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Cutting through the glut of the theories of Jesus’s atonement.
What do we do with all glut of our intellectual parsing of Jesus’s atonement? The theologues will tell you that Jesus’s passion and death are meant to propel a specific divine mission for the sake of his own glory and the good of humanity. For instance, there are roughly seven theories or interpretations for understanding the objective of the cross. And there are no shortage of academic papers defending or dismantling each distinct view, all in an attempt to ensure redemptive accuracy is well maintained. To be sure, I am not attempting to say that all conversations dissecting the atonement are fruitless. There is, indeed, much from which we can benefit in thinking and talking through the particulars of the cross. What’s more, the conversation surrounding the gospel’s penal substitutionary atonement is a necessary one to continue having. In that way, we are always made to benefit from meditating upon the benefits that issue from Calvary’s mount.
But, even still, I fear that much of the dialogue postulating Jesus’s death as primarily a satisfaction of his Father’s wrath over against his death as primarily a ransom for the world’s sin — or any of the other redemptive theorem — leaves many adrift in the doldrums of their own discipleship. Which is to say, the preponderance of symposiums on Jesus’s redemption often leave me wanting (which is a frustrating confession, to be honest).
I have been thinking of how opposite that is from the apostle Paul, though. For Paul, Jesus’s redemption was not an argument to be dissected or jury-rigged into this, that, or the other theological system. Actually, as John Henry Jowett attests in a sermon entitled, “Apostolic Optimism,” “all the spacious reaches of the apostle’s life the redemptive work of his Master is present as an atmosphere in which all his thoughts and purposes and labours find their sustaining and enriching breath.”1 His epistles are composed in an aroma of redemption as the substructure upon which all the intricacies of the Christian life are secured — the formulation around which all other postulations were formed. Jowett continues:
Redemption was not degraded into a fine abstract argument, to which the apostle had appended his own approval, and then, with sober satisfaction, had laid it aside, as a practical irrelevancy, in the stout chests of mental orthodoxy. It became the very spirit of his life. It was, if I may be allowed the violent figure, the warm blood in all his judgment. It filled the veins of all his thinking. It beat like a pulse in all his purposes. It determined and vitalised his decisions in the crisis, as well as in the lesser trifles of the common day. His conception of redemption was regulative of all his thought.
To the apostle redemption was not a small device, an afterthought, a patched-up expedient to meet an unforeseen emergency. The redemptive purpose lay back in the abyss of the eternities, and in a spirit of reverent questioning the apostle sent his trembling thoughts into those lone and silent fields.2
I pray to have the same said of me. That Jesus’s redemption would be regulative of all my speech and thought and life. That all of Christ’s redeeming ramifications would color all my words and actions. That the gospel of God’s redemption of wrecks and wretches like me would form the only solid ground upon which my confidence, certainty, and hope would be established.
J. H. Jowett, Apostolic Optimism: And Other Sermons (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901), 4.