In last month’s article, I challenged the medieval concept of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, a well-established atonement theory that asserts Jesus essentially saved us from God by being our substitute for punishment.
I stated the following last month:
Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the medieval misunderstanding of the gospel message that originated with Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th Century, a thousand years after Jesus. And this old misinterpretation is as follows: God, like some kind of volcano deity, will destroy us unless he is appeased by the bloody suffering and death of another.
Anselm’s misinterpretation of the sacrificial rituals of biblical times meant that God demanded a “substitute” to suffer and die (lambs, bulls, etc.) or else the people would be destroyed by God in some sort of divine bloodthirsty rage. However, in reality, the truth about ritual sacrifices in biblical times is that these sacrifices were expressions of gratitude to God and fellowship with God. It was sacrifice as gift and sacrifice as meal/feast of divine fellowship.
Simply put, the ancient ritual sacrifices were understood by the ancient Israelites as gratefully giving back to God a portion of what God had first given them and as sharing in a sacred meal of fellowship with God. It was not about putting forward a substitute or “fall guy” for us.
Consequently, it makes much more biblical sense that Jesus was God’s gift of blessing for our relationship with God, not our substitute for punishment. He was simply God’s gift of love to us and for us — a living gift whose way of sacrificial love becomes for us a spiritual feast that makes us whole and holy in God.
And as a summarizing statement, I wrote, “We are not saved from God, we are saved from ourselves! We are saved from our own distorted, fallen selves.”
Yes, we are saved from our egoistic selves for a renewed life of the Spirit! By God’s grace, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live the abundant life of faith, hope and love. By the power of the Holy Spirit within us, we are to live a life of good works in response to God’s all-pervading grace and all-encompassing love:
They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life. (1 Timothy 6:18-19)
The Holy Spirit is the Universal God within us who blesses us with a deep, intuitive awareness of God’s truth, grace, presence and power. For our own benefit and the benefit of all, the Holy Spirit calls, enlightens, refines and empowers us. And this truly is “the life that really is life,” as it says in 1 Timothy 6:19.
But what about when we don’t affirmatively respond to our atonement (“at-one-ment”) with God? What about when we don’t live in the Spirit the way we should? What about when we fall back into egoism, sin and spiritual death?
Well, the good news is that there is grace and continual support for us sinful human beings to reclaim and manifest our original blessing in God!
The Bible says in First John:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have a benefactor with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 1:5—2:2)
We have continual atonement (“at-one-ment”) with God as revealed through the gift of the sacrificial love of Jesus. The sacrificial love of Jesus is God’s free and eternal gift to us (and all people) for the sake of an ongoing renewal of faith and spiritual life.
And we access this forgiveness and newness of life by the power of the Holy Spirit, in order to move us to confess our sins and to be turned from our hurtful patterns of life over and over again. In fact, it is the Holy Spirit that gives us the power to confess our sins, to receive forgiveness and renewal, and to grow into the fullness of faith, hope and love.
As Martin Luther wrote 500 years ago, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in true faith” (Luther’s Small Catechism).
And, to borrow once more from my article last month, “Through the Word and Sacraments of Christ, we are called, enlightened, refined, made holy, kept in a life of true faith, and guided by the Spirit.”
All thanks and praise be to the literally “wonder-full” Almighty God who empowers us by the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit within us, in order for us “to take hold of the life that really is life” for the sake of the world!
By God’s grace, Pastor Tim