Jesus: The Mercy Seat of Atonement
The noun atonement involves the reparation for an offense or injury, especially the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus. As a verb, atone literally means "at one," as in the spirit of harmony between two previously estranged beings. However, we must not confuse this oneness with God as sharing his divinity. Jesus alone, as the only-begotten Son, shares the state of "at-one-ness" with God in this sense (John 3:16-18; 10:30).
The New Testament idea of atonement relates to the Old Testament theme of propitiation but also improves upon it. Propitiation accurately defines the Hebrew rites of animal sacrifice, because the Israelites did them to receive or regain God's favor. Leviticus, the portion of the Mosaic Law that God assigned to the Levitical priests, reads, "He shall do with the bull just as is done with the bull of sin offering; he shall do the same with this. The priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven. He shall carry the bull outside the camp, and burn it as he burned the first bull; it is the sin offering for the assembly" (4:20-21). Furthermore, Jews observe the Day of Atonement (Hebrew: Yom Kippur; H3117, H3725) with extensive fasting, prayers, and synagogue liturgies. It is the most sacred day in the Hebrew calendar, and they grieve over their sins as a community repenting before God (Lev. 16:1-34; 23:26-32; Num. 29:7-11). As followers of Jesus, neither the Messianic Jews nor we Christian gentiles need to commemorate the Day of Atonement. The author of Hebrews wrote,
Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices, there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. . . . it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (10:1-4, 10).
In Christian theology, there are seven primary theories of atonement. Unlike most constructs in systematic theology, most of these are complementary to each other. They each seek to answer exactly how Jesus atoned for our sins and what cosmic significance this has for all of creation. Instead of talking about each of the atonement theories in isolation, this essay considers the biblical themes of vicarious or substitutionary atonement, the eschatological defeat of Satan, and our sharing in Jesus' death and resurrection. In chronological order from church history, here are the seven models: ransom, recapitulation, satisfaction, penal substitution, moral influence, governmental, and Christ the triumphant (Latin: Christus victor). Nevertheless, all of them match the literary themes of scripture. From a first-century or historical-grammatical perspective, we must understand Jesus' atonement as a complete narrative of redemption, holiness, final justice, and fulfillment.
Christ the Substitute
The basic idea of atonement is that God, representing final justice, holds us responsible for our sins (Greek: hamartia; G266, lit. "missing the mark"). This is one of the main areas of Christian doctrine in which we must shun anthropomorphism, the idolatrous representation of God in human form. In this case, he is the universal Logos (G3056; cf. John 1:1), the highest form of truth and jurisprudence. This legal framework is not some random metaphor; it is established by the Law of Moses (Rom. 3:19-20). As fallen human beings, we have radical depravity that not only makes us violators and criminals but also rebel sinners (Rom. 3:10-12; cf. Pss. 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:20). We are treacherous "Judases" culpable for many wicked things. In his mercy, God offers us a way of atonement for our revolting behavior. Paul of Tarsus wrote, "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23). Final justice requires us to be convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. We are "dead men walking" in our trespasses of Mosaic Law. Unlike our modern court systems, God allowed the Jews to atone for the sins with a substitutionary offering, an innocent animal to die in the place of a guilty person. This satisfied God's requirement for us human beings to die for our sins. However, this atonement required a cycle of daily and yearly sacrifices.
Jesus became the Lamb of God to take away the world's sins as the ultimate sacrifice (John 1:29). Many churchgoers who do not correctly understand God's tri-unity employ the phrase "cosmic child abuse" to slander the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. They confuse Jesus' "Son of God" title for the literal siring of a child. God came to sacrifice himself willingly to keep us from having to pay the penalty of our evil deeds. Jesus, as the incarnate Logos, came in the form of a human being with the divinely essential DNA flowing through his veins (see "Chalcedonian Definition"). Justice cannot be waived, and God offers neither suspended sentences nor clemency. Jesus' atonement "covers" (Hebrew: kafar; H3722) our sins so that God does not consider them as evidence against us. This alludes to the mercy seat that covered the Ark of the Covenant when God appeared to Israel on their Day of Atonement (Exod. 25:17-22; 37:1-9). Jesus' innocence and willingness to acquit us convinces God to deny the admissibility, authenticity, completion, reliability, and believability of the evidence stacked against us (2 Cor. 5:21). As the Lamb of God, Jesus took away the guilt and complicity of our sins by volunteering to drink the vintage of God's wrath during his passion and crucifixion (Matt. 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42; cf. Isa. 51:17, 22; Jer. 25:15-16; Rev. 14:10; 16:19).
Christ the Victor
The victory of Christ Jesus began with the payment of a ransom. In our day, we usually think of ransom as payment when a criminal syndicate kidnaps someone. However, its classical definition is more synonymous with what we call "bail," the payment of money to release a prisoner. The legal framework of the Mosaic Law also relates to the ransom and Christus victor models of atonement. For example, Moses wrote, "You shall take the atonement money from the Israelites and shall designate it for the service of the tent of meeting; before the LORD it will be a reminder to the Israelites of the ransom given for your lives" (Exod. 20:16). This implies that God expected the people of Israel to offer monetary payment for their sins. This was a substitute for their blood, the substance that gives life to humans and animals alike. The loss of blood results in death; therefore, the ransom served as a symbol of death. However, Jesus fulfilled this payment when he died on the cross, meaning he gave his lifeblood for those who repent from their sins. Simon Peter wrote, "You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish" (1 Pet. 1:18-19). He paid this ransom to God the Father, never Satan as some theologians such as Origen of Alexandria (186–254) or Augustine of Hippo (354–430) in the past have mistakenly assumed (cf. Rom. 6:22-23). Jesus does not owe Satan anything. Rather, the Father subjected all things under Christ as Paul testified, "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet" (1 Cor. 15:25), and, "He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church" (Eph. 1:22).
Sharing in Jesus' Death & Resurrection
The author of Hebrews wrote, "When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, 'he sat down at the right hand of God,' and since then has been waiting 'until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.' For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (10:12-14). This means Jesus made the atonement of humankind's sins once and that it covers them for all human history. That said, we are still waiting for him to be Christus victor in full, which will happen at the world's end. In the meantime, we must crucify our flesh every day to avoid sin in the same way that Jesus gave up his life to crucifixion (Gal. 5:24; cf. Matt. 16:24-26). We must also receive baptism, of which Paul testified,
Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:4-6).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, king of the world, for you are mindful of your promise. Think of us, your servants, and when we shall depart, speak to our spirits these loving words: "Today you shall be with me in joy." O Lord Jesus the Messiah, remember us, your servants who trust in you, when our tongues cannot speak when the sight of our eyes fails, and when our ears are stopped. Let our spirits always rejoice in you and be joyful about our salvation, which you, through your death, have purchased for us. Amen.
American Gospel: Christ Crucified. Directed by Brandon Kimber, appearances by Alistair Begg, Alisa Childers, Ray Comfort, Michael Horton, John MacArthur, and Justin Peters. Cleveland: Transition Studios, 2019.
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