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  • Writer's pictureRev. Morgan Byars

What Happened on the Cross? (Lenten Series Part 1)

I know, that’s a big question. And because it is such a big question we’re going to take our time with it, using this Lenten season to go over the various ways that Christians have talked about what Jesus did for us on the cross. Sometimes this topic is referred to as the atonement, and the various ideas given about what Jesus did on the cross are sometimes referred to as atonement theories. Atonement literally comes from putting together “at one” and “-ment.” There are some other linguistic roots, but in essence it all boils down to unity and reconciliation, referring to the restoration of relationship between God and humanity that is rooted in what Jesus did for us in his life, death, and resurrection. As you might expect, Christians have developed many different ways to talk about such a broad topic. If you grew up in the Bible Belt like I did, however, then you probably only heard one way emphasized. It probably went something like this: we have sinned and deserve God’s wrath. Because God is just, God can’t just ignore our sin. But because God also loves us, God sent Jesus to bear our punishment on the cross so that God’s justice might be fulfilled and we might be reconciled to God. This theory is called penal substitutionary atonement (good thing to keep in mind if you want to impress people at parties). We will certainly talk about this atonement theory and its theological roots and contributions to the Christian faith, but it’s important to know that this is just one of many ways that we can talk about Jesus’ salvific work.[1] Throughout the history of Christianity there have been many ways that people have talked about the cross. Unfortunately, these models have tended to be viewed as mutually exclusive, with one theory or model prioritized to the detriment of the rest. It is important to recognize, however, that there is no single comprehensive theory that can encapsulate all that salvation entails. Atonement theories are best understood when they are all put together.

There are lots of different atonement theories, but for this series we will focus on three in particular. Next week we’ll talk about ransom theory, followed by penal substitutionary atonement, and then we’ll finish the trio with moral exemplar theory. After we’ve gotten introduced to those three models, we’ll then talk about what it means to view them (and even more theories) as complementary rather than competing visions. I’m looking forward to reviewing these important concepts in the life of the Church with y’all.

[1] In fact, penal substitutionary atonement was not even the primary way that Christians talked about salvation for ~1500 years!

*Cover photo: Gero Cross, late 10th-century, Cologne Cathedral

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