Atonement as Payment or Forgiveness?

June 13, 2015 by Michael F. Bird 4 Comments

Over at the Missio Alliance, Pastor William Walker has an article on Payment or Forgiveness: Putting the Gospel Back into the Atonement. In the article, Walker claims that folks like Wright and McKnight have brought a great corrective to evangelical theology by trying to integrate the big-picture story of the kingdom with the theology of Jesus’ death (and here I’d add the excellent work of Jeremy Treat too). However, Walker thinks that they have not gone far enough and they have not addressed the major problem which is the penal nature of substitutionary atonement.

Walker offers accolades for Tony Jones’ new book on this topic entitled, Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution. I’m currently reading Jones’ book, he writes well, he asks some good questions,he  makes some salient observations, but on the whole his book does for atonement theology what Rush Limbaugh does for the cause of reggae music. A fuller review will follow in the future. In any case, Walker suggests there are two models for understanding the atonement:

(a) Penal Substitution. “The most popular way of understanding substitution goes something like this: using a courtroom analogy, we owe God a debt or payment for our sin as punishment for it that we ourselves cannot possibly repay. Therefore, God sends Jesus to take our place and pay it for us – namely, by suffering the punishment for our sins.  And it is because of this that God is able to forgive us.

(b) Forgiveness without Payment. “The other way to understand substitution, as “non-penal,” might go something like this: God is indeed grieved over our estrangement from right-relationship with him. God is angry when we hurt each other and when we idolize impermanent things. God’s love has been wounded, and for this God is rightfully “wrathful” toward our sin. But in God’s love through Christ, that sin is “paid for” by God simply eating the cost of it, so to speak — not by having someone else pay for it. This is not cheap grace. It still comes at a huge price to God. It is “paid” by God stepping in to take the blow that we are leveling against ourselves and against God. God does not kill Jesus. We do. Our sin and violence does. And the performative demonstration of this is the cross, which is the ultimate expression of injustice, alienation and betrayal of God and others. It is both the symbolic and the real history of what God has always already been willing to do, which is not to demand payment, but to incur the debt of sin into his own being. In this way the “debt” is vanquished.”

Walker’s view might be called “debt forgiveness.” Crucial to his view is a quote from Brian Zahnd: “The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive. The cross is what God endures in Christ as he forgives.” On the cross, God is like a pacifist who won’t fight back when he’s being abused, he takes the hits, and then in turn forgives those who do not deserve it. While our sin incurs a debt, it is paid by God’s loving refusal to seek retaliation.

It might sound nice, but the problems here are obvious and palpable.


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