Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the atonement and how Jesus' sacrifice delivers us. While we were at camp about a month ago, some of the girls were asking me questions about this. I'm a little embarassed to say that I was stumped about how to explain my thoughts in a short amount of time (it was 5 minutes until lights-out). It's not that I've never thought it through, but I don't think that I've actually put my thoughts and beliefs into words before. One thing that I love about working with teens is that their insatiable curiosity drives me to dig deeper into my faith and my relationship with God. (Thanks, Katy and Sarah!)
After many weeks of thought, I've come to a conclusion that is hardly an answer at all, but it is more than enough for me. Ultimately, I keep coming back to the same, simple thing: worship. The whole question centers around this mysterious thing - something that cannot be neatly defined and easily understood. Most of the "theories" of atonement are built around metaphors, and while each of them hits on some part of the truth, they are limited too. Our triune God and the salvation found in him is too great, too "wonder-full" for mere words to express! Perhaps Christians might argue about which metaphor is the best, but I think we'd be wasting our breath (one of our favorite pasttimes); the truth is that none of them does justice to the jaw-dropping, incomprehensible thing that happened - no, happens - at the cross.
Mystery - it is mystery that finds me on my knees in complete awe as I try to understand even the tiniest measure of what happens to us as we share in Christ's death and resurrection. Paul's poetic words from the end of Romans 11 ring in my ears: "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!" Oh, I'm not trying to get off the hook easily - for the rest of my life I'll keep searching out what it means for Jesus to save us and how best to describe it. But I don't think that I can ever have it clearly defined and completely straightened out. I think it's best that way: you don't worship a definition or have a relationship with a bullet list.
An interesting fact: in Christian history (as far as I know at least) there has never been an official creed about how atonement works. The thing that we are to believe is that it does work. (However, I did stumble across a couple of Christian websites that referred to any view of atonement other than the one they prefer as "heretical" - apparently a word they enjoyed throwing around a lot.) The following quote from C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity expresses what I'm trying to say better than I can:
"… The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it worked; what all Christians agree on is that it does work. …
"We believe that the death of Christ is just that point in history at which something absolutely unimaginable from outside shows through into our own world. … [I]f we found that we could fully understand it, that very fact would show it was not what it professes to be – the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightening. You may ask what good it will be to us if we do not understand it. … A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how it nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.
"We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories that we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are… quite secondary… [and] not to be confused with the thing itself."