On Law & Atonement

Questioning the forensic character of the Atonement

A. Gustaf Aulen

It is essential that the work of atonement which God accomplishes in Christ reflect a Divine order which is wholly different from a legal order; the Atonement is not accomplished by strict fulfillment of the demands of justice, but in spite of them; God is not … unrighteous, but He transcends the order of justice.

from Christus Victor, (1931), 90-1.

B. Gerhard Forde

The main trouble is that this “ladder theology” inevitably distorts our understanding of the gospel. The gospel is taken captive by the system and turned into a new kind of law.

Let me explain. We begging by assuming the law is a ladder to heaven. Then we go on to say, “Of course, no one can climb the ladder, because we are all weakened by sin. We are all therefore guilty and lost.” And this is where “the gospel” is to enter the picture. What we need is someone to pay our debt to God and to climb the ladder for us. This, supposedly, is what Jesus has done. As our “substitute” he has paid off God and climbed the ladder for us. All we have to do now is “believe” it.

But what have we done when we understand the gospel in this way? We have, in fact, interpreted the gospel merely as something that makes the ladder scheme work. The gospel comes to make up for the deficiencies of the law. The gospel does not come as anything really new. It is not the breaking in of a radically new age with an entirely new outlook. It is simply a “repair job.” It is an attempt to put new wine in old skins, or a new patch on an old garment. When we do this, the gospel always comes off second best. It is trapped in the understanding of law which we have ourselves concocted.

The net result is that the gospel itself simply becomes another kind of law. It becomes a “theory” about how God has been paid and how Jesus has climbed the ladder. If you want to be saved you must now “believe” all that. That is the new law. The gospel is not good news any more. It is merely a kind of information which after a while loses its “punch.” It loses its character as “news,” and it ceases to be “good.” It is a set of truths which one must somehow muster the strength or the will to believe.

from Where God Meets Man, (Augsburg, 1972): 10-11.

See also Gerhard Forde, “Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ.” Available in either: Word and World 3 (1984): 22-31, OR A More Radical Gospel, (Eerdmans, 2004): 85-97.

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