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A Community Called Atonement

     Well known author and New Testament scholar, Scot McKnight, was on our campus this past week.  The focus of much of his attention over the past several years has been on forming the framework out of which a more gospels-centered (that is, Jesus-centered) understanding of the Christian life might be formed.  His recent bestseller, Jesus Creed, is one example of this.

     But, it is his best known work, A Community Called Atonement, that continues to impact students, pastors, and laypeople that I want to talk about here.  Many of us have been raised to think of the work of Jesus as almost entirely centered on the act of dying for our sins.  Because of that, many of us focused far more on the epistles than on the gospels.  I look back on my own epistles-dominated preaching emphases back in the 1980s, and I understand why John Piper, who still champions this approach, can speak of  "the religion of Paul" as theological shorthand for Christianity.
     Today a large number of preachers and teachers and scholars are challenging these ideas.  Some are challenging the whole notion of penal substitution (Jesus' death as a punishment from the justice of God offered in our place).  Some, are questioning the traditional doctrine of hell.  At least some of this is the common phenomenon present in reactive theology: what my grandmother called throwing out the baby with the bath water.

     Scot McKnight, however, brings a balanced and nuanced understanding of the work of Christ.  In this, the traditional understanding of the crucifixion as a substitute for the wrath of God is embraced.  But, it is placed within a much broader concept of atonement. What makes  A Community Called Atonement  remarkable, is the way in which the more holistic view of the work of Christ and the mission of the church is presented.
     If you have not read this book, I wish I knew how to absolutely persuade you in a blog post to stop right now and order it or get it in Kindle format.  It is not a long book.  (I'm sure that information helps.)  It is not an academic treatise. (I hear those mental cogs starting to turn now...).  It has short chapters. (...starting to pull out that credit card to place the online order.)  And, it tells you the secret of how to keep a guitar perfectly in tune for more than thirty minutes. (What?  Your mind is now totally made up.  You now know this is a must-have book.)
     The question, "How can I be saved?"  Or, stated more starkly, "How can I be saved from hell and promise a joyful life after death?" is frequently unavoidable.  In this question looms the primary threat of a just God condemning willful rebels or, alternatively, pronouncing them justified through Christ and withholding condemnation.  This image of God and of the work of Christ has solid biblical support and is certainly not unworthy of God.
     But, it is woefully inadequate.  It's focus is rooted in a remarkably limited view of what it is God is doing in the world through Christ.  In this view, there really is little needed of Christ beyond his atoning death (and the resurrection that confirms the validity of that atoning death).  We find ourselves reduced to saying the three years before that were just because he had to train the apostles, the church's first evangelists.  
     After bringing oneself into the sphere of that saving-death, a person can turn happily to the life-application portions of the epistles.  This is not to say the view does not foster the desire for personal holiness.  Indeed, properly understood, salvation from hell fosters a lifelong sense of gratitude out of which daily holiness froms an extended thank you letter to God.
     What I long believed and taught was an approach to the gospel that sounded something like this:  You are guilty before an all-knowing and just God.  This is bad news.  And, you cannot possible remove your own guilt.  You are surely doomed.  Now, let me help you discover the grace of God based on the death of Christ.  Through faith you can be certain that His death pays the full price for your sins.  Now, clothed in Christ, you stand before God entirely innocent.  You no longer fear judgment and hell.  The rest of your life can now be lived out of my joyful gratitude for this grace/gift.  After death, we do not need to fear judgment, but we are certain we will go to heaven. 
     Isn't that all true?  I still believe it true.  McKnight will also affirm it is true.  It is just very incomplete.  It is a view of atonement that is too narrowly defined and this narrow understanding colors how we see the rest of scripture and how we understand our place in the world.
     I am generally suspicious of new ideas about Christianity.  Ours is a 2000 year old faith. Many times concepts or new perspectives or new approaches are wrong.  Three things, though, ought to give any biblically-informed Christian leader some serious pause about the view of atonement held and taught for many years.  
     First, it genuinely does diminish other aspects of Christ's ministry into little more than a background canvas over which the cross will dominate.  This cross-centered gospel ironically pulls us away from the gospels so effectively many evangelicals could give a basic outline of Romans 1-8 and be wholly unable to give a similar outline of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  Many would see the primary reason for turning to the gospels is to demonstrate we cannot be saved by law or to show us the importance of reaching the lost with that same message.  If you already know that, then you can skip on down to the advanced lessons.  So, let's turn to the epistle of....
     Second, this version of the good-news is a highly individualistic understanding of God's work through Christ.  Even for Christians active in church, the church serves mostly as an agent of evangelism.  It is not a community through which God is broadly reversing the sad tale of human history since Eden.  So, it is not too surprising that many Bible believing evangelicals see the church as more or less optional  I do not need to the church to be forgiven by God.  Therefore, I do not need the church
     Lastly, this "How can I get saved?" gospel oddly ignores the broader glory of God.  Relieving a few human beings of personal guilt does little to address the many things the entrance of sin has brought on the world.  God seems content to leave the tragic results of rebellion pretty much in place, focusing instead of providing legal forgiveness for the Chosen.  Faced with poverty, oppression, injustice, and greed, many evangelical Christians all but shrug their shoulders with disinterest and simply assume, once they know they are saved, God will simply fix the rest of the world after the Second Coming.
     The message you'd pick up from many evangelical pulpits would be that concerns for social justice, addressing racism, reconciliation of Jews and Arabs, stewardship of the earth, and all such things can be left to the theological liberals who believe little or to the secularists who believe nothing of the gospel.  McKnight's book presents a startling challenge:  Biblically faithful Christianity that accepts a traditional understanding of substitutionary atonement must reframe that truth within a much fuller understanding of "atonement."  The whole incarnation of the Messiah-King-God-Among-Us is fully connected to the atonement.  Jesus' "good news of the kingdom of God" is about what God is now bringing about in human history.  The church is a kind of continuing in-fleshment of the Spirit of God.  It is a global corporate physical "body" of Christ.  And so, this composite holy catholic and apostolic Body of Christ continues the work of Christ, the good news of the Kingdom of God, into every nation on earth.  
     Think about it.  Jesus fed thousands of hungry people.  The church feeds millions.  Jesus heals the sick.  The church, through both medicine and prayer, heals more sick people every day than Jesus healed in his entire ministry.  Jesus says we should love our enemies.  The church also says that.  But, the church does what could not happen during Jesus' earthly ministry.  In the church those enemies, Jews and Gentiles, Korean and Japanese, Palestinian and Israeli, black and white -- right down to two guys who were holding bitter grudges for years -- the church actually brings them together and demonstrates what loving you enemies looks like.
     The church also cries out in every place and to every people, save yourselves from this corrupt generation.  The church calls lost people through the cross into the community of those who have been saved by grace through faith.  Prodigals return.  Slaves are ransomed. The dead are made alive. The lost are found.  There is, indeed, rejoicing among the angels of heaven.  But, like being physically born in relation to becoming a man or a woman of God, this new birth is the beginning, not the single ongoing goal, of life in Christ.
     There is nothing God is waiting to complete with the parousia (appearing of Christ at the end of the age) and the establishment of New Earth that He is not doing right now here on Old Earth through His New-Earth people, the church.  In this biblically faithful understanding, atonement is authentically understood as the chiastic un-telling of the story of the Fall.  McKnight does not suggest the work will be completed apart from the cataclysmic intervention of God at the end of the age.  What he does show, however, is that what will then be accomplished in full is what the people of God are now living out in active service and faithful anticipation.
     This is a book you and others in your leadership team should read.  It might change your church's mission statement.  It will open your eyes to things in your own communities that call for Christian involvement.  It can help enrich your selection of music and scripture reading for worship.  It will show you how to keep those guitars perfectly in tune hour after hour.
     All right.  It won't do that.  Guitars won't stay in tune.  I lied.  
     But, it was in a good cause.
     And, I already know, not one of you thought it would tell you how to keep guitars in tune.  All of us are certain that, at least, will have to wait for the cataclysmic intervention of God at the restoration of all things.

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