From “Past Event and Present Salvation:
The Christian Idea of Atonement”
by Paul S. Fiddes, b.1947
Salvation happens here and now. It is always in the present that God acts to heal and reconcile, entering into the disruption of human lives at great cost to himself, in order to share our predicament and release us from it. This may seem obvious, and if we examine the hymns of popular piety we can often detect just such an appeal to a present experience of atonement, expressed in phrases like “Jesus saves.” It is ironic, however, that when this devotion has been translated into sermons it has often emerged as more equivalent to “Jesus saved.” For there is a great deal of difference between believing that God “saves” through Christ, and believing that we simply claim the benefits of a salvation that has already happened, a deal that has already been concluded. Salvation in the present tense has frequently been depicted as if it were merely picking up a ticket to paradise which was issued long ago, and which has been waiting through long ages on the counter of a celestial travel agent. But a transactional view of atonement like this is highly impersonal. If salvation is the healing of a broken relationship between persons, then it must actually happen now; it must involve the human response as an intimate part of the act of atonement.
To believe in a saviour God is to affirm that he is always saving, always participating in the pain of an estranged world to win back rebels. Salvation is a continuous process. If, as Christians believe, the focal point of salvation is the cross of Jesus Christ, then the cross is a contemporary event as well as past history. A first clue which points towards this insight is the nature of the realm of personal relations. Therapy using psychological analysis has made it abundantly clear that to restore a relationship requires the deepest cooperation of the one who is alienated, even if one had failed to realise this from the everyday experience of family life. A healing of relationship and personality cannot be accepted like a package, a ticket or even a contract. It must be created anew through the meeting of persons. Applied to a doctrine of reconciliation between God and humanity this means that human response must actually be part of the act of salvation, not merely a reaction to it afterwards. This principle is perhaps demonstrated most vividly in the experience of forgiveness and some grasp of the dynamics of any act of forgiveness is fundamental to an understanding of atonement.
The record of early Christian preaching in the “Acts of the Apostles” associates the death of Jesus with “the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38), and this is also at the heart of Paul’s preaching of the cross of Jesus. Even though Paul rarely uses the actual term ‘forgiveness‘, the concept of “justification” carries the same content of having a relationship with God restored, and being accepted by him. It is tragic then that this profound experience of forgiveness has often been reduced in Christian doctrine and preaching to the idea of a mere legal pardon. Popular evangelistic preaching has often, for example, depicted a prisoner languishing in a condemned cell on the eve of execution, and then suddenly receiving a free pardon from the monarch or president. All the prisoner needs to do, it is urged, is to accept what is offered. But this legal illustration (as well as being out of date in societies today such as Britain which no longer have capital punishment) loses the personal nature of forgiveness, and when transferred to God it evacuates love from his activity. The picture of a pardoned criminal fails to communicate the painful relational experience which lies at the heart of forgiving and being forgiven. The mere issue of a notice of pardon cannot touch a person deeply; in life a prisoner can accept a pardon and go free, hating the authorities who gave it and the judge who sentenced him, or perhaps laughing at them. Such a legal transaction comes close in tone to the words of the poet Heine as he lay dying that God would, of course, forgive him, for “it’s his business.” But forgiveness is no business, even a legal business. Much more profound is the insight of the theologian H. R. Mackintosh, that:
“We are constantly under a temptation to suppose that the reason why we fail to understand completely the atonement made by God in Christ is that our minds are not sufficiently profound. But there is a deeper reason still. It is that we are not good enough; we have never forgiven a deadly injury at a price like this, at such cost to ourselves as came upon God at Jesus’ death. Let the man be found who has undergone the shattering experience of pardoning, nobly and tenderly, some awful wrong to himself, still more to one beloved by him, and he will understand the meaning of Calvary better than all the theologians in the world.”
Forgiveness is no mere business; it is a “shattering experience” for the one who forgives as well as for the one who is forgiven. This is because forgiveness, unlike a mere pardon, seeks to win the offender back into relationship. Nor is forgiving simply forgetting about an offence done; in order to reconcile the person who has hurt him, the forgiver must painfully call the offence to mind. Reconciliation is a costly process because there are resistances to it in the attitude of the person who has offended; the one who sets out to forgive must aim to remove those blockages and restore the relationship. Forgiveness then involves an acceptance which is costly.