When we say that a point is the crux of the matter, what we are really saying is that just as the cross is central to Christianity, so a particular point is central to the issue under discussion.1 In the Bible, the term cross is a metonym for Christ's atoning death. When we say that the cross is the central feature of Christianity, what we are really saying is that the atonement is the central feature of Christianity.
The Bible presents the atonement from several different perspectives. At particular times in the history of the church, one or more of those perspectives has gained the ascendancy in the understanding of Christians. Aspects of the atonement include victory over Satan, ransom, satisfaction of justice, substitution, reconciliation between God and man, and much more.2 Two definitions are central to the Biblical meaning of atonement. First, Christ's death deals decisively with the dilemma of man's sin in such a way as to do away with the barrier which that sin erects between God and man. Second, Christ's death satisfies the terms of God's justice. In other words, Christ's death is a restitution. The Old Testament sacrificial system is meaningless apart from an understanding of atonement. For, "it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul" (Lev. 17:11). God is a just God, and man is a sinful man. God's justice requires restitution — death (Gen. 2:16-17). In the Old Testament, the animals sacrificed were a temporary means of restitution, an atonement that God accepted for man's sin until his Son, Jesus Christ, died on the cross as the final, enduring, definitive atonement for man's sins. On the cross, in other words, sinful man made restitution to God in the Person of Jesus Christ. This is to say that Christ's death was a vicarious, or substitutionary, atonement. In the Biblical scheme of salvation, to separate substitution from atonement is to destroy the meaning of atonement; and, in a more fundamental sense, to do away with the atonement is to do away with Christianity. No atonement, no Christianity: the cross is truly the "crux."
But the Christian Faith is by no means individualistic. It addresses the individual as an individual made in the image of God though a sinner against God, but it also and equally addresses the individual in the corporate or covenantal scheme of God's dealings. In God's plan, the one and the many are equally ultimate. An aspect of this corporate or covenantal character of Christianity is culture. Culture is the externalization of a society's religion. It is the decisively religious element of society as it expresses itself in that society's life. This means, among other things, that a Christian society will look different from, say, a secular, Islamic, Satanist, or Buddhist society, and these will produce different cultures. The society anchored in orthodox Christianity will manifest the implications of the doctrine of the atonement, since the atonement is the crux of Christianity. The understanding of the atonement, in other words, weaves itself into the very fabric of the Christian society and its culture; its implications are not limited to the family and the church.
First, a Christian culture, because of its understanding of the atonement, is rooted in Biblical justice. This is simply another way of saying that it is anchored in Biblical law. A prime example is the lex talionis: An eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, stripe for stripe, wound for wound, etc. (Ex. 21:23-25). When man sins against God, he breaks God's law; he must suffer the penalty of breaking God's law. If this law also happens to be a crime in Biblical terms (most sins are not crimes), he also suffers a penalty at the hands of the state. This notion is considered barbaric by moderns, for whom culture is essentially sociological and psychological rather than judicial. This is seen in the modern criminal "justice" system, clearly a contradiction of terms. The issue today is not justice, but psychology and rehabilitation. For modern jurisprudence, two- to five-fold restitution for theft (and penal servitude for those who cannot pay [Ex. 22:1-4]) is barbaric, while throwing convicted thieves into prison where they are routinely raped, sodomized, and dehumanized is "rehabilitative." This is an example of the juridical perversion that arises when men abandon the Christian Faith and its implications for society and culture. The modern notion that penology is essentially rehabilitative strikes out at the Biblical notion of justice. In the Biblical perspective, penology is objectively retributive, not subjectively restorative. Of course, in being retributive it is also often subjectively restorative. The man who pays the Biblical penalty for his sin or crime usually experiences the psychological relief of knowing that he has satisfied the terms of God's justice. This fact, however, is incidental to the terms of justice themselves.
Second, a Christian culture grounded in a Biblical grasp of atonement is an anti-totalitarian culture,3 because it is aware that, fundamentally, sin cannot be eliminated on human terms and by human means. For example, in the Bible there are no "crimes against the state," only crimes against, first, God, and, second, other individuals. Sin can be dealt with decisively only by the atoning death of Jesus Christ; crime can be dealt with decisively only in terms of Biblical law. When a society abandons Christianity, it does not thereby abandon the need for atonement; it simply transfers the object of atonement from God to man--and usually to a tyrannical state. In China, Cuba, North Korea and the United States — "crimes against the state" are atoned for in hellish gulags. The state recreates its own justice and depicts itself as the deity to whom those sinning against it must make atonement. Marx believed that justice was simply a human convention erected by society's leaders to capture and maintain power, and that there are no transcendent standards of justice. This led Marxist-Leninist states to create their own "conventional" justice: forcible redistribution of wealth, state theft, torture, murder, and so forth. The doctrine of the atonement and the transcendental standards of justice it requires will never permit this. Christian culture means a culture based on transcendent, divine — which is to say, Biblical — standards.
Finally, a Christian culture is a culture of faith and hope. Man is naturally a sinner; left to his own devices, the best that he will accomplish is the sinful society — not a utopia, but a dystopia. The atonement graphically relates to us that God has not left man to his own devices; with man, thank God, all things are not possible, but all things are possible with God (Lk. 18:27). Christ's atonement was not designed to accomplish merely individual salvation, but its effects were calculated to extend to the entire realm of God's creation (Rom. 8:18-25). This means that Christ's redemptive work on the cross will roll back the effects of sin in time and history.4
Man's only hope is salvation in Christ who has satisfied the terms of God's justice. He satisfied this in his death, the atonement, which covered and took away man's sin debt. This is the only means by which man can be reconciled to God, and the only system by which a godly culture can flourish.
1. Leon Morris, "The Atonement," in ed., Carl F. H. Henry, Basic Christian Doctrines (New York, 1962), 152.
2. H. D. McDonald, The Atonement of the Death of Christ (Grand Rapids, 1985).
3. Rousas John Rushdoony, Law and Society (Vallecito, 1982), 74-75.
4. Gary North, Millennialism and Social Theory (Tyler, TX, 1990), 10-12 and passim.