1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 3 “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars; I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.” 4 But what is the divine reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, “God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”
9 And David says, “Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; 10 let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and keep their backs forever bent.”
Pastor Henry was a young, brand new pastor. He was scheduled to hold his first ever graveside burial service at a the local cemetery for a destitute man, who left behind no family or friends. Not knowing quite where the cemetery was, Pastor Henry made several wrong turns and got lost. He eventually arrived an hour late; the hearse was nowhere in sight, but the shovel was lying next to the open hole, and the workmen were sitting under a tree eating lunch.
Pastor Henry walked up to the open grave and found the lid of the concrete vault already in place. Feeling guilty because of his lateness, he preached an impassioned and lengthy sermon, sending the deceased to the great beyond in considerable style. Afterward, as this young minister walked back to his car feeling quite proud of himself, he overheard one of the workmen say to the other, “Wow! You know, I’ve been putting in septic tanks for twenty-five years, and I ain’t never seen nothing like that before.”
Sometimes the work we do in this world is well-executed, powerful, and right on point…but for one reason or another does not reach its intended recipient. That, in a nutshell, is today’s message about the doctrine of Limited Atonement.
This doctrine, the third in the five points of Calvinism, is perhaps the most controversial. If you ever hear someone refer to him or herself as a “four point Calvinist,” usually it means that person accepts all of the other doctrines except this one. This one doctrine is what separates Reformed Presbyterians from Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Roman Catholics, among others–and I even know quite a few Presbyterian pastors who struggle to embrace Calvin’s views here.
Considering the misguided way in which the doctrine of Limited Atonement is most often explained, I’m not surprised it’s so unpopular. But in our culture today, we have an unfortunate tendency toward 15-second sound-byte explanations and knee-jerk reactions, so I’m going to ask you to suspend judgment for just a moment while I try to paint a fuller picture, and then you can make your own decision as to what you believe.
I’m going to start with what I think is the incorrect, misguided, but commonly accepted version of this doctrine. Then I’m going to move more in the direction of what Calvin and his followers actually intended, for better or worse, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Finally, I’m going to propose a way of understanding Limited Atonement today–one that breaks somewhat with traditional Calvinism, but honors its methodology and logic, and brings it into a 21st century, scientific view of the world.
So. Limited Atonement. I think we all understand what “limited” means, but what about atonement? The Oxford English Dictionary defines atonement as “The action of making amends for a wrong or injury.” That is an absolutely horrible distortion of the word’s original meaning…but fair enough when it comes to the way it is commonly used today.
Now the central premise in most Christian theology (Calvinist or otherwise) is that the sacrifice and death of Jesus on the cross somehow fundamentally changed the relationship between God and humankind, atoning for all of our wrongs and making us right with God. Limited atonement, then (the way it is commonly MISunderstood) is the idea that this sacrifice, this atonement is, well…limited. Jesus only died for “some” people–those whom God predestined or chose before the foundation of the world…and no others.
There’s even a song that’s used to poke fun at Presbyterians because of this: “Jesus loves predestined children, only predestined children of the world; No, not you, or you, or you, Jesus only loves a few, Jesus loves predestined children of the world!”
You can see, I’m sure, why this view of limited atonement (and hence, predestination) is unpopular. But it’s also pretty misguided, and not at all what Calvin and early Calvinists advocated.
They firmly believed that Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross was more than sufficient to cover the sins of all humanity. But they also looked at the world around themselves, and realized that not everyone embraced or accepted this sacrifice.
Some later theologians (and many Christians today) argued that that was the result of individual freedom of choice–God wants everyone to be saved, but (like a cosmic gentleman) does not force himself upon us; he respects our choice one way or another.
Calvin and the early Calvinists rejected that view specifically because of countless verses in the Bible where they read that God himself “hardened the hearts” of individuals. Verse 8 of today’s passage: “GOD gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.”
They believed that if you, as an individual, had to do something, if you had to “choose” God in order for your salvation to happen, then God’s salvation was no longer truly unconditional; there were strings attached (remember last week’s doctrine of unconditional election).
There’s a story that I think illustrates this beautifully. Some of you may be old enough to remember folk singer Arlo Guthrie, and his famous 1967 song, Alice’s Restaurant, which was later turned into a film by the same name.
The song tells the story of how Guthrie and some friends were taken to court for littering in the small town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The arresting officer, Officer Obie, was enthusiastic about the case since it was, in the words of the song, “the biggest crime of the last 50 years” in such a small town. To prosecute the case, Officer Obie assembled a massive body of evidence, including plaster tire tracks, footprints, “twenty-seven 8 x 10 colored glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one . . . pictures of the approach, the getaway, the northwest corner, the southwest corner . . . not to mention the aerial photography!”
On the day of the court case, the judge walked in…accompanied by a seeing eye dog. Guthrie says that Officer Obie “looked at the seein’ eye dog . . . and then at the twenty-seven 8 x 10 colored glossy pictures . . . and then at the seeing eye dog . . . and Officer Obie began to cry.” Guthries goes on to say that this was truly a case of how in America, justice is blind.
The point for us is that, in the end, it did not matter how accurate, comprehensive, and thorough Officer Obie’s preparation was…it was simply not EFFECTIVE for its intended recipient. And it wasn’t because the judge “chose” of his own accord to disregard the evidence. Through forces beyond his ability to control, he was simply unable to see it, and therefore, for him, it was ineffective.
In the same way, according to classic Calvinism, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is not limited in its scope or power. It is limited…in its effectiveness–and not because of our individual choice, or any limitations on God’s part, but for reasons beyond our ability to control or even fully understand.
My friend and mentor, Rev. Bill Schlesinger, explains limited atonement this way: “Not everyone gets it.” Not because they’re stupid. Not because they’re stubborn. Not because they’re bad. Everyone comes from a different context, is formed by a different set of experiences and circumstances, has different perspectives…and different blind spots. And so not everyone is able, in the end, to “get it.”
Incidentally, lest you set yourself up in judgment, it’s probably safer (when it doubt) to assume that in fact YOU are the one who doesn’t get it. I’m reminded of the story about the man driving home from work one day, when his wife calls him on his cell phone and says, “Honey, please be careful. There was a story on the news just now–some lunatic is driving the wrong way down the highway.” “Oh it’s worse than that,” the husband replies, “there are hundreds of them!”
Now, I said at the beginning of today’s message that the central premise in Christian theology is that the sacrifice and death of Jesus on the cross somehow fundamentally changed the relationship between God and humankind, “atoning” for all of our wrongs and making us right with God. But how exactly does the death of an innocent man who died 2,000 years ago have any effect on the lives of not-so-innocent people today, or in any century? What are the “mechanics” of atonement? How does it work? Is it magic? Is it logic? There are countless theories about how atonement works, most of them using some kind of metaphor or another.
John Calvin was, by training, a lawyer. And so he envisioned the plight of humanity as it might play out in a courtroom, with God as the judge, and mankind as the defendant, accused of breaking God’s law. Mankind is clearly guilty of this, and the punishment (for whatever reason) is death. Medieval law established a value, or price for the life of every individual–a different price for a slave, for a landowner, for a nobleman. In a court of law, that price could be paid in substitution for a death sentence…OR…an individual whose life was of equal value (a brother, a father, a friend) could offer to stand in place of the guilty party and take the punishment instead.
For Calvin and the Reformers, this is precisely what Jesus did. His life, being perfect, was equal to or greater than the lives of all humanity, and therefore his voluntary death substituted for the death sentence we would have otherwise received. It’s a pretty convincing metaphor.
But sometimes, I think that in modern Christianity, we forget that it is, at the end of the day, JUST a metaphor. There is, in fact, no divine courtroom as we might recognize it. God is not, in fact, a judge with a gavel, sitting on a bench wearing a black robe. And the medieval laws that so influenced the Reformers are now 500 years out of practice, off the books, no longer reflective of our justice systems or even our modern conception of what is just and fair.
So I think that today, more than ever, we are in need of a new metaphor for atonement; a new way to explain and understand just why exactly the death of a man who lived 2,000 years ago can (and should) have any impact on our lives today. So here’s where I have a suggestion: The metaphor that makes the most sense to me comes from a very recent phenomenon, facilitated by the internet and the rise of social media. It’s called the meme: M-E-M-E. Meme.
A meme is an idea, an image, a video, a quote, that gets passed from person to person around the internet, gaining traction and going VIRAL, eventually influencing larger and larger segments of the population. Chances are all of you have, at some point or another, forwarded a clever email or shared a Facebook post with all your friends and acquaintances. Maybe it was something cute, or funny, or inspirational, or deeply meaningful. Something within you was moved, and felt compelled to share it with the people you love. If so, congratulations: You have participated in a meme.
But how can a meme be a metaphor for atonement? I would contend that the story of Jesus–not just his death, but his life, his teachings, his compassion for others, and ultimately the sacrifice all that for the sake of others–this is truly the greatest story ever told. It was passed on by his followers, and then by artists, musicians, writers, poets, theologians, and philosophers. It would not have spread so far, so wide, so thoroughly, if it were not the most powerful, most viral MEME in human history.
Not only did it spread (long before the advent of the internet and social media) but it also visibly influenced the entire world–sometimes (admittedly) in negative ways, but most often for good, toward the ideals of self-sacrifice, caring for the poor, loving one’s neighbor, turning the other cheek, striving for peace, compassion, and human dignity. Other stories and other religions have certainly carried their share of similar influence, but few with as much effectiveness as the story of Jesus, the humble carpenter from Galilee. It’s a good meme.
Ironically, the term “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins, a well-known atheist and student of Darwinian evolution. He first used the idea of the meme as a cultural analog to the replication and spread of genes and genetic information in biology. Ideas, in essence, EVOLVE, spread, fight for survival, and ultimately improve humanity over time in the same way as natural selection.
The ideals that we as Christians espouse–self-sacrifice, love, peace, compassion–continue to grow and spread in every generation (and I truly believe that we are getting better and better, not worse and worse). BUT…in every generation, there continue to be those who just don’t get it. Hence, “limited” atonement. Fortunately, that limitation grows smaller and smaller with every passing generation as we evolve, grow, and learn.
By the way, I also said at the beginning of today’s message that the current definition of atonement was a horrible distortion of the word’s original meaning. What was the original meaning of atonement? Look at the word itself. At – one – ment. Or, the process of becoming at one with God, with each other, with the universe. At-one-ment. Unification. Reconciliation. I believe this is what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of the “Kingdom of God.” Or more specifically, what Jesus meant in one of his final prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane, when read in John 17:20-23:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
People of First Presbyterian Church: As we evolve, as we grow in understanding of each other and of the world around us, we grow closer together, closer to the dream and vision of the carpenter from Galilee. Our atonement, our at-one-ment, our one-ness, is still quite limited today. But the atoning hope, the promise, the potential contained within the seeds of our story, our meme, as it continues to grow and spread throughout the world, is truly…limitless. Thanks be to God.