Atonement – The Greatest Human Need


“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.”


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6 thoughts on “Atonement – The Greatest Human Need”

  1. This should be good. Just don’t fall into the modern trap of “penal substitutionary atonement is new to the Church and is a Roman Catholic idea resulting from Anselm’s work” or call it a result of Calvin’s training in the law haha! That’s SO emergent to reduce it to that ha!

    A book that is SUPER well done, well researched and well written is:

    The historical study was particularly helpful to me as it has shown the richness of P.S.A. throughout Church History.

  2. Also, if you do address the “particular vs universal” debate, I hope you consider John Owen’s, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ”

  3. Thanks Andy, I’m going to check out both of those. I think I’m going to start by defining the major views and their positions and then talk about the different positions within those. I keep running into people who espouse a single position as correct but who have no knowledge of other views or the ability to say why they are wrong (in their view.) Should be interesting.

  4. Our pastor just said yesterday in talking about the atonement that we need to see it as this multi-sided diamond. Yes its a penal substitution, but its also a military conquest (Cristus Victor), its a ransom, ect. I’ve always been raised in the Reformed view that seems to embrace a huge spectrum of just what the atonement was (yet oddly enough they call our view “limited”!)

    My problem is w/ modern movements that try to embrace a “non-violent” atonement. They work really hard to deny the penal substitutionary aspect of the atonement because its seen as violent. Sin’s pretty violent though….

    In my studies of the early Church, I’ve come to realize that they too embraced a multi-sided atonement. They didn’t limit the atonement to merely a ransom, or merely a substitutionary sacrifice, or merely a “Cristus victor” view. Their view (much like the Reformers, I believe) was huge and not limited to narrow views. The reason we talk so much about the penal substitutionary side of things lately is because that is the aspect that is under attack, particularly from “liberal” Anabaptism and Emergent circles.

    That’s my take on it all anyway.

  5. ‘Thou preparest a table before Me in the presence of Mine enemies.” and doesn’t this table sit right down front center of every Christian church house in existance relative to God’s promise to him “Sit until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”? You have falsely assumed that the word reconcile is positive but it is not.

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