Discussion of the Atonement involves some of the most complex problems of Christian theology—problems that challenge a theologian’s deepest insights, dialectical skills, and painstaking expression. Nevertheless, simplicity must be the watchword, yet a simplicity that takes to itself the fullness of the New Testament affirmation that “Christ died for our sins,” and its expression in the personal faith that “Jesus died for me.”

There is the fact of the Atonement, and there are theories about the Atonement. It is patently clear that the bare historical fact of Christ’s death is not the Atonement at all; the “fact” of the Atonement is the apostolically interpreted fact that “Christ died for our sins.” This is both its simplicity and its mystery. There may be insights of the Atonement for us and our generation that the Apostles may not have seen for theirs. But the fundamental principles of the Atonement expressed in the conceptual motifs of the apostolic witness remain as valid now as then. Leonard Hodgson never tires of saying, “What must the truth have been and be, if men with their ways of thinking and speaking wrote as they did?” The reality of the Atonement both as doctrine and experience is the faith of the child or man who has learned to say trustingly, “Jesus died for me.”


Of vital significance is the emphasis in recent literature upon sacrifice as the pervading idea of the Cross. To this idea can be attached the names of scholars like Oliver Quick, C. H. Dodd, Vincent Taylor, and A. M. Hunter. Here sin is related to the sacrifice of Christ in the shedding of blood as the great and redeeming act of His life. Jesus Christ’s fulfillment of the suffering Servant role of Isaiah 53 is viewed as the norm of the apostolic witness, the thread tying that witness into a coherent whole. The positive side of this doctrine is devout and extremely valuable. It is that Christ died vicariously in the interests of sinful men, and that the forgiveness of sins is mediated through his sacrifice.

Some scholars seek to develop a constructive objective theory—and surely that last must be conceded as the sine qua non of any doctrine purporting to be really biblical—but without, they say, the “morally objectionable” penal and substitutionary elements of traditional orthodox theology. But for all the erudition and devoutness of such scholars, we are left here with one of the profoundest mysteries of life and faith. What is the relationship of Christ’s vicarious sacrifice and death to God’s righteousness, the human race, and human sin? How is sin cleansed by vicarious sacrifice? What is the moral dynamic of a vicarious act and specifically of Christ’s qualitatively infinite and eternal act?

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Can one really argue with the theologians who say that “shed blood” means, in part, life outpoured and made “available” for sinful men and women? It is not what is said that needs correcting so much as what the image implies in addition. This idea is based upon an interpretation of certain statements made late in the nineteenth century by William Milligan and Bishop Westcott to the effect that since Leviticus 17:11 says “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” sacrifice in the Old Testament conveys, therefore, the idea that the offerer shared in the victim’s life released by sacrifice, not in the victim’s death. However if, as Westcott and Milligan have written, the blood is alive, remember that the latter wrote “ideally alive,” and that both declared that as shed the blood confesses sin and desert of punishment. Now this refers both to “life” in the blood and to death by blood being spilled violently.

But more, the blood testifies. The blood “speaks” of life voluntarily yielded in death for sin; it says “this life is yielded to death in loving obedience to the Father’s will,” and thus, by reason of the Incarnation, it binds to itself our lives and makes possible our actual response in His. We died in that death; his death was the death of sin and our death to sin, and in his life we are alive.


Does this not confess another vital and indispensable aspect of the Atonement, namely, that Christ’s death was a judgment death? that he died the loathsome, horror-death of sin under the wrath of God? and that in this death it is as true to say that Punisher and Punished are one as that he is our substitute dying the death of sin?

This is the stumbling block, but why? On the one hand, the traditional propitiatory significance of the Atonement as turning away the wrath of God has often been modified by contemporary theology and reduced to the idea of expiation. But why expiate if no propitiation is in view? Curiously, the more we grind down our teeth to painful stubs over the traditional meaning of propitiation, the more the old bone seems the better for wear. Unfortunately it is not too often sensed that the piacular elements of the Atonement, whether viewed as expiation or propitiation, are not isolated terms which can be brought to unlamented death by vivisection in the laboratory of lexicography, but they are basic ideas of a vast complex of New Testament notions that do not permit fragmentation. Wrath, propitiation, expiation, and substitution are as much a part of New Testament morality in Atonement as is justification by faith. It is curious how a principle like Zenophanes’ notion of “what is appropriate” underlies so much of our teaching about God. Is wrath appropriate to God? On what sort of sea is rejection of the notion floated? It is just here that the norm of Scripture teaching for the Christian shows itself, not as a “proof-texting” of archaic and pagan notions, as is sometimes charged, but upon a scientific accounting of the sense of Scripture borne out in the insight granted to biblical men and to us by the Holy Spirit. In our treatment of the terms and ideas of the New Testament, we require a more empirical approach “conserving the phenomena” of the Bible.

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Why not wrath? What possible attitude can God take toward evil and sin but wrath in righteousness? Let us see evil and sin for what they are, not as postulates providing a necessary contrast for the good as in the world of idealism but as the issue of perverted wills disobeying God and releasing the power of corrupting evil and sin in the world. Unless God is angry with sin, let us put a bullet in our collective brain, for the universe is mad. Surely we can agree that “anger” and “wrath” are poverty-stricken words to describe God’s attitude, but find better words if you can! Only on the ground of the wrath of God can we maintain a fundamental optimism. Contrary to the contemporary saccherine conceptions of divinity that pre-empt the divine attitude of wrath toward sin, the biblical teaching, as Leonard Hodgson has stated, goes far beyond even modern notions of penalty in law being deterrent or reformatory; punishment qua punishment is retributive and vindictive (retributive, that is, as looking back upon an evil deed and meting out judgment commensurate to the act and the divine disapproval of it and vindictive in the sense of vindicating the divine standard of righteousness). This is both the guarantee for maintaining the divine righteousness and for preserving and perfecting human freedom as the divine objective. “If the Son shall make you free ye shall be free indeed.” Let us not cut off our noses to spite our faces. By the maintenance of the divine righteousness in law and penalty, God allows the maximum opportunity for the development of human moral responsibility without inhibiting freedom while he is establishing his own righteousness; and on the same terms through grace he provides salvation for men in the perfection of Christ’s life, the efficacy of his death, and the finality of his resurrection. God is “just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus.” Redemption comes to us not over but through judgment; Calvary does not buy the love of God, it exhibits its true character.

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To press the penal, sacrificial, substitutionary, or mediatorial imagery (or any other idea) too far distorts the truth. But the whole doctrine will never be known unless each part is conserved and grasped. The moral implications of the metaphors and images of Scripture yield the whole. But the whole is in each part as an insight generated by the truth. Certainly it is true that Christ sacrificed himself for us, that he died the death of sin, that he made satisfaction for sin by expiating it, that he was the propitiation for sin, that he died as the substitute for sinners and as the representative of the race, that his death is the objective ground of our reconciliation, and that his blood is the precious ransom or price of our salvation that seals the covenant of grace. When we have comprehended these terms in their bearing on the life of the triune God and upon the race (in Christ’s humanity as an atonement to be received, and generating its own appropriate response by the Holy Spirit), we will be grasping the truth.

Happy is the man who allows the moral realities of Christ’s work on the Cross to impinge upon his life. That man is hard indeed whose heart weeps no tears of penitence whenever the account of Christ’s passion is read. For the power of this Gospel breaks sin’s power and sets men free. The finished work of Christ is replete with moral appeal. Let us stand before that, Cross, wondering at the spectacle, rejoicing in simplicity, and amazed that Christ died for our sins.

Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.

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