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Atonement for Dummies?

Andii asks:
"I have to ask whether in our cultural situation we can actually do 'right use' on a popularly-accessible version of PSA which can be grasped in essence by, eg an intelligent 9 year old, and convey the important points in such a way as not to easily lead astray (in our cultural situation, I emphasise). I'm coming to the conclusion that we cannot."
The first question for our message isn't whether it can be understood, but is it true. Is our message what the scriptures teach. If it isn't we need to go and sort that out. If it is, then we come to communication.

Peter Bolt, in The Cross from a Distance (p128):
“It is the temptation of the teacher to clarify what seems difficult. Interpreters have often sought to this by inventing illustrations of proposing analogies for Christ's work on the cross. This is a temptation, however, that should be resisted at all costs. The track record of these manufactured illustrations has nmot been a happy one; they have been sometimes obscure, often bizarre or inhumane, and usually just plain heretical. Any illustration can get into trouble simply by virtue of the fact that it requires saying God's Word in other words, entalining an automatic shift away from God's Word. Although the preacher needs to 'illustrate' the world to which the Word is addressed, the Word itself should probably be permitted to speak for itself. In addition there are some thing that should never be illustrated. As with the Trinity, given the unique nature of the cross, analogies simply do not exist. We understand the cross, not by finding soem contemporary illustration that clinches the deal, but by listening carefully to the biblical context in which it makes sense. This may leave us with some unexplained mysteries, but, even so, we shall be closer to the truth when we live with the rough edges of God's Word that when we try to impose the smooth lines of our own fancy illustrations."
I don't have to try and twist the cross to be understandable - but to explain it with care. We're sharply warned against twisting it to make it easier to hear. Doing it carefully will take time. But, with all due urgency we do have time. We can afford to lay out the story. Jesus was incarnate into the world he created and the community he created (both by his word). God spent 1800+ years (or indeed all of history before Jesus!) setting the framework in history to give us all the categories we need to understand the cross perfectly well - and indeed everything else about God. (Try the tabernacle to understand aspects of the trinity for another example.)

The problem is that we often buy into a quick decisionism which needs to clinch the deal in a few soundbites. That doesn't lend itself well to telling the story of God in detail. I find Don Carson's 10 part telling of the gospel story (as outlined in his The Gagging of God) to be a compelling approach - laying out the gospel story at length rather than jumping straight to the centre of it. Paul speaks to the Galatians about how he only preached the Cross but writes like he expects they'll remember vast things about God's promises to Abraham, how and why the law was given and other subjects that the average Christian today may never learn. We need the big story.

We simply don't need to twist the cross to make it easy to understand. It isn't that difficult. And even if it were we simply need to teach the categories to understand it. And it doesn't seem to just be that 9 year old's can't get their head around it - many who are much older and better educated can't either. My experience, and I think scripture's testimony, is that it's rarely the head that struggles with the meaning of the cross. It's the heart that can't understand it. We must argue and prove the meaning of the cross (and we can), but it will take a re-creation miracle to open the heart's eyes to adore the cross. And after all, the cross is God's wisdom to shame our wisdom - it's designed to make us look stupid by giving us something so 'primitive' and simple that we can never boast our intelligence for having figured it out.

More on the meaning of the cross at The Coffee Bible Club blog


  1. While sympathetic, I'm a little stumped by this idea that PSA is either too technical , detached maybe, or, worse positively alienating to lost souls who are nicer than us.

    Mark 12v1-12
    It strikes me that what we tend to do when it comes to wrath is to see amazing love in v1, "A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey
    ...then, well,'issues' when we jump to v9
    "What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others

    "God gave his creation to tenants" (wow)
    then the next thing we hear is
    "and God will kill the tenants" (h-hold on!?!)

    And that's how I think we tend to teach wrath: caricatured precisely by skipping the story.

    Here's where Peter Bolt & NT Wright are on the money: forget illustrations and just get people into the story of God and his people - Adam to Jesus was no abstract illustration!

    I've found time and time again with non christians this year that this story is far from alienating, it's compelling. Usually they're outraged by the tenants who steal the farm for themselves: after the 1st servant, they're more angry than the owner...after the 4th, 5th, 6th, they're simply astounded at his patience, and when they see the Son, the problem comes home....The problem that was there before any messengers came. Our problem. The problem that we live as if the world was ours. NOW v9 "What do you think the owner will do?"

    That's how one girl I know suddenly saw her need to be saved FROM God, and prayed for the first time this week, "thank you for saving me". And heaven rejoices.

  2. I dunno about 9 year olds, but at age 4-5 God made me grasp that
    a) I wasn't actually as good a little girl as I'd supposed; I would try to be good but I was consistently failing;
    b) that meant that God wasn't happy with me (and that I'd go to hell while the rest of my family would be with Jesus in heaven);
    c) God gave Jesus to die in my place taking the punishment for my sins, so he must've known that I couldn't manage to be good enough by my own efforts; and therefore not only was there Good News, but
    d) to continue to try to be good enough myself was actually shoving his gift of Jesus back in his face and offending him still further; and
    e) I could thank him for giving Jesus in my place and trust him to forgive me and live in me as Lord. Woohoo!

    Understanding PSA at 9? Greater minds have failed to understand it. Not sure that I completely understand it now, in one sense. But the truth of it? Amazing what God can make a 4-5year old grasp by the faithful teaching of parents & church, and the conviction of his Holy Spirit :)


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