Mark Dever, a Baptist pastor in Washington, DC, is the author of the featured article in Christianity Today and it appropriately deals with the atonement. But, instead of being a positive description of what the death (and resurrection) is, Dever decided to defend penal substitution. And, instead of defending it by exegesis of specific passages, he decided to critique those who are (in his view) waffling on the center of atonement: penal substitution.
I beg to differ, not because I think penal substitution needs to be denied, but because the atonement is too important during this Holy Week to turn into the “atonement wars”. Atonement is more than penal substitution. And it all needs to be in front of us, especially today. Here’s what will go through my mind and heart and reflections today and tomorrow, but on Sunday we let go and utter “Christ is risen!”
First, I’m thankful that Jesus died for our sins (including mine). His life, his death, his burial, his resurrection, and his sending of the Spirit are all “for us” — not for himself, but all for us.
Second, in his death, as Paul says in Roman 6 and Galatians 2, he represented us — both exclusively (called substitution) and inclusively (called co-crucifixion). He both died for us and we die with him.
Third, as we find in Colossians 2, in his death and resurrection march into the presence of God, he liberated us. He conquered the systemic and demonic enemies, nailed them to the cross, and defeated them so we could live in the power of his resurrection. He is the ransom price paid for us so that we could be set free.
Fourth, overall, to use the language of Irenaeus and Athanasius, which are based on Romans 5, he recapitulated our life: he became what we are so we might become what he is.
Fifth, he identified with us “all the way down.” Phil 2:6-11 shows that Jesus came to earth to become like us and in doing so he died for us. By identifying with us, he is our substitution who takes on the very depth of our punishment, even death, even death on a cross, so that he might lift us into the presence of God.
Sixth, he not only dies for us but he gives us in his death a new paradigm for life: we are to die to ourselves, deny ourselves, and make the cross the paradigm of how we live — and that we means we enter into his life by making the cross our own.
All this and more: the death of Jesus is not a source for the atonement war, but a source of contemplation for how God has taken on our case, become like us even unto death, so we might be redeemed, justified, and liberated from our sinful condition. The CT article forces our hand.