pressed::Does Atonement Work? « Austin Garrett Ward

Does Atonement Work? « Austin Garrett Ward

The following is an exerpt from Scott McKnight’s book, A Community Called Atonement, originally posted by Austin Garrett Ward:

It begins with Christ’s Atonement…
We believe that God really did atone for sins in Jesus Christ and that God really did redemptively create restored relationships with God, with self, with others, and with the world. Does this new relationship with God really transform the individual? Does the claim of the gospel extend to what can be observed in the concrete realities of those who claim to be its beneficiaries?

This generation is tired of an old-fashioned atonement theology that does not make a difference, of an old-fashioned atonement theology that is for individual spiritual formation but not for ecclesial re-formation, and of an old-fashioned atonement theology that does not reconcile humans with humans. This generation of students doesn’t think the “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” bumper sticker is either funny or something to be proud of. They believe atonement ought to make a difference in the here and now. Christians, they say, aren’t perfect but they ought to be different – at least they ought to be if the atonement works. They think it ought to work.

So do I.

David Bosch, the great South African missiologist whose tragic death is still mourned, charted an understanding of atonement as: “Salvation in Christ is salvation in the context of human society en route to a whole and healed world.” If a previous generation was taught that evangelism and social justice were disconnected, even if one could (or even should) flow from the other, the present generation knows of a holistic human being in an interlocking society of connections where any notion of gospel or atonement must be one that is integrated and community-shaped if its is to be called “good news” at all. As God is missional (missio Dei) so the work of the church and individual Christians is also missional. To be missional means to participate in the missio Dei, the mission of God to redeem the world.”

But does atonement work? Are Christians better than anyone else in their relationship with God, self, others, and the world? Is there not a claim that atonement generates a multi-faceted healing of the person so that Christians ought to love God and love others, so that Christians ought to be different? Even a little?

A Story: Yes, Atonement Does Work…
Dawn Husnick, after some tough years with alcohol, failed personal relationships, and depression, found her feet for the journey. She now works part-time at an ER in the Chicagoland area, and this is her story, a story of God’s embracing grace that makes a person capable of embracing others with grace so that the atonement begins to work for others.

In my years in the ER, I saw Jesus daily doing His kingdom work in and through a group of His followers. It was a true expression of the church. One day stands out beyond all the others and left me radically changed forever. It was the day I saw Jesus face to face…

“Give us hearts as servants” was the song they were singing as I left the church service, heading off for my second twelve-hour shift in a row. Weekends in the ER can be absolutely brutal! I was physically and emotionally spent as I walked up to the employee entrance. The sound of ambulances and an approaching medical helicopter were telltale signs that I would be literally hitting the ground running.

“Dawn…can you lock down room 15?” yelled out my charge nurse as I crawled up to the nurse’s station. (When someone asked for a lockdown it was usually a psychiatric or combative case.) Two security guards stood outside the room, biceps flexing like bouncers anticipating a drunken brawl. My eyes rolled as I walked past them into the room to set up.

The masked medics arrived with [Name, N.] strapped and restrained to their cart. The hallway cleared with heads turned away in disgust at the smell surrounding them. They entered the room and I could see N. with his feet hung over the edge of the cart covered with plastic bags tightly taped around the ankles. The ER doctor quickly examined N. while we settled him in. The medics rattled off their findings in the background with N. mumbling in harmony right along with them. The smell was overpowering as they uncovered his swollen, mold-encrusted feet. After tucking him in and taking his vital signs, I left the room to tend to my other ten patients-in-waiting.

Returning to the nurse’s station, I overheard the other nurses and techs arguing over who would take N. as their patient. In addition to the usual lab work and tests, the doctor had ordered a shower complete with betadine foot scrub, antibiotic ointment, and non-adherent wraps. The charge nurse looked in my direction. “Dawn, will you please take N.? Please? You don’t have to do the foot scrub – just give him the sponge in the shower.” I agreed and made my way to gather the supplies and waited for the security guard to open up the hazmat shower.

As I waited with N., the numbness of my business was interrupted by an overwhelming sadness. I watched N., restless and mumbling incoherently to himself through is scruff of a beard and ‘stache. His eyes were hidden behind his ratted, curly, shoulder-length mane. This poor shell of a man had no one to love him. I wondered about his past and what happened to bring him to this hopelessly empty place? No one in the ER that day really looked at him and no one wanted to touch him. They wanted to ignore him and his broken life. But as much as I tried…I could not. I was drawn to him.

The smirking security guards helped me walk him to the shower. As we entered the shower room I set out the shampoo, soaps, and towels like it was a five-star hotel. I felt in my heart that for at least ten minutes, this forgotten man would be treated as a king. I thought for those ten minutes he would see the love of Jesus. I set down the foot sponge and decided that I would do the betadine foot scrub by myself as soon as his shower was finished. I called the stock room for two large basins and a chair.
When N. was finished in the shower I pulled back the curtain and walked him to the “throne” of warmed blankets and the two basins set on the floor. As I knelt at his feet, my heart broke and stomach turned as I gently picked up his swollen rotted feet. Most of his nails were black and curled over the top of his toes. The skin was rough, broken, and oozing pus. Tears streamed down my face while my gloved hands tenderly sponged the brown soap over his wounded feet.

The room was quiet as the once-mocking security guards started to help by handing me towels. As I patted the last foot dry, I looked up and for the first time N.’s eyes looked into mine. For that moment he was alert, aware, and weeping as he quietly said, “Thank you.” In that moment, I was the one seeing Jesus. He was there all along, right where he said he would be.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…’ ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ and the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:35-40)

Sometimes things can get fuzzy when we talk about doctrine and theology, doubts arise and questions surge, but something happens when we tell each other our stories. Maybe you got this sense when reading this story… that’s real, whatever that is, that’s real. Dawn’s story illustrates how atonement works. This isn’t just a feel-good philosophy but a movement of transformation which honors the divine image in all of humanity, dignifying the marginalized and brining peace and hope into restlessness and despair.

Atonement is only understood when it is understood as the restoration of humans – in all directions – so that they form a society (the ecclesia, the church) wherein God’s will is lived out and given freedom to transform all of life. Jesus’ mission, his vision of the kingdom, is about restoring the blind, giving limber legs to the lame, wiping the skin of the lepers clean, filling the ears of the deaf with music and sounds, brining back dead people from the grave, and making sure the poor are taken care of by restoring them to their proper social location. The mission of Jesus is healing justice, the ending of disease, dislocation, and oppression. Beyond those conditions, Jesus announces the creation of a covenanted community where the covenant God’s will is lived out for each and every person.


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