Such a theory of the atonement as is advocated by Professor Barclay: ‘He died to show men what God is always like, not that he should threaten us into a prudential response, but that at the sight of him we should be moved and compelled to love him as he first loved us. Jesus came not to persuade God to forgive us, but to tell us that God in his love has forgiven us and that all we can do is in wondering gratitude to accept the forgiveness of sins, which it cost the cross to make known to us’ (The Plain Man Looks at the Apostles’Creed, 1967, p. 332).
The New Testament never speaks of God being reconciled to man but always of man being reconciled to God. The supreme example of this is Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:18 ff., ‘All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed to us the word of reconciliation.’ These words remind us that the initiative in reconciliation was taken by God, not by man, and that the divine love is the cause, not the consequence, of the process of atonement. But do they also teach that all the hostility is on man’s side and that there is no estrangement and no wrath on God’s side? This is the prevailing interpretation. ‘The change which brings about the reconciliation between God and men is regarded as taking place in them rather than in him,’ wrote Alfred Plummer (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on theSecond Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 1915, p. 181). ‘God is the Reconciler,’ declares Professor James Stewart, ‘God, in his changeless and unwearying love, has taken the initiative, has broken into the atmosphere of man’s hostility, and has thrown away every estranging barrier that guilt and hopelessness and dull resentment can erect’ (A Man in Christ, 1964, p. 210). J. B. Lightfoot wrote in similar vein, ‘It is the mind of man, not the mind of God, which must undergo a change, that a re-union may be effected (St. Paul‘s Epistle to the Colossians, 1886, p. 159). The logical conclusion of this view is such a theory of the atonement as is advocated by Professor Barclay: ‘He died to show men what God is always like, not that he should threaten us into a prudential response, but that at the sight of him we should be moved and compelled to love him as he first loved us. Jesus came not to persuade God to forgive us, but to tell us that God in his love has forgiven us and that all we can do is in wondering gratitude to accept the forgiveness of sins, which it cost the cross to make known to us’ (The Plain Man Looks at the Apostles’Creed, 1967, p. 332).
But if the function of the cross is only prophetic — if it simply makes known to us the love of God — it is strange that in none of the recorded sayings of Jesus does he declare that the purpose of his death was to reveal the love of the heavenly Father. Indeed, the death of Christ cannot in and of itself be a demonstration of love. It may bear the quite different message that no gracious providence presides over human history. Or it may be no more than an indication of Jesus’ being stricken and forsaken by God; or of his inability to control circumstances; or of his miscalculating the power and the malice of his enemies. Or it may be the last, futile, self-pitying gesture of pathetic frustration and impotence. It becomes a demonstration of love only if it was necessary for the purposes of love. This point is well illustrated by James Denney: ‘If I were sitting on the end of the pier on a summer day enjoying the sunshine and the air, and someone came along and jumped into the water and got drowned to prove his love for me, I should find it quite unintelligible. I might be much in need of love, but an act in no rational relation to any of my necessities could not prove it. But if I had fallen over the pier and were drowning, and someone sprang into the water, and at the cost of making my peril, or what but for him would be my fate, his own, saved me from death, then I should say, “Greater love hath no man than this.” I should say it intelligibly, because there would be an intelligible relation between the sacrifice which love made and the necessity from which it redeemed’ (The Death of Christ, 1956, p. 103). Only against a background of real and imminent peril — of condemnation, wrath and perdition — can the cross of Christ be understood as a demonstration of love. Furthermore, according to the New Testament the primary effect of the death of Christ is God-ward, not man-ward. It is a sacrifice in which he offers himself without spot to God (Heb 9:14). It is an act of obedience (Phil. 2:8) in response to which God highly exalts him. It is an act of propitiation which becomes the basis of an intercession directed toward God (1 John 2:1, 2). Sacrifice, obedience, propitiation — these, not demonstration, are primary; and they insist that no amount of emphasis on the prophetic aspect of Calvary should cause us to forget that it is first and foremost the act of a great High Priest acting for men before God.
The prevalent modern interpretation proceeds on the assumption that the hostility and resentment which man feels toward God is a major category of New Testament thought and is indeed the primary element in the misery of the human condition. In actual fact this idea is singularly unconspicuous in the New Testament. This does not mean that it is entirely absent. It occurs, for example, in Colossians 1:21, ‘And you that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled.’ In this passage enemy clearly has the active sense of man’s hostility to God. But it certainly is not the case (as Lightfoot alleged) that this is the uniform usage of the New Testament. For example, in Romans 11:28 Paul writes, ‘As concerning the Gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election they are beloved for the fathers’ sakes.’ The idea prominent here is the opposite of that emphasized in the Colossians passage. It refers not to man’s attitude to God but to God’s attitude to men. For the sake of their fathers, God loves Israel. But in view of their rejection of the Gospel he is at enmity with them, with the effect that they are objects of his severity (Rom 11:22). Here is one point at which God’s active enmity towards men appears. It becomes especially prominent, however, in what is certainly a major New Testament concept — the wrath of God. Paul grounds the whole need for the Gospel not in man’s hostility to God but in God’s wrath towards man. This wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom 1:18). So far as the Gentiles are concerned it has already expressed itself in giving them over to a reprobate mind (Rom 1:28]. So far as the Jews were concerned it meant that after their hardness and their impenitent hearts they treasured up to themselves wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds and inflict tribulation and anguish upon every man that doeth evil (Rom 2:5 ff.). This is a far more important category of New Testament thought than the idea of man’s hostility to God, and its bearing upon the doctrine of reconciliation is unmistakable. Either God remains angry with us even after the reconciliation or the anger is taken away in and by the process of reconciliation itself. If this latter is true then surely the atonement changes not merely man’s attitude to God but also God’s attitude to man?