Paving the way
"God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them..." 2 Corinthians 5.19
I mentioned yesterday that Christ's atonement for sin lays the foundation for forgiveness and reconciliation at every level. But what is atonement and how can it fulfil such a versatile and comprehensive role? In a nutshell, "atonement" (at-one-ment, as my college chaplain used to render it) amounts to the restoration of good relations between two parties so that peace is restored.
To understand how that operates in the Christian context, one must take recourse to the "grand narrative" (big story) of the Bible. It relates how God created the world and then filled it with plants and animals. The crowning glory was the creature he made "in his own image": humankind. To enable love to flourish God gifted humans with free-will because love cannot be forced. Of course that left open the door to choose not to love and chapter 3 of the book of Genesis relates how the first humans exercised that choice by defying the one prohibition God imposed (for their own good), not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tragic consequences were like the thin end of a wedge, which continues to drive humans apart from one another, from God and from the rest of creation to this day. Perhaps this was inevitable, for love to be tested?
What also seems to be the case is that God immediately set to work on his rescue plan. It started with a man called Abram. He was not perfect but he had two essential qualities in his favour: he trusted God and was willing to obey him. God renamed him Abraham and built a nation through his descendants: Israel. Israel also was not perfect but it served its purpose in establishing the temple-based system of religious law. Some, including many Israelites, mis-interpreted the Jewish law as a means of virtuous living. Its true function was to expose and limit human wickedness; not because there was anything wrong with the law but on account of humanity's inability to keep it.
So the next and crucial stage in God's rescue plan was to enter creation in the person of Jesus, whom we refer to as the Son of God, in order to demonstrate how to live correctly, thereby fulfilling the law; and then to offer his perfect life as a sacrifice to compensate (atone) for the sin of the world. Crucially, God in Christ entered fully into his humanity, "being tempted in every way just as we are". This was necessary, to present himself as a genuine representative of the human race in his atonement in order to pave the way for universal reconciliation without compromising that essential component of love, which is freewill. And so it remains to this day that we have the choice of embracing the atonement brokered for us by Jesus, or rejecting it.