Archives For atonement

Today we remember the death of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection are the heart of the gospel. Though we remember and celebrate these truths about Jesus Christ annually in the Christian year, they are truths that are at the heart of our Christian faith and lives. To consider that Jesus died in our place, on our behalf, for us and our sin, is overwhelming.

Ponder these Scriptures as you reflect on Jesus’ death being representative and substitutionary.

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Romans 3:23-26

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:3-4

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:21

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us– for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”–so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. Galatians 3:13-14

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1 John 4:10

This is the heart of the gospel and it is of first importance for Christians and the Christian faith. Paul writes,

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you– unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 1 Corinthians 15:1-5

At our local EFC church we are studying the Atonement Thread in The Gospel Project. Not only is this material excellent, they have also provided additional resources that address different aspects of the atonement. Here are three: First, that “Christ died for our sins” is a truth that was foretold and foreshadowed in the Old Testament; second, the truth of the atonement is massive and multi-faceted; third, the atonement affects and determines every aspect of our Christian lives. I share these excellent resources with you.

Ed Stetzer, general editor of The Gospel Project, has posted a number of essays written by others focusing on The Atonement in the Old Testament.

Trevin Wax, managing editor of The Gospel Project, has posted a number of essays written by others focusing on the multi-faceted truth of the atonement under the theme The Theology of Atonement.

Finally, there are a number of essays that address The Atonement and the Christian Life. As you can see below, the series is yet to be completed.

Read. Learn. Give thanks. Worship.

Remember: it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!


The PC(USA)’s Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song has been working on the publication of a new  hymnal for their denomination, Glory to God. The Committee decided not to include “In Christ Alone,” a contemporary hymn written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, because of its view of the atonement. Mary Louise Bringle, one of the Committee members, rehearses how the Committee made the decision in “Debating Hymns.”

Even more sustained theological debate occurred after the conclusion of the committee’s three-and-a-half years of quarterly meetings in January 2012. We had voted for a song from the contemporary Christian canon, Keith Getty and Stuart Townend’s “In Christ Alone.” The text agreed upon was one we had found by studying materials in other recently published hymnals. Its second stanza contained the lines, “Till on that cross as Jesus died / the love of God was magnified.” In the process of clearing copyrights for the hymnal we discovered that this version of the text would not be approved by the authors, as it was considered too great a departure from their original words: “as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.” We were faced, then, with a choice: to include the hymn with the authors’ original language or to remove it from our list.

Because we were no longer meeting as a committee, our discussions had to occur through e-mail; this may explain why the “In Christ Alone” example stands out in my mind—the final arguments for and against its inclusion are preserved in writing. People making a case to retain the text with the authors’ original lines spoke of the fact that the words expressed one view of God’s saving work in Christ that has been prevalent in Christian history: the view of Anselm and Calvin, among others, that God’s honor was violated by human sin and that God’s justice could only be satisfied by the atoning death of a sinless victim. While this might not be our personal view, it was argued, it is nonetheless a view held by some members of our family of faith; the hymnal is not a vehicle for one group’s perspective but rather a collection for use by a diverse body.

Arguments on the other side pointed out that a hymnal does not simply collect diverse views, but also selects to emphasize some over others as part of its mission to form the faith of coming generations; it would do a disservice to this educational mission, the argument ran, to perpetuate by way of a new (second) text the view that the cross is primarily about God’s need to assuage God’s anger. The final vote was six in favor of inclusion and nine against, giving the requisite two-thirds majority (which we required of all our decisions) to the no votes. The song has been removed from our contents list, with deep regret over losing its otherwise poignant and powerful witness.

As noted, the original hymn affirmed the penal substitutionary view of the atonement: “as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Committee wanted to use the hymn but changed the words to read “till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn, Getty and Townend, would not deny that the cross reveals the love of God. But that was not the focus of this hymn, and to change the lyrics in this manner would be to depart from the intent of the hymn. According to the hymwriters, this song was intended to tell “the whole gospel.” Furthermore, the Committee was not interested in affirming various views/truths of the atonement and by this edit emphasize the love of God rather than the wrath of God. By their final decision not to include the hymn as is, the Committee (six to include; nine to exclude) denied a penal substitutionary view of the atonement.

This denial is sad given the Presbyterian denomination’s subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. In fact, it is a tragic move away from biblical truth confessed in the Confession regarding Christ’s death on the cross. And yet, in light of where this denomination has moved theologically, it is not surprising.

Though the decision only has to do with one song, it speaks volumes about biblical truth, and about the task of doing theology in a contemporary context that faithfully serves the people of God.

Timothy George commented on this as well, “No Squishy Love,” and concluded with this biblically faithful statement about God:

God’s love is not sentimental; it is holy. It is tender, but not squishy.  It involves not only compassion, kindness, and mercy beyond measure (what the New Testament calls grace) but also indignation against injustice and unremitting opposition to all that is evil.

In the EFCA, we affirm the following about God, sin and Christ’s work on the cross, noted in these excerpts from our Statement of Faith:

Article 1, God: “We believe in one God, Creator of all things, holy, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in a loving unity of three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

Note, God is holy, infinitely perfect in His person and works, and loving.

Article 3, The Human Condition: “In union with Adam, human beings are sinners by nature and by choice, alienated from  God, and under His wrath. Only through God’s saving work in Jesus Christ can we be rescued, reconciled and renewed.”

Note, because of our sin, we are alienated from God and under His wrath. Jesus is the one alone by and through whom we can be rescued from God’s wrath, reconciled to the Father from our alienation and renewed into the likeness of the Son.

Article 5, The Work of Christ: “We believe that Jesus Christ, as our representative and substitute, shed His blood on the cross as the perfect, all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins. His atoning death and victorious resurrection constitute the only ground for salvation.”

Note, Jesus is our representative and substitute, and his death on the cross is the perfect, all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins. Moreover, it is Jesus Christ’s atoning death (Christus Vicarious) and victorious resurrection (Christus Victor) that are the only grounds for our salvation.

In the EFCA, because this is our theology, this is our hymnology! And we will joyfully live by and sing about these truths, all of these truths!, about God and the Lamb both now and into eternity (Rev. 22:3).

Yesterday we were introduced to Garry Williams, Director of the John Owen Center for Theological Study, through a Conference the Center hosted on the Historical Adam. A couple of years ago he was interviewed about this role and a number of other important matters. The whole interview was excellent, which I encourage you to read.

I include two parts – his response to questions regarding substitutionary atonement, which was an emphasis of his dissertation and he is writing a major treatment of this important doctrine, and challenges/problems facing Evangelicalism today.

GD: You have written on the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Why do you think that this teaching is so important?

GW: For so many reasons. Key of course is that the Bible teaches it and so we must too if we are to honour the Lord Jesus and rightly proclaim his saving work. Spiritually, clarity on the atonement grounds our assurance of the Lord’s forgiveness and favour – without it we are left with the burden of sin, which we know is intolerable. Theologically, it goes with the doctrine of God’s justice – if we redefine the atonement we are usually redefining the nature of God.

GD: Why do you think that the doctrine has become so unpopular in some supposedly evangelical circles?

GW: What we see often with a denial of penal substitution is a wholesale rewriting of a series of the more (humanly speaking) uncomfortable doctrines. Penal substitution is a glorious description of the love and mercy of God, but it also entails a belief in the retributive wrath of God, and that is always hard for people to accept. This is where the link to the doctrine of God is so important: the pressure often arises to redefine the atonement because a different god is wanted. This is obviously not the case for every critic of the doctrine, but many critics themselves rightly make the connection to the doctrine of God.

GD: Do you hope to publish a book length treatment of penal substitutionary atonement?

GW: Indeed, I hope not posthumously. I hope that it will be a biblical, historical, systematic work framed within a classic Reformed covenant theology.

Williams wrote his dissertation at Oxford on ‘A Critical Exposition of Hugo Grotius’s Doctrine of the Atonement in De satisfactione Christi’. He responded to some of the criticisms of the doctrine of penal substitution, particularly the thought that Christ’s death on the cross was a form of “cosmic child abuse”: “Penal Substitution: A Reply to Recent Criticisms,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50.1 (2007), 71-86. (This is reprinted (with minor alterations) as “Penal Substitution: A Response to Recent Criticisms,” in The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of Atonement, ed. David Hilborn, Justin Thacker, Derek Tidball (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 172-191.) And for a recent essay, see the following: “Penal substitutionary atonement in the Church Fathers.

Regarding the challenges/problems facing Evangelicals, he notes the increasingly antagonistic response against Christians, which is much like the early church experienced.

GD: What is the biggest problem facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?

GW: I wouldn’t want to generalize: different problems are more acute for different parts of what is a quite fragmented and often diverse movement, even if we confine our view to the conservative end of the spectrum within just one country. I do think that our culture is going to become much more hostile to the Lord Jesus Christ quickly, as we see when the Bible becomes guilty of a hate crime. So I think that we will need to be much more on the front-foot in terms of apologetics and evangelism, taking the battle to an increasingly aggressive pagan world much as the early Christians did. We have more in common with the early church than we do with the Reformers in terms of our wider context in Britain today, and we need to learn from the way that they preached the Gospel so boldly among their neighbours and devastatingly exposed the vacuity of incoherent and unfounded pagan worldviews.

Your turn. Here are a couple of questions for you as an extension of this interview.

  1. What do you think of Williams’ responses? Do you agree or disagree?
  2. How would you have responded to the questions?

By the way, Williams’ response regarding Evangelicalism is why we are focusing on the specific theme we are in our upcoming Theology Conference (2014), “Christian Faithfulness in a Changing Culture,” with an emphasis on what we can learn from the early church in our attempt to live faithfully today. I recently described our Conference in this way:

My general sense is that we are today as similar to the pre-Constantinian church (prior to the Edict of Milan, 313) as we have ever been. I am interested to hear and learn how the early church approached life and ministry while living in a culture that persecuted them, and yet in this sort of culture the church grew! In light of some of the sea-changes happening, which we are feeling more palpably today than in the past, our tendency/temptation is to retreat or to separate. I want to learn the lessons from the early church that we can apply today.