August 7, 2020

My Atonement is Bigger Than Your Atonement

kkgodzi.jpgAnd my Kingdom trumps all your atonements. A Holy Week dust-up.

Mark Dever wrote about the meaning of the atonement in Christianity Today. Scot McKnight commented on Dever’s article, taking issue with the idea that the meaning of the atonement is so narrow that we would have a debate about its true meaning during Holy Week. Phil Johnson emerged to flame McKnight for what he says and how he says it.

Let me quote the majority of McKnight’s post so that the real point can be made: there is a rich diversity of meanings given to the atonement in scripture, and all of them need to be heard during Holy Week and in the Gospel.

I beg to differ, not because I think penal substitution needs to be denied, but because the atonement is too important during this Holy Week to turn into the “atonement wars”. Atonement is more than penal substitution. And it all needs to be in front of us, especially today. Here’s what will go through my mind and heart and reflections today and tomorrow, but on Sunday we let go and utter “Christ is risen!”

First, I’m thankful that Jesus died for our sins (including mine). His life, his death, his burial, his resurrection, and his sending of the Spirit are all “for us” – not for himself, but all for us.

Second, in his death, as Paul says in Roman 6 and Galatians 2, he represented us – both exclusively (called substitution) and inclusively (called co-crucifixion). He both died for us and we die with him.

Third, as we find in Colossians 2, in his death and resurrection march into the presence of God, he liberated us. He conquered the systemic and demonic enemies, nailed them to the cross, and defeated them so we could live in the power of his resurrection. He is the ransom price paid for us so that we could be set free.

Fourth, overall, to use the language of Irenaeus and Athanasius, which are based on Romans 5, he recapitulated our life: he became what we are so we might become what he is.

Fifth, he identified with us “all the way down”. Phil 2:6-11 shows that Jesus came to earth to become like us and in doing so he died for us. By identifying with us, he is our substitution who takes on the very depth of our punishment, even death, even death on a cross, so that he might lift us into the presence of God.

Sixth, he not only dies for us but he gives us in his death a new paradigm for life: we are to die to ourselves, deny ourselves, and make the cross the paradigm of how we live – and that we means we enter into his life by making the cross our own.

All this and more: the death of Jesus is not a source for the atonement war, but a source of contemplation for how God has taken on our case, become like us even unto death, so we might be redeemed, justified, and liberated from our sinful condition. The CT article forces our hand.

Phillip Ryken, the capable preacher and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, wrote this short piece on C.S. Lewis and made an interesting statement which has been echoed by hundreds of other writers on Lewis:

There are a number of weaknesses in Lewis’s theology, including his failure to embrace the inerrancy of Scripture and a certain ambiguity in his understanding of the atonement. Yet C. S. Lewis was and continues to be an extraordinarily successful evangelist, especially among skeptics.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis stated that he did not see detailed theories of the atonement or the Lord’s Supper having a place in his basic presentation of Christianity. Yet, I would suggest that while detailed versions substitution may not be found in Lewis’s writings, the idea that Christ’s life and death are “for” us in a saving way is plainly taught everywhere in Lewis.

I believe Lewis was on the right track in MC, even if he stopped a bit too short for some tastes. Affirming the “for us and for our sins” nature of the atonement is critical, but the death of Jesus is wide and deep, and appreciating its scope and celebrating its achievement are more important than describing the hows of the atonement. No one wanted a running theological commentary at the bottom of the screen at “The Passion of the Christ.”

Last evening, the Spencer family- all of us for the first time in months- sat together in church at the Good Friday service of Saint Patrick’s Anglican Church in Lexington. The liturgy for Good Friday from the BCP contains many wonderful affirmations of the meaning of Christ’s death. For example, at the beginning of the service:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

And in the anthems at the end of the service.

We glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection;
for by virtue of your cross
joy has come to the whole world.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

O Savior of the world,
who by thy cross and precious blood hast redeemed us:
Save us and help us, we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.

And in what may be the most powerful prayer of the Good Friday Liturgy:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Give mercy and grace to the living; pardon and rest to the dead; to your holy Church peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting life and glory; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

I’ve long felt, like Lewis, that our affirmations of Christ himself standing “for us” and “in our place” in worship, prayer and liturgy usually do a much better job than our voluminous debates on the exact meaning and mechanics of the atonement, which seem designed to exclude those who can’t high-five our footnotes or applaud our team rather than to include all Christians in the worshipful work of the one mediator.

Hanging around in back of this debate are two theological lightweights whose writings concerning the place of the atonement in Christianity have created an atmosphere conducive to fighting about the atonement, and probably for good reason.

Steve Chalke’s book “The Lost Message of Jesus” seems to set its sights on the evangelical stress on substitutionary atonement as a real liability in hearing the true message of and about Jesus. Brian Mclaren (That exploding sound is normal. Just stay calm.) has written a new book called “The Secret Message of Jesus” which I haven’t read, but which reviews lead me to believe is in the same territory: the Kingdom message of Jesus is in the Gospels and not in theology of the atonement.

Mclaren and Chalke may be saying some provocative things, but much of it seems to be the kinds of liberal protestant theology that have been around in various forms for more than a century. The Kingdom message of Jesus is crucial, and too much focus on the details of one theory of the atonement can be guilty of short-changing many other aspects of the Biblical presentation of Jesus. That’s a point well made. The problem, however, is that Jesus’ death is as much a part of his Kingdom message as anything else Jesus said or did.

It was Jesus who, in the middle of proclaiming the Kingdom, stopped and headed for Jerusalem to die “as a ransom.” It is in the death of Jesus that all the Gospel writers see the heart of Jesus’ Kingship, exaltation and victory. Paul says that in his cross he triumphed over his enemies and transferred us from one dominion to another. Hebrews brings together the prophet, priest and King as one mediator. John’s Gospel tells us in the first chapter that the King of Israel is the sacrificial Lamb of God.

If we are discussing what happens when there is too much emphasis on one aspect of Jesus’ work as “saving,” and how that translates into the shape of the message and the methods used to proclaim it, I think it is a good discussion. If it is a debate about which ONE view of the death of Jesus is the right view, I think we may be going down a needless road of controversy. Should we choose the worship of the church or the theological debate of the church during Holy Week? It’s foolish to think we can separate the two entirely, but I’ll vote for the language of atonement to be sufficient in worship and prayer, and the debate on the atonement, as important as it is, to be held at an appropriate time. (The same goes for preaching. Polemics have their place, but preaching the Gospel to the people of God should be a pastoral ministry first and foremost.)

Anytime our focus leaves Jesus to a “subset,” i.e. something about him or something he does, we risk having our own preferences displace the primacy of the person of Christ and make the Gospel smaller. What seems important to any one of us must stand in the light of Christ ALONE. In that light, both atonement and kingdom, and all theories of both, must take a back seat to His glory.


  1. Michael,
    Took me forever to get to the point where I could comment on this site. I wonder, do folks have to do this much to get comments on my blog?

    At any rate, very nice and thoughtful post. I’ve found great encouragement over the years in Lewis’s MC myself, and he’s got a mixture of just a general “for us and our sins” theory to a ransom theory and at times to a recapitulation theory. Ever read that wonderful little chp on the little tin soldiers?

    I’ve used the BCP prayers this week myself; the best ever written.

    On theories, my concern is to debunk the idea that it can all be reduced to penal substitution, and I’m glad to hear you voice support for the fullness of images.

  2. Comment registration= the ongoing war against SPAM. By any means necessary and all that 🙂

    I absolutely fall over with happiness everytime I read Robert Capon’s “The Fingerprints of God: Tracking the Divine Suspect Through A History of Images.” A most wonderful book.

    Peace on this great weekend.

  3. All in all, not a bad article, Michael. I’d like to clarify just two things, one in response to your article; the other in response to McKnight’s comment:

    1. You’re right in pointing out that the current “atonement wars” did not start with Chalke and McLaren.

    But you yourself don’t seem to appreciate the importance of that fact. I’m a little surprised to see you dismiss what Chalke and McLaren have written as “the kinds of liberal protestant theology that have been around in various forms for more than a century.”

    That is true on a certain level, of course. But you almost seem to be implying that Chalke and McLaren are clueless nobodies, mere theological lightweights who came to these ideas on their own or accidentally stumbled into some outmoded liberal stuff and naively thought it sounded good—and they don’t even know how out of step they are with what everyone else is saying. So (if I hear you right) Chalke and McLaren don’t represent any real threat to evangelicalism, and those who think their attack on the atonement is serious are just overreacting.

    The problem for that point of view is that Chalke and McLaren (among others) are merely acting as shills for more academic types who have long craved (and have been given a surprising measure of) evangelical acceptance. The movement they represent is indeed a real and present threat to historic evangelical distinctives.

    For example, Christianity Today lent its pages to Robert Brow some 16 years ago for an article titled “Evangelical Megashift,” in which Brow predicted—and seemed enthusiastically encouraged about—the rubbishing of practically every forensic aspect of our understanding of the gospel, including substitutionary atonement.

    (Incidentally, when that article was published, one of the first and best replies to it came from Mike Horton, whom I think you once said was something of a mentor to you in those days.)

    Read Brow’s article and you’ll see that the vision of new-model theology he laid out in 1990 has been advanced by various Open Theists, evangelical postmodernists, Emergent types, and scores of theological academicians from Clark Pinnock down to Scot McKnight. (Which is not to suggest that McKnight is consciously and deliberately doing this. Echoes of Brow’s ideas also waft frequently out of your favorite saloon. Almost everything you and I have ever disagreed about is related in one way or another to what Brow called “new-model” theology.)

    Anyway, Chalke and McLaren (not to mention Scot McKnight) are to a very large degree products of the “new models” that Brow and his colleagues were touting almost two decades ago. It’s grossly misleading to imply that the “atonement wars” are a tempest in a teapot created by a few critics who just have an axe to grind with Brian McLaren and imagine that he is a bigger deal than he really is.

    2. Scot’s comment, “my concern is to debunk the idea that it can all be reduced to penal substitution” is lacking in candor. He stubbornly insists there are those who believe the atonement can be “reduced” to that. But no one does. Dever expressly disclaimed that point of view in the article Scot took issue with, and several commenters at Scot’s own blog have repeatedly pointed that out to him. He simply refuses to acknowledge the point.

    He is in effect suggesting that if you say a certain idea is central to or essential to this or that doctrine, you have “reduced” the doctrine to that one idea.

    That claim is absurd on its face. We all would say (I hope) that an affirmation of the bodily resurrection of Christ is essential to authentic Christianity (NT Wright’s latest pronouncements notwithstanding). Does that mean we have reduced the Christian message to that one point? The question answers itself.

    Moreover, when someone questions the necessity or centrality of Christ’s bodily resurrection and Mark Dever writes an article to defend its importance in the Christian message—if it so happens that Dever’s article doesn’t also mention Jesus’ healing of the man born blind, I hope McKnight won’t deconstruct that article in an attempt to prove that Dever is so obsessed with the bodily resurrection that he’s guilty of “reducing” the whole life of Christ and the Christian message itself to that one point.


  4. Thanks for stopping in Phil.

    I guess I find more to be concerned about with Chalke/Mclaren on this dustup, and am rather amazed that you see McKnight in with them. Do you really think Scot would say the atonement is “child abuse” as Chalke does?

    I do find Chalke to be a lightweight. The good points in his book could be reduced to a tract. When TRs talk about the whiners in the EC, I’d point at Chalke. Check out the Door Interview I link. Chalke’s contention that the Jesus message is “Inclusive Kingdom Here Now” is great. I believe it, but that’s another missed pitch. The Jesus message is Jesus, and the inclusive/available kingdom is the one that comes through the Cross, Rez, etc. (See Colossians for details.)

    I grow less tolerant of Mclaren as time goes on, and I believe he now is functioning as a lightning rod on a different field than the main EC game is being played. I have read a ton of EC stuff and listened to hours of EC preaching the past two months, and Mclaren is a vanishing influence. If EC critics continue to make Mclaren the target they are going to more and more miss what is going on in the EC. The Driscoll-Mclaren flap is a good example. There is a certain amount of respect for Mclaren in being one of the first to raise issues and questions, but his answers and the continuing attention paid to him are increasingly antithetical to the EC.

    I personally believe Mclaren is mostly a creature of the publishing interests, and he’s spun into the emerging guru that is needed to be the poster child for someone’s idea of what the EC should be. Reading serious missional church voices, however, will quickly take you past the entire “Generous Orthodoxy” bit and into serious church planting discussions.

    I hate to use the word “plead,” but really Phil: PLEASE listen to Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll and their networks if you want to understand the THEOLOGY and the DIRECTION of the EC. Mclaren and Chalke DO sound like mainliners. Keller, Driscoll, Stetzer, Acts 29, etc….these are voices that will dominate the EC. Mclaren is going to be Christian Century in a few months, and Keller/Driscoll etc will be Christianity today. And, as I have said before, the serious emerging church planters are more interested in John Piper than in Brian Mclaren when it comes to THEOLOGY.

    Again, thanks for stopping in. Have a great Easter at GCC.

  5. Michael: “Do you really think Scot would say the atonement is “child abuse” as Chalke does?”

    I didn’t suggest that, or anything like it. I just find it odd and troubling that while people in a movement that regards him as something of a leader are making that argument, Scot McKnight aims his harshest polemic at those who defend penal substitution—and misrepresents them as “reductionists” while virtually giving Chalke a free pass.

    I am also saying the historic (and I believe biblical) view of substitutionary atonement, which our many of our most godly Protestant forebears have regarded as the anchor of all evangelical truth, is too important to be thrown on the table (by people who profess to be evangelicals!) to be debated in a nihilistic “conversation” where the most vocal participants apparently lack strong convictions anyway.

    (Not to mention the fact that those who are most outspoken on the issue are either 1. naive people who have little appreciation for how large the idea they are rubbishing looms in historic Protestant theology, and who seem utterly oblivious to the spiritual disaster that has been the common lot of all who have denied penal substitution so far; or 2. people who ought to know better but seem to have a clear agenda to undermine historic, biblical, and evangelical distinctives).

    Moreover, Scot’s reaction to Dever’s article seems to be yet another indication that people with firm and settled convictions on the matter are really not welcome to participate in this “conversation” after all. Steve Chalke can say whatever he likes, because while provocative and occasionally insulting, he’s not really dogmatic. In McKnight’s words, “There is a lot of Tom Wright in Chalke, for what it’s worth, that raises the value of [his] book.” Plus, “Chalke’s own life is in motion, and this book represents a spot where he is or was…” I.e., he’s not really come to any firm conclusions about anything, so whatever he wants to say is OK.

    On the other hand, people like Dever ought to just sit down and shut up. Especially during “Holy Week.”

    Sorry, but that attitude seriously offends me, especially coming from someone who—after being shown where Dever disclaims the views he attributes to him—insists he knows better than Mark Dever himself what Dever really thinks.

    Ironically, that kind of stereotyping is the only thing McKnight seriously criticized Chalke for. Why is it OK when Scot does it?

    Regarding the EC:

    1. Of course, I am already aware that Keller and Driscoll (and a few others) are not to be lumped in with McLaren, and you know that. I have stressed that point carefully almost every time I have done any kind of formal critique of the EC. So I’m not sure why you feel the need to “plead” with me about that. I can’t recall ever having criticized either Driscoll or Keller about anything, despite whatever serious differences I might have with them over their style and philosophy of ministry.

    2. On the other hand, what makes you so sure that Driscoll and Keller represent “the THEOLOGY and the DIRECTION of the EC”? In the first place, if Keller even labels himself “emerging,” (as opposed to merely “missional”) I haven’t heard him do it—and Driscoll has at times seemed to be virtually renouncing the rest of the movement.

    In the second place, I read the ooze and TSK and lots of the leading EC blogs. The major strands of the movement and the large mass of people who identify with EC simply are not represented by either Keller or Driscoll.

    (The lack of well-defined leadership is supposed to be one of the strong points of the EC, right?)

    3. Anyway, forgive me if I don’t take your word as a reliable prophecy about the future of the EC movement(s). My own prediction would be that the bulk of the movement will continue to drift in an entirely different direction from either Driscoll or Keller. But neither of us really knows for sure.

    I guess time will tell. In the meantime, don’t expect me to be positive about the whole movement just because I occasionally like something Driscoll or Keller might say. (Besides, the things I find admirable about Driscoll and Keller have nothing to do with any of the distinctives of EC; they are the very things that set them apart from the rest of the movement.)

    It would be foolish not to sound a clear alarm when such obvious dangers lie immediately ahead in almost every direction that the EC has been most enthralled with so far.

  6. Phil,

    First, let me say this: I’m sorry to have offended you. I meant nothing of the sort; my piece about Dever is reactive to a trend I see.

    I think you are probably right about the direction of the emergent movement (that it is not well represented by Keller or Driscoll, though no one really knows these things but our Father).

    Now to atonement stuff…

    In fact, I’ve made it clear, in fact very clear, that I think that language about divine child abuse is unacceptable and way out of line. In fact, I find that language disgusting — I understand why “some” use it, but I still find it unacceptable.

    I do not think penal subst theory is wrong and I would appreciate it if you’d observe that I have not said it is wrong; I think using that category to define one’s theory is woefully inadequate to the NT’s vast imagery. I have a post on this Monday.

    But I will say this: there are plenty who reduce atonement to penal substitution. They may say they believe in all the theories (people number them differently), but when it gets down to defining the gospel it is reduced to just penal substitution. I’m working on a piece that will hopefully expand the image so that all theories can work together. One’s theory of the atonement is most visible in one’s evangelistic message. I contend, and I think you might agree with me on this one, that most evangelicals evangelize through the penal subst theory (problem is sin-wrath — Jesus died for our sins to resolve our guilt/God’s wrath; etc.).

    Your dismissive words about what I say about Chalke … well, his book is not really about atonement, and what he has to say about it is not very good (and reductive to this unacceptable image), and he has almost nothing to do with emergent in England. Carson’s inclusion of him in his book took the emergent folks in England by surprise. What he has to say about the kingdom, being quite general I think, is not much different than the themes we find in Wright.

  7. Michael,
    On spam … almost all of mine are trapped by SpamKarma. Is that the sort of thing you are talking about?

  8. Phil and Michael,
    If you’d like to have a heads-up on a book that will surely express one significant direction of the pomo side of emergent, I suggest you keep your eyes open for Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Talk about God.

  9. I have some spam protection via my server but it doesn’t help my blogs. Only thing that helps the spam that winds up in comments is registration and moderation.

    Thanks for the comments.

  10. We’re using SpamKarma and it catches almost everything.

  11. I have no credentials in weighing in here, other than having once been a very loud supporter of John MacArthur and by extension, Phil Johnson. Why are Phil and his army of heresy detectors so thin-skinned whenever one of them is criticized? For a guy who takes obvious pleasure in denouncing any body of believers he thinks is wrong (see his website:, Johnson goes ballistic when challenged on anything. McNight’s essay raises some excellent points and he should be commended for taking on Dever in a respectful manner.

  12. The problem with Chalke is not the emergent, but that somehow he’s still loved by UK evangelicals. The Evangelical Alliance rebuked him and told him to repent… he appears not to have, and yet he’s still writing regularly for mainstream evangelicalism (Christianity Magazine) and still thoroughly involved in our biggest national conference (Spring Harvest).

    Meanwhile our UK Christian bookshops nationwide are increasingly dominated by Chalke, McLaren and Eldridge… whereas you can’t get hold of people like Keller and Driscoll… and its hard to find more than a couple of Piper books in most.

    Our heritage is surrendered… but hope isn’t lost. Christ will build his church – and he is! The truth is always underfire but the gospel changes life. I refuse to give up!

  13. ed lebert says

    As somebody who has always had a distaste for McLaren, I’m very happy for the EC’s sake that he does not adequately represent them. I love Tim Keller’s stuff, and that make me much more willing to explore EC and ignore McLaren from now on (as my wife has recommended).

    Also, It seems to me that
    A) Dever does say that substitution isn’t the whole pie, but it’s a crucial ultimate piece.
    B) It’s worth talking about, especially during Holy Week.
    C) All of those aspects of the Atonment listed by Scot are true, but it also seems they are grounded by scripture in justification/penal-substitution. Especially Colossians 2.

    So while I agree that anybody who reduces it all to justification ALONE is missing the point of the Gospel and everything the Bible has to say about salvation — it also seems that by removing justification from the center of the Gospel you rob the Gospel of its power to save.

    I’m definitely a lightweight here and I have agree in large part to what everybody has said. I respect all three of you and will probably not even attempt to defend anything I’ve just said if you choose to shoot it down. 🙂 But I promise I will listen as a student listens to a teacher.

  14. I’m conscious this post is a week or two old now.. I’ve kind of missed the boat, but I’m intrigued that you group Tim Keller as part of EC…
    Why is that?