Atonement: A Call to Action for the Church
Hey folks, it is time for us to have a talk about the atonement. Back in the 18th century our friend John Wesley tried to tell us that “nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of the atonement.”  Yet, we have been more concerned about church organization, church politics, and moral stances. Our rush to simplify the plan of the gospel or to synthesize it into social action has forced us to conclude that we just do not have time for theology soaked conversations about big ideas like atonement. I think Wesley made a good point. Our neglect of understanding the atonement or reducing it to a legal or financial transaction has weakened us.
At least since 1931 when a Lutheran bishop named Gustaf Aulén published his book Christus Victor, there has been a movement afoot in academic corners of the church to rediscover ancient models of the atonement. Now there are no fewer than eight varieties of atonement models or theories. We are like physicists in the quantum age discovering new quarks and leptons around every corner, but what difference does any of this make? It could make a great deal of difference if we could harness the theological discoveries in the way that engineers harness electricity and nuclear power.
So I am calling on the Christian engineers in the church to harness the atonement discoveries of our Christian siblings in the academy. Take the theories and models into your creative labs and put them to good use. Help us find practical ways to make atonement of great consequence again. Let’s do more with atonement than merely rigging the system to give anxious, busy, worldly people a “Get out of Hell Free” card. Let’s shout with enthusiasm that good wins the battle over evil. Let’s be stunned by our freedom from sin through the ransom of Jesus. Let’s be encouraged to live out our new righteousness by following the example of our faith-pioneer. Instead of making a rather paltry contribution to the theological research on atonement, I will direct you to the work of others more qualified. But in this forum I want to issue a call to action for three groups:
I call on the preachers and teachers in the church to explore the great consequence of the atonement. The church relies on you to translate the implications of atonement in our day and age. Did you know that there has been an academic debate as to whether the Greek term hilasterion should be translated as expiation or propitiation? And did you know that no one—I mean no one—talks like this? I think it matters how we translate the text, but we need to find a way to make sense of the terminology. The biblical writers had a pastoral concern when they used the terms. We need you to shock us just a bit. For example, remind us that the good news is not merely that we are saved from the penalty of sin, but we are saved from the power of sin. I look forward to how those with the gifts of teaching and preaching break this down for all of us.
I call on the artists and poets to create music and imagery that allows us to articulate, imagine, and celebrate the atonement. God’s spirit is transmitting the reality of the atonement in 4K resolution and surround-sound, but our receivers are only equipped to handle black and white analog and mono-sound. Dear creative people, we need your help. Atonement is a deep well, and we need more songs, parables, and imagery to draw water from the well for a thirsty people.
I call on the leaders of the church to integrate the consequences of the atonement into the practice and patterns of church life. As we learn more about the biblical meaning of atonement, we discover that salvation is a bigger project than we ever imagined. We learn that God is not only passionate about saving individuals, but wants to save their relationships with one another and their connection to the world around them. We discover that God is not only giving us a clean slate (justification), but is giving us a new purpose and identity (sanctification). How shall the people of God embody this in our life together? We need shepherds and mature Christians to guide us in the adventure.
 John Wesley, A Compendium of Wesley’s Theology, ed. R. Burtner and R. Chiles (Nashville: Abingdon, 1954), 79.