The Atonement

By Daniel H. King

The doctrine regarding the atonement accomplished by Christ in His suffering and death has been the subject of fierce debate down through the centuries since the “deposit of the faith” came into its final form. During apostolic times the controversy was nonexistent. The various descriptive analogues and illustrative figures gave the first generation of Christians no difficulty whatever. They were at work evangelizing the world. There was little time for pondering the thousandfold implications of the multi-faceted doctrine. With the growth of the church in power and numbers, however, scholars appeared on the scene who thirsted for the knowledge of the infinite. They had time for theorizing and imaginative natures adept at speculatory thinking. Thus, history tells us that it has been the same with the atonement as with almost every other theological motif or concept, the less that was said about it in the Bible, the greater the tendency to speculate about what little was revealed. Often there was an unscrupulous “harping” upon a single area that had been obsessively focused upon-it was stressed while other important principles and passages were neglected or even denied. This has been the story of the atonement doctrine throughout the ages. At the outset, . genuine biblical principles have usually been taken and stressed (and quite often mutilated in the process) to the exclusion of others that are just as “genuine” and just as “biblical.” What usually has resulted is a completely unbiblical doctrine. The various histories of “Christian Doctrine” attest to this old pattern again and again. And, if histories are forthcoming in years ahead, then the story of the present-day folly will be told in objective terms that will betray both its unbiblical character and its subjective motivation. Our purpose in this study is to look at the doctrine of the atonement as it is presented in the Bible as well as pointing out historical and contemporary perversions of the concept.


Our English word “atonement” is derived from the phrase “at one.” The significance is therefore quite clear. It obviously describes a process by which two alienated parties are brought together into an harmonious relationship (in this case God and man), or the resultant unitive state. Another term describing such a state or process is “reconciliation.” Moreover, in the modern usage of the word, “atonement” has taken on the more restricted meaning of the process by which the hindrances to reconciliation are removed, rather than the end achieved by their removal. Thus, when we talk about the biblical doctrine of the atonement, our intention is to make allusion to the process by which the obstacles to reconciliation between man and God were removed.

The Bible as a whole assumes the need for some “atoning action” on the part of man (but in every case devised by and thus acceptable to God), if he is to be right with God. It is accepted as a fact beyond dispute that man is estranged from God, and is himself entirely to blame for this estrangement (Isa. 59:1,2; Rom. 3:23; 5:10; 8:7; Eph. 2:12; 4:18; Col. 2:12). His disobedience to the will of God-i.e. his sin-has alienated him from God, and this alienation must first be remedied if right relationships are to be restored. The barrier raised by man’s past sins must be removed (Gal. 6:7; Rom. 1:18; 6:23; Eph. 2:1). One purpose of the elaborate sacrificial system of Old Testament religion was to provide such an “atonement” for human sin. In the ritual for the consecration of priests, it is required: “Every day you shall offer a bull as a sin offering for atonement” (Ex. 29:36). Similarly, the priests must make sacrifice for the sins of all the people that they may be forgiven (Lev. 4:20). In the ritual of the Day of Atonement the first of two goats is slain, but the second “shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement” (Lev. 16:9,10). This live goat is driven out into the wilderness, laden with the sins of the people. It is also possible to offer money for the temple “to make atonement for yourselves” (Ex. 30:16), as well as incense (Num. 16:47), or prayer (Ex. 32:30). In the New Testament, though, atonement is related to none of these things (except as they acted as shadows and types of the reality and anti-type). It is related entirely to Jesus Christ and His coming to earth, and especially with His death upon the cross. Much of the language of Old Testament immolationism and sacerdotalism were used to describe his death because He was both priest and sacrifice to end all Old Testament priests and sacrifices (Heb. 8:1,2; 9:11-28). In addition, the New Testament declares that in Christ and His death is all that man needs in order to find his sins forgiven (Eph. 1:7) and his life reconciled to God (Rom. 5:10); in Him is that which can cancel out the ill effects of sin (1 Jn. 2:2), release man from the burden of his guilt (Heb. 10:22), and grant him peace with God (Eph. 2:16-18). Man can rejoice in God because of the reconciliation (Rom. 5:11), having free access to God through Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:11,12). The “at-one-ment” has been accomplished.

Atonement Terminology

The word “atonement” itself appears many times in the Old Testament and translates the Hebrew word kopher (Dan. 9:24; Lev. 8:15; Ezek. 45:15). Kopher means “to cover, hide” (Brown, Driver, Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, p. 497). On the other hand, the word appears only once in the King James Version of the New Testament (Rom. 5:11). In this case it is translating the Greek noun katallage, which is elsewhere translated “reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18,19). In the more modern translations the term “atonement” has been consistently replaced by “reconciliation” and does not appear at all. Be that as it may, the concept is present at many junctures in scripture and might even be called the central doctrine of the New Testament. As V.C. Grounds has said, “The atonement is the center of gravity in Christian life and thought because it is the center of gravity in the New Testament, as a mere census of references immediately demonstrates. According to apostolic preaching and doctrine, the significance of Jesus Christ does not lie supremely in his person or ministry or teaching: it lies supremely in his death upon the cross … it is the event of Christ’s death interpreted not as a martyrdom, brought to pass by a miscarriage of justice, but the offering of a redemptive sacrifice ephapax (Heb. 10:1-4) (V.C. Grounds, “Atonement,” in Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, p. 71).

The terminology used by the apostles and prophets to describe what Jesus did upon the cross is essentially that of the Old Testament sacrificial system, but with a note of finality. Christ’s death is called by New Testament writers a “sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2) and a “sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10:12). He is therefore personally described as the “Lamb of God” (Jn. 1:29,36), and the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8; 5:6,12), while his suitability to be offered as a sacrifice is referred to by Peter with the words “Lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:19). Christ is said to have been offered on the cross as the “propitiation,” i.e. to conciliate and appease the just indignation of the righteous God at human sin (1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10; Rom. 3:25). The “New Theology” which tries to explain away these biblical ideas is operating from a priori premises and making undue concessions to modern conceptions of the character of deity. The god of modern theology may not demand a “propitiation” for human sin, but the God of the Bible did! And, not only did he demand it, but he offered it in Jesus Christ.

The New Testament writers also allude to the atonement in Christ as a “ransom”: “The Son of man came not to be ministered to, but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45); “Christ Jesus . . . gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5,6). In the past some considered the death of Christ as a payment offered to Satan to secure for man freedom from bondage to him. But how could the death of Christ at the same time be a sacrifice offered to God (‘Eph. 5:2) and a ransom offered to the Devil? The Bible nowhere tells us that Satan was ever paid anything. In life Christ offered no conciliations to the Devil (Matt. 4:10), much less in his death. Instead, in death Christ gained victory over death and the Devil (Heb. 2:14,15). He owed the Devil nothing and paid him his due. All was owed to God. Hence, we are “redeemed” through Christ’s atonement (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14) and it can be truly said that we are “bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23). We were redeemed and purchased out of subservience to Moses’ Law (Gal. 3:13; 4:5), from a vain manner of life (1 Pet. 1:18), and from all iniquity (Tit. 2:14). And, even these kindred concepts of “ransom” and “redemption” are ideas whose roots lie deep in the Jewish sacrificial system (Ex. 30:12; Num. 3:44-51). We do not mean to intimate, however, that the sacrificial system is the complete background for the New Testament ideas. Other Old Testament events and actions are also germane and the terms applied by Jesus and his apostles are supercharged with these historical reflections as well. For instance, Israel was redeemed from Egyptian slavery (Ex. 6:6; 15:13) and later from Babylonian captivity (Is. 43:1; 44:22; 48:20; 52:9; 63:9). These ideas are almost certainly persistent in the thought of the early evangelists as well.

History of the Atonement Doctrine

Different theories of the atonement have held sway at various intervals in the history of “Christian thought.” Although not held by everyone during the period stated, the influence of each theory was certainly sufficient for us to label it “in vogue” for that era.

(1) The Ransom or Bargain Theory. The first recorded suggestion of this theory occurs in the writings of Irenaeus (A.D. 120-202). Simply stated, this is a theory which includes a transaction between God and the Devil. As we earlier suggested it is a take-off from Mk. 10:45. The Devil, under this scheme, is found in possession of man, and his rights as possessor cannot be ignored, however he came by them. Therefore God consents to pay a price, the death of His own $on, for the release of man. But in accepting this price the devil is deceived. He loses his power over man, and he is not competent to hold in his power the holy Son of God. Although certain details varied between the early theologians, this view stood for nearly nine hundred years as the ordinary exposition of the fact of the atonement. We have already demonstrated its unsoundness.

(2) The Satisfaction Theory of Anselm. This view was first successfully expostulated by Anselm of Canterbury (A.D. 1033-1109). In this view, man is seen owing God complete obedience; when he fails to render this, he sinfully robs the sovereign of the honor which he is due; because sin is an infinite affront to the divine glory which cannot be remitted simply by the exercise of mercy, God must vindicate himself in keeping with the demands of his own holy nature; hence an adequate satisfaction must be offered. But an infinite affront necessitates an infinite satisfaction, and the satisfaction must be offered by the disobedient race. So Christ is sent, thus satisfying the justice of God. As can be immediately seen, this view is essentially biblical and little can be found to discredit it. However, there are other ideas which must be represented in order to take into consideration all of the Bible picture of the atonement. Most of these have already been mentioned while others will be pointed out under other headings.

(3) The Penal Theory of the Reformation. In the thought of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and other Reformers it is from the point of view of legal justice that the atonement is stated. The death of Christ is the legal penalty for sin, and there is no trace of the alternative, “either punishment or satisfaction.” The law demands punishment and that punishment must be endured by someone. The Bible says of the atonement, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). Luther, in. turn, reflected, “When the merciful Father saw that we were oppressed by the law, and were held under the curse, and that nothing could free us from it, He sent His son into the world, and cast upon Him all the sins of all men, and said to Him: `Be thou Peter that denier, that adulterer, that sinner who ate the apple in Paradise, that robber upon the cross; in a word be thou the person of all men,’ who hast wrought the sins of all men; consider Thou therefore how thou mayest pay and mayest make satisfaction for them’. Then cometh the law and saith: `I find that sinner taking upon Him the sin of all men and I see no sin beside, save in Him, therefore let Him die upon the cross.’ And so it attacks Him and slays Him. This being done the whole world is purged of all sin and expiation is made; therefore also it is free from death and from all ills” (Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, printed 1535). Again, we find Luther’s thoughts to be innately biblical, but not exclusively so.

(4) The Rectoral or Governmental Theory. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) is usually credited with the first clear expression of this theory. Grotius gave up completely both the conception of God as a judge ad ministering absolute, inviolable justice (which is the basis for the Penal theory), and the conception of God as creditor, the offended party claiming compensation for injury wrought (necessary to the Satisfaction view). He regarded punishment as the function of the state. Thus God, in his administration of punishment, is not regarded as absolute Lord, or as offended party, but rather as the Head of his government. Therefore, in the atonement God acted in such a way as to properly operate his government. He could have relaxed his law and simply remitted sin, but that would have caused no fear in wrong-doers. Punishment was therefore necessary, for a deterrent purpose, and it rested with God to impose it. The problem of government thus created was solved by the vicarious punishment of Christ. We see nothing very biblical about this view.

(5) The Moral Theory. The first proponent of a Moral theory (of which there have been many) appears to have been Peter Abelard (1079-1142). Abelard reduced the cross to a tragic martyrdom. He pictured it as a heartrending spectacle which exhibited the great love of God for man and draws man to obedience as the result of this wonderful act of selfless love. Certainly there is a sense in which the death of Christ should arouse in us a desire to love the God who loved us so, and in this sense it is biblical (Jn. 12:32). On the other hand, there is not much to commend any of the theories that fall into the “moral” category. The death of Christ was far more than merely a martyrdom-as we have shown.

In many modern circles this theory has been revived by neo-orthodox theologians. Each seems to be a “new” view, but in reality is only a return to the basic idea that Christ dies as an example instead of as a sacrifice, ransom, or satisfaction. For instance, Friedrich Schleirmacher (1768-1834) suggested that Christ “redeemed” his people by arousing within them a God-consciousness which is a counterpart of his own. More recently, however, the atonement has moved into the subjective realm and back out again, having no objective significance at all for a time. The return to objectivity has been related to the decline and fall of existentialism. We can view this as one of the few healthy trends in modern theology.

Truth Magazine, XX:21, pp. 8-11
May 20, 1976