Did Jesus Die for Wrath or Sin?

Did Jesus Die for Wrath or Sin? June 22, 2012

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.

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