The Atonement: Hope, Failure, and a New Awakening
by Allan E. Johnson (March / April 2003 • Volume 19 • Number 2)
A personal look at how Christ's atonement has shaped one pastor's life and ministry over the years
It was hope that first caught my imagination. That was in the 1960s, when I went to seminary just out of college. Menace was in the air: wars and rumors of wars; riots and death.
That was when I heard the message of the strong Son of God, crucified: Jesus, who as Schweitzer put it, set his shoulder to the wheel of the world to turn it toward God's kingdom, even though it crushed him; Jesus, whom God the Father raised and in whose pierced hands hope rests.
The gospel first gripped me in Christ crucified, the sign of God's deep love for all who hurt, and Christ risen, the sign of God's triumphant power among us now. I learned hope in a world that seemed to be hurtling toward death, in the promise of the kingdom where the poor and those who mourn are comforted, victorious in the midst of loss.
Christ risen became for me the one assurance that God is moving in this world, that the healing of our lives and of creation is not only possible but is assured in Jesus, who not only will be but is Lord. I understood myself called to proclaim in a strident world that Jesus is Lord and has won victory.
More Than Hope
This hope still grips me. But it isn't enough. I think what has taught me most may be failure. I am not what I could be; neither are the congregations and the cherished people I have served. Increasingly, I have become convinced that any real hope can only come to us in grace. My preaching will need to make sense of the atonement in a way that will actually reach my heart and connect with my congregation. I am more and more convinced that I can't do this without preaching and teaching Christ crucified, whose unsettling death ends the attack of God's law.
009; Hope might be enough, if we were other than we are — if we were innocent, or if we were peacemakers, hungering to see right prevail. But how could we dare take Mary's words into our mouths and ask that the careless rich be sent empty away (Luke 1:53)? That is me. What eats at the world is within us. The innocent might simply hope for the kingdom. They are not us.
009; The vision which the kingdom yearns toward is clear. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Deut. 6:5, Matt. 22:34-40). That makes so much sense. In such a world, much of what burdens us would be gone overnight — if we could count on each other, if our neighbors could count on us, and if lonely ones would find a home and the hungry would be fed.
And yet, I'm convinced that any fantasy that we in fact love God with our whole heart, or love our neighbor as ourselves, is sheer self-delusion. The simple and breathtakingly ruthless requirement of the law, stripped of all ceremony, demands of us a new heart and a new creation which we in ourselves remain utterly without power to create.
The Sadducees, for whom hope seems not to have been an issue, urged: "Do not serve God like a slave, for the sake of a reward. Serve God without reward." That's admirable. But I don't see it happening, though in some sense it is the direction in which real hope must move. Nothing will change if we seek good only to benefit ourselves. The root of selfishness remains and will find some way to corrupt all that we hope to do. We'll turn it in upon ourselves and probably add to sin the smugness of the virtuous. No commandment will help. "Love" pursued for reward or in obedience is not love and remains centered firmly on me.
009; Something in us that should respond to the vision of the kingdom is apparently born dead. And what the law of God cannot do is "make alive." The word of God holds a vision of the future before us. The problem here is not that the law needs reworking — a few refinements here and there — but that this category has in it no power to make alive. It's not that the law was moving in the right direction but ran out of gas before reaching the goal. It is that law can't do this job. It operates in a different arena.
The objective, within God's new creation, is to make alive, to bring forth spiritual life out of death. To awaken faith, where unbelief has curved all things in on us. To awaken hope, where only death lay before us. To awaken love, in hearts that tried to bring the whole creation under our own control. To establish the peace of God.
Law can't do anything of the kind. The law has in it no power to appeal to anything but us as we are, to threaten and promise in ways which the Old Adam imagines it can understand, and thus in God's mercy help this creation somehow stumble on, even under the present dominion of death.
Law moves toward "justice" and "righteousness" in somewhat the same way prison guards and prison walls move toward peace and security — that is, ham-fistedly. It's got no option but to lay down rules which can at best produce a sort of warped simulation of the peace of God. True peace rests on new hearts and will forever elude any possible formulation of commands. "Obedience" and even "love" still centered on me are merely more-refined forms of sin.
The Transforming Cross
Again, the atonement returns me to "Christ crucified." That's a horrible phrase, the Messiah outcast and accursed. Paul quotes the law: "Cursed is he who hangs upon a tree" (Gal. 3:13). This strange Messiah, who has conquered death and hell, hangs broken under the thunder of God's law. And yet Jesus, crucified, has been raised up by God the Father, vindicated and placed upon the throne of all creation.
009; Two possible claims collide. Jesus is crucified and risen, but law and judgment claim the final word. Both cannot be true at the same time. One of the two claims will shatter. Now I find in the atonement God's own promise that not even sin or failure comes between us. Now I find myself the servant of a gospel for the ungodly. If hope is to be real, it meets us as we are, not as we might have dreamed we could be.
009; But in an irony of joy, the first faltering steps toward actual love become at least possible. Since God in Christ gives freely all we will ever need, we hear this question: What would you like to do with the rest of your life? The purpose of my preaching now is to offer hope in Jesus, for us as we are, and nurture a vision of new life that can be ours within the grace of God.
009; Where might this lead me next? I'm back to needing hope. The gospel comes to me and my congregation as we are. But I cannot rest there. There's much that needs healing. My country is again faced with wars and rumors of wars, and we seem to be facing them badly. In effectively reaching out to our young people, our church may have only a decade or so to learn how to do mission among those born after 1984. I need to live faithfully in this time, and preach effectively to it.
009; Something in me will need to change. The law won't get me there; but neither is grace about letting us rest satisfied as we are. We need transformation.
009; I'm confident that, if it is to be found at all, our transformation will be found in Jesus, crucified and risen. I think I know where to look: in the water, in the Word, at prayer, and at the table. But what I see around me, in my ministry and my life, tells me I need to look deeper still. I'm looking now for where hope leads me next, in Jesus.
Allan E. Johnson is pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church, Gibbon, Minnesota.