Teaching the Atonement, Part 2: Transparency

I have found that one of the most effective things I can do as a teacher is be transparent with my students. When I am willing to share with them areas of struggle in my own thinking, I think they gather encouragement that they are not alone in their confusion. I can sympathize with their intellectual weaknesses. But I think they also find encouragement in how I try to model a lifestyle of continual learning, telling them about how I have set about finding answers to my questions.

With respect to the atonement, I shared with them several transparent moments. The first, regarding questions that arose during my PhD work, I briefly discussed in the last post. A second struggle I shared related to the nature of sin. One of my struggles with the atonement has frankly been the way many people talk about sin. Sin, for many, is described like a material existence. I always imagined it as a sticky, black tar that clings to my heart, and Jesus’ blood was like magical bleach that washed my heart clean and white. Pardon me if this is crass, but this was my experience as a child. Sin was a material thing that was out to get us, but from which Jesus saves and protects us. I’ve come to find that many people in church express sin in these same terms. What Jesus does on the cross, then, is cleanse us from that sin (like removing dirt from our body in the shower), and make us righteous for heaven. I’m not sure how many people hold a view like this (although I expect it’s a lot), but one thing I am sure of is that this is not what Scripture teaches.

But if this isn’t what “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) means, what does it mean for Jesus to take away our sin? Or similarly, what does it mean that “Jesus died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3)? One option, the one I’ve already set aside, is that it means that Jesus wipes off the material existence of sin. A second option is that Jesus’ death saves us from the consequences of sin. But what are these consequences? Typically, three answers are proposed: death, hell, and the wrath of God. I’ll address these later. A third option is that Jesus not only saves us from the consequences of our sin, but he saves us from sinning itself. This is not to say that we become perfect, but relationship with Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit make it possible for us to mortify sin in the flesh and become more like Christ (Rom 8). In short, we can have victory over sin.

I’ll summarize the points like this, and leave the discussion here until my next post.

  • #1: Saved from sin, which is a materially existing substance (not really a biblical option, yet seemingly popularized by simplistic Bible storytelling and analogies)
  • #2: Saved from consequences of sin
    • Death
    • Hell
    • Wrath of God
  • #3: Saved from sinning/victory over sin is possible

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