The Atonement – “There was no other good enough”

There is a green hill far away … where our dear Lord was crucified, he died to save us all

When we talk of atonement we do so in the context of a Biblical framework that educates of the need for forgiveness for sins. From the revealing of Torah to Moses and the Israelites there is a Scriptural witness to the necessity of redemption for sins[1]. Leon Morris[2] tracks the language of redemption and presents a compelling argument for the etymology of New Testament vocabulary for Christ’s work on the cross. The connection of lutron in the New Testament with the Hebrew lg and hdp shows a consistent Scriptural framework for atonement that is essentially economic. At the culmination of the Passion, Jesus cries out tetelestai[3], meaning not just “it is finished” but equally “it is paid”.

The question remains though, who has been paid, what for, what was the price and why was Jesus the payer? To take the analogy of a greengrocer, tetelestai tells me that an apple has been bought, but who from, for how much and why not an orange?

Early views, recognising that the lutron word group is reflective of a ransom, discussed who the ransom was paid to. Whether the cross was merely sophisticated bait for Satan[4] or a paying off of Satan for the bondage in which sin holds humanity[5], it took those like Anselm in the late 11th Century to understand the substitutionary economy of the cross. For many of the Early Fathers Jesus practically tricks Satan into crucifying him[6] and in doing so, as one who is sinless, is entitled to return from hell and bring with him others who are captive. Anselm however understands that the significant factor of the spiritual ‘transaction’ on the cross is not who is paid the price, but chiefly what the price buys. So, what Augustine is hinting at[7], Anselm unpacks.

He died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good

Anselm appears to be at pains to understand the atonement in terms of the dynamic between fallen humans and a holy God, not between a fallen angel who rules over the depths of hell and a God who has been denied sovereignty over his created humans. So for Anselm, ‘the problem is, how can God forgive human sin?’[8] Anselm is clear that sin requires judgement and judgement must be satisfied, and satisfied appropriately for the sin:

“To leave sin unpunished would be tantamount to treating the sinful and sinless alike ‘[such] inconsistency is injustice’ – the satisfaction ought to be in proportion to the sin.”[9]

And so for Anselm, God incarnate as a human provides “both the ability (as God) and the obligation (as a human being) to pay the required satisfaction”[10]. Anselm’s atonement is a monopolistic and monopsonistic economy, with God both the payer and payee of the debt incurred by humans not to Satan but to God.

The language of ‘obligation’ inquires of us in what sense the incarnation is necessary for the satisfaction of the debt incurred by humans to God? As Denney recognises 800 years later, there is an intimate connection between the nature of Christ and his work on the cross. The ‘Socinian Critique'[11] simply asks the question “Why couldn’t God just forgive?” As the Racowian Catechism claims:

…since the mercy and justice which our adversaries conceive to pertain to God by nature, certainly do not belong to him, there was no need of that plan whereby he might satisfy such mercy and justice”[12]

The answer of course is that the power of the atonement is found not simply in its economy, but chiefly in what the economy achieves. Calvin identifies that post-atonement humanity has a future with both an immortal soul and an immortal body, in comparison to the mortal frame that Adam carried in the Garden. He observes that the Fall happens when Adam touches the fruit and:

“As a result, he died and was no longer like God”[13]

So the restoration of humanity achieved by this “amazing and unexpected mercy”[14] is to a position once again of the likeness[15] of God. This connection of humanity with the divine imprint is picked up in Eastern writings:

“Glory be to your kindness and to the plan[16]
by which you became human, you who by nature are God
without change or confusion, remaining the same,
and that you have made me a god, a mortal by my nature
a god by your grace , by the power of your Spirit,
bringing together as god a unity of opposites.”[17]

Later Evangelical writers clarify Anselm’s understanding and evolve it into the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. In this legal understanding Christ becomes a substitute for the judged sinners and pays their penalty instead of them. Stott, in “The Cross of Christ” delivers a classical understanding of this doctrine, highlighting the 4 Scriptural pictures[18] of the atonement used by Paul and others, namely propitiation[19], redemption[20], justification[21] and reconciliation[22]. It is this restoration of relationship that presents Penal Substitutionary Atonement with a dynamic that moves beyond an emphasis on the moment of propitiation, to the subsequent life of the believer. Stott explores the “cosmic dimension”[23] of the work of Christ, not simply the demonstration in the Colossian “hymn to Christ” of the Son’s supremacy in the universe, but the achievement of the cross in “placing all things under Christ’s feet”[24]. There is an understanding then that the cross is the point in time when the entirety of creation is placed back into its correct relationship with God, and in the specific case of those saved, that the unrighteousness of sin has in some sense been dealt with, not simply by being cast aside and ignored but in a just and appropriate manner. Holiness (which sin is only understood in response to) is upheld and God is seen to once again be holy and loving in the giving of his very self.

We may not know, we cannot tell

There is an issue however with attempting to perform an analysis of the economy of the cross in that the assumption of being able to rationally determine the mechanics of salvation from a human perspective may itself obscure the element of mystery in the atonement. To reduce the soteriological transaction to a theory that can be utterly digested by humans is an activity in danger of losing the power of the cross, stripping it of supernatural power at the very point when we are attempting to glorify the divine author of the atonement.

Gary Jenkins begins to address this writing:

“But why should this be the manner of God’s saving purposes? Ultimately we cannot know. Thus must remain a mystery and indeed there are deep mysteries involved in contemplating the work of God in atonement.”[25]

Such a statement is not to deny that certain truths of the cross have been revealed through Scripture to the Church, but rather it stops short of claiming a comprehensive analysis of the atonement. Penal Substitution may be a necessary truth and it may be a sufficient truth, but the entirety of the activity between man and God at the cross may indeed fall outside the bounds of an economic study of redemption. To use the greengrocer analogy again, Penal Substitution can tell you how a five pound note is handed over for an apple, but there is more than Penal Substitution in the explanation of what makes an apple “fruit”.

If for example we view Dali’s “Corpus Hyper-Cubus” we see a portrayal of Jesus on the cross that invites us to engage with the “hyper-dimensionality” of the Incarnation. Dali places the crucified Jesus[26] on a tesseract[27] and in doing so challenges us to look beyond human constrained 3-dimensional physical world that we live in. Dali’s Christ dies in a multi-dimensional world, transcending human limitations of physicality and constraints of temporality, while the watcher, reaching into the third dimension from his two dimensional chequerboard plane, can only begin to scrape at understanding.

Might the cross be more than just a transaction in redeeming guilt and the delivery of a new ontological position for humans, even becoming in itself an eternal spiritual engagement with the one true living God? The writer to the Hebrews presents the atonement not just as the moment of justification and satisfaction but also as instrumental in the ongoing life of the believer, a life of sanctification.[28] God has placed his Law within the hearts of those he has redeemed[29], but is that a one off activity or an ongoing dynamic in the life of the saved? In the context of the quote in Hebrews, Jeremiah prophecies in the present continuous “I will be their God and they shall be me people.”

Can we view the cross as a locus for the connection of humans to God, not just a point in time of the removal of sin but an eternal of physical and spiritual engagement in the entirety of human existence? To reduce the crucifixion to simply a moral example or the expression of God’s love removes the very mode by which God enters directly into the being of fallen men and women. Abelard’s disciple Schleiermacher may have been motivated by a lack of engagement with the living God, but do his theories actually prevent such an engagement ever taking place? Rather, penal substitution provides an economic foundation for the “higher dignity”[30] of Christ to be delivered to believers. The cross becomes the tree of Pseudo-Hippolytus that:

“By its peak which touches the height of the heavens, by its base which supports the earth, and by its immense arms subduing the many spirits of the air on every side, it exists in its totality in every thing and in every place.”[31]

The atoner himself, being not just the one “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” but also he who “has bourne our infirmities and carried our diseases”[32], becomes a point of divine connection with every single saved human being, in the entirety of both his divine perfection and the taking upon himself of every aspect of fallen human imperfection. If all the actual, infinite manifestations of humanity exist embodied in one man during 3 dark hours on a cross, does this allows God to be present in all possible senses at and within those very same manifestations throughout the entirety of history?

Such an engagement with the entirety of human existence makes possible the “appropriation of holines”[33] by believers, for the crucified God already exists at every point in history, not simply as an observer but as a living, indeed dying part of it. It is not therefore the incarnation per se that connects God with humanity, it is specifically the cross that is the moment of union. I would move beyond Athanasius’ true statement that:

“the incorruptible Son of God, being united with all humanity by likeness to them, naturally clothed all humanity with incorruption”[34]

to emphasise that the atonement is the actual point of that bond. The atonement is not simply about redemption, it is about sanctification and the one cannot be separated from the other

O dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too

Robin Mark and Jennifer Atkinson write:

“Jesus, Jesus, All for Jesus
All I am, and have, and ever hope to be”[35]

Two simple lines that describe not just the surrender of the believer to the sovereignty of God but also of Christ to the wrath of God upon sinners.

Stott very clearly shows that the atonement has consequences for our lives as Christians[36] but the eternal dynamic of Calvary is more than a response in those justified. The cross allows us to continually draw near to the Father[37], to be considered sanctified. As the torn veil of the Holy of Holies is the broken flesh of Christ[38], Christians are placed permanently in the presence of God Almighty. Economic doctrines of the atonement not only explain the mechanics of the transition between the outer courts and the final destination, but also provide a crucial and necessary foundation for the life within that terminus. Furthermore, the one cannot be separated from the other, for to speak of the atonement is not only to speak of Christ’s death on the cross but also to speak of his presence at every point in the life of the believer. The atonement is not simply a doctrine of the economy of a one off event in time; it is a doctrine of the ever-present existence of Christ in every Christian. If Christ deifies believers, it is because the immortal eternal Divinity exists at every single point in the life of the deified.


Jenkins, Gary; In My Place – The Spirituality of Substitution; Grove (1999)

McGrath, Alister, Christian Theology, An Introduction (2nd Ed); Blackwell (1997)

McGrath, Alister; The Christian Theology Reader (2nd Ed); Blackwell (2001)

Morris, Leon; The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (3rd Ed); IVP (1976)

Payne, Leanne; The Healing Presence; Baker (1995)

Stott, John; The Cross of Christ; IVP (1986)

White, James R; The God who Justifies; Bethany House (2001)

2 Comments on “The Atonement – “There was no other good enough”

  1. If your assumption is true then explain why the residual "When he comes he will convict the world (populous of mankind) of guilt in regard to (a) sin." For if it were true that only the crucifixion of Jesus is the resolution there cannot be a residual, but there is.

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