Archives For Preaching a Better Atonement

Holy Week is nearing and again preachers and pew-sitters will be pondering the great Paschal mystery.

One thing on which the historic creeds of the Church keep silent is the Cross. The creeds name Jesus’ mother, single out Pontius Pilate for blame and cite forgiveness as one of the effects of Easter.

The creeds do not ever attempt to say exactly what happens on the Cross, what transpires between Christ and God or between God and us. The creeds do not supply or single out a ‘why’ to the Cross.

Much like the New Testament itself, the Church has spoken of the atonement (how Christ makes us at-one with God) in a variety of metaphors.

Today, however, contemporary Western Christianity has tended to privilege one understanding of the atonement to the exclusion of all the others: Jesus suffered the wrath of God meant for you.

There are other, better I think, ways of speaking and thinking about the Cross.

So in shameless self-promotion-

I encourage all of you who will be preaching or reflecting on the Cross these next weeks to download my eBook: Preaching a Better Atonement. 


In it, I try to unpack the various ways the Church has understood the work of Christ on the Cross and for each perspective I offer a few sermonic illustrations.

One fellow pastor in Virginia had this review, which is the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me:

“Better than anything Adam Hamilton or max lucado puts out.”

A review on Amazon scores it thus:

“It’s like a snarky, Italian Jon Stewart writing theology.

Fantastic introduction to atonement theories – i.e. what does the cross mean?

Incredible accessible, funny, poignant, but also theologically sound…

Perfect balance between serious theological study and lay understanding.”

Click here to buy it and I will send the proceeds on to the Guatemala Toilet Project.


imagesDeadly Sins and Atonement Theories are both on my mind and on the preaching docket this Lent.

This weekend I’ll have limited preaching time due to our Worship Through Service event, but I hope to give a few minutes to reflecting on how Wrath plays into our understanding of God and ourselves.

Spoiler: Jesus’ (the True Human) Wrath is most usually directed at mistreatment of the poor and marginalized.

I blame it on Dennis Perry, who gave me Aquinas to read as soon as I came to faith as a teenager, but I’ve always been troubled, theologically and intellectually, by the notion that salvation’s balance requires Jesus’ death to be paid to God.

Such a transaction- and that’s exactly the language used by proponents- posits a change in God’s disposition towards us because of Jesus’ suffering and death.

I’ve always found this problematic and partial because God, by (ancient) definition is immune to change.

God is not a god.

The God of ex nihilo fame is not a being within the universe. God is pure Essence. Perfect. Changeless. Eternal.

God, as John says, just is…LOVE.

God isn’t loving; God is LOVE with no potentiality. No room for any addition of anything. No cause, as the FIRST CAUSE, to be affected by anything.

God, for good and for ill, is not affected by us at all.

God just loves. Us. God’s creatures. Gratis. Just as we were created. Gratis. The gift never ceases to be given.

Which begs the question:

How is it possible that God is ‘offended’ by our Sin?

How is God’s mind, disposition or will changed by anything we do or don’t do?

The Bible speaks of God in the masculine, which we all recognize is an anthropomorphism made for communication’s sake.

Is it possible God’s anger, wrath, jealousy is also a necessary anthropomorphism made for very urgent, compelling reasons within the life of God’s People? To narrate their experience of the world and with God?

I understand the above will strike many as overly metaphysical, the oft-repeated if ill-informed indictment that metaphysics represents a Hellenization of the Biblical God. Understanding such a disagreement, I nonetheless assert that mine isn’t a solitary perspective but is one with at least half of Christian history behind it.

UnknownGiving articulation to that ancient Thomistic perspective is Herbert McCabe:

God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin.

So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but accepts our apology or agrees to overlook the insult.

What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re-creative and redemptive side of forgiveness.

All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God. We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

We can forgive enemies even though they do not apologize and are not contrite. But such forgiveness … does not help them, does not re-create them. In such forgiveness we are changed, we change from being vengeful to being forgiving, but our enemy does not change.

When it comes to God, however, it would make no sense to say he forgives the sinner without the sinner being contrite.For God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner.

God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God.

It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us.

We continued our Lenten sermon series, The 7 Deadlies & the 7 Ways Jesus Us, by looking at the disciples’ envy in Mark 10.35-45 and what’s sometimes called the Ransom Theory of the atonement.

You can listen to it here below or download it in iTunes. Better yet, get the free mobile app.

      1. 1 Cross & 3 Nails 4 Freedom - Jason Micheli

When it comes to the act of writing, writers sometimes have strange habits.

James Joyce wrote with a blue crayon on pieces of cardboard while wearing a white lab coat and lying down on his stomach. jamesjoyce_whitecoat


penn02Truman Capote could not write if there were more than 3 cigarettes in any nearby ashtray; meanwhile, while Stephen King forces himself to write 2,000 adverb-less words every day.


Ernest Hemingway, the author of A Farewell to Arms, bid adieu to his clothes every morning. He wrote completely naked and forbid anyone to return his clothes to him until he’d written his requisite number of words. ErnestHemingway


When it comes to the act of writing, writers can have odd habits.

I’m no Hemingway but when it comes to writing sermons my habit is to get up first thing in the morning, get right out of bed, go straight downstairs, put on a pot of coffee, sit down at the dining room table and immediately start writing.

     In my boxer shorts.

     And nothing else.

     It’s a habit I started in seminary and it’s served me well.

For the most part.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was busy writing my sermon.

As is my habit, I was sporting boxers and bed-head and nothing else. My wife and sons were gone, getting breakfast before going shopping.

I was alone, and I was writing and I was approaching that ethereal, Aha moment where I knew what I wanted to say and what I wanted the sermon to do when I heard a knock at my front door.

I got up from the table and I walked unsuspecting to the front door. I didn’t ask who it was. I didn’t look through the window to see.

I just assumed it was my wife and kids needing to be let inside. So without thinking (and without putting any clothes on) I opened the front door.

     Just so you can picture this in your mind’s eye:

     This is my front porch. photo

    photo copy

This is what I typically look like in the morning.

 And these are the boxers I had on on that particular morning. photo 2


And standing in front of me were 2 elderly women, African American, both of whom wore stern-looking glasses and had sterner-looking buns in their hair and were wearing long, mournful black coats.

     Assuming they were there to sell me some thing or some cause, I went into my standard evasive maneuvers: ‘Yo soy el señor Dennis Perry. No hablo Inglés. Sólo Español. Buen día.’

But I hadn’t rolled my ‘r’s’ properly on Perry. So they squinted at me, not buying it.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘my wife has the checkbook. I can’t buy whatever it is you’re selling.’

The lady at the top of my stoop widened her eyes and said ‘We’re not here to sell you anything, dear.’

And the woman on my bottom step said ‘Or you might say we’re selling the most important thing there is.’

As she spoke she opened up this fake leather Trapper Keeper and pulled out a piece of paper.

She handed me the paper and asked: ‘Did you know that if you died tomorrow there’s chance you could suffer eternal punishment in Hell?”

     I looked down at the piece of paper.

They were Jehovah’s Witnesses. images 9.36.08 PM

 ‘Did you know that if you died tomorrow there’s chance you could suffer eternal punishment in Hell?”

‘That’s funny,’ I said, ‘I was just thinking I must’ve died yesterday.’

‘What was that?’ the one on the top step asked.

‘Oh nothing, never mind.’

She adjusted her glasses, looked down at my boxers and then bent her eyebrows in to a frown. ‘You look cold so we’ll be quick. When was the last time you read the Holy Bible?’

‘Um, actually you just interrupted me.’

‘Oh really? So then you already know that Jesus Christ was punished for your sin so that you can leave this fallen world and go to heaven when you die?’

‘That’s 1 way of putting it I guess.’

‘1 way? Oh no honey, that’s the only way! That’s the Good News: God punished Jesus Christ in your place so you can be forgiven and go to heaven. It’s just like the signs say.’

‘What signs?’ I asked.

‘You know, the ones that say ‘1 Cross + 3 Nails…’

I finished the equation for her: ‘Equals 4-given?’ images 10.51.35 PM


If I were to ask you about the Cross, then you might say there’s only 1 way of putting it too. You might answer with the same sort of Jesus Equation:

God punished Jesus for you sin

so that God can forgive you

so that you can go to heaven when you die.

It’s not that that’s the wrong way of putting it.

It’s more like- if the question is how does Jesus save us on the cross, there’s more than one right answer.

The language we most often use about the cross- about Christ suffering for our sin- that’s just 1 way St. Paul has of speaking about the cross.

But, even more importantly, its not the language Jesus chose to use.

The meaning we so often give to Jesus’ death- it’s not the meaning Jesus himself ascribed to his approaching death.

Jesus knew he was going to die.

As soon as John the Baptist gets executed, Jesus had to know he would get killed too. And the closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the more he alludes to and predicts his Crucifixion.

You probably already knew that.

But you might not know that Jesus only makes sense of his death, he only uses scripture to reflect upon his death, he only interprets his death twice.

Just two times.

He does so at the Last Supper.

And before that, he does so here in Mark 10, when James and John, the sons of Zebedee, reveal just how captive they are to envying the world’s brand of power and glory.

An envy that quickly ensnares the other 10 disciples too.

     It’s their envy that provokes Jesus to tell them that he’ll give his life as a ransom for many.

      Last Supper.

     Ransom for many.

     Those are the 2 times Jesus interprets the meaning of own death, and both connect back to the Passover.

To the story of the Exodus.

The word ‘ransom’ Jesus uses- in Hebrew the word is ‘padah‘


‘Padah’ means release and rescue from captivity.

‘Padah’ in the Hebrew scriptures refers exclusively to God’s rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, to their exodus from suffering, to their liberation from bondage.

So what Christ says to the disciples about his life being a ransom for many is exactly what Christ says to them again at the Last Supper.

In both cases Jesus casts his death as a Passover. As an Exodus.

And that can only have one meaning.

For Jesus, his death will mean our deliverance from captivity.

His death will mean our freedom.

 If it was all about our guilt and sin, if it was only about Jesus suffering punishment so that could be forgiven and go to heaven, then why would Jesus interpret his death- why would Jesus schedule his death- light of Passover and not Yom Kippur?

After all, Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the day when the people’s sins are covered over by the blood of another.

Yom Kippur is the day when the guilt of your sin is taken off you and put on a scapegoat.

Yom Kippur is the day when your sins are washed white as snow and you’re forgiven.

But Passover-

     Passover’s not about forgiveness.

     Passover’s not about atonement or guilt or punishment.

     Passover’s about liberation from captivity.

     Passover’s about being ransomed into freedom.


The woman at the top of my stoop shot me a warm smile when I finished my Jesus Math for her: 1 Cross & 3 Nails = 4Given.

But I was cold. My aha moment- whatever it might’ve been- had vanished, and I was irritated.

So I said: ‘If that’s the only way of putting it, then how come Jesus never talked about it that way?’

Their countenance darkened.

The one on the bottom step said: ‘Honey, I’m not sure you know quite what you’re talking about.’

The other, the one on the top step added: ‘Maybe you’d like to talk to a pastor sometime?’

‘Actually…uh…I’m a pastor.’

And like IRS auditors, they examined the toothpastey drool  at the crook of my mouth and my polar bear boxers and, after an awkward silence, announced the obvious: ‘You don’t look like a man of the cloth.’

‘Yeah, I get that a lot.’

‘Well, since you’re a pastor,’ the one on the top stoop said after another awkward silence, ‘maybe you could give us some advice.’

‘What kind of advice?’

      ‘Going to door to door like this,’ she said, ‘so few people read the Bible. Do you have any advice for making Jesus seem relevant to people in their lives?‘

     And I thought about it and I said:

     ‘Maybe instead of treating Jesus like fire insurance for eternal life you should show people how Jesus frees us for this one.’

It could’ve been the polar bear boxers but what I’d said- I could tell- it didn’t compute.

Their polite but vacant expressions told me that what I’d said about Jesus made as much sense as saying that 1& 3 adds up to 5.


When Jesus uses a loaded, story-saturated word like ‘ransom’ about himself.

And when Jesus takes the Passover bread and says not ‘this is the body of the Passover’ but ‘this is my body.’

And when Jesus picks up the cup and says that the blood of the passover lamb is his own.

     He’s saying something very different from what we usually say

when we talk about the Cross.


When we talk about the Cross, we make it about escaping from this world.

But when Jesus talks about the Cross, he makes it about our rescue in this world.


When we talk about the Cross, we make it about going to heaven when we die.

But when Jesus talks about the Cross, he makes it about his dying so that we can live on earth as it is in heaven.


When we talk about the Cross, we make it about God’s forgiveness of our sin.

But when Jesus talks about the Cross, he makes it about God freeing us from Sin.

Freeing us not just for heaven but for the here and now.


When Jesus picks up the bread and the cup, when Jesus says his life will be a ransom for many, he’s telling his disciples that his death will be a New Exodus.


That just as Israel was set free and given a new identity and delivered to a promised place-

So too will we be set free from captivity

So too will we be given a new identity

So too will be delivered to a whole new place in life

A place where will live the promised Kingdom in the present.

When Jesus picks up the bread and the cup, when he says his life will be a ransom for many, he’s telling us that just like Israel in the Exodus, God rescues us not to wait around for another world but so that we can be a light to this world.

That’s why the Gospels, go out of their way to tell you:

That Jesus was without sin and was innocent of the charges against him- just as the Passover lamb is to be perfect and without blemish.


That Jesus was flogged before he was crucified- just as the Passover lamb is to be bled before it is hung.


That Jesus’ bones, despite the soldiers’ intentions, were not broken- just as the Passover lamb’s bones are not to be broken.


And it’s why the Gospels tell you that darkness covered Jerusalem for 3 hours as Jesus died- just as darkness stretched across Egypt for 3 days before God freed his people.


It’s why the Gospels tell you that when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side, water rushed out just as God led Israel to freedom through the Sea.


     The Gospels want you to see that the cross isn’t just your ticket to heaven or hell.

     It’s your exodus to a new life.


A friend of mine found out what I’d planned to preach today, and she asked me if I’d share part of her story.

And I said no.

I said ‘no, why don’t you share your story.

So here it is. I only wish I’d had this to play when the Jehovah’s Witnesses asked me for advice on making God relevant in people’s lives:

      2. Set Free~ Clip from 2nd Lent Sermon


Did you hear what led to her being a prisoner to addiction?

     Not liking herself.

Not thinking she was good enough.

Wanting to be someone, anyone, else.

What the Church calls envy. The first sin of the fallen world.

And did you catch what words she used to describe her addiction?

     Life Sentence.


     From Bondage into Blessing to be a Blessing.


It’s not on the recording but at one point she told me that her Rescue wasn’t something anyone could do for her. And it wasn’t anything she could do by herself.

     Rescue, she said, is what God does.

     It’s what God does.


When we talk about the Cross, what we so often miss is that sin isn’t just something we commit.

Just like the Israelites in Egypt, just like the Jews under Rome, sin is something that captures us.

Sin isn’t just something we’re guilty of; it’s also something that binds us.

And so it isn’t just something we need to be forgiven of.

Just as much- if not more- it’s something we need to be freed from.

ALG195548When Jesus talks about the Cross, Jesus chooses Passover- not Yom Kippur– because Jesus wants you to look at the Cross and see that God is in the rescue business.

When Jesus talks about the Cross, he doesn’t say ‘This is my body…this is my blood’ so that you’ll come up to the communion table with grim faces and remember a punishment that should’ve been yours. No.

Jesus says ‘This is my body…this is my blood’ so that you’ll march up here, joyful, like Pharaoh’s army just got swallowed up by the sea.

And your chains?

They’re broken.

When Jesus talks about the Cross he says ‘I’m your Passover’ because the good news of the cross is that you have been set free.

From whatever binds you.

That means- for Jesus, salvation isn’t something you wait for until after you die.

Salvation is here and now.

    Salvation is people in bondage being rescued by God and delivered to a new place in their lives.

And just ask my friend- that journey isn’t easy and it might take as long as Israel wandered in the wilderness after the First Exodus, but it doesn’t mean you’re not free today.

You see when we talk about the Cross we get the math all wrong.

     We say the equation is 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4Given. 

But Jesus-

     When Jesus talks about his Death, it’s 1 Cross & 3 Nails 4Freedom.


imagesHerbert McCabe was a 20th century theologian who deserves to be rediscovered. McCabe was a Dominican who brought an Irishman’s clear, vibrant prose to the Church’s greatest of teachers: Thomas Aquinas.

Here’s an excerpt on the atonement:


What does the death of Jesus have to do with us? Why is it important to us?

One such answer, which has been very influential in the past, is that by his death Jesus paid the penalty for the sins of the world. The idea, I’m sure you will remember, is that sin had offended God and since God himself is infinite such an offense has a kind of infinity about it. It was not within our power to restore the balance of justice by any recompense we could pay to God.

So God the Son became man so that by his suffering and death he could pay the price of sin.

This seems to be based on the idea of punishment as a kind of payment, a repayment; the criminal undergoing punishment ‘to pay his debt to society,’ as we say. It takes a divine man, however, to pay our debt to divine justice.

Now, I can make no literal sense of this idea, whether you apply it criminals or to Christ.

I cannot see how a man in prison is paying a debt to society or paying anything else at all to society. On the contrary, it is rather expensive to keep him there…It is impossible to see Christ hanging on the cross as literally engaged either in making restitution or in serving as a warning to others.

If God will not forgive us until his Son has been tortured to death for us then God is a lot less forgiving than even we are sometimes.

If society feels itself somehow compensated for its loss by the satisfaction of watching the sufferings of a criminal, then society is being vengeful in a pretty infantile way.

And if God is satisfied and compensated for sin by the suffering of mankind in Christ, God must be even more infantile.

As St Thomas says, satisfactio really means restitution or ‘paying damages.’ Unknown

It is indeed true that we could not afford to pay damages to God, but it is also true that such payment could not be needed for plainly God cannot be damaged by my sin.


When it comes to understanding the atonement, how Jesus saves us and makes us ‘at-one’ with God the Father, it all comes down to the conjunctions.

For example:

Does Jesus die for us?
As in, does Jesus die in our place? As a substitute for you and me?

Or does Jesus die because of us?
As in, is death on a cross the inevitable conclusion to the way he lived his life? Does Jesus die because our sinful lust for power, wealth and violence kills him? As though our world has no other reaction to a life God desires than to eliminate it?

Does Jesus die in order to destroy Death and Sin?
As in, does Jesus let the powers of Sin and Death do their worst so that, in triumphing over them, he shatters their power forever?

Does Jesus die with us?

As in, does Jesus suffer death as the completion of his incarnation? Is death the last experience left for God to be one of us, in the flesh?

Was it necessary for Jesus to die?

Or was his incarnation, his taking our nature and living it perfectly, redemptive in itself?

Did Jesus have to die on a cross?
If the conclusion to incarnation had been for Jesus to die as an old man of natural causes, would we still be saved?

How does the history of and covenant with Israel fit into the salvation worked by Christ?

And how does Easter relate to Good Friday?

The Christian tradition and scripture itself offers many more vantage points on the mystery of the cross than the standard, unexamined ‘Jesus died for you’ platitudes you hear so often in the pulpits.

Check out the ebook for Lent, Preaching a Better Atonement. In it, I take a look at some of the Church’s historic understandings of the atonement and offer a few examples of what it looks like to preach that particular angle on the Good News. All any proceeds will go towards the Guatemala Toilet Project.