What We’re Missing About Christ’s Atonement

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day Christ gave his disciples the “mandate” to love one another, just hours before his death. It’s a safe bet, then, that Christ’s atonement is on the hearts and minds of most Christians as we meditate on the meaning and significance of the central element of our faith. But unfortunately, most people “in the pew”–and, I dare say, many pastors as well–don’t begin to grasp the layers of meaning in Christ’s atonement: or even what atonement really means. For most, Christ’s atonement was the act of his penal substitution (or forensic substitution or vicarious punishment) on the cross to settle the moral debt between man and God. His substitutionary death–along with his perfect life–accomplishes all that is necessary to reconcile sinners back into a right relationship with God. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this view. It’s correct as far as it goes, but it only goes so far.

At its heart, the question of the atonement is simple: how did Christ’s life, death, and resurrection reconcile us to God? Another way to put it is, how does Christ reunite those who have been separated from God by sin? While all Christians agree that Christ did accomplish atonement and reconciliation, there has never been much consensus in the church about how his earthly ministry accomplished this, much less how we are to understand this mystery. For it is, fundamentally, a mystery.

As with most things we cannot fully comprehend, analogies and conceptual paradigms are necessary in order to at least grasp or apprehend the meaning and significance of something as earth-shattering and paradoxical as the death and resurrection of the Son of God for the sins of the world. And there have been many analogies and paradigms offered throughout church history to describe what happened and what it means.

Unfortunately for us, often we talk about these different theories of the atonement as if they were mutually exclusive. And because of that, many lay people and pastors alike have settled into a truncated and ultimately partial appreciation for what Christ’s life, death, and resurrection truly did and how it defines our reconciliation with God and our mission on the earth. For the way we relate to God and his world flows from our understand and experience of Christ’s atonement. If we get that wrong, we get a lot of things wrong.

In this case, it seems that the main problem isn’t that our understanding of the atonement is false, so much as it is incomplete and one-dimensional. Penal substitution isn’t the only way to understand the atonement.

One of the problems with simply embracing penal substitutionary atonement theory is that it doesn’t do complete justice to two essential things: the multi-faceted themes of redemptive history in the Old Testament and Paul’s emphasis on union with Christ. Of course, to make a claim like that and sufficiently support it would require a book. My “Gospel Threads in Scripture” blog series is attempting to do this on a smaller scale. But perhaps even a short blog post can raise a few alternative perspectives, while recognizing that this medium is insufficient to fully support my claims.

When looking at Paul’s discussion of the atonement, it is clear that he grounds the efficacy of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in his theology of “union with Christ,” most often indicated by his simple phrase “in Christ”–a phrase that appears hundreds of times in his letters (see the exciting new book: In Christ” in Paul: Explorations in Paul’s Theology of Union and Participation). This is key, for it implies that our reconciliation with God is not simply accomplished by Christ being our substitute, but also by our participation in Christ. This is why Paul says that Christ’s died for us (Rom. 5:8) but also that we died with Christ (Rom. 6:8). He can say on the one hand that Christ’s death and resurrection was on our behalf (Rom. 4:25) but also that we actually died and resurrected with Christ (Rom. 6:4; Col. 5:8).

Furthermore, penal substitution doesn’t fully account for Scripture’s assertion that Christ was the second Adam and our new federal head (1 Cor. 15:22, 45) or the prophet greater than Moses (Heb. 3) or the Davidic king (Rom. 1:3; Matt. 1:1) or the fulfillment of Israel’s mission (see: Jesus’ recapitulation of Israel in his earthly ministry).

Simply put, penal substitution doesn’t account for all the various layers and textures of Christ’s atonement because it doesn’t take into account Jesus’ office as prophet or king, his federal headship as the Second Adam, and his union with humanity through his incarnation and our union with him through the Spirit.

Because of that, it’s helpful to understand Christ’s atonement through two other lenses or metaphors or paradigms: christus victor and recapitulation.

The christus victor atonement paradigm–which is not at odds with penal substitution–emphasizes Christ’s ultimate victory over the forces of evil: namely Satan, sin, and death. This paradigm underscores the reality that the sin of Adam in the Garden did not merely submit humanity to a moral indebtedness to God that required payment through death. Additionally, the fall submitted humanity to an entirely new and destructive world order. Cast away from God’s presence and God’s kingdom, we found ourselves in the kingdom of darkness (Col. 1:3) with Satan as our king (2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2; Matt. 4:8-9; Luke 4:6; John 8:44), sin as our master (Rom. 6:20), and death as our reward (Heb. 2:14-15). These three enemies Christ defeated by his life, death, and resurrection for the sake of his elect. These elect God then transferred from the kingdom of darkness into his new kingdom (Col. 1:13) with Christ as our King, Christ as our master, and Christ as our reward.

While penal substitution best expresses the power and nature of Christ’s death, christus victor best expresses the power and necessity of Christ’s resurrection. For in his victory over the grave, Christ dealt a death-blow to death and was affirmed as the proper sacrifice whose pleasing aroma rose up to God. The resurrection is Jesus’ victorious moment where he is declared the Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4), where our justification is fully confirmed (Rom. 4:25), where our new life is imparted to us (Rom. 6:4), where our victory over death is accomplished (Rom. 6:9), where sin no longer has power over us (Rom. 6:13-14).

The recapitulation paradigm–which is also not at odds with christus victor or penal substitution–emphasizes that Christ as the Second Adam undid all the wrong that Adam did, “summing up (latin: recapitulating) all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). As William Barclay put it: “Through man’s disobedience the process of the evolution of the human race went wrong, and the course of its wrongness could neither be halted nor reversed by any human means. But in Jesus Christ the whole course of human evolution was perfectly carried out and realised in obedience to the purpose of God.” In other words, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was the undoing of what Adam did, through his obedience bringing life and reconciliation where Adam brought death and separation (Rom. 5:18-19).

As penal substitution best represents the realities of Christ’s death and christus victor best expresses the power of Christ’s resurrection, recapitulation makes best sense of Christ’s incarnation. As Irenaeus says, “Christ became what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is.” By God uniting himself with human flesh, by the Son of God becoming the Son of Man, Jesus becomes the only and perfect representative of God’s people. Without Christ’s incarnation, Christ’s atonement would be ineffective for our full restoration as God’s people (Heb. 2:17). The power of Christ’s death and resurrection flows from the reality of Christ’s incarnation. Irenaeus expresses it beautifully: “He has therefore, in His work of recapitulation, summed up all things, both waging war against our enemy, and crushing him who had at the beginning led us away captives in Adam …the enemy would not have been fairly vanquished, unless it had been a man [born] of woman who conquered him. … And therefore does the Lord profess Himself to be the Son of man, comprising in Himself that original man out of whom the woman was fashioned, in order that, as our species went down to death through a vanquished man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one; and as through a man death received the palm [of victory] against us, so again by a man we may receive the palm against death.” To paraphrase D.H. Whiteley, Christ shared in the life of man (sin excepting) so that man might share in the life of God.

While a short blog post can never do justice to something as complex and debated as the atonement, hopefully even a cursory exploration into these three atonement paradigms can help us all better apprehend and appreciate the true meaning and significance of Christ’s atonement. None of these are mutually exclusive; in fact, they mutually inform and overlap with each other. A better understanding of all three of these metaphors better helps us understand the layers and textures of Christ’s atonement so that we might better worship Christ for what he has done and live out of the reality of our union with Him. For having understood these things, we must now worship Him, serve Him, and walk in the new life given to us in Him; embodying in our lives the mandate he gave us to love one another on that first Maundy Thursday, made possible by his life, death, and resurrection for us.

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