The cross of Christ is the most significant event in the history of the world. At the cross Jesus accomplished all that was needed for the redemption of his people.[1] This salvific event is so central to the story of the Bible that multiple terms and phrases are employed to make sense of all its effects. In speaking about the cross and what it accomplished we often use terms like ‘redemption,’ ‘reconciliation,’ and ‘atonement.” It is this last term we are concerned about in this short post.

What do we mean by atonement? Wayne Grudem writes, “We may define the atonement as follows: The atonement is the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation” (Grudem, Systematic Theology). This definition helpfully reminds the reader that speaking of the atoning work of Christ requires us to think about both the life and death of Jesus. John Frame writes, “That word [atonement] comes from an Old English expression referring to reconciliation, bringing people to oneness, at-one-ment” (Frame, Systematic Theology). It is through the life lived and the death died that Jesus clears the path for God to reconcile sinners to himself.

Various atonement theories are developed that seek to make sense of and explain the saving work of Christ. Furthermore, discussions of the atonement inevitably turn into debates regarding the extent of the atonement. In other words, Christians have always sought to explain the what and who of the atonement. More simply, what did Jesus do on the cross and how far do the effects of the cross reach? It’s the what I’m concerned with here.

Theories of the atonement in church history are listed in a number of places. Any systematic text worth its weight will explain (to some degree) various theories articulated throughout history. For example, Origen articulates the “ransom theory to Satan.” Abelard and others would argue that the cross was a great moral example. Still others, like Charles Finney, would argue for a governmental view of the atonement. Finally, Anselm would develop the satisfaction view of the atonement. These atonement theories, and others, receive a good bit of attention from theologians who wrestle with understanding the nature of Christ’s atoning work.

Each of the above views fall short. Origen’s view asserts that Jesus paid a debt owed to Satan for the redemption of sinners. John Frame writes, “That idea has no biblical basis. Satan has no rights over us. It is to God alone that Jesus pays our ransom” (Frame, Systematic Theology). Further, while it is true that the work of Jesus is a moral example (1 Pet. 2:21), it is not true that this is the main function of Jesus’ cross work. He was pierced for our transgressions (Is. 53:5) in order to pay our debt, not simply to leave us an example. The governmental theories, which tell us the cross is merely meant to stress the seriousness of transgressing God’s law, do not make sense given the Bible’s teaching that the death of Christ is required because we have broken the law and stand condemned as enemies (Rom. 5:10).[2] While this short survey by no means evaluates every view of the atonement articulated throughout church history, it is clear we need a better way to understand Jesus and the cross.

It seems that penal-substitutionary atonement does the greatest justice to the work of Jesus. This view says Jesus died in our place in order to pay the penalty for our sins. Importantly, this view also says that by his death Jesus satisfied the wrath and justice of God. Indeed, there was a record of debt that stood against us and God set it aside, nailing it to the cross (Col. 2:14). On the cross we find a substitute. Jesus took the place of sinners and was stricken for their transgressions (Is. 53:5). Christus Victor theories are correct to assert that Jesus has conquered the demonic powers (Col 2:15). Yet, even this doesn’t say enough. Jesus is victorious over these earthly powers, but as far as Christus Victor models jettison the propitiatory aspect of Jesus’ work, it empties the cross of it’s power to save sinners. By contrast, Jesus is victorious because he has paid the debt of sin and destroyed the power of the devil. The devil has nothing to bring against God’s elect at the grand tribunal and death has lost its sting (1 Corinthians 15:55).

Central to the theory of penal substitution is the concept of propitiation. Leon Morris takes up discussion of propitiation in his book, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Most commonly, propitiation means that Jesus bore the wrath of God on the cross. Thus, the wrath of God was averted from the sinner and placed on the shoulders of the sinless.[3] Wayne Grudem defines propitiation as, “a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes God’s wrath toward us into favor.”[4] However, theologians have not always accepted this understanding of propitiation. C. H. Dodd seems to be the most prominent proponent for understanding the Greek and Hebrew terms as referring to expiation and not propitiation. However, Morris has presented a thorough evaluation of such claims and found them wanting.

It seems that Dodd, and others, object to the idea of God’s wrath being aimed at fallen humanity. Instead, for these theologians “wrath” language is nothing more than language of cause and effect. That is, the “wrath” we read about in the Bible is simply the natural effects that follow the sin of the creature (Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 151). For Dodd, and those who follow his thought, there is no need to avert God’s wrath (i.e. propitiation) since God does not aim wrath towards his creatures. Morris will not allow this to stand. He convincingly shows that it is the “wrath of God,” not some impersonal effect, that is surely aimed at the creature. It is the wrath of God that must be averted. Thankfully, God “has given to the people this means of averting wrath” (176). Jesus Christ is the wrath-averting Lamb of God who redeems us from sin and clears the path for reconciliation.

It is exactly the fact that God’s wrath is aimed at the creature that Morris takes up in his second chapter on propitiation. Morris gives a thorough account of the presence of God’s wrath as found throughout the biblical narrative. This wrath is God’s “settled emotion” (182) towards the sinner. This “settled emotion” (i.e. wrath) must land somewhere if God is going to uphold his justice (cf. Jeremiah 9:24). Jesus is the gift that has been offered to avert God’s wrath. Sin is removed (i.e. expiation) and wrath is averted (i.e. propitiation). In short, either Jesus dies, or we die (213). Thankfully, Jesus bore our sins (Is. 53:6, 12) and died to avert the wrath of his Father (thus being the propitiation for the sins of the world [1 John 2:2]).

The atonement is a critical point of theology for the church. We are a people who preach the good news. Simply stated, there is no gospel apart from a theology that proclaims Jesus as the Lamb of God who has died in our place and satisfied the justice of God by bearing the wrath of God. Sin has not simply been removed; wrath has been averted. And it is averted because Jesus has laid down his life on behalf of his people. We proclaim to the world that Jesus has died a justice-satisfying death on their behalf and the way to reconciliation is now open.


[1] Though it is true that those for whom Christ died must repent and believe, and those who come to Christ must persevere, the NT is clear that all those that are given to Jesus by the Father will come to him in faith (John 6:37). Further, all that come to Jesus will never fall away fully and finally (John 6: 44; 10:28). By the statement above I mean that Jesus has accomplished all that he needed to accomplish to ensure that the debt of his people is paid, the faith of his people will be exercised and effective, and that on the final day those who persevere will be declared right with God (i.e. final justification).

[2] Frame helpfully critiques the governmental theory when he writes, “First, Scripture teaches that sacrifice is required to receive God’s forgiveness: without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins (Heb. 9:22). As we have seen, the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23; cf. Ezek. 18:4). Second, on this view, God demonstrates the severity of his law by putting to death an innocent man. But unless Jesus is a substitute for us, his death is a demonstration of injustice, not justice (John M. Frame, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Kindle Locations 23440-23442).

[3] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Kindle Location 23383.

[4] Grudem, Systematic Theology, iBooks Location 1,713.

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