Atonement: Introduction

We in the Churches of Christ don’t spend much time talking about atonement theory. Rather, our focus has been how the individual appropriates atonement for his own benefit. We focus on the question: “What must I do to be saved?”

Atonement theory, however, asks the opposite question: “What did God do to save us?” Or “Just how is it that we’re saved by the death of Jesus?”

We are a pragmatic people. We tend to think: Why does it matter how it works so long as I know that it works and how to benefit from it? But, of course, we in the Churches of Christ debate endlessly about just how atonement works — we just do it exclusively from the perspective of the convert.

And so it occurs to me that maybe we’ve missed something important. Maybe we should spend more time wondering just how it is that God saves us. After all, to understand the nature of the atonement will surely tell us a great deal about how we should respond to the gift of atonement.

Now, Christians have come up with various answers to just how atonement works over the millennia. It’s well worth the time to consider the theories that Christians have adopted over the centuries.


One of the most common debates in the area is summarized by Scot McKnight as follows:

Back in the 1950s and 1960s C.H. Dodd and L.L. Morris locked horns on this one: Dodd said the term meant “expiate” (as in expiate or remove sins) while Morris said the term meant “propitiate” (as in Jesus’ death resolving and pacifying the wrath of God against sin and sinners). John Stott, in The Cross of Christ, weighed in on this one and sided with Morris, and it has become standard evangelical theology to contend for a propitiatory atonement (penal substitution is a slightly larger, though connected, theological category). Most encounter this evangelical theology in gospel preaching in which the problem is sinners under God’s wrath with the solution being the death of Jesus that resolves that wrath.

Now, the uncomfortable part of the propitiation theory is that it places God and Jesus at odds. God wants his wrath satisfied by damning humans, and Jesus intervenes by offering himself in place of believing humanity. It’s as though Jesus gets in God’s way, when in reality God so loved the world that God gave his one and only Son, you see. God paid the price.

Classical Greek

If you make a pagan god angry, you offer a sacrifice to buy him off — to appease him. You see, the Greek and Roman pagans had a very different relationship with their gods than Christians enjoy with the one true God. There was no moral or relational component. Rather, appeasing a pagan god was a purely quid pro quo transaction. Either you made the required sacrifice or you did not.

Therefore, the Greek words for gaining the favor of a god carry the sense of propitiation — of buying off a god’s anger — because that was the pagan system. But when the Jews borrow Greek words for Jewish ideas, the words are best defined based on their usage in the Septuagint, not in the Greek religions.

Thus, to a Greek, hades is the realm of dead ruled by the god Hades. But the Jews used hades to translate Sheol, meaning either the grave or wherever the dead may be — but certainly not the realm ruled by the Greek god Hades!

Similarly, the Greeks used psychē to refer to Platonic soul, being the eternal part of man, eternally pre-existing birth and surviving death due to its inherently immortal nature. But the Jews used psychē to translate nephesh, also meaning “soul,” but the distinctly Jewish sense of soul, that is, the innermost or most essential portion of a human — but certainly not pre-existing and no more immortal that the person himself. Indeed, to a Jew, immortality is not our inherent nature but a gift from God that not everyone receives —

(Rom 2:6-7 ESV)  6 He will render to each one according to his works:  7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;

(1Co 15:53-54 ESV)  53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.  54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

Therefore, it’s often a huge mistake to take a Greek word used by a New Testament writer and read into the meaning given it by Greek philosophers and pagan priests. Rather, when the word is found in Jewish literature written in Greek — especially the Septuagint — the New Testament writer is almost certainly borrowing the use from the Septuagint rather than Plato or the priestesses of Diana.

Hence, the words translated “propitiation” best defined from their usage in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. This was the “scriptures” for most of Paul’s readers. And just as our use of “prodigal” and “redemption” will be forever colored by our use of the New Testament, the uses of hilasmos and such words by Paul and his readers were colored by the Septuagint.

John Stott

One of the most influential authors favoring the translation “propitiation” is John Stott. In his commentary on Romans, he writes,

We should not be shy of using the word “propitiation” in relation to the cross, any more more than we should drop the word “wrath” in relation to God.  Instead, we should struggle to reclaim and reinstate this language by showing that the Christian doctrine of propitiation is totally different from pagan and animistic superstitions.

First … Why was propitiation necessary?  The pagan answer is because the gods are bad-tempered, subject to moods and fits, and capricious.  The Christian answer is because God’s holy wrath rests on evil.  There is nothing unprincipled, unpredictable or uncontrolled about God’s anger; it is aroused by evil alone.

Secondly … Who undertakes to do the propitiating?  The pagan answer is that we do.  We have offended the gods; so we must appease them.  The Christian answer, by contrast, is that we cannot placate the righteous anger of God … But God in his undeserved love has done for us what we could never do for ourselves.

Thirdly … How is propitiation to be accomplished? … The pagan answer is that we have to bribe the gods with sweets, vegetable offerings, animals, and even human sacrifices.  The Old Testament sacrificial system was entirely different, since it was recognized that God himself has “given” the sacrifices to the people to make atonement.  And this is clear beyond doubt in the Christian propitiation, for God gave his own Son to die in our place, and in giving his Son he gave himself.

(as quoted by Paul Ritchie).

As you can see, properly understood, the idea of atonement arising by propitiation does not paganize Christianity. However, it has been criticized for teaching that Jesus’ sacrifice somehow satisfies God’s bloodlust — which seems to place God and Jesus in opposition to each other or even to make Jesus into a victim of God’s anger.

After all, why is it true that God’s justice demands blood? Why is it that God’s wrath is only resolved by human sacrifice? And these are, I think, entirely fair questions.

To answer them, we begin by studying the New Testament’s use of the word “propitiation” — in the next post.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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10 Responses to Atonement: Introduction

  1. Royce Ogle says:

    Isaiah 53 says of Christ “It pleases God to crush him”. That sounds like wrath to me. That God satisfied his own demands for us is the core of the gospel. And, he didn’t only take care of “past sins” (common teaching), but for all sins, every sin. If we fail to correctly understand Atonemennt we’ll preach a man centered gospel that isn’t true.

  2. Jerry says:

    This is a much needed series. I look forward to it very much. Our focus has been too much and too long on “man’s part” in salvation, with not very much being said about how God works in salvation, other than to say “Jesus died for for sins.”

    I hope that in this series (or a different one) you will also address the many other words used to describe our salvation – such as redemption, reconciliation, et. al. There is a great vocabulary of words used to describe God’s activity in our salvation. Evangelicals have focused almost exclusively on vicarious sacrifice.

  3. Price says:

    Romans 8:3 NLT “The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature.* So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins.”

    Jay, I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on this…

  4. laymond says:

    Jhn 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

    I am not sure we understand our God as well as we think we do. We have examples in the bible where God repents of things he either did or intended to do. It has never made sense to me that God would suffer a sacrifice for something we did. That is beyond my understanding, and evidently other’s as well. What limits our thinking about God is, we can’t grasp the idea that God would admit to a mistake, or that God could even make a mistake. (let me insert here, we don’t determine whether God made a mistake he does). What could God possibly have done to require such a self imposed sacrifice, as to warrant a sacrifice so terrible that he would not impose it upon Abraham, offer up one’s own son.
    Gen 3:17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed [is] the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat [of] it all the days of thy life;
    Gen 3:18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
    Gen 3:19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou [art], and unto dust shalt thou return.
    What was Adam accused of ? being weak. What was the sentence ? DEATH.
    This sentence separated man from his creator. What was the sacrifice of God’s Son for? To bring God and his creation back together. I believe, (my opinion only) that God suffered more than the sacrifice of his son’s blood, but also the sacrifice of humility, I was wrong, come back home. The thing we must do also, I was wrong Lord, please let me come home. (The love of God is something we can’t measure)

  5. John says:

    Unfortunately, the word “blood” for us today implies wrath. However, in the scriptures it is another word for “death”. Salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ is not magical, but mystical. The blood of Christ was the death of Christ. The death of Christ is experienced when we, as Jesus so plainly taught, die to self in order to live.

    The death of self is not just another teaching. It is the central response to the central act of scripture. A person’s awareness that he or she is God’s Child and the dying of the old self to be raised anew are two parts of the same happening given birth to by the greatest story ever told. Jesus in the gospels creates the awareness and the reality of being God’s child, salvation. It is when we start using bits and pieces of the epistles that we make things complicated. We should read the epistles through the gospels; not the gospels through the epistles.

  6. Skip says:

    God has never made mistakes. He is infinite in wisdom. He is omniscient and sees all things past, present, and future. He is omnipresent and thus sees every situation first hand. God is not constrained by time. He doesn’t wait for events to unfold before making plans because he is beyond the dimension of time. God existed before time was created and God will exist after time is annihilated. Thus God knows all events before they occur. God is not surprised by decisions we make, only disappointed and hurt when we make mistakes.

    Great is our Lord, and of great power: His understanding is infinite Psalms 147:5
    The LORD is righteous in all His ways, and holy in all his works Psalms 145:17

    A word about God repenting as used in scripture: When used of God, it incorporates according to original language the thought of grief, even compassionate grief, and consolation or comfort, and action taken thereupon. Yes, God felt suffering and grief on our behalf, but that is not a sign of weakness or error, or regret of mistake.

  7. laymond says:

    Skip, maybe I should have said regretted his actions, instead of “mistake” .
    when I spoke of the judgment handed down to Adam, if that suits you better, that is fine with me.
    Gen 6:5 And GOD saw that the wickedness of man [was] great in the earth, and [that] every imagination of the thoughts of his heart [was] only evil continually.
    Gen 6:6 And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.
    Gen 6:7 And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.

  8. aBasnar says:

    just testing …

  9. rich constant says:

    blood lust not gods
    to under stand the cross we must first under stand the evil of gods covenant people and guess what i think god understood…

    1Co 2:7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, having been hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory,
    1Co 2:8 which none of the rulers of this age has known. For if they had known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory;

    Psa 2:2 The kings of the earth set themselves; yea, the rulers have plotted together against Jehovah and His Anointed, saying,
    Psa 2:3 We will break their bands in two, and throw off their cords from us.
    Psa 2:4 He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall mock at them.
    Psa 2:5 Then He will speak to them in His anger, and He will terrify them in His wrath;


    Mar 10:33 Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes. And they will condemn Him to death and will betray Him to the nations.

    Mar 11:18 And the scribes and the chief priests heard. And they sought how they might destroy Him, for they feared Him, because all the crowd was astonished at His doctrine.

    Rom 1:18 For God’s wrath is revealed from Heaven on all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, holding the truth in unrighteousness,

    Rom 3:9 What then? Do we excel? Not at all! For we have charged both Jews and Greeks before, all with being under sin;
    Rom 3:10 according as it has been written, “There is not a righteous one, not even one!”
    Rom 3:11 “There is not one understanding; there is not one seeking God.”
    Rom 3:12 All turned away, they became worthless together, not one is doing goodness, not so much as one!” LXX-Psa. 13:1-3
    Rom 3:13 “Their throat is a tomb being opened;” “they used deceit with their tongues; the poison of asps is under their lips;
    Rom 3:14 whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness.
    Rom 3:15 Their feet are swift to shed blood;
    Rom 3:16 ruin and misery are in their way;
    Rom 3:17 and they did not know a way of peace;
    Rom 3:18 there is no fear of God before their eyes.” LXX-Psa. 5:10; 139:4; 9:28; Isa. 59:7, 8; Psa. 35:2; MT-Psa. 14:1-3; 5:9; 140:3; 10:7; Isa. 59:7, 8; Psa. 36:1
    Rom 3:19 But we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those within the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world be under judgment to God.

  10. laymond says:

    Alex, as Delmar once said, “come on in fellers, the water is fine” 🙂

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