Relevant Verses: Romans 7-8; John 14-17
Leading Question: How important is that we feel saved as we look forward to the End Time?
In broad outline, the human family finds comfort and hope through two quite different models: a family model with a gentle and loving father, and a courtroom model with a strong and effective advocate on our behalf.
In my experience, a quotation from Ellen White’s Steps to Christ stands out in my thinking: “Do not wait to feel that you are made whole, but say, ‘I believe it; it is so, not because I feel it, but because God has promised.’” Steps, 51. But what startled me as I was preparing this study guide is that the Ellen White disc only records two instances of that quote, the original and a 2002 compilation, A Call to Stand Apart, p. 30. Is it possible that a quote that was intended to be encouraging has not really “caught on” in Adventism?
Question: Which of the two models is more effective in cementing both the feeling and the reality of salvation as we look to the future? Or will different people find one more helpful than the other?
In my teaching, I present both views of the atonement as being biblical: Jesus presenting us to the Father (objective) and Jesus presenting the Father to us (subjective), with neither having the advantage over the other. In the family model, Jesus appears more as a teacher, revealing the Father to us. The key passage in John 14-17 is Jesus’ response to Philip’s question: “Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’” John 14:7.
In outline form, here are the two perspectives: the objective, with Jesus pleading heavenward on the basis of his sacrifice; and the subjective, with Jesus pleading earthward on the basis of God’s gracious gift of his son. The subjective typically relies on the family model; the objective is more at home in the courtroom model:
A. Objective Atonement (substitution, penal satisfaction): Jesus as sacrifice.
- Primary metaphor: courtroom
- Emphasizes a price paid heavenward (satisfying divine wrath or claims of law)
- The dominant emphasis in Paul’s writings: e.g. 2 Cor. 5:16 – 21
- Not present at all in James; not emphasized in John’s Gospel, but is present in the Johannine epistles (e.g. 1 John 2:2; 4:10)
B. Subjective Atonement (moral influence): Jesus as teacher.
- Primary metaphor: family
- Emphasizes Jesus’ life and death as teaching us about God
- Primary biblical passages: John 14-17; Luke 15:11-32 (prodigal son)
- Note crucial role of the negative (not) in John 16:25-27
Note: the subjective atonement is not nearly as well known in Adventism, and in fact is often viewed with alarm because it does not stress Jesus’ sacrifice. By contrast, the objective view can give the impression that God is demanding a sacrifice, rather than offering it freely.
One paperback edition of The Great Controversy (Pacific Press, 1971, p. 368)) actually (accidentally) drops out the negative from a famous Johannine passage, John 16: 25-27. Here is the passage in its entirety, with the intriguing “not” in italics:
John 16:25 “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father. 26 On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; 27 for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.”
In my own experience, that troubling Ellen White statement that we are to “stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” (GC, 1911, 425) became a promise instead of a threat in the light of John 16:25-27. That discovery was part of a study of John 14-17 during which I made the life- changing discovery that Jesus was and is God incarnate.
Question: How can we teach both views of the atonement so that each can reach those who need it most?
Note: If one can see the sin-laden human heart as the source that “demands” a sacrifice, then Jesus’ death does not need to be seen as a demand from God, but rather as the gift of a gracious God who knows the human heart through and through.
The following chapter from my book, Beyond Common Ground (PPPA 2009) represents a serious attempt to present both views of the atonement as part of God’s plan to save the human family.
“A Work in Progress: Cross and Atonement”
Chapter 22, Beyond Common Ground (PPPA 2009), pp 246-252
By Alden Thompson
The Bible says: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” – 1 Cor. 2:1-2
The Bible says: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Cor. 5:21
The Bible says: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” – Rom. 8:1
The Bible says: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” – John 14:9
She says: “God’s people are tempted and tried because they cannot see the spirit of consecration and self-sacrifice to God in all who manage important interests, and many act as though Jesus were buried in Joseph’s new tomb, and a great stone rolled before the door. I wish to proclaim with voice and pen, Jesus has risen! he has risen!” – Special Testimonies A, p. 29, August 10, 1890.
They say: “The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had – and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a ‘great man,’ but against the old, platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers. The ‘Gospels’ come later, and were written, not to make Christians, but to edify Christians already made.” – C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1961), 23.3
This will be another brief chapter. But it might be the most important one in the book. Because the discussion is “a work in progress,” however, I am intentionally brief.
The chapter is crucial because Adventists differ in their understanding of what the cross means. But we can’t just dump the cross or even avoid it. Without the cross there would be no resurrection; without the cross there could be no crown. If we live in hope, it is only because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
So why did Jesus have to die? The question is crucial but yields two dramatically different, but complementary answers. And those who are gripped by one answer are easily alarmed by those who are gripped by the other. And it works both ways. Most Christians find both answers meaningful and will no doubt be puzzled by the intensity of the debate engendered by those who are intense. But this is another case where we do not choose our battles. So we have to take all sides seriously.
What are the answers? Both declare that Jesus died to save us, but then the difference emerges. One answer points the cross heavenward and sees the death of Jesus as a sacrifice that satisfies the demands of divine justice: sin requires death. This view can be called the “objective” atonement, indicating that Jesus’ death satisfies some kind of “objective” demand apart from the experience of the believer. It can be the demands of the law; it can also be seen as satisfying divine wrath. Thus the words “substitution” and/or “satisfaction” are also linked with this view. Those who hold this view are strongly attracted by Paul’s writings, especially Romans and Galatians.
The other answer points the cross earthward and sees the death of Jesus as a powerful revelation of God and his love for fallen creatures. This view is called the “subjective” atonement because it focuses on human experience. Thus it is part of Jesus’ answer to Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Those who hold this view are strongly attracted by John’s Gospel, especially John 14-17.
But then the battle begins. Those who are gripped by the “objective” atonement are inclined to argue that the other view is weak on the doctrines of sin and salvation. Without a real “sacrifice” pointed heavenward, they argue, the sin problem hasn’t really been solved.
On the other side, those who are gripped by the “subjective” atonement argue that the other view gives the impression that God demands a pound of flesh before he will save humankind. The more extreme rhetoric is likely to call the substitutionary atonement an immature view which should be outgrown.
Outside of Adventism and from Christian history both views bring along unwanted baggage. The subjective view has been called the “moral influence” theory because the cross is sometimes seen as “only” influencing the moral nature of humankind. As sometimes held by the more liberal Protestant churches, the subjective atonement can indeed undervalue the power of sin and the need for salvation.
The objective view also carries baggage. As held by Christians outside of Adventism, the objective atonement can be linked with a narrow view of salvation that excludes those who do not explicitly accept the sacrifice of Jesus. Thus the good heathen, the good Buddhist, the good Muslim cannot be part of God’s kingdom. The strong language, especially among Calvinists, can also be problematic. The phrase “penal substitution,” for example, tends to trigger the “pound-of- flesh” objection noted above. The rhetoric of “satisfying” divine wrath has a similar effect.
In Adventism, two developments that can be documented in the experience and writings of Ellen White are worth noting. First, in her later writings, she stepped back from her earlier emphasis on satisfying the “wrath of an offended deity,” speaking rather of satisfying the “demands of the law.” Second, chapter 70 in The Desire of Ages has bequeathed to Adventism the conviction that the ignorant but honest heathen can be saved. A commentary on the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, that Desire of Ages chapter speaks persuasively of “heathen…who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish.” – DA 638 (1898)
Drawing on the previous two chapters in this book, I would like to note a couple of crucial points, affirming, first of all, that the subjective or revelatory view of the cross, the one presented in John 14-17, is thoroughly biblical and is very much appreciated by many Adventists. But my second point is that this perspective is often viewed with alarm or at best treated as a kind of second-class citizen in Adventism. The Johannine or subjective atonement perspective has not been part of the Questions on Doctrine debate. That discussion is mostly between the perfectionist theology of Peter and the substitutionary theology of Paul, to borrow the labels I suggested in chapter 19.
I believe it is time to address the atonement issue honestly and in good faith. My own experience has been immeasurably enriched by my discovery of Jesus as presented in John 14- 17. As I have frequently noted, however, I did not “discover” that wonderful news until I was in my second year at seminary. For all kinds of reason, discovering that Jesus was God on earth and continues to be God in the present may always be a late discovery in a Christian’s life. But it is central to Scripture and crucial for Adventist theology.
If the two sides are going to work together, however, we must recognize that not all the Bible writers give the same emphasis. If both sides can recognize the other’s position as being fully Christian and fully Adventist, it would greatly enhance the work of the church. But the demeaning rhetoric will have to stop. It is not appropriate, in my view, to characterize the Johannine perspective as a non-Christian deviation that is destructive of the Gospel. Nor is it appropriate to describe the Pauline perspective view of an immature theology in which God is seen to be demanding a pound of flesh.
But changing our views of the “other side” cannot simply happen by flipping a switch. Our impressions of the “other side” are often deeply rooted and inflamed by inappropriate rhetoric from the “other side.”
I do, however, have two suggestions that I have found helpful personally. If others, on both sides, would be willing to explore them with me, I suspect we could make good progress. I will spell them out rather pointedly.
1. Memorizing Bible passages that the “other side” finds meaningful. Here it is crucial to try and hear Scripture from the other person’s perspective, not simply to underscore our own. That does not happen easily or immediately. In my case I elected to memorize Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 5:14-21. In that connection I should mention that a general “truth” or “rule” about memorization that I had already found applicable elsewhere proved to be true here, too. In brief, because it takes me a long time to memorize a passage of Scripture, about the 97th time through I begin to see truths that I hadn’t seen before and to be blessed by them.
And that has certainly been the case with the “substitutionary” passages in Scripture that I have set out to memorize. My understanding of the cross has been deepened and enriched. I no longer feel that I have to “re-interpret” every passage of Scripture to meet my “favorite” perspective. I can let Paul be Paul, James be James, Peter be Peter. And I think that means that I can also let God be God.
Now, when I go to The Desire of Ages and read the chapter “It Is Finished” (Chapter 78, DA 758-64 ), for example, I can honestly admit that it is almost entirely “substitutionary” in its view of the cross. I am grateful that I don’t have to re-interpret it or avoid it. I am grateful that I can be blessed instead of troubled. My solution won’t work for everyone; indeed, probably no one else will be blessed in just the same way I have been. But by sharing our various perspectives honestly with each other, we can walk together toward the kingdom.
In this connection I note the observation of a colleague, one for whom Paul’s theology is especially precious, a colleague who has helped nurture my appreciation for substitutionary theology. He observed that the trajectory of my experience appeared to be quite different from his. His deepening appreciation for the things of God began with a keen awareness of human sinfulness, his own sinfulness; now he is gaining a deepening appreciation the goodness of God.
By contrast, he observed, my experience seems to have started with a deep appreciation for the goodness of God and I am now gaining a deeper understanding of human sinfulness. I think he is right. Our experiences will never be exactly alike. But it has been an enriching experience for us both as we have joined our minds and hearts together in the search for the good things of God.
2. Recognizing that God did not demand a sacrifice for his benefit, but gave a sacrifice for our benefit. In my case, discovering that Jesus was God in the flesh banished forever the haunting specter of a reluctant deity. If God himself took human flesh and came to earth to save me, he really must want me in his kingdom after all! God wasn’t just letting Jesus sneak me in the side door as some kind of concession. No! My salvation was no concession. God came to earth because he really wanted me in his kingdom.
I decided that one of the mental pictures suggested by certain biblical passages had led me astray. In particular the picture of Jesus pleading his blood to the father had given me the impression that Jesus was my friend, but that the Father still needed to be convinced. Admittedly, protection from a holy deity can be a terrifying necessity. In his early years, for example, Martin Luther was just as frightened of the Son as he was of the Father. For him, the only safe approach to God was through the gentle virgin Mary!
In that connection John 16:26-27 has played a crucial role in my thinking. Not only has that passage enabled me to transform from a threat into a promise that scary Adventist line that we “are to stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” (GC 425 [1888, 1911]), it has also helped me see that as long as I need a mediator I have one. If the passage is truly a promise, then God is not about the pull the rug out from under us. He cares for our needs.
That same verse may also be helpful in addressing what I consider to be an erroneous impression that it is God who demands a sacrifice. Is it not possible that the “need” for an atoning sacrifice is driven by perceptions engendered by our twisted minds? As I see it, the belief in a “pound-of-flesh God” is the deadly result of sin. As the effects of sin and guilt gnawed away at the human mind, the “gods” became more and more demanding, more and more violent. The end result of that kind of thinking was the conviction that the gods demanded every first-born among humans. God recognized that devastating logic and commanded Israel to provide an animal substitute (Exod. 13:11-16) “Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem,” says Scripture. That same psychology is reflected in Micah 6:6-8. Moving up the ladder of potential gifts, the prophet ends with, “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
The prophet’s response implies that God is demanding no such thing. Indeed, the Good News Bible makes the “no” explicit at the beginning of the climactic verse 8. But the story of Jesus, indeed the death of Jesus, brings to an end, once and for all, any human thought of earning God’s favor through a sacrifice. Jesus really did pay it all.
With such an approach, one could speak of a “psychological” and “governmental” necessity of the death of Christ. Such language would have distinct advantages over the “absolute” necessity implied by more extreme forms of Calvinist theology. Such an approach would also put to an end any thought that God was “demanding a pound of flesh,” but it would recognize that God gave a “pound of flesh,” so to speak, because diseased human minds thought it was the only way to find peace. We do not serve a vindictive or vengeful God. But we do serve a God who is willing to pay whatever price our twisted minds might demand. And that’s what we see on the cross.
So let’s put our heads and hearts together, seek God’s presence and study his Word so that gift of God can be the kind of good news he intends it to be. By God’s grace, whether we find John or Paul more helpful, we can all rejoice when any of God’s children discovers that God has made it possible for them to be in his kingdom. That should be wonderful news for us all.