If Jesus is Lord, Satan is Not: Why Conceding Atonement Ground is a Mistake
If Jesus is Lord, Satan is Not: Why Conceding Atonement Ground is a Mistake
Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important these theories are. ...the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced. ...no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality. — C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Given that we are still fighting against a global pandemic in a failed state, you could be entirely forgiven if you aren’t up on the current ‘debate’ [1] in a very niche corner of the Evangelical blogosphere. Admittedly, it’s a privilege to be able to focus on dueling theological definitions at a time when people are desperate for basic physical health protections. However, we should not be deceived into thinking theology is some kind of irrelevant intellectual distraction. Theology has life or death consequences. Theology sends some rushing to the aid of their neighbors during a pandemic and theology drives others to murder their neighbors in cold blood. Theology is behind many of the most infamous terrorist attacks and theology is behind many of the most sacrificial acts of love. Theology is a vital part of human life. For Christians, the Gospel is central to our theology. And it’s the definition of this Good News that’s now in dispute due to Neo-Calvinist/Neo-Puritan groups who have popularized the notion that the Reformation doctrine of ‘justification by grace through faith’ is The Gospel. They’ve even given themselves names like “The Gospel Coalition” and “Together 4 the Gospel,” anointing themselves the defenders and gatekeepers of the Gospel. These “Reformed” groups have made a concerted effort to interpret Jesus’s Gospel in light of Luther’s version of Paul, instead of interpreting Reformation-era teachings in light of the New Testament. [2] This is the “Soterion” gospel. But, at least since Paul and Palestinian Judaism, there’s been a scholarly consensus that doctrines arising during the Reformation cannot define the Christian Gospel and that Paul’s Gospel is not Different from the Gospel Jesus preached. And, by now, it should be clear that the “King Jesus Gospel” has triumphed. Scholars like Matthew Bates and Scot McKnight have thoroughly demonstrated that the “gospel” which has been promoted by those “Reformed” groups fails the test of basic New Testament scholarship. In every context where “the Gospel” is discussed, it’s the story of Jesus as crucified and risen Messiah (King) that’s recounted, not the doctrine of justification. Period. [3] I’m grateful to both Bates and McKnight (and Wright). I’ve read several of their most recent books and reviewed them. This stand they’ve made is an important and needful one. But there is one place where I think they’ve needlessly conceded ground to the Soterion gospel camp: Atonement. For example, in Matthew Bates’ book Salvation by Allegiance Alone, he expertly deconstructs the Soterion gospel and demonstrates the truth of the King Jesus Gospel. However, he also needlessly affirms the Penal Substitutionary theory of atonement, when that isn’t the focus of his book, and does so without any explanation. I have an entire section of my review on this unfortunate aspect of an otherwise excellent monograph. More recently, when a member of the “Reformed” camp named Greg Gilbert who espouses the Soterion gospel accused Bates of “divorcing” atonement from “The Gospel,” Bates retreats and concedes the ground to him. Bates writes,
The true biblical gospel climaxes with the proclamation that Jesus has become the Christ, Lord of all, the king (Acts 2:36; 3:20-23; 10:36). On the path to kingship, the Son was sent by the Father in fulfillment of OT promises, took on human flesh in the line of David, died a substitutionary atoning death for our sins on the cross, was buried, raised, witnessed, enthroned at the right hand, and then the Spirit was sent (Rom 1:2-4; 1 Cor 15:3-5; 2 Tim 2:8).” 

And then Bates concludes, “Thus, the offer of forgiveness of sins via substitutionary atonement is part of the gospel proper… [4]
This isn’t true. “Substitution” isn’t entailed in the proclamation of the Gospel anywhere in the New Testament. “Substitution” is a Theory as to how Atonement Works (to say nothing of the enormous moral problems caused by adding “Wrath Satisfaction” to any such theory!) This is important: The "How" of Atonement is Not proclaimed by Jesus or the Apostles. The Fact of Atonement Is proclaimed. As C. S. Lewis pointed out over half a century ago, theories as to How atonement works aren’t essential to the Christian Gospel, only the Fact that it has happened. Here’s an analogy: During this pandemic, many people have suffered financially. People have lost jobs, business owners have had to declare bankruptcy, and others have had to take unpaid leave from work. The economic toll this pandemic was taking on the citizens of the country was enormous. So legislators met in the nation’s capital to hammer out a relief bill. One day I was reading news headlines and saw something like, “Congress Approves Two Trillion-dollar Relief Bill.” That was Good News! I knew what that meant. I knew it meant that something significant had Already Been Accomplished. I knew that all the partisan self-interest that could have prevented funding from flowing to citizens had been Defeated. I knew that American citizens would receive some kind of benefit from this Good News. But—here’s the critical part—There was No mention of How those benefits would flow to me personally! And I couldn’t have cared less! You see, whatever mechanism was chosen to deliver those benefits to me would have been fine with me. Are they going to send me a check? Great! Are they going to directly deposit it into my bank account? Great! Are they going to shoot it out of a T-shirt canon onto my front lawn? Great! That’s not the important part. Now, of course, I’d have been upset if the mechanism they chose was that I have to drive to Washington D.C. and stand in line for 36 hours to received the money. That would not be a very good delivery system. And, of course, if the chosen delivery system was immoral, like if I had to smack my daughter to get the money, that wouldn’t fly either. But the mechanism or delivery system isn't the good news. So it is with the Gospel. The Gospel is the proclamation that Jesus is Lord. It entails Jesus’s story of becoming King by way of the Cross and the Resurrection. It entails Jesus’s story of being an Israelite and fulfilling the expectations of Israel for their Messiah. It entails Jesus’s story of reuniting humanity with God, doing away with what stood between us: Sin and Death (aka atonement). And it entails Jesus’s story of extending his reign to all the people groups of the world. But it Does Not entail the Theory by which Jesus Accomplishes Atonement. It Does Not entail “Substitution” and it most definitely Does Not entail “wrath satisfaction.” If there were an implied theory of atonement in the New Testament’s proclamation of the Gospel, it would be “Christus Victor.” Because implied in the royal rhetoric of the Gospel is the securing of one’s reign, one’s kingdom. For example, the “Gospel” of Octavian was preached in Rome when his navy defeated Marc Antony’s in the battle of Actium on September 2nd of 31 BC. The heralds didn’t proclaim that Octavian’s ships had superior fire power to Antony's or discuss the weaponry used in the battle. No, they simply proclaimed that he had triumphed and was now the Emperor of the world! [5] The royal motif that is essential to the culturally-contextual, first-century “Gospel” entails a metaphorical victory over opposing forces and securing of a kingdom. To paraphrase a common expression: “If Jesus is Lord, Satan is Not.” For the early church to proclaim that Jesus is Lord was simultaneously a proclamation that Jesus is the rightful King/Emperor (Not Caesar!) of the world And that Jesus had defeated the powers of Sin and Death (aka "Satan"). No “substitution” or “wrath satisfaction” was or is needed. Chris Kugler comes close to grasping this, but also needlessly slips into “satisfaction” language:
Here’s the fact. In the New Testament, the lexical force of euangelion is what McKnight and Bates say it is. Here’s the other fact. The gospels and Paul (and others) interpret this event as a great victory over the enslaving forces of evil (Christus Victor) via a sin-bearing death and a death-defeating resurrection (and ascension, and enthronement, and outpoured Spirit, and so on). [6]
Subtract the “sin-bearing” part and Kugler is precisely correct. The “lexical force” of the New Testament Gospel entails a type of Christus Victor theory, if any theory is entailed. That is why I think it’s not only a tactical mistake to concede atonement ground to the “Reformed” in the debate over the definition of the Gospel, I also think it's a logical and exegetical mistake.
  1. The quotes are due to the fact that parties involved in this debate are keen to tone down their rhetoric to avoid the inevitable tone-policing that has become ubiquitous in online Christian theological discussion. To avoid being accused of being “unkind” or not “Christ-like,” the scholars involved have all tried to frame the debate as a dialogue or conversation, in keeping with their vocal and conflict-averse objectors.
  2. “Did Jesus Preach Paul’s Gospel” by John Piper at the “Together 4 the Gospel” conference in 2010. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXJP_hQXqN4]
  3. You can read Bates’ and McKnight’s arguments in King Jesus Gospel, Salvation by Allegiance Alone, and Gospel Allegiance. (Also see N. T. Wright: How God Became King and Simply Good News). If you have not read these monographs, have no intention of doing so, and are still convinced TGC/T4G have the Gospel correct, this post probably isn’t for you.
  4. “Good News? Are T4G/TGC Leaders Starting To Change Their Gospel?” [https://www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2020/april/good-news-are-t4g-tgc-leaders-starting-to-change-their-gosp.html]
  5. For more on this, see N. T. Wright, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good (HarperOne, 2015), p.10-11.
  6. "Chris Kugler: So What's the Gospel?" [https://www.christianitytoday.com/scot-mcknight/2020/april/chris-kugler-so-whats-gospel.html]