February 11, 2024

Reintegrating the Atonement in Missions

Reintegrating the Atonement in Missions

Matt D.

11 Minute Read

After a long day of travel on a dusty mountain road, a local pastor and I finally walked toward his village. He described how the gospel first came to this remote area two decades earlier. His parents had been devout followers of Hindu gods, but that changed when they were unable to conceive children. They tried various remedies to appease the spirits, whom they viewed as the source of the problem, but nothing worked. Finally, they heard from a Christian in a neighboring village that they should ask Jesus to help them since he’s more powerful than the Hindu gods. His parents prayed, conceived, and had a son. As a result, they gave their allegiance to Jesus.

Over the years, I’ve heard many stories like this, but what stood out to me was what the pastor said next.

Even though his parents identify as followers of Jesus, it wasn’t until recently that they began to understand the meaning of Jesus’s death on the cross. For them, Jesus was primarily a god who was more powerful than the other gods. However, if you were to ask them why Jesus died for them, they couldn’t give even a basic answer. They wanted to follow Jesus because of the power he could give them over sickness and spirits. But if Jesus can give healing and power because of who he is, why did he need to die on the cross?

For missionaries in contexts like this one, there’s a related question: How should we proclaim the gospel in a culture dominated by fear and power? More specifically, how should we explain the atonement?

Danger of Reductionism

In recent years, there’s been a growing emphasis on contextualizing the atonement doctrine across cultures. Many have highlighted that the atonement is like a multifaceted diamond that shines with unique glory depending on the angle of view. Just as sin and its effects are multifaceted, Christ’s work on the cross addresses all the problems caused by sin. The atonement doesn’t only provide forgiveness of sins for the guilty; it gives us victory over sin, Satan, and death and removes our shame before God and others.

Furthermore, some missiologists argue Western theologians have truncated the gospel message by focusing only on penal substitutionary atonement, reducing the atonement to only one dimension.

Admittedly, there have been times throughout church history when the atonement has been reduced to only one theory or model, especially when polemics prevailed. For instance, in the 20th century, many theologians responded to C. H. Dodd’s reformulation of God’s wrath and thus rejection of penal substitutionary atonement. Those who defended the traditional atonement view, such as Leon Morris, conceded that the response was so focused on this one aspect that it resulted in a functional reductionism. The other metaphors of the atonement were affirmed by those who held to penal substitution, but in practice, they were sidelined.

Still today, missionaries who maintain a priority for penal substitution must guard against reducing the atonement to only one dimension. Recognizing the many facets of the atonement enables us to proclaim the full glory of what Christ achieved on the cross. This multidimensional reality enables evangelists to tap into different groups’ values and concerns, providing us with an opportunity to contextualize the gospel.

Contextualizing the Atonement

One book that tries to help missionaries do this is The 3D Gospel by Jayson Georges. It explains the three major atonement theories recognized throughout church history: ransom, satisfaction, and penal substitution. Georges emphasizes we need all three aspects to fully grasp the gospel’s multifaceted glory. However, while he contends we shouldn’t truncate the gospel to only one dimension of Christ’s atonement, his 3D model for contextualization may lead practitioners to make this very mistake.

Missionaries who maintain a priority for penal substitution must guard against reducing the atonement to only one dimension.

Georges argues that people in different contexts are likely to understand one of these atonement metaphors better than the others. Therefore, missionaries should proclaim the most culturally plausible one.

In a fear/power context (i.e., one dominated by traditional religion and the fear of spiritual powers), we should preach the atonement metaphor of ransom, or Christus Victor, which focuses on Christ’s victory over sin, Satan, and death. Meanwhile, in a shame/honor context, Georges believes missionaries should use the satisfaction metaphor, focusing on our debt of honor to God and on Christ’s payment of that debt. Finally, for a guilt/innocence culture, he suggests penal substitution would be most appropriate.

Georges is right to highlight the atonement’s multidimensional reality. Different aspects or features may resonate with different cultures. Yet there’s an inherent weakness in this contextualization model: it’s built on a relativistic atonement theology.

Danger of Relativism

Missiologists who take the approach proposed by Georges utilize what’s sometimes called a “kaleidoscopic view” of the atonement. This perspective gained a wider audience around the turn of the century, following the release of Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. Green and Baker argue the Bible uses many different metaphors to describe the atonement’s nature. Therefore we shouldn’t elevate one motif over another. While this approach avoids the error of reducing the atonement to only one aspect, it swings too far in the other direction by relativizing the atonement themes.

I don’t mean that this approach assumes those themes are void of any objective truth (i.e., postmodernism) but that the themes aren’t shown to have an intrinsic relationship or logical order among them. According to the kaleidoscopic view, there’s no scriptural (and transcultural) framework for how the atonement metaphors might be integrated.

Furthermore, even though Green and Baker indicate all metaphors should be considered valid and utilized where appropriate, they reject penal substitution as a biblical metaphor. For them, penal substitution is a cultural product of life in the West rather than a biblical doctrine to be taught in every context.

While Georges doesn’t reject penal substitution in The 3D Gospel, he does approve something similar in Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, a book he coauthored with Baker. He writes, “When people absolutize this theology [penal substitution] contextualized in the West, elevate it to the level of biblical truth and export it internationally, [it leads] to a type of theological/cultural colonialism.”

Integrated Atonement Theology

Contrary to this dis-integrated and relativistic approach to the atonement, several theologians in recent years have shown how the various aspects of the atonement are integrated in Scripture.

For instance, in The Crucified King, Jeremy Treat demonstrates how penal substitution provides the necessary mechanism for the Christus Victor motif. Similarly, Joshua M. McNall shows in The Mosaic of Atonement how the atonement metaphors fit together and how each is necessary to make sense of the others.

Notably, both authors point to Revelation 12 as an example of this intrinsic relationship between the metaphors. In that passage, John depicts Christ’s sacrifice in cultic, legal, and military terms, revealing believers have victory over Satan because of Christ’s penal substitutionary sacrifice. This is nothing less than the culmination of Scripture’s entire redemptive-historical narrative from Genesis 3:15 on—Christ defeats Satan and death through his suffering in the place of sinners. Penal substitutionary atonement is, therefore, foundational to and necessary for our victory.

The reason humanity is enslaved to sin, Satan, and death isn’t merely because we’re victims who need to be rescued. Rather, we’re rebels who have caused disorder at a cosmic level (Rom. 8:20–21). It’s because of Adam’s sin against God that we lost dominion over the earth and are now born as slaves who need to be redeemed (Eph. 2:1–3). Satan, the Accuser, can inflict fear on us because we’re under just condemnation before God (Heb. 2:13–15).

We can only find freedom and deliverance from the powers of darkness when this root problem of our sin against God is dealt with. Jesus accomplished this by disarming the powers and authorities through his substitutionary sacrifice that removes our sin debt (Col. 2:13–15).

Substitution’s Centrality in Atonement Theology

Christ’s substitutionary death isn’t foundational and indispensable only for the Christus Victor dimension of the cross but for all other dimensions. Jeremy Treat rightly points out in his latest book, The Atonement: An Introduction, that “we must acknowledge the key distinction between what Christ accomplished (the outcome) and how he accomplished it (the means).”

The atonement’s outcome is multifaceted. Yet beneath all outcomes is the means by which God secured them: Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. This isn’t one dimension among others that can be set aside depending on the cultural context. It’s central and necessary for rightly communicating any dimension of the atonement.

Substitution’s centrality is confirmed from both the testimony of Scripture and the doctrine of God. First, Scripture establishes a substitution pattern throughout the Old and New Testaments. For example, in Genesis 3:15, after the fall, God promises he’ll crush the Serpent’s head through the sacrifice of a promised seed. Furthermore, God clothes Adam and Eve with the skins of animals who died to cover them.

In the New Testament, the biblical authors repeatedly point to the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. Jesus himself indicates this when he says he came “to give his life as a ransom for many,” an allusion to Isaiah 53 (Mark 10:45). The New Testament writers portray Christ’s sacrifice as the great exchange. Jesus takes on himself the penalty of sin we deserve, and we receive his perfect righteousness.

Additionally, a biblical doctrine of God reveals that God is unable to overlook sin. If he’s to save sinners, he must provide a perfect substitutionary sacrifice. Christ’s death achieves many things, but it’s the “self-substitution of God” (to borrow John Stott’s phrase) that satisfies God himself and thus enables all the atonement’s benefits to be applied to his people.

Contextualized and Integrated

This brief sketch shows the atonement metaphors are interconnected; we can’t understand them rightly in isolation from one another. We should reject any atonement theology that reduces or relativizes the biblical framework of the cross. An intrinsic and causal relationship exists between the atonement metaphors, and penal substitution is central to them all.

Yes, Christ’s work on the cross does achieve more than the removal of our guilt before God. But only once our guilt is addressed can all other derivative problems, such as shame and fear, be resolved.

The atonement metaphors are interconnected; we can’t understand them rightly in isolation from one another.

If we’re to preach the gospel across cultures faithfully, we may begin by connecting with the issues that most resonate with people’s hearts in their cultural contexts. But then we must move to the core of our sin problem and show why Christ’s penal substitutionary death on the cross solves their guilt before God and results in the benefits championed by the other atonement metaphors.

In the case of my friend from the village, his family was drawn to Jesus because of a desire for power over spiritual forces. When ministering to others like them, it’s certainly appropriate to present the gospel in terms of Christus Victor, explaining that one of the reasons Jesus died on the cross was to overthrow the powers of darkness and deliver us from fear and bondage. This could be a powerful connection point.

However, we shouldn’t evangelize in a way that isolates the atonement motifs. In explaining why we’re in bondage to Satan and spiritual powers or why there’s sickness and suffering in the world, we’ll need to explain humanity’s rebellion against God and our guilt before him. As we explain the victory Jesus has won, we need to explain how that victory was achieved through his penal substitutionary death on the cross.

Preaching the Cross

With that in mind, here are three key suggestions for contextualizing the cross.

1. Remember Christ’s atonement is multidimensional.

As missionaries, we must guard against the tendency to reduce the atonement to only one dimension. Those in the West must remember that the gospel not only removes our guilt before God but also addresses our fear and shame. Meanwhile, those in the East should remember they need a perfect righteousness for their guilt, not merely greater power or honor.

2. Connect aspects of the atonement with cultural values.

The various dimensions of Christ’s atonement can provide unique entry points to the gospel in different contexts. By connecting with the issues that resonate with your audience (fear, shame, etc.), you can gain a hearing and show how the gospel addresses the problems people face. (Georges’s 3D model aligns with these first two points but differs with my third and final recommendation.)

3. Proclaim an integrated atonement theology.

We mustn’t reduce the gospel to only penal substitution, nor should we ignore its absolute necessity and centrality. Without Christ paying the penalty for our sin through his death on the cross, there’s no victory over sin, Satan, or death. There’s no removal of our shame or restoration to honor.

We may start our contextualization process by connecting with a cultural value through a corresponding atonement metaphor, but we must always bring it back to the heart of the atonement and preach Christ’s penal substitutionary death for sinners. Only then can we proclaim the cross’s full glory and make disciples with a true understanding of Christ’s work on our behalf.

This article was originally published by The Gospel Coalition and has been republished with permission of the author.

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Matt D. (PhD, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) teaches theology at a seminary in Southeast Asia. He and his family have lived and served in Asia since 2015.

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