Getting to the Crux of Calvary
Getting to the Crux of Calvary
During a coffee break at a conference, I passed by some young pastors who were discussing the Atonement, a topic covered by the speaker at the session we had just attended. One of them said rather forcefully that he seldom mentions the substitutionary work of Christ anymore in his sermons. Instead, he said, he talks about how Christ encountered "the powers" of consumerism, militarism, racism, super-patriotism, and the like.
I fought the temptation to join their chat. But I was troubled by what I had heard. A few hours later, searching for something to listen to on my rental car's radio, I came upon a Christian station airing a recording of a man who was telling the story of his spiritual journey to a group of fellow business folks.
The man recounted a time when he was increasingly successful in his business dealings, while increasingly dissolute in his personal lifestyle: drinking heavily, unfaithful to his wife, distant from his children, his marriage headed toward divorce. His wife and daughters were active in church life, but he never attended.
One Saturday evening, after he had downed several martinis, his 10-year-old daughter pleaded with him to come to church the next morning. Her singing group was going to participate in the service, and she wanted her father there. He reluctantly agreed, something he greatly regretted the next morning when he woke up with a hangover. But he kept his promise.
In that service, he said, he heard for the first time in his life that he was a guilty sinner who needed salvation, and that Jesus had taken his sin and guilt upon himself on the Cross of Calvary. The man wept as he heard the sermon, and he pleaded with God to take away his burden of shame. From that point on, his life took a new direction.
I would have loved to have asked the young pastor at the conference what he thought about that testimony. Suppose, for example, the man whose story I heard had gone instead to that young pastor's church that morning, and heard a sermon about how Christ has on Calvary encountered "the powers" of consumerism, militarism, racism, super-patriotism, and so on. I don't think that such a message would have effected the life-transforming change that took place.
This is not to say that every sermon preached has to be an invitation to bring our guilt to the Cross of Calvary. Nor is it to deny that Christ's redemptive work has real implications for our lives as consumers and citizens. The fact is that the Bible presents the work of the Cross as a many-faceted event, setting forth a variety of images for the Atonement: self-giving love, the forgiveness of enemies, payment of a debt, the ransom of captives, victory over the demonic principalities and powers, and so on.
Theologian Scot McKnight gives us an excellent image for how to see this diversity of atonement images. In his fine book A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology, he says that together these images serve like a bag of golf clubs: Different clubs are needed for different situations. A skilled golfer will know when it is appropriate to use the driver or the wedge or the putter.
I would not have worried about the comment that I overheard from the young pastor if he were simply celebrating having a golf bag full of theological clubs, and resolving to use the victory-over-the-powers club more effectively in appropriate situations. Instead, he said he "seldom" talked anymore about substitutionary atonement. To me, that sounded like a basic mistake in theological golfing.