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Leading Question: “Who paid the price for the prodigal’s sin?”

Theme: Cross and atonement in light of the Prodigal and his Father: Luke 15:4-32

The question of the meaning of the cross and atonement has already been addressed in lesson 5. But the story of the prodigal son provides a unique opportunity to explore the meaning of the cross, grace, and atonement in quite a different setting.

In most Christian circles, the traditional view of atonement sees the cross as pointing heavenward. The primary metaphor used to illustrate the meaning of the cross is a legal one with a setting in the courtroom. Jesus is seen as our mediator, pleading our case before the Father. The obstacle to restoration can be defined in terms of angered deity or broken law. With such a model, the impression is easily gained that Jesus is on our side, but the Father is not – or not yet, perhaps – and has to be convinced. The neutral term for this view of the cross is “objective.” Paul is typically seen as the primary source for such a view, especially in Romans and Galatians, though 2 Corinthians 5:11-21 presents this “objective” or “substitutionary” perspective with remarkable clarity. Another good source for this view is 1 John.

Another perspective is presented with greatest clarity in John 14-17. Here the cross is pointed earthward, and Jesus is not seen so much as advocate (and sacrifice) on our behalf, but as the Teacher sent from God on God’s behalf to show us that God really does love us. “Whoever has seen me as seen the Father,” explained Jesus to his disciples. The primary obstacle to restoration is the fear that lurks in the human heart. The first glimpse of that fear is seen in Genesis 3, the story of the Fall. God is not presented as the offended deity, but as the one who comes walking in the garden in search of fellowship with his creatures. But Adam hid because he was afraid.

How does God ultimately dispel that fear? But coming in the flesh and dying for us, showing us that God really does want us to be in his kingdom. Sometimes known as the “moral influence” theory of the atonement because it emphasizes that the cross has a “moral” influence on human hearts, a more neutral title is simply the “subjective” atonement – in contrast with the substitutionary atonement which is the “objective” atonement.

The primary problem that arises in connection with the discussion of the atonement is that those who find one view particularly helpful, are often troubled by the other perspective and are fearful that the “other” view will somehow dominate church life and extinguish the very view of God which is very precious one to certain believers.

It is precisely here that Ellen White can remind us that believers won’t see all things alike. We have no right to reinterpret all Scripture through the lens of our particular experience. In this instance, both views are thoroughly biblical, but rarely presented together – except, perhaps in a very subtle form in 1 John. Two very helpful Ellen White quotations in favor of diversity come from Ministry of Healing, p. 483, and from Testimonies to Ministers, pp. 432-33:

Every association of life calls for the exercise of self-control, forbearance, and sympathy. We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things vary. We judge differently. Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life, are not in all respects the same. There are no two whose experience is alike in every particular. The trials of one are not the trials of another. The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing.So frail, so ignorant, so liable to misconception is human nature, that each should be careful in the estimate he places upon another. We little know the bearing of our acts upon the experience of others. What we do or say may seem to us of little moment, when, could our eyes be opened, we should see that upon it depended the most important results for good or for evil. – Ministry of Healing, 483

In our schools the work of teaching the Scriptures to the youth is not to be left wholly with one teacher for a long series of years. The Bible teacher may be well able to present the truth, and yet it is not the best experience for the students that their study of the word of God should be directed by one man only, term after term and year after year. Different teachers should have a part in the work, even though they may not all have so full an understanding of the Scriptures. If several in our larger schools unite in the work of teaching the Scriptures, the students may thus have the benefit of the talents of several.

Why do we need a Matthew, a Mark, a Luke, a John, a Paul, and all the writers who have borne testimony in regard to the life and ministry of the Saviour? Why could not one of the disciples have written a complete record, and thus have given us a connected account of Christ’s earthly life? Why does one writer bring in points that another does not mention? Why, if these points are essential, did not all these writers mention them? It is because the minds of men differ. Not all comprehend things in exactly the same way. Certain truths appeal much more strongly to the minds of some than of others.

The same principle applies to speakers. One dwells at considerable length on points that others would pass by quickly or not mention at all. The whole truth is presented more clearly by several than by one. The Gospels differ, but the records of all blend in one harmonious whole.

So today the Lord does not impress all minds in the same way. Often through unusual experiences, [432/433] under special circumstances, He gives to some Bible students views of truth that others do not grasp. It is possible for the most learned teacher to fall far short of teaching all that should be taught.

It would greatly benefit our schools if regular meetings were held frequently in which all the teachers could unite in the study of the word of God. They should search the Scriptures as did the noble Bereans. They should subordinate all preconceived opinions, and taking the Bible as their lesson Book, comparing Scripture with Scripture, they should learn what to teach their students, and how to train them for acceptable service.

The teachers’ success will depend largely upon the spirit which is brought into the work….. Let not the spirit of controversy come in, but let each seek earnestly for the light and knowledge that he needs. – Counsels to Parents and Teachers, 432-433

For purposes of discussion, the following outline of the two different views may be helpful. The story of the Prodigal clearly illustrates the subjective view in that the Father freely grants grace (the covering robe) without “demanding” that a price be paid. Yet this story should never be overlaid on the Pauline perspective, for both views are biblical and must be maintained faithfully in the church so that those who need them can find them. No two people will put the pieces together in precisely the same way. As the Ministry of Healing quote (p. 483, see above) puts it “There are no two whose experiences are like in every particular.”

Two Biblical Perspectives on Cross and Atonement: Objective and Subjective

A. Objective Atonement (substitution, penal satisfaction)

  1. Theocentric: the Mediator pleads with the Father on our behalf
  2. Primary metaphor: courtroom
  3. Emphasizes a price paid heavenward (satisfying divine wrath or the claims of law)
  4. The dominant emphasis in Paul’s writings: e.g. 2 Cor 5:16-21
  5. Not present at all in James nor emphasized in John’s Gospel, but is present in the Johannine epistles (e.g. 1 John 2:2; 4:10)

B. Subjective Atonement (moral influence)

  1. Anthropocentric: the Mediator pleads with us on behalf of the Father
  2. Primary metaphor: family
  3. Emphasizes Jesus’ life and death as teaching us about God
  4. Primary biblical passages: John 14-17; Luke 15:11-32 (prodigal son)
  5. Note the crucial role of the negative (not) in John 16:25-27

Comment: Those inclined to think more strictly in terms of the objective atonement may find the not in John 16:26 to be a real surprise: “I do not say that I will ask the Father on your behalf.” In fact, a 1971 paperback edition of The Great Controversy, published by Pacific Press actually omits the “not” completely: “I will pray the Father for you: for the Father Himself loveth you.” Without the “not,” the verse sounds much more Pauline. With the “not,” it reflects the dominant emphasis of John 14-17, namely, that the time will come when we will understand the Father’s love so well that we won’t need a mediator. If we need a mediator, we have one. But “standing in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” (GC 425) can actually be seen as a promise, not a threat.The article which follows originally appeared in Adventist Today. It makes the case for seeing all three dominant types of Adventists as represented in 1 John. If we can recognize that the diversity in the church is matched by the diversity in Scripture, we could all rejoice together as we share our differing experiences with the Lord.

Is the Time Right?
After twenty years, perhaps the church is ready.
Adventist Today 17:4
By Alden Thompson
(2009.08.24; revised 08.28; 08.30; 09.27)

A thunderbolt struck me after Sabbath School on August 15. That morning our class focused on 1 John 2:29: “Everyone who does right has been born of him.” That astonishing verse links new birth not to acceptance of Jesus Christ, but to right behavior. In short, doing right reveals a new birth, the work of the Holy Spirit.

Some in our class wanted to flee to Romans 3:10, “No one is righteous – not even one” (NLT). Or to Isaiah 64:6, “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” (NRSV) – no real righteousness except under the banner of the crucified Lord. It was indeed a lively Sabbath School.

But for me the Sabbath thunderbolt was linked to the memory of a sermon I had preached in the College Church twenty years ago, “The Adventist Church at Corinth.” Preaching from a manuscript because I was naming names and wanted to get things right, I identified three kinds of Adventists, linking them with Peter, Paul, and Apollos, preachers whose followers were threatening to divide the church at Corinth (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10-17). My point: all three kinds of Adventists belong in the church and they should learn to live together instead of quarreling.

The positive response to that sermon was astonishing. Never in my life before or since have I received such an outpouring of appreciative notes and letters.

That sermon attracted so much attention, in part, because it pointed back ten years to Desmond Ford’s Adventist Forum presentation on October 27, 1979 at Pacific Union College. That’s when Ford threw Adventism into turmoil by declaring that “there is no biblical way of proving the investigative judgment.” At a stroke, he sought to sweep away Ellen White’s vivid statement that in the judgment we must “stand in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” (The Great Controversy, 425).

The three kinds of Adventists reacted very differently to Ford’s declaration. Here’s a quick summary, oversimplified, but to the point:

1. The Peter crowd: “We can do it!” These are the perfectionists, the optimistic defenders of free-will, many calling themselves “historic Adventists.” Back then, key names would have included Kenneth Wood, Herbert Douglass – and Robert Brinsmead, early in his experience. Matthew, James, and 1 and 2 Peter are their books. They heartily disagreed with Ford.

2. The Paul crowd: “We can’t do it. Jesus does it for us.” These are substitutionary people, some calling themselves evangelical Adventists. God is everything, we are nothing; Jesus takes our place. Key names would have included H. M. S. Richards, Sr., Robert Spangler, Edward Heppenstall – and Robert Brinsmead at a mid-point in his experience. Romans and Galatians are their books. They were powerfully tempted to say Amen! to Ford.

3. The Apollos crowd: “Do your best!” Key words are “larger view,” “truth about God,” Christian humanism. Substitution is not high on the list. Key names would have included Graham Maxwell and Jack Provonsha – and Robert Brinsmead (briefly) at a later point in his experience. Their biblical passages are John 14-17 and the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). “Standing in the sight of a holy God without a mediator” is not a threat, but a promise, based on John 16:26-27, where Jesus says he won’t ask the Father for us. Why? Because we will already know that the Father himself loves us. They didn’t agree with Ford and some just shrugged.

And my August 15 thunderbolt? The realization that 1 John contains key verses to warm the heart of each kind of Adventist, but verses, of course, that would probably trouble the others in the crowd. Hence our Sabbath morning donnybrook, for everyone was defending the verses precious to their own experience. From the NRSV, here’s a quick sample:

  1. The Peter crowd: “We can do it!”
    • 3:6: “No one who abides in him sins.”
    • 3:8: “Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil.”
    • 5:18: “Those who are born of God do not sin.”
  2. The Paul crowd: “We can’t do it. Jesus does it for us.”
    • 1:8: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.”
    • 2:1: “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father.”
    • 4:10: “God…sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
  3. The Apollos crowd: “Do your best!”
    • 2:29: “Everyone who does right has been born of him.”
    • 4:7: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”

In spite of the enthusiastic response from our church in 1989, the larger church was not ready. When I converted the sermon into a chapter for my proposed Inspirationmanuscript (RH, 1991), it came back. Even my best friends said the time was not right.

Actually, the missing chapter may have contributed to the furor over Inspiration, for without it, the diversity I celebrate in the book could easily be seen simply as a mean-spirited collection of contradictions.

But the “contradictions” are not the problem; indeed, they are the solution, a biblical illustration of Ellen White’s startling statement about our differing perceptions of truth: “Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life are not in all respects the same. There are no two whose experiences are alike in every particular.” (Ministry of Healing, 483).

Is now the time? I don’t know. Pray. Check out 1 Corinthians. Check out 1 John. And now the missing chapter is also there in my new book, Beyond Common Ground: Why Liberals and Conservatives Need Each Other (PPPA 2009).

The twenty-year gap between 1989 and 2009 intrigues me because of Ellen White’s startling comment in the midst of the 1888 turmoil: “That which God gives His servants to speak today would not perhaps have been present truth twenty years ago, but it is God’s message for this time” (Ms 8a, 1888).

A donnybrook of a Sabbath School, but where we part as friends, all eagerly looking forward to the day when it won’t have to stop at one hour because we will have an eternity to sort things out. There all three kinds of Adventists will revel together before God’s throne, singing his praises through all eternity. I can hardly wait.

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