01 July 2008
The Basics: Atoning sacrifice of Christ
In our 11-part series looking at how the Alliance's Basis of Faith is Good News for our neighbours, Dr Stephen Holmes discusses...
6. The atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross: dying in our place, paying the price of sin and defeating evil, so reconciling us with God.
Trying to explain how our belief in the atoning sacrifice of Christ is relevant to mission is a little strange: we have no mission, nothing to say and no reason to do anything apart from the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
This is our hope, our basis, our motivation for mission; this is the content, power and message of our mission. "God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people's sins against them," Paul wrote. "And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: be reconciled to God! God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5.19-21).
Does this mean that anything that is not proclaiming the Gospel directly is not mission? I would rather ask the question a different way: when Jesus touched a leper, ate with a tax collector or healed an outcast, was He not proclaiming the Gospel directly? Was Peter not proclaiming the Gospel just as much when he went to eat with Cornelius as when he preached to him?
Christian social action is, or should be, a living out of the message of reconciliation that God has committed to us. Actually, every aspect of our lives should be a living out of that Gospel. Our activities, values and decisions about work and family - and about shopping and voting - are, or should be, decisions that are incomprehensible except for the truth of the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
Mission is not something we do; it is what we are. The word literally means "being sent". Christian mission means being sent by Christ to live out the truth of His atoning sacrifice. And living out that truth means proclaiming it, joyfully and reverently, to all people at all times and in all places. And it also means living in patterns of love and service that would be incomprehensible had Christ not lived and died. It means raising our children and spending our money differently to those around us - eating and drinking even - only to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10.31). There is no part of an obedient, properly lived Christian life that is not proclaiming the Gospel directly.
An obedient, properly lived Christian life will, however, repeatedly involve speaking out the truth of the atoning death of Christ. The Gospel that drives every thought and action cannot remain unspoken. We will quietly whisper the truth of what Jesus has done in awed and thankful prayer to God; we will thunder it out in joyful songs of worship; we will remind each other repeatedly of the wonderful truth, and in every way tell all who do not yet realise this truth that it is the only possible basis for a human life.
So we come to a question: how do we best speak out this truth? How do we most adequately and faithfully speak of what God has done to each other, to our non-Christian family and friends, or to anyone else who cares to listen?
In recent years there has been some discussion- some controversy even - within the Alliance over the question of the best way to speak of the atonement. The Basis of Faith tells us that Christ's death was substitutionary ("dying in our place"); that Jesus paid a "price" or penalty that we owed because we had sinned; that on the cross Jesus won a decisive victory, "defeating evil", and that because of all this our relationship with God is restored ("reconciling us with God"). All these ways of speaking of the cross of Christ, and several more, can be found in the Scriptures as well.
Some of us will find some of this language easier to understand than other bits; others will believe that, theologically, some parts are more central than others. These are good discussions to have; they are based on a concern that we understand and properly present the cross of Christ.
When we come to our mission, however, we might want to approach the question from a different angle: can we find in all these different ways an invitation to start where people are, so that we can draw them in to the fullness of the wonderful truth of Christ's atoning death on the cross?
I heard a preacher recently, zealous for truth, begin an evangelistic address saying, "The beginning of the Gospel is this: God hates you. You are sinners, and it says in Psalm 5.5 that God hates sinners."
Of course people do need to learn the uncomfortable truth that we are all sinners, and that because of that our only hope in life and death is in the great Gospel truth that Jesus has paid the price for our sins. But there have got to be better places to start than "God hates you". In our culture, the wonderful love of Christ, God's intention to restore broken relationships and the promise of life in all its fullness are surely the places to begin.
God has met all our needs on the cross, and given us so many different ways to begin to tell that wonderful truth to people. It is our duty, as well as our joy, to find ways of speaking that are helpful and meaningful to our friends and neighbours, so that they too may begin to discover the wonders of "the atoning sacrifice of Christ".
- The Alliance's full Basis of Faith can be found at www.eauk.org/basisoffaith
- Stephen Holmes is lecturer in theology at St Andrews University and chair of the Alliance's Theological Commission.
His latest book is The Wondrous Cross: Atonement and Penal Substitution in the Bible and History (Paternoster).
This series is not a commentary on the Basis of Faith, neither is it an explanation of how the Basis is interpreted by the Alliance. Rather, it focuses on the relevance of the Basis to spreading the Good News.