Q&R with Brad Jersak: What does atonement mean?
I’m still a little confused about atonement as I’m learning a new way to understand it. Is
atonement even the right word for it? Were we ever really separated from God? If so,
what is the supernatural significance of our salvation?
Is ‘atonement’ even the right word? Good question, precisely because the English term has morphed. Originally, it was a great word that meant exactly the same thing as reconciliation. But over time, the idea of appeasement crept in, which many of us would regard as paganizing the gospel (e.g., Greg Albrecht,, NT Wright, Miroslav Volf, Cherith Fee, Wm. Paul Young, C. Baxter Kruger, and most Eastern theologians).
If atonement means at-one-ment… rediscovering our union with God through the revelation of Jesus, it’s a great word, but the way it has become something like satisfying God’s wrath SO THAT he can forgive… nope. We’re better off sticking to the word reconciliation.
This leads to your second question: Were we ever really separated from God, and if not, why the need for reconciliation? We resolve it this way: our sin does not separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38) and God never turns away from any of us. In fact, the Luke 15 parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son(s) reveal that our God is in constant pursuit of us.
However… our turning away from God’s love does indeed lead us into a kind of estrangement… our unilateral rejection of and alienation from our relationship with our ever-loving Father. That means we can experience the estrangement as our own absence from the relationship. Therefore, we need to be reconciled to God, even though he who does not need to be reconciled with us. He’s all-in, all the time. We discover this truth in the person and mission and message of Jesus Christ. Namely, “The Father loves you! Come home! Be reconciled!”
And in fact, it’s better than that… the Shepherd isn’t just waiting for our return. The Father sends the Son to descend into the ditch, even into our lowest experiences of hell-on-earth, to find us and rescue us and take us home to the Father’s house. Our part is to say, “Yes. I’m coming,” which is the true nature of repentance: NOT self-loathing but rather, RE-turning to the kindness of God to meet our deepest needs and heal our deepest wounds. That reunion is how we experience salvation or eternal life, now and in the age to come.