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Formulary Friday: Atonement

Posted by Michael Hayden, 21 Oct 2016

Michael Hayden explores how the Formularies can guide our thinking about Christ's atonement.

From the days of the early Church Fathers, through Anselm of Canterbury, to the evangelical bust-up in the last decade (encapsulated in the 2007 Evangelical Alliance-London School of Theology Symposium), the mechanisms of the Atonement have been a consistent source of strife and debate amongst Christians. This is in large part a result of the lack of Biblical discussion on the specific details.

J.I. Packer, in his 1966 booklet ‘The Gospel in the Prayer Book’ observes that the Book of Common Prayer manages to proclaim the Gospel through structuring each service around a cycle of sin-grace-faith; every service takes the congregant through a “liturgical journey” of the Christian life.

However, which understanding of the Gospel is presented? As confessional Anglicans, how are we to view the Atonement?

The Thirty-Nine Articles abound with references to the work of Christ on the cross.

Article II speaks of “Christ… who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men”;

Article III declares that “Christ died for us”;

in Article XI we read that “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings”;

Article XV teaches that “He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by the sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world”;

Article XXVIII speaks of “Our redemption by Christ’s death;

and Article XXXI tells us that “The Offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone.”

But as Packer reminds us, the Book of Common Prayer is equally full of references to salvation. The Litany, for example, speaks of the “Redeemer of the world”, and the people “whom [Christ] hath redeemed with [His] most precious blood.” Interestingly, the Litany looks to more than Calvary for deliverance: congregants are led to pray that God would deliver them by the Incarnation, Nativity, Circumcision of Christ, His Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, His Agony and bloody sweat, Cross and Passion, glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the coming of the Holy Ghost. This provides a holistic picture that would appear to indicate that salvation was won not just on Calvary, but through the entire life of Christ.

When it comes to the Collects, those appointed for the liturgical time around Good Friday and Easter are (as one would expect) the most explicit in their references to the Atonement. The First Collect for Good Friday, for example, makes a clear connection between the worshippers present and the events leading up to, and including the death of Christ: “this thy family, for which our Lord…” The Easter Collect, similarly, rejoices that the risen Christ “hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life.”

In the Communion service, the Prayer of Consecration opens with these words: “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…”. Later in the same prayer we find the language of “the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28).

In the Form and Manner for the Ordering of Priests, the Bishop exhorts the ordinand to “Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For they are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood.” Similarly, in the service of consecration of a bishop, the Bishop-elect is admitted to government in “the Church of Christ, which he hath purchased with no less price than the effusion of his own blood”.

What, then, can we learn from this brief survey of the material found in the Formularies?

1. Firstly, it is evident that the atonement is inextricably linked to the death of Christ. Should we wish to consider the meaning of the atonement, the Formularies point us to the death of Christ, and nowhere else.
2. Secondly, the very reason for the atonement was to deal in some manner with the problem of sin, which had not just led to humankind’s estrangement from God, but our just damnation by the same.
3. Thirdly, the death of Christ was efficacious; Christ died to make atonement, not merely make atonement possible.
4. Fourthly, the atonement was based upon no merit of our own, but rather the love of God for His people.
5. Fifthly, the atonement cannot be summed up by any one of the most popular systematic models; the only satisfactory theory would be one which took into account the propitiatory, expiatory, penal, substitutionary, redemptive, and victorious aspects of the work of Christ.
6. Finally, the atonement was costly; it resulted in the death of the Son of God by the spilling of His blood. This fact should lead us to praise and thanksgiving.

Michael Hayden is a Ministry Assistant at Castle Church, Stafford

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