The Doctrine of the Atonement (2 Corinthians 5)

A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese

Excerpted from 2 Corinthians and Galatians:  A Critical & Exegetical Commentary
(Moberly, MO: Scripture Exposition Books LLC, 2011)
Download a printable PDF of this Special Study



        What Jesus did at Calvary is often described by three words, as His "vicarious, substitutionary atonement."  It seems to this commentator that the words vicarious1 and substitutionary2 are used as they are normally defined, but the definition of the Hebrew and Greek words sometimes translated "atonement" is seldom in mind when the words are used.  Instead, "atonement" is used as a general word to refer to what Jesus was doing for mankind on the cross without any actual thought about what the word meant in Bible times or what it means today.  The word "atonement" – almost the only theological term of English origin – has changed meanings.  Originally it spoke of being reconciled3; then it came to refer to the means which makes reconciliation possible (viz., the death of Christ somehow results in a restored relationship between God and men4).

        Since the word "atonement" has changed meanings, it no longer represents any one Greek or Hebrew word, but is used to convey the Biblical idea of the saving or redeeming work of Christ wrought through His incarnation, sufferings, and death, as well as how His death affected both man and God.  Christ offered a redemptive sacrifice once-for-all (Hebrews 10:1-14).  But why was such a sacrifice necessary?  How was it intended to affect man and God?  It is when this latter idea of how Christ's death affected man and God comes into the picture and it is called "atonement" that the word atonement can become fraught with theological baggage.  Various theories of the atonement have been advocated through the ages since Christ was here on earth.



        A study of history will show how the several prominent contemporary theories of the atonement (i.e., about how the death of Christ saves men from their sins) grew and developed, and in some cases were disavowed after being popular for a while.

     A. The Patristic Period

        Irenaeus (c.130-c.202) taught that the death of Christ was a ransom which wrested men free from the grasp of the devil.6  Men's liberation was achieved by the payment of a price.  "The ransom theory of Irenaeus," Hastings Rashdall tells us, "became, and for nearly a thousand years continued as, the dominant, orthodox, traditional theory on the subject."7  Origen (c.185-c.254) said that the ransom was paid to the Devil.8  Athanasius (ca. 296-373) described Christ's death as a payment of a debt.9  Augustine (354-430), while discussing the atonement, spoke of Christ's death both as a ransom paid to the devil and also as a satisfaction offered to God's justice.10  Until the 11th century, with a few exceptions such as Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389) who raised a strong protest against the accepted doctrine that Christ's death was a ransom paid to either God or the devil,11 soteriological thought centered in the theory that Christ's death was a RANSOM.12

     B. The Medieval Period

        In Medieval times several theories of the atonement were given expression.  John of Damascus (ca.675-ca.749) summarized the theories that had been taught before his time; namely, Christ's death was a ransom to God.  It was a kind of fishing-expedition which snared the devil; and it was a victory which destroyed death, liberated captive sinners, and brought life and immortality to light.13

        Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) taught a theory of the atonement that has come to be known as the SATISFACTION theory.14  Anselm defined satisfaction as the repayment of a debt that is owed to God.  Human sin resulted in a debt or obligation because it has robbed God of the honor which is rightfully His due.15  That debt must be paid.  However, man, the sinner, cannot provide the repayment price to satisfy the debt, but Christ's death did repay the debt.  Christ was sinless and didn't deserve the punishment; therefore, He deserved something from God.  Christ built up an excess of merit which was put at the disposal of sinners.

        Abelard (1079-1142) advocated the view sometimes called the MORAL INFLUENCE THEORY.16  While Abelard did speak of Christ's death as a sacrifice offered to the Father (not a redemption price paid to the devil), he subordinated everything to the controlling idea that the cross, by demonstrating God's love, draws out man's love almost automatically.  The cross shows how greatly God loves us and this causes us to respond with an answering love.  Because we love Him, we turn away from the sin that injured Christ so severely.  The moral influence theory is also called the Socinian view, the view that Christ's work consists in influencing people to lead new and better lives.17  Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a fierce opponent of Abelard, revived the earlier idea that Christ's death was a ransom that freed men from the power of the devil.18

        Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in his Summa Theologica worked out a comprehensive synthesis of his predecessor's theories, which included the patristic component of release from the bondage of the devil, the Anselmic component of satisfaction, the Abelardian component of an ethical impact, and even a penal substitution component, since Thomas held that as our substitute, Jesus Christ bore our punishment.

     C. The Reformation Period

        The Protestant Reformers modified the doctrine of ransom payment.  It was not God's honor that received the ransom payment, it was God's justice.  Christ's death satisfied God's justice.  Among Reformation writers, satisfaction is the preferred theological word rather than atonement when speaking of Christ's work on the cross.  Martin Luther (1483-1546) was an exponent of the DRAMATIC THEORY (or the 'Christus Victor' theory), that Christ's death was a victory over hostile powers that held men, with the victory resulting in liberation from sin, law, death, wrath, and the devil.    Luther also regarded the death of Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice.  Being somewhat nearer to Anselm's views than those of Irenaeus, Luther asserted that Christ was punished on our account ("propter nos punitur").  Melanchthon (1497-1560) in his Loci Communes explained that by Christ's death the just demands of God's law have been met and satisfied, the wrath of God has been appeased, and that the soul of the sinner has been liberated from the curse.19

        John Calvin (1509-1564) in his Institutes on the Christian Religion20 taught what has come to be known as the PENAL SUBSTITUTION theory.  Penal substitution sees the death of Jesus as being a vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice that satisfied the demands of God's justice that sin be punished.  Christ died for man, in man's place, taking man's sins and bearing them for man.  As their substitute, Christ took the punishment men would have received for their sins.21

        What is called the GOVERNMENTAL THEORY was formulated by Hugo Grotius (1583-1645),22 and subsequently has been found in Arminianism, Methodism, the Church of the Nazarene, and was influential in the early New England colonies.  This view sees the death of Christ as demonstrating God's high regard for His own law and as demonstrating to erring man that sin is displeasing to Him.  As ruler of a moral universe, God must see to it that sin's pardon will not prompt man to think it a matter of indifference, a thing to be engaged in with impunity.  The death of Jesus satisfied the demands of God's justice upon sin, and Christ's penal example also serves as a deterrent from sin.  When God's laws are broken a penalty needs to be paid, and that is what Jesus did.  Christ's death was a precondition to forgiveness, not the direct cause of forgiveness.

     D. The Modern Period

        Soteriological theories in modern times have been, for the most part, restatements of one of the earlier theories.  For example, Alexander Campbell was an advocate of penal substitution, while Barton Stone was an advocate of the moral influence theory, and Walter Scott taught the governmental theory.23

        Some soteriological theories in modern times have been new attempts to explain Christ's death.  Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) taught a form of the moral influence theory called the Declaratory Theory, or the Demonstrative View, according to which Christ died to show men how greatly God loves them.  The Accident Theory treats Christ's death as an accident, as unforeseen and unexpected as is the death of any other victim of man's hatred.  The Martyr Theory pictures Jesus giving up His life for a principle of truth that was opposed to the spirit of His day.24  These new attempts fall far short of what the Scriptures say about the death of Jesus.



        Whichever word a Bible writer used, several truths are understood as to why Jesus should go to Calvary.  (1) All men have sinned (Romans 3:23).  Scripture uses several metaphors to describe the predicament man was in due to sin.  As a sinner, man is a slave who needs to be redeemed, an enemy who needs to be reconciled, a corpse which needs to be resurrected, a captive whose powerful oppressors need to be overthrown, a criminal who needs to be justified by his judge.  (2) The love of God for His creatures.  God's attempt to provide a means of forgiveness of sins results/proceeds from His love.  "God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).  "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish" (John 3:14-16).  "This is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 4:10).  (3) God is holy.  A holy God cannot stand or tolerate sin.  God's holiness and man's sin clash, and results in God's wrath being kindled against sin.  (4) God is a God of wrath.25  Wrath is God's holy, settled displeasure against sin.  The New Testament depicts divine wrath just as it does divine mercy.  It even speaks of the wrath of the Lamb (Revelation 6:16).  If wrath is to be turned away and God is to forgive, there was a divine necessity for the sacrifice Jesus made.26

        Restoration Movement people like to use Bible names for Bible things, since such a practice helps to reduce confusion about what we are saying and what the Bible says.  It seems to this commentator that it is a good rule; even when speaking of Christ's work on the cross, use Bible words for that work, and in this light to limit the use of "atonement" (as much as possible) to its Biblical sense of reconciliation.27  The Bible writers used several different figures or metaphors to explain what God was doing as He sought to provide forgiveness for the men He had created.

     A. Propitiation

        Greek words thus translated (hilasmos and hilasterion) appear in several passages.  Writing about Christ Jesus, Paul says that He was "displayed publicly as a propitiation (hilasterion) in His blood" (Romans 3:25).  We find hilasterion at Hebrews 9:5 where it is translated "mercy seat."28  According to 1 John 2:2, Jesus "is the propitiation (hilasmos) for our sins," and according to 1 John 4:10, God "loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation (hilasmos) for our sins."29

        It is difficult to find a suitable English equivalent for the hilasmos word family.  "Propitiation" is a problem because it is a term borrowed from the vocabulary of paganism, where it speaks of appeasing or placating an angry deity by means of a sacrifice.   The Biblical Hebrew and Greek words meaning "to cover" or "mercy seat" do not seem to have the same connotation as did the non-Biblical Greek word.30  Neither the Old Testament nor New ever tells us that animal sin-offerings remove the divine anger.  C.H. Dodd has defended the word "expiate" as a better English equivalent than propitiate.  Expiate means to nullify the effects of sin.31  Yet expiate is not quite satisfactory either.  When the "covering" connotation of the original words is taken into account, it speaks about how God's wrath (rather than being appeased) is averted or turned away from the sinner.32

        How the mercy-seat and sin-offering functioned in Old Testament times seems to point the way for us.  A sacrifice was made, and blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat (covering), with the result that the punishment for sin was averted.  Romans 3:21-26 indicate that there was a divine necessity for the cross.  If God is going to be righteous, and at the same time justifier, there had to be the cross, with the blood being a covering for our sins.  The cross will never be understood unless it is seen that Jesus was providing a covering for sins (potentially) for all mankind.33

     B. Sacrifice

        Why did people offer sacrifices in Old Testament times?  Because it was the God-given way of dealing with sin.  Folk accepted the idea humbly and gratefully.  (1) Some sacrifices ratified covenants God was making with men.  When this was the purpose of the sacrifice, the sacrifice did not automatically secure God's favor (cf. Micah 6:6-8).  Instead, once the sacrifice was made and the covenant was in force, the sinner could seek God's forgiveness according to the terms and conditions which God Himself revealed are necessary.  Jesus' death was a covenant-ratifying sacrifice (Matthew 26:28; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25).  Jesus himself referred to his blood as "the blood of the covenant" (Mark 14:24).  (2) Some sacrifices were related to the forgiveness of sin.  "Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Hebrews 9:22).  In the Mosaic dispensation, forgiveness did not occur when the sacrificial victim died.  It occurred when the blood of the victim was sprinkled on the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies.  Likewise with the sacrifice of Christ.  Jesus offers His blood in the genuine Holy of Holies (Hebrews 9:11-14).  The sacrifices of the Mosaic dispensation were shadows of which the death of Christ is the substance (Hebrews 10:1).  The sacrifices of the Mosaic dispensation did not take away sin (Hebrews 10:4), but the sacrifice of Christ actually does (Hebrews 10:11-12).  Sins in Old Testament times were "passed over" as God waited for the sacrifice that took place at Calvary (Romans 3:25).  Jesus fulfilled all that the old sacrifices had foreshadowed.  Scriptures often describe Christ's death as a sacrifice.  "Now once at the consummation of the ages He (Jesus) has been manifested to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself" (Hebrews 9:26).  "For He (Jesus), having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God" (Hebrews 10:12).  When John introduced Jesus with the words, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29), he was using sacrificial language based on the sacrifice of lambs in Old Testament times.  Christ's sacrifice was the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7, "Christ our Passover [paschal lamb] has been sacrificed").  When the angel of death saw the blood of the lamb on the doorpost of the home, he passed over it.  The lamb had died in the place of the firstborn who was spared.  When God sees the blood of the Lamb in our lives (when men obey Jesus they are "sprinkled with His blood," 1 Peter 1:2), He passes over us, sparing us.  Jesus is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8, NASB mg.)  Christ gave himself as a sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:2).  "Christ died for (huper) our sins, according to the Scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3).  Paul tells us that Jesus loved us and gave himself up for us, "an offering and a sacrifice to God" (Ephesians 5:2).

      C. Offering, Sin offering

        What happened at Calvary is sometimes described as an offering.  Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us "as an offering (prosphoran) to God" (Ephesians 5:2).  Christ was "offered once to bear the sins of many" (Hebrews 9:28).  That language emphasizes the finality of His sin offering, as does Hebrews 7:27, "This He did once for all when He offered up Himself."  Christ "through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God" (Hebrews 9:14).  "We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Hebrews 10:10).  It also seems likely that both Romans 8:3 and 2 Corinthians 5:21 speak of Christ's death as being a sin offering.34

        Perhaps a review of the "offerings" of the Old Testament will help us understand what is meant when Christ's death is called an "offering."  Sins pollute.  Offerings could bring about cleansing.  The need for purification from sin or the desire of the worshiper to enter into fellowship with God underlay the prescription regarding the various kinds of offerings (sin offerings, trespass offerings, peace offerings, meal of-ferings, drink offerings).  An offering is something presented to God.  If it were a sin offering the worshiper normally laid his hand heavily on the head of the animal or birds being used as the offering, symbolically designating it as his substitute in the sacrificial ritual.  Whereas ceremonial cleansing was involved in those Mosaic sin offerings, actual cleansing of sin is involved in Christ's offering (Hebrews 9:13,14).

        The activities of the Jewish high priest on the Day of Atonement are typical of the functions of Jesus, our high priest.  On the Day of Atonement, the high priest killed the sin offerings (both for himself and the people) and took the blood into the Holy of Holies where he sprinkled it on the mercy-seat.  Now Jesus is our superior high priest, and a priest must have something to offer (prospherein) (Hebrews 8:3).  Following His death and resurrection, He entered the greater and more perfect tabernacle in heaven through His own blood (Hebrews 9:11,12), where He appears in the presence of God for our benefit (Hebrews 9:24).  In fact, heaven itself was cleansed by Christ's blood (Hebrews 9:23).  The blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin; Christ's death does (Hebrews 10:4).

        All offerings were related directly to covenantal religion, the basic principle of which was obedience.  (At Sinai, when God gave the Mosaic covenant, He did not speak specifically about sacrifices, but about obedience, Exodus 19:4-8; Jeremiah 7:21-23).  Each sacrifice was a reminder of human sin and of divine provision for the helpless sinner.  Each sacrifice was an opportunity for the faithful worshiper to obey what God had required.  Without obedience and faith the offerings were valueless.

     D. Substitution

        The belief that as Jesus suffered He was suffering as a substitute for men who had sinned is quite common.  However, finding the idea of substitution specifically stated in Scripture is not as straightforward as one might expect.  What we do find is:  (1) The whole background of the Old Testament sacrificial system (Leviticus 1:4, 3:2,8,13; 4:4,15,24,29; 16:21,22; 17:11) where the slain victim was a substitutionary representative of the worshiper.  (2) There are the prepositions anti and huper which mean "instead of" and "on behalf of" (often translated "for").  Anti ("instead of"35) is used of Christ's death in Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45, where we read the Son of Man gave His life "a ransom for many."  Huper ("on behalf of"36) is used at 2 Corin-thians 5:14, "one died for (huper) all."37  "For Christ also died for (peri, concerning) sins once for all, the just for (huper) the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God ..." (1 Peter 3:18).38  John 15:12-15 has the famous dictum that "greater love hath no man than this, to lay down one's life for (huper) one's friends" (that is, on their behalf).  (3) Peter's use of Isaiah 53 appears to be a passage which clearly supports the idea that Christ's death was substitutionary.  Christ "Himself bore our own sins in His body on the cross" (1 Peter 2:24).  For "bore" there is a marginal note, "He carried our sins up to the cross."  The word picture is of a priest offering a sacrifice for sins by bearing that offering up to the altar of burnt offering.39  Isaiah 53:5 tells us that Messiah would be pierced through (wounded) for our transgressions, he would be crushed (bruised) for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being (peace) would fall upon Him, and by His scourging (stripes) we would be healed.  Jesus got the scourging; we get the healing.  That's certainly substitution.  Isaiah 53:6 goes on to say that all of us like sheep have gone astray.  Each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him ("the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all" KJV).  Rather than being penal substitution, this language may reflect the laying on of hands on the sin offering.  If so, Isaiah was predicting that Jesus would become our sin offering.

     E. Redemption/Ransom

        "Ransom," "redeem," "redemption" are English words used to translate the Greek words lutroō, lutrosis, and apolutrosis at Luke 24:21, Titus 2:14, Hebrews 9:12, and other passages.  This metaphor occurs at Matthew 20:28 (Mark 10:45 is a parallel), where Jesus explains that He, the Son of man, came "to give His life a ransom for (anti) many."40  Paul seems to have had Christ's words in mind when he declared that Christ Jesus "gave Himself a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:6).  Peter also uses the word "redeemed."  "You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life ... but with precious blood ... the blood of Christ" (1 Peter 1:18,19).  John records the words of the new song about Jesus sung in heaven, "Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation" (Revelation 5:9).

        "Redemption" or "ransom" is the act of buying back.  The Psalmist reminds us that men cannot ransom themselves nor ransom each other (Psalm 49:7-9).  The coming of Christ into the world to offer Himself as a ransom is rooted in the absolute impossibility for man to ransom himself or his fellow-man from the bondage of sin and death.  The ransom model is based on the emancipation of slaves or the ransom of prisoners taken in war, who might, in the ancient world, have been forced to become slaves.  Slaves and prisoners are quite clearly unable to ransom themselves.  Sin in this model is equated with slavery or imprisonment.  The person whose freedom is to be purchased must rely on another to purchase and restore the freedom which was assumed to be the natural state.  The purchase price to redeem men from the slavery of sin was the blood of Christ (Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 6:19,20).41

        Another word (antilutron) is translated "ransom" in Christ "gave himself a ransom for all" in 1 Timothy 2:6.  Thayer defines antilutron as "what is given in exchange for another as the price of his redemption."  "The preposition (anti) emphasizes the thought of substitution; it is a 'substitute-ransom' that is signified."42

        This ransom model, of course, invites the question "to whom was the ransom paid?"  Early church fathers43 came up with a guess.  It is because it did not seem that God was the cause of the enslavement that the obvious candidate for receipt of the ransom was the devil.  We have noted earlier the telling objections to this view.  Nor does it seem right to say that the price was somehow paid to God.  God's forgiveness is not literally purchased; there would be no forgiveness in that.  Therefore, it seems right to say that while "ransom" or "redemption" does at times include the idea of a price being paid, that is not always true in the Scriptures.  While God's freeing the Israelites from Egypt was called a redemption (Deuteronomy 7:8), no ransom was paid by God (the great redeemer-deliverer) to anyone (Exodus 4:22,23 and 6:6; Deuteronomy 9:26; 2 Samuel 7:27; 1 Chronicles 17:21).  Another great redemptive act occurred when God redeemed His people from the Babylonian Captivity, an act that was a type of Messianic redemption (Isaiah 52:3-7).  It is doubtful that Jews ever thought in terms of a price being paid to someone for that redemption.  Rather, the word was used simply of the rescue God achieved, with no idea of a price being paid.  Likewise, when speaking of the redemption that is in Christ, the main idea in the metaphor is that a prisoner has been freed.  To whom a ransom price was paid is a part of the figure that is not to be pressed.  "You were bought with a price" (1 Corinthians 6:20, 7:23) is the language of the slave market to emphasize the idea Christians have changed their allegiance; they are no longer under their old master (sin), but under a new one (Christ).

     F. Reconciliation

        The Greek words that the word "reconciliation" represents are katallagē (which means exchange, adjustment of a difference, reconciliation, restoration to favor) in 2 Corinthians 5:18ff;  katalassō (which means to change, to reconcile) in Romans 5:10, 2 Corinthians 5:20;  and apokatalassō (which means to reconcile) found in Ephesians 2:11ff (especially verse 16, "reconcile") and Colossians 1:19ff.44  "The chief difficulty to be solved in the New Testament use of reconcile, reconciliation, etc., is whether, in the process of reconciliation, God can be said to be reconciled to man, or whether the process is one in which man only is reconciled."45

        God is thought of as being angry with men because of sin.  James 4:4 tells us that friendship with the world is hostility towards God, and "whoever makes himself a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God."  Romans 5:9-11 speaks of sinners as being enemies of God, and of being reconciled through Christ's death so that men are saved from the wrath of God.  Without the death of Christ, God's attitude towards men would not be what it is.  If God is hostile to evil, reconciliation would affect His hostility.  Colossians 1:21 tells us there was a time when men were alienated from God because of their sins, but it was the Father's good pleasure "through Him (Christ) to reconcile to Himself all things ... making peace by the blood of the cross."  Sin has estranged men from God, and men from men.  God initiated the means of reconciliation.  The death of Christ really did something to remove barriers; God made peace through the blood of the cross, and God has reconciled men in Christ's fleshly body through death (Colossians 1:20,22).  Sinners were formerly "alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds" (Colossians 1:21).  Reconciliation certainly includes a change of mind on the part of former sinners.  2 Corinthians 5:19 tells us that "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them."  Not counting their trespasses against them certainly points to a change in God's attitude towards men.  Because of the death of Christ the obstacle that destroyed their fellowship, namely sin, has been removed.  Peace,46 reconciliation is now possible.

        Reconciliation naturally means that two, who were estranged, come together again in virtue of an inner change which takes place in both.   A mutual change has been effected – from enmity to love.  Man's attitude is now right.  Man accepts the way of God.  God's no longer has to be angry with sinners.  When man's attitude changes and he accepts Christ, God can be true to Himself and accept the reconciled back into fellowship.  Right relationships now exist on both sides.  While the other metaphors describing what Christ did on Calvary might be considered slightly impersonal, when it comes to the language of reconciliation we are talking in terms of personal relationships, severed and now restored.

     G. The Victory Model

        This metaphor is taken from war and the battlefield.  "Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:57).47  Christ is victorious.  By His saving work He has accomplished a victory over their opponents for those who were embattled by inimical spiritual powers.  Passages that speak of the victory won at Calvary include Romans 8:37 and 1 Corinthians 15:24-28,57, but the most important passage from which this view of Calvary is derived is Colossians 2:12-15.  It tells how Christ triumphed over all a Christian's enemies at the cross.  Satan has been overthrown by what Jesus did on Calvary (Hebrews 2:14; John 12:31; 1 John 3:8; Revelation 12:7-12).

        This is the model Gustav Aulen chose to promote as the "classical theory" in his highly influential work Christus Victor (London, 1931), in which he developed his famous criticism of Anselm's model.  Aulen identified how influential this view of Calvary was in patristic thought and how this view has dropped out of later theological reflection.



        The entire Bible presents the view that men's sins have alienated them from God.  Something must be done to remove or pardon the sin that has brought about this estrangement.

        Once Adam had sinned, the sin needed to be "covered" – and not only his but the sins of his posterity, for it soon became a fact that "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).  God instituted a sacrificial system48 to teach men that a sacrifice was needed to bring about the desired reconciliation.  But as the years passed, the deaths of thousands of animal sacrifices made it abundantly clear that "the blood of bulls and goats could never take away sin" (Hebrews 10:4).  It also became clear that man himself could not provide a suitable sacrifice.  All along, God promised how in due time He would provide the needed sacrifice.  The ceremonies on the Day of Atonement were even a detailed preview of what Jesus, our great high priest, would actually do, with this notable exception:  unlike the Jewish priest, Jesus did not have to offer any sacrifice for His own sins.  He was sinless.  God has provided the needed salvation for believers through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:21-28).

        The New Testament writers struggle with the inadequacy of language as they seek to present to us what Calvary means.  No one metaphor quite captures the full significance of Calvary.  In history's most memorable moment, the Son of God died on Calvary to set a world of sinners free.  God had given his only Son to be the sacrifice that would actually make a covering for sins.  In no sense was the merciful Son championing the rights of humankind against the severe Father who grants forgiveness only grudgingly.  "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19).  Jesus volunteered to be the sacrifice (if such were needed) when, back in eternity before creation, the members of the Godhead formulated their eternal purpose (or "plan" as it is translated by Beck at Romans 8:28).  Jesus was a lamb slain from the foundation of the earth (Revelation 13:8).

        Now, with Christ's death in the picture, God is able to forgive and restore to fellowship those men who respond positively to His invitation and live faithfully in harmony with His revealed will ("the propitiation" is available "through faith," Romans 3:25).  With Christ's death in the picture, God can be just and at the same time justifier of him who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:26).49  The different words used to explain Christ's death vividly help us to see from a number of different perspectives how Christ's death on Calvary works.  Sinners who are slaves to sin are freed.  Captives of the devil are redeemed.  The wrath of God is turned away from sinners.  People suffering estranged relationships are reconciled.

Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned He stood; Sealed my pardon with His blood:  Hallelujah! What a Savior!50



1 "Vicarious" means to act in the place of another, or on behalf of another.  In the phrase "vicarious, substitutionary atonement" it alludes to the fact that Christ's sacrifice for sins was for others, for He Himself (being sinless) needed no sacrifice for His own sins.
2 "Substitutionary" means that Christ died in the place of or in the stead of sinners themselves dying.
3 The term atonement is derived from Anglo-Saxon words meaning "making at one;" hence, "at-one-ment."  It translated Greek and Hebrew words meaning "to reconcile" or "to set at one" what previously had been severed or at odds with each other.
4 It was man's sin that broke the personal relationship between the Creator and the creature (Isaiah 59:2, "Your iniquities have made a separation between you and God").  There was no way for man to take away the cause of the estrangement, so if there was to be reconciliation, God would have to provide the way.  If sins could be covered and forgiven then there would be nothing to cause a continued rift between God and man.  God graciously introduced the death of a sacrificial victim to substitute for the death of the sinner.  That removed the sin-barrier that caused the separation.  When blood is shed, there can be forgiveness (Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22), after which reconciliation can occur.
5 Sources from which notes in this study are paraphrased and/or quoted are:  Vernon C. Grounds, "Atonement" in Baker's Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker, 1960), p.71-78;  T.H. Hughes, The Atonement:  Modern Theories of the Doctrine (London, 1949);  Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1956); idem, "Atonement" in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Wheaton, IL:  Tyndale House Publishers, 1986), Vol.1, p.147-151;  idem, "Atonement, Theories of the," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology edited by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker, 1984), p.100-102;  David Neelands, "Substitution and the Biblical Background of Cur Deus Homo," The Saint Anselm Journal 2:2 (Spring 2005), p.80-87; Tuckett, C.M., "Atonement in the New Testament," in Abingdon Bible Dictionary (New York:  Doubleday, 1992). Vol.1, p.518-522.
6 See his two works, Against Heresies and The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.  To call Christ's death a "ransom" reflects the Biblical words "redeem" or "redemption."
7 Hastings Rashdall, The Idea of Atonement in Christian Theology (London: 1919), p.247.
8 Comm. in Matt. xvi.8.
9 On the Incarnation of the Word of God, xx.2.
10 See his Enchiridion and On the Trinity, xiii.12-15.  Augustine pictured the devil as exercising a legitimate ownership over sinners, and thus a ransom had to be paid to the devil.  "Men were held captive under the devil and served the demons, but they were redeemed from captivity.  For they could sell themselves.  The Redeemer came, and gave the price; He poured forth His blood and bought the whole world.  Do you ask what He bought?  See what He gave, and find what He bought.  The blood of Christ is the price.  How much is it worth?  What but the whole world?  What but all nations?"  (Ennaration on Psalm 95, no.5).
11 Oratio 24.22.
12 Some early theologians taught that sinners go to hell because they belong to Satan.  In this situation God offered Christ to the devil as a ransom in exchange for sinners.  Satan eagerly accepted the offer realizing that he was getting far more than he was giving up, but when he got Christ down into hell he found that he could not hold Him.  On the third day Christ rose triumphant and Satan was left with neither his original prisoners nor the ransom price.  (Gregory of Nyssa [ca.330-ca.395] spoke of Jesus' humanity being bait that concealed the fish hook of His deity and of how the devil was caught for our saving good [The Great Catechism, chap.24].)  Of course, only a little thought is needed to see that on this view God was deceiving Satan, but that did not worry the church fathers.  To them it simply showed that God was wiser than Satan.  The ransom view faded as time passed and men came up with what seemed to be better ways to explain the atonement, but the ransom theory was revived in the 20th century by Gustav Aulen (Christus Victor, London, 1931).
13 See his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.
14 See his Cur Deus Homo 1,11.  The Latin title has been translated "Why God Became Man" or "Why the God-Man?"  In Cur Deus Homo II,16, Anselm pointed out that a king is in a very different position from a private citizen.  He may be ready to overlook an insult or an injury to his private capacity, but as supreme in the kingdom he cannot.  Proper satisfaction must be rendered for all that harms the kingdom.  To Anselm, Christ's death provided that "satisfaction."  Another name for the Satisfaction theory is the "Legal Theory" since it is God's justice that is thought to be satisfied.  Prior to Cur Deus Homo, the view of Christ's death which prevailed widely was that it was a ransom paid to the devil in order to deliver the souls of men over whom he had a legal claim.  Anselm by contrast stressed the fact that the death of Christ was a satisfaction rendered to God's justice and honor.  Since Anselm's time this view has become one that is found in both Protestant and Catholic orthodoxy.
15 The idea of sin being a "debt" is reflected in the wording of the model prayer, "forgive us of our debts as we forgive our debtors" (Matthew 6:12), and in the parable of the unforgiving servant at Matthew 18:23-25 where the servant is imprisoned until he should pay back what he owed.
16 See his Epitome of Christian Theology and his Commentary on Romans.
17 There is truth in this theory, but it is not adequate to cover all the Scripture teaches about the results of the cross.  This moral influence view of the atonement has been defended in recent times by Hastings Rashdall in The Idea of Atonement (1919).  Probably the best known hymn about the death of Christ in modern times is "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," a hymn that sets forth the moral influence view of atonement.  Every line of it emphasizes the effect on the observer who is surveying the wondrous cross.  What the hymn says is true and important.  But if it is claimed that this is all the cross means, we must reject it.
18 Tractatus ad Innocentium II Pontificem contra quaedamcapitulaerrorum Abaelardi (Ep.190).  Peter Lombard (c.1100-c.1160) also taught the ransom theory with the ransom being paid to the devil.
19 This is a slight modification of Anselm's views.  While Anselm thought that sin outraged the majesty of God, Melanchthon substituted the idea that sin is a breaking of God's law.  The essence of the atonement, he thought, is that Christ took our penalty upon Himself.  He stood in the place of sinners and since He bore their punishment, it no longer falls on them.  Opponents of Melanchthon point out this does not take account of the fact that while some penalties, like fines, may indeed be transferred, penalties like imprisonment or execution may not be.  Further, sin is not something that can be transferred from one person to another (say, from the sinner to Christ).
20 "Christ took upon Himself and suffered the punishment which by the righteous judgment of God impended over all sinners, and by this expiation the Father has been satisfied and His wrath appeased" (Institutes, II, chap.16).
21 This is an extension of Anselm's satisfaction theory, but speaks of God's justice (rather than God's honor) as being satisfied.
22 See his Defense of the Catholic Faith.
23 John M. Hicks, "What Did Christ Accomplish on the Cross:  Atonement in Campbell, Stone and Scott," Lexington Theological Quarterly ( atonement1-article- ltq.doc).
24 Notes in this paragraph are from "Atonement of Christ" in Theopedia, an on-line encyclopedia of Biblical Christianity.  The Socinian moral influence view is that Christ's death was only the death of a martyr.  That being true, all that is required for the forgiveness of sins is faith and repentance on the part of the sinner:  the death of Christ has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins.  Certain Disciples of Christ have held this theory, using the Prodigal Son parable to substantiate their view.
25 The Bible does speak of the wrath of God.  Using 20 different words to express God's wrath, there are 580 occurrences of the idea in Scripture.  (Leon Morris, Apostolic Preaching, p. 131).
26 While God is loving, He is likewise holy.  His self-integrity requires that He maintain and assert Himself as self-derived, self-sufficient, and self-giving.  So, after quoting Matthew 16:21 ("From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things ... and be killed ..."), W.J. Wolf comments, "It is in the mystery of that word 'must' that all subsequent Christian doctrines of the atonement are rooted."  (No Cross, No Crown:  A Study of the Atonement, New York, 1957, p.64).
27 We say "as much as possible" since we are so accustomed to read and speak of the "Day of Atonement" (yom kippur) in which the English word "atonement" has been used to translate kippur (covering).  Here is a place where our English Bibles use "atonement" as a translation for a word which means something other than "reconcile."
28 The "mercy seat" was the lid of the Ark of the Covenant.  Onto this lid, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest sprinkled the blood of the sin offerings both for himself and the sins of the people (Leviticus 16:11-15; Hebrews 9:7).  "Day of atonement" (hemera exilasmou) might better be translated 'day of propitiation' or 'day of covering.'
29 In addition we find the verb hilaskomai ('to propitiate') in the prayer of the publican (Luke 18:13) and in Hebrews 2:17.  There is also an adjective form, hileos, found in Matthew 16:22 ("God be merciful to you Lord," NASB mg.) and Hebrews 8:12 (" will be merciful to their iniquities").  In the LXX, the Hebrew word translated by the hilas- family of words was the kpr root (see kipper, kippurim, kaporeth [mercy seat]), a word that means "to cover."  The Hebrew root kaphar occurs about 110 times in the Old Testament Scriptures, principally in Leviticus and Numbers, and the root idea is "to cover" (though such English words as atonement, make atonement, appease, and pacify are found in our English Bibles).  The primitive verb and its noun occur in Genesis 6:14, "cover it inside and out with pitch."  Just as the pitch covered the ark and protected its passengers, so the shed blood of sacrifice stands between the sinner and the wrath of a holy God.
30 Any transactional theory where an offended deity is placated by the intervention of one more merciful in character is to be repudiated.  The idea that the death of Christ appeased an angry God like the angry god is appeased by the heathen woman throwing her baby into the Ganges River, is not a Biblical idea.  The Scriptures explain that God is a God of love, and He Himself provided the propitiation, the covering for sin.  It is not a case of one more merciful providing the sacrifice, but God Himself provided it.  This much the Scriptures tell us, but what else is involved in hilasmos we are not told.
31 C.H. Dodd (JTS xxxii [July 1931], p.353-356) tried to show that the LXX does not always use hilaskomai to translate kipper.  When it does not, it uses words with meanings like 'to sanctify,' 'purify' persons or objects of ritual, or 'to cancel,' 'purge away,' 'forgive sins.'  When hilaskomai is not used to translate kipper and its derivatives, the LXX translators used words that fall into one of two classes:  (i) with human subject, 'to cleanse from sin or defilement', 'to expiate';  (ii) with divine subject, 'to be gracious,' 'to have mercy,' 'to forgive.'  Dodd concluded that, when using hilaskomai to render the kipper group, "the LXX translators did not regard kipper (when used as a religious term) as conveying the sense of propitiating the Deity, but the sense of performing an act whereby guilt or defilement is removed."  Morris (Apostolic Preaching, p.138) objected that Dodd ignored passages where there is explicit mention of averting God's wrath (i.e., where propitiation might be a suitable equivalent).
32 For hilasmos, at Romans 3:25, the NIV has a footnote which reads, "as the one who would turn aside His wrath."
33 Walter Elwell, "Atonement, Extent of the," in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 1984), p.98-100, gives all arguments pro and con for both limited atonement and universal atonement.
34 If these verses do mean "sin offering" then it may be too much to say that penal substitution is a New Testament doctrine, for penal substitution says that once Jesus was made to be sin, God then punished Him as though he were a sinner.  These verses may not say that at all.
35 "The preposition anti characteristically has the meaning 'in the place of', 'instead of', whether in the classics or in the Koine" (Morris, Apostolic Preaching, p.30).  In the LXX, Abraham offered the ram for a burnt offering "in the stead of (anti) his son" (Genesis 22:13).
36 Both Thayer and BAG give "in behalf of, for the sake of" as the first meaning for huper.  Both also give "instead of, in place of" as a possible alternative meaning.
37 Huper also occurs at 2 Corinthians 5:21 in "made Him to be sin on our behalf (huper hemon)." See the commentary on this verse where it is proposed to mean "a sin offering on our behalf" rather than penal substitution.
38 There is a manuscript variation at this place.  Following the Greek of the Textus Receptus, the KJV reads Christ "suffered for sins," a reading that has been used to support the idea of penal substitution (that idea that Christ our substitute suffered the punishment that sinners deserved).
39 Matthew 8:16,17, Christ "Himself took up our infirmities and carried away our diseases," is a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:4.  Not that infirmities were vicariously imputed to Christ at His crucifixion; rather, Christ healed the sick, thus "carrying" or "bearing" their diseases away from them.
40 The authenticity of this ransom saying has been disputed (Rashdall, for example, op. cit., p.29-37, 49-56).  Morris, Apostolic Preaching answers, p.27ff.
41 Redemption is obtained even for the transgressions committed under the Mosaic covenant (Romans 3:25,26; Hebrews 9:15).
42 Morris, Apostolic Preaching, p.48.
43 See Irenaeus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Peter Lombard and Bernard of Clairvaux.
44 At 2 Samuel 29:4 the Hebrew word ratsah is translated "reconcile" in the KJV ("make acceptable" in NASB).  The verb speaks of the removal of enmity.  The English word "reconciliation" occurs in the KJV several times (Leviticus 6:30, 16:20; Ezekiel 45:20) as the translation of the Hebrew kaphar (which has been shown above to mean "covering").  At these places the LXX has some form of the word for covering or propitiation (namely, exhilasasthai, exhilaskomenos, or exhilasesthe).  At these places it is translated "atonement" or "atoning" in NASB, another not quite satisfactory choice of an English equivalent.
45 Morris, Apostolic Preaching, p.192.
46 The idea of "reconciliation" is sometimes present when the actual word does not appear, e.g., when "making peace" is spoken of (peace with God).
47 All the New Testament verses that have the resurrection as the victory over the powers of death and enabling the Christian to share the consequences of Christ's victory may also be included in this category.
48 That God instituted sacrifice is implied in "by faith Abel offered a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain" (Hebrews 11:4) for, after all, "faith comes by hearing the Word of God" (Romans 10:17 KJV).
49 What is being presented here is a deliberate repudiation of the doctrine of "limited atonement," i.e., that Christ died only for the elect.  The Bible says Christ died for all (Isaiah 53:6; 1 John 2:2; 1 Timothy 2:6, 4:10), and that potentially is true.  Whether or not a man avails himself of the benefits of Christ's death is a matter of his free will and choice, not a matter decided for him by God back in eternity before creation.  It is man's decision to reject the salvation God offers that brings about His condemnation.
50 P.P. Bliss.
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