Was the atonement necessary?

In conducting some theological research, I came across a summary of Arminianism written by Roger Nicole in Baker’s Dictionary of Theolgoy. In it, Nicole delineates 24 “commonly held” tenets of Arminianism, where Arminianism has become characterized by “increasing differences from the traditional Reformed faith.”

One of those tenets surprised me: “10. The atonement was not absolutely necessary, but represents merely one way which God chose among many to manifest his love without prejudice to his righteousness.”

It didn’t surprise me that anyone would hold to this; I’ve encountered this line of thought before. I just hadn’t tied it to Arminian theology before.

Let’s unpack this: “The atonement was not absolutely necessary.” By “atonement,” we are referring to Christ’s work on the cross whereby he paid the debt of wrath that sinners owe, and reconciled men to God, so that we are “at-one” with God. Was it not absolutely necessary? By itself, this statement is true; God, having seen his human creation disobey and fall in the Garden, was not required to offer an atonement for sins. God could have blasted Adam and Eve right then and there. He could have simply allowed humanity to play itself out without hope, and face only wrath and judgment in the end. So, in this sense, it is correct to say that the atonement was not absolutely necessary.

But, when the statement goes on to affirm that the atonement represents merely one way, it is clear that we have moved on from a raw necessity to one that assumes that God has desired to save and atone for sin. This Arminian idea is that of the hypothetical necessity view, the idea that God, being infinite, could have found any number of ways to redeem his elect. But he chose this one as the best way to accomplish his purpose.

Continuing on: [the atonement] represents merely one way which God chose among many to manifest his love without prejudice to his righteousness.” So much to unpack here. Was God in the atonement trying to manifest his love? Well, yes. “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). This issue is not the love that Jesus manifested; at issue is if you believe this was the entirety of what he was doing at the cross. For many Christians, especially in mainline churches, Jesus’ death was only the ultimate act of love and self-sacrifice. It becomes a moral example for us to follow and earn our favor from God. However, the key words of the verse just referenced is “Christ died for us.” This speaks of the substitutionary nature of Jesus death, when he took our deserved punishment and appeased the wrath of God.

Over against this line of thinking stands what has been called the consequent absolute necessity view: God did not have to save anyone, but consequent to his determination to do so, redemption must be accomplished through atonement. Let’s not get bogged down in the terminology as if we’re merely defending a theological system. Let’s look at the biblical evidence for this.

First of all, God’s promise in the Garden was that “the day you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil], you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17). Now, we know that they didn’t physically die that very day, being covered by God’s gracious provision of animal skins. But they were immediately spiritually dead, and physical death was an inevitability. So then, death was the rightful punishment for sin and rebellion. This is a strong indicator that if there were ever to be “at-one-ment” with God, there would have to be a substitutionary, wrath-satisfying death.

Secondly, we come to Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night he was arrested: “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Would the Father have denied his only Son’s prayer if another way were possible? It is scarcely thinkable that the Father would have subjected his Beloved Son to such a horrible and shameful incarnation and death by crucifixion on the cross if there had been another way. We are given this prayer to show this explicitly.

Finally, after Jesus was raised from the dead, he met with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He calmed their distress over the events of the weekend with the words, “‘Was is not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:26-27). Oh, to have been in that Bible study, with Jesus, explaining from the Scriptures, why it was necessary for the Messiah to die. Notice that he taught this before it was revealed to them that it was the risen Jesus himself who was teaching! So before the message even got to the hope of his resurrection, he assured them that the events of the past weekend were necessary and foretold. Let not your hearts be troubled!

To affirm that the atonement could have been accomplished in any other way than the cross, is to belittle the cross and Jesus’ suffering on our behalf. Oh, may that never be! May we be deepened in our understanding of the greatness of the sin that made the atonement necessary and the magnitude of the sacrifice given for us.

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