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03 December 2015

God wants to save everybody.

It’s called “unlimited atonement”: Jesus died for the sins of the world. Not just a special few.

Atonement /ə'toʊn.mənt/ n. An act which fixes a broken relationship, such as paying a penalty, replacing a damaged item, or painting over defacement.
2. The atonement: Jesus’s payment for humanity’s sins through his death.
[Atone /ə'toʊn/ v.]

When there’s a crack or hole in the wall, you put some plaster or putty or spackle on it, paint over it, and you’re good as new.

And that’s the word God used in Exodus to describe what the ancient Hebrews’ sacrifices represented. Their sins had poked holes in his relationship with them. Those holes needed khofér/“plaster.” The Hebrew word for atone, khippér/“cover over” comes from the same word-root. Simple metaphor: Sin breaks stuff and plaster patches it good as new.

No, not entirely new. And God doesn’t actually want entirely new. Entirely new would mean entirely new people: Instead of sorting us out, God’d just kill us, then replace us with exact replicas. Those replicas wouldn’t be us; they’d be twins, clones, copies. God doesn’t want copies. He wants us—repaired.

Plaster makes a wall as good as new. Yeah, if you want to nitpick, a repaired wall won’t necessarily have the same strength as a new wall. But this depends on what you repaired it with. If you poke holes in drywall, then patch it with concrete, the patch is far stronger than the rest of the wall. In fact the rest of the wall will have trouble supporting the concrete… unless you gradually replace everything with concrete. (Which is a whole other metaphor to play with. Have fun with it.)

Since Christ Jesus is our atoning sacrifice, God himself is our plaster. We have him embedded in us, in much the same way the Holy Spirit was sealed to us when we first turned to God. But don’t play with that metaphor too much, lest you get the idea it’s okay to poke holes in your life so God can putty them with more of himself. We’re not meant to keep on sinning so we can get more grace. Ro 6.1-2 But look at your life as a wall full of holes, patched over by God. We might imagine it as flawed; we can’t get past the idea of all those holes beneath the paint. But God considers it a perfectly good wall. It serves its purpose: It keeps out the wind and rain. It keeps prying eyes from looking through it. It keeps listening ears from hearing better through it. It provides shelter. We can hang pictures on it. And so on, till the metaphor breaks down and we just get silly. But you get the idea.

God wants us, and our relationship with him, repaired, back to the way he originally meant things. He doesn’t want to knock us down and start again from scratch.

Atonement: How’s it work?

You know how we humans are: Sometimes we don’t want a metaphorical explanation. We want details. We want God to get straight and blunt and obvious. Especially about something so important as forgiving us of sins and bailing us out of hell.

So when the Greeks translated khippér into their language, they invented the more-to-the-point exilasmós/“[done] out of making pleased.” And when that was translated into Latin, it became expiare/“[done] out of piety.” Which became our English word expiation. Which evolved its own separate definition from atonement: Certain theologians claim atonement is about fixing a relationship, and expiation is about performing some act of restitution. (In other words, a specific act of atonement.) But nope; they mean the same thing. It’s like spirit and ghost: Our culture attaches different ideas to these words, but they’re not really different. Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost are still the same guy.

But this playing with language doesn’t explain atonement any better. The bible doesn’t either. The authors of the bible kept using metaphors to describe it. As a result we Christians have at least nine different popular theories about how God restored our relationship with him. And weirdly, none of them use the Old Testament’s original metaphor: Plaster.

  • Christus Victor. The devil, sin, and death ruled the world till Jesus’s day. Then Jesus defeated the devil by resisting its temptations, defeated sin by not sinning, and defeated death by returning from death. In so doing he took over the world, and we follow him instead of those other things.
  • Governmental. Humans sin, and ordinarily sin’s consequence is death. But Jesus provided an alternative: His death. It’s not an equal swap (it’s one death, not billions) but it’s an adequate substitute.
  • Moral exemplar. Jesus models the way humans oughta be, and now that he showed us how it’s done, we can live like him.
  • Penal satisfaction. Sin makes God so furious and wrathful, its only consequence is death: Somebody’s gonna die. In order to meet God’s bloodlust, Jesus volunteered his life. God got to beat somebody to death, we’re forgiven; everyone’s happy.
  • Ransom. By sinning, the first humans sold humanity to the king of sin, the devil. In order to get us away from Satan, God swapped us for Jesus, whom Satan vengefully killed. Except God kinda cheated, ’cause Jesus didn’t stay dead.
  • Recapitulation. Humans were given the earth, but bungled the job. Jesus, the “second Adam,” was sent to try again, and this time succeeded—he didn’t fall into sin, remained in God’s image, conquered death, and took the world back for us.
  • Satisfaction. By sinning, humans put ourselves into debt with God: We owe him obedience, he demands payment, and at this rate we’ll never pay him back. Jesus sacrificed himself to pay God back and then some.
  • Scapegoat. The Hebrews used to lay their sins on a goat, then turn it loose to wander away. Similarly, humanity’s sins were laid on Jesus, and his death destroyed them.
  • Solidarity. God wanted a relationship with us so much, he became one of us, went through what we go through, died as one of us, and in so doing absorbed our humanity and sin into himself—and undid it.

Okay, I admit my bias leaked into the descriptions a little bit, so you can likely tell which theory is my least favorite: Penal substitution. It’s actually the one most popular with Protestants. Calvinists love it, ’cause John Calvin taught it. Problem is, it makes God sound psycho. God is love, 1Jn 4.8, 16 but penal substitution says God had to set his love aside because justice and wrath take priority.

Well. There are bible verses behind each of these theories, which is why Christians hold to them. Sometimes we hold to multiple theories, too. Some days I teach the Christus Victor theory, sometimes the scapegoat, sometimes the moral exemplar. My only problem with the moral exemplar theory (and some of the others) is the scriptures describe Jesus dying in our place. To some degree, any atonement theory oughta include that idea. But none of them are perfect, and we’re not limited to just one of them, y’know. Each of them is part of a whole, a separate metaphor for what God really did through Jesus. He alone knows the nuts and bolts of how it really works. Us humans, we’re limited to metaphors. Don’t hold any one of them too tightly.

Who’s atonement for?

You recall I wrote about how humanity is totally messed up, thanks to sin. Can’t save ourselves; we’re too corrupt. We’re hopeless—unless someone else intervenes. And it’s kinda obvious where I’m going with this: God intervened, became a man (Jesus of Nazareth), who died for our sins, 2Co 14-15, He 2.9 paid our fines, 1Ti 2.6 and reconciled the whole world to himself. 2Co 5.19 He plastered over our sin-damaged lives, and declared us forgiven.

By “us” I mean everybody.

Seriously, everybody. Every human, past and future, near and far, vastly wicked or relatively “good.” We’re forgiven. God didn’t wait till we repented first, till we said the sinner’s prayer. He didn’t wait till we were worthy, ’cause we never will be. He simply decided to save us, and did. Jesus died for the sins of the world. Jn 3.17, 1Jn 4.14 The whole world; not just Christians. 1Jn 2.2 Not just monotheists, not just “good people,” definitely not just Americans. Everybody.

If we want God, we don’t have to worry, “What if he doesn’t want me?” He absolutely does. Jesus atoned for everybody because God wants everybody. 1Pe 3.9 He made you; he wants you. We’re not so filthy and nasty and offensive to God’s infinite goodness, he can no longer have nothing to do with us. He won’t turn his back when we call out to him. He won’t say, “Well, first you gotta get really cleaned up” before his Spirit comes to live within us.

And when Jesus returns to rule the world, it’ll be the whole world, not part, Rv 11.15 not just the Christian nations. Jesus is Lord over all. ’Cause he died for us all.

Then there are those who say no he didn’t.

Limited atonement: For God so loved some that he gave his Son.

Limited atonement is the Calvinist and Jehovah’s Witness idea that Jesus’s self-sacrifice only applies to some: He only died for the elect, the people whom God specifically singled out for saving. In Matthew, Jesus said the Son of Man gave his life as a ransom for many, Mt 10.45 and by definition many isn’t all. Therefore not all. Some. Just the elect. Everybody else has been judged already, Jn 3.18 and have no relationship with God.

Y’see, those groups believe God isn’t just almighty. He’s sovereign—he’s in absolute control of the cosmos, does whatever he wants, and always gets his way. They can’t wrap their brains around the idea of a God who gives his kids the option to embrace his grace, or reject it and go their own way. ’Cause if they were almighty they’d force the issue.

Be fair; so would a lot of us. If your kids were headed for their doom, you’d make ’em see reason, right? You’re not like that weak-willed father in the Prodigal Son story, Lk 15.11-32 who just let his kid run off and ruin his life. You love your kids. So these Christians cherry-pick the scriptures to support their point of view. Plus it makes ’em feel awesome to imagine Jesus died especially for them.

So if Jesus died for you, Calvinists and JW’s insist, your sins are atoned for, and you’re saved. Yeah, they know atonement and salvation aren’t the same thing, but they consider the two a package deal: Atonement is so potent, it saves everyone it touches. Jesus didn’t just buy our freedom, then leave us in chains because we stupidly refused his freedom. He broke our chains, dragged us out of the cage, and we’re free whether we recognize him as our new master or not. God is sovereign, so his will prevails. Our will, our wishes, our actions, our faith, nothing we do, makes a whit of difference when it comes to atonement and salvation. It’s not a two-party relationship, where he loves us and we love him back. He decides all, does all, and if we love him that’s nice… but not necessary.

Okay, that’s the elect. What about everybody else? If Jesus didn’t atone for them, are they just going to hell?

Yep. Calvinists call them reprobate: God didn’t elect them. Jesus didn’t atone for them, ’cause that’d automatically save them. They’re not gonna be saved. God may love the world, ’cause Jesus said so, Jn 3.16 but he doesn’t love-love the world. The rest of the world gets all the fringe benefits of the kingdom, thanks to all the Christians in it. But that’s all they get. Scraps from the table. No access to God, in case they want to cry out, “Lord Lord!” Mt 7.21 No chance at any of God’s get-into-heaven passes, which aren’t given to just anyone. Those are only for God’s favorites. They get a taste of heaven in this world; eternal punishment in the next.

Why? What’d they do wrong? Well, they sinned—you know, like everyone else on the planet. When it comes right down to it we all deserve hell. They’re only getting what’s coming to them. But God has decided to be gracious to some, so the elect are made exceptions: They (hopefully we) don’t get what’s coming to them, but get forgiven. So quit your bellyaching about God being unfair: He’s being generous to us Christians. He should just slaughter us all, y’know.

Yeah, that’s the twisted attitude Calvinists have to adopt in order to justify limited atonement. And too often they figure since God’s grace isn’t for everyone, they don’t have to be gracious to everyone. In practice, this is the fruit of limited atonement: “Jesus didn’t die for them; he died for me.” Or “They’re just going to hell anyway.”

If you believe God can save anybody, and wants to save everybody, and you’re trying to be like Jesus, you’re gonna find it real easy reflect that attitude, and share Jesus with everybody. If you don’t believe God will save everybody, you’re gonna invest far more your time with the folks you know (or think) he’s already saved—i.e. Christians. You’re not gonna do a lot of outreach. You’re not gonna do as many good deeds for the poor and needy and lost; Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t bother to do any charity work other than towards fellow JW’s. You’re not gonna see as many miracles. Limited atonement turns into limited love, limited grace, and limited growth.

To be fair, Calvinist teachers don’t approve of these rotten attitudes at all. Regardless, plenty of people use the idea as an excuse to behave badly, to act like their election makes them a better caste of human. Not so easy to do when we believe in unlimited atonement.

Unlimited atonement—in the scriptures.

Remember when the LORD rescued the Hebrews from Egypt? Fed ’em manna in the wilderness, accepted their sacrifices, forgave their idolatry, let Aaron do that scapegoat thing for their atonement? No? Read Exodus through Deuteronomy again.

God rescued the Hebrews. All of them. He didn’t leave them in Egypt, and pick a select worthy few to take to Canaan. He freed them all from their bondage, made them a free people who lived under his grace, and offered every single one of them a promised paradise—a land of milk and honey, as they called it.

That’s what unlimited atonement looks like. That’s what he repeated when Jesus died for our sins. The Hebrews became his children, and he their God. Ex 6.7, Lv 26.12 They could have a relationship with him. He wanted a relationship with them. It’s all he’s ever wanted.

Did all of them accept this relationship with him? Sadly, no. Only a handful finally made it to Canaan: Joshua, Caleb, and a few others not mentioned, like the head priest Eleazar. The rest balked at entering Canaan, and as a result died without ever entering it.

’Cause while God offers us infinite, unlimited grace, we can foolishly reject it—but that’s a whole other subject, which I’ll have to write about another time. Though Jesus came to save the world, some of the world prefers darkness to light, and won’t come to the Light to be saved. Jn 3.19-20

Meanwhile, because Jesus atoned for them, those who resist his grace still get to be the recipients of what we Christians call common grace, the blessings God gives to all humanity, and not just Christians. Like life. Health. Decent weather. The good works of his Christians spill over into the rest of society, resulting in more charity, freer governments, improvements in society’s infrastructure, technological advancement, better medicine, literacy, social equality, justice, and so forth.

But God wants to give them so much more, and Jesus’s atonement makes that possible for all.