come all the way to heal me and to heal the world. This is what I mean by the word Gospel. This is what I mean by the phrase The Kingdom of God.

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