Towards a better model of the atonement

Theologians have studied the atonement for centuries, indeed for nearly two millennia, and have put forward a number of different models of it, all or at least most of which are helpful to some extent, but none of which is a complete and adequate description of how God in Jesus dealt with the problem of human sin.

So it would be presumptuous of me to put forward anything as a new model of the atonement. More probably what I am saying here is the same as or very similar to what someone else has put forward before. But I am not consciously dependent on anyone else here. And I think the model I am presenting here, while certainly not more complete and adequate than any other model, may help us all to understand the atonement better.

I originally wrote the what follows as a comment on Adrian Warnock’s helpful post on John Stott’s view of the atonement. In a previous comment Stephen Dunning had asked:

If Christ is not punished for my sin, my sin remains unpunished and I remain unforgiven, surely?

Here is my reply to Stephen:

Why? If your own son does something wrong, you can choose to punish him, or you can choose to forgive him. This is your choice as a free agent. In fact the two are mutually exclusive: if you punish him, you don’t forgive him. If you punish someone else instead, you are not forgiving, but simply being unjust. Why do different rules apply to God? Surely he is even more of a free agent than you are.

Now suppose your son does something wrong and breaks something which he is unable to repair. You can punish him, or you can choose to forgive him. But in either case the broken thing still needs repairing. Suppose you ask your friend to repair it and he does so voluntarily. Great! But that doesn’t mean that you are punishing your friend for your son’s wrongdoing.

Now this suggests the following model of the atonement which I am sure is oversimplified, but it seems to me a more helpful one than penal substitutionary atonement:

We humans sin and as a result our fellowship with God is broken. Nothing that we can do can restore this fellowship. God could punish us for our sin. But he chooses not to punish those who repent and believe, but to forgive them. However, this does not fix the problem of our broken fellowship with God. We cannot fix this problem. But in some way which we cannot understand, the eternal Son of God was able to fix it, and when the Father asked him he voluntarily agreed to do what was necessary. By becoming a man, dying on the cross, and rising again, he was able to restore the fellowship between God and humans.

But in this scenario we cannot say that God punished Jesus.

0 thoughts on “Towards a better model of the atonement

  1. Peter,

    It seems that just punishment is a simple visitation of the consequences of one’s actions upon himself. Just because that person is forgiven does not mean that he consequences no longer exist. If your child breaks a lamp, he must pay for that lamp. But if you forgive him, you must pay for that lamp. Either way, payment is simply a [necessary, I believe,] part of justice.

    Isn’t this why true forgiveness is so hard? It doesn’t just mean skipping over problem and ignoring it, but the forgiver must take that problem onto himself. In the case of Jesus, the problem of evil, of death was taken onto him, onto YHWH restoring and reconciling his people to himself.

    These are just some thoughts I’ve had recently why listening to some conversations on the atonement. What do you think? Am I making any sense? Or am I missing the point of your post?

  2. Nick, your comment makes a lot of sense. If things are broken, such as our fellowship with God, the break cannot simply be overlooked but must be repaired, and this is costly.

    But here we need to distinguish between punishment and compensation. If someone is convicted in a court of criminal damage, they are both punished for the crime and required to pay compensation for the damage. I can accept that Jesus paid the compensation for the damage caused by our sinful actions. After all, someone had to pay it, and we could not. But that is quite different from saying that Jesus was punished for our sins. Much theology, and some translations of Isaiah 53 and other Bible passages, confuse these distinct matters. And there is no logical reason why a sovereign God could not simply remit the punishment.

    See also the post I am working on on Maltese theology.

  3. Since you are fishing for new atonement models, as if all fish might be alike, try this one.
    The crucifixion of Jesus has perfected the only possible Way to come to God individually by trust and obedience. The only Way the Acts 2:38 command can be obeyed is by the faith to repent of the one sin of Jesus’ murder to be forgiven of ALL sins. This is the only small narrow door that will allow an individual to apporach God. It needs to be understood that since God demands an accounting whenever a male human’s life is taken by bloodshed Jesus’ crucifixion is not a resolution. I think that a person has made himself very conspicious by any confession to God that he is glad Jesus died in his place but it is more likely that God might accept an apology if you mean it. But if you refuse, it is a disobedience of Acts 2:38 and Gen. 9:5b NIV.
    Theodore A. Jones

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