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The 2006 film Nacho Libre tells the story of a friar (Nacho) who loves to wrestle. (It’s based on a true story!)

By day, Nacho lives and works at an orphanage, caring for children with no family. At night he puts on a mask and stretchy pants to become a Mexican luchador. Though he and his partner are terrible wrestlers, they discover even the losers get paid. At first, Nacho is intoxicated with the glory of being a Mexican wrestler. Over time, he sees it as an opportunity to give the orphans a better life. All of this culminates in a final match against the champion Ramses where Nacho finds himself on his back, with Ramses’ foot on his neck. When all seems lost, he sees his young orphan friend Chancho and Sister Encarnacion bringing the orphans into the arena, all wearing his signature mask. Inspired by their presence, he summons his “inner eagle spirit” to rise up and defeat Ramses. The film ends with Nacho, Sister Encarnacion, and the orphans, taking their new bus on a field trip to see the world.

I was reminded of Nacho Libre recently when I was informed via email that the local Christian Reformed Classis was not renewing my license to preach. I wasn’t at the meeting, but later discovered it had something to do my views on atonement theory. Which got me thinking — If anyone had bothered to ask, what would I have said?

In his book The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion, N.T. Wright claims the reformers understanding of Christ’s death remained stuck in medieval categories. Early Christian views of the atonement were diverse, with most being described as a form of Christus victor — Christ’s death and resurrection is God’s victory over the “tyranny of the devil.” Around the turn of the first millennium, Anselm of Canterbury developed the “satisfaction theory” of the atonement that shifted the problem from the devil to God’s wrath. In this view, sin is when humans take something they owe to God (honor and worship), which leads to the breaking of covenantal relationship. To make satisfaction, humanity must give back to God not only what is originally owed, but also a gift that goes above and beyond. Because there is no way for humanity to offer such a gift (we already owe God everything) God becomes human in Jesus Christ and offers his life as an act of propitiation to satisfy

God’s wrath. In going above and beyond, Christ’s life and death creates a treasury of merits — an overwhelming abundance of good works accessible through acts of charity, the sacramental system, and indulgences.

According to Wright, reformers like Luther and Calvin didn’t challenge the premise of the satisfaction theory regarding human sin and God’s wrath. Their concern was the emphasis on “merits” that created the medieval system of penance and purgatory. So, they changed the metaphor to reflect a judicial declaration that emphasizes the “finished” nature of redemption, undermining the doctrine of purgatory. “Not only had the divine wrath been placated through the Father’s own action in sending the Son; the punishment for sin had already been meted out. The more one emphasized Jesus’s wrath-bearing death in the sinner’s place, the less one could then ask the sinner to bear any subsequent punishment. (The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion p. 30)

Wright’s point is that the “penal” view of substitutionary atonement addresses issues related to Medieval Catholicism — the indulgence system, purgatory, and the Mass as sacrifice — by insisting Christ completed the work of salvation on our behalf. The problem, as Wright sees it, is the biblical authors did not address Medieval Roman Catholic issues. Instead they focused on the Old Testament problem of exile and the hope of restoration. Sin, in this context, is the idolatrous shattering of the image of God that leads to a world filled with violence and despair. God’s response to sin is wrath, but wrath is the shadow side of love — God is angry because God loves humanity, God loves creation, and humans have made a terrible mess of things.

When understood in the context of the Old Testament, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the deliverance of God’s people from exile. God enters human exile — “My God…why have your forsaken me?” — to lead a new Exodus. This is the biblical view of substitutionary atonement expressed by Paul in his letter to the Romans that leads to this proclamation: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Which brings me back to Nacho Libre: It’s a story about familial love and adoption. Nacho gets into the ring with Ramses for the sake of the orphans. He takes their rejection and suffering upon himself, and it is his love for them that brings unexpected victory. While it’s not a perfect metaphor, it’s more biblical than it might seem. Jesus Christ is, biblically speaking, our kinsman redeemer — he comes to find every lost child and graft them back into the family. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2) What better picture of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ can we have than a group of orphans becoming one big family!

My local CRC classis leaders who oppose my preaching are hellbent on making the boundary lines of demarcation more rigid. They are not interested in grafting people in, they are obsessed with kicking (and keeping) people out. They place the letter of the law above the biblical message, losing sight of the good news — in Jesus Christ the walls have been torn down (Ephesians) and the promise to Abraham that he will have many children has been fulfilled. If it’s a choice between the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, narrowly defined, and the Gospel, like Luther I’m more interested in remaining faithful to God’s word. Finally, in the words of St. Nacho of Libre: “They don’t think I know a butt load of crap about the gospel, but I do!”

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at


  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    The irony of the classis’ charge, v. your calling, education, and position at NC. Apparently their theology isn’t a practical one. May this ban be just a sabbatical blip for you; I’m sure other area churches could appreciate your preaching.

  • Leonard Vander Zee says:

    Oh Jason, thanks for sharing your tragic story of the present purifying mood within the CRC. It reminds me of the Inquisition in late Medieval Catholicism. This is confessionalism run amok, in which any new or even resurrected theological insight is met with suspicion and rejection. It’s as though theological development reached its apex in the 16th Reformation and is now to be preserved in amber ever after.

  • Jon Pott says:

    Jason, so very sorry to hear your story. You may wish to know, if you don’t already, of a recent book by Fred Anderson, Pastor Emeritus of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, entitled “Why Did Jesus Die and What Does That Have to Do with Me: A Biblical and Sacramental Understanding of Atonement.”

  • Ruth E. Stubbs says:

    Isn’t it sad that such a lot of effort and energy are spent in trying to figure out who is in and who is out!? Jesus must be weeping. Ruth

  • Kathy DeMey says:

    Again, there has to be ONE view that we all adhere to, or we’re outside of the boundary line. So limited and stingy. God have mercy.

  • June says:

    God’s wrath is the shadow side of love. God is angry because he LOVES all that he has created. Thanks for these wonderful words of LIFE.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    I’m sorry to hear of this situation, but even more than that, I’m grateful to hear of your courage to remain true to what you believe and what you think the Gospel says to the world and to us who are part of it.
    Far too often, people choose the easy path, the going along to get along, instead of standing up for what they believe and receiving the consequences. You are an excellent model of faithfulness for us.
    p.s. If you are ever in Westwood, NJ and want a place to preach, our pulpit is open.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Jason, I am sad to hear that. Does that mean you cannot preach at Covenant? I have always enjoyed your sermons. I still love the movie that you recommended to us called “Millions.” I also am a believer in adoption with one child adopted by Charlie and I and four adopted by my son Mike and his wife Kim. The gospel goes out into the world in a gracious, all-encompassing way. It steals the hearts of many who listen and sees us acting in God’s good world.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    I’m so very sorry that you have become another victim of the cleansing of the church of all those who do not bow to the rigidly defined one true gospel that has determined by higher powers. These powers seem to know the mind of God so much more than we mere mortals who still want to read, search, and expand the message as we grow and change.

  • Deb Mechler says:

    Yours is a thoughtful response to what has to be so painful. As R. Rohr says about such arrogant “knowing,” God is just not that picky!

  • Ron Calsbeek says:

    Thank you for your example of graciousness in the face of rejection. Seems that reformed and always reforming no longer applies in the CRC. Maybe it never did. There are other congregations/denominations that will welcome your devotion and scholarship.

  • Art Jongsma says:

    Oh, Jason! What a pity! Do they honestly think anyone cares about how many angels can dance on the end of a needle? People care about being loved by a God of mercy so deeply that he sent his only son to die for our sin. Now let’s try to live in gratitude by loving God above all and our neighbor as we love ourselves. Thank you, Lord!

  • Betsy says:

    Really sorry that this happened to you in the way it did. This article (
    Makes it sound like what happened to you is not what the denomination has claimed as its position. But currently there seems to be a strong push for purity in all kinds of ways. I hope you find a place to preach a more well rounded understanding.

  • Lena says:

    According to Google, there are over 38 Bible verses that defend penal substitionary atonement. Also according to Google the definition of Substitionary Atonement is: Christ suffers for us and the definition of penal Substitionary Atonement is: Christ punished for us. I’m surprised that you can’t get on board with PenalSubstitionary Atonement and instead water it down to just Substitionary Atonement. This is important and the church needs to be clear and stand firm.

  • RZ says:

    We are (almost) all sorry for you!
    I speculate that few, if any of your classis leaders have invested the scholarship you have invested in pondering this. NT Wright is so right to remember that every confessional movement came in REACTION to some theological/ political crisis of its time. Similarly, scripture answers various questions of the time and we misinterpret scripture when we fail to identify the question being answered. Your voice continues to inspire us, so please be encouraged. And know that NT Wright would also be muzzled in your classis. As to the church “standing firm,” yes, we have examples: Crusades, Inquisition, Galileo, and a host of “holy wars.”

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