By Rev. Sam Gutierrez
For two thousand years, theologians and lay people have gazed at the cross while scratching their heads, pondering the question, “what exactly happened when Jesus died on that cross?” Different theories have developed over time—Moral Influence, Ransom, Christus Victor, and Satisfaction—to name a few.
If you’re looking for something to do today, Google “atonement theories.” You’ll see multiple ways that theologians (including John Calvin) have tried to understand and name what Jesus accomplished on the cross. Some like to argue about which one is “right,” but most people understand atonement theories to be a like a multifaceted diamond. They offer unique but connected perspectives on an event too big and too beautiful for any one theory to completely capture.
Some time ago, I was surprised by one of my seminary professors who described salvation as “the fiery embrace of God”. It came at the end of a fascinating lecture about different theories of atonement. After lecturing about some of these different theories, our professor spent the last 20 minutes giving us an alternative way to think about the saving work of Jesus: the Fiery Embrace of God. I found this image particularly powerful because of how relational it is. As we are still in the season of Easter, I’d like to spend some time looking at three aspects of God’s Fiery Embrace as a way to understand the salvation that Christ accomplished for us on the cross.
First, we encounter God’s embracing arms. God is a relational being who reaches out to us and draws us close to His heart. Salvation is God’s active choice to embrace people—to love us and accept us in our brokenness and sin. This embrace is not only a personal validation of our incredible God-given worth, but it’s also God’s way of connecting us to his family, which we are adopted into. The first movement of salvation is God reaching out to us in an embrace of acceptance, peace, and self-sacrificial love. The challenge for us is to receive this incredible gesture of God and to believe that God is for us in every way.
Second, the embrace of God is no ordinary embrace because His arms are on fire. This fire represents a refining process that burns away impurity and makes us holy. In God’s fiery arms, we are not only accepted, loved, and adopted into a new family, we are also changed. God loves us as we are, but He’s not content to leave us that way. If the initial embrace of God can be described as “justification,” this refining fire of God has been called “sanctification” and speaks of God’s ongoing work to shape us into the image of his Son, Jesus. God’s saving embrace is not just warm and cozy, it is also burning and purifying. In the first movement, our challenge is to return God’s embrace in gratitude. The second challenge is for us to stay in the embrace and to trust God’s love while He refines us—especially when it’s uncomfortable. God is doing a good work in us, and we allow it to be done. We say “yes” to the fiery arms of God’s embrace.
Third, God sends us into the world as embraced people. We take the fiery embrace of God with us as we are sent into the world to participate in His work of reconciliation and renewal. When God embraces us with his fiery arms, he commissions us and sends us into the world as “embraced” people to witness to this love and to invite others into the fiery arms of God.
The fiery embrace of God is another way to ponder the mystery of what Jesus accomplished on that cross two thousand years ago. Whether you prefer atonement theories, fiery hugs, or some other way of understanding God’s amazing grace, the end result should always be the same—to move us towards profound gratitude for what God has done and is doing to make all things new.