“Arms Wide Open”
March 18, 2007 - Fourth Sunday in Lent
The Atonement as Demonstration
“Atonement” is reconciliation between two or more persons. The root of the word is the combination “at-one.” The Atonement of Jesus Christ demonstrates how God seeks us to be reconciled to Him. The atoning work of Christ’s death and resurrection is a demonstration of the amazing love of God which draws us back into relationship with Him (see Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us…”).
Abelard, a theologian from the middle ages, is the name most associated with the Demonstration view of the Atonement. His view is sometimes called the “example theory,” that is, Jesus’ sacrifice of Himself in love is an example for us to follow. But the Demonstration view sees the Cross as much more than a moral example. What Jesus did for us communicates God’s love in such a way that we are changed by that love. As we witness God’s demonstration of infinite love, our sin is taken away and we begin to be new people, transformed by His sacrificial love.
Our own Covenant history has a Swedish theologian named Paul Peter Waldenström, who taught something like an Abelardian theory of the Atonement. Contrary to what may be implied in the Satisfaction view, Waldenström argued that the change which occurs through Christ is not a change in the way God sees us. God does not need to be satisfied, appeased, or reconciled to us. He always loves us. The change wrought by the Cross turns us toward God and reconciles us to Him. Atonement changes us, not God.
Waldenström’s belief in God’s constant love was certainly correct. He based his view on the fact that nowhere in Scripture could he find any mention of God’s reconciliation to us, only of our reconciliation to God. In a fashion that became the hallmark of Covenant doctrine, he asked the question, “Where is it written?” What he found written about reconciliation was that the death and resurrection of Jesus was all about changing you and me, not changing God so that He could love us. We experience wrath from God only because we have not been reconciled, not because God wants to be wrathful toward us.
So this early Covenant view of the Atonement teaches that God’s grace and love are given freely. God does not need to be appeased or bribed for His grace, especially not by the blood of His own Son. The sacrifice of Jesus demonstrates in an overwhelming way that God wants us to be reconciled to Him, to turn to Him in faith and have our sins taken away.
The one caution for the Demonstration view is that it might suggest that the “work” of the Atonement comes from our side, that we are saved by responding well to God’s demonstration of love in Jesus. The transformation in us is our doing. But that is not at all what Abelard or Waldenström meant. They mean us to see that so much divine love is poured out in Christ’s sacrifice that we are changed by that Love. The Atonement is still very much the work of God which we receive by faith in Jesus Christ and what He has done.
You probably know the story I just read. You may know it too well. It is one of the most wonderful stories ever told. It is told often. We read it to little children. We sometimes pray for it to be lived out when those children are in their teens. Everyone growing up in the church hears it over and over. Even without a church background, you may have heard of the prodigal son.
It’s a true story. Jesus made it true. His Cross and Resurrection were God’s way of doing what the father does in the story. When Jesus died and rose, it was God’s way of coming out to welcome His lost children home. The arms of Jesus spread out on the Cross are the arms of God Himself wide open to embrace every lost child who comes to Him.
Jesus told this story to teach us about God’s grace and acceptance. I can’t think of any better way to do it. So I will tell a story like His It’s certainly not as good, and it’s really just a re-make of His, but I hope it will help you take a fresh look at what Jesus said.
There was a man who had two sons. He was a golf-pro named Pat. Pat lived half his life on the course and he loved the game. And he did his best to instill his love of golf into his two sons. When they were five years old he bought them each a tiny set of custom clubs. He bought them lessons from another pro. Pat loved golf and he loved his sons. His greatest joy was watching them play.
But neither of Pat’s sons, let’s call them Arnie and Nick, became professional golfers. Arnie went into law, and Nick, well, Nick never quite got through college. He just kind of drifted and drank too much. Arnie kept up with his game, but Nick let it all go when he left home. That is, until his dad’s 75th birthday.
Pat had been retired from professional golf for awhile. He was having trouble with arthritis, so it had been a few years since he had swung a club. As his birthday approached, his sons got together and talked about what to do for the old man that would be special. What present would truly make him happy?
Pat already had the best clubs money could buy. And he had enough golf knickknacks, tie tacks and money clips to fill a barn. Finally, Arnie looked at Nick and said, “Dad always liked to watch us play. Why don’t we just take him out and play a round together?” Nick didn’t like the idea much, but couldn’t come up with a better idea, so he went home to dig around in a closet and find his clubs.
Morning was splendid when they met at the country club course, the best course in town. The sun was shining, but with a gentle cool breeze. The grass was brilliant green. Pat took to the outing right away. He was squeezed in between his sons in the golf cart with a huge smile on his face. He was raring to go and there was a little spring in his step as they got out at the first hole, a 3 par with only a small water hazard. He looked at his sons and said, “Give me the scorecard, I’ll take care of that and the two of you just have fun!”
Arnie encouraged Nick to tee-off first, with all the warm-up swings he wanted. He grinned as he watched his brother’s weak, unpracticed stroke. The grin broke a little when Nick put the ball down, got set, and managed a good, strong straight drive for about 200 yards. But Arnie took a couple picture-perfect warm-up swings and then shot his drive past Nick’s, right to the edge of the green.
They climbed in the cart and headed for the hole. Nick had a short, easy pitch to the green. Dad pulled the flag and held it as Nick sank a medium distance putt for a nice par score for that hole. Arnie’s putt was twice as long and it broke wrong, so he needed another stroke to also finish with a par. Pat scribbled on the scorecard and they all headed for the next hole. Nick pulled out a beer to celebrate how well he had started out.
That was about the last chance Nick had to celebrate. He hadn’t played in a long time. He sliced the next drive right into the sand and couldn’t seem to find the right club to get it out. His strokes started mounting up. On the third hole, he overcorrected his drive and hooked the ball right into the pond. It wasn’t the last ball he would lose that day.
Meanwhile, brother Arnie got into his rhythm and played an excellent, consistent game. He always chose the right club. The one time he misjudged a drive and landed in the sand he was out with one stroke and still managed to finish it one over par. After each hole their father would mark on the scorecard, and they would move on.
Nick got more and more frustrated. He lost 7 or 8 balls — he quit counting — and that first hole was the last time he even came close to par. He couldn’t hit anything right and missed even easy chips and putts. To drown his frustration, about every other hole he opened another beer. His game went downhill fast.
Arnie’s game got better and better. Pleased to be making his father proud, he played a personal best. He birdied the 10th hole and made it look easy. He was enjoying himself. He showed off every skill and trick his father had taught him. It all came together in this game. He was headed for a score in the high seventies.
The game went on, with Arnie playing brilliantly and Nick getting worse and worse. Pat just kept smiling and watching his two sons and marking the scorecard.
Nick heckled Arnie whenever he got up to drive. But the pressure just made him play better. Near the end, Nick gave up. On the sixteenth hole, he drove a tremendous divot about 5 yards and missed the ball completely. When Arnie snickered, that was it. Nick threw his club out in the lake, grabbed the last beer, and stalked off to wait for Arnie and dad to finish.
Arnie’s game was amazing. He aced the sixteenth hole, eagled the seventeenth and got another birdie on the last one. Trembling, he sank one last long beautiful putt. He looked up at his dad, just standing there smiling and writing on the scorecard. He went over and shook his dad’s hand and said, “Dad, that was the best game I ever shot in my life and the credit is all yours. You taught me everything I know and I just want you to know how proud I am to be your son.” Pat just smiled.
Arnie had lost track of his score. He knew it was good, probably the low seventies after a grand finish. So now he asked to see the scorecard. With a bigger smile, Pat showed it to him.
Arnie looked, then looked again. He held the card out like it was a snake. “What’s this?” he yelled. There weren’t any scores on the card. The old man had doodled a happy face in every square. Arnie stood there as anger came over him. He was so furious he was shaking. “I can’t believe it! I played this for you. Of all the…” It was his turn to stalk away, shaking his head, and slamming clubs back in his bag.
Pat turned and walked over to where his other son sat under a tree. Nick saw him coming and stood up. “Dad,” he said, “I’m really sorry. You know I could never play this game. I tried, but I can’t do it, not even for you. I’m not worthy to be your son. Please forgive me.”
Pat’s smile got bigger than it had all day and he showed Nick the scorecard that had infuriated Arnie. Nick looked at it and looked at his dad’s smile. Pat threw his arms around Nick. They started laughing. They just bent double there under the tree and laughed until the tears came. Then they walked back to the clubhouse to have lunch together.
Arnie saw them laughing. He figured the joke was on him. But he didn’t get the joke. He felt rejected. Arnie didn’t go in for lunch. He hauled his clubs back out and set up for some practice drives. A little more work at it, and maybe he could play a game that would please his dad.
God is not keeping score. God our Father does not love us for what we do, no matter how good. He just loves us. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ show us that. They’re like that empty scorecard, a demonstration that God already loves us, loves us enough to give up Himself for us. All we must do is accept that love.
Jesus’ story is better than mine. In His parable, the father went out to the older brother too. He loved him just as much. He came out with open arms to remind the older brother that all he had already belonged to his son. So God our Father sends the Holy Spirit of Jesus out to us who are tempted to feel like older brothers, who are tempted to keep score and to resent those who fall short. He sends Him out to say, “I died and rose for you also. All my agony was for you. All my joy is also for you. You are mine. You are dearly loved.” Jesus says that to every one of us today.
You are loved. Jesus died and rose for you. You are accepted. God the Father accepts you by the Cross and by the empty tomb of His Son. He accepts you whether your game is pretty awful or pretty good. That acceptance and those open arms are always there. Believe that and you will enjoy the game more. If you are playing poorly now, then you will find the grace to laugh at yourself and play better tomorrow. If you are already playing well, then you will find the grace to laugh at yourself and be kinder to those who are not doing so well. God is our Father and friend, not our score keeper. He loves us.
As you look at the Cross, imagine Jesus the Savior stretched out upon it. See in Him the open arms of God. Jesus showed us how much we are loved, enough for Him to die for that love. In Christ, God Himself suffered to demonstrate the depth of His love. All He wants is for you and I to see His love and turn to Him, to be changed by His love. Let the love of God in Christ Jesus take away our sin. Let Him enfold us in His bleeding arms and make us His children.
May you and I enter into the arms and love of God today. May we be His children.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj