Atonement and Reconciliation

The events leading up to the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus are well-told by the Gospel writers, as are stories of the Resurrection. But why did Jesus die?

In the end the Roman authorities and the Jewish council wanted Jesus dead.  He was a political and social trouble-maker.  But what made the death of Jesus more significant than the countless other crucifixions carried out by the Romans and witnessed outside the city walls by the people of Jerusalem?

We believe that Jesus was far more than a political radical. For them the death of Jesus was part of God's plan to save humanity.  The death and resurrection of this one man is at the very heart of the Christian faith. For Christians it is through Jesus's death that people's broken relationship with God is restored. This is known as the "Atonement".

What is the atonement?

The word atonement is used in Christian theology to describe what is achieved by the death of Jesus. William Tyndale introduced the word in 1526, when he was working on his popular translation of the Bible, to translate the Latin word reconciliatio.  In the Revised Standard Version the word reconciliation replaces the word atonement. Atonement (at-one-ment) is the reconciliation of men and women to God through the death of Jesus.

But why was reconciliation needed? Christian theology suggests that although God's creation was perfect, the Devil tempted the first man Adam and sin was brought into the world. Everybody carries this original sin with them which separates them from God, just as Adam and Eve were separated from God when they were cast out of the Garden of Eden.  So it is a basic idea in Christian theology that God and mankind need to be reconciled. However, what is more hotly debated is how the death of Jesus achieved this reconciliation.  There is no single doctrine of the atonement in the New Testament. In fact, perhaps more surprisingly, there is no official Church definition either. But first, what does the New Testament have to say?

New Testament images

The New Testament uses lots of images to describe how God achieved reconciliation to the world through the death of Jesus. The most common is the image of sacrifice.  For example, John the Baptist describes Jesus as "the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world". John 1:29

'For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many'. Mark 10:45

'Drink all of you from this', he said. 'For this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'  Matthew 26:28

'Well then, in the first place, I taught you what I had been taught myself, namely that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures...'  1 Corinthians 15:3

Atonement through the power of the cross

If we are to understand this bringing back together of God and humanity we need to understand that it occurred through Jesus dying on the cross.  The cross can be seen in four ways: 

               The cross as sacrifice

               The cross as a victory

               The cross and forgiveness

               The cross as a moral example

The cross as sacrifice

The image of Jesus' death as a sacrifice is the throughout the New Testament. The New Testament uses the Old Testament image of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:5) and applies it to Christ.  The theme of Jesus's death as a sacrifice is most drawn out in the Letter to the Hebrews. The sacrifice of Christ is seen as the perfect sacrifice.  In the biblical tradition sacrifice was a common practice or ritual. In making an offering to God or a spirit, the person making the sacrifice hopes to make or mend a relationship with God.

St Augustine too wrote on the theme of sacrifice:

"By his death, which is indeed the one and most true sacrifice offered for us, he purged, abolished and extinguished whatever guilt there was by which the principalities and powers lawfully detained us to pay the penalty."  Augustine - The City of God

"He offered sacrifice for our sins. And where did he find that offering, the pure victim that he would offer? He offered himself, in that he could find no other".  Augustine - The City of God

The cross as a victory

The New Testament describes Jesus's death and resurrection as a victory over evil and sin as represented by the Devil. How was the victory achieved?

Jesus was conceived and born without sin.  He was fully human but also divine.  Death is a result of sin and as he had no sin he would not die.  However, by dying on the cross he entered into death and broke it's power and hold over us.  Death was the victory of sin but by dying on the cross we find that we have the victory over death in Christs sacrifice for us.

The cross and forgiveness

Jesus pays the penalty for each personss sin in order to right the relationship between God and humanity, a relationship damaged by sin.  Jesus's death is the penalty or "satisfaction" for sin.  Satisfaction was an idea used in the early church to describe the public actions - pilgrimage, charity - that a christian would undertake to show that he was grateful for forgiveness.  Only Jesus can make satisfaction because he is without sin. He is sinless because in the Incarnation God became man. 

The cross as a moral example

Now this one seems the most difficult to understand.  How can someone who loves me die for me?  How can someone dying for another show me a moral example?  God's love is expressed through the life and death of Jesus.  Christ accepted a difficult and undeserved death. This demonstration of love in turn moves us to repent and re-unites us with God.  Our redemption through the suffering of Jesus is the love within us which not only frees us from being slaves to sin, but also gives us the true liberty of the children of God. Now we can do all things out of love rather than out of fear.

Penal substitution

Did Jesus take the punishment for humanity's sins when he died on the cross? That idea is called penal substitution and is summed up by Reverend Rod Thomas, from the evangelical group Reform, as "When God punished he showed his justice by punishing sin but he showed his love by taking that punishment himself".


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