I have noticed a disturbing trend in conservative evangelical circles: in a reaction to those that are defining the gospel without any wrath or atonement, some are now defining the gospel more narrowly than the Bible does. I have seen this in multiple ways; but one of the key ones is through a tendency to equate the gospel with substitutionary atonement.
Here’s a way I heard it put recently in a sermon on Matt. 13—the parable of the sower/seeds/soils.
What is the seed? Jesus tells us it is the word of God. And what is the core of the word of God? It’s a person—Jesus Christ. And what’s the core of the work of Jesus Christ, the core of the core? According to 1 Cor. 15 it is substitutionary atonement. Paul said that was of first importance. So the seed is substitutionary atonement.
Hearty “Amen’s” accompanied all of this from the crowd (a gathering of preachers).
So what problem could I possibly have with such a strong statement about preaching the atoning work of Christ? My problem is simple: that isn’t what the text says. In Matt. 13:19 Jesus explicitly says that the seed is “the word about the kingdom.” There is a relationship between kingdom and atonement: atonement is the means of entering the kingdom.
But are we really prepared to narrow the kingdom to atonement? That’s like being excited about the ticket we get to Disneyland and not actually enjoying going to the amusement park itself! Don’t get me wrong: atonement is critical because without it, no one gets into the kingdom. And further, preaching the kingdom without how to get into it is foolishness. However, that does not mean that “the kingdom” = “the atonement.”
My second problem was the way that 1 Corinthians 15 got pulled into the discussion as justification for this modification of Jesus’ teaching. I saw this happen recently on a very popular evangelical blog as well. While it’s true that Paul is speaking of what is “of first importance,” he simply does not say that the atonement by itself is of first importance. What Paul says is that the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are of the first importance. In the context of 1 Cor. 15, it seems that if one part of that sequence should be highlighted above the others, it isn’t the atoning death of Christ, but the resurrection (v. 17 “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins.” Cf. Rom. 4:25).
The preacher referenced earlier went on to admonish the gathering of preachers that they had to spread the seed that they were given. They were not supposed to modify that seed. “We are not to spread any of that Monsanto, genetically-modified seed.” The sad part for me is that he was doing exactly what he was condemning. And even worse, no one in the room seemed to notice or care. Why didn’t they care? Because he was beating the drum of substitutionary atonement, and when someone does that it seems that good hermeneutics can be thrown to the wind.
It seems that many in the conservative world are concerned about the slippery slope—and in some cases rightly so! Taking one step away from the truth of the Bible often leads to a second step, which leads to a third, and so on until you’re so far down the slope that you don’t have the desire or ability (it is slippery, after all) to get back to where you started.
But the slippery slope has two sides. Conservatives are so worried about moving toward the liberal slope that sometimes they inadvertently begin sliding down the other side. The conservative side of the slope takes a few key doctrines, makes them the only test of orthodoxy, and then heralds those doctrines in every sermon on every text for every occasion.
To be clear: I believe in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, and I believe that the Scriptures teach this doctrine in many places. But I’m uncomfortable with preaching this doctrine—or any doctrine—from a text that is not preaching substitutionary atonement.
Preaching right doctrine from the wrong passages is still wrong. Not only is it just wrong, it is extremely dangerous. The actual point of the abused passage is lost because it has been co-opted to preach something else. Losing the point of the abused passage means losing part of scripture. In addition, abusing scripture thus teaches people that scripture-abuse is ok as long as you have “right” conclusions. Are we really ok with this?
The irony is that the group that calls for theological precision and biblical accuracy from those sliding down one side of the slope are usually the same group that completely overlooks lack of precision and accuracy from those sliding down the other side. They seem to think (or at least act as if they think) that it doesn’t matter if you’re accurately explaining a particular section of Scripture as long as you’re preaching the right doctrines. We must demand theological precision and biblical accuracy from those we agree with as much as those we disagree with. In fact, it is more important to demand it from those we agree with because our agreement can have a blinding effect that prevents us from seeing these errors.
It is not okay to “err on the conservative side.” When we are trying to honor God by understanding the Bible and see it put into practice in our lives and in the lives of the people we minister to, we cannot be at ease with erring on one side or the other. We should strive for good biblical definitions and discussion in our sermons, conversations, and theological debates. We should keep in mind that we can slide down either side of the slope, and that both sides lead to great damage.