Using the Atonement “Putter”

Using the Atonement “Putter”

I am no expert on N. T. Wright’s theology, but I know enough to reject those charges of his critics that he is weak on “the substitutionary atonement.”  Here is the clincher for me, from one of his meditations in The Crown and the Fire: “Jesus, the innocent one, was drawing on to himself the holy wrath of God against human sin in general, so that human sinners like you and me can find, as we look at the cross, that the load of sin and guilt we have been carrying is taken away from us.”

To be sure, Wright has also been calling us to think more expansively about the atoning work of Christ. But he has never advocated doing away with substitution as an essential feature of Christ’s redemptive mission.

The more expansive context is nicely captured by Scot McKnight’s helpful golf clubs image. We need several clubs to play a good game of golf, McKnight observes, and the putter is one of many. But the putter is typically necessary to get the ball in the hole.

One of my colleagues responded to that image in a way that I found helpful. He pointed out that sometimes a golfer does make a hole-in-one, without the aid of a putter. And he observed that some folks in Young Life have reported that there are teenagers who have been brought to Christ by a strong emphasis on the Christus Victor theme. Kids into “Goth, “ vampires, witchcraft and the like often respond most positively to the idea that the powers of evil have been conquered by Christ’s encounter on the Cross with “the principalities and powers.”

A point well taken. But still, holes-in-one are not common occurrences. Normally, the use of the putter is necessary. It’s just one of the clubs, to be sure. But an important one.

Here’s my worry about contemporary talk, especially among some younger evangelicals, about atonement theory. They rightly say that the atonement is more than substitution. But they often proceed then as if it were less than substitution.

I was at a conference a while back where a younger preacher said rather forcefully that he seldom mentions the substitutionary work of Christ anymore in his sermons. Instead, he talks about how Christ encountered “the Powers” of consumerism, militarism, racism, super-patriotism and the like.  I left that conference troubled in my soul. I was driving a rental car to another city, and I turned on the radio which, as it happened, was tuned to “Christian radio.” I was about to search for NPR when I decided to stay tuned to the recording of a man who was telling his story to a group of fellow business folks. I’m glad I listened.

The man told about a time when he was increasingly successful in his business dealings, while increasingly dissolute in his personal lifestyle: drinking heavily, unfaithful to his wife, distant from his children, his marriage headed toward divorce. His wife and daughters were active in church life, but he never attended.

One Saturday evening, after he had downed several martinis, his 10-year-old daughter came to him and pleaded with him to come to church the next morning—she was part of a singing group that would have a role in the service. He reluctantly agreed—something he greatly regretted the next morning when he awoke hung over. But to church he went.

In his testimony he then described what he heard for the first time in his life in the sermon that morning: that he was a guilty sinner who needed salvation, and that Jesus had taken his sin and guilt upon himself on the Cross of Calvary. Weeping, the man said, he pleaded with God to take away his burden of shame, and from that point on his life took a new direction.

I’m glad the preacher had a putter in his theological golf bag that morning. The other clubs are, to be sure, important. But this is the one that made all the difference on that occasion. I hear a lot of creative stuff these days about Christ’s non-violent suffering, his incarnational love—again, all good and proper. But I find myself also listening for the theme that assures me that the whole story of atonement is being told: that I can say as a guilty sinner that “my sin, not in part, but the whole//is nailed to the Cross and I bear it no more.”


  1. Amen! to what you say, that the atonement must not be viewed as less than substitution; indeed, it cannot be less. Dr Roger Nicole taught us at Gordon-Conwell that all other theories of the atonement depend on substitution for their meaning. Take away substitution, and all of the others fall apart.

    Comment by Rev Dr G Thomas Hobson — July 29, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

  2. Helpful, indeed. But the question that comes into my mind is – “Are there ‘holes-in-one’ with respect to the atonement?”

    I’m one of those “younger evangelicals” (actually, believe it or not, a fundamentalist) and always looking to increase my accuracy in communicating these truths.

    At the risk of over-simplification, with there being no other name given among men whereby we must be saved, are there “hole-in-one” opportunities for humanity outside the substitutionary atonement. And if so, how many other clubs can we “score” with – wedge, driver, irons, etc.?

    If I’m beside the point, missing the point, or simply completely off in the weeds somewhere (or in the rough) :-) – please advise. I’m thinking the issue keeps coming back to “wiggle-room” – and maintaining the lack thereof with respect to “John 14.6″ exclusivity of the means of salvation.

    Comment by Chris Melvin — July 30, 2010 @ 9:23 am

  3. Theology is critically important and a worthy topic of study and discussion. Still, young evangelicals, goths, etc. are not saved by our theology but by Jesus.

    Substitution is real as is the guilt and weight of sin in the world and in us that pollutes, wrecks, defiles and destroys people, relationships and everything in the world. Yes, we need a victor (who will rescue us?) but we also are part of the problem (rebels who have found ourselves on the wrong side of the rebellion in need of a forgiving king). If we understood sin better and our fallen nature, we wouldn’t have an issue with the atonement.

    Comment by Mark Sequeira — July 30, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

  4. Chris,
    I don’t think Dr. Mouw is saying that there are other ways to salvation–surely not. What he is referring to are differing atonement theories–that is, theories about what Christ accomplish on the cross. So, I think what Dr. Mouw is affirming is substitutionary atonement as well as Christus Victor (the conquering of the principalities and powers), the moral influence theory, and etc. In all of these, and there are a lot of them, Christ is exclusively the means to salvation.

    Comment by Andrew esqueda — July 30, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

  5. […] illustrious president, Dr. Richard Mouw, has a blog entitled “Mouw’s Musings.” This week’s post celebrates the variety of theological and evangelistic approaches of […]

    Pingback by The Masterful Muser Mouw « The Burner — July 30, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

  6. Yet Green and Baker bluntly state that the atonement did not involve the Father laying the punishment for our sin on Christ (Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, 113). Green is greatly revered at Fuller. Should he not be corrected harshly? I wonder if Mouw’s chapel sermon in which he threw a bone to the Mormons for their idea that “the cross was not enough” reflects his willingness to budge on the the meaning of the cross for the sake of superficial peace.

    Comment by Bill Bradley — July 31, 2010 @ 12:53 pm

  7. At a time when I was wrestling with atonement issues, I heard Dr. Mouw say, “I believe in substitution; but not when it pits the Father against the Son.” This helped me to recognize that substitution—not in the sense that God somehow had a need that had to be fulfilled by the death of an innocent “other”—pointed to the recognition that Jesus stood in the place of Israel, and ultimately in the place of the world, as one who would willingly die as God incarnate. And he would do so in order to do for Israel and the world what they could not do for themselves.

    In my view, Green and Baker do the church a major service by helping us to see that our theories of the atonement are extrapolations emerging out of our doctrine of the atonement: That Jesus indeed was born, lived, suffered, died, rose, and ascended. It is the doctrine that stands as a non-negotiable in the faith, not our metaphors.

    Comment by Mike McNichols — August 17, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

  8. Joel Green and Mark Baker’s book denies penal substitution as a theological construct of a Western guilt-based culture. (In particular, they go after Charles Hodge’s view of penal substitution, and even criticize Anselm’s satisfaction theory). The book is good at describing other dimensions of the atonement, but it throws the baby out with the bath water.

    It was required reading in my Systematics II class at Fuller, and the class was taught by an Orthodox professor who also denied penal substitution.

    Comment by Don L. — August 19, 2010 @ 5:24 pm

  9. “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom 2:13
    “For when there is a change of the priesthood, there is made of NECESSITY a change also of the law.” Heb. 7:12
    The fact is Mouw that by Jesus’ crucifixion being the sin of murder caused by bloodshed it has atoned for an addition to the law. Your salvation from the law’s penalty is predicated upon obeying this particular law exactly as it specifies or a law of God is disobeyed for which no remedy exists.

    Comment by Theodore A. Jones — November 9, 2010 @ 3:46 pm

  10. […] love the way Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, summarizes this in an excellent article he recently posted: Here’s […]

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