“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
1 John 4:7-12
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
Over the past couple of weeks, we have been looking at theories of atonement. That is, how in and through the cross of Christ, God takes what is broken and makes it one again. Again, atonement means to take that which is broken and make it at-one again.
The first theory believed that humanity was in the clutches of the devil held captive and hostage and, on the cross, God gave Jesus as a ransom or payment to trick the devil and defeat it through the resurrection.
But over time, people thought that was beneath God’s honor to trick the devil. So, last week, we talked about God as the ultimate king. As such a king, God’s honor and justice must be maintained and preserved. Therefore, humanity’s sin was disobedient to God’s honor and justice, and, on the cross, God gave Jesus to pay our debt or to take our punishment that we deserved from God. This is by far still the most popular understanding of the cross today.
There were some problems with this theory though. Over time, many people said that it seemed to underemphasize God’s love. The idea of Jesus paying the debt we owe to God or taking our punishment sounds more like a cold, calculating business transaction than it does the work of a passionate and loving God who will do anything to be near the children of the world that God loves so much. It sounds more like a god to be afraid of than a god who love you unconditionally. If you lived your life getting justice for every wrong someone did against you, you would never live. You’d spend your life keeping track of what everyone else owes you. Life isn’t about a business transaction in which we pay each other for everything wrong we do. We forgive people all the time. We are in a personal relationship with God. Not a business relationship.
And notice how Jesus’ life and resurrection play almost no role in this theory. Really, Jesus just needs to come and die. It doesn’t matter what miracles, healings, or teachings he did. He just needed to die on the cross.
So, about 50 years later, a third atonement theory was developed in direct response to this one. This third theory want to take seriously the major theme of the New Testament – that God is love. We see this in John 3:16 – For God so loved the world. And in 1 John 4:8 – God is love.
This theory views Jesus whole life and the cross as example and encouragement. Not only is Jesus’ death on the cross about God’s love for us, but Jesus’ whole life is about love.
It is about showing love in two important ways. First, Jesus’ life and death are an example of God’s love for us. Think about, Jesus goes around healing people, meeting with those who are outcasts, visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, and forgiving sinners. And then, in his death, Jesus lays down his life for us. In fact, Jesus dies preaching about God’s love for all people, including the sinners and the tax-collectors.
It is why we love movies and stories like Simon Birch, or Harry Potter, or heroes who die trying to save someone they love. It is the ultimate expression of love. And that’s what Jesus’ life and death are in this theory, the ultimate expression of how much God love us.
But the second thing is that it isn’t just an example of God’s love. It is encouragement for how we should love one another. Jesus doesn’t just die on the cross for us, Jesus also says, “I give you a new commandment – that you love one another as I have loved you.” What’s the old hymn: they’ll know we are Christians by our what? By our love.
So Jesus is not only an example of love but also the encouragement for us to love. To go and be like the good Samaritan helping the man who was beaten on the side of the road. Or to be like the prodigal father who welcomes home with open arms his prodigal son who wasted away all his money.
So, in this theory, what’s the problem that needs fixing? What broken between humanity and God? Humanity doesn’t really know how to love one another. We seem unable to love like God loves. Which then keeps us at a distance from God, because God is love.
In order to fix the problem, to make us at-one again, God sends Jesus to teach us how to love and to encourage and inspire us, even transform us to do so. Through the cross, we see a profound picture of love that inspires us to love others like that. And because God is love, when we love more, we are drawn closer to God. The relationship is healed.
Think about it. Some of the most powerful experiences in your life have probably been when someone has loved you. Really loved you. Loved you when you didn’t deserve to be loved. And equally, you have likely had powerful experiences when you have really loved someone else. When your love for them outweighed anything else.
So what does this theory say about God? Well, God is love. That God is all about love. Not angry and wanting to punish a sinful world, but so in love with the world, that God wants to forgive and redeem it.
And lastly, what then does this say about the Christian life? WWJD, baby. What would Jesus do. In this Christian life, we look to Jesus to find out how we should live and love in this life.
So, according to this theory, maybe Jesus on this cross isn’t about being rescued from the devil. Maybe it isn’t about Jesus paying for your sins to an angry God by being punished. Maybe Jesus’ life and death on the cross are example and image of what God’s deep love for you looks like and how we are called to love one another.
For those of you who can’t quite connect with the idea of a being held captive by the devil, or for those of you who don’t like the violence of a god who punishes God’s own son on a cross, or for those of you who wonder if you really are loved in this life and wonder how to love, maybe this theory can help you to know God’s unending and abounding love for you. That God would go so far as death to show you that you are never beyond the reach of God’s care for you.
But there are also some problems with this theory too. It doesn’t really say much about the resurrection. Do you even need Easter if Jesus is simply an example and encouragement for love? And how well is it working? How well are we the people of God following Jesus’ example of loving one another? To some extent it seems that we still haven’t been able to love one another as Jesus loves us.
So those are the three primary understandings of the cross. Ultimately, none of these theories is perfect. None of them cover all the bases. They all have strengths and they all have weaknesses. So, what are we to do? Next week, we will try to close out this Lenten season by asking that very question. Now what?
If there is anything of God that has been spoken in these words, then may they settle and take root in our life.
Note: Much of this sermon is based on the fifth chapter of David Lose’s book Making Sense of the Cross