And now it’s time to get our theology egghead caps on…
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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!
- 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:
- Our sin.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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:
- Our insight and appreciation of the various implications of the atonement should grow.
- 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?
- MORAL GOVERNANCE – Christ shows us our own depravity and the horror of sin’s effects
- 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
- HEALING (EXPIATION) – Christ changes our hearts by taking our sin and making us new
- PENAL SUBSTITUTION (PROPITIATION) – Christ changes God’s heart by taking our punishment and appeasing God’s wrath
JESUS AS KING
- RANSOM – Christ fooled Satan by offering his life in place of ours, but then he rose again anyway
- 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.
- 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. C.S. Lewis wrote:
Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem quite so immoral and silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor an other is Christianity. The central belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter: A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.
(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
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.
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.
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?
PS: For more on the topic of atonement, check out this post that discusses how we are “Saved from Sin.”