Tag Archives: scripture

A Millennial on Why the Atonement is Still Important: A Response to Christian Piatt

imagesRecently another tidal wave of atonement wariness has swept through the Christian village. It has been subtle at times. It has even been constructive at times- seeking to reframe the atonement for a postmodern audience. It has also been blatant at times, and none so blatant as a recent article by Christian Piatt.

In his April 28, 2015 article entitled, “Is a Theology of Atonement a Ponzi Scheme that Enslaves Us to God?”, Piatt writes: “Aside from atonement theology (the idea that Jesus’ death paid a debt to God I could not repay myself) painting God as a bloodthirsty bully, it also raises the question of whether personal salvation based on this atonement principle is the greatest Ponzi scheme ever sold from the pulpit.”

He then goes on to show how this Ponzi scheme works; essentially arguing that the job of a person who accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior is to “work for this deferred compensation [freedom from eternal suffering in hell] for the rest of your life. And chief among your jobs is to sell other people on this same deal so they can be covered under this sin umbrella policy, and then recruit others to do the same and so on…”

Piatt’s main problem with this is it makes Christians “act fundamentally un-Christ-like,” “act like jerks to everyone else,” live a life that is “fairly indistinguishable from indentured servitude” while “screwing” anyone who doesn’t “sign on” to this way. He closes the article by describing the way he sees God, or at least desires God to be. He writes: “If we believe in a God of unconditional love and grace, however, it seems we have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to also believe that we have to proclaim that Jesus paid our debt, or else no deal.” He says if God’s love is unconditional, then it cannot be based on any kind of deal or preference and since Jesus sought to erase the idea of insiders versus outsiders, the theology of atonement “paints God as particularly un-Christ-like.” Finally he puts it all out, “Personally, I choose to believe in a God that really offers love and grace freely, and that would not set up a man the likes of Jesus to be tortured and killed.”

As a Millennial (I was born in 1985) and as someone who classifies myself as either moderate or progressive on many theological issues, this post is not an attack on progressive Christians or liberal Christians, rather it is me standing as a young Millenial Christian to say that the atonement, for all the discomfort it causes our modern/postmodern minds, is still important. If we take the theology of atonement away, we aren’t left with Christianity- in fact we aren’t left with anything at all.

Without the atonement, we cannot use Scripture as a means to know and understand God. Piatt writes that atonement theology is un-Christ-like and that the God he chooses to believe in could not act in such a way, if that is true then the Scriptures are useless because from the Old Testament to the New Testament God’s character is seen through atonement. Without the atonement, we can throw out the Law because without the atonement we cannot say that anything someone does is wrong. Without the atonement, we can throw out the Prophets because there can be no reason or means to hold someone accountable for their behavior. Without the atonement, we can throw out the Psalms, because one of the underlying beliefs of the Psalms is the understanding that God judges wrong doing. Without the atonement we can throw out the Tabernacle and Temple. Without the atonement, we can throw out the gospels because they show Jesus as embodying God’s atonement. Finally, we can throw out Acts and the Epistles because they elaborate on the ‘Jesus is God’s final atonement’ idea. Once we take the atonement out of Scripture, we actually aren’t left with any Scripture at all.

Piatt’s other main point, namely that God’s love and grace can exist apart from the atonement, also causes some major problems. If you are able to keep Scripture, despite its atonement foundation, it’s hard to circumnavigate that Scripture links God’s love and God’s grace to the atonement. Texts like Romans 5:8-10, 1 John 4:9-10 and Galatians 2:20 all link God’s love to atonement in and through Jesus’ death. Likewise, God’s grace is linked to the atonement. Texts like Ephesians 1:7, Romans 3:21-26 and all of Romans chapter 5 show that God’s grace is shown and given through the atonement. To say that we believe in a God of love and grace and yet deny the atonement is like standing before a fireplace and affirming the existence of light and warmth but denying the existence of the fire.

The questions of how the atonement works and why Jesus had to die have existed within Christianity since its inception. Theologians through the centuries have proposed various ways to understand the atonement- ransom, satisfaction, moral influence, penal substitution, Christus Victor. Despite the questions of how and why, the Christian faith is the belief that the atonement works and that the atonement remains God’s means through which love, grace, mercy, redemption, forgiveness and salvation come. With its questions and with our uneasiness in aspects of the atonement, it remains the central and vital component of the Christian faith. Without the atonement, we cannot know God though Scripture and we cannot believe in a God of love and grace. That is why the atonement is still important.


Should a “Christian response” include the words of Jesus?

Last week, another round of salvos was launched between Christians on a social issue. This time the subject was capital punishment, AKA the death penalty. In an article entitled “Why Christians should support the death penalty,” written for CNN’s Belief Blog, Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler argues that Christians should be supporters of the death penalty because “God affirmed the death penalty for murder as he made his affirmation of human dignity clear to Noah.” Mohler argues in his piece (which you can read here) “in the simplest form, the Bible condemns murder and calls for the death of the murderer.” In similar statements made on March 19, 2014, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, argues for a support of capital punishment in the same vein as Mohler. You can read Moore’s remarks here.

In response to the article, some Christian bloggers and writers took issue, not directly with Mohler’s stance, but rather with the method that he took to support it. In the article, Mohler references two scriptures, Genesis 9:6 and the other from Romans 13:4. These are the exact Scriptures that Moore cited in his remarks less than two months earlier. And the question that was raised in the response to Mohler and Moore’s method is this, how can one claim to present the “Christian” view or response without mentioning the words and/or example of Jesus Christ?

While I disagree with many of Moore and Mohler’s arguments, as well as, their choices of Scriptural support, the big picture question poised by these writers and bloggers affects, not only the subject of capital punishment, but subjects ranging from homosexuality to divorce to war- and many in between.

Does a Christian view on whatever subject hinge on Jesus’ words on the subject- or the lack thereof?

There is even a greater question behind the previous question and that is this: If all of Scripture is inspired by God and therefore true (in what is revealed about God, man, and God and man’s relationship), should more weight be given to the words of Jesus above the rest of Scripture?

Our first reaction is cry out for the equality within Scripture. This is good in theory but in practice I don’t do it, you don’t do it and our churches don’t do it. We pick and choose which Old Testament laws still apply in today’s culture. We pick and choose whether Paul was a proponent of masculine authority in the church or a beacon of equality between genders, races and social classes. We pick and choose Scriptures to form our opinions on alcohol, marriage, gender roles, church worship and church leadership- just to name a few.

In short, none of us treat all of Scripture equally so should Jesus’ words carry the most weight?

I really don’t know the answer to that question. Here is what I do know. Jesus said that all of the Law and all of the Prophets are summed up in two statements: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. If Jesus says that everything I read in the Law and everything I read in the Prophets is telling me to love God and love my neighbor as myself, shouldn’t that be the starting and ending points for every “Christian” perspective?

It sure as heck couldn’t hurt.


© Ryan Vanderland 2014

Lent: Jesus’ Favorite Scripture?


In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus often quotes verses from the Old Testament. Sometimes Jesus will introduce the scripture he is about to quote while other times he just slips it naturally into his conversations or discourses.

While re-reading the Gospel of Matthew I noticed, for the first time, that of all the Old Testament scriptures that Jesus quotes, there is only one that he quotes twice.

Could this little verse from the Old Testament be Jesus’ favorite verse? And if it is Jesus’ favorite verse, should it be our favorite as well?

Before we get to those questions, let’s take a short look at the scripture in question.

The first time Jesus quotes this scripture occurs in Matthew 9:13 and is in the context of Jesus calling Matthew to follow Jesus and become a disciple. Matthew gets up and follows Jesus; later Jesus is enjoying dinner at Matthew’s house with many “tax collectors and sinners.” This upset the religious teachers, called the Pharisees, who would not openly associate with those kinds of people. Some years later, Matthew writes about that incident:

When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.

Jesus quotes this verse a second time a couple chapters later in Matthew 12. On this occasion, Jesus, Jesus’ disciples and members of the Pharisees were walking through some grain fields and Jesus’ disciples picked the heads of grain and began eating them. The problem? It was the Sabbath and in the eyes of the Pharisees picking heads of grain to eat amounted to harvesting, which was forbidden to do on the Sabbath thus breaking the Mosaic Law.

When the Pharisees saw this, they asked Jesus why he allowed his disciples to break the Sabbath. Jesus answered with a story about when King David broke the Mosaic Law and observes that priests also “work” on the Sabbath but do not break the Law. Jesus ends by saying:

But I say to you that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.

Jesus quotes this scripture twice in two different settings, so what scripture is Jesus quoting? Jesus is quoting from Hosea, specifically Hosea 6:6. Hosea 6:6 comes in the midst of the Lord’s oracle about the sins of the people but also in a mini-section (6:1-3) about God’s restoration.

So what does Hosea 6:6 mean? And why does Jesus quote it twice? There are actually two parts to this particular verse and the translations differ in different versions of the Bible.

NASB: “For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

NIV: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”

NLT: “I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.”

ESV: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”

The Hebrew word translated as “compassion,” “loyalty,” “mercy,” “and “love” is the Hebrew word hesed. The word hesed is a hard word to define. It means “compassion” but also more than compassion. It means “loyalty” but also more than loyalty. It means “mercy” but also more than mercy. It means “love” but also more than love. It encompasses all those, and more, into one word. Above all hesed is a word of relationship. No matter how the word is used, it has to involve more than one person.

When Jesus says, “I desire hesed, and not sacrifice,” what he is saying is, “I desire a relationship with you far beyond anything you could possibly give me.” With this understanding, suddenly Jesus’ words in the two narratives we spoke of earlier make much more sense.

We also see why this may have been Jesus’ favorite Old Testament scripture. It is the summation of the gospel in seven words.

Is Hosea 6:6 Jesus’ favorite scripture? I don’t know. But after examining it and seeing what Jesus’ means by using it, I could see how it might be. And maybe it is a scripture that we might want to begin including in our gospel presentations- Jesus obviously thought it was important.

© Ryan Vanderland 2013