Theme: Atonement and the Divine Initiative
Leading Question: Was a plan of salvation for guilty sinners our idea or God’s?
Discussions of the plan of salvation immediately confront issues of omniscience, divine foreknowledge, predestination, human freedom, justice and mercy. A good starting point is to focus on the issue of “necessity”: Why was the cross “necessary”?
1. Restoration without death? With reference to the necessity of the cross, Ellen White has introduced a significant element into discussions of “atonement.” In the chapter “Why Was Sin Permitted?” in Patriarchs and Prophets (pp. 33-43) and also in “The Origin of Evil,” in The Great Controversy (pp. 492-504), she argues that even after Lucifer’s initial rebellion, God would have restored him to his position. “Repentance and submission” and “acknowledging the Creator’s wisdom” were the conditions. “Again and again he was offered pardon,” notes Ellen White (GC 496). In short, rebellion has not always required an atoning death. How does that idea shape our understanding of the cross?
2. Necessity: A human view and a divine view. Is it possible to distinguish in Scripture those positions which are essential for the sake of God’s honor and those positions which God adopts for the sake of winning back a rebel race? Can the same event be viewed from both perspectives? In other words, it is possible to see the cross as a means of preserving the integrity of God’s government and also as a way of winning the hearts of human kind?
Note: Two views of the “atonement” represent the two perspectives on the divine purpose. The so-called “objective” atonement focuses on the cross as a sacrifice that “satisfies” the requirements of divine justice, the demands of the law, or when stated in an extreme form, God’s wrath. For that reason it is sometimes called the “satisfaction” theory. This view of the cross usually focuses on key passages in the writings of Paul: Romans 5, 8; 2 Cor 5:14-21; Eph 2:13-18; Col 2:19-23.
By contrast, the so-called “subjective” view of the cross views the primary purpose of Jesus’ death as winning back the disaffected hearts of human beings. This view of Jesus’ life and death is centered in John 14-17 where Jesus presents himself as a revelation of the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” – John 14:9.
Both views of the cross are thoroughly biblical and most believers will find both views helpful to differing degrees and in different ways. Unfortunately, strong supporters of both views are sometimes inclined to disallow the validity of the other view, thus distorting the balance found in Scripture and threatening the health of the church.
John 16:26-27: The case of the mysterious “not.” While the subjective atonement (also known as the “revelational” view) is seen most vividly in John’s Gospel and the objective atonement is presented most clearly by Paul, one passage in John can point in either direction depending on the presence or absence of the word “not.” Here is the passage from the KJV:
“I say not unto you, that I will pray the Father for you: For the Father himself loveth you.” – John 16:26-27
Since the dominant view of the cross in Evangelical circles is the objective atonement (Paul), a view which sees Jesus pleading his blood to the Father on our behalf, it can be startling to read in Scripture that Jesus will not pray to the Father on our behalf. In fact, one edition of Ellen White’s The Great Controversy [Pacific Press, 1971, p. 368] inadvertently omits the negative as follows:
“I say unto you, that I will pray the Father for you: For the Father Himself loveth you.”
In short, with the “not” included, the verse presents John’s perspective; without the “not” the verse sounds much more like Paul. Since both perspectives are biblical, it is important for the church to nurture both perspectives if it is going to meet the needs of all the people. In that connection this remarkable quotation from Ellen White argues for just such diversity. These are the opening lines of the chapter “In Contact with Others,” in Ministry of Healing:
Every association of life calls for the exercise of self-control, forbearance, and sympathy. We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things vary. We judge differently. Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life, are not in all respects the same. There are no two whose experience is alike in every particular. The trials of one are not the trials of another. The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing.
So frail, so ignorant, so liable to misconception is human nature, that each should be careful in the estimate he places upon another. We little know the bearing of our acts upon the experience of others. What we do or say may seem to us of little moment, when, could our eyes be opened, we should see that upon it depended the most important results for good or for evil. (MH 483)
3. The divine initiative: salvation as God’s idea. However one views the purpose of the cross, it is everywhere clear that salvation for humankind has always been God’s idea. Romans 5:6-11 is perhaps the most important passage, declaring that while we were still “weak,” “sinners,” and “enemies,” Christ died for us. In view of that fact that God has always planned for our salvation, is it possible to merge the ideas of justice and mercy into one? In other words, can we say that God’s mercy to sinners is part of God’s justice, that it is the “right” thing to do to save sinners?
Note on the divine intention: Ephesians 1:4-7 (“He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world”) and 2 Timothy 1:9 (“This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.”) both see the plan of salvation as an eternal plan, the necessity of which God had always foreseen. In short, sin did not catch God by surprise; the plan of salvation was no afterthought.