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Adjusting the Soundtrack of the Atonement

When we think about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we often do so with an image or a set of biblical passages and categories in mind. Much like the score in a movie, those categories help us make sense of Jesus’ death. For that is what doctrine is about—helping us make sense of and understand who God is and what he has done for us, that we might better worship and serve our God.

But let’s think about that image a little more carefully—the image of a film score. Let’s say that you turn on the TV, and find yourself in the middle of a movie, but the sound is muted. Before you is a green valley, with a stand of trees in the background. What is the movie about? If the score is light and airy, a couple might soon stroll into the scene of a romantic comedy. If the score is the driving, intense music of Steve Jablonsky, the Autobots and Decepticons of Michael Bay’s Transformers may soon battle across the valley. The music we hear as we watch a scene dramatically changes our expectations, and how we perceive what is going on.

The “score” in the background

And something very similar happens with the doctrine of the atonement, but it may be a little harder to notice at first. When we begin to think about Jesus’ death, we often think in terms of a trial, or a court of law. We are guilty, we stand before a judge, and the question at hand is a matter of a trial, punishment, and (in God’s grace), someone who suffers the penalty in our place.

But why do we go straight to this judicial image? As it turns out there is good biblical warrant for doing so—but it is not the only option we have. The Bible and the history of Christian preaching and theology are full of other ways of telling the story, other images we can and should use, or, to return to our theme of movie scores, other soundtracks to play as we consider the scene of Christ’s passion.

In The Reconciling Wisdom of God: Reframing the Doctrine of the Atonement, I explore the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, considered from the vantage point of God’s wisdom, rather than his justice—not because I think God’s wisdom is more important, more biblical or more central than God’s justice! Not at all. But I do believe that God is both just and wise, and if the Church fails to think about God’s wisdom, it is a great loss—for ours is the ever-wise God, the source of all wisdom.

Changing the soundtrack

So what happens when we change the score, when we think of Christ’s atoning work as a work of wisdom? Here I will sketch just a few of the insights that I explore in the book.

First, we find that the work of a number of great theologians, and certain key passages in Scripture, come alive to us in new ways. Trying to interpret every insight into the doctrine of the atonement through the lens of penal substitution is like approaching every relationship as a financial matter—helpful in some cases, but disastrous in others. The work of Irenaeus, Thomas Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards leaps from the page, viewed from this standpoint, as do the arguments of Paul in Col. 1, Eph. 1 and 1 Cor. 1, among others. All these theologians and passages of Scripture rely upon the wisdom of God as the (or one of the) key ways for interpreting Christ’s work.

Second, wisdom is a matter of strategy for living well, for bringing about our goals in a way that leads to a good and flourishing life. But what are the goals of the ever-wise God? Thinking about the atonement as God’s act of wisdom helps us see that the atonement is far greater than a mere matter of overcoming our personal sin and guilt. Atonement achieves this, of course—but God’s purposes are as big as creation itself, and viewed from this angle, we see how the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s way of addressing our sin, to be sure, but beyond that, it is his way of addressing the problem of sin and evil throughout creation. To return to our image of film, wisdom gives us a panorama shot of the whole scene, while penal substitution zooms right up to look one of the main characters in the eye. Both are equally valid, equally important—but wisdom is unique in helping us see the big picture, and how the atonement of Jesus is cosmic in scope, extending benefits to the whole of creation.

Third, and we’ll stop at this one, the atonement as God’s work of wisdom places great demands upon the church. God is the ever wise God, who found the best and most appropriate way to deal with the problem of sin and evil that he might bring his creative project to completion. And we are to take up our cross daily. But to bring these two points together, we, like our God, are to take up a way of living wisely which may involve great suffering (and even death), but we are to do so in the wisdom of God, in a way that is intended and designed to bring about the reconciliation and flourishing of God’s creation. Such a vision demands that the church be a people hungry for wisdom, eager to grow in understanding, that they might fulfill the calling of the ever-wise God.

Wisdom is not the only way, and maybe not even the best way, to think about the doctrine of the atonement. But in The Reconciling Wisdom of God I seek to show that it is a valid, challenging, and helpful way to think about the work of Christ, one that pushes us far beyond our typical ways of thinking about the cross, but in doing so takes us deep into the heart of God, and his calling for his people.

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the-adam-johnson-headshotAdam Johnson (Ph.D., TEDS) is the author of Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed and God’s Being in Reconciliation. He teaches theology and Western Classics in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.

His new book, The Reconciling Wisdom of God: Reframing the Doctrine of Atonement, is now available in digital and print formats. Get it today!

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