CHAPTER IV: THE ATONEMENT*
BY PROFESSOR FRANKLIN JOHNSON, D. D., LL. D., AUTHOR OF “OLD-TESTAMENT QUOTATIONS IN THE NEW TESTAMENT” ETC., CHICAGO, ILL.
The Christian world as a whole believes in a substitutionary atonement. This has been its belief ever since it began to think. The doctrine was stated by Athanasius as clearly and fully as by any later writer. All the great historic creeds which set forth the atonement at any length set forth a substitutionary atonement. All the great historic systems of theology enshrine it as the very Ark of the Covenant, the central object of the Holy of Holies.
I have known many folks who embrace what I call “folk religion.” It runs something like this: “I want my family (and myself) to be nice, good, and decent. Christianity is what makes people nice, so I will choose to be a Christian and rear my children as Christians. The theology doesn’t matter, what matters is how we live and treat others.”
This belief system boils down to using the Kingdom of God. Using this reasoning, our faith exists to help us and our children become kind and honest people—a civilizing, positive influence. Hopefully our faith will keep us off of drugs, keep us from being promiscuous, help us avoid excessive alcohol, and help us avoid dishonest gain. We will see our kids grow up to become responsible, family-oriented, and self-supporting.
We all desire our children to turn out well, and to live decent lives ourselves. This is not a bad secondary goal. We should aim for that. But if this is why we call ourselves Christians, we are in trouble. Faith in Jesus becomes a means to an end, not an end in itself. Our primary goal should be to be in right relationship with God.
When folks use Christianity in this manner, they will eventually be confronted with the rude awakening that some who profess faith in Jesus are not all that wonderful. On the other hand, at times, those who profess other faiths or no religion at all are sometimes quite kind and generous.
In the various presentations of the New Perspective on Paul or NPP, the centrality of the call upon sinners to repent and believe in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, and the promise of forgiveness and eternal life with God when they do is seriously compromised. Think about these words from the end of John 3: “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (Jn. 3:36).
The solemnity of these words strikes everyone who reads them. The difference between everlasting life and abiding wrath is belief in the Son. What is it that must be believed? The answer to that question is the reason why John wrote his Gospel. After recounting the crucifixion and resurrection John focuses upon Thomas’s doubt and the Lord’s answer to that doubt. Jesus stresses belief in Him in that context. Then John adds his summary:
(Read part 1.)
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Gal. 3:10)
From what has been said already we may view the NPP as an attempt to adjust Christian understanding of the way First Century Jews saw themselves in relation, first to God and second to the Gentiles. To God they apparently did not think, like the Reformers believed they did, that they could earn merit with God. Instead it is claimed, they held that by grace they were in the grace covenant which assured national blessing to Israel. Hence, by observing the rites and solemnities of circumcision, Sabbath observance, kosher practices, etc., they were showing fidelity to the covenant. Hence, when they read “works of the law” as in Gal. 3:10 above, the Jews understood it to mean these exclusivistic observances.