Perplexed by Atonement Theories? The Core of it All

Once a young reader informed me with a robust confidence that the heart of the atonement concerned the wrath of God — and I’ve had others say it’s the love or grace of God while others think it is adjusting the books and getting the ledgers re-assigned. What is it then? Is it propitiation and penal substitution, the exemplary love of God, or justification? From another angle: How does the atonement fit into the Bible’s central narrative?

And, why is atonement — no one doubts its importance — so often ignore resurrection? How does it all relate to our understanding of God and how does it related to the life of Jesus?

I’m happy to commend for your reading Adam Johnson’s Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed.

Which text in the NT do you think is most expressive of the atonement?

What does the doctrine of atonement do in Christian theology? Is it the center? If not, where does it fit?

Johnson’s book is an exceptional textbook — not overly burdened with footnotes or with arcane discussions, but always keeping the big picture in mind. Let me cut to the chase quickly, from Johnson’s book:

The best summary statements about Christ’s atoning work in Scripture are the following two (closely related) verses: In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19). In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things. (Col. 1:19-20).

In short:

God was in Christ, reconciling all things to himself. 

The beauty of this short statement is fourfold. First, the emphasis is first and foremost upon God, which is absolutely vital for the doctrine. The atonement is the work of God bringing God’s creation back to God….

Second, this is the work of God as man, as Jesus. That is to say, it is an entirely human work, the work of God as one of us, one of our kind living out his life under the same realities and circumstances as we do. It is a work from within our life and experience, in which God makes our situation his own, rather than a work from the outside.

Third, this is a work of reconciliation. One could say that God was in Christ, atoning (at-one-ing) all things to himself in Christ, though this does not communicate as readily in contemporary English.

The final reason which makes this summary the best single statement in Scripture concerning the work of Christ is
 its comprehensive scope: all things! Of course this must be unpacked, but such a comprehensive and indeed cosmic affirmation runs no risk whatsoever of leaving anything out.

That short summary deserves slight expansion, and this is what Johnson offers:

To honour this dynamic movement, we will briefly unpack the above summary, offering a slightly more complex rendition of the same basic statement:

The triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the fullness of the divine perfections, was in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel, bringing all created things in heaven and earth to the fulfilment of their God-given purposes through reconciliation with God.

 

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About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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