Christians affirm that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God forgives sinful human beings and restores them to right relationship with himself. However, when asked to explain exactly how this atonement occurred, they have offered a variety of theories. A gracEmail subscriber requests more detail concerning these different explanations.
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The penal substitution explanation of Jesus’ atonement rests on such scripture passages as Isaiah 53:4-6, Romans 3:23-26; 2 Corinthians 5:19-21 and 1 Peter 2:24, plus the Old Testament sacrificial system which Jesus fulfilled in offering himself (Heb. 9:11-14). Some evangelical scholars have recently questioned whether these biblical texts are properly interpreted to support this theory. They acknowledge that Jesus “carried our sins,” endured the consequences of sin, and that he did so as a substitute for sinners, but they question whether it is correct to say that God “punished” the guiltless Son with whom he was well pleased. To punish an innocent Jesus and to acquit guilty sinners would violate God’s own rules of justice, they say, based on specific commands in the Law of Moses. What is more, these evangelical objectors to penal atonement deny that personal guilt or personal righteousness can be transferred from one individual to another. They claim that the Greek words traditionally translated as “propitiation” in the New Testament are better translated as “expiation” — a word that also conveys the notion of forgiveness but not necessarily the concepts of punishment or appeased anger.
Despite these objections, I believe that the idea of penal substitution is found in the Bible. However, this explanation does not occupy the prominent place in Scripture that it presently enjoys among evangelical Christians. A fully biblical view of the atonement will also acknowledge the cosmic triumph of Jesus over Satan, God’s objective ransom of a world enslaved to sin, and the power of God’s immeasurable love to transform sinners. It will certainly take into serious account the Bible’s stories of Adam and of Israel, both fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and it will seek to understand Jesus’ death in light of those larger contexts. (I attempt to do that in chapters 9-13 of The Divine Rescue.
In that regard, the New Testament also focuses more than we usually do on the faithfulness of Jesus to the Father (“the faith of Christ”). God’s fundamental desire has always been to receive such loyalty from those he made and chose. Absent in both Adam and Israel, it finally is manifested by Jesus’ life of loving obedience culminating in his death on the cross. (The other side of that coin is that the New Testament gives relatively little attention to the suffering of Jesus — something often emphasized in popular piety, more so in Catholic than Protestant.)
God has entrusted us with the story of Jesus — Jesus who lived, died, was buried and rose again in victory and to glory. Our primary assignment is to tell the story, not to formulate theories or to invent explanations. One is not required to explain how God reconciled us to himself in Jesus in order to enjoy that reconciliation. Sinners experience the benefits of Jesus’ atonement by trusting in Jesus and in the Father who sent him. Let us give thanks to God for the saving light he has shone in our hearts. And let us be content to know that he will illuminate the trusting heart with guiding light for each new day that comes.