Did Jesus Die for Wrath or Sin?

Scot McKnight continues the Atonement discussion at Jesus Creed:

If the acted upon is sin, then the term does not mean “propitiate” but “expiate.”

Thus, Moule: “If, then, God is the subject or originator, not the object or recipient, of hilas-procedures, it is manifestly inappropriate to translate them as propitiatory; one is driven to use a word such as ‘expiatory’, which has as its object not propitiating a wrathful God but removing a barrier” (114). The theme of NT atonement then is 2 Cor 5:19: God was reconciling the world to himself. God doesn’t need to be propitiated, Moule observes; God is the one doing the reconciling.



As Lossky succinctly argues, a propitiatory Atonement divides the Trinity since it pits God against God. The Cappadocian Fathers understood the Trinity as perichoresis which is a mutual indwelling of the persons of God. As St. Gregory the Theologian says, “When I contemplate the three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”

If our foundation is then the very nature of God understood this way, it does not make sense that the Son is sent just to satisfy the wrath of the Father. Either the Trinity is prior to the Atonement or it is not. At stake is not just a doctrine, but the very nature of God.

If sin is “missing the mark” the mark that we are missing is God. We keep screwing up because we are not God and need constantly to seek the target. That’s what the Atonement is about. The Atonement is about sin first. There is a judgment of everyone on the last day. Scripture is clear that we will all stand before God. Those who have striven to conform to Christ will experience that event as glorious. Those who have not will experience it as wrath. But the way we get back on track is to constantly conform to God through Christ. Christ’s purpose with us in the flesh was to defeat the power of sin and the ultimate consequence of sin which is death.

So the object of the Atonement is not God’s wrath, but sin, death, and Satan. This is what the same Fathers taught who for centuries were inspired to form the doctrines Christians agree are non-negotiable. To say they were right about the Trinity but wrong about the Atonement misses the mark.

  • Kostya

    I was brought up in a Russian Orthodox Church, became a ‘born again Christian’ at 26 and then returned to Orthodoxy after a few years having gone to Bible College etc. However, I have now returned to Protestant Christianity, although I never use the label on myself. I am now an ordained minister who is working among Russian Jews. That is just to give you some idea of where I have been, and that I can understand some of your journey. But that is not why I am commenting.
    I was interested in your blog re the Trinity. Especially the statement ‘Either the Trinity is prior to the Atonement or it is not. At stake is the nature of God.’
    A theory and docrine of the atonement must be worthy of God and must be Trinitarian. A basic problem of some Protestant views of the atonement is that they fail to express God in His Trinitarian nature, and leave a divided God.
    I have been gradually coming to a view that the Lord Jesus died on the cross because He was God. That means that God is a suffering God. The glory that the Lord had with the Father that He would return to (John 17) was always the glory of the Suffering Messiah who was part of the Godhead.
    The Messiah who was with God, (John 1) must be the same Messiah who returned to God, and is the same Messiah who appears in Revelation in the visions of heavenly worship of the Godhead. Otherwise we have a divided Trinity.
    This has great implications for History and Revelation. Whom God foreknew, He also predestined. That foreknowledge was before the foundation of the world. When God created, He created that which would be as He foreknew it. This still allows for man’s free will because it does not necessarily exclude it. But if Jesus was eternally slain and was always a part of the Trinity, then redemption history was eternally conceived. That means that our dichotomous views of eternity vs history, Creator vs creation, have fuzzy boundaries, and should not be strict dualisms. It means that history is revelation becausse it was always within the mind of God. This means that history is tied up with the revelation of Messiah. This means that History is a revelation of the Trinity.

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