What is the atonement, how does it work, and what does the Bible have to say on the subject? While most Christians agree that Jesus Christ is the saviour, things fragment on further exploration
Wait, this is not the definition of a single word, what is going on?
I have in the past attempted to define various words used in the discussion of doctrine with varying degrees of clarity and depth. Usually, I cover such terms only up to the depth of my own needed understanding to discuss some other related topic. This time, however, I have no end goal in mind beyond laying out an index of ideas from which I can build.
In other words, I am going to sketch things out with the broadest possible strokes and then revisit the details in later posts.
Definition of atonement
Broadly speaking the atonement describes what Christ did, why (and perhaps how) he did it, and what it means to Christians.
The scope of the atonement
The atonement is a doctrinal issue that divides Christians. Specifically the question of the extent of the atonement. Did Christ bear the sins of the elect alone on the cross, or did His death expiate the sins of all human beings? Ideas of the atonement can broadly be divided into two camps – limited and unlimited.
Limited atonement is an idea most strongly associated with Calvinism but more generally with reformed theology. It is the idea that Jesus died only for some people but not for others.
Limited atonement states that through the death of Jesus Christ is sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world, it was the intention of God the Father that the atonement of Christ’s death would work itself out in the elect only, thereby leading them without fail to salvation. According to Limited Atonement, Christ died for the sins of the elect alone, and no atonement was provided for the reprobate.
My biggest problem with this is that it sees a loving Father punishing (usually eternally) everyone else for not being saved when it was His own choice. Thus, I stand by my article “The demands of an evil god“.
The main scriptures presented to support limited atonement are these (although they hardly seem convincing and must ignore the passages we will see the next section)
- John 10:14-15 – Jesus lays down his life for the sheep.
- John 10:28 – Jesus will lose none of his sheep.
- Matthew 7:13-14 – Many people will not receive eternal life.
Unlimited atonement is more strongly associated with Orthodox, Catholic, and Arminian traditions. It is also associated with most forms of non-Calvinistic Protestant Christianity.
Unlimited atonement is utterly incompatible with Calvinism.
Unlimited atonement states that Jesus died as a propitiation for the benefit of mankind without exception. Which means anyone can be saved.
The main scriptures cited in favour of unlimited atonement (and to cast doubt on the ideas of limited atonement) are as follows:
- 1 Timothy 2:6 – Christ as a ransom for all
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – Christ as the saviour of all
- Hebrews 2:9 – Christ’s death on behalf of all
- 1 John 2:2 – Christ atoning for the sins of the world
Theories of the atonement
After scope, Christians differ as to the nature and method of the atonement – how did Christ redeem us through His death?
There are many different theories of the atonement. One (Substitutionary atonement) I have a problem with – which is why I have already defined it in a previous glossary entry.
The others, in alphabetical order, are roughly as follows.
- Christus Victor
- Moral influence
- Penal substitution
Please comment if I have missed any as this list will act as something of a “definitions in need of writing” for the glossary section.
How I intend to use the phrase “atonement”.
Extensively; but only when a simpler phrase or word is unavailable. This is a topic I intend to talk about at length as it is, I feel, at the heart of some of the most damaging and needlessly hurtful doctrines and church practices.