Questions about the Atonement

I’m an inquisitive person.  I like to understand things.  Never content with answering just the what’s of any given topic, I like to get to the root of all the how’s and why’s as well.  Recently I realized that despite being a Christian for over half my life, I still do not understand the doctrine of atonement.  I understand all the “what’s” just fine; I was an AWANA kid, so I can quote all the Bible verses that deal with atonement, and I can even define related terms like “redemption,” “propitiation,” and “penal substitution”—but I have more difficulty explaining their logic.

At first I was embarrassed to admit this, seeing as the atonement is one of the major defining doctrines of Christianity.  Then I wondered whether seeking answers to such questions is even a legitimate pursuit, since God’s actions so often transcend human understanding.  (I have always struggled with admitting mystery into my belief structure; I cling to reason much too tightly, and this is a fault which I confess often.)  But ultimately, I’ve decided to make myself vulnerable and bring my questions before you, the online public, so that I can grow in knowledge and, hopefully, praise.  My goal is to refine the way I think about Christ’s work on the cross and how I explain it to others. 

My main question is:  Why did God work in history through the apparatus of sacrifice?  If God wanted to forgive us, why didn’t he just do it—why demand a blood sacrifice?  How does an innocent man dying in the place of the guilty appease God’s wrath and serve the cause of justice?

Here are some things that Christ’s death is said to have accomplished:

  1. Jesus’s death takes away our sins. (expiation)
  2. Jesus’s death served up legal justice; he was punished in our place. (penal substitution, or vicarious atonement)
  3. Jesus’s death turned away God’s wrath. (propitiation)
  4. Jesus’s death paid our ransom. (redemption)
  5. Jesus’s death restores our relationship with God. (reconciliation)
  6. Jesus’s death makes us righteous. (justification)

But how did it accomplish these things?  Why did God need the cross to save us?  My questions are summarized nicely by John Murray in chapter 1 of his book Redemption Accomplished and Applied:

What is the reason why the love of God should take such a way of realizing its end and fulfilling its purpose?  Why, we are compelled to ask, the sacrifice of the Son of God, why the blood of the Lord of glory? . . . Why did not God realize the purpose of his love for mankind by the word of his power and the fiat of his will?  If we say that he could not, do we not impugn his power?  If we say that he could but would not, do we not impugn his wisdom? . . . Why did God become a man?  Why, having become man, did he die?  Why, having died, did he die the accursed death of the cross?

The answers that I’ve heard a million times and that do not make full sense to me, however true they are, are:

  • We are all sinners, and the punishment of sin is death.  (OK, this one I’m on board with, but let’s follow the argument further…)
  • God instituted a system of sacrifices in the Old Testament as a picture of the one true sacrifice that was to come.  (Why establish a system of sacrifices at all?  Why did God not choose some other picture, some other means of accomplishing his will?)
  • The law says that “without the shedding of blood there is no remission (forgiveness).”  (But God wrote the laws, did he not?  And if he didn’t, why would he be bound by them?)
  • It would be unjust and unloving if God were to simply overlook sin; it must be dealt with.  (But how does the cross literally and effectively deal with sin?)
  • God loves us, so he sent his only Son to die in our place.  Jesus is the only one who could act as our substitute because he is the only person without sin.  As in the Old Testament, sin offerings had to be without blemish and without spot.  (Why should God forgive us by punishing somebody else?  How is that just?)

I will be revisiting these questions sometime in the next few months.  First I’d like to consult some theology books and articles and spend more time in the Word and in prayer.  I’m overwhelmed by all that’s been written and said on the topic.  If you have any specific resources to recommend, or answers or thoughts to share, or even additional questions, I’d love to hear them.  I truly would.  Theology is best conceived in community, after all.

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3 Responses to Questions about the Atonement

  1. thrica says:

    I definitely empathize with how hard it is to integrate the atonement with the sovereignty of God. The answer which has satisfied me most so far reverses the necessity. So, the atonement wasn’t needed so people could be saved; rather, people were needed so God could be glorified through atonement. Creation for atonement instead of vice versa.

    • Theresa says:

      I totally agree with thrica, whether He paid for our debt or simply released us of our debt all together is more an issue of the church, than individual faith. The Gnostics believed that salvation, like in Buddhism, laid in the dharma, his teachings, examples and his parables. This is more salvation as an individual enterprise, as oppose to a communal event, which naturally leads to institutionalization, which abhors opposing views, which leads to book burnings and riots. Sorry for the rant, I just saw “Agora” for the third time.

  2. Steve Parker says:

    I just recently discovered your blog while doing some research on the Jesus Sutras. Your series on the topic was very helpful. I am very intrigued with the notion of how God will speak to people within their cultural context in a manner that doesn’t always seem doctrinally correct. Isn’t that really just a form of incarnational theology?

    Are you still looking to gain a better understanding of the atonement? I have been spending a lot of time reading about this subject recently as well as asking the Lord for insight, and I have some thoughts I could share with you if you’re interested.

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