Glorious Failure

Life is a long series of failures. Here's to failing gloriously!

Month: December, 2011

What is Atonement?

The past few months I’ve been reading through a systematic theology with an older, wiser, and better educated friend of mine (Christian Theology by Millard Erickson). Recently, we discussed atonement. He asked me a question I had never stopped to ask myself before – not for very long at least. What is atonement? How does it atone? For whom? For what purpose?

Growing up in Christian home and going to church often, atonement was part of my vocabulary like furniture in the office. It’s there. I know I’ve seen it before, but I just couldn’t tell you a precisely what it looks like. Or in the case of atonement, answer some of the questions above.

So I want here to explore answers to those questions. The first is answered easily by our friend Webster 1998. Atonement: the reconciliation of God and man through the death of Jesus Christ 2. reparation for an offense: satisfaction. This is a good start. The definition answers my first question directly. What is atonement? Reconciliation. Ok great. My Sunday school answer could have gotten us that far. But what is meant by reconciliation? Are you saying that God and I aren’t on good terms? Is there something wrong between us? Are we not speaking to one another?

Yes. The answer to those questions is, yes. And the reason is sin. I have fallen short of God’s glory, His standard (which happens to be perfection, by the way). Scripture teaches that every person finds himself in this position (Rom 3.23), which shows us everyone is in need of atonement then, right? If everyone has problems in their relationship with God, then everyone needs a remedy – reconciliation. Who needs atonement? Everyone. But how?

Our working definition states that reconciliation comes through the death of Christ. But I have difficulty accepting this at face value. Someone else dying for my wrong makes no sense to me whatsoever. How exactly does His death atone – reconcile- my sin to God? It seems to me that if I’ve wronged God, then I need to do something to make it right. I could offer to fix what I broke, or perhaps get him a gift – you know a peace offering – to make Him happy. “It’s my mess. I’ll clean it up.” I reason. That makes sense to me. That’s what I do in human relationships.

The trouble here, is that I am incapable of making right my sin against God. Scripture teaches the penalty for sin is death (Rom 6.23). So I’m going to die because I sinned. How can I fix or do anything at all for that matter, if I’m dead? Let’s say I could, just for fun. What then? Do I still have a shot at reconciling myself to God in the face of my sin? No, unfortunately. There is nothing good in me that can please God, nor can it ever (Rom 7:18). So I’m completely shut down in any attempt to reconcile myself. So is it still possible to fix? Can the wrongs still be made right? Yes. Just not by me.

Enter: Jesus Christ. This is why he’s called the Savior because He’s come to our rescue! The reason I can’t make things right before God is because of my sin, because I’m dead. Even then there’s nothing good in me which can please Him, anyhow. This is the beauty of Jesus. Jesus is both alive and fully pleasing to God (Matt 3.17). The penalty for sin is still death, so Jesus has to die.

But the thing is, because the penalty has been paid, I get to live. This is where we get the phrase vicarious atonement – simply because the reconciliation isn’t made by us. It’s made vicariously – through someone else – Jesus Christ. And this is where the latter half of Webster’s second definition comes into play: satisfaction. Because Jesus offered himself to die on the cross to pay the penalty for the wrong I committed against the Lord, the Lord’s justice is satisfied. Fascinating. God is absolutely amazing that He would pay the price for my sin – that he would clean up my mess. He picked up my tab.

I know this won’t be new for most of you, more likely a theological refresher. But I wanted to share this moment with y’all – wondering at atonement, at the amazing act that took place on the cross. Such an enormous spiritual transaction occurred there. I am convinced I will never fully comprehend it, but it sure is fun to try. And my admiration for the Lord grows every time I do. May we never lose our wonder for the cross.

People Are Not Distractions

I was at work yesterday when my brother called. I was busily trying to finish before day end, and it was late afternoon. However, my brother never calls. I pick up. He says he wants to visit – drop by my office. Acknowledging I was at work and therefore likely busy, he would have been satisfied to visit even if only for ten minutes. I happily oblige and he sets course for my place of work.

I flit about my tasks the next few minutes excitedly looking forward to this most welcome of surprises. When my brother arrived I discerned why he called. He had purchased a new car only hours before, and wanted to share it. I am glad he did, for nice it was, indeed. It was shiny – like new cars should be – and had every bell and whistle imaginable. I was stoked for his happy purchase.

Having heard the story of his automotive enterprises, extracted the details of the bargaining dance, and thoroughly shared in his rejoicing, I savored a lingering moment between my brother and I – one that arises all too infrequently. My mind began to wander back to my workday tasks yet complete. The Sun had fallen and evening beset us. My gut sank for thought of all the work ahead and a late night at the office.

My brother asked me a question. “Would you like to grab a bite to eat?” My mind darted between the possibilities. Stay or go? I was hungry. It had been a long day. And my instinct said, “Go.” Carpe Diem – as they say. However, my responsible side piped up. “You have work to do – more in fact, than you can finish tonight even if you remain.” I weighed my options. My mind raced. Stay or go?

Which do you think I chose?

Last night I was feeling romantic. Yes. I accepted his offer, threw caution to the wind – well responsibility perhaps – and abandoned my post for fraternal flights of frivolity. Dinner was good and the company better. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Within the course of two hours I returned to my post and parted ways with my brother. Now well into the evening, I turned to my task at hand and did the best I could fighting fatigue at every step. My mood however, was markedly improved, and before long I retired for the day heading home.

I lie in bed reflecting on my day. “Should I have gone out for dinner with my brother?” I questioned. “Should I have stayed and gotten more done?” My mind would not find rest. Then what came next could only have been revealed by the Spirit: People are not distractions.

Subsequently, other thoughts began to follow in a rush. People don’t get in the way of life, they are life. I remembered that Jesus didn’t just hang out with homeless people. He talked with the diseased and outcast. Jesus didn’t demonstrate his egalitarianism by condescending those who were socially awkward, he shared meals with tax collectors – downright scoundrels. And in the short time frame in which Christ walked the Earth, I’m sure most days it wasn’t exactly on the agenda to fraternize with the help. Rather, He loved people and instructed them as He went along.

Reflecting in bed, I felt a smile well up from inside. I had made the right decision. I seized an opportunity to love my brother and share life. How often does that happen? How often does my brother offer to come visit me at my work? And honestly, my work was still there this morning. No really. It didn’t go anywhere.

I think I rediscovered something yesterday I hadn’t seen in quite a while. A phone call out of the blue, an unexpected drive-by, a lingering moment savored – these distractions from life – well maybe sometimes. . .they are life.

“A day wasted on others is not wasted on one’s self.” – Charles Dickens


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