I recently reviewed Matt Chandler’s newest book The Explicit Gospel and noticed a common theme throughout it: the overwhelming emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement.
I realize this can be defined in a few ways, depending on the crowd, but here is how it’s used in Chandler’s book: on the cross, Jesus absorbed the wrath of God and satisfied it, paving the way for guilty people like me and you to be saved from hell. This made me uncomfortable.
Chandler focuses on this at the expense of everything else Jesus did. There was no mention of how the death of Christ served as a type of Passover sacrifice, despite the fact that the Passover serves as the religious setting in which Good Friday took place. There’s little mention of how the cross relates to the defeat of Satan. There was no mention of how we are united to Jesus through our faith and baptism, and because of that union, we have died with Christ and will live with him.
I like to think of Atonement theories–explanations of what Jesus accomplished through his death–like the windows of a house. Look through a particular window, and you’ll see a room. Look through the other windows, and you’ll get other perspectives. These perspectives don’t cancel each other out. They compliment each other. They give you a better view of the entire package.
Acting as if only one Atonement theory explains everything accomplished on the cross is like looking into only one window and thinking you’ve seen the entire house. This is a weakness not only in Chandler’s book but also in any church setting in which one aspect of the cross is emphasized at the expense of the others.
I think in many cases, this has more to do with allegiance to a particular theological system than it does to scriptural arguments. I had a pastor once tell me that Jesus paying the price for our sins was the most important thing that happened on the cross because it’s how we are reconciled to God; everything else that Jesus accomplished on the cross was secondary. It wasn’t a biblical distinction he was making, as there was no verse he could appeal to in order to rank what Jesus did. He meant well, but he was defending a system in that moment. He’s hardly the only one who does this. We’re all open to that risk.
There’s no reason we can’t celebrate Jesus dying for us even as we remember his sacrifice as a deathblow against Satan and as an example to be modeled in our own lives. And when we focus on one and ignore the others, we miss the entire package and we’re worse off for it.