Does Jesus’s atonement free us of moral obligation and responsibility? The rumor has been spreading around the skeptic community for some time now so let’s take a good look at it.
The doctrine of atonement is the centerpiece of Christianity along with the victorious resurrection that follows. However, despite being the most prominent doctrine of the religion, there have been different theories to explain just how the atonement works. Before we examine the objections we need to know what we’re defending in the first place.
The theories of the atonement include The Satisfaction Theory formulated by the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), the traditional view of Penal Substitution, and Aulen’s Christus Victor. Each theory has its own merits and contributions to the atonement’s essential aspects. However, no one theory has satisfactorily painted the entire picture, and of course, we can bring valid questions and criticisms to each, so it is here that we will rely upon the most underappreciated, yet strongest theory we have rooted in the truth of ancient culture.
Apologist J.P. Holding formulated a theory based on the social world of the Bible titled The Patronage Transference Model. This involves two relevant aspects of ancient culture:
Patronage: This was the form of official relationships in Biblical times between the fortunate and unfortunate. The patron (i.e. the wealthy and powerful) voluntarily formed a covenant bond with a client (i.e. the poor), managed by a broker. This relationship is one of mutual reciprocity where in exchange for the patron’s protection and providence, the client serves duties ascribed to him. Social science has shown that the NT depicts God as patron, us as clients, and Jesus as the broker between them, carrying the covenant and requests as I have noted in articles concerning prayer.
Collectivism: This is the perspective that a person’s identity is connected to groups, placing far less emphasis on individual experience and introspection. I go into further detail in link 1 below. This also factors into the Pauline phrase of “The body of Christ” in regards to the atonement, which wasn’t seen as an individual but the religious community as a whole. This is important to note in this view of the atonement as no other view touches on this vital aspect.
J.P.’s Patronage Transference Model (PTM from here on) factors, not only aspects of the prior theories, but also these cultural concepts that framed the image of the atonement in the Biblical author’s minds. The question is, does Jesus serve as our substitute for divine punishment or as our representative, in that we are in some way on the cross with Him? Factoring in the above cultural views leads us to conclude the latter is the likeliest option. As the body of Christ, we share our identity with Jesus Himself.
How does this work? If we share our identity with Jesus, and if He is sinless, then we too become sinless by corporate association. Jesus has already carried our sin and shame so that we will bear it no longer. This is the essence of the PTM model. The question now is, how do we answer the criticism that this is an irresponsible code of behavior? Is it true that all we’re doing is leaning on Christ’s death to avoid taking responsibility for our actions? To answer this we will draw from the analogy of a criminal and his friend taking his place.
The first answer we can give is one already noted. As Christ’s atonement is representative, not substitutive, of our sins, the objection loses some of its weight. To demonstrate the steps of the atonement we can break the analogy into three parts.
Punishment: Say we use the extreme example of a murderer as the criminal. The punishment for such a crime would be prison under our justice system. The OT law, however, takes a different route. Rather than confinement, the guilty party would be subjected to restitution (i.e. eye for an eye) to pay for his crime. In extreme cases, this could mean death. How this factors into the atonement is that Christ paid our restitution on the cross as a benefactor. How is this satisfactory? If Christ paid the restitution for us, then it follows logically that we would be indebted to Him. Indeed, this is the essence of Christian ethics, that of obligation to our representative.
Rehabilitation: The second step of the atonement is that of rehabilitation. Christian theology claims God works rehabilitation through the Holy Spirit’s work in us and often this is done by way of suffering. He begins the process of change, drawing us closer to Him and molding us into His image. It is the ultimate gift of resurrection and one we ought to show appreciation towards by doing our best to live accordingly.
Protection: As the Spirit changes us from the inside out He will also keep others from harm from whatever future sin we may commit. If we willingly embrace sin while bound to the covenant in Christ we’ll be kept from rewards stored in Heaven and be subtracted to the lowest servant. And once again, suffering the consequences of our actions will follow.
In the end, the objection of the atonement being an avoidance of the responsibility of immoral actions is Biblically unsound. Although prior sins are forgotten, they have still formed our identity, and it’s this “old man” that needs to be shaken off. This isn’t an easy or painless transformation, in fact, we could argue that it’s a far more demanding sentence than prison. Paul rightly recognizes this statement of identity in 1 Corinthians 7:22 and Romans 6:18, yet he never shows a hint of disdain. He, along with many of us, are in awe at the work of the cross and desire to live as servants to the one who brought us freedom. How ungrateful it is to live in sin as if grace covers all.
“For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant.”
“Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.”
Link 1: Here.
Holding, J.P., The Atonement Contextualized, (Kindle Version).