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“For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us. Rather, he has loved us before the world was created …”
(Institutes II.16.iv)

Summary notes [and comments] on Chapter 13 of Christian Doctrine1, “Is God Against Us? The Doctrine of the Atonement”:

Guthrie begins with a vivid image: a revivalist preacher telling the story of a sinful human being, represented by a dirty glass, something God, represented by a hammer, can’t stand; God has to destroy that evil … but just as the hammer is about to fall and smash the glass, wham, it hits Jesus, represented by a frying pan, instead. Vivid, but it leaves some questions unanswered: (1) I can be afraid of a God like that, but can I love that God? (2) Is it really all that “just” to punish someone else for my sins? And if someone did take that punishment, are my sins really death penalty bad? (3) If God couldn’t stand all that dirt in the glass before, how are matters any better now, since the glass is still dirty?

With that in mind, Guthrie looks at Biblical images of the atonement, discusses the difference between the gospel and a more conventional [pagan] understanding of gods/God, and the impact the cross presumably has on Christians.

The four Biblical images he presents are all efforts by early Christians to make sense of their profound experience of Jesus’ crucifixion/resurrection, to express its significance for them. Guthrie stresses that they are not “theories of the atonement,” saying what God “must” do, but efforts to come to terms with what God did do; they are all limited, and in some sense work together. The images are

  1. “financial” – think slaves in a marketplace, purchased and freed by a benefactor – an image that might break down if we have to think of who is “paid” – Satan? God – even though God also does the buying back?
  2. “military” – think a battlefield, God invading territory to rescue God’s people, on Good Friday the hero (Jesus) is killed, but on Easter Christ turns out to be victorious; drawbacks of this one might be that it inclines us a little too much to join in a rather literal fight against “evil” groups, but it communicates the deadly seriousness of what is at stake;
  3. “sacrificial” – think a temple/altar, a priest, a ritual demonstrating sorrow and repentance, in which the priest actually sacrifices himself; these days we may not grasp what sacrifice meant to those who practiced it, so we may not appreciate its profound expression of guilt and remorse and need for forgiveness and reconciliation it expresses; maybe more seriously, it is open to the same kind of ritualistic corruption of the earlier sacrificial system, where the sacrifice becomes a facile substitute for actual amendment of life;
  4. “legal” – think a courtroom, a judge, a guilty verdict and a death sentence, when someone who has obeyed the law completely comes and takes the place of the condemned (us), fulfilling the legal requirement while sparing us; the legal situation is more familiar, although the image still raises questions of fairness, and of how it would produce personal transformation.

The gospel these images are meant to communicate might be easier to understand in contrast to pagan convention. Pagan gods are easily offended and angered; religious life consists in placating them and trying to win their favor, so they won’t hurt us, and might help us. The underlying condition of human estrangement from the gods/God is a familiar human theme. Guthrie points out that in the Christian story, it is the “injured party,” God, who takes the initiative in reconciliation. “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19) God doesn’t love us after the atonement; rather, the atonement happens because God loves us, when we ourselves were, to begin with, enemies of God.

The God-loves-us-first perspective affects the interpretation of all the Biblical images of atonement. From the perspective of the “financial” image, the enslaved sinners are purchased not from God, but by and for God. The “sacrificial” image presents a sacrifice that we need, not that God needs. [This is the problem with Anselm’s “satisfactory substitutionary atonement” account. The idea that God’s honor needs to be “satisfied” by Christ’s sacrifice is unbiblical, and actually runs counter to the insight that Christ’s work on the cross is God’s work of unconditional love, not the satisfaction of a condition for God’s love. A lot of people – preachers included – talk the mistaken story that sinners have to be covered by the blood of Jesus so that God can accept them; this would be the way it would work if God were one of us. But God isn’t one of us. God accepts us first; so God rescues us from the trouble we’re in – which is mainly, it seems, the trouble of not being able to even begin to seek, or even to want to know, God.] In the legal image, the judge is the very one who assumes the penalty for us.

Remaining issues here: how does atonement bespeak love? Why doesn’t God just “let it go”? Guthrie: because the sin really matters; it has real consequences, for us and for our relationship with God; those have to be faced and dealt with [and that has to happen from God’s side, because we are just not capable of it without the resources of the character that we only begin to develop in relationship with God, which we only are motivated to pursue after this event …]

OK, what about “the wrath of God?” How is that compatible with this take on atonement, or compatible with God’s love? Guthrie: (1) it is not an alternative to love, it demonstrates that we matter to God; (2) it is an expression of God’s love – expressing the hurt we are causing ourselves and our neighbors, not being our true selves, and its purpose is to get us on track again; (3) God bears the consequences of the sin and the wrath it gives rise to. We can’t avoid talking about the wrath of God, but we have to talk about it in the context of God’s self-giving love, because that’s the context the Bible gives us for understanding it.

The atonement – “the cross” – has consequences for people; it changes us; it doesn’t just leave us the way it found us. (1) It “convicts us of our sinfulness” (262); we see ourselves in the archetypal figures of the passion: Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, the disciples’ abandonment, the religious leaders conventional self-serving, Pilate’s bureaucratic cowardice, the soldiers’ indifference to another’s suffering – the cross exposes who and how we are, and shows us what that really means, for us as well as for God; (2) it allows us to live as forgiven sinners; it’s not fair for someone else to pay our way, we know that we were really insolvent, but the debt has been cancelled, so we are free to move on, take up a new way of life; (3) it is “the death of sinners” along with Christ; Guthrie says, this draws on an ancient understanding of representation as identification with, such that we are identified with Christ on the cross, and that in Christ’s death we ourselves, as sinners, also died.

“To be a Christian is not to escape from this shattering encounter. Escape would mean only escape into the hell of continued existence in lonely separation from him, from other people, and from our own true selves. The Christian way is not the way of escape so that we can keep on the way we are; it is the death of what we are” (266).

(4) it changes our relationship with other people, because it underwrites setting aside hostility and estrangement with others, makes it possible to reach out to those who have injured us. [This is a hard one for me, because in “our society” we learn that you like/love people you agree with, and basically despise people on the other side in various ways – they’re wrong, stupid, crazy, evil monsters who deserve to die. We don’t have good models for and don’t much practice principled, non-hater disagreement or opposition. And we think of anger as the opposite of love – see above – although that doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. So compassionate opposition is really a kind of otherwise way of being; here’s Guthrie at length on this one, which is really a tough one for me personally, especially in today’s political environment:

This does not mean that Christians are sweet, passive doormats who excuse all offenses and injustices with a gentle, suffering smile. It does not mean, for instance, that we should simply suffer in silence when others have hurt us, or that parents should not discipline disobedient children, or that society should not punish criminals. Nor does it mean that victims of social injustice should accept the way things are for the sake of “peace and order.” Instead of commitment to reconciliation, that would mean ignoring, covering over the need for reconciliation, both on the part of those who have caused or allowed others to be hurt and on the part of those who have been hurt. There is such a thing as legitimate anger at offenses to ourselves, lawlessness that destroys human community, and especially at social injustice. Such anger is the honest acknowledgment of the hostility, alienation, and wrong that in fact exist and must be exposed, opposed, and corrected if genuine reconciliation is to be achieved. But legitimate anger (that is, anger that reflects the wrath of God) will not express itself in a vindictive desire to get even, pay back, and destroy “the enemy.” It will express itself in the search for ways to heal broken relationships, restore order, and liberate the oppressed for the good of everyone on both sides or all sides. (267-8)

He points out, following James Cone (God of the Oppressed), that there can be no reconciliation between oppressed and oppressor without liberation; “reconciliation without liberation only blesses injustice” (407); but full liberation will require the reconciliation that liberates people from the hostility and alienation that destroy our humanity. [Come, Lord Jesus.]


1 Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994) 250-269.