understanding atonement


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 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!


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.


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.


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


  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


  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.  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.
(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


  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.

      1. Hey Bruxy,

        Just as a comment on this, what do you do with the “famous” response to this – that translating Romans 3:25’s hilasterion like Hebrews 9:5’s “mercy-seat” is incongruent with the inner logic and thrust of Romans? Romans 1 has been about the wrath of God being poured out against all unrighteousness, and Romans 9’s context is the same. For Paul to switch his emphases to now “mercy-seat” would be rather strange indeed. Not to mention later in Romans 9 Paul uses the accusation of God as being unjust to defend these very “offensive” idea’s. Not to mention the conjugate hilasmos is used twice in 1 John, and the context in 2:2 is that we have an advocate in Christ – the idea that we need an advocate suggests, as Leon Morris says, “we are in no good case; our misdeeds prevail against us, we are about to feel the hostility of God to all that is sinful.” The context of Hebrews 9:5 is an actual item, the mercy seat, and so I get why people might want to draw the theological connection – but it doesn’t to me seem to fit Paul’s train of thought. It’s kind of forcing “mercy-seat” in there, where propitiation more accurately fits the feel of Romans. That’s why the LXX translators used the hilask-words for the Hebrew words denoting covering of sins. I’m curious how you would defend the translation “mercy-seat” within Romans within the context of God’s wrath pouring out on humanity?

        1. Hi again Rob. Thanks for your engagement.

          I’ll respond with four thoughts.

          First, I think regular folk like us (without our PhDs in the biblical languages and years of translation experience) can at least take note that translating hilastarion as propitiation in Romans 3:25 is a minority view among Bible translation committees, and that those translations that do use propitiation have a target appeal to a Calvinist market (e.g., NASB/ESV, ). The majority of current translations use other words or phrases to get as close to the original as possible, such as “mercy seat” (YLT/NET), “atoning sacrifice” (CSB), “sacrifice of atonement” (NIV/NRSV), etc.

          I especially like the CEB’s attempt to pour as much accurate meaning into their translation of hilasterion through their phrase, “the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood”. Beautiful.

          Secondly, let me point out that, from my perspective, your observations/questions seem to presuppose PSA as much as defend it. You say, “The context of Hebrews 9:5 is an actual item, the mercy seat, and so I get why people might want to draw the theological connection – but it doesn’t to me seem to fit Paul’s train of thought. It’s kind of forcing “mercy-seat” in there, where propitiation more accurately fits the feel of Romans.” And of course, I disagree with your take on the “feel of Romans.” The fact here is that, where we have a word (hilasterion) that could be interpreted a couple different ways in Romans and 1 John, we find in Hebrews clear varification of what it did clearly mean – “the place of sacrifice where mercy is found by means of his blood.” Similarly, it seems to me that God’s wrath in Romans is not so much “poured out on humanity” (your words, that set up or reveal the connection with PSA) as it is “revealed” (Romans 1:18), and it is revealed by God simply giving people over to the consequences of their own rebellion (Romans 1: 24, 26, 28).

          Thirdly, a reminder that we all agree Jesus is our “advocate” with the Father (1 John 2:1) and that, through Jesus, we who trust in Christ are saved from the wrath of God. As Romans 5:9 says, “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (We’ll ignore for now that a more literal translation would read “the wrath” and not “God’s wrath”.) It seems to be a regular maneuver of PSA proponents to put forward scripture that claims we are saved from God’s wrath (pure fact) as evidence for their theory that God saved us from his wrath by pouring his wrath upon Jesus in order to get rid of it (pure theory). It is this unsupported theory of *how* Jesus saves us from God’s wrath that is at the crux of our disagreement.

          Lastly, if by “propitiation” someone means a sacrifice that saves from wrath, then this is a perfect translation. But if by “propitiation” someone reads into the word evidence that God saves us from wrath *by venting his wrath upon the sacrifice itself*, then we need a better translation that is less theologically motivated and laden with theological theory. That’s why I think the alternate translations for hilasterion listed above, including the “mercy seat,” are more accurate.

          Thanks again for asking.

          1. Hey Brux,

            Since you are appreciative of my engagement – I shall continue. Sorry bro haha.
            Also, if you wish to tell me to stop being a pain in the butt on this, I will understand. 🙂
            CODA – I want to point out that you’re the only one who can either bolded or italicize words. That’s an unfair advantage. I would have bolded and underlined the crap out of this response if I could have!

            Ok, beginning.

            First, most current translations don’t ALL translate hilasterion as propitiation – NIV does, as well as RSV, but for example the HSCB translates it as “propitiation” and the HSCB falls between the NIV and the ESV, and is very recent (2000’s). It’s a theological perspective the impacts translation (as you know), and those translations that are impacted by C. H. Dodd’s work (NIV AND RSV) tend to favour the “mercy-seat/place of atonement” concept. His work, for those who don’t know, pushed against the idea of wrath because he argued that the idea of appeasing the wrath of a god was a pagan concept. Clearly, that’s a massive worldview to bring into translation. Most of the usages of the term found in similar greek literature (the few there are) all have to do with wrath. If you need sources for that, I can get them for you.

            The point is this, just because people might not like the idea of God having wrath against sin, which needs to be satiated, doesn’t mean they should impose that upon their interpretation or translation of Greek or Hebrew. C. H. Dodd did that in his translation (he admits himself.) Also, OUR idea of wrath should not be superimposed and anthropomorphized onto God. Humanity’s wrath is not the same as God’s wrath, and just because our wrath is evil, it does not make God’s wrath evil. So the fact that God’s wrath fell on Christ should not make us feel uncomfortable, or that it does not equate to “true forgiveness”. Once again, that’s a huge athropomorphization – if that’s even a word lol. Our forgiveness is not God’s forgiveness, and to demand God follow our definitions is, I think, a mistake. Which is why I asked my question below – where do you get in scripture that offering someone else to take our place is not “true” forgiveness? I think that’s a huge leap, and needs to be backed up.

            Secondly, you are right. I am coming with a PRO-PSA perspective. I don’t think I can argue against that. I definitely read Romans that way, so I will consent to that without argument. And yes, God’s wrath was revealed against Humanity (forgive my misquoting) – but I don’t see how that changes my argument. The point I was making is that the internal logic of Romans is about God’s wrath against humanity. That is a point for propitiation, and not for “mercy-seat”. I am still wondering how you would defend, within the internal logic of Romans, that Paul is using “mercy-seat” and not “propitiation”? In a church full of Gentiles, where there is little Levitical language in the book, why would Paul throw “mercy-seat” out there?

            Also, remember Paul says this was “to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Why would God need to be just AND justifier if He wasn’t doing away with a problem? God could simply be Justifier, but instead he is both Just (dealing with sin and it’s ramifications in Christ) and Justifier (showing love and mercy and grace to us).

            Thirdly, your point, if I understand correctly, is, “just because God has wrath against sin does not mean it was poured out on Jesus.” You provided a myriad of scriptures in your post about how in Acts Paul presented the Gospel as “the Jews killed Christ, and God raised Him.” That’s true. No one argues that. Clearly, the Jewish leaders forced Pilate to kill Jesus.

            But…did they?!? (dum dum duuuuummm)

            Hebrews 9:12 is all about Christ offering Himself – Christ acted as High Priest and offered His own blood upon the mercy-seat. His life was given up by Himself, He laid down His own life (1 John 3:16, Eph. 5:25, John 15:13, 1 Pet 2:21-25, John 10:11-18 – “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”). Christ laid His life down because He knew the Father had called Him to. Yes, the Jews betrayed Him, but we know Christ went in willingly – that’s why He told His disciples numerous times He would be put to death. It’s clear throughout scripture that the Jews turned on Jesus, their long awaited Messiah (of course), but at the same time Christ went to the cross willingly, knowingly of the cup He would bear (Matt. 26:42).

            To state that Acts is the only place we learn how to present the Gospel in all it’s fullness – haha come on, really? That’s what Romans is. A clear, 100%, theological defence of the gospel (among other things). I get your point, I do, totally. But I think you’re over simplifying a massively more complex issue. And perhaps am I am, fair rebuttal.

            Anyways, to say that “propitiation” is laden with theological emphasis, more than “sacrifice of atonement” or “mercy-seat” is simply short-sighted. Every single translation is unfortunately laden with theological emphasis, which is why translation is treason. We do the best we can with what we know about context, and how the word is used elsewhere, which is why I stand by Romans 3:25 using propitiation and not using Hebrew 9:5’s mercy-seat. It fits with the context of Romans, and with 1 John. It makes no sense to call Jesus a “mercy-seat” to a bunch of Gentiles living in Rome, even if they had a Jewish heritage and there were a few Jewish people scattered among them.

            Ok, that’s enough for now. You have my email addy. 😉

            BRUXY’S REPLY

            Hi Rob! I couldn’t reply to your last reply, so I’m editing your reply to include my reply to your reply! (Who knew these bloggy reply thingies had reply limits!)

            I’ll keep this brief, since at this point I think we’re going around in circles. I’m in complete agreement with you on almost everything you say (which means you are in almost complete agreement with me, like it or not!). We agree God is “doing away with the problem” of our sin AND his own wrath toward us for sin. We agree that the gospel is proclaimed in more than just the book of Acts. We agree that, although religious Jews and protectionist gentiles were the human agents that put Jesus to death, Jesus laid his own life down as part of God’s plan.

            We disagree about the best translation for hilasterion, which I will leave to people smarter than me to argue further. But since a lot of those smart people fall on either side of this debate, I hope we agree that it wouldn’t be wise to base our entire theory of atonement on one possible translation of a single word. And so far, there simply is no “smoking gun” on PSA. God’s wrath is removed, but HOW his wrath is removed is never stated. Yes we are free to come up with theories, but those theories are not the same thing as the gospel itself.

            So I HOPE (hopity hope hope) that we CAN agree on this: PSA in its traditional form (God poured out his wrath upon Jesus as our substitute) is a theory about the gospel (possibly true and possibly false) and as one of many theories about how atonement works, PSA is not the gospel itself or even an indispensable part of the gospel.

        2. Hi again Rob,

          I’m replying to your other reply here because that thread reached it’s limit. (I also inserted my reply into your reply, because as Blogger and Chief around here, I get to do those things.)

          I’ll keep this brief, since at this point I think we’re going around in circles. I’m in complete agreement with you on almost everything you say (which means you are in almost complete agreement with me, like it or not!). We agree God is “doing away with the problem” of our sin AND his own wrath toward us for sin. We agree that the gospel is proclaimed in more than just the book of Acts. We agree that, although religious Jews and protectionist gentiles were the human agents that put Jesus to death, Jesus laid his own life down as part of God’s plan.

          We disagree about the best translation for hilasterion, which I will leave to people smarter than me to argue further. But since a lot of those smart people fall on either side of this debate, I hope we agree that it wouldn’t be wise to base our entire theory of atonement on one possible translation of a single word. And so far, there simply is no “smoking gun” on PSA. God’s wrath is removed, but HOW his wrath is removed is never stated. Yes we are free to come up with theories, but those theories are not the same thing as the gospel itself.

          So I HOPE (hopity hope hope) that we CAN agree on this: PSA in its traditional form (God poured out his wrath upon Jesus as our substitute) is a theory about the gospel (possibly true and possibly false) and as one of many theories about how atonement works, PSA is not the gospel itself or even an indispensable part of the gospel.

  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.

  11. Isaiah 53 – seems to express all the views/theories of the atonement and makes clear – to me at least – that penal substitution plays a very big part. “It was the Lord’s will to crush him…”

  12. Bruxy, I am wondering is the PSA group is getting a bad rap because many of them focus centrally on the wrath of the Father being poured out on the Son? I really like this short but insightful article on Calvin’s view of the atonement. As you will see, his approach is multi-faceted. Remember, Calvin was not just a theologian who wrote books but was a pastor and church planter! So he was in the midst of people and their sin and all the stuff that goes with pastoring. Enjoy!

    1. Hi again J. Thanks for the article. Terrific.

      Yes, I think there are two reasons PSA gets a bad rap. One is, people believe it oversteps the clarity of scripture and fills in details that the Bible avoids, and avoids for a good reason. And secondly, many in the PSA camp champion their theory as the gospel itself, or at least an indispensable aspect of the gospel that must be preached. I quite agree with the first complaint, and I jump-up-and-down-shout-it-from-the-housetops-super-duper agree with the second.

  13. Fantastic. I love this. Thank you for being bold enough to face the wrath of the PSA’ers. 🙂

    I don’t discount PSA as a theory. And I have gravitated towards #7 but having been trained by reformers, and being a part of a reformed Church (that I love!) makes it hard to learn more about let alone speak to anyone about it. PSA is the way, man! 🙂 But the way you have separated them makes so much sense to the way I have always taught (carefully, not disrespecting the elders above me who are Godly humble men), but think helps me articulatey own thoughts. I have found it hard to separate “at-one-ment” from PSA because the PSA camp basically owns the word atonement and at times wields it like a hammer. These are good clarifications.

    One of the things I try to preach to myself and others all the time is reliance on the Holy Spirit above methodologies. And I would now add “and theories” to that.

    Let me get to my point by using an example. Suppose PSA were completely and totally backed and taught in the Bible to the T. Now suppose I have a friend who is asking questions about faith who has grown up in a home with an overly harsh father. One who always demanded punishment. Who beat him for doing wrong. I would submit that the Gospel my friend needs is not about a God of wrath who must punish because blood demands blood. The Gospel my friend needs in that moment is the truth that God forgives you and loves you, the God of theories 2, 3, 6 and 7. It might be entirely true that he has a wrong view of God’s wrath, distorted by human depravity.. but at that point what he needs is not to understand PSA but rather that God simply loves him and forgives him and doesn’t hold him accountable. Simply because he adopts us as children and calls us his own.

    I have an adopted daughter and a biological daughter. I sometimes have to punish them because what they are doing is destructive and they are choosing to keep on not listening. There is nothing I would rather have happen in a moment of disobedience than for them to say “I’m sorry daddy, please forgive me” in genuine repentance. At that point, (I’m – usually – no idiot and I know if they are sincere or not – they are still young), do I keep on punishing them until my wrath is poured out? No. My heart breaks, usually with tears of joy, I express my forgiveness, and love, and … It is finished. We move on.

    I find it difficult that we hold God as father to a different standard of forgiveness when we are made in His image and likeness.

    And yes, if you’re a PSA’er and have made it this far, maybe that overly liberal Christian who thinks he has a license to sin needs a little more PSA in his life. Needs to know what it cost.. I appeal to you do it with grace. And love. As a peacemaker. By the power of the Holy Spirit and not of your own knowledge and well crafted arguments.

    I for one am glad we can’t explain all the depths of God’s ways. It allows me to trust him and rely on His Spirit for every encounter. It allows me room to let the Spirit explain verses and words to people as they need to hear them right now in their heart of hearts.

    There are times to say more and there are times to say less, listen to the Spirit, he will guide you in every way.

    Bruxy – if you read this, I admire, commend, and with much joy thank you for so clearly admonishing unity above all. Its so crucial. And agree with your tweet that stated it’s a spiritual discipline. I am mostly egalitarian in a very complimentarian church. I have to bite my tongue often but I submitted to the elders of my own accord when we joined the church that I would never be divisive over it, would never bring it up unless asked sepcifically, and when sharing my view points go out of my way to be clear that I admire, respect, and know the elders do not use their stance to diminish but rather elevate women. It has been the good way. Humbling for me, and I hold fast to my conviction more than ever, but it has been neat to see how God has used that desire for unity for the greater good in our church.

    Jesus is Lord, and in him are forgiven of our pigheadedness. 🙂

    Grace and peace, brother.

    Wowza. That got long!

  14. Sweet, man! Loved the post – separating out fact from theory, laying out the different atonement theories, bringing in the new covenant (which is striking by the way it is neglected. Gorman’ book is such a good contribution. Thank you for yours too – I hope it attracts the attention that the new covenant deserves).

    Also, the idea that God’s wrath dissipates when there is no longer a cause for it is marvellous.

    If God’s wrath wasn’t poured out on Jesus – and it is striking that there is no scripture that explicitly stated that, except perhaps for Romans 8 speaking of God condemning sin in the flesh (presumably of Jesus) (- any thoughts on that?), then what was Jesus doing on the cross? How did he take away sin?

    All the best. I look forward to reading more.


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