I have been thinking lately about the atonement, and especially about the substitutionary atonement, as it is clasically understood in most Evangelical circles (of which I am a product, even if I moved on). I heard some good questions about this:
- Did God have to kill Jesus in order to forgive me?
- If God was unable to forgive me without killing his Son, then how come he asks me to forgive others?
- He doesn’t ask me to forgive my wife, and then go and beat the dog.
- Is God asking me to do something that he is not capable of himself?
I think these are all good questions. Here are some quotes from John McLeod Campbell, a celebrated Scottish theologian of the mid nineteenth century, in his book, The Nature of the Atonement. I found him very helpful in this area:
“The atonement, I say, presupposes that there is forgiveness with God; and in doing so has a response in conscience… An atonement to make God gracious, to move him to compassion, to turn his heart toward those from whom sin had alienated his love, it would, indeed, be difficult to believe in; for, if it were needed it would be impossible. To awaken to the sense of need of such an atonement, would certainly be to awaken to utter and absolute despair. But the Scriptures do not speak of such an ateonement; for they do not represent the love of God to man as the effect, and the atonement of Christ as the cause, but – just as the contrary – they represent the love of God as the cause, and the atonement as the effect (John 3:16)…
Now, we know that where all general urging of God’s mercy and clemency, and willingness to pardon and to save, fail to give peace, or quicken hope, the presenting of the atonement for the acceptance of faith does both. Awakened sinners who are finding themselves unable to believe that God… can pardon their sins and bestow on them eternal life, are found able to believe in such pardon, and to receive the hope of eternal life, when these are presented to them in connection with the sacrifice of Himself by which Christ put away sin, becoming the propitiation for the sins of the whole world.
This fact is surely deserving of the serious consideration of those whose objection to the atonement is, that it should be enough for man’s peace and hope to be told, that the Lord God is merciful and gracious and ready to forgive, and to relieve all who call upon him. Here there is manifested an inability to believe in God’s forgiveness as meeting man’s need, when presented simply as clemency and mercy: – but, presented in the form of the atonement, it is believed in. Not surely because less credit for love and mercy is given to God now; for on the contrary the conception of love simply forgiving, and of love forigiving at such a cost to itself, differ just in this, that in the latter, the love is infinitely enhanced.” (p. 46-48)