Jason Micheli, a United Methodist pastor and blogger with whom I’ve disagreed vigorously over the years on a number of issues, guest-blogged over at Scot McKnight’s blog today on atonement theology. He sees irreconcilable tension between those (many) parts of the Old Testament in which God delights in Israel’s temple sacrifices and those parts, such as Psalm 51 and prophets like Amos, in which he disdains them.
He sees a conflict, for example, between Psalm 50 (pro-sacrifice) and Psalm 51 (anti-sacrifice: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”)—as if he doesn’t notice that Psalm 51 itself ends on a pro-sacrifice note: “Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”
So, according to the end of Psalm 51, the problem isn’t with sacrifices per se, but sacrifices offered in the wrong spirit—without accompanying repentance. Why is that hard to understand? What am I missing? One important theme of the Sermon on the Mount, after all, is that the condition of our heart matters more than any law-abiding action on our part.
He asks the following rhetorical questions:
Is God’s self-giving in the Son through the Spirit pleasing to the Father, as the poet of Psalm 50 might imagine? Or is the murder of an innocent scapegoat upon a cross but another example of what Amos decries as the status quo’s practice of turning justice into wormwood? Worse, would God look upon us, who turn such an injustice as the crucifixion into a pleasing, even necessary sacrifice, and thunder ‘I hate, I despise, your worship?’
So wait: He thinks God might be unhappy that we’ve turned the cross into “pleasing, even necessary sacrifice”?
As for its being “pleasing,” why does he think the church has called tomorrow’s holiday Good Friday? Christ’s submitting to death on the cross is the most “pleasing” event (from God’s perspective) in human history! As for its necessity, this is one question that has separated progressive Christianity from orthodox Christianity for the past couple hundred years.
Micheli, offering a sop to Christian orthodoxy, concludes with these words:
Is our thinking, I wonder in Holy Week, that Christ’s cross is a necessary sacrifice for sin a ‘kindness’ God permits because, though God hates all devotion devoid of any concern for justice, it’s just this offering, needful or not, that delivers what God truly desires: a broken and contrite heart?
For me, what’s at stake is this: Does the cross of Christ accomplish something objective in reconciling sinners like me to God?
I hope so, because if my atonement depends on me—and my “broken and contrite heart”—I’m doomed!