“Jesus died for our sins.” This simple statement is at the very center of the New Testament. How this short gospel summary has been explained over the centuries of Christian faith and life has varied dramatically, however. A wide variety of atonement theories has sprouted from the soil of Scripture and has been fed by the culture of the day. Early Christians understood salvation to result from a cosmic battle between God and evil. But surely they wondered, “How does this really work?” Medieval Christians assumed that human sin had offended God’s honor and must be dealt with through punishment or satisfaction. But they still puzzled over how Jesus’ death really accomplishes this. Many Christians explain the doctrine of the atonement through images of punishment or law. Yet they, too, wonder what these images of the courtroom and the prison cell are doing in an account of salvation. Clearly, there is no single explanation that can adequately express the core Christian conviction in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.1
But as Christian believers, we try to find the right words. Our language creaks and groans under the strain of attempting to convey the enormity of the truth of the gospel. Writer Anne Lamott once remarked that she has only two prayers: “Help, help, help,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” But even a keen awareness of the limits of language does not stop believers from trying to speak their faith. When the apostles were instructed sternly by local officials not to talk about Jesus, they answered, “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Our early brothers and sisters in the faith were compelled to speak. So are we. It is no accident that the Christian tradition contains a range and variety of atonement explanations. A single explanation cannot bear the weight of accounting for the truth of God’s love for a lost world.
The cosmic battle model that imagines the dramatic defeat of the principalities and powers of darkness by Jesus’ death and resurrection is one way to find the words. The ransom from the devil model that imagines that sin traps us in prisons of our own making, only to be rescued through the cross and empty tomb, is another way to find the words. The satisfaction image, expressed by Anselm in the medieval era, reminds us that Jesus’ death was a profound event of divine self-giving; only through God’s plan can a desperately indebted humanity be free. The courtroom language of Calvin, with punishments and verdicts dominating the imagery, language that provokes such negative responses in some Christians today, does not allow us to forget that human sin is a terrible violation of the will of God for human persons. Calvin was convinced that this strong language of punishment and substitution is the only thing that can truly evoke in us the kind of gratitude appropriate for such a great act of God.2 Some Christian believers today do not experience that strong language as a prompt for gratitude and find difficulty in understanding both the love and the justice of God. It is a continuing challenge for the church to find the right words here and now.
The very heart of the gospel is perhaps no better expressed than in five compact verses in 2 Corinthians:
So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:17–21)
This great summary of the faith communicates three important affirmations. First, through Jesus Christ, all things are made new. The old order of sin and death and suffering has been overcome. A new reality now exists. Sometimes, we see the new reality in clear ways: A loved one is healed! Forgiveness is extended! An injustice is mended! Often, we see the new reality in hidden and partial ways as well. We see glimpses of God’s kingdom in spite of the times when the illness advances, the brokenness continues, or hunger and poverty settle in for the long haul. Whether the new reality is vivid and clear or blurred and fragmentary, the biblical affirmation tries to find the right words, “See, everything has become new!”
The second affirmation is that God sent Jesus Christ for this purpose. “All this is from God.” The life and teachings and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—all this is for us and from God. Jesus is no accidental savior. Not only did God allow the only-begotten Son to die that we may live, but Jesus himself chose to undertake the enormous burden of taking on the sins of the world so that the world might take on the righteousness of God.
ANSELM OF CANTERBURY (AD 1033–1109) was a Benedictine monk, a philosopher, and a prelate of the Church who held the office of Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. He was the founder of scholasticism, and is known in the field of philosophy for discovering and articulating the “ontological argument” for the existence of God and in the field of theology for the satisfaction theory of atonement. An influential figure, he was twice exiled from England for his controversial views.
The third point is that God entrusts us with the task of serving as the ambassadors of reconciliation to the whole world. We have been reconciled. It is not something we can keep to ourselves. We are called to be messengers of God’s reconciliation so that all may hear.
These three themes do not solve all the questions surrounding the cross. Big issues remain. Why was a death necessary for this reconciliation to happen? Could God have done this another way? Here it is important to remember that the challenge for believers is not to argue the logic of the cross. As a matter of fact, the cross does not make sense. It is strange and peculiar that we are brought into fellowship with God through the odd combination of a botched trial, a hasty execution, and a miraculous resurrection. The apostle Paul once called the cross “foolishness” and reminds us that it is God’s intent to save in precisely this way (1 Cor 1:18–25).
But is no good to talk about “everything becoming new” in Jesus Christ if salvation is not visible in the here and now. If ethnic groups are still torn apart by hatred, if lives are still destroyed by betrayal, if societies are still weakened by injustice, if guilt and shame crushes the soul, then salvation has not managed to take root in the real human beings for whom Jesus lived, died, and was raised. In short, the church—the community that confesses faith in Jesus Christ—must reflect the actual reality of salvation.
The story is told of a child who once asked a professor if he was saved. The professor, perhaps typically, asked for a clarification. “Do you mean to ask me if I was saved or if I am being saved or if I will be saved?” The question is a good one. Past, present, and future are all included in the timeline of salvation. In one sense, Jesus Christ saved us once and for all on the cross and through the empty tomb. In this sense, the past tense, salvation means that God took up all the despair and sin that destroys human beings into God’s own divine life and overcame it. Not content to be a God far away from us, God willed to become one-with-us, taking on even the worst of human hatred and injustice, in order to restore us. This happened in the past, decisively, through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.
In another sense, Jesus Christ saves us now, for new life, in thanks and praise to God. Simply put, salvation in the present tense means that believers follow Jesus. People should be able to notice the difference it makes to be a Christian. The community of believers, who gather together for worship and service, must visibly embody the gospel. In the ways we live and speak and act, Christ himself is present among us, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle John, in the New Testament, never tired of reminding early Christians that unbelievers notice how Christians act. They draw conclusions about the truth of the gospel based on the behavior of the community. When people look at Christians, at the ways they worship God and serve each other, they will say to each other, “Look! See how they love one another!” (see 1 John 3). Or, people will see the hatred among Christians, their divisiveness, their indifference to the poor, and their smugness and they will conclude that the faith is nothing more than a crutch for self-satisfaction and a prop for pride. John remarks, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).
“See how they love each other,” the world will say, if the Christian community takes on the very shape and character of the gospel. The shape of the gospel, lived out in the community of believers, is made visible by the fruit of the Spirit, including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, as the list in Galatians 5:22–23 puts it. The gospel of Jesus Christ is seen visibly when the church makes room for others. Not just those like us are the church. As broad and deep as God’s love, so the church must welcome the stranger, the foreigner, the different, and the strange.
INFANT BAPTISM, practiced by many Orthodox, Catholic, and some Protestant denominations, is the practice of pouring water on the head of an infant held over a baptismal font. It is contrasted among many Protestants with adult believer baptism—available only to those capable of confessing faith in Jesus.
(Pietro Longhi, The Baptism, 1755)
The shape of the gospel is also lived out in gathered worship. When Christians worship, they do so to give glory to God and to identify themselves as followers of Jesus. They do so to align themselves with the purposes of God both now and in the future. They do so in their hymns of praise and in their cries of lament. Excellent worship is a small glimpse of the reign of God launched in Jesus Christ and coming in all its fullness in God’s own good time.
The future tense is also included in the claim of salvation. Jesus saves us for all eternity, when every tear will be wiped away and harmony will be restored to creation. Revelation 21 describes this restoration as a new heaven and a new earth, as a place of peace and joy, of beauty and abundance. It is not the boring, misty place some people imagine, perhaps from Sunday School teachers who sweetly declared that in heaven we would sing praises to God all day, every day, forever. Children do not see an eternity like this as particularly inviting. And these children grow up to become adults who do not see an eternity like this as particularly inviting either.
The exact blueprint of heaven is known to no one. Perhaps we can learn to speak Japanese and to play the cello in heaven. Maybe we can finally play tennis really well and read all the great classics. Maybe we will be able to identity all flora and fauna by their Latin names or climb the ten highest mountain peaks. Such imaginative leaps sometimes occupy the thoughts of Christians in their idlest moments. Such thoughts are not frivolous, however. It is good for believers to dream and imagine and wonder what is in store for us when God puts all things right. But, for now, it is enough to know that the new heaven and the new earth will be a place of safety and nourishment, a place where all the nations of the earth will join in harmony with one another and praise to God. The hope of such a future with God calls the church to live in the light of that new community now, looking for glimpses of God’s future in the most ordinary events of the present.
The infant baptism liturgy of the church I attend contains a truly astonishing and powerful moment. The minister, remarkably, addresses the baby just before the baptism itself. The minister holds the baby, looks right at her and says, “Rachel, it was for you that Jesus Christ came into the world; for you he died and for you he conquered death; yes, for you, little one, you who know nothing of it as yet. We love because God first loved us.” The whole congregation holds its breath for a moment. This new little person is being introduced to the great claims of the Christian faith. She, too, will learn of the love of God in Jesus Christ, who was born, lived, died, and rose again, for us and for our salvation.
John 3:16, surely the most famous verse of the Bible, says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This is the full truth of the gospel. Perhaps the power and beauty of this verse has been obscured by seeing posters or banners at televised football games with “John 3:16” scrawled on them. Perhaps its familiarity blunts the remarkably good news it proclaims. Perhaps seeing this verse on faded billboards in quaint King James English gives the impression of a quaint, old-fashioned religion. The very next verse, as if to anticipate our wandering interest, insists yet again, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” These are the right words. And we respond, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
1. Adapted from my book Believing in Jesus Christ (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2002), chs. 6–7.
2. Calvin commends these images of sacrifice and penalty because “trembling consciences find repose only in sacrifice and cleansing” (Institutes, 2.16.5).
This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2012, “No Cross, No Christianity: The Biblical Shape of Atonement Theology.”