Jude raised an excellent point about sin and forgiveness in her comment on the Kingdom of God post. Sin very often remains an oppressive force with substitutional atonement, because one is constantly wary of having to confess each individual instance in order to have it absolved; otherwise, God’s grace is powerless to forgive, it is said (or implied). That’s a stressful way to live (or not live, really).
I think substitutional atonement places such an emphasis on guilt (seen as offence against God) and forgiveness that is ends up being oppressive rather than lifegiving. Or that’s been my experience, anyway. Brian McLaren made an excellent point in a recent Rev Up when he said that sin is not as much about guilt, as it is about slavery (interestingly, this comment had the most resonance for the audience of anything else he said, which was hugely obvious for me sitting at the back of the room). The Bible talks about this again and again, yet because we are shaped by our reading about sin through a guilt lens rather than a slavery one, we never notice it.
That is, sin is oppressive precisely because it locks us into a spiral of destruction from which we by ourselves are powerless to break free. We are bound by it. Jesus’ nonviolent, loving response to sin broke its power over us. His resurrection gives us the power to live (where life is equated with living the way of God, not merely existing).
But I guess ultimately what I’m saying is that past sin (which is very much the focus of substitutional atonement) is not as much the point as present sin. Forgiveness is not just about wiping the slate clean (although that is certainly true, and is a palpable relief for many of us), but is about redemption. God somehow redeems my mistakes (sin) and in so doing, frees me from their consequences. Actually God’s grace frees us from the consequences of our sin anyway (Rom 5:8 “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” italics added), but with confession they are stripped of their power to bind us in future. That is the sense in which past sin is not as important as present sin. Insofar as I am living into the vast, unfettered future afforded me by God’s grace, I am being saved.
That’s not to say we ignore or gloss over past sin; aside from anything else, reparation being made for that is part of what it means to love positively in the present (which is why restorative justice is so much more lifegiving than retributive or punitive justice). And being aware of past sin means being aware of what power it had over you and perhaps still does if you’re not careful to live into the freedom you’ve been afforded. But living means being fully present, not preoccupied with past or future. Expanding our now, as Harrison Owen says.
Athol Gill apparently used to say that the evangelical problem was not that we take sin too seriously (which appears to be the case because of the excesses of substitutional atonement) but that we don’t take it seriously enough. In some way we fundamentally misunderstand what sin is if we merely conceive it as breaking God’s rules or offending God’s honour. But that’s for another time, and another post.