The Atonement Theory Debate and 1 John
I think John has something to say into a couple of contemporary debates that are going on in theological circles. (As in John the Beloved, aka author of the Fourth Gospel, 1-3 John and purportedly the book of Revelation. Though he’s probably not the son of thunder according to Richard Bauckham, but that will have to wait for another day.)
The debates revolve around the theory of the atonement, and the work of grace. The atonement theory debate rages between those who hold a ‘traditional’ view of what happened at the cross (that Jesus was bearing the punishment for sin we deserve) and those holding a more cosmic/spiritual view (that Jesus was defeating the ‘powers of darkness’, the spiritual forces behind the scenes responsible for the chaos and sin in the world). These are, respectively, the Penal Substitution theory (PS) and the Christus Victor theory (CV).
Not many children in the theological playground want to play nice, unfortunately; we too much enjoy taking sides. When you halt the competition, though, I think both sides of this debate have something valuable to contribute; both offer something of truth. I think proponents of the CV view who reject the PS view reject it on unreasonable grounds; I think proponents of the PS view who haven’t given thought to the CV view are perhaps missing a piece in their theological puzzle. (To freely shift metaphors from playgrounds to puzzles. Sorry about that.)
These debates, as so often, are usually framed in terms of Pauline theology, given Paul’s sizeable corpus in the New Testament. Yet I think John would have something to say about it all, too. Especially when you look at what he wrote about the ‘appearing’ of the Son of God, in two verses in 1 John 3.
1 John 3:5 reads: ‘You know that he appeared in order to take away sins.’ I wonder if anti-PS advocates of the CV view know this. I know that some of them struggle with the idea of him bearing our sin, but this verse suggests that, and others explicitly say so. This verse could then represent the PS view.
A handful of verses later, 1 John 3:8 reads: ‘The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.’ So again it’s his appearing, but this time it’s with reference to the works of the devil. Advocates of the CV view, rejoice!
Yet it’s not merely a case of one proof-text apiece. After all, proof-texting is no way to end up at the truth. We wouldn’t label John as being confused about whether he’s in line with the PS view or the CV view. To do it better justice, I should set out the verses in context:
‘Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.’ (1 John 3:4-8)
For John, it’s not about PS or CV views of the atonement. It’s all of apiece. Jesus appeared to take away sins, which are in some way the works of the devil themselves! Whether it’s sins (nouns) or sinning (verb/action) – and you can get tied up working out how exactly that all plays out in this chapter – you can broadly and fairly safely conclude that sin is not a good thing. If it has anything to do with the devil, it’s probably a good idea to stay away from it.
The passage also perhaps challenges how we view this ministry of Jesus in ‘taking away sins’ and ‘destroying the works of the devil’. For although these ideas often line up with atonement theory, as I have been suggesting, John does not write ‘Jesus died to take away sins’, nor ‘Jesus died to destroy the works of the devil’, though either statement would sit well with us; for John it was in his very appearing, and therefore in his whole life, mission and purpose – not just in his death. This should challenge any faith of ours which knows how to appropriate the work of the cross for salvation, but has no knowledge of what the rest of the life of Jesus means for us – his thirty years of life; his three years of ministry. Reading the Gospels, can we see what John saw? A life that illustrated the removal of sins, the destruction of the devil’s works? Surely we can – forgiving the guilty; delivering the oppressed – that was the ministry of Jesus! The cross was not a salvific event for all of humanity while the three years previous comprised a set of quirky excursions in a backwater country and religion in the Levant; the cross was the climax of what he lived out in his life and ministry – the ultimate and final act of forgiveness; the ultimate and final act of spiritual war.
It seems sensible to me to read it that way; yet I find it amazing how much ‘salvation’ is spoken of with reference to the cross (and the resurrection if you’re lucky), yet with very little or no reference to/appropriation of the life and indeed the narrative of Jesus to the life of the believer. It’s somehow seen as less relevant.
That being said, hopefully with a healthy balance of views in this area, I do think that the church is worryingly and extremely deficient in its understanding of the demonic. It is obviously a hugely important topic to get right; it’s also a very risky topic to ignore if in fact it is meant to be a part of our understanding. We need to bring the subject back to the table, without fear, without superstition, without bad theology. I think if John were to be dropped into today’s church, he’d want to hold out his hands to proponents of PS on the one hand and of CV on the other and say, ‘My little children, love one another.’ And perhaps, he might suggest that proponents of PS pay a little more attention to seeing the outworking of Jesus’ victory over the powers in their lives; and those of CV come to recognise Jesus’ standing in our place. Maybe with John, we’d get somewhere.