The following is part 2 of several posts based upon a paper I presented at the Wesleyan Theological Society annual meeting on March 7.
Atonement is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ because God is love (1 John 4:16). Love is a relationship characterized by giving the self to and for another person. This love is described by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love is characterized much more by action and behavior than by feelings. Love treats the other with dignity, compassion, and justice. Love suffers, for, and behalf of the beloved.
The Trinity attests to God’s relational character. God the Father is Father because of his love for the Son, Jesus Christ. God the Son is Son because of his love for the Father. The two are bound by the love of a parent for a child and a child’s love for the parent. The love of the Father and Son sends the Holy Spirit. The Three are united as One in love for one another and for the Cosmos.
The Cosmos emanates from the Trinity’s love. It is God’s good creation. Scripture tells us that God created order out of chaos with the words, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:1-2:3). He created all plant and animal life and everything they need to live and grow. The process culminates in the creation of human beings, male and female, to be God’s partners and stewards of the good earth. God “saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Genesis 3:1-24 explains how the good creation has gone wrong. Sin entered the world and brought with it pride, fear, alienation, and death. The relationship with God was broken. Human life and community turned away from God. God’s response was to restore relationship with humankind through the Hebrew people. God chose them to be his covenant people. Again and again they turned away from his love. This resulted in conquest and exile. Nevertheless, Scripture is clear that the covenant making Triune God does not relent. He, and his love, pursues his people even into exile, seeking to redeem and restore relationship with them.
God’s love took on human flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth. God became one with his creation. Love compelled him to take on flesh and blood and live among us. Charles Wesley captured the meaning of the self-emptying love of God in Christ in this stanza,
“He left his Father’s throne above
(So free, so infinite his grace!)
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
‘This mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
Jesus is the incarnation of God’s love for the world. In his life and teaching he shows us the way of holiness summarized in the law of love,
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
In his suffering and death on the cross Jesus took the sins of the world upon himself. Because of his love for the world he suffered the humiliating death of the cross to set the world free from the powers of sin and death. Charles Wesley powerfully describes Christ’s atoning work on the cross:
O Love divine! What hast thou done!
Th’immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree:
Th’immortal God for me hath died,
My Lord, my Love is crucified.
The shedding of his blood is the sign of God’s forgiveness of the world’s sin. On the third day he rose again and destroyed death’s power to dominate human life.
After his death and resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples. Seeing they were afraid he comforted them by saying “Peace be with you.” After showing them the wounds in his hands, feet and side, Jesus commissioned them to continue his mission, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-23). As God the Father brought creation into existence when his Spirit blew over the waters of chaos, Jesus inaugurated the church with the gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples.
The Holy Spirit is the presence and power of God in the church. The church is the community baptized in the Triune name sent into the world to proclaim the good news of God’s reign that is present and is coming.
The church receives people as they are, nurtures them into faith in Christ, equips them to grow and mature in holiness of heart and life, and sends them into the world to be witnesses to Jesus Christ as the participate in his atoning work, preparing the world for the coming reign of God. John and Charles Wesley understood this very well. Their life’s work was devoted to “reforming the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.”
Part 3 in this series is titled: Atonement and the Method of Methodism