“What Makes a Full Atonement Full?”

Over at the gospel coalition blog, Mike Wittmer wrote an excellent post on various atonement theories and their need for one another conceptually (rather than having them work as standalone theories). He helpfully identifies the three main theories of atonement as providing interrelated answers to various questions the atonement poses. Christus Victor gives us the “why” of atonement; penal substitution the “how,” and moral influence the “for what.” I encourage you to go check out the post yourself. Below I have copied in my own reply to his post.

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First off, I greatly appreciate this post and what it does with atonement theory in general. There is a huge need today in theology on this topic to incorporate and adequately relate the different aspects of atonement into a holistic and multi-faceted picture that benefits from all its different parts. I’ve personally been dissatisfied with treatments (e.g. Scot McKnight’s book, good though it is) that attempt to treat each theory as a coherent whole in and of itself without any significant reference to the others, so that how we account for the atonement becomes simply a pragmatic matter of which one will “do the job.” In fact, I would go so far as to say that “theories” is a misnomer—they simply aren’t adequate on their own as entire explanations. We can call them theories if we wish, but what we are actually dealing with are different features of one whole “thing” that is going on at the cross. Wittmer’s proposal in this regard is excellent: (1) Christus Victor gives us the “why” of atonement, (2) Penal Substitution gives us the “how,” and (3) Moral Influence gives us the “for what.”

There are a few additions I would want to make by way of critique. First, I think it should be pointed out that the great insight of Gustaf Aulen’s book, “Christus Victor,” was not mainly that Jesus needed to defeat Satan. (That is where it might be best to distinguish a fourth “Ransom” theory of atonement.) Rather, Aulen’s biggest point is that *sin itself* is the ultimate objective problem that had to be dealt with in the atonement, through Jesus’ victory. Aulen’s critique of Anselm and his theological heirs is that, despite claiming the title of “objective” for their atonement theories, they have in fact evacuated the model of its truly objective content. The real problem—sin—isn’t given its proper objectivity, whereas in CV its status as a power ensures that sin is actually a “thing” that can be dealt with in Jesus’ death. Instead, in Anselm and his successors, the locus of the problem shifts from sin itself to God’s wrath. And that is precisely the root of all the caricatures of Penal Substitution: it seems to make God the “problem,” and not sin. (This objection can be answered in a sense, of course, but I think the real problem lies deeper, in our failure to accord sufficient objectivity to sin. Aulen’s book has the virtue of doing that.)

When we properly recognize sin to be the real problem, God’s wrath makes perfect sense. Sin is not merely a “record” of wrongdoing that we have amassed in the recollection of God, “about which” God is angry. Sin is a whole state of affairs in the created order that *embodies* and *perpetuates* our guilt: it is the complex entirety of our “missed-the-mark” fleshly existence that has stemmed from our initial breach in our relationship to God. This existence then not only embodies the broken relationship and all its effects, but also the wrath of God: we are consigned to this condition of creaturely futility in death, because we have violated our unique status as God’s filial image-bearers carrying his dominion into all creation, preferring to deify ourselves instead. God’s wrath, in this picture, exists precisely toward the end of bringing this perverted state of affairs we have brought about to an end—in death.

When we get that, the meaning of Jesus’ death becomes clearer than ever, in precisely the holistic way that Wittmer wants to advocate. Jesus bears our guilt on the cross and disposes of it as our substitute precisely by bearing our created existence as his own, with all of the perversion that resides in it because of our broken relation to God. He receives our death penalty because he shares fully in our condition in the flesh: a humanity distorted and subject to sin, embodying our guilt, and facing the creator’s judgment. But he shares this condition sinlessly—in a perfect and right relation to God in the midst of our broken condition, faithfully loving and obeying God in the power of the Holy Spirit that conceived and anointed him. This fidelity is precisely the instrument of his victory as our substitute (“simul victor et vicarius,” we might say). He carries our guilty flesh to the cross and offers it to God’s judgment, to be abolished and made new in death and resurrection. What results is a new humanity—the risen humanity of our savior, free from the power of sin in the flesh, restored to perfect life and fellowship with God, and recovered for its task of bearing the creator’s dominion in his creation. All of this is accomplished in Jesus, and then through the gospel Jesus himself is given to us, to be the new seat of our identity—our life, our new man, our death and resurrection that will become manifest in our own mortal members. That’s his victory; that’s his substitution; that’s his influence. That’s atonement.

I suppose I get carried away; the point is, Jesus doesn’t just “happen” to accomplish “each” of these things described in these theories in the course of his atoning work. Rather, the three models are describing parts of the same thing (which I take to be among Wittmer’s great insights). Our human condition, marred as it is by sin, is simultaneously an embodiment of the powers’ sway over creation, and an embodiment of the creator’s wrath against sin. Therefore in the judicial termination of that sinful human condition on the cross, and its creation anew in the resurrection, God is judging and condemning sin in the flesh *precisely* in Jesus’ act of overcoming the powers through his own sinlessness and obedience. (Incidentally, this means that a strong dichotomy, as in John Goldingay’s essay that Wittmer quotes, between “vicariously punished” and “vicariously cleansed” is inappropriate.) Meanwhile, the complete work in its entirety demonstrates the greatness of God’s love for us—a love that takes as its own the burden of our humanity and disposes of its brokenness in God’s very self, for the sake of all. The triune God, adopting our humanity in his Son, cleansing it through the judgment of the cross and resurrection, and giving his Son to us to be our new humanity, righteousness, blessedness, and life—this is the love of God made manifest. How great is our God!

Lastly, the degree to which this constitutes a “moral influence” over us lies not just in our feeling inspired by it and determining to do likewise (e.g. love our enemies, forgive them even the point of death). Rather, the “moral influence” is also rooted in something objective: our incorporation into Christ by the Spirit. We don’t merely “imitate” him: his love, his grace, his dying and living becomes manifest in our own lives through our union with him and our possession, by faith, of his vicarious humanity. The cross doesn’t just “influence” us to act a certain way—it transforms our whole existence by bringing us to new birth, disassociating us from the sinful flesh that has been crucified in Christ, and empowering us to live out of our identity in Christ as God’s adopted sons and daughters, so that his image is displayed in us and our human vocation is realized.

So much more could be said, but anyway—thanks for posting this!

The Sinlessness of Jesus, pt. 1

In the past semester I’ve had something of an epiphany regarding the nature of the atonement, and as I reflect back on it, it seems to me that what really lay at the heart of it all was a shift in my understanding of the sinlessness of Jesus. This issue illuminates a great deal of what exactly happened on the cross and in the resurrection, and all of our theology that issues from that event will be decisively colored by our grasp of just exactly how God, in Jesus his Son, somehow bore the problem of sin in himself, as a sinless human being.

To the question, “Was Jesus sinless?” the Christian answer has always been (and must be) an unequivocal “Yes”; but the church tradition has given more than one answer to the further question, “How was Jesus sinless?” From about the fourth century onward, mainly in the western Latin theological tradition, the sinlessness of Jesus has been treated as an attribute of Jesus’ “essential” humanitysomething intrinsic to his “human nature,” as distinct from your human nature or mine. In other words, Jesus’ humanity was not touched in any way by the fall, but represented humanity in its original state: sinless in a qualitative and ontological (not just an active and moral) sense. Following Augustine, this got bound up with the church’s understanding of “original sin,” and together with Augustine’s somewhat dubious notion of original sin’s transmission through sexual intercourse, came to form part of the tradition’s basic apologetic for the virgin birth: the reason Jesus had to be conceived of the Spirit in the virgin Mary is that he would otherwise have been tainted by original sin, and would therefore have been a sinner. (Later on in the Roman Catholic tradition this impulse created a felt need to remove that taint even from Mary, and so it was concluded that her own conception was also free from original sin—this is the doctrine of the “immaculate conception.”)

My own view of Jesus’ sinlessness is different, and more comparable to the early (particularly Greek) church fathers, as well as some notable theologians of the twentieth century like Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance. Among the earliest church fathers, it was generally recognized that the incarnation was not only God’s act of putting himself in the right “position”—that of a human being—to deal with the broken relationship of humanity to God. More profoundly, the incarnation was God’s assuming of the problem of our corrupted human condition to himself, in order to deal with that problem in his very own existence through the events of his life, death, and resurrection. In Jesus of Nazareth, God draws near to us not in an immaculate “humanity” different from ours, but in the selfsame broken, corruptible, fallen human existence in which we all live, and that is precisely the context in which his own sinlessness becomes all-important.

This second view is, in my opinion, much more in accord with the apostolic mind as we see it in the New Testament. The apostles didn’t regard human beings chiefly in terms of their individual “natures” in distinction from others around them, such that one human being could be “fallen” and another might not be. Rather, they saw all of humanity, and the rest of the created order along with them, as sharing in a mode of existence in the present age called “the flesh”—the natural and corruptible array of relationships and dynamics in which our whole created reality consists, and according to which it operates. This reality of “the flesh” is the creation as God has made it—originally good, but now because of the invasion of sin through human disobedience, utterly pervaded by sin, broken by a “missing of the mark” within created existence that has hijacked the world and taken it off into slavery to evil, sin and death. Within this picture, to be personally sinful is, quite simply, to be an agent who operates independently and self-reliantly according to this reality in which we are all bound up—a way of life that, despite the temporary satisfactions and delights it may afford, is actually a form of slavery to the broken world in which we live.

That’s a biblical anthropology as I see it. And, I might add, at this point the growing majority of biblical scholars (including those of the evangelical stripe) see the same thing in the apostolic writings. We humans are “of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom 7:14), subject to a condition in which sin’s power is pervasively at work ruining, perverting, misleading, and polluting. We have nothing in ourselves with which to escape, to get to God, or to give ourselves true life as we were made to have it. The best we can manage is to fabricate idols in the world that we feel can serve our own ends, that can provide us with ultimate security and satisfaction; but in reality we are blinded by ourselves—enthroned at the center of our own universes, but ultimately as much slaves to futility and death as everything around us. But into this bleak picture steps Jesus of Nazareth, the Word of God who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Precisely where the power of sin in the flesh made it impossible for us to have life, God did the impossible: “having sent his Son in the exact likeness of sinful flesh and for a sin-offering, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom 8:4); “our old humanity was crucified with [Jesus], so that the body of sin might be destroyed, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6); “he has now reconciled [us] in his body of flesh through his death” (Col 1:21); “God made him who knew no sin to become sin for our sake, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). In Jesus of Nazareth, God has taken the flesh of this present evil age to himself, and made its burden his own. He has worn the garment of our stained humanity; he has shouldered the weight of our corruption and ruin and captivity to the present evil age; and in astonishing grace and mercy, he has sinlessly borne it to its destruction at the cross, and to its renewal in the resurrection. Standing in our place, Jesus has done within our broken humanity what Adam was unwilling to do, and what we were incapable of doing: saying to God in the power of the Spirit, “Not my will, but yours be done.” By putting to death the reality of our fleshly existence at the cross, and by raising Jesus from the dead to a new and transformed mode of embodied life by the Spirit, God has brought the old age of sin and death to an end and inaugurated the new age of God’s kingdom in Jesus’ very body—in which all may share by faith, through the Holy Spirit, for the forgiveness of sins and for release from the bondage of the present age. That is atonement.

The sinlessness of Jesus, in other words, is not a feature of his incarnate humanity considered in itself, but rather is a statement about how he, in the power of the Holy Spirit, lived his life blamelessly before God in perfect fidelity to the Father, in the face of all the temptations that sin resident in the flesh posed against him. Because our humanity was what needed saving, God made the problem of the human condition his own in the incarnation, in order as our substitute to restore it to reconciled fellowship with himself. In this picture, reconciliation between God and man takes place in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth, for the sake of all, and is then shared with the world through the gospel proclamation of the church in the power of the Spirit. In Jesus, God has met our deepest needs by doing in our broken condition what none of us could do: bear that condition before him and offer it up in love and faithfulness and obedience to him as our Abba, “father.”

In the next post on this topic, we’ll look further at the implications for this understanding of Jesus’ sinlessness, not least at how it affects our understanding of God’s self-substitution for us in his death, and how this action on God’s part reveals to us who God really is in the depths of his own identity.

List of relevant sources for further reading:

  • T.F. Torrance’s lectures on Christology: (vol. 1) Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ; (vol. 1) Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (vol. 2)
  • T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ
  • Robert C. Tannehill, Dying and Rising with Christ
  • Susan Grove Eastman, “Apocalypse and Incarnation: The Participatory Logic of Paul’s Gospel,” in Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology: With and Beyond J. Louis Martyn (Joshua B. Davis & Douglas Harink, eds.)
  • James Dunn, “Paul’s Understanding of the Death of Jesus
  • J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul