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10 Things You Should Know about the Atonement

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. The doctrine of atonement is about the at-one-ment of God and sinners as well as heaven and earth.

The doctrine of atonement traditionally focuses on the meaning of Christ’s death and how it reconciles God and sinners. I affirm this approach but expand it in two ways. First, the cross is central but not solo in the doctrine of atonement. While the cross is the climax of the world’s story, it will be misunderstood (or asked to do too much) if not held in tandem with the incarnation, life, resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ. Second, the cross is not only God’s way of reconciling sinners to himself but also his means of reconciling the world to himself. In other words, the cross accomplishes the union of God and sinners while also bringing at-one-ment between heaven and earth.

2. The atonement is a Trinitarian accomplishment.

“Christ crucified” is the heart of the gospel. But while Jesus is central in the doctrine of atonement, we must remember that the one who hung on the cross is the Son of the Father who is empowered by the Spirit. In other words, the cross is a Trinitarian accomplishment through and through. Many approaches to the atonement have been insufficiently Trinitarian, resulting in pitting the Father against the Son and leaving out the Holy Spirit altogether. Yet Scripture is clear: God’s kingdom mission, with atonement at the heart of it, is a unified work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Atonement

Jeremy Treat

In this addition to the Short Studies in Systematic Theology series, pastor Jeremy Treat gives a foundational understanding of what Scripture teaches and what the church confesses about the doctrine of atonement.

3. The cross is a multidimensional accomplishment.

Unfortunately, many people approach the doctrine of atonement feeling like they need to choose between various theories, as if Jesus either paid for our sins or defeated the devil or exemplified sacrificial love. Yet this approach reduces the fullness of Christ’s work to a fraction of its glory. Scripture calls us to embrace the whole counsel of God and uphold the multidimensional work of Christ on the cross. Through his death on the cross Jesus accomplishes reconciliation, victory, removal of shame, justification, adoption, propitiation, glorification, healing—and much more!

4. Substitution is the heart of atonement.

A robust doctrine of atonement will include what Christ accomplished (the outcome) as well as how he accomplished it (the means). And while the achievements of the cross are multidimensional, the heart of the atonement—the means by which Christ accomplishes his multidimensional work—is that Christ died in our place for our sins. Christ deals with our sin by offering himself as a substitute in our place. The cross is “the great exchange” whereby Jesus dies so that we can live, he bears the curse so that we can be blessed, he is wounded so that we can be healed. Substitution is not another dimension of the atonement but rather undergirds all the dimensions of the atonement. As the heart pumps blood throughout the body, the substitutionary work of Christ gives meaning and coherence to every aspect of what God has accomplished through his Son.

5. The dimensions of the cross are not alternative options.

The many dimensions of Christ’s atoning death (healing, justification, redemption, and so forth) are not alternative options but rather overlapping aspects of a comprehensive work. In other words, it is not enough to embrace the multi-faceted nature of the atonement and merely uphold tension. Rather, we must seek integration and balance as part of a unified work that was planned before the foundations of the earth. The dimensions of Christ’s death are complementary, not competitive. They interlock and overlap in the tapestry of Scripture’s grand story. For example, Jesus came to forgive sins (Mark 2:10) and to defeat the devil (1 John 3:8). But it’s not as if these works are unrelated. Christ disarms the devil of his power by dealing with our sin which was the grounds of the enemy’s accusation (Col. 2:13–15).

6. “Theories” is a relatively new (and unhelpful) way of discussing the atonement.

Discussing “theories” of atonement has become the standard way of engaging the meaning of the cross. However, did you know that “theory” language was not used in the doctrine of atonement until the 1850s? For most of church history, theologians embraced many different aspects of the atonement and gladly upheld its multidimensional nature. It is, therefore, revisionist history to speak of the early church’s “Christus Victor theory,” Anselm’s “Satisfaction theory,” or Abelard’s “Moral Exemplar theory.” While people have emphasized particular aspects of the atonement, they have not typically done so in a mutually exclusive way. Therefore, I find the “theories” approach to be unhelpful and prefer instead to speak of the many dimensions of Christ’s atoning work.

Scripture is clear: God’s kingdom mission, with atonement at the heart of it, is a unified work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

7. The cross is a vertical and horizontal accomplishment.

The death of the Messiah reconciles sinners to God and to one another—and you cannot have one without the other. In other words, community is not an implication of atonement but rather is intrinsic to atonement. This is why Scripture most commonly speaks of Christ dying “for us” (Rom. 5:8) or “for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). The blood of Christ creates a new covenant community where God’s declaration over us is “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” The shape of the cross itself is a constant reminder of the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work: the vertical beam of the cross is a symbol of the reconciliation between God and sinners, while the horizontal beam is a symbol of God reconciling sinners to one another.

8. The cross is the apex of Christ's kingdom mission.

Many people cling to the cross and others champion the kingdom, but often one to the exclusion of the other. Perhaps that is because some people think that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom at the beginning of his ministry but then shifted his focus to the cross at the end of his life. In Scripture, however, the cross is the apex of Christ’s kingdom mission. Jesus’s entire vision was for the kingdom—God’s reign through his people over all of creation. And when Jesus went to the cross, he did so as the King who was reclaiming his rightful rule over the world. But he did it in the most counterintuitive way. The cross is a throne from which Christ rules with mercy and love.

9. The cross is the power and the pattern of the Christian life.

The cross is not merely a ticket to heaven, as if it transforms our eternity but has nothing to say for today. Rather, the cross is at the heart of a renewed Christian life. In short, the cross is the power and pattern for a life of following Jesus. The cross is the power of the Christian life because it’s through Christ’s death that we are set free from sin, given the righteousness of Christ, and called to walk in the victory of the kingdom. But the cross is also the pattern of the Christian life. We love one another as Christ has loved us (John 13:35). We forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32). We serve one another as Christ has served us (Mark 10:32–45). The doctrine of atonement impacts our daily lives! Through the cross, we share in Christ’s identity, Christ’s suffering, and Christ’s mission. This is good news.

10. The atonement is ultimately for the glory of God.

We were made for glory. While we often settle for seeking the cheap substitute of fame, Jesus came to redirect our hearts to the glory of the Triune God, and he did so by going to the cross. This is why Jesus referred to the crucifixion as the hour of glory (John 12:23). Glory is not merely beauty or excellence; it is the display of beauty and excellence. Glory is beauty beheld. The glory of God is God going public with his infinite praiseworthiness. The atoning death of Christ, therefore, is the place where God’s glory shines brightest. It is not that God became more glorious through the cross. Rather, the cross is the place where his glory was made known and magnified to the uttermost. The glory of God is the ultimate end of the atonement.

Jeremy Treat is the author of The Atonement: An Introduction.



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