Atonement


Atonement describes the act that Christ took on our behalf to reconcile us to God by Christ's death. The Manual of the Church of the Nazarene outlines the denomination's understanding of the atonement. It states,
We believe that Jesus Christ, by His sufferings, by the shedding of His own blood, and by His death on the Cross, made a full atonement for all human sin, and that this Atonement is the only ground of salvation, and that it is sufficient for every individual of Adam's race. The Atonement is graciously efficacious for the salvation of the irresponsible and for the children in innocency but is efficacious for the salvation of those who reach the age of responsibility only when they repent and believe.
In this article, the Church of the Nazarene's Wesleyan-Arminian heritage is seen clearly. Before we work our way through this Article, I think that it is important to discuss some other issues relating to the atonement of Christ.

Three Theories

There are three major theories regarding the Atonement that I would like to introduce before we go any further. The first theory of the Atonement is often called the Penal Substitution Theory. This theory understands Christ to have been a willing sacrifice to atone for our sins and is often supported by appeal to the sacrificial system presented in Leviticus. Understood in this way, Christ was our Passover Lamb, the sacrifice that atoned for our sins and reconciled us with God. The difference is that every lamb that was ever offered was imperfect, while Christ was perfect, without blemish or spot. Therefore, Christ alone was able to defeat sin for good. While some questions could be raised regarding this theory of atonement, its roots are found fairly early in church history, and it seems to satisfactorily explain the biblical data.

The second theory of Atonement is often referred to as the Christus Victor Theory. This view of the Atonement is aptly illustrated in C.S. Lewis's book The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. In one scene, Aslan the lion (who is an allegory for Christ in the Chronicles of Narnia series) agrees to allow the White Witch to kill him if she would renounce her claim on Peter, one of four humans who came to Narnia through the wardrobe. The White Witch agrees to Aslan's terms, and kills him at the appointed time, renouncing her claim on Peter. However, the White Witch did not realize that, if she killed Aslan under these terms, death would not be able to hold Aslan. Thus, the White Witch lost her claim on Peter and also failed to kill Aslan.

The Christus Victor Theory of Atonement is like the above scene from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Under this theory of Atonement, Jesus became incarnate with the sole purpose of dying for our sins. Jesus agreed to die if the devil renounced his claims on mankind. The devil saw the man Jesus, and wanted to kill Him, so the devil agreed. Christ went willingly to the cross and died. However, what the devil did not realize is that death could not hold Christ. Thus, Christ rose from the dead, and the devil lost his claim on mankind. There are also several questions that could be raised concerning this view of the Atonement.

The final view of the Atonement that I want to cover is called the Moral Influence Theory. This view finds its roots in an individual who denied Christ's deity. The idea behind this theory is that the point of the crucifixion of Christ was not His atoning work, but rather the good that His crucifixion has inspired throughout history. Of the three theories that have been presented here, this is the only one that is unbiblical. While it is true that Christ's sacrifice has inspired good throughout history, this theory is unbiblical because it downplays (at best) or denies (at worst) the atoning work of Christ. While we should accept the truth that Christ's sacrifice has inspired good throughout history, we should reject any theory that downplays Christ's work of Atonement. Furthermore, anything that downplays or denies the deity of Christ should be rejected. Thomas Noble makes this clear:
The death of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be understood at all apart from His incarnation. What He did for us on the Cross is understood in the light of who He is--the God-man. [1]

While all three of these theories are advocated by various authors, Noble is probably right when he writes,
The Atonement is a mystery we can never fully understand......Not one of the so-called theories can explain the Atonement. [2]
 Limited or Unlimited?

A major point of contention between Arminians and many Calvinists is a disagreement about whether the atonement of Christ was for mankind, or only an elect few among mankind. Arminians hold to the former view, and "high" Calvinists (or 5-Point Calvinists) hold to the latter. Not all Calvinists are high Calvinists, and many reject the idea of Limited Atonement for the Arminian view of Unlimited Atonement.

While this is a point of contention between Arminians and Calvinists, there are good reasons, both philosophical/theological and biblical, to reject the Calvinist view. The primary philosophical argument against Limited Atonement requires some background about Calvinist theology.

The view that is today known as "high" Calvinism came from Calvin's successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza. Calvin himself did not follow his systematic to its logical conclusion, but Beza did. Calvin argued that God elected some to be saved, but not others, but stopped short of Beza's view. Beza realized the logical conclusion of Calvin's theology, and espoused a view that has come to be known as "supralapsarianism" or, sometimes, "double-predestination." Beza argued that, since God elected some to salvation before He created the world, those that He did not elect to salvation must have been elected to damnation (reprobation) by God's divine decree, ultimately for God's own glory. In other words, Christ's atoning work was only for those that God arbitrarily elected to salvation. There is no atonement, on this view, for those who were destined for eternal torment. On this view, Christ did not come for them. He did not intend to.

The question that must be asked is this: How is God glorified by arbitrarily choosing some individuals to be condemned for eternity? How can the high Calvinist claim that God is good when, in their view, He made some people for the sole purpose of being in eternal torment? Many high Calvinists hold this to be a mystery that cannot be solved. Because of the problems of this view, many who hold to the other tenets of Calvinism have rejected this one.

There are also biblical issues with high Calvinism's view. Scripture, particularly in the New Testament, make it clear that Christ died for the sins of mankind, not just the sins of an elect few. Take the following passages, for example:
For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever shall believe in Him shall have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. (John 3:16-17).
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9)
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6) 
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
Scripture clearly proclaims that Christ died for the sins of the world. It clearly proclaims that whosoever believes in Him (not whosoever was arbitrarily elected by Him) will have eternal life. It clearly proclaims that it is not will of God that any should perish. It clearly states that God takes no pleasure in death, even the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). It is simply not possible to reconcile these clear teachings of Scripture with supralapsarianism, infralapsarianism, or any other model that holds to a limited view of the atonement or unconditional election.

The Arminian and Wesleyan-Arminian view of Unlimited Atonement can be summarized as follows: Mankind sinned. God sent His Son to die for the sins of whosoever will believe. God provides His prevenient grace for all, which enables an individual to either accept or reject Christ. Those who accept Christ and His grace receive eternal life, and those who reject His offer of grace do not receive eternal life. Without prevenient grace, we would be unable to repent and trust in Christ. This appears to make the most sense of the clear teaching of Scripture. The Church of the Nazarene, being a Wesleyan-Arminian denomination, holds to the view of Unlimited Atonement.
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Now that we are done treading these (somewhat deep) theological waters, we can begin to examine the Church of the Nazarene's view on the atonement.

Full Atonement

The Church of the Nazarene stands squarely within Biblical and traditional bounds in declaring that Christ's sacrifice paid for all of our sins. It was not only a payment for some of our sins, but for all of our sins. It is finished. Our ransom is paid in full.

The Only Ground of Salvation

Luke records a speech by Simon Peter, addressed to the high priest and other rulers and elders of the people of Israel, in which Peter makes the clear statement that,
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12).
Peter is here speaking about Jesus, and the Church of the Nazarene's stance on the exclusivity of Christ as the only means of salvation is as bold as Peter's address to the high priest. There can be no misunderstanding the fact that the Church of the Nazarene proclaims Jesus Christ, and Him crucified for our sins and resurrected from the dead (see Article II).

Sufficient

As has been mentioned before, the Church of the Nazarene holds to an unlimited view of the Atonement. Christ died once for all, so that all have the opportunity to turn to Him and be saved. Scripture makes it clear that Christ's Atonement is sufficient for all mankind, not only a few individuals who were arbitrarily elected. This does not necessitate that it is efficacious for all, since some will reject the Divine Remedy for their sins. Thus, this view does not imply universalism, as some mistakenly believe.

Efficacious

While Christ's Atonement is sufficient for all, it is not efficacious for all. This Article of Faith clearly defines who the Atonement is efficacious for, and who it is not. There are two groups that the Atonement is efficacious for:

1. Those who are not morally responsible, such as children who have yet to reach the age of accountability, or the age where they know the difference between right and wrong.

2. Those who are morally responsible, and who have repented and placed their trust in Christ as Savior and Lord.

Thus, the Atonement is not efficacious for those who are morally responsible but have failed to repent and place their trust in Christ as Lord.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Church of the Nazarene stands squarely within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition in its sixth Article of Faith. The Church of the Nazarene clearly affirms the doctrine of Unlimited Atonement. In addition, the denomination affirms that Christ's atoning work is sufficient for all, but efficacious only for those who are not morally responsible and for those who, being morally responsible, have repented and placed their trust in Christ.

This seems like an appropriate place to give an invitation. If you have never placed your trust in Jesus Christ, and would like to do so, please contact us. We would love to walk beside you in your walk with Christ, and help you get started on this journey.


Recommended Resource: The Atonement (Elements in the Philosophy of Religion)
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[1] Thomas Noble, Atonement, cited in Gay Leonard, Articles of Faith, p. 38
[2] ibid.

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