Preaching and Atonement Theory

I recently read The Nature of the Atonement, a book where Gregory Boyd, Joel Green, Bruce Reichenbach and Thomas Schreiner participate in lively conversation about atonement theory and the implications of what happened at the cross.  The importance of this conversation is highlighted early in the book with a quote from John Wesley “nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of the atonement.”  Later in the book, Joel Green claims that Wesley handed down an “eclectic atonement theology.”  I am curious about how Wesley might respond to that.

The conversations in the book are interesting, stimulating, and help us recognize what God is actively doing in His relationship with people.  Nevertheless, they also remind us that preaching an atonement theory is not the same thing as preaching about atonement.  In our preaching it is ok to find that some texts appear sympathetic to one theory and other texts to another.  The fact is, each of the proposed theories are based on certain texts and our preaching may draw from any of them.  We should recognize that it is ok to re-examine your atonement theory and that we do not need a fixed theory of atonement in order to preach gospel or to follow Jesus.

Is it possible to preach the victory over principalities and powers in the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth without being considered an advocate of Christus Victor theory?  Is it possible to emphasize God’s holiness, the severity of human sinfulness, and the substitutionary death of Jesus without preaching a penal substitution theory?  Is it possible to preach the importance of healing through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus without insisting on a healing theory of atonement?  Is it possible to describe the significance of the crucifixion with multiple images and metaphors without being labeled an advocate of kaleidoscopic theory?  I submit the answer is yes to all of the above questions and encourage preachers to preach the text before them.  Highlight what the text gives and not the presuppositions that come with our favorite atonement theory.

Any discussion about atonement must not isolate the cross from the birth of Jesus, life of Jesus, resurrection of Jesus – any such attempts do a disservice to the Jesus story.  This is a practical danger.  If we can disconnect the cross from the rest of the Jesus story, we can easily disconnect it from our own story as well.  The fact is, we keep trying to convince ourselves that our stories are something of our own design, but the bible keeps bringing God into them.  That is what happens in our discussion about atonement.  We are acting as if things are alright as they are, then one Friday afternoon Jesus shows up on a cross and everything changes.

In the church, we acknowledge that something happened at the cross.  It’s just that we are not always in agreement as to what that something might be.  Still, we should preach atonement – it explains what the gospel does.  Preach that relationships with God have been restored – An “at-one-ness” with God is possible.  Preach that the work of Jesus empowers His followers to be loving, giving, and forgiving.  Preach that Jesus changes the way we interact in the church and with those outside the church.  Preach atonement because it makes a difference.  Here.  Now.

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