If you’ve done some exploring regarding the work of Christ on the cross, you’ll likely have come across several different “theories” of how to understand what we call the atonement. What you believe about the atonement; the words and images you use to describe it; and how you think it affects our relationship with God usually says a lot about where you sit on the theological spectrum. Correct views about Christ’s work of redemption are crucial to healthy Christian thought and spiritual development, while erroneous teachings about the atonement may be significant cause for concern about the biblical faithfulness of a person’s views on Christianity.
The understanding of atonement that I hold and consider to be vital to Christian understanding of the cross is commonly referred to as penal substitutionary atonement. “Penal” refers to Christ bearing the penalty of our sin upon the cross, the way a criminal might bear the just punishment for their crimes. It is inseparable from the idea that the wrath of God against human sin was poured out upon the crucified Christ and that this was necessary for sinners to be reconciled to God. “Substitutionary” communicates the idea that everything Christ endured on the cross was done for us and for our salvation: in other words, Jesus died in our place, the sinless Saviour representing sinners – as God executed judgement upon His Son as though it were us on the cross receiving our due for rebelling against Him. Atonement itself was said to have been invented by English Bible Translator William Tyndale to communicate in English the idea of God and humanity being “at one” again, as a result of the person and work of Christ.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement is fiercely defended in many evangelical circles and many theologians, pastors and church leaders are greatly troubled when differing aspects of the atonement are elevated to a position that takes precedence over the above understanding of Christ’s work. Some of the other proposed atonement paradigms include: Christus Victor (the atonement is about Christ’s triumph over the evil spiritual forces of the world); Moral Influence theory (Christ died as an example to humanity of what love and ethics we should strive for); and Ransom to Satan (Christ’s death was payment to Satan to “buy back” sinful humans, rather than a sacrifice that dealt with sin in the sight of God). I find the latter view completely unacceptable and regard the essence of the other two views as aspects of Christ’s death that need to be appreciated as elements of His work that are subordinate in importance to the penal substitutionary aspect.
A problem arises though when it comes to maintaining faithfulness to what one sincerely believes that the Scriptures teach and emphasise, and contextualising the gospel so that people from diverse backgrounds understand what Jesus did for them in ways that address the fundamental concerns of their culture and beliefs. I simultaneously recognise one particular view of the atonement as valid above all the other proposed models, yet at the same time I can see how our articulation of it predominantly addresses the Western mindset we’ve inherited from Roman civilisation and Roman Catholicism. In nations like Australia, the UK and the USA, the way I am used to expressing the atonement over and against the inherent legalism of Roman culture and Roman Christianity and the modernist heresies of liberal Christian groups is, I believe, the necessary way to communicate the biblical truths concerning Christ’s work on the Cross to Christians and non-Christians alike (whether its in the context of discipleship or evangelism).
But in thinking about how to communicate these truths in a very different culture, specifically Japanese culture, I’ve been forced to think carefully about how I can emphasise what the Bible emphasises and not concoct “new truths” to share with the Japanese, whilst at the same time not falling into the trap of delivering a pre-packaged, Westernised presentation of the gospel to people who have a very different cultural and religious starting point to the once Christianised societies of the Western world.
Let me spell out some of the obvious differences. The Greco-Roman cultural and philosophical values that have always been part of the Western mindset are not the same as the Far-Eastern, Confucian values that characterise societies like Japan. Despite coming to Japan via Jesuit missions in the 1600s, Roman Catholicism has never been the dominant religious force in Japanese society and in fact it was outlawed and brutally oppressed for many years – severely limiting its impact upon national life. As a natural result, while Protestantism “naturally” arose in European countries like Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Scotland and England, when people turned to Scripture as a higher authority than the papacy and the Church – Protestantism in Japan has never arisen as a response to Catholic teaching, cultural dominance and abuses of power. It has come from other parts of the world as a pre-packaged response to somewhere else’s ecclesiastical problems. And naturally, while Japan has been enormously influenced by the modern West in the last 150 years, it has not directly had cultural movements like the Renaissance and Enlightenment, which were arguably only possible in the Western-Christian context in which they occurred.
On one level, evangelical Protestantism and its understanding and articulation of the gospel is completely valid and even needed in relation to the Japanese context. For one, it’s goal is to be thoroughly biblical and therefore the discoveries it has made from the Word of God in relation to core principles of Christianity are universally applicable. They have something to say to every culture on Earth. Furthermore, they are legitimate because Catholicism is in Japan and chances are that what little the average Japanese man or woman knows about Christianity will come from Catholicism. Since Catholics are committed to promoting Roman dogma to the four corners of the globe, we must be ready to counter it by clarifying what the Bible teaches on a range of issues and our experience in the historical controversies within Western Christianity will offer us many of the tools for doing that. Western cults like JWs and Mormons are also present and promote their own corruptions of orthodox teaching on topics such as the atonement. The resources for dealing with these aberrant movements will also come from the Western experience.
But my concern is that in order to be faithful evangelicals in Japan, we must not simply recycle pre-packaged Western Protestant methods of communicating Jesus and articulating the faith, if they do not take seriously the fact that Japan is less like 16th century Catholic Germany or 21st century post-Christian Australia and perhaps more like the pagan frontiers of non-Roman Europe in the early centuries of the church. Our gospel will be the same, our basic understanding of the atonement will not change. But how we introduce, explain, illustrate and apply this core aspect of the gospel may need to look different to what we’re used to in our Western contexts.
I’ll share more about what I’ve been thinking in regards to this issue in the next post…
 Rumble Press “3D_Judges_Gavel” (CC BY 2.0) flickr
 Yu Tung Brian Chan “Peace!” (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr.
 György Soponyai “St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City” (CC BY-NC 2.0) flickr.
 CC BY-SA 4.0 wikimedia commonsStatue of Saint Francis Xavier, at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, in Superior, Wisconsin”