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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Unexpected Words

I do not wish to constrict or limit preaching by claiming that it has to be done in a certain way, at a certain time, or about certain things.  I do wish to point out that near the end of the Gospel of Mark there are two episodes where we find unexpected people delivering an unexpected message about Jesus.  And I am convinced that these two episodes are helpful to preachers interested in proclaiming news about Jesus.

Admittedly, this is a brief look at these episodes.  Yet, even a brief look places us in situations where words about Jesus totally change the situation into which they were spoken.  It is not the words themselves that change the situation.  Instead, these words are recognition of what has become obvious to the speaker.  These words become an announcement of reality.

The first is in chapter fifteen where a Roman Military Officer reframes the crucifixion of a political criminal into a revelation that Jesus is the Son of God.  Unexpected words that readers of the Gospel have been waiting to hear.  Words that are different from words we are hearing from others.

And then in chapter 16 we are introduced to some well-meaning people. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come with good intentions. They are looking for Jesus. We are told that it was the first day of the week. They are right on schedule. They arrive in reverence, with respect, in order to pay tribute to Jesus. They love him. They are faithful to the ritual. They come with a question, “Who will roll away the stone for us?”  Perhaps we could paraphrase that question like this, “Will anyone be able to remove that barrier between us and Jesus?”

They come without expectation.  But then, things begin to happen. They discover that already, “the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large.” They are then greeted by a young man in a white robe who speaks to them some unexpected words. “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He said to you.”

As in Mark, on any Sunday, people will show up looking for Jesus. They may be well intentioned people, they love Jesus, they desire to pay him tribute. They would like to do something for him.  And then, the preacher utters unexpected words.  Words that are not being uttered anywhere else.  We talk about an impossible situation. We talk about something that only God can pull off. We are reminded that Jesus is not always where we expect him to be. We do not have a corner on what he does or where he shows up. That just because our intentions are good does not mean that we are about his business. And, as in Mark, the response might be astonishment or fear or both.

We have become trained to look for an outline. For something that might make a catchy slogan.  Or answer pragmatic questions.  We are looking for “How the Cross Improves Your Life.” Or, “Making the Resurrection Work for You.” Instead, we get unexpected words. Words as unexpected as Easter. No one expected the dead to come back to life any more than they expect our words to make a difference.  But, these words interrupt well intentioned plans. Interrupt those who come expecting to do something for Jesus.  Our task is still to interrupt the lives of people with the news of a Risen Lord.

We may consider ourselves unlikely candidates to speak such unexpected words.  Interestingly, in both episodes the preacher is also somewhat unexpected.  No one expected a Roman Military Officer to reframe the crucifixion quite like that.  Some may have been convinced that he was a failed messiah, a misunderstood prophet, or a guilty criminal.  No one was saying that maybe this was the Son of God.  But the words of this speaker cause hearers to rethink the reality of this situation.  Readers of Mark have been waiting for someone to speak these words for a long time.  But no one expected this particular preacher.

The expectation was to find a dead Jesus in the tomb.  They suspected that it would be the right thing to anoint the body.  No one expected a young man dressed in white to be seated there instead.  No one expected this young messenger to be speaking for Jesus.  No one expected Jesus to be alive and on the move in Galilee.  But the words of this preacher remind listeners that they are not finished following Jesus.

We preach to the curious.  The heckler.  The seeker.  The one who came to do something.  We preach to those who are just performing rituals.  We preach to those who came to hear about Jesus.  To those who thought that a criminal was crucified, here hangs the Son of God.  To those who thought they were about to anoint a dead body, that body is alive and wants you to follow him to Galilee.

Like the preachers of Mark, we may be speaking to observers or to those intentionally seeking Jesus.  To antagonists or to someone wanting to do something for Jesus.  To those who come thinking they will have to remove the barrier between themselves and Jesus, only to find out that it has already been moved.  Like the preachers of Mark, we bring words to our gatherings that cause listeners to rethink what is happening around us.  Words that may be contrary to appearances.  Words that suggest things are not the way they seem.    Our situation may appear to look a certain way, but reality suggests otherwise.  We are called to state that reality.