The Meaning of the Atonement
by Mark M. Mattison
The foundational truth of Christianity is that Christ Jesus died on the cross for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3). In this way he fulfilled the old covenant sacrificial system, reconciled us to God, and changed our lives forever.
That is the doctrine of the Atonement. Its reality is not in dispute. However, many Christians struggle to understand and live this doctrine better. We know that the Atonement works; but how it works is not as clear. Over the centuries many different theories have been suggested to explain how the Atonement works. As C. S. Lewis and others note, no one interpretation has been singled out as the only valid theory. With this fact in mind, we would do well to consider some of the principal theories and their limitations, using the Scriptures as our touchstone.
In Mark 10:45 Jesus said, "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (cp. Matt. 20:28, NIV). This is a powerful statement. Jesus redeemed his followers from sin. The price of this redemption, however, was his own life (1 Tim. 2:6; 1 Pet. 1:18,19), the supreme expression of his love for us (cf. John 15:13).
That Jesus described his death as a ransom payment is clear. But to whom was the ransom paid? Jesus never said. In fact, to pose the question is to stretch the metaphor out of shape. Yet the question was posed nonetheless.
The first suggestion was articulated by the second-century Irenaeus of Lyons. He argued that Jesus was paid as a ransom to the devil. Specifically, so the theory goes, Christ was paid as a ransom to the devil to free people's souls. This was a clever ruse on God's part, however, for unknown to the devil, Jesus was actually God Himself. Unable to constrain Jesus' divine soul, the devil was defeated and Christ emerged victorious. This view, known as the "Ransom" or "Classic" theory, was taught consistently by nearly all of the Church Fathers, including Augustine.
The Ransom theory dominated the theological landscape for a millennium until it was finally debunked by Anselm of Canterbury (ca. 1033-1109). Anselm rightly pointed out that this theory gave the devil far too much power. Hence Anselm gave a different answer: Jesus' life was paid as a ransom not to the devil, but to God.
Anselm, who lived in a feudal society, saw sin as dishonor to God. God's nature is such that He cannot overlook dishonor; thus a satisfaction is needed. Since sinful humankind is unable to make sufficient satisfaction, God became human to do it on humanity's behalf. Jesus is then a payment not to Satan but to God.
The Protestant Reformers developed this doctrine by replacing God's honor with His justice and by speaking not only of Christ's passive obedience (death) but his active obedience as well (his fulfilling the law). Simply put, God requires that humankind obey an immutable law in a life of perfect, perpetual obedience. The purpose of the Mosaic law, it is taught, was to prove humanity's inability to live up to these requirements. By perfectly keeping the law, Jesus earned salvation. By suffering our punishment in our place, Jesus extends this salvation to us.
Also known as the "Penal Substitution" theory, this doctrine is common to many evangelical churches today. As it is the most popular of the theories of the Atonement, I'd like to devote considerable space to its evaluation.
Again, the Satisfaction/Penal Substitution theory is a marked improvement over the Ransom theory. Furthermore, it takes sin seriously and gives a rational explanation for the absolute necessity of the cross. However, I believe it has numerous inherent flaws. This was pointed out from the very beginning, first by Abelard whose "Moral Influence" theory challenged Anselm's "Satisfaction" theory, then by the Socinians and later the Arminians who criticized the Protestant "Penal Substitution" version.
Some of these critics posed the question: If God freely forgives sin, how could Jesus' death have been a literal payment for our sins? To illustrate, imagine the following conversation between these fictional characters:
Bob: Okay, Jane, you owe me ten dollars. Pay up.
Jane: Oh, but I don't have the money. Do I really have to pay you back?
Bob: I'm sorry, Jane, but I can't forgive your debt. Somebody has got to pay.
Ted: Hey guys! What's up?
Bob: Well, Ted, if you must know, I'm trying to collect the ten dollars that Jane owes me, but she can't pay it.
Ted: Hmm. Let's see here. Hey, I do have ten dollars on me. Here, Bob, you can let Jane off the hook.
Bob: Jane, your debt is paid. You can go now. You don't owe me anything.
Now in the illustration, did Bob forgive the debt, or was he paid? In fact, Bob was paid off. There was no grace, no mercy, no forgiveness of the debt.
Similarly, if Jesus' death were a literal payment to God for all our sins, then God cannot truly be said to forgive sin.
This observation points out the difficulty of "go[ing] beyond what is written" (1 Cor. 4:6, NIV). Posing the question, "to whom was the ransom paid?" takes us beyond the purview of the Scriptures. The "ransom" was not literally paid to anyone. It is a metaphor used to describe the significance and dramatic effect of Jesus' death.
When the Scriptures use the language of redemption to describe our salvation, we are always in the realm of metaphor. Consider Deuteronomy 7:8, which says that the Lord "brought you [Israel] out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt." Did God literally "redeem" Israel from Pharaoh? Did he give Pharaoh (for example) the Hittites in exchange for the Israelites, substituting one race of people for another? Obviously not. The metaphor of ransom and redemption is used to express worshipfully the fact that God and Christ have rescued us from sin and death by radical means, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Nevertheless the Penal Substitution theory is read into the frequent Scriptural statements that Christ died "for" us. Many Christians read the words "for us" and mentally add "as our substitute." Though that is one of the possible meanings of the preposition "for," however, we must remember that the preposition can be used in more than one way. As Gordon Clark illustrates:
For example, suppose a pastor is sick or on vacation. A visitor takes his place. This visiting minister preaches for the absent pastor and he also preaches for the congregation. But the preposition for has two different meanings in these two expressions. The visitor preaches instead of the pastor; he preaches on behalf of or for the good of the congregation.1
So it is with the Greek prepositions. There are many Greek words in this context which we translate with the English word "for." They include peri (which means "about" or "concerning"), dia ("because of" or "on account of"), and by far the most common, huper ("for," "on behalf of," or "for the sake of").
None of these prepositions necessarily invokes the meaning "in the place of." Hence the exact relationship between Christ's death and our salvation is not so clearly conveyed in any of these verses. That Jesus died "on account of" us and our sins is clear, but the Greek words translated "for" do not of themselves spell out a doctrine of Atonement.
A word of caution is warranted, however. Prepositions in any language tend to be fluid. Like the English word "for," the Greek words translated "for" can bear more than one meaning. Hence they could imply substitution. My point is that the prepositions neither make nor break the case for Satisfaction/Penal Substitution. It is unwise to build any doctrine solely on the meaning of a preposition.
That having been said, there is a fourth preposition translated "for" in these verses which does usually imply substitution. That word is anti and it normally means "in place of," though it can take on the meaning of huper also.2 The term is used solely in Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45, verses on which we have already commented. There Jesus' death is described as a ransom payment, so a word normally implying substitution would be natural. However, it is telling that every other verse teaching that Jesus died "for" us leans toward more ambiguous terms.
The Penal Substitution theory invokes more than just metaphors and prepositions, however. It also invokes Romans 3:25, which describes Jesus "whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith" (NASV; cp. 1 John 2:2; 4:10). The meaning of "propitiation" here is brought out in an NIV footnote, "as the one who would turn aside his wrath." Certainly if Jesus' death "propitiated" or "satisfied" the offended Father then the Satisfaction/Penal Substitution theory would be strengthened.
So what is the key word in Romans 3:25 and related verses? Does it really mean "propitiation"? The Greek word is hilasterion and it means "mercy-seat." The related term in 1 John 2:2 and 4:10 is hilasmos, the term used to describe the sin-offering of the old covenant.3 Whether these terms imply propitiation depends upon how one believes the mercy-seat and sin-offering functioned. Hence the wisdom of the NIV's reading "an atoning sacrifice" instead of the NASV's "a propitiation."
Were the old covenant's animal sacrifices substitutionary in nature, the animals "taking the place" of sinners, dying "instead of" them to placate an angry deity? Is this very far removed from the legendary volcano gods who need to be placated by the death of virgins? Despite popular caricatures, the law of Moses never explicitly describes the old covenant sacrifices as "substitutes." For that matter, the slaying of the animals is never emphasized at all. What is emphasized is the ceremonial use of the blood in the cultic ritual. The killing of the victim was simply the necessary means of obtaining sacrificial blood. Similarly, in the New Testament, Jesus' death is not substitutionary but sacrificial. Hence the emphasis on Christ's blood, even though Jesus' death was not particularly bloody.
In fact, Jesus' death is frequently portrayed as a sin-offering.4 Hence Jesus' death is expiatory in nature. That is to say, Jesus' sacrificial death expiates or removes our sin. This it does by fulfilling the old covenant sacrificial system, paving the way for God's forgiveness. Note this point. God's forgiveness is not literally "purchased"; that would be no forgiveness at all. We are frequently told that sacrifice does not automatically secure God's favor (cf. Mic. 6:6-8). Rather, it fulfills a covenant obligation which is a precondition for God's forgiveness. Once the sacrifice is made, the sinner may seek forgiveness, and if he or she is sincere, God will freely forgive.
There is another dimension to the Atonement that is neglected in the Penal Substitution theory. That is the element of participation: We participate in the sacrifice of Jesus' death (cf. Heb. 13:11-16).
Substitution implies an "either/or"; participation implies a "both/and." Substitution would have me say, "Jesus died, therefore I don't have to"; participation would have me say, "Jesus died, therefore I must also." Which is more Scriptural? Consider Romans 6:1-14.
A couple of remaining verses deserve comment. One is 1 Peter 2:24, which states that Christ "himself bore [or "carried up"] our sins in his body on the tree" (NIV). This verse appears in a passage which quotes from Isaiah 53, virtually the only Scriptural passage which may clearly support Substitution. Yet Matthew did not interpret Isaiah in that way.
According to Matthew, "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases" (Isa. 53:4, NIV) meant not that infirmities were vicariously imputed to Christ at his crucifixion, but rather that Christ healed the sick, thus "carrying" or "bearing" their diseases away from them (Matt. 8:16,17).
Similarly, it is possible that Jesus "bore" or "carried away" our sins from us not by becoming our substitute, but by becoming our sin offering.
In my judgment, Satisfaction/Penal Substitution runs contrary to Scripture at many points:
This is not to say that Satisfaction/Penal Substitution has no positive features. Indeed, it emphasizes the cross and the uniqueness of Christ's death. However, I fear it "proves too much" by negating God's forgiveness and excluding other aspects of the Atonement. Other theories of the Atonement have been articulated to take these other elements more seriously.
As previously mentioned, other theories of the Atonement include Abelard's "Moral Influence" theory, also known as the "subjective" theory, a reaction against Anselm's "objective" Satisfaction theory. Another is the Socinian theory, a powerful critique of Substitution which nevertheless fails to offer a clear alternative.
Yet another is the Arminian "Rectoral" or "Governmental" theory, most prominent within Wesleyan churches (particularly the Church of the Nazarene). This theory is an attempt to take the Socinian critique seriously while not fully discarding Penal Substitution. It rejects full substitution, characterizing Christ's death as a "partial payment" instead. This theory also emphasizes sacrifice and Atonement as a precondition to forgiveness, not the direct cause of forgiveness. Some Arminians combined this with the Socinian approach by emphasizing Atonement as sacrifice without trying to explain the mechanics of sacrifice.
These and other theories all have strengths as well as weaknesses:
While it may not be possible to articulate the "perfect" theory of the Atonement, it should be apparent by now that the Scriptural principles I've laid out along the way reflect various elements of each of the major theories.
In sum: Christ's death is (objectively) a fulfillment of the old covenant's sacrificial system and (subjectively) a reality in which we are called to participate. Most systematic theories tend to downplay one or the other of these elements, and all of them introduce additional theological problems.
Now that Jesus has fulfilled the old covenant and sealed the New Covenant in his blood, we can enter into covenantal relationship with God. This does not mean that Jesus' death was some ethereal financial transaction going on "behind the scenes." It is an act of sacrifice in which we, his followers, are caught up as we die to sin and live to God.
These covenantal and participatory aspects of sacrifice/Atonement also pave the way for a Scriptural theme of Atonement much neglected in each of the major theories: The theme of reconciliation, not just between humans and God, but also between humans and humans (cf. Eph. 2:11-18). Atonement is not just about getting saved for the afterlife. It's about becoming reconciled with God, others, and ourselves.
1The Atonement (Jefferson, Maryland: The Trinity Foundation), 1987, p. 65.
2Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich, p. 73.
3Cp. Num. 5:8 LXX; Ezek. 44:27 LXX.
4Rom. 8:3 (cp. 3:24,25); 2 Cor. 5:21 (where "sin" = "sin offering"); Gal. 3:13; Heb. 7:27; 9:12-15,25-28; 10:1-18; 13:11,12; 1 John 1:7; 2:2; 4:10.
5"For Christ the Covenant of Redemption was a covenant of works....Christ earned salvation." Clark, p. 16.
6Henry Thiessen, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.), 1949, rev. 1979, reprint 1981, p. 237.
7Of the Old Testament sacrifices, Gordon Clark wrote: "The primary aim of the sacrifice was to appease God's wrath and to reconcile him to oneself." Of Christ's sacrifice: "By his accepting the penalty of our sins, he [Christ] satisfied the justice of God, thus propitiating God and reconciling God to those who had been his enemies." The Atonement, p. 79.