In the October 2012 edition of Cedarville's independent journal, The Ventriloquist, Blake Hereth argues for a second look at the Christian doctrine of atonement through his article, “An Abusive Atonement”. While it is appropriate for any scholar to reexamine the tenets of his faith, this review must be undertaken with care. Mr. Hereth’s article, while thought provoking, does not adequately consider the scriptural support for a satisfaction model of the atonement. Let’s walk through these faults as we seek to evaluate and understand the doctrine of atonement.
As we prepare for this journey, let’s take a moment to gather our equipment. The primary tool we will be using is the Bible. Consider the centuries of time, myriads of men, and gallons of ink used by God and scribes to carefully and faithfully transcribe this document. The effort placed into preserving these ancient words should guide the weight which we place upon their arguments. Thus, the truths contained within are the themes of our faith, the principals by which our lives are lived, and the axioms upon which our arguments rest. Secondarily, we will be using our logical faculties. We are created, after all, in the imago dei with sentience, love, and reasoning as proof. Although we may not be able to fathom all the depths of doctrine, we would be foolish not to try. Third we will be using the traditional wisdom provided to us by many scholars throughout the years. Fourth we will be using our own experiential evidence. If you are uncertain why these four pieces of equipment were chosen, consult a theologian on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Ready? Good! Let’s embark.
As Mr. Hereth correctly states, the preeminent view among Cedarville students and professors is satisfaction atonement. According to satisfaction theory, all men are inherently indebted by their sin, an infinite insult against a righteous and just God (Leviticus 5:17, James 4:17, 1 John 3:4, Genesis 2:1-17, James 2:10). The only just recompense for this debt is death (Romans 5:12, Ezekiel 18:4, Romans 6:23). The only way that God could reconcile us to himself is by satisfying this debt. If here were to forgive without payment one of two conclusions must be reached: sin is not an offense to God or God is not just. The first is contradicted by scriptures such as Proverbs 6:16-19, Psalm 5:5, 11:5, and 68:21; the latter is refuted by Genesis 18:25, Deuteronomy 16:19-20, Psalm 37:28, 99:4, and Romans 3:26. I understand that this slough of scripture, which has not drained the source, may be difficult to sift, but the intent is to show that there is abundant scriptural defense of satisfaction atonement. If you prefer a shorter summary:
3b By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3b-4, emphasis added)
Here is where Mr. Hereth begins to diverge from the path of orthodox doctrine. Despite the above, he states “While some believe they recognize a theory of the atonement laid out in Scripture, I cannot honestly claim that. I do not discern any clear biblical teaching on the atonement.” Admittedly, proving a theme does not exist in scriptures is decidedly harder than the opposite, but the preceding scriptural support and the following quotations from well-respected theologians shows the integral role which satisfaction atonement plays in salvation.
Throughout the Old Testament this was always the idea of a sin-offering – that of a perfect victim; without offense on its own account, taking the place of the offender; the transference of the offender’s sin to that victim, and that expiation in the person of the victim for the sin done by another. (Charles Spurgeon)
The purpose of our holy and righteous God was to save his church, but their sin could not go unpunished. It was, therefore, necessary that the punishment for that sin be transferred from those who deserved it but could not bear it, to one who did not deserve it but was able to bear it. (John Owen)
What about our own reasoning and experience? In the third paragraph of “An Abusive Atonement”, which I will not summarize here, Mr. Hereth makes an argument that like cases should be treated alike. This derivation is the crux of the subsequent arguments. He claims that Jesus should not have intended the agony of the cross from himself because he would be alike to man.
The primary fault with this argument comes from the assumption that Christ and man are like cases. This is not the case. Instead of finding Christ in the same state as man, we find that he is pre-eminent to all of mankind (Colossians 1:15-23). Being first in supremacy is not the only difference between Christ and man. Christ did not sin, had no sin nature, and he was fully God (as well as fully man). These are just a few of the many reasons why Christ is not a like case with man. However, to examine the rest of the arguments we will give Mr. Hereth the benefit of the doubt and consider the cases alike as we continue.
Mr. Hereth examines two potential reasons for why Christ would die to save us. The first involves an inherent worth in man while the latter says that the sacrifice was motivated solely by love. The first argument here is invalid since orthodox theology is clear that there is no inherit value in man. As stated by the Westminster Catechism, God chose to save us “out of his mere good pleasure” (Ephesians 1:45, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14).
Mr. Hereth correctly states that if there is no value in man, it is out of love which God saves us (Ephesians 2:1-10). Treating like cases alike, he claims that God should have the same love directed towards himself and thus not intend the punishment of sin for himself. Furthermore he states that to intend a mistreatment of yourself is just as “morally objectionable” as intending the mistreatment for others.
Let’s remember here that God is the ultimate standard for morals. He defines what is morally right and wrong by his actions and character. The example which we see in the Bible, of self-sacrifice for another’s good, therefore cannot be morally wrong. In fact, we are exhorted in Philippians 2:1-11 to, “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Christ has given us an example of self-sacrifice as a moral tenant. In all ways we are to consider others greater than ourselves.
Look at examples from history. People such as Mother Theresa, Joan of Arc, Nelson Mandela, and countless soldiers have sacrificed themselves for others. According to Mr. Hereth these people were committing a moral wrong unless they were sacrificing themselves for someone better than themselves. If this is the case, then why would we revere and honor them!
Finally, let us examine the purpose of the cross. If Christ’s death did not absorb the punishment for our sin, then what was the purpose? If it was merely a moral example, then why did it need to be death? Without atonement, the Cross is meaningless.