A couple of years ago Roger Forster, founder of Ichthus Christian Fellowship, discussed the atonement with atheist Marilyn Mason on Premier Radio’s ‘Unbelievable’ show. I’m normally a big fan of ‘Unbelievable’, but this was not, I think, one of the more enlightening episodes. Marilyn Mason’s stock response to any and every point made from the Christian perspective tended to be, simply, ‘That doesn’t make sense to me’, and so little progress could be made.
More disappointing still, however, was Roger Forster’s dismissal of justification as a central element in the atonement:-
I could run you off a list of some fifteen words which are used in the New Testament to try and explain what is going on at the cross, showing that there are at least fifteen – probably a lot more – models of actually what is taking place.
So far, so good. But Roger Forster then goes on to claim that many Christians only put one model out:-
It is this legal or forensic view that justification is required legally and therefore penalty and punishment and those sorts of words come into the picture. But I would say that that is only a very rare expression in the totality of the explanations which the New Testament is presenting.
I think that this is very misleading. It think that it is much truer to say that, of the many different images of atonement presented in the New Testament, that of justification is probably the most central and the most pervasive.
As J.I. Packer, writing in the New Bible Dictionary, explains, justification is linked to God’s role as Judge, to the righteous demands of his law, and to the appalling effects of sin:-
In Scripture, God is ‘the Judge of all the earth’, (Ge 18:25) and his dealings with men are constantly described in forensic terms. Righteousness, i.e. conformity with his law, is what he requires of men, and he shows his own righteousness as Judge in taking vengeance on those who fall short of it (cf. Ps 7:11, RV; Isa 5:16 10:22 Acts 17:31 Rom 2:5 3:5f). There is no hope for anyone if God’s verdict goes against him.
And for John Stott, the cross was indeed ‘a multifaceted achievement,’ with ‘many different meanings’:-
It is the ultimate revelation of God’s love and justice. It is the decisive revelation of God’s love and justice. It is the decisive conquest of evil. It is the ground of our salvation. It is the supreme example of self-sacrifice. It is the most powerful inspiration to Christian devotion. Moreover, the salvation won by the cross is illustrated in the New Testament by a variety of metaphors like propitiation, redemption and reconciliation.
‘But,’ he adds,
evangelical Christians have always insisted that the richest model is justification. (Evangelical Truth, p92)
The Puritan Thomas Watson put the matter pungently:-
Justification is the very hinge and pillar of Christianity. An error about justification is dangerous, like a defect in a foundation. Justification by Christ is a spring of the water of life. To have the poison of corrupt doctrine cast into this spring is damnable.