Here is excerpts from a blog post of  Richard Beck at Experimental Theology. Richard is looking at George MacDonald’s sermon Justice. It is a great read:


MacDonald wants to push back on that notion [of equivalence between the “punishment” of sin and God’s “justice”], to suggest that justice is a far richer concept than punishment. And if this is so, no amount of punishment in hell gets God closer to achieving justice. To illustrate this MacDonald has us consider someone stealing our watch:

Suppose my watch has been taken from my pocket; I lay hold of the thief; he is dragged before the magistrate, proved guilty, and sentenced to a just imprisonment: must I walk home satisfied with the result? Have I had justice done me? The thief may have had justice done him—but where is my watch?

The point here, obviously, is that a “just” result can’t be found through punishment alone.

The doctrine of substitutionary atonement feels right to us because, as victims, we want wrong-doers to be punished. It’s emotionally satisfying. We want people to go to hell.

In short, the appeal and logic at work behind subsituionary atonement is really just a symptom of an evil impulse within our own hearts. But this evil impulse doesn’t describe God’s justice. God only punishes as a means, not as an end in itself:

It is no pleasure to God, as it so often is to us, to see the wicked suffer. To regard any suffering with satisfaction, save it be sympathetically with its curative quality, comes of evil, is inhuman because undivine, is a thing God is incapable of. His nature is always to forgive, and just because he forgives, he punishes.

A further problem with the allure of substitutionary atonement–to have Jesus suffer the consequences of my sin rather than me getting into the hard work of repentance and reconciliation–is that it is selfish, a theological product of my sin.

Substitutionary atonement is an attempt to cling to my sin ever more tightly! Let Christ suffer the consequences of my sin so I don’t have to make amends and restitution. I’m off the hook as it were.

If I hate the sin in my heart how is substitutionary atonement good news? It’s only good news for people who love their sin but want off the hook.

Our business is not to think correctly, but to live truly. One chief cause of the amount of unbelief in the world is, that those who have seen something of the glory of Christ, set themselves to theorize concerning him rather than to obey him.

But the question is still out there, how does MacDonald see Christ as our atonement? Toward the end of the sermon he offers his positive view:

I believe in Jesus Christ. Nowhere am I requested to believe in any thing, or in any statement, but everywhere to believe in God and in Jesus Christ…
Jesus, our propitiation, our atonement. He is the head and leader, the prince of the atonement. He could not do it without us, but he leads us up to the Father’s knee: he makes us make atonement. Learning Christ, we are not only sorry for what we have done wrong, we not only turn from it and hate it, but we become able to serve both God and man with an infinitely high and true service, a soulservice. We are able to offer our whole being to God to whom by deepest right it belongs. Have I injured anyone? With him to aid my justice, new risen with him from the dead, shall I not make good amends? Have I failed in love to my neighbour? Shall I not now love him with an infinitely better love than was possible to me before? That I will and can make atonement, thanks be to him who is my atonement, making me at one with God and my fellows! He is my life, my joy, my lord, my owner, the perfecter of my being by the perfection of his own. I dare not say with Paul that I am the slave of Christ; but my highest aspiration and desire is to be the slave of Christ.

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