Why The Atonement Matters For Church Planters (1)

Why The Atonement Matters For Church Planters (1)

Atonement’ edited by Gabriel Fluhrer (P&R Publishing 2010)

This is a series of lectures about ‘blood’ according to the book’s sleeve and is a compilation of 8 essays on the topic by 7 evangelical theologians and pastors. Such is the importance of this subject for every Christian, whoever they are and whatever they do, I have decided to give a brief summary over the coming weeks of each essay and how I think it could apply to inner city planters (although the application is really universal). First up is Dr. J.I Packer.

J.I Packer – The Necessity of the Atonement

The importance of this topic hardly merits justification in our day and age with the whole ‘cosmic child abuser’ heresies being perpetuated within the super trendy, neo liberal, ‘emergent type’ communities (if I can even call them that).

In this first essay, Packer lays the foundation for the book. He takes Romans 8:32 as his launch pad for a discussion on the need for the atonement. He emphasises the 4 propositions found in Romans 8 that stem from our justification. Being (1) whatever opposition befalls us it can never ultimately succeed – v31 (2) We can be sure of the ‘lesser benefits’ of salvation because the greater has already been given to us (namely Christ’s death) –v32 (3) No accusation can stand against us – Vv34-35 and (4) Nothing can separate us from God and His love for us – v35.

For Packer these 4 monumental truths underpin his unshakable belief that everything rests on the atonement. Without Calvary there is no hope for us under God’s just and righteous wrath. That is why, he explains, the atonement is so absolutely necessary. He goes on to attack the view of Christ’s death as merely ‘revealing’ God’s love for humanity (popularised by Abelard in the Thirteenth Century) and not really in terms of putting away men’s sins. Here he quotes a famous illustration used by James Denney, a Scottish writer of the time.‘necessary’

‘Suppose I am sitting on a pier in the sunshine, on a seaside holiday. While I am sitting there, enjoying the sunshine, a man rushes up to me and says, “Look, I’ll show you how much I love you!” and then jumps off the end of the pier and drowns. Denney argued that this was not a display of love but idiocy! It doesn’t mean anything. It’s only a display of love if the person who gives his life is doing something for me that had to be done in order to save me and that I couldn’t do for myself.’ (p8)

Just so the atonement. If it was merely a gesture of love alone then it was an empty and needless gesture. But, argues Packer forcefully, it was ‘needed’ precisely because of our sin condition and the great chasm that separates sinful man from a Holy God. God doesn’t just let our sin go, he must punish it. What I like about Packer at this point is his obviously high view of Scripture. For it is the Bible as God’s Very Word that defines and sets out what is sin and what the punishment for it is to be, not human reasoning and our tainted view of what passes off as justice and righteousness. He rightly reminds us that God HATES sin. He will not tolerate it. Any other view than this invites spiritual and eternal disaster upon our souls. God will certainly judge sin and sinners in the way He has told us He will in Scripture and His final judgement will be swift, terrible, just, loving and eternal. Packer points out that it is foolish for us even to imagine what the final judgement will be like, for our finite minds are incapable of comprehending the sheer infinite magnitude of it.

That is why God’s wrath HAS to be propitiated or, to translate it in a more understandable way, God’s wrath has to ‘be absorbed’. It must be quenched, somehow. The Lord Jesus has been described as our propitiation in 1 John 2:2; 4:10. Such a great cost for such a great problem to demonstrate such great grace. God presented His Son as the propitiation to quench His own wrath to demonstrate His own justice. Why? In order, Romans 3:26 tells us, to show his own righteousness and to be both just and justifier to those who have faith in Christ. Sin is dealt with, Christ absorbs God’s holy wrath and God’s justice is satisfied. What a God, what a saviour, and what a gospel we proclaim!

We must fully appreciate the importance of these truths for our ministries. Without a right understanding then the whole foundation for our work is faulty. Surely, the reason we reach out to the poor and marginalised on our housing schemes is less to do with the whole ‘Jesus loves you’ mantra (which is true), but, because as terrible as many people’s lives are in these places, they stand under the righteous wrath of God, which is worse by far. That’s why for me the atonement is great news in that we not only offer the facts of the gospel to people but we are able to show them the reality of what Christ really did in dying on the cross. In the atonement, then,  we celebrate the cosmic love and sacrifice of a just and merciful God. Great news indeed.