When atonement is absent

I find Ian McEwan’s novel “Atonement” particularly bleak. It’s the story of a girl who witnesses a crime, Bryony sees her cousin Lola being assaulted and raped. She is convinced the assailant is the family gardener, Robbie and so he is falsely accused, arrested and convicted. Her error combined with her self-importance is the cause of great misery. The story is about the question of atonement. Can she put things right, can she make amends? In fact the conclusion is that writing the story in her old age as she battles dementia is her atonement.

Well, certainly having to relive those events will bring shame and there is obviously suffering. Bryony is paying a price for the past but is that atonement?  I want to suggest that it isn’t. She may suffering shame, she may suffer pain but the purpose of atonement is not mere retribution. Its purpose is restoration and reconciliation and there. 

Here we get to the problem at the heart of our contemporary world. If we do not believe in Christ then we do not believe in his act of atonement on the Cross. Without Christ there is no atonement and so no forgiveness.  A few years back, Alan Mann, who co-authored The Lost Message of Jesus with Steve Chalke wrote “Atonement for a sinless society.” His argument was that we lived in an age where whilst there might be shame, there is no longer a concept of guilt. Therefore, he argued that a theory of the atonement which emphasised guilt, punishment and forgiveness (i.e. penal substitution) would not resonate. We needed, in his opinion, a different theory/model of atonement. I believe he got things fundamentally the wrong way round. It’s not that society is sinless, it is an atonementless society.  The problem is not that people experience shame instead of guilt and so reject atonement. Rather, it is that because they have rejected atonement, they now know only shame.

What I mean is this. The hope of the Gospel means that I can face up to the ugly, destructive evil of my sin. I cans ay that I am a sinner, I can acknowledge my guilt knowing that forgiveness is offered at the foot of the Cross. Yet without the Cross, forgiveness is impossible.  So, what do we do? WE try to minimise the guilt of sin because we know that there is no possibility of forgiveness, no hope of redemption. That’s why you had people the other week quick to insist that in the wake of the Matt Hancock scandal that adultery wasn’t a big deal or the big deal in that incident.  If we acknowledged the true horror of sin then life would sink into the deepest pit of despair. And yet, we cannot avoid the fact that sin is exposed and it exposes us as ridiculous and pitiful.  We may suppress guilt but we cannot get rid of guilt.

I am so thankful that the Gospel is true, the Cross is real and that there is atonement in Jesus Christ. This atonement takes away my guilt, covers my shame, restores me and reconciles us. 

Your blood speaks a better word
Than all the empty claims I’ve heard upon this earth
Speaks righteousness for me
And stands in my defense
Jesus it’s Your blood

What can wash away our sins?
What can make us whole again?
Nothing but the blood
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
What can wash us pure as snow?
Welcomed as the friends of God
Nothing but Your blood
Nothing but Your blood King Jesus

Your cross testifies in grace
Tells of the Father’s heart to make a way for us
Now boldly we approach
Not by earthly confidence
It’s only Your blood[1]


[1] Matt Redman, Nothing but the blood

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