Words of Life – “Atonement” (Part 2)

Last week, we delved into the evasive concept of “Atonement” as depicted in both the Old and New Testaments. In that study, we found that biblical atonement signifies the cleansing and purification of sin. This is central to the Christian faith as Jesus’ blood shed on the Cross is seen to bring about the ultimate atonement for sins. Interestingly, however, while the New Testament writers underscored the reality and significance of Jesus’ death, they seem less concerned about the specific mechanisms by which His death resulted in atonement. Instead, the biblical authors (and subsequent Christian thinkers) have employed a variety of metaphors to describe the atoning power of the cross and while none of these pictures independently captures the full essence of the atonement; they combine to form a beautiful and captivating mosaic of God’s faithfulness, grace, compassion, and might. This week, we’ll consider two of the most common perspectives on the atonement within the modern church and next week we’ll look at two much older perspectives.

I pledge allegiance to “the Christ:” Conclusion | Culture LearnerBefore we begin, I think it crucial to establish from the outset that one need not understand the precise inner workings of the atonement before receiving that atonement. The essence of our faith lies in trusting that, through Christ, our sins are not only forgiven but are utterly removed from us as far as the East is from the West. This is not contingent upon navigating complex theological frameworks, but hinges solely on our unwavering allegiance to Messiah Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Furthermore, the theories and interpretations presented here are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive. It is important to realize that all of the perspectives we’ll discuss in these posts are valid and are supported by scripture to some degree. This is also not an exhaustive study. There are other interpretations of the atonement that I will not address here. 

Penal Substitutionary Atonement

The danger we must avoid in any study of the atonement is in dogmatically isolating our understanding to one perspective at the expense of a more multifaceted and biblical understanding.. This is of particular concern within the western church today where a single theory of the atonement seems to have eclipsed all others. Among protestant evangelical churches in America; the prevailing theory of atonement is, without contest, the doctrine of Penal Substitution. This interpretation will no doubt be a familiar one:

Human beings stand guilty of sin. The wages of sin is death (and presumably eternal condemnation). However, rather than wiping us all out and casting us into Hell; God pours out His wrath on His own son instead. Jesus, sinless and undeserving of punishment, willingly suffers on the cross as a substitute for sinners. In this, He fulfills both God’s sense of divine justice as well as His matchless mercy and grace. He bore our sins and, in turn, we who believe bear His righteousness before God.

If you read last week’s post, you’ll have probably already guessed that I have some reservations about this particular view of the atonement. I do have concerns about this way this perspective has been presented and misunderstood, however, I would not go so far as to call it “unbiblical”.  After all, the suffering servant of Isaiah 52 and 53 as well as the typological events of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22:1-14 make a strong case in support of a substitutionary interpretation. This view of the cross also seems to parallel the “goat for Azazel” of Yom Kippur that we discussed last week as the sins of the people are depicted as being transferred onto Christ so that He is able to bear away the sins of the people, thus leaving them purified and a suitable dwelling places of the Holy Spirit. (John 1:29, 1 Peter 2:24, 1 Peter 3:18, Hebrews 9:28)

There are some problems, however, with trying to understand the events of the cross through this lens alone. Recall from last week that the goat for Azazel was not sacrificed (though in later tradition, it would often be killed in the wilderness by pushing it over a cliff). It bore away the peoples’ sins, but this was not framed as bearing the punishment for their crimes. The focus was on taking sins away from the people, not on administering justice or punishing the animal in place of the people.

The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation | Concordia

Moreover, while it is clear that the early Christians relied heavily on Isaiah’s suffering servant (Isaiah 53) to help them piece together the meaning behind what had happened on the cross, they did not speak of Jesus’ sacrifice in the ways that we often hear it expressed today. In fact, the modern version of substitutionary atonement is a relatively recent development, emerging primarily among 16th-century reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin in response to Catholic teachings on purgatory and perceived abuses of power within the Church. It certainly did not hold such predominance among the early Christian thinkers of the first and second centuries!

Does God Get Angry? – Gospel on the GroundMore concerning, however, is the troubling and distorted picture of God that this interpretation can seem to paint when taken in isolation. Without a strong biblical foundation and a mature faith, Penal Substitution can appear to present God as a wrathful and vindictive figure whose anger must be satiated through blood sacrifice and violence. This is a paganized view of God, but even the pagans would have found it difficult to see justice in the slaughter of an innocent man in place of the guilty even if his death was voluntary. There is no shortage of anti-Christian rhetoric condemning the God of the Bible as a monstrous tyrant who killed his own son to save us from himself. This is, of course, a caricature of the interpretation held by most proponents of Penal Substitution today. However, it nevertheless raises significant questions about how we should understand and indeed emulate the character and justice of God. Is violent retribution for an offense or insult a godly response? Is it righteous to inflict punishment on the innocent in place of the guilty and call it justice? Scripture explicitly teaches otherwise. Should we understand salvation as “God was angry and wanted to punish us, but Jesus got in the way and took the punishment instead and now God isn’t angry with us anymore.”? This is, again, a caricature; but this unintended misrepresentation has gained significant traction in western society and it is turning people away from Christ. 

The Satisfaction Theory of Atonement

Death of St Anselm | History TodayAnother similar view of the atonement is the one popular within the Catholic Church at the time of the reformation. Reformers might have articulated Penal Substitution in answer to Catholic teaching, but they didn’t abandon the Catholic view altogether. On the contrary. Penal Substitution was an evolution of “Satisfaction Theory”, which had held prominence within the Church since the 11th century when it was first articulated by Anselm of Canterbury. It goes something like this:

Human sin disrupts the moral order and offends God’s honor and justice.  Our transgressions separate us from the Father and burden us with a debt we are unable to pay. We become slaves to our debt of sin in need of redemption. Jesus’ death is seen as the perfect, sinless sacrifice that pays our debt in full.  We are therefore purchased by His blood and reconciled to God the Father. 

The notion that Jesus’ sacrifice mended the broken relationship between God and humanity is strongly supported by scripture (2 Cor 5:18-19, Rom 5:10, Col 1:19-20). So too, the idea that sin burdens us with an impossible debt which was canceled because of the cross (Matt 18:21-35, Col 2:13-14). However, I still contend that the earliest Christians held to a more nuanced and multidimensional view of the cross. Moreover, both of these interpretations focus on a highly legalistic view of sin and morality which implies that the only thing standing between man and God is our inability to perfectly keep a moral code of behavior. They both seem to imply that if we could just follow the law of God perfectly and never falter, then we would be entitled to eternal life by our own merits and that Jesus’ death would not have been necessary. Such an idea is decidedly unbiblical (Luke 17:10, Rom 3:20, Gal 2:21).

Zooming out to see the big picture

These modern theories seem to me to be the latest steps in an ongoing narrowing of scope; a distillation of theology that has resulted in a refined, but sorely incomplete, view of the atonement. As if looking through a microscope; we see the picture more clearly, but only a small portion of the greater whole is in view.  We’ll need to zoom out if we are to take in the full scope of the big picture.

So,  what are we missing?  How should we understand the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ sacrifice or our redemption by His blood? Part of the problem in both of these views is that they do not fully capture the nature of the problem facing mankind. Does Jesus’ death on the cross nullify our indebtedness due to sin? Absolutely! (Matt 18:21-35, Col 2:13-14) In dying, did He bear the punishment of our iniquities? Yes, Hallelujah! (Isaiah 53:4-6, 2 Corinthians 5:21) However, the cross was about much more than the forgiveness of (or punishment for) personal sins and shortcomings. This is because humanity’s predicament is far worse than simply being found guilty of wrongdoing as New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright explains:

“The diagnosis of the human plight is then not simply that humans have broken God’s moral law, offending and insulting the Creator, whose image they bear—though that is true as well. This lawbreaking is a symptom of a much more serious disease. Morality is important, but it isn’t the whole story. Called to responsibility and authority within and over the creation, humans have turned their vocation upside down, giving worship and allegiance to forces and powers within creation itself. The name for this is idolatry. The result is slavery and finally death.”


― N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion


Hindrances to Discipleship: Freedom from the Flesh - C.S. Lewis Institute

Humanity’s tragic condition, then, is the result of our worship of (and subsequent enslavement to) the powers of this world. (Romans 1:21-25, Romans 6:16) Humans were created to be the image of the living God, a royal priesthood in service to the author and source of all life, reflecting His wisdom and authority into creation and likewise reflecting creation’s praises back to Him. (Genesis 1:26-27,Psalm 8:4-6, 1 Peter 2:9, Revelation 1:5-6)  Instead, we have abdicated our royal and priestly position. We have allowed carnal passions, worldly priorities, and the natural self (as well as the dark entities working within each of these) to become false gods and we have subjugated ourselves in service to these dark powers.

A comprehensive biblical view of the atonement will need to account not only for the forgiveness of humanity’s moral failures, but also for our liberation from the powers of darkness and the renewal of creation itself. Our view of the atonement, therefore, cannot be limited to the cleansing of guilt or pardon for breaking God’s moral code. It must also deal with sin at its source; purifying us from the seed of corruption that lives within us and restoring us to the divine vocation for which we were created and are now called to resume.

How Jesus Avoided Becoming The People's Puppet MessiahOne minor addition to these theories that can make a world of difference is this: We must see Jesus not only as God’s son, the sinless and divine stand-in who died in our place. We must also see Him as the Messiah; our great High Priest and King of all mankind . He is not simply a substitute, but our King and worthy representative. (Hebrews 4:14-16, Daniel 7:13-14, 27)) When he bore our sins and suffered on our behalf, it wasn’t the injustice of the righteous being punished while the guilty go free. Rather he put on human flesh and became like one of us so that he could share in our humanity and fulfill the divine image bearing purpose for which we were created. He suffered the wages of our sin as one of us; but fulfilled our divine vocation in the process, thus nullifying the debt and consequences of our failure. (Hebrews 2:14-18, Romans 5:18-19) Like a father taking responsibility for the actions of his unruly children; we are His and He loves us and He did what needed to be done to reconcile us to Himself. He tasted death for us, not simply as our stand-in or scapegoat, but as our representative Leader, King, and Father. He didn’t give his life to appease the bloodlust of a vengeful deity, but to inaugurate a new covenant family. (Hebrews 9:15, Luke 22:20) This is how Jesus explained what was about to him as He and the disciples shared a Passover meal on the night before his crucifixion:

“This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And in the same way he took the cup after they had eaten, saying ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’ ”


― Luke 22:20

Did you catch that? In His blood, he initiated a new covenant with his people. This brings us full circle back to the Old Testament where God instituted the first covenant with the Hebrew people:

“So Moses took the blood and splashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”


― Exodus 24:8

The 'Fruit-of-the-Vine' Objection | Catholic Answers MagazineThe sacraments of Communion and Baptism, then, testify to the atonement found in this new covenant. When we drink the cup of the Lord’s Supper in commemoration of His blood, we celebrate the true meaning of His death; the meaning He, himself, ascribed to it; that we are members of an everlasting covenant of faith; a kingdom that will never end; a divine-human blended family. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, John 6:53-56)  We celebrate a new exodus from bondage in which the cloud of smoke and pillar of fire have taken the form of a beaten and battered man hanging on a cross and the blood of the lamb is painted not on a door post, but on our hearts. In baptism, we are symbolically washed in his blood and initiated into this covenant family; a royal priesthood; the Kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4, Romans 6:5-6) Here there is cleansing atonement for all through Christ our King! The cross was the dramatic beginning of this covenant which Christians the world over still celebrate to this day. We entered into that covenant at our baptism and regularly reaffirm the covenant each time we participate in holy communion.

Next week, we’ll consider two much older interpretations of the cross and its atoning power; Ransom Theory and, my personal favorite, Cristus Victor. 

Until then, 

God bless!

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