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Definition

Central to the redeeming work of our Lord Jesus Christ is his death for our sins. A theology of atonement is a biblical-theological explanation of why Jesus, as God’s Son, had to die and what he achieved in his death for us as our Savior.

Summary

This essay will seek to explain why Jesus had to die and what his death achieved for us as our Savior and Lord. After setting the larger biblical-theological context that the New Testament locates the cross within, the diverse biblical language describing the cross is outlined and explained, before concluding with how best to think theologically about the why and nature of the cross.

Trying to capture all that our Lord Jesus Christ achieved in his glorious work is not easy given its multi-faceted aspects. John Calvin sought to grasp the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work by the munus triplex—Christ’s threefold office as our new covenant head and mediator—prophet, priest, and king. What Calvin sought to avoid was reductionism, the “cardinal” sin of theology. Yet, although there is a danger in prioritizing one aspect of our Lord’s work, Scripture does stress the centrality of Christ’s priestly office and his sacrificial death for our sins (Matt. 1:21; 1Cor. 15:3-4). It’s not enough for Christ only to be with us in his incarnation; he must also act for us in his life, death, and resurrection. And given the centrality of Christ’s death in Scripture (Mark 8:31-32; Acts 2:23; cf. Rev. 13:8), it’s crucial that we explain it correctly.

Throughout church history, however, there have been a variety of atonement theologies. In fact, unlike the ecumenical confessions of Nicaea and Chalcedon that established orthodox Trinitarian and Christological doctrine, there is no catholic confession regarding the atonement. From this fact, some have concluded that no one view of the cross adequately explains what is central in Christ’s death. Yet, it’s vital to note that despite no ecumenical confession regarding the cross, all Christians have agreed that Christ’s death secures the forgiveness of our sins resulting in reconciliation with God. But, admittedly, the conceptual clarity of the doctrine came over time, similar to other doctrines. As various atonement debates occurred, clarity and precision were achieved. All this reminds us that the church needs to return repeatedly to Scripture to explain the cross biblically and theologically, which we will do in three steps: (1) describe briefly four foundational truths that locate the cross in its proper biblical-theological context; (2) describe the diverse, complementary ways Scripture describes the cross; and lastly, (3) ask how best to explain theologically the meaning of our Lord’s death for us.

The Biblical-Theological Context for Understanding Christ’s Cross

Our Lord’s death does not come to us in a vacuum. It’s set within the overall framework of Scripture and especially four biblical truths of God, humans, the problem of forgiveness, and the identity of Christ. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

First, to understand the cross we must grasp who God is as our triune Creator-covenant Lord. Disagreements over the meaning of the cross are first doctrine of God debates. If our view of God is incorrect, we will never understand the why of the cross. From the opening verses of Scripture, God is presented as eternal, independent, holy love, righteous, and good—the triune God who is complete in himself and who needs nothing from us (Gen. 1-2; Psa. 50:12-14; Isa. 6:1-3; Acts 17:24-25; Rev. 4:8-11). One crucial implication of this description is that God, by nature, is the moral standard. This is why God’s law is not external to him, nor can he relax it at will. Instead, the triune God is the law; his will and nature determine what is right and wrong.

This view of God is foundational to understanding the why of the atonement, but it’s often neglected in discussions of the cross. Today, many argue, following the “New Perspective on Paul,” that God’s justice/righteousness is only “God’s covenant faithfulness,” that is, God remaining true to his promises. No doubt this concept is true, but what this view fails to see is that “righteousness-justice-holiness” is first tied to God’s nature as God. That is why, in light of sin, God, who is the law, cannot overlook our sin. God’s holy justice demands that he not only punish all sin, but also, if he graciously chooses to justify the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), he must do so by fully satisfying his own righteous, holy moral demand. Thus, given our sin and God’s gracious choice to redeem us, the question that emerges across redemptive-history is this: How will God demonstrate his holy justice and covenant love and remain true to himself? The answer is only found in the Father’s gift of his Son, Jesus’ obedient life and substitutionary death, that results in our justification before God in Christ (see Rom. 3:21-26).

Second, to understand the cross we must grasp who humans are as God’s image-sons created to be in covenant relationship with God. Specifically, we must know who Adam is, not only as an historic person, but also as the covenant representative of the human race (Rom. 5:12-21; 1Cor. 15:21-22). Why is this significant? Because in creation, God sets the conditions of the covenant and demands from Adam (and all of us) total trust, love, and obedience (Gen. 2:15-17). But the flip-side is also true: If there is covenant disobedience, given who God is, there is also his judgment against our sin that results in a penalty: physical and spiritual death (Rom. 6:23).

Third, to understand the cross we must fathom the serious problem of our sin before God. Sadly, Adam did not love God with full covenant devotion. He disobeyed God, thus bringing sin and death into the world. From Genesis 3 on, “in Adam,” all people are now guilty, corrupt, and under the judicial sentence of death (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12-21; Eph. 2:1-3). If God is going to redeem, which he has graciously promised to do (Gen. 3:15), how is he going to so? Given who God is in all of his moral perfection, how will God declare sinners justified apart from the full satisfaction of his moral demand? God must punish sin and execute perfect justice because he is holy, just, and good. He cannot overlook our sin nor relax the demands of his justice, and in truth, thankfully so! But to justify us, our sin must be fully atoned. How, then, can God punish our sin, satisfy his own righteous demand, and justify sinners?

Add to this point: To undo, reverse, and pay for Adam’s sin, we need someone who will come from the human race and identify with us (Gen. 3:15), render our required covenantal obedience, and pay the penalty of our sin. We need someone who will become our covenant representative and substitute, and by his obedient life and death secure our justification before God. Thankfully, Scripture gloriously announces that there is one man—and only one—who can do this for us, namely our Lord Jesus Christ (see Heb. 2:5-18). 

Fourth, to understand the cross we must also grasp who Jesus is. In Scripture, Jesus is no mere human; he is God the Son incarnate, the second person of the triune Godhead. He is not some third-party individual who stands apart from God. We cannot think of his atoning work apart from thinking of the entire triune God accomplishing our salvation. Also, as the eternal Son, eternally loved of his Father and the Spirit, in God’s plan, he voluntarily took on the role of becoming our Redeemer. And in his incarnation, he identified with us to represent us before God (Heb. 5:1). In his obedient human life, as the last Adam and mediator of the new covenant, Jesus obeyed for us. In his obedient death, as the divine Son, he satisfied his own righteous demand against us as a sacrifice for our sin (Rom. 5:18-19; Phil. 2:6-11; Heb. 5:1-10).

These foundational truths are crucial in placing the cross in its properly biblical-theological context, and in fact, the language of the cross must be placed within this overall framework.

Scripture’s Multi-Faceted and Interlocking Description of the Cross

The Bible’s description of the cross is diverse but not divergent. In fact, what is striking about Scripture’s diverse presentation of the cross is how interconnected are its words, imagery, and concepts. Scripture gives us eight ways of thinking about the cross: obedience, sacrifice, propitiation, reconciliation, justice, conquest, and moral example. Yet none of these themes, especially when placed within the truths sketched above, is isolated and random. Together they explain the meaning and significance of Christ’s saving death for us in a very specific way.

Obedience

This word/concept expresses Christ’s perspective of the cross; he has come to do his Father’s will (as a word, Rom. 5:19; Phil. 2:8; Heb. 5:8-9; as a concept, Mark 10:45; John 5:30; 10:18; Gal. 4:1-4; Heb. 2:10-18; 10:5-10). In Romans 5, it’s set in the covenantal context of the two heads of humans—Adam and Christ—which stresses Christ’s representative obedience and substitutionary death for us. In Hebrews 2 and 5, it’s set in the context of Christ’s sacrificial death as our great high priest, thus underscoring his death as substitutionary for us.

Sacrifice

Jesus’ death is also described as a “sacrifice” for our sins, understood within the context of the Old Testament sacrificial system, and thus viewing the cross as a representational and substitutionary act (Acts 20:28; 1Cor. 5:7; 11:25; Eph. 5:2; Rom. 8:3; 1Pet. 1:9; 3:18; Gal. 1:4; Rev. 5:8-9; 7:14; cf. Hebrews). Why? Because in biblical thought, one cannot think of Christ’s death as a sacrifice without thinking of priestly representation and penal substitution. Today, some appeal to the diversity of Old Testament sacrifices to downplay the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. However, if one investigates how these sacrifices function within the old covenant and the book of Leviticus, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that at the heart of the sacrificial system is the issue of sin, guilt, God’s judgment, and the need for a payment for sin (1Pet. 2:24-25).

Propitiation

“Propitiation” is another word that describes Christ’s cross (Rom. 3:24-26; Heb. 2:17; 1Jn. 2:2; 4:10), which links it with the imagery of sacrifice, priest, and God’s wrath against sin. Significantly, the word presents God, in his holy wrath against sin (John 3:36; Rom. 1:18-32), as the object of the cross. Sin’s effects are diverse, but foremost our sin is against God, and if we are to be redeemed, God must act and take the initiative in grace and love to satisfy his own righteous, holy demand against sin, which is precisely what he has done in his Son.

Redemption

“Redemption” and “ransom” are also used to explain the meaning of Christ’s death for us (Mark 10:45; Rom. 3:24-25; 1Cor. 6:19-20; Gal. 3:13; 4:4-5; Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:13-14; 1Tim. 2:6; Titus 2:14; 1Pet. 1:18-19; Heb. 9:12, 15). As a term/concept, “redemption” conveys the idea of being liberated or “bought back” from a state of bondage by the payment of a price. Some attempt to interpret “redemption” as merely an act of deliverance, but repeatedly in Scripture, people and property are all “redeemed” by the payment of a price (e.g., Exod. 13:13; 34:20; Num. 18:14-17; Jer. 32:6-8; Eph. 1:7; Acts 20:28; Rev. 5:9). This is also true of Christ’s cross; the costly price of our redemption was paid by Christ himself in the shedding of his blood for the forgiveness of our sins (e.g., Acts 20:28; Eph. 1:7; 1Pet. 1:18-19).

Reconciliation

Christ’s death also secures our “reconciliation:” first with God (Rom. 5:1-2; Eph. 2:17-18; 3:12; Heb. 10:19-22), then with one another, as the demands of the old covenant are met and a new humanity is created (Eph. 2:11-22), and cosmically, by the defeat of sin, death, and Satan, and the inauguration of the new creation (Col. 1:15-20; 2:15; cf. Rom. 8:18-27; Eph. 1:10, 22). Placed within the Bible’s story, “reconciliation” assumes that we were once alienated from God and under his condemnation due to our sin, but now in Christ, our state of enmity has been removed, and we now begin to enjoy all the benefits of the new creation.

Justice and Justification

Christ’s cross is also presented as an act of justice which results in our justification (Rom. 3:21-26; 5:9; cf. 2Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). At the heart of this image, is the picture of the law court. Before the holy and righteous Judge of the universe, due to our sin, God’s verdict is that all humans stand guilty and condemned (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; cf. 8:1). Yet, due to God’s grace and initiative, the divine Son has become one with us in his incarnation to act as our covenant, legal representative (Rom. 5:12-21), and to die for us as our penal substitute (Rom. 3:24-26; Gal. 3:13). As a result of his work, and in faith union with him, God declares us righteous, not as a description of our present moral character, but as a statement of our status/position before God, due to the representative and substitutionary work of our mediator, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Victory/Conquest

Christ’s cross also defeats all of our enemies: sin, death, and Satan himself. From Genesis 3:15 on, the divine warrior theme is a major way to understand the achievement of Christ’s cross. In the New Testament, this truth is developed by Jesus (John 12:31-33), Paul (Col. 2:13-15), and the author of Hebrews (Heb. 2:14-15). Today, some argue that the Christus Victor theme is the dominant way we should interpret the achievement of Christ’s death for us. Yet, it’s important to remember that sin, death, and Satan have power over us only because of our sin. Our primary problem is not Satan but our sin before God (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). After all, Satan is merely a creature. The only authority he has is a usurped one, and Christ has come to defeat the work of the evil one by dealing with the root problem: sin. That is why the defeat of the powers is first achieved in the defeat of sin and its satisfaction before God (Col. 2:13-15).

Moral Example

Scripture also presents Christ and his cross as the supreme moral example for believers of love, obedience, and suffering (e.g., John 13:12-17; Eph. 5:1-2, 25-27; Phil. 2:5-11; 1Pet. 2:18-25; 1Jn. 4:7-12). Yet, the primary meaning of Christ’s death is not this. Scripture teaches that to redeem us more than an example is needed. What is needed is for Christ to live and die for us. Our problem, ultimately, is sin before the triune holy God and this problem requires the incarnation of God’s Son to represent us in his life and to die for us in his death as our covenant head and mediator. It’s only when Christ acts for us as our propitiatory sacrifice that God’s own righteous demand is fully met, and we, by faith alone in Christ alone, receive all the benefits of his new covenant work: redemption, reconciliation, justification, and victory over our enemies.

How is the Cross Best Explained?

Scripture’s presentation of the cross is rich and multifaceted. It’s like a beautiful gem that can be looked at from many angles. Yet, in light of the Bible’s biblical-theological framework, and accounting for all the biblical language of the cross, the explanation of the cross’s central means is that Christ Jesus has come as our mediator and new covenant head to offer himself before God on behalf of sin. This truth is best captured by the view of penal substitution over against other atonement theologies (e.g., recapitulation, Christus Victor, moral example, etc.). Why? Because penal substitution, as a theological explanation of the cross, best accounts for all of the biblical data, and ultimately why it was necessary for God the Son to die in order to redeem us.

What is penal substitution? Penal refers to the awful state of the human race in Adam in which we stand under God’s judgment and the penalty of death. This one word captures a central feature of the Bible’s story: Adam, as the covenant head and representative of the human race, disobeyed God and his sin then became our sin by nature, imputation, and choice. All humanity is “in Adam” and therefore under the power and penalty of sin—namely spiritual and physical death (Rom. 3:23; 6:23; see Eph. 2:1-4). As a result, we are alienated from the triune God who created us to know and love him; we are under his verdict of condemnation; and because he is personal, holy, and righteous, we stand under his divine judgment.

Substitution refers to the identity and work of Christ who not only acts with us but also for us by his cross. This term also picks up the Bible’s story to speak of the triune God of grace who chooses to redeem his people instead of leaving us in our sin and under divine judgment. God redeems us by triune initiative and agency by the provision of a Substitute. As our new covenant head, Christ represented us in his life and death as the last/greater Adam who willingly and gladly obeyed the Father in perfection and by the power of the Spirit. In death, Christ stood in our place, took God’s demand for our righteousness upon himself, and paid our debt by receiving the penalty we deserved. The result of Christ’s work for us is that by faith union in Christ, God the Father declares us just, forgiven of every sin in full, and frees us from the power of sin and the tyranny of Satan who once held the verdict of death and condemnation over our heads (2Cor. 5:21; see 1Pet. 3:18; Gal. 3:13; Heb. 9:28; Rom. 8:32).

Of all the atonement theologies, it’s only penal substitution that captures the full richness of the biblical data and the God-centered nature of the cross. The other alternatives often stress something biblical about the cross. However, their total explanation either does not account for all the biblical teaching or it minimizes the central problem Scripture teaches the cross remedies, namely our sin before God (Psa. 51:4). Before we can talk about the horizontal effects of the cross, we must first talk about the vertical, namely the triune God, in his Son, taking his own demand on himself so that we, in Christ, may be justified before him (Rom. 5:1-2). The other atonement views miss this central point. For them, the object of the cross is either our sin (forms of recapitulation), or Satan and the powers (forms of Christus Victor). But what they fail to see is that the primary person we have sinned against is our holy and glorious triune Creator and Lord, and as such, the ultimate object of the cross is God himself.

In truth, in Scripture and theology, penal substitution is the best way of explaining what is central to Christ’s death because it’s another way of proclaiming the gospel of God’s sovereign grace. It’s shorthand for speaking of the triune God in all of his holiness, righteous, and justice. It communicates the truth that humans are in a helpless state before God, and that it’s only Jesus who can rescue, justify, and redeem us. It’s only in Christ that we have a Savior who can represent us, pay our penalty, and thus save us completely. Penal substitution rightly places God at the center of our salvation and it reminds us that the triune God of grace planned our redemption from eternity and achieved it on the stage of human history. From beginning to end, God alone acted in power and grace to provide, achieve, and accomplish our salvation by the Father’s initiative, in and through the Son, and by the Spirit.

Further Reading

  • Anselm, Why God Became Man. In Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  • Sinclair Ferguson, “The Substitutionary Atonement of Christ.”
  • Charles E. Hill and Frank A. James III, eds. The Glory of the Atonement: Biblical, Theological, and Practical Perspectives (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
  • John MacArthur, “Why Jesus Had to Die.”
  • Donald Macleod, Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014).
  • Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965).
  • R. C. Sproul, “The Necessity of Atonement.”
  • John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, 20th Anniversary Ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
  • Jeremy R. Treat, The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).
  • Stephen J. Wellum, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017). See an Author Interview here.

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.