Five Tips for Illustrating the Atonement
How to make sure your illustrations are grounded in Scripture and connect with your people.
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Let's face it, good sermon illustrations are tough to come by. Every week preachers wrestle with a key question during sermon prep: "How do I craft illustrations that are compelling, credible, and theologically sound?" All three criteria are important, but we often focus attention on providing compelling and credible illustrations. But we can't undervalue the importance of being theologically sound. This is especially important as we approach Easter and think about one of the most difficult doctrines to illustrate: the Atonement.
What's at stake in illustrating the Atonement? Think of it this way: your pulpit is a classroom. Sunday morning may be the only time during the week that some of your laypeople actually engage the Scriptures. By expounding the Scriptures, you are providing ongoing biblical education for your laypeople. Hopefully, over time they will gain an ever-deepening knowledge of God, his works, and his Word. Consequently, you want to ensure you always communicate robust, orthodox theology. If you use theologically problematic illustrations, you may be teaching your listeners bad theology, whether or not you or they are aware of it.
The Atonement is one of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. So you'll want to make sure you communicate Christ's atoning work in a way that is certainly compelling and emotive, but most importantly faithful to Scripture. So here are five tips to help you use illustrations that bridge Scripture and contemporary life.
1. Realize the Atonement is a multifaceted event.
New Testament scholar J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) said of the Atonement, "This Bible doctrine is not intricate or subtle. On the contrary, though it involves mysteries, it is itself so simple that a child can understand it." Christ died for our salvation! What's complicated about that? And yet, there are multiple understandings of how Christ accomplished our salvation and what our salvation entails. That's one reason why the Atonement can be a difficult doctrine to illustrate effectively.
Numerous Atonement theories have arisen throughout church history—motifs such as Ransom, Christus Victor, Satisfaction, Sacrifice, Moral Influence, Moral Government, and Penal Substitution, only to name a few. While certain traditions and theologians tend to emphasize one motif over the others, the Bible gives us various images to describe Christ's atoning work: self-giving love (John 15:13), the forgiveness of enemies (Matt. 26:28), payment of a debt (Col. 2:14), the ransom of captives (Mk 10:45), victory over demonic powers (Col 2:8, 15), and so on. All Atonement theories are partial yet complementary. No one theory by itself captures the full extent of Christ's work.
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