C. THE ATONING WORK OF THE CHRIST.
1. Man's Fallen Nature and the Need of an Atonement.
What makes a man acceptable to God? Is it a measure of self-righteousness obtained through an observance of fixed rituals plus a belief in true doctrines of faith, coupled with an attempt to keep God's moral laws to the best of a man's ability? Or is it the redeeming grace of God in sending his own Son in human form to become an atoning sacrifice so that fallen men might be forgiven of their sins and receive the Holy Spirit by which they might become heirs of the hope of eternal life? Islam advocates the former, Christianity declares the latter. The concepts are so far apart that it is not surprising to find Muslims levelling all kinds of arguments against the Christian position. We shall consider the subject in principle before pressing on to assess two of the typical kinds of arguments Christians are likely to across in Muslim writings.
In the last section we considered the Biblical teaching that God originally made man in his own image. When Adam and Eve sinned this image was defaced and they were chased from the Garden and away from the presence of the Lord. In their sinful state they could no longer commune and fellowship with the All-holy God. Right here, at the very beginning, Islam and Christianity part ways though both acknowledge the event that led to our first parents being expelled from the Garden. Islam teaches that no man is sinful by nature and that all Adam and Eve had to do was repent and ask forgiveness. Accordingly man's duty is to strive towards a relative degree of self- righteousness by developing his personality according to God's revealed laws and by trusting God to forgive the rest.
Christianity, however, declares that the only righteousness acceptable to God is his own perfect righteousness and that when men sin they immediately fail to attain the mark - not a relative degree of self-righteousness but the absolute standard of God's own righteousness. "Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3.23) is the Christian concept of the effect of sin and one which creates the need of an initiative from God to reconcile men to himself through an atoning sacrifice. Islam fails to see the full extent of sin - that it is not only a punishable offence but a separating influence that destroys a man's relationship with God - and it accordingly asks why God cannot just forgive men as he pleases. Why can he not just say "Be" (kun) and accomplish whatever he purposes as he wills?
For what purpose was man created? It seems highly improbable that he was made for his own destiny and that he was set a course of attaining a relative standard of righteousness (like a 51% pass-mark in an examination) before being rewarded with the pleasures of a material paradise. It seems far more likely that if God chose to make man at all, he made him for his own glory. It is self-evident that man was made in the image of God as we saw in the last section and he was therefore obviously created to reflect the glory of God and work out his attributes to perfection. One act of defiance against God, just one declaration of independence from him, was enough to spoil the image completely. Adam and Eve fell when they sinned, something to which the Qur'an willingly testifies ("We said: Fall down, one of you a foe to the other" - Surah 2.36).
Man therefore possesses a fallen nature from which he needs to be delivered. It was necessary that another man, Jesus the Son of God, should restore that divine image in human form and work out the righteousness of God to perfection in his life so that the rest of men could be born of the Holy Spirit and thereby receive a new nature which is being "renewed in the knowledge after the image of its creator" (Colossians 3.10).
For this reason the Bible makes no attempt to cover up the sins of the prophets and other men but exposes them all to condemnation before God. Although the Qur'an likewise records the sins of some of the prophets, Islam's concept of an attainable human self-righteousness and its refusal to recognise that all men are held down by a fallen nature has led to the doctrine of the sinlessness of the prophets. In our view it is concerned more to vindicate man than it is to glorify God. The Bible, however, being God's Word, is concerned with man's redemption, not his vindication, and can accordingly afford to be far more realistic in its assessment of what man is by nature.
Christianity seeks therefore to restore human nature to its original intended greatness. Another man came, one who is by nature "the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1.15), and lifted humanity out of its degradation and gave it a dignity it otherwise could not have deemed possible.
There is possibly no other religion which has such a pessimistic view of man as he is by nature as ours has. No other tells him that he cannot save himself, that he has fallen effectively from what he was intended to be, and that his sins have made a separation between him and his Creator (Isaiah 59.2). There is no merit in Islam's intended purpose to give man a better view of himself and its suggestion that he can become acceptable to God by following its tenets to a reasonable degree. The issue is truth and reality and Christianity's assessment of man as principally sinful makes it the only religion which has the courage to make man face himself as he really is and its concept is therefore the true one.
On the other hand no religion has such an optimistic view of what man can become by the grace of God. By sending his Son in human form he printed for all eternity the divine image upon the human and made it possible for us to "become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1.4) and "heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ" (Romans 8.17). In the coming age we shall bear the image of him who is the image of God. We shall partake of his character to the full and enjoy within our own beings the fulness of all his attributes. No other religion sets such a hope before its adherents.
It becomes possible, not through a process over a period of time by which each man endeavours to obtain the mark of righteousness but by a once-for-all act of God which ensures that God's righteousness is reckoned to men as a gift and as their permanent possession. It comes through the wondrous grace of God in sending his own Son in human form as the man Christ Jesus to lay down his life for us in a single offering to ensure our eternal salvation. It was duly prophesied many centuries before it came to pass:
When Peter attempted to turn Jesus away from the cross he responded "Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men" (Matthew 16.23). So likewise today Islam seeks to keep Jesus off the cross and imagines it honours him by denying his crucifixion, but only so that it may maintain its own decree that man is not so bad that he cannot justify himself and not so far from God that he needs to be redeemed. In its call to a standard - a relative, imperfect standard of human righteousness - it too is not on the side of God but of men. It refuses to acknowledge God's transcendent holiness (which automatically relegates sinful man to a fallen state) and, while it recognises that no man can be perfect, declares that imperfection in the human soul will nevertheless be acceptable to God provided it is compensated by a belief in its tenets, an adherence to its rites, and a hope in God's forgiveness. To what extent do a man's eyes have to be opened before he sees the hopelessly inadequate nature of such a path towards the favour of God whose holiness and glory are so transcendent that even the perfect angels of heaven can hardly bear the sight?
The atoning work of God's Anointed Saviour, Jesus Christ, is the revealed way by which God has bridged a chasm from his side which could never have been bridged from ours. All men have sinned and are imperfect in his sight and no one will be accepted by covering a part of that imperfection with a devotion to rites and duties. It is only by believing in the one man who bore the image perfectly and laid down his life that we might be redeemed from our sinful imperfection and obtain his perfect righteousness that we can be saved.
2. Does the Atonement Give us a Licence to Sin Freely?
A very common objection from the Muslim world at this point is found in the suggestion that "If Christ paid the penalty, all men may sin a they like without fear" (Tisdall, Muhammadan Objections to Christianity, p. 177). Or, as it is actually stated in a Muslim writing:
The Muslim objector once again opens the door for a thorough Christian witness and we should openly welcome arguments like these as they present us with very useful opportunities to discuss precisely what the atonement means to us. I often find it very helpful to meet such objections with a retort at their own level before pressing on to a witness on a higher plane, and here I would suggest that the Christian immediately challenge the objector to quote from the Bible to show where he gets such an idea. Alternatively the Christian should graciously suggest that the Muslim is exposing a considerable ignorance of what the crucifixion of Jesus really means when viewed in respect of its atoning purpose.
The key Biblical passage on this very subject is Romans 6.1-23, though there are numerous texts which can be recommended to a Muslim by which he "will perceive how high and holy a Way has been appointed for Christians to walk in" (Pfander, The Mizanu'l Haqq (Balance of Truth), p. 147). Let us consider, however, some of the verses in Romans 6 to see how the apostle handles this subject. He begins:
Nobody obtains forgiveness of sins just by believing that Jesus died for him. His death was not just a cancellation of the penalty of sin, it was also a triumph over its power. In the section earlier in this book on the Fall of Adam and the Cross of Christ we saw how Jesus overcame the fullest power of Satan's temptations in the wilderness and thereby triumphed over the dominion of sin in its traditional realm, the human body itself. At the cross he paid the penalty for our sins so that we might share the fruits of his own victory over it. Whoever truly believes in Jesus must turn to him in repentance, desiring to receive strength from him through the Holy Spirit to overcome the natural tendency to fall prey to temptation's guilt and power. As Paul goes on to say, "The death he died, he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God" (Romans 6.10). So we too, if we are to have any share in Christ at all, must die to sin and live to righteousness.
There will be few Muslims who will easily understand the meaning of Paul's words "We know that our old self was crucified with him" (Romans 6.6), but we can state plainly the fact that it is only those who are willing to renounce the power of sin in their lives and live in newness of life who have any interest in Christ's death and resurrection. The atonement does not give a licence to sin freely, it gives us resources with which to overcome sin in our lives and be set free from its bondage and vice-like grip. As another apostle has put it:
I have often suggested to Muslims that if they know sin is wrong they should immediately promise God they will never sin again. I have yet to meet one who is foolish enough to believe he could achieve that for just one day. All men sin freely whether they believe they have a licence to do so or not. "Every one who commits sin is a slave to sin", Jesus said (John 8.34), and he came to earth to fight against its dominating influence among all men and triumph over it. All who believe in him for redemption and salvation receive the Holy Spirit of God and it is by the new controlling influence of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus that we are set free from the controlling influence of sin (Romans 8.2). Jesus came not only to "redeem us from all iniquity" but also to "purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds" (Titus 2.14). He came like us not so that we might become worse and worse, but so that we might become like him in all his perfect holy attributes.
3. The Story of the Rich Young Ruler.
Another typical objection at this point centres on a story found in all three synoptic Gospels which records a conversation between Jesus and a rich young man who enquired what he had to do to obtain eternal life. Jesus answered "If you would enter life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19.17). The argument is that Jesus never taught atonement but called on all men to observe the commandments of God if they would enter his kingdom.
We should perhaps briefly consider another argument at this point first. When the young man said to Jesus, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?", Jesus answered him "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10.17-18). It is suggested that Jesus not only did not teach atonement in this incident but also denied divinity and any measure of personal goodness, declaring that God alone is good. On the contrary we find that Jesus openly declared that he was sinless and held himself up as the one in whom all men had to believe if they would obtain eternal life (John 3.15).
He certainly never denied that he was good and in fact boldly declared "I am the Good Shepherd" (John 10.11) - a claim not only to goodness but also to deity (cf. Ezekiel 34.15 where God said "I myself will be the Shepherd of my sheep". There can be little doubt that it was this very promise that Jesus had in mind when he claimed that he himself was the Good Shepherd). A comparison of the two texts (Mark 10.18 and John, 10.11) endorses this interpretation all the more. He who said: that God alone was good would hardly have called himself the Good Shepherd if he did not believe in his own divinity The Muslims misinterpret the question "Why do you call me good?" as a denial of goodness because they fail to perceive where the emphasis really lies.
The young ruler had called him a "good teacher". The Hebrew word for teacher is "rabbi" (John 1.38) and as there were many rabbis in Israel at the time it appears he was approaching Jesus merely as one of these teachers, albeit a good one. The emphasis in Jesus' reply is meant to be on the first word: "Why do you call me good?" as the Bishop of Lahore pointed out many years ago (Tisdall, Muhammadan Objections to Christianity, p. 113). Jesus disowned any kind of relative goodness as a teacher, pointing out that God alone was absolutely good. The young man could not hope to find the path to eternal life from a relatively good teacher, but if he was prepared to acknowledge that Jesus was absolutely good (and therefore divine), he could expect to receive the required answer.
It is in the question of absoluteness that this incident finds its true meaning and through which we shall see that it is in no way inconsistent with the doctrine of atonement. For the Bible says:
No one can hope to commend himself to God by a partial observance of his laws. When Jesus told the young man to keep the commandments he was clearly telling him to keep every commandment of God always perfectly continually.
This comes out very clearly in the sequel to the meeting between Jesus and the young ruler. After being commanded to observe God's laws he boldly declared he had done so from his youth (Luke 18.21). Jesus then told him he still had a great lack and said to him that there was something he would yet have to do if he wished to commend himself to God:
Here is the heart of the matter. "If you would be perfect" he began, as anyone must be if he is to commend himself to God by an observance of his laws. Relative piety mixed with a degree of sinfulness is unacceptable to the "holy God who shows himself holy in righteousness" (Isaiah 5.16). Accordingly he commanded him to "sell all that you have" (Luke 18.22) to shake off the covetous tendency that had made him rich and far from the kingdom of God. At this, however, the young man's "countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions" (Mark 10.22).
To the standard of perfection the young man could not come. Instead of finding that he could enter life by keeping God's laws, he discovered that those very laws could only ultimately convict him of sin and destroy his self-righteousness. "The very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me" (Romans 7.10) soon proved to be his experience as well.
Jesus, however, gave a hint as to where real salvation lies when he said "If you would be perfect . . . follow me". Here lies the path to salvation. It is only in the atoning work of the Christ that anyone can be made perfect. Far from being a denial both of the atonement and the deity of Christ, the passage ultimately reaffirms them both.
The charge that "Jesus himself never taught atonement" can be met on other grounds very adequately as well. When he said that he was the Good Shepherd he promptly added "The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10.11) - a clear reference to his coming crucifixion and atoning death. The following sayings of Jesus also prove very clearly that he taught he had come to redeem men to God by laying down his life for others:
"The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many". Matthew 20.28
The one obvious incident that Christians should quote and explain in answer to this question of whether Jesus himself taught atonement is the occasion of the Last Supper. It is recorded in all three of the synoptic Gospels and is one of the climactic events of his life, one obviously full of meaning and significance for his followers. It reads as follows in Matthew's Gospel:
It is indeed well nigh impossible to understand how anyone can suggest that Jesus never taught atonement in the face of such a passage. It was the very thing he commended to his disciples the last night he was with them. By human works of law no one shall be saved ("With men this is impossible" - Matthew 19.26), but through the outpouring of the blood of Jesus who laid down his life to atone for the sins of the world, all men may find salvation.
In conclusion let me emphasize once again the need of turning Muslim objections into opportunities for witness. Throughout this chapter on the key doctrines of the Christian faith we have seen that such arguments not only need to be countered but also used as springboards for a witness to God's grace in his Son Jesus Christ. In the final chapter we shall give consideration to a few other typical Muslim objections that Christians are likely to come across in their witness to the adherents of Islam.
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