The Reduction of Atonement
Dr. Gregory B. Champagne, Pastor
First Baptist Church, Brooksville, Florida
The adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM2K) by the Southern Baptist Convention in June 2000 has challenged many churches to examine and compare our long held confessions of faith. We are prompted to consider this new confession and compare it to our historically held beliefs. My church has adopted The Baptist Faith and Message of 1963 (BFM1963). The confession now in use in my church has be replaced in the Southern Baptist Convention. That which was considered the norm, is now considered to be less than adequate.
We have learned some things about confessions of faith. Confessions are intended to be a consensus of opinion. Confessions are not complete, final or infallible. Any Baptist body can adopt or write a confession that suits them. Confessions interpret scripture but cannot replace or substitute for scripture. Confessions are statements of conviction not intended to hamper freedom of thought or exploration.
Common ground is the essential element of confessions. It is the only way to make room for the wide divergence and broad vitality of beliefs and practices among Baptists. There are many examples of our divergent heritage. Southern Baptists have roots through Particular Baptists and General Baptists. We have a history that includes positive contributions from both Calvinism and Arminianism. Historically Baptists have had different education expectations for ministers and institutions. There is a wide diversity in worship styles, some practicing formally and others preferring spontaneous forms of worship. There are loyal, Bible believing, cooperating Southern Baptists who can be described at different places along a theological spectrum from very conservative to very moderate. The diversity seems even wider when we use the descriptive terms of fundamentalist or liberal.
Confessions must be designed to help us make our statement of convictions clear to the world without binding our hearts, minds or practice to one narrow view where wider or multiple views exist. While you have a right to believe something strongly and exclusively, you do not have the right to coerce me to hold the same exact view and still expect free and voluntary cooperation.
Consider the statements concerning atonement which have been made in the three main confessions of faith held by Southern Baptists.
Is there any false statement among the three? No. However because the BFM2K uses the word substitutionary it takes a step in the wrong direction. It states a singular view of atonement and does not allow for additional views which Baptists have historically held and currently hold. It highlights the danger of confessions becoming creedal by moving toward narrow specifics instead of using language that clarifies common and solid ground.
Write this down: I believe in the substitutionary atonement of Christ! Please make no mistake about this. Donít go around even suggesting that I would remove or disparage this description of the work of Christ. I am glad and thankful that he died in my place. I have personally claimed him as my Lord and Savior. I want you to consider this also: I believe there are additional biblical and historical ways of describing the atonement. I would prefer that the word "substitutionary" not be used alone in a confession, only because it squeezes out other possible descriptions of the atonement.
The New Testament discussion of atonement, redemption and reconciliation relies upon the pattern of sacrifice found in the Old Testament. That pattern for sacrifice which leads to the forgiveness and expunging of sin goes something like this. An individual seeking forgiveness and reconciliation presents an acceptable animal for sacrifice and lays hands upon the animal symbolizing an identification with it. In the shedding of the blood of the sacrificial animal, the sinner signifies a giving up of his own life. The animal and its blood was taken by the priest to the altar and burned before God. After the application of the flame, the offering was then eaten by the sinner again identifying with the sacrifice. The New Testament illustrates its reliance upon this model. Two scripture examples are John 1:35-36 where John the Baptist points to Jesus as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world and 1 John 2:2 where Jesus is called the atoning sacrifice for us and the world. All biblical conversation about reconciling and atonement has this motif in mind.
One key scripture for this discussion is 2 Corinthians 5:19: In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself... Any word or picture description of atonement, reconciliation or redemption must be in harmony with this particular scripture. God makes us right by the life and work of Christ.
Three words need to be introduced to clarify our discussion: reconciliation, atonement, and redemption. Our word "reconciliation" is used in place of the Greek word which means to change or exchange. It means to change a relationship. It is a transformation or renewal between two parties. Our actual word comes more from the Latin root which means to call together or unite.
The word "atonement" means to bring to one mind. It is a helpful device to divide the word ĖĖ "at-one-ment". Atonement is the restoration of the broken relationship between God and humans accomplished in the life and death of Jesus Christ.
Redemption means to pay a price for the return or restoration of a person or possessions.
It is important to recognize the activity of these words. In scripture, God is the one at work. God reconciles humans to himself. Humans do not reconcile themselves to God. Humans are not on an equal par with God and never will be. This activity must not be forgotten, minimized or reversed.
Historically there are several ways in which atonement has been described. Some of the champions of these views have not been Baptist but these thoughts have found their way into Baptist expression. Let me identify some of these models for atonement and give some scripture references that support them.
Each of these descriptions has some ability to describe the work of Christ for us authenticated by scripture. All of them credit God doing the work, Christ being the means and us being the beneficiaries of grace through faith.
Why worry about the inclusion of the word "substitutionary". Again, let me say that this is one good and correct means to describe the work of God in Christ, but it is not the only one. "Substitutionary" is a key word for the most strict adherents of fundamentalist theology. In reading fundamentalist theologies you quickly get the message that they consider no other definition as effective or even biblical. The word "liberal" has been applied to some of these other descriptions. The insertion of the word into the commonly held confession of faith narrows our definition to a fundamentalist and Calvinistic approach and could effectively deny other descriptions. In the future, it might be supposed that if you were to use another definition, you would step outside of "official" Baptist doctrine and therefore step outside true Baptist fellowship. The most reactionary elements of Fundamentalism would be horrified at this discussion because it seeks to hold a competing thought in a favorable light. Strict Fundamentalism does not allow any way other than their own. Everything else is either liberal at best or heretical at worst.
Inserting the word "substitutionary" creates a flat picture of atonement. It is a good picture but because the scripture applies others descriptors of atonement we should take those additional descriptions into account. These others descriptions do not detract from a substitutionary view but rather enhances it and gives it greater depth of meaning.
I prefer the BFM1963 statement or even the 1925 statement which do not constrict the definition of atonement by using the word "substitutionary".
Do Baptists really employ these other theories? Yes, and we have for a long time. I find the evidence in our hymns. We sing our theology. We sing what we believe. In the texts of the old songs (many of which you know by heart) we find these other descriptions of atonement and reconciliation. There are many songs which sing of the substitutionary atonement, too. I have provided a very short list to consider and illustrate my point. Look at the dates on these songs. They are the old favorites and not new twists toward liberalism. They have been in our hearts a long time. How would you describe the atonement theology found in these hymns?
I Will Sing of My Redeemer (1992 Baptist Hymnal, #575) [words by Philip P. Bliss, 1838-1876] satisfaction, ransom, Christus Victor
Victory in Jesus (426) [E. M. Bartlett, 1885-1941] Christus Victor
He Is Able to Deliver Thee (24) [William A. Ogden, 1841-1897] satisfaction, moral
Ye Must Be Born Again (322) [William T. Sleeper, 1819-1904] v3 ransom
All to Thee (482) [Richard D. Baker, ”1966] moral
Jesus Paid it All (134) [Elvina M. Hall, 1820 - 1889] ransom
O How He Loves You and Me (146) [Kurt Kaiser, ”1975] moral
Power in the Blood (132) [Lewis E. Jones, 1865-1936] moral
The Way of the Cross Leads Home (151) [Jessie B. Pounds, 1861-1921] moral
What Wondrous Love is This? (143) [American folk hymn, from William Walkerís Southern Harmony 1835] satisfaction
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (144) [Issac Watts, 1674-1748] moral
Whiter Than Snow (325) [James Nicholson, c.1828-1876] ransom
I suppose that there can be different interpretations of each song and some discussion about what the song really means. However, it should be quite clear that we as Baptists have described our faith in the atonement in a variety of ways.
The substitutionary atonement of Jesus is not a wrong description. To name it as the only description of atonement among Baptists is misleading, sub-biblical and possibly deceitful. A confession of faith that states or suggests that we accept the substitutionary atonement exclusively is mistaken. Perhaps it was not intended to exclude other descriptions of atonement, but it does.
We must take care with our confessions of faith. They require discussion and careful study. They cannot be rushed nor can they be pushed off on another Baptist. They require a broad consensus in order for them to be effective. I like the one we have adopted as a church (BFM1963) more than the new one. The grander truth we have discussed is much higher and nobler. We know that God reconciles us through Jesus. To this we can all say AMEN! We also can offer that truth to anyone who has not yet yielded their life to Christ. The work is done. Your sins can be forgiven. You can have everlasting life with God and Victory in Jesus.
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