Summarizing, Simplifying, and Expanding on the Atonement by Adam Johnson (Guest Post)

atonementAdam Johnson is a professor of theology in the Torrey Honors program at Biola University and excellent chap. He’s just put out a very helpful book–one of my new favorites on the subject–Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed, which I’ve already written about here. What follows is an excerpted  section of one of my favorite passages in the work, reprinted with his permission. I hope it encourages you to follow up and pick the book. 

A thorough appreciation of the complexity of the atonement funds our delight and worship, while equipping the church to relate Christ’s work meaningfully to a host of other areas. An equally strong grasp of the simplicity of the doctrine yields a sense of the overall shape and structure of the doctrine, offering meaning and direction to our inquiries within its many elements. Just as in the doctrines of the Trinity and divine attributes (in fact, precisely because of them), the interplay between unity and diversity, simplicity and complexity, plays a vital role here as well. For that reason we must constantly live in the tension between seeking an expansive understanding, and concise definition of the work of Christ.

Summary I: An Exercise in Simplicity

The best summary statements about Christ’s atoning work in Scripture are the following two (closely related) verses:

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19)

“In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things.” (Col. 1:19-20)

In short:

God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

The beauty of this short statement is four-fold. First, the emphasis is first and foremost upon God, which is absolutely vital for the doctrine. The atonement is the work of God bringing God’s creation back to God. God is the origin, means and end of this act, and the role of theology proper is singularly and absolutely determinative for the shape of the doctrine and the coherence of our account of the atonement. Second, this is the work of God as man, as Jesus. That is to say, it is a fully human work, the work of God as one of us, one of our kind living out his life under the same realities and circumstances as we do. It is a work from within our life and experience, in which God makes our situation his own, rather than a work from the outside. Third, this is a work of reconciliation. One could say that God was in Christ, atoning (at-one-ing) all things to himself in Christ, though this does not communicate as readily in contemporary English. In principle, one could substitute “reconciling” for any of a number of soteriological synonyms, including “saving,” “redeeming,” “ransoming” or “sanctifying.” “Reconciliation” is preferable, however, for its positive (indicating salvation for just as much or more than it does salvation from) and comprehensive nature. In other words, it isn’t as readily reducible to merely marshal, judicial or commercial concerns as some of its peers.

The final reason which makes this summary the best single statement in Scripture concerning the work of Christ is its comprehensive scope: all things! Of course this must be unpacked, but such a comprehensive and indeed cosmic affirmation runs no risk whatsoever of leaving anything out. All things are involved and bound up in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is no mere matter of meeting some particular need or void in our lives—the death and resurrection of Christ are of much bigger scope than that. They gather up the identity, condition and fate of all of God’s creation, for in Christ all things are taken up and reconciled to the Father. Regardless of whether we recognize this to be the case, there is nothing in life that is not reconciled to God through the work of Christ (Col. 1:20).

In short, for a single statement that grasps the foundation of the doctrine of the atonement in the being and act of God, the means of the atonement in the man Jesus Christ, the positive and life-giving nature of atonement as a work of reconciliation, a restoring of relationships, and the scope of the atonement, which brings all things into their proper relationship and fellowship with God, there is no better statement than Paul’s claim that God was in Christ reconciling all things to himself.

Summary II – A Fuller Account

But the purpose of a summary statement is to bring clarity by highlighting the basic elements or structure of that which it summarizes. Accordingly, summary always plays its role as one part of the task of understanding its object, which is to say, summaries play a role within the dynamic movement necessary for understanding a complex reality, moving between a vision of the overall structure and interacting with the smaller parts of which the whole is composed. To honor this dynamic movement, we will briefly unpack the above summary, offering a slightly more complex rendition of the same basic statement:

The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the fullness of the divine perfections, was in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, bringing all created things in heaven and earth to the fulfillment of their God-given purposes through reconciliation with God.

To affirm that God was in Christ, that this was the work of God and his presence in this act is what makes it what it is, what gives it its defining features, characteristics and significance, is to affirm first and foremost that this is the work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the triune God. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are what they are because they are events in the life of God, willed by the Father, executed by the Son, in the fellowship and power of the Holy Spirit. It is only because the atonement is the work of the triune God, bringing our humanity and sin into the relational dynamics of Father, incarnate Son and Holy Spirit, that this work is what it is. And it is because God does this work through his own life, that it simultaneously involves the fullness of the divine character. In this event, God enacts his love, wisdom, mercy, righteousness, holiness and presence, the fullness of the divine attributes, in his overcoming of sin and evil, and restoration of all things according to his purposes for them.

To affirm that Jesus was a man is to embrace the fact that he was not any man, but an Israelite: born of the line of David, realizing in himself the covenants, prophecies and laws of the Old Testament as the Messiah, the prophet, priest and king, the one who in himself was the faithful Israelite. As such, he is, of course, a human being just as we are, but one with a specific history, and with that history a specific identity and role. Salvation is from the Jews (John 4:22), and more concretely, from the Jew, Jesus, the son of Mary. And his work was a work of reconciliation, of atonement—of making one through restored relation to God and through him to all things. Relationally, he made things one by bringing about reconciliation or the restoration of fellowship. Cosmically, he made creation one by removing evil, conflict and decay. Judicially, he made us one by doing away with the crime, guilt and punishment. His work was a work of creating and sharing one-ness according to the many forms it takes in different contexts and relationships, bearing in himself and thereby doing away with all sin, evil and discord.

And his work touches on all things: angels and demons, Jews and Gentiles, dogs and cats, mountains and graveyards. And because the center of God’s election in Christ was for a people, for a relationship with humankind, his work relates to middle management and racial relations, body and soul, emotions and habits, families and friendships. Extending far beyond the guilty conscience, God became man in Jesus Christ to bring every aspect of creation, and every aspect of our human existence, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, with all the flourishing and mutual-exaltation that this entails for every aspect of our being (physical, spiritual, social, sexual, economic and otherwise) and that of the creation of which we are a part.

Definition as Springboard to Exploration

But we must be clear about the fact that this more expansive summary is but a springboard to fuller reflection on each these areas. But as we engage in this pursuit, for the sake of clarity and definition, it is helpful that we be able to pull back from detailed exploration of the sub-points of the doctrine, and also be able to affirm with brevity and understanding that:

The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the fullness of the divine perfections, was in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, bringing all created things in heaven and earth to the fulfillment of their God-given purposes through reconciliation with God.

Or even more briefly, that:

God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself.

Soli Deo Gloria