Preaching and Teaching the Atonement in a Postmodern Culture

January 4th, 2011

How do we preach and teach the atonement? The answer probably is, “Not very well.” Often for good reasons, many of us in the mainline churches have allowed the fundamentalist or charismatic preachers to hold a monopoly on preaching atonement or have at least allowed them to define the terms in which it is understood.

Although I had done a faithful job of proclaiming “the word of the cross,” I'll confess that I had pretty much avoided the specific term “atonement” until our senior high youth group studied Christian Believer. When they discussed the classical “theories of the atonement,” they wanted to know what I believed and, more important, what difference it made. The result was a series of teaching sermons and a Lenten Bible study (Dying to Live.) Out of that experience, I've discovered four steps toward communicating the atonement in a postmodern culture.

Teach Biblically

That's not as easy as it sounds. The word “atonement” appears 87 times in Scripture, but only twice in the New Testament and never in the Gospels. The challenge is to draw on its Old Testament roots without allowing the Hebrew sacrificial system to completely define its meaning. The question is, What difference does it make to understand atonement through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? How does the gospel both appropriate and redefine the meaning of atonement?

Teaching biblically also means allowing the full range of biblical images to come alive without reducing them to a simplistic, one-size-fits-all definition. In searching for the best way to proclaim their faith, the New Testament writers engaged a wide variety of traditions and images from the Old Testament and from the culture around them. We don't need to be more simplistic or systematic than they were. We can engage the whole range of biblical language and images to connect with the people we are trying to reach.

Teach Holistically

The root word for atonement in Middle English was onen, meaning “unite.” The starting point for teaching atonement in our contemporary culture is "at-one-ment,” the uniting of all things in Christ (Ephesians 1:10).

The “satisfaction” theory of atonement connected with people who felt that they were condemned sinners hanging on the edge of damnation. But that's not where most people are today. The dominant mood of our time is alienation, estrangement, and disconnection. The world is divided by ethnic conflict and war. Communities are separated by economic status and race. Families are splintered by divorce and social pressure. Individuals feel fragmented and disconnected from one another. To people living fragmented lives in a fractured world, the story of a God who acts in self-giving love to bring “at-one-ment” comes as great good news indeed!

Luther D. Ivory, in his book on the theology of Martin Luther King Jr., wrote that Dr. King “understood God as radical agape love in action seeking to create, redeem, sustain, and restore community. Even when purposive human action tried to destroy it, God insists on community, and demonstrated (through the cross of Christ), that no sacrifice was too great to effect its restoration” (Toward a Theology of Radical Involvement, p. 139). As one of my early camp meeting preacher mentors would say, “That'll preach!”

Teach Visually

In my first seminary homiletics course, Dr. Donald Demeray said, “People do picture thinking.” If it was true three decades ago, it's even more accurate today. A highly rationalistic explanation of the theories of the atonement made sense for people who lived (or still prefer to live!) in the modern era. But for people who live in a postmodern culture, one powerful, practical image conveys more truth than chapters of explanation.

For example, if I had attempted a full explanation of the “ransom” theory of atonement, a lot of folks would have left with more questions than answers. But when we showed a film clip from Stephen Spielberg's movie, Amistad, they “saw” the point in less time than it would have taken to explain it. When I told the story of a couple who are mortgaging their home to pay for therapy to save their son from drug addiction, there wasn't a parent in the room who didn't sense something of the price God was paying at the cross to save this world.

Teach Feelingly

When Shakespeare has King Lear ask the Earl of Gloucester how he sees in the world without his eyes, Gloucester replies, “I see it feelingly.”

We're talking mystery here; the great mystery of God's infinite, self-giving, saving love. Although the preacher/teacher must have a solid theological understanding of the concept, our purpose is not merely to convey an intellectual concept, but to invite people into an experience of God's saving grace. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Theories about Christ's death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works…. The thing itself is infinitely more than any explanations that theologians have produced” (Mere Christianity, pp. 58-59).

We can, and should, work out our stumbling attempts to explain it, but the closer I get to Good Friday every year, the more I know that the word we proclaim is beyond our capacity to comprehend or contain. The only way to experience the full power of the atonement is to see it feelingly; to experience it in the suffering of marginalized and oppressed people and to allow the power of God's self-giving love to soak into a place in our souls that is beyond the ability of our brains to explain or our words to contain.

The exclamation points convey that Charles Wesley saw the atonement “feelingly” in his hymn:

O Love divine, what hast thou done!

The immortal God hath died for me!

The Father's co-eternal Son

bore all my sin upon the tree.

Th' immortal God for me hath died:

My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

A South African pastor-friend patted me on the back as I stepped into the pulpit and said, “Preach it, Brother. Preach it!”


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