Saturday, May 15, 2004

The Limited Atonement and the Sacraments 

It seems to me that the importance of the question of the limited atonement in many Reformed circles is primarily a result of our etherealizing of salvation. Terms like 'sanctification', 'adoption', 'election', 'justification' and even 'salvation' itself drift like clouds above our heads, diaphanous and abstract. They have become mere concepts divorced from the narrative of Jesus Christ and Israel. Studying Scripture, however, one is continually struck by the foundational nature of the narrative. By Baptism and the Lord's Supper our stories take living root within the story of Jesus Christ. Justification, sanctification, adoption, election, etc. are all ways of talking about the story of which we have been made a part. Stanley Hauerwas writes:—
For the language of "sanctification" and "justification" is not meant to be descriptive of a status. Indeed, part of the problem with those terms is that they are abstractions. When they are separated from Jesus' life and death, they distort Christian life. "Sanctification" is but a way of reminding us of the kind of journey we must undertake if we are to make the story of Jesus our story. "Justification" is but a reminder of the character of that story—namely, what God has done for us by providing us with a path to follow.
I feel that Hauerwas is on the right track here. We need to 'earth' salvation once again. It is interesting to observe the manner in which many people treat certain passages in the New Testament that speak of such things as the manner in which the atonement brings together Jews and Gentiles in the Church. One gets the impression that some commentators don't feel that this is quite 'spiritual' enough and so, in many treatments of the subject of the atonement the issue is largely overlooked. Again, the idea that justification in such places as Galatians might be about something as mundane as table fellowship offends many people’s theological sensibilities. Were we more prepared to think of God’s grace to us in more concrete, visible and tangible terms we might be better able to understand such subjects as the limited atonement. What did the cross of Jesus Christ achieve? What are the blessings of the atonement? The Church is God’s new dwelling place that is built on the foundation of the victory that was achieved at Calvary. As a result of Christ’s victory on the cross we are able to become members of the Christian colony in Baptism and be those who act as His ambassadors within the world. As a result of the atonement, the exile is over and we have God dwelling in our midst. We know His presence as He proclaims forgiveness of sins to us through His ministers, speaks to us through the preached Word, feeds us at His table, transforms us daily into His likeness and uses us as His agents to spread His salvation. As a result of the atonement we can know deliverance from the old dying world, redeemed like the slaves were from Egypt through the waters of Baptism. The new world that the atonement creates is one in which the structures of the old order are done away with. In the new social order created by Baptism, the exclusion created by the old order of circumcision/uncircumcision is replaced by an order in which all can eat at the table of the Lord. The atonement brings us together as community and does away with those things that used to stand between us, just as it does away with the sin that used to stand between us and God. As a result of the atonement we can drink the sabbatical wine in God’s presence and have a foretaste of the final consummation. The atonement enables us to present our world as a pleasing Eucharistic offering to God in Christ and gives our vocations new significance. The atonement makes it possible for us to know the gift of worship. Much more could be said. However, my point is that the blessings of the atonement are rooted in what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ, a people formed by grace. We know salvation as we are made part of this redeemed people in its historical life and live in fidelity to Jesus Christ who founded the community by His work and now leads us by His Holy Spirit. We know salvation as we are buried with Him in Baptism and feed on Him in the Supper. We know salvation as He comforts us from His Word and as He absolves us of our sin. If we root the blessings of the atonement and salvation primarily in the practices that constitute the Church, the question of ‘who did Christ die for?’ will hardly even enter our heads. It is only when we have conceived of the blessings of the atonement as abstract and invisible that we will struggle with such questions. In the past I have wondered why Calvin did not say an awful lot about the extent of the atonement when it seems to be the be all and end all for many of his followers. The more that I have thought about it the more I wonder whether it is because Calvin’s teaching on the extent of the atonement is found in such places as his doctrine of the sacraments and ecclesiology. Perhaps it is true to say that a preoccupation with the extent of the atonement is the flipside of a low view of the sacraments. This may be way off — it is a good few hours past my bedtime and I might not be thinking very clearly — but it seems to make some sense to me at the moment. I would be interested to hear other people's thoughts on the issue.

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