This is part of my ongoing attempt to make what I write accessible for the Christian public at large. The following is Thesis 14 from our edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. I will quote it in full, then follow it up with further explanation, with hopes of making it comprehensible in ways that are able to penetrate the hearts and minds of as many as will. [here is the first installment]
Thesis Fourteen. The atonement is multifaceted and must not be reduced to one culturally conditioned atonement theory but, rather, to a theologically unified but multi-faceted atonement model.
While Evangelical Calvinism upholds what is essential in a penal substitutionary theory of the atonement, it does not limit the atonement to juridical metaphors. Instead it prefers to see the atonement through the multifaceted New Testament perspectives, in addition to the many Old Testament antecedents, and speak of an ontological, personal, relational, and even mystical union, centered in Christ, by which any atonement model inheres.55
The language which the New Testament uses to set this out is drawn from the long history of God’s dealings in revelation and reconciliation with his covenant people Israel. That language is used in the sovereign freedom of the New Testament revelation, in the sovereign freedom of the Son of God who, as he comes into the situation prepared for him in Israel, acts both critically and creatively in fulfilment of the Old Testament patterns of understanding and worship provided within the covenant. We must seek therefore to examine that language, and through it and by means of it, seek to understand what the New Testament teaches us of the death of Christ. And yet we must pass beyond the Old Testament language to the actual person and work of Christ himself and allow his person and work as mediator to remould in our obedient understanding of him, even the language divinely prepared in the old covenant, for here it is with the new covenant in the blood of Christ that we are concerned.56
It is this embodied aspect of the atonement in Christ that becomes the centrum wherein an Evangelical Calvinist understanding of the atonement takes full shape. The imagery and liturgical activity of atonement found throughout the canon of Scripture is grounded and orientated ontologically in the cruciform life of Christ. This means that Evangelical Calvinists believe that penal-substitution is an aspect of the atonement, and a fundamental one at that; that both forensic realities are present, but that they find their nexus deeper down as Christ takes on the full weight of sin in his very being.
Torrance beautifully describes the implications of such an atonement model when he writes:
Jesus did not repudiate the preaching of John the Baptist, the proclamation of judgement: on the contrary he continued it, and as we have seen he searched the soul of man with the fire of divine judgement, but in Jesus that is subsidiary to—and only arises out of—the gospel of grace and vicarious suffering and atonement. In the incarnate life of Jesus, and above all in his death, God does not execute his judgement on evil simply by smiting violently away by a stroke of his hand, but by entering into from within, into the very heart of the blackest evil, and making its sorrow and guilt and suffering his own. And it is because it is God himself who enters in, in order to let the whole of human evil go over him, that his intervention in meekness has violent and explosive force. It is the very power of God. And so the cross with all its indelible meekness and patience and compassion is no deed of passive and beautiful heroism simply, but the most potent and aggressive deed that heaven and earth have ever known: the attack of God’s holy love upon the inhumanity of man and the tyranny of evil, upon all the piled up contradiction of sin.57
If the forensic/juridical components are the primary components of an atonement theory, then the concern is that atonement will not have dealt with the real reach of sin; to use the language of Scripture, the juridical/forensic, alone, does not have the capacity to deal with the “heart.” Instead, juridical/forensic themes can only provide “payment” to God for legal crimes committed against him; yet the primary issues— the cause of the symptoms—remains untouched. Evangelical Calvinists advance the ontological theory of the atonement that helps correct the imbalance left by the classic understanding.
55. See Torrance, Atonement, 99.
56. Ibid., 1.
57. Torrance, Incarnation, 150.
In a nutshell, what this all means, is that we as Evangelical Calvinists (Myk Habets and myself in particular) believe that the most popular and dominant theory of the atonement (i.e. what Jesus did for us, as classically understood, in his cross-work, paying for the penalty of our sins), which is known as the Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) theory, does not adequately capture the depths of which actually happened in the atonement of Jesus. Basically, to simply believe all that Jesus did at the cross was pay a legal debt on our behalf, would be akin to a bails-bondsman paying for a criminal to get out of jail; obviously, the criminal is now “free,” but in reality all that has happened is a legal agreement between the Law-court and the criminal has been agreed upon, that their debt has been ‘paid’ for (in the analogy, only temporarily, which is where it breaks down), and on this basis they are now free from the prison that was now holding them. Of course the problem remains, only the symptoms have been dealt with, and the criminal is still a criminal in intention and heart, they are just a “free criminal.” This is akin to what happens in the forensic PSA understanding of the atonement. Jesus is the bails-bondsman, he pays for our penalty of sin, but in reality, his payment never penetrates into the depth of our heart, which is what makes us sinners and inward focused (navel-gazers). What needs to happen, is that Jesus needs to fully enter into our situation, he needs to become fully human, and thus when he dies on the cross, what is really happening is that he is putting to death the cause of our criminality, what makes us sinners (our utterly wicked hearts Jer. 17;9 etc.). So when we say ‘the ontological theory of the atonement’ all that this is indicating is that Jesus truly enters into the depths of our humanity, and he isn’t just our purported bails-bondsman, but he actually and really (ontologically-which means ‘being’ of who we really are), becomes a real human being, representative of all human beings, and he condemns ‘sin’ in his body, as Paul says in Romans 8:3; he puts our sorry hearts of sin out of their misery, and gives us his heart of ‘flesh’ (II Cor. 3; Ez. 36) in his resurrected humanity.
So to frame the atonement as a ‘legal’ thing as its primary understanding, is problematic; because it doesn’t offer the real answer to what we really needed, only the belief that Jesus put our sinful hearts to death, deals the final death blow to our wicked hearts that is needed in order for genuine reconciliation to happen between God and humanity. And as Evangelical Calvinists, we believe this union of reconciliation has happened in the person of Jesus Christ, who is both God and man, and our mediator and high priest. And so we stand humbly before him and in him, as redeemed, recreated, and resurrected humanity, with new hearts that beat with love for the Father, given life blood through the veins of Jesus for us, and breath to these dry bones, by the Holy Spirit’s in-spiration.