The Atonement: Making Christ's Life and Power Real
by Lois Malcolm (March / April 2003 • Volume 19 • Number 2)
Why is the atonement central for Christian faith? Our author examines this powerful teaching from both a Pauline perspective and what she considers our distinctive Lutheran emphasis
The doctrine of atonement has come upon hard times in recent decades. Many contemporary people question the image of a punitive Father-God who demands satisfaction for his honor in the face of humanity's sin and sends his Son to die in order to "satisfy" that honor.
In turn, many Christians don't really know that much about the doctrine or how it could possibly be related to what happens on Sunday morning — in preaching and the celebration of the Lord's Supper — or, more pointedly, in their daily lives where they parent, work, consume things, vote, relax, and so on.
So, what is the point of Christian belief in atonement? Why did Jesus die? And why does his death and resurrection continue to be central to Christian belief and practice?
The church's teaching on atonement has been heavily influenced by Anselm of Canterbury (ca. 1033-1109), who argued that only a God-man could satisfy the honor of a God affronted by sin.1 Only a God-man could be both God (and thus powerful enough to pay the debt) and human (since only a human could make the satisfaction). The emphasis in this theory of atonement is on the fact that Jesus paid a debt we owed God because of our sin.
Martin Luther's understanding of Christ's death has a very different emphasis. In "The Freedom of a Christian," he describes an exchange whereby Christ takes on our death, sin, and pain and exchanges it for his life and salvation.2 Satisfaction is not at the heart of this depiction of Christ's death, but communion or union with Christ (since this is a real exchange, like the mutual sharing that happens in a marriage) and, more important, a battle in which Christ wins us over from the powers of death, sin, and suffering.
009; In Luther's interpretation of the Second Article of the Apostle's Creed in the "Large Catechism," the combat imagery is especially explicit.3 Christ redeems and releases us from the captive power of sin, the devil, death, and all misfortune and takes us into the protection and shelter of his life, righteousness, wisdom, power, and "every good and blessing." This truly "costs Christ" something — his life. And this death does make "satisfaction" for our sin, not in the sense of appeasing God but in the sense of undoing the power of its consequence — death.
We have true spiritual freedom because of what Christ has done. We truly are "lords," according to Luther, free to interpret all that happens to us, whether good or bad, with confidence in the promise that nothing can separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus.4 This promise — and the life, joy, peace, and power it brings — frees us to shift the focus off of having to make ourselves "right" in God's eyes, or anyone else's for that matter, so that we can truly attend to the needs of those around us and be "servants" to their good.
This, then, is what it means to preach Christ. We are not merely to speak about historical facts or even preach laws to people. We are, rather, to preach Christ so that his life and power may be "effectual" — made real — in our lives. In the face of suffering, misfortune, and the attacks of consciences (Anfechtungen or tentatio) — in other words, in all that happens to us, whether good or bad — we can cling to the promise that nothing will separate us from God's love.
Luther was heavily influenced by Paul, who used a range of images to develop the theological significance of Christ's death. Romans has the most explicit reference to Christ's "sacrifice of atonement" (Rom. 3:25), which refers to the priestly sacrifice of an animal for the people's sin on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:13-15). This sacrifice demonstrates God's "righteousness," which, as Paul makes clear in this passage, refers not to God's need to be appeased for our sins but to the fact that God "passes over" sins previously committed (Rom. 3:25).
As Christians, we have been baptized into this death and thus with Jesus have died to sin and are now, by the power of his resurrection, freed to live in "newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). Christ's death condemned sin and its consequence — death — and thereby frees us from the world of the "flesh (the domain of sin and death) to live in the "Spirit" (the domain of God's righteousness and life).
We are now adopted as God's children and as heirs have access to all that Jesus shares with his Father. Nothing can now separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus — neither death nor life, nor anything in the past, present, or future (Rom. 8:38; 1 Cor. 3:21-23).
009; In Galatians, Christ becomes "curse" for us, taking on himself the full consequence of our sin (Gal 3:13). This means that the promise of blessing given to Abraham has now come to us who receive the gift of God's Spirit through faith and not by keeping the law. Jesus' death ushers in a new eschatological age, one defined not by distinctions between law/not-law — or, for that matter, male/female, slave/free, Jew/Greek — but by the power of his life and Spirit.
Our old sinful self has been crucified with Christ and we now, by faith, live out of the power of Christ's resurrected life, a life that frees us not for egocentric and destructive behavior but to love others and live out of the love, joy, and peace that characterizes the Spirit's life (Galatians 5).
009; In 1 Corinthians 1-2, the crucified Christ is the "stumbling block" who defies our demand for tangible "signs" and worldly "wisdom." Jesus' humiliating death, which was a tremendous embarrassment for the first Christians, is precisely what enacts the power and wisdom of God to create a new humanity not only out of deep division — the distinction between Jew and Greek — but from those who are low, despised, and considered "nothing" in this world.
We, who have been called by this crucified Messiah, have been given his "mind," his wisdom and power, which enables us (like him) to see the world in such a way that we seek not merely our own egocentric or factional interests but the common good (1 Cor. 3). Philippians 2 develops a similar argument. Even though he shared equality with God, Christ emptied himself, sharing in all that is human — even to the point of death — and precisely in that act was exalted as "lord of all." We now who share his life are given his "mind," the fecundity of his perspective on life, so that we too need not merely seek our own petty interests but can, like him, truly attend to the interests of others.
Early Church's Experience
Paul's theological interpretation of the significance of Jesus' death reflects how early Christians experienced not only the power of his resurrection but the life-changing import of his death. Early Christians interpreted Jesus' death using a range of images from the Old Testament, including not only sacrifice but the suffering of the righteous, which also entailed vicarious suffering for others.
Further, the first Christians drew a crucial link between sacrifice and suffering, on the one hand, and vivid redemptive depictions of God's creative power to bring life out of death, liberation in the midst of oppression, and order out of chaos, on the other.
Yet another crucial connection was made between these images and prophetic images of a "new creation," when all people and all of creation would live together in a just and harmonious world. Finally, the shameful and unexpected character of Jesus' death (what some viewed as the death of a failed political messiah) was seen as an eternal affront to idolatrous uses of power and wisdom.
009; Jesus' death and resurrection lies at the heart of Christian faith. When we proclaim a crucified Messiah, we proclaim that another kind of wisdom and power prevails in this world, a world where prudential and factional interests dominate, where hierarchies distinguish the mighty from the lowly, and where our need to "justify" ourselves — our need to be "right" — is stronger than the weightier demands of justice.
Jesus' death and resurrection frees us from the clutch of this domain of sin and death and promises instead the life of his Spirit, a life saturated not only with righteousness and justice but also with love, joy, and peace. Jesus' Spirit frees us to shift the focus off of ourselves so that we can truly attend — having now the "mind of Christ" — to the needs of those around us: our families, coworkers, and most important, those who suffer injustice and are oppressed by forces beyond their control.
As Christians, we not only preach this crucified Messiah who was raised from the dead, we also eat his broken body and drink his costly blood. Why? So that his crucified wisdom and power may so permeate our lives that we discern in all that happens to us — whether good or bad — where and how he is true to his promise to bring life out of death, liberation amidst oppression, healing in brokenness, and forgiveness where there is sin.
Lois Malcolm is associate professor of systematic theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.
1. Anselm of Canterbury, "Why God Became Man," in Anselm of Canterbury: Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (Oxford University Press, 1998). For a critique of Anselm's theory of atonement, see Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Beacon, 2001).
2. Martin Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian," in Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy Lull (Fortress, 1989).
3. Martin Luther, "The Large Catechism," in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Fortress, 2000).
4. Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian" (see n.z.).
Exploring the Atonement Further
Fiddes, Paul S., Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (John Knox Press, 1989).
Forde, Gerhard. "The Work of Christ," in Christian Dogmatics, vol. 2, ed. by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (Fortress, 1984).
Green, Joel B., and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in the New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Intervarsity, 2000).
Weaver, J. Denny, The Nonviolent Atonement (Eerdmans, 2001).