What the atonement did I

I have taken a step back from blogging for a few weeks now, and during that time I have thought allot about the atonement. I really started thinking about this because of the current cover story of Christianity Today and some concerns that were raised about a small view of atonement… and of course, there were the responses to peoples thoughts on the article.

What I have noticed in all the talk about “atonement stories” is that we all are talking about the mechanics of salvation, but not really focusing on the accomplishment that is salvation.

We evangelical Christians tend to want to talk about how God forgave us and justified us. So we tell atonement stories and throw out theories of penal substitution, ransom, recapitulation, and so on. As pointed out in some of the above links, all these stories are good, and all are needed to get a full picture of the full atonement. But, this is all talk about the mechanics of salvation: How it works… how God did what He did… how we are forgiven. The hows are important to think about, but they must not replace the what: what Jesus sacrifice did… what it accomplishes in our lives… what hope it makes real to us.

If that last paragraph seems nebulous, let me put it this way: we talk allot about how the car works (the parts and their functions, the gas millage it gets, the way internal combustion works inside the engine, etc…) but we are scarcely talking about why the car was made in the first place, namely to transport us around.

Maybe it’s just me; maybe everyone else is hearing conversations about what atonement is and not just how it works. All I know is a very important word seems to be missing from evangelical speech when it comes to verbalizing the atonement.


This is the word Paul uses to define the service God has given him (and us) to do.

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 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 5.18-21

Paul’s entire proclamation of Gospel and what the good news means for our lives now is centered only upon God reconciling us and the world to himself. This is the “what” that the atonement accomplished, this is salvation.

Over the next few posts, I want to look at two texts that can help us focus on what atonement accomplished as we continue to explore and talk about the different atonement theories/stories.
What the atonement did II: Simon’s second speech (Acts 3)
What the atonement did III: Defining Love (1 John 4.7-21)
What the atonement did IV: Only because of the atonement

  • Nice idea, and it is important not to overdo the mechanics. One element that is also hard to keep in balance is the need to see the atonement as transcending individualism.

  • I think this is where the idea of Shalom is so important. Understanding the Messiniac kingdom in terms of restoration to how it all was intended to be puts is into the big picture, and saves us from an atonement that was accomplished for my “inner man”. That idea is both egocentric and hopeless in the face of real life.

  • I think you are on to it — that the gospel is ultimately about restoring relationships (humanity with God AND humanity to each other AND humanity with all of Creation). Reconciliation is the key word.

    Atonement theories talk a lot about the mechanics of salvation, but the reality of salvation is that we are restored to the way things were meant to be.

  • Sebastien Marty

    You have a point! I would argue though that "the mechanics of salvation" is not just the difference between what a car is for and knowing how the parts works in it. I can drive a car with having no clues how the internal parts works and that will not affect me. Now understanding or not some of the mechanics of salvations will affect my understanding of God, who He is, aspects of his nature. I think that this aspect is overlooked! That is why we have different views on the mechanics of salvation; and they all give some different perspectives on whoGod is. This said we can't either spend all our time on that and forget all other effects of our salvation, we are to drive the car, and not spend all our time under it puzzeled.
    To use the car illustration my own way, you don't need to be a mechanic, but you still need to know a few things about it; the oil, coolant, and trasmission fluid need to be checked and changed as well as the tires…
    In brief, wanting to know too much can make you lose perspective of what really matters, knowing not enough not good either!

  • Sebastian Marty,
    Your right in stating that not knowing enough is not good. My perspective on the mechanics of salvation is the distinction between “how God accomplished salvation” (ie- atonement theories) and “God did accomplish salvation” (ie- reconciliation). We do need to explore what salvation is, how it effects us, and how it reveals the person of God. However, exploring all the effects and the hope of salvation can be done without getting bogged down with “which atonement theory is correct?”, especially because we do need all the atonement theories to help us see the scope of reconciliation.

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