A Better Atonement: When Atonement Begins

This week, as we prepare for Good Friday and Easter, we’ll have a post every morning about the atonement. Some will be by me, and some by guests. And don’t forget to check out the Storify and Tumbler, both tracking atonement this week. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here.

This morning, Fuller Seminary professor Daniel Kirk . Be sure to check out Daniel’s new book, Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?: A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity.

Died for Our Sins

“Jesus died for our sins.” Often, the problem with this core piece of our common Christian confession is that we think we know what it means. And so we limit our understanding of the fullness of the atonement.

Hearing this confession, many of us immediately home in the problem of guilt. Jesus is the means God provides so that sin’s guilt might be forgiven.

This is one way that scripture talks about Jesus’ death. But even when speaking of forgiveness of sins, guilt isn’t always the Bible’s primary concern.

In Colossians 1 we read, “God rescued us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son; in him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Forgiveness is not merely about having guilt forgiven. Forgiveness becomes the means by which we are freed from an enslaving tyrant.

Freedom, living a life filled with the peace that comes from fulfilling our calling to faithfully submit to God’s own kingship, is not an add-on to the atonement. It is not a second step after our sins are forgiven.

When Jesus dies for our sins, he creates a free people, a rescued people, a body politic for the Kingdom of God.

To put it in terms of the Gospels: the atonement is not merely what Jesus does on the cross, but the rescue that fills up the pages of his life story.

Atonement begins when Jesus refuses to bow the knee to Satan in the desert. The dominion of darkness has met its match in one who will worship God alone.

Atonement begins when Jesus summons twelve followers. The scattered people of God will be called back together; the alienated and isolated will be a life-giving community.

Atonement begins when Jesus heals Peter’s feverish mother in law. The power of sickness and death will finally be beaten back by the hand of God.

Atonement begins when Jesus feeds 5,000 people in the middle of the desert. The world’s economy of lack is undone by God’s economy of abundance.

Atonement begins when Jesus casts out demons. The spiritual forces that enslave the people of the earth are being defeated; new life is breaking into the old.

But then comes the surprise.

In the face of all this glorious, wonder-working power of God, at work in Jesus, Peter can say only one thing: You are the Christ!

To this Jesus can only say, This is what it really means to be Christ: the Human One must be rejected and suffer and die—and then be raised up in glory.

The mystery of the atonement is that all the power and signs and wonders, showing us the that King of God’s kingdom is making all things new, cannot be fully realized except by the way of the cross.

This is the faith whose summons we must heed: to believe in the God who brings life out of death; to live into the economy of abundance that feeds 5,000 on five loaves; to trust that the call to take up our cross and follow Jesus is a vocation that will overflow in life to those for whose lives we have given our own.

This is the surprising freedom-space created for us by the atonement. It is the space to walk as Jesus walked, which is the road of power perfected, and reign consummated, in weakness.

The atonement is the freedom from sin bestowed on us that ushers us into the kingdom of the crucified king.

Daniel Kirk is New Testament professor at Fuller Seminary’s Northern California campus. He blogs daily at jrdkirk.com and is the author, most recently, of Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? A Narrative Approach to the Problem of Pauline Christianity.


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