“But how can a mortal be righteous before God?” Job 9:2
“The atonement is the crucial doctrine of the faith. Unless we are right here it matters little, or so it seems to me, what we are like elsewhere.” Leon Morris The Cross in the New Testament
For many, bringing up the doctrine of atonement leads to a discussion of whether or not its scope is limited or unlimited. Atonement as a theological topic often ends there, though occasionally the mention of alternative view leads to a vehement exhortation that penal substitution is the only acceptable view on the matter. For something so critical to the Christian life, there is scant consideration of the depth and breadth of views on how and why Christ performed this sacrificial task on our behalf.
My next set of doctrinal posts are going to explore the wide range of views that the Church has held at various times in its history on the doctrine of atonement. Many people will discover that there numerous ways that Christians have understood atonement beyond the most commonly expressed view of Evangelicals, penal substitution. It is important to keep in mind that the various emphases and approaches to understanding atonement may differ on their constructions they all come to the same conclusion: the work of Jesus Christ on the cross reconciled a sinful people and a holy God.
Atonement, in all of its theories and views, is specifically the reconciliation with God over the problem of sin. 1 John 2:1-2 summarize the idea well:
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
As reconciled people we are at peace with God rather than continuing to be His enemies. Christ’s death has removed the enmity between us and has appeased the wrath of God. The propitiation full satisfied every one of the righteous demands of God, a necessary transaction as His holiness does not allow God to simply overlook our sin. As redeemed humans, Christ has purchased us out of bondage to sin and we become His servants. His sacrifice was the act that allowed us to be declared righteous, pardoning us and ending our separation from God. As John Wesley wrote, “Nothing in the Christian system is of greater consequence than the doctrine of atonement.”