close
OtherTheology

understanding atonement

crown_of_throwns_600

CAUTION! This is a looong post! Get comfy. Get cozy. And get your theology egghead caps on…

~ ◊ ~

At the core of the gospel stands the cross of Christ. All Christians agree that Jesus accomplished our salvation through his sacrificial death on the cross. No debate.

At the same time, Christians subscribe to different theories about exactly how Christ’s death accomplished our salvation. These disagreements shouldn’t divide us, rather it is good to acknowledge them and do our best to understand our brothers and sisters who may express their understanding of the atonement in different ways.

In order to do that, let’s talk about the FACT of the atonement, the IMAGES of the atonement, and the THEORIES of the atonement. Ready? Alright! Let’s do this!

  1. THE FACT OF THE ATONEMENT

The apostle Paul wrote:

“Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3)

That’s a Bible fact. And all Christians agree about the fact of the atonement.

The word “atonement” is our best English translation for the Hebrew word kippur, meaning to wipe away, to cover over, to cleanse. You’ve heard of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur: since yom means “day,” Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.” And “atonement” is a terrific English word for kippur, since it literally means at-one-ment. How beautiful is that. The result of our cleansing from sin is our at-one-ment with God, being reconciled and (re)united forever.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus walking toward him, he said to the crowds,

“Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

From the start of Jesus’ ministry it was clear that Jesus would accomplish atonement – taking away, covering over, and cleansing us from our sin – so we might be reconciled with God.

For atonement to become a complete act of (re)union, two things must be removed that separate us from God:

  1. Our sin.
  2. God’s wrath.

Our sin is a kind of moral and spiritual disease that separates us from God. We are born with it and, in turn, contribute to it and are corrupted by it. Sin turns our hearts away from the God who is Love. Our default becomes competition with others and striving for autonomy from God. The atonement of Christ promises to heal us from the inside out.

God’s wrath refers to the judgement we deserve from our heavenly Father for the way we have rebelled against him and for the ways we have contributed to the pain and separation of our human family. Guilty as charged.

When Jesus takes our sin away from us, he not only heals our hearts but he makes us sinless, at least in one sense: in our spirits, our true selves (Romans 7:17, 20). All Christians agree on this. And since we are no longer guilty sinners, but have been “justified” (literally, made righteous, or “righteousified”), we are no longer deserving of God’s wrath or punishment. All of this is a gift of God – amazing grace!

The apostle Paul wrote:

“…all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:24-25)

What good news!

  1. IMAGES OF THE ATONEMENT

The Bible uses different images, pictures, and metaphors to help communicate the power of the gospel of our salvation. Here are a few.

  • Jesus is the Passover lamb – again, an image of a life given for our freedom (1 Corinthians 5:7).
  • Jesus is a sacrifice lamb – the lamb who takes away our sins (John 1:29).
  • Jesus becomes the “mercy seat” – the place where God comes and offers mercy to his people (Romans 3:25; Hebrews 9:5). The Greek word used in these verses, hilasterion, comes from the Hebrew word, kapporeth, which in turn is derived from kaphar, meaning to cover over, to wipe out, or to cleanse. These Hebrew and Greek words were used to refer to the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, known as “the mercy seat.” This was where a priest would sprinkle blood and God would come and meet us with mercy.
  • Jesus is the conquering king – the one who achieves victory through what looks like defeat
    (1 Corinthians 15:54-57; Hebrews 2:14).
  • Jesus is our ransom – a price paid for our freedom (Mark 10:45).
  • Jesus is our healer – like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, Jesus will heal those who are dying and look to him in faith (John 3:14-16; 2 Corinthians 5:17, 21).
  • Jesus is the slain lamb who cuts a New Covenant – with the blood of Jesus, God puts his signature on a New Covenant (Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25).

Notice the last three images come from Jesus himself. As an Anabaptist Christian, what Jesus says about his own death holds special significance for me and becomes my starting point for understanding the atonement. Jesus saw himself primarily as the one who brings freedom, healing, and a new way of being in relationship with God and one another.

Christians do not debate any of these seven striking images of what Jesus accomplished through his death. They are, after all, straight out of the Bible. What Christians DO debate, is the meaning of the metaphors. How exactly do these images of atonement play out? What are the actual metaphysics behind the metaphors? On this point there has been much debate.

  1. ATONEMENT THEORIES

This is important to acknowledge up front: atonement theories are just that – atonement theories. They are our best human attempts to understand the deeper theological implications of the fact and images of the atonement. We are now leaving behind a simple restatement of what the Bible says and beginning to do theology about what the Bible means. When we do this two things should happen:

  1. Our insight and appreciation of the various implications of the atonement should grow.
  2. Our humility should also grow, knowing that there is more than one biblically supported way of understanding the atonement.

Throughout Church history, different atonement theories have had their day in the sun, eventually to be set aside for another theory believed to have more insight and scriptural alignment. I’ll just list a few of the most popular here, and will divide them into three helpful categories: Jesus as Prophet, Priest, and King.

JESUS AS PROPHET

Theories in this category stress what Jesus says through his crucifixion. What is God communicating to humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus?

  1. MORAL GOVERNANCE – Christ shows us our own depravity and the horror of sin’s effects
  2. MORAL INFLUENCE – Christ shows us the depth of God’s love for us, and how we ought to love God and others

JESUS AS PRIEST

  1. HEALING (EXPIATION) – Christ changes our hearts by taking our sin and making us new
  2. PENAL SUBSTITUTION (PROPITIATION) – Christ changes God’s heart by taking our punishment and appeasing God’s wrath

JESUS AS KING

  1. RANSOM – Christ fooled Satan by offering his life in place of ours, but then he rose again anyway
  2. CHRISTUS VICTOR – Christ conquered Satan by turning power upside down and ascending his throne as the rightful king

There is one more atonement theory I’ll mention that has been woefully under-represented over the centuries, yet has been sitting right under our noses all along.

  1. NEW COVENANT – Christ’s death ends the old covenant and establishes a new way of relating to God and each other

What theory captures your heart and mind above the others? Perhaps you hold a cluster of them together as primary in your thinking. Terrific. Most Christians hold one principle theory while at the same time agreeing that many or most of these theories have some merit. As for me, I think #7 is the most dominant biblical view of the atonement (which incorporates aspects of other views as well), yet it has been the least represented view in Christian theology over the centuries. (All this is changing these days thanks to theologians like Michael J. Gorman. See his book, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant. See also my books, The End of Religion and (re)union: the good news of Jesus, for seekers, saints, & sinners.

Regardless of which theory (or theories) resonate most with you, there is one thing I believe all Christians should object to: that is any Christian or group of Christians making any one atonement theory equivalent with the gospel. When that happens, the gospel is not bolstered but diminished, not strengthened but weakened. (I document how this happens in various ways in (re)union.) Let’s nail this one down: Atonement theories are not the gospel but theories about the gospel; specifically about how atonement (which is at the heart of the gospel) works.

Currently, I see some Christians conflating Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) with the gospel. According to some Christians today, you’re just not preaching the gospel until you specifically describe God pouring out his wrath upon Jesus on the cross. After all, if Christ’s death does remove God’s wrath (an atonement FACT), we might as well come up with a theory about where that wrath went. And it would make sense that, since Jesus took our sin (a biblical FACT), like a sacrifice lamb (a biblical IMAGE), then God’s wrath for us must have been transferred to Jesus, like a heat seeking missile, and been vented upon Jesus instead of us (an extra-biblical THEORY). And while this theory might be the case, this imagery of God needing to vent his wrath upon Jesus so he can forgive us has two strikes against it: a) It goes beyond what the Bible clearly and plainly says, and b) it seems to contradict, or at least not align with, how the early church presented the gospel to non-Christians.

In the book of Acts there are over a dozen examples of gospel presentations, and none of them touch on the basics of PSA. In fact, look at the pattern that emerges whenever the apostle Peter preaches the gospel and notice the role God plays in the Easter story…

This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. (Acts 2:23-24)

Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. (Acts 2:36)

You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. (Acts 3:15)

…Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead… (Acts 4:10)

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. (Acts 5:30)

They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day.
(Acts 10:39-40)

The pattern is pronounced: WE are responsible for killing Christ. BUT GOD intervened by raising him from the dead. Yes, there is wrath displayed in the crucifying of Christ, but it is ours, not God’s. When we look at the cross, we see our wrathful rejection of God, and his unhindered love for us. For some reason, the earliest gospel preachers and the writers of scripture refrain from describing God pouring out his wrath upon Christ on the cross.

Some Christians assume that the “cup” Jesus prays about in the garden of Gethsemane is the cup of God’s wrath, perhaps because the Bible elsewhere uses this image (e.g., Job 21:20; Isaiah 51:17, 22; Jeremiah 25:15; Revelation 14:10; 16:19). But Jesus himself shows us how he uses the idea of the cup in conjunction with his death. In Matthew 20:22-23, Jesus tells his disciples that they too will drink from the same cup. He must be referring to the cup of suffering, not God’s wrath. These disciples would suffer for their faith, though they would be saved from God’s wrath.

Here’s the thing: God discharging his wrath upon Jesus is simply never stated in Scripture. And if it is not stated in Scripture, and never preached publicly as the gospel, there is likely a very good reason why God has decided not to offer us that mental image – an image of our loving Father pouring out pure undiluted angry punishment upon his beloved son. When God wants us to think about his role in the crucifixion of Jesus, he tells us it was his plan and purpose to see Christ suffer for us, even to crush Christ as a “guilt offering” (Isaiah 53:6, 10; Acts 2:23). But he stops short of saying he vented his own wrath upon his Son. Why?

Perhaps when we think about the crucifixion of Christ, when we meditate on his sacrifice for our sin, when we stare at a painting or a crucifix, God the Father doesn’t want people to think of him hovering above Jesus while pouring out his angry punishment. When we think about the suffering of Christ, we do see wrath, but it is our wrath we see raging against Christ. And God? He is in Christ, suffering along with Christ, loving us through Christ, and reaching out to us with reconciling love. This much is clearly stated in Scripture:

“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19)

God was in Christ.

God was reconciling the world to himself.

God no longer holds our sins against us.

We are justified (made just-as-if-I’d never sinned), we are made new (2 Corinthians 5:17), and we are truly forgiven (Luke 24:47). Our guilt is gone, and so is any punishment associated with that guilt. Where did that punishment go? That’s the thing about forgiveness – the punishment just goes. It is dropped, forgotten, laid aside. If I told you I forgave you for the debt you owe me, and I can do this because I already got my son to pay that debt on your behalf, well, that isn’t true forgiveness, but just a different route to payment.

So let me end on a personal note. It’s true, I’m not a fan of PSA, and even less of a fan of people preaching PSA like it is the gospel. Of course my fellow Christian brothers and sisters may agree or disagree with me about this and we can continue to debate which atonement theories are best or worst for  years to come. But regardless of our disagreements, we should be united in this basic Bible truth: through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, God is reconciling the world to himself, and us to one another.

Again to quote the apostle Paul:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
(Ephesians 2:14-16)

If God, through the crucifixion of Jesus, can bring together the warring factions of Jews and Gentiles in the first century, surely through this same sacrifice of at-one-ment, God can unite Christians with different atonement theories in the twenty-first century. Amen?

Happy Easter!

Tags : atonementBruxyBruxy CaveycrosscrucifixionEasterJesusNew CovenantPenal SubstitutionPSA

22 Comments

  1. WOW!
    You have summed up beautifully my heart. I had the privilege of growing up in a nondenominational church whose foundations were in the PAOC. Over my growing up years I sat under pastors with backgrounds in southern baptist, pentecostal holiness, apostolic?, but the pastor that most influenced my early thinking was a presbyterian. He was the ‘love pastor’. That was his message. Sunday nights we would have a group of nuns and priests and our local united church parishoners come to service. He often repeated the phrase ‘we can all meet in unity at the foot of the cross.’
    Thank you Bruxy for gently leading back to that.

  2. Enjoyed this very much. Love the appropriate caution on “theories about atonement”. St Athanasius’ and the early church never entertained such a theory and this in itself is a further caution. Well done.

  3. I was just getting settled in for a long read and it was over. Thanks for taking on this subject. I hope you will flesh out your thoughts on the other atonement theories as well.

  4. There can be no “Happy Easter” with a gutted atonement like that! An atonement like that saves no one. Ga 1:8,9

  5. So how do you explain passages like Romans 3:24-26? Christ is our propitiation. And that word means to appease or satisfy. So what did Christ’s death appease or satisfy in the nature of God? This is where the holiness of God comes into play. The former sacrificial of the OT never atoned for sin, it just covered it. All those blood sacrifices were pointing to THE sacrifice of Jesus. God’s white hot holiness demands he judges sin. And the Father’s judgment fell upon Christ. That’s the beauty of the cross! The wrath that God rightfully should heap upon sinners has been placed on the Lord. I just don’t see a way around this. It is at the heart of the Gospel. Why is something so clearly taught and foundational to Christianity being pushed to the side? I recommend The Holiness of God by Piper and The Cross of Christ by Stott as theological primers regarding the atonement.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts J. And for the book recommendations. I’ve read both and they are very good. Now in response:

      1. Propitiation is an English word that some translators (based on their embrace of PSA) use to translate “hilasterion” – the Greek word I discuss in the blog. See above. It is a *theologicaly* driven decision to translate hilasterion as propitiation. So I would align with more literal translations of Romans 3 that translate hilasterion as “mercy seat” (NET) or “sacrifice of atonement” (NIV).

      2. No one is suggesting that God’s wrath is not real and that we are not saved from his righteous judgement through Christ’s sacrificial death. Atonement theories simply debate HOW that happens, and I am pointing out that the Bible stops short of saying God had to vent his wrath onto Jesus. I am calling us to preach the gospel the way the first Christians did – we killed Christ, but God raised him from the dead.

      I hope that is helpful.
      Peace.

  6. Thanks for the explanation, the room to respectfully disagree and the call to link arms with those with whom we disagree in order to spread HIS love to the world who needs it so desperately.

    He is Risen.

  7. The cross is indeed a kaleidoscope! Just to sum up: you are saying that the cross DID “remove God’s wrath against sin” – not only “reveal man’s/wrath/evil towards God”? As you stated the two facts: 1) remove sin 2) remove wrath of God .

    Do you (Bruxy) have an opinion on HOW that happened?

    1. Thanks Ryan. You got it.

      As for HOW God’s wrath is removed, the answer to that is above my pay grade (and apparently everyone’s, since the Bible doesn’t say).

      But since this is just my opinion you’re asking for, if we truly are healed spiritually (theory #3) and born anew, without sin in God’s sight, there simply is no more wrath for us. We simply “will not be judged” says Jesus (John 5:24).

      If a convict is exonerated for a crime and given a full judicial pardon (i.e., justified), the punishment simply goes away; it is withdrawn. That person’s punishment doesn’t have to be meted out onto someone else to keep things fair. Forgiveness is, by nature, unfair.

      I hope that helps bring clarity. Thanks for asking.

    1. Great article! His comment that you can’t just pick and choose a single “theory” is methodologically flawed is bang on. Too often we present “options” like they are all equal, when many are not. “Surely the right question to ask is this: Which, if any, of these so-called “models” is exegetically warranted by the Bible itself?”

  8. So I am confused. Why is it so bad to say that the wrath and judgment of God that should have rightfully been placed upon me for my sin was instead poured out on the Son for me? Why is that not the Gospel? If I read Romans correctly, Paul is saying that God’s wrath is two-fold. It is currently being poured out passively – see Romans 1:18-32 but there will come a day when we are all judged and those without Christ will face the active wrath of God and be sent to hell. Rom 2:2 – “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.” Rom 2:5 – “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”

    So it seems pretty clear that sinning against a holy, righteous, and just God demands that the sinner be punished – i.e., face his judgment and wrath. Look at Romans 3:5-6 – “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) [6] By no means! For then how could God judge the world”?

    For the Apostle Paul, God pouring out his wrath on sin is exactly what he does. And if he will pour out his wrath on those that do not trust in Christ as their Lord and Savior, then why not do the same to Christ on behalf of those who DO BELIEVE in Jesus as their savior.

    This all seems to me to be the HEART of the Gospel. God’s wrath is no longer something a Christian will face because the Son took it on himself for us. That makes the good news SO GOOD. That is why grace is so amazing. We are so sinful and utterly inept to change our present state that we need a Savior to die on our behalf and be that sacrifice that we could never be for ourselves.

    Am I missing something here?

    1. Hi J (John? Janice? Jack? Jill?). Welcome back. Again.

      Sorry you are confused. Interestingly, there are a growing number of Christians who say that they find PSA confusing. The idea that an almighty God cannot simply forgive the sin of a repentant believer until he vents his anger onto another member of the Trinity seems to many to diminish rather than heighten his holiness.

      Now, I agree that it is very good news indeed that no one has to face the wrath of God, if they trust in Christ to exchange their sin for his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). Praise God! And yes, this is at the HEART of the gospel. But precisely HOW God goes about doing that is not the heart of the gospel and is not proclaimed in Scripture. And so on this matter I think it is best to heed the apostle Paul’s warning: “Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6). As I pointed out in my blog post, why should any of us object to proclaiming the gospel the way the first Christians did in the book of Acts and elsewhere?

      In the end, let’s be clear that the discussion is not around whether or not PSA is “bad” (as you asked), but whether or not it is biblical. That’s all. I’m suggesting, along with a growing number of Christians, that this popular atonement theory has very weak biblical support. Hey, maybe we will die and find out PSA is completely true. Fine and dandy. But for now we should note that PSA is not the gospel we must embrace in order to be saved, but rather a theory ABOUT the gospel.

      As I say to my PSA believing friends, I am happy to support you believing this, but please don’t preach it like your theory is the gospel itself. It is not.

      J, I hope these thoughts help with your confusion. As Jesus said in Luke’s version of the Great Commision, what is most important is that the message of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47). I trust we can agree that this is a message worth spreading.

      Happy Easter!

  9. It would be well to see how the bible defines Gods wrath. In the first chapter of Romans 1 from verse, 22 to 28 Paul list the sins of men, in three sections, each section concludes with either the words he gave then up, or he gave them over
    Jesus died the death of a sinner, his cry on the cross was not Father, Father why are you killing me, but why have you forsaken me
    And what can a God of love do about those of his children who rebel against him, who do not accept his forgiveness, who want nothing to do with him, but sadly give the up let them go to suffer the consequence of their own actions
    George Simpson

  10. Hey Bruxy, thank you for the article. Just need some clarification on something you said –

    My question comes from this statement, “If I told you I forgave you for the debt you owe me, and I can do this because I already got my son to pay that debt on your behalf, well, *THAT ISN’T TRUE FORGIVENESS*, but just a different route to payment.”

    Are you saying that Jesus paying for our debt of sin is not true forgiveness? That God substituting Christ, and in a way Himself, to pay for our sin is not really forgiveness? Do you mean true forgiveness, can only happen by totally ignoring a debt?

    If that is true, I am wondering what Biblical basis you would have for that? What example in the Bible do we see God forgiving sin without any substitutionary cost (blood sacrifice, repentance)? Do we have an example of God blotting out sin without any kind of exchange?

    What do we do with Ephesians 1:7 where it says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” It appears redemption and forgiveness comes THROUGH his blood according to His grace.

    I guess this is my logic – if that is true, why the need for the Law, or for the cross at all?

    Perhaps you did not intend to suggest that true forgiveness did not come through Christ’s death on the cross, but if you did some further clarification would be good.

    1. Hi Rob. Thanks for your thoughts and questions. Sorry if I’m not clear. I hope these two thoughts are helpful…

      1. I think that there are indeed instances in Scripture when God/Jesus forgives sin apart from any blood sacrifice (e.g., Numbers 21:8; Jonah 3; Hosea 14:3; Matthew 6:14; 9:2), but then, one could simply argue that any example of this means God was “loaning” forgiveness in advance of the payment of Christ’s blood. That may be the case, or God may simply be able to forgive, period.

      2. I trust you know that I affirm Ephesians 1:7. Our freedom (from slavery to sin and the law) comes through the blood of Jesus. He cuts a New Covenant, in which is granted freedom, forgiveness, rebirth, and many more blessings (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-27). This can all be affirmed without elaborating on the biblically absent idea of God needing to vent his wrath upon Jesus.

      Hopefully this helps bring clarity, if not agreement.
      Peace.
      Bruxy

Leave a Reply

X