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The Atonement of Jesus Christ

Timothy Copple

Note: It is a good idea to read first the Bible study on Genesis 1-3 on Creation before reading this one.

In the article on the creation and the fall, we saw how man was created in the image of God, and in the likeness of God. We looked at how this was lost due to man's sin, and the image of God in man was corrupted because it no longer showed the likeness of God, but the likeness of His creation. Consequently, the goal of God in our redemption is the restoration of this oneness with God, to have the likeness of God, His energies enlivening us once again as it did Adam and Eve, and to correct the corruption of His creation.

This redemption and reuniting of man with God is why Jesus Christ came to earth, why He was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, why He went to the cross and died, and was resurrected on the third day. The atonement centers around what Christ was accomplishing on the cross specifically, but the rest ties into it as well since it is one whole picture. However, one of the stumbling blocks has always been why Jesus had to die to accomplish our salvation. Why was this necessary in order to restore us to union with God as we just stated.

It should be noted here that it is significant as to what is being atoned for. The above is the reality as it has been handed down to us in the Scriptures and the teaching of the Church. However, in other traditions which attempt an explanation of this, the problem is not a lack of union with God that is being fixed, but something that God needs to extract from us which we don't have and so all we have left to give is our lives, to die. Instead of being in death because of losing the likeness, we are in death because we have a need to pay God the Father back. The goal of atonement makes a big difference in the understanding of how Jesus Christ brought this about on the cross.

Bishop Kallistos Ware, in his little book, "How are we Saved," list 5 theories of the atonement. One of these, "The teacher," is not seriously considered by anyone to be complete even if there elements of it that are true, so we will not look at that one. His last one, is what I would call the reality of the atonement's goal, our union with God. It is that which in Orthodoxy is salvation. So we are left with three other theories of the atonement: 1. Redemption, 2. Sacrifice/Substitution and 3. Satisfaction. We will take a brief look at these three and how they fit into an Orthodox understanding.


In Rom. 6 we get a picture that we are slaves to sin, which is death. We are able to overcome this bondage by uniting ourselves to Christ in baptism. Because of this we are freed from bondage and death, "For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, certainly also we shall be of the resurrection." (Rom. 6:5)

There are two way of redeeming something, either by buying it back, or by defeating the one who holds it. Rom. 6:6 indicates which of these Christ accomplished on the cross: ". . . knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be rendered inactive." We also see this same concept in the Old Testament examples of redemption, most obviously in how God redeemed Israel Egypt. He didn't come in and buy them back from Pharaoh, God forcefully took them from him. They were freed from bondage by force.

It is this understanding that we have reflected in our Paschal troparia, that Christ defeated death by death and on those in the tombs bestowed life. It was a defeat of Satan who held us bound to death with our sins. Christ invades our world and takes back what is His. St. Ireneus shows that this was the view of the early Church:

For if man, who had been created by God that he might live, after losing life, through being injured by the serpent that had corrupted him, should not any more return to life, but should be utterly [and for ever] abandoned to death, God would [in that case] have been conquered, and the wickedness of the serpent would have prevailed over the will of God. But inasmuch as God is invincible and long-suffering, He did indeed show Himself to be long-suffering in the matter of the correction of man and the probation of all, as I have already observed; and by means of the second man did He bind the strong man, and spoiled his goods, and abolished death, vivifying that man who had been in a state of death. For at the first Adam became a vessel in his (Satan's) possession, whom he did also hold under his power, that is, by bringing sin on him iniquitously, and under color of immortality entailing death upon him. For, while promising that they should be as gods, which was in no way possible for him to be, he wrought death in them: wherefore he who had led man captive, was justly captured in his turn by God; but man, who had been led captive, was loosed from the bonds of condemnation.

St. Ireneus, "Against the Heresies," Book 3, Chp. 23.

In this understanding, Christ defeats death in us with His life, uniting us to Him, and overcoming Satan and death with His Life.

2. Sacrificial/Substitution

Here, the "what" of atonement makes a big difference. Christ is considered the reality which the Old Testament sacrifices point to. Christ did take our place in death and defeat it, and thus He did substitute Himself in our place who were to die. The whole sacrificial nature of Christ's death is clearly portrayed in Hebrews 9 and 10: "But He, having offered one sacrifice for sins in perpetuity, sat down on the right of God." (Heb. 10:12). St. Peter also indicates this, "knowing that ye were not ransomed with corruptible things, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot." (1 Pet 1:18-19)

From the liturgical material of the Church, we understand that the one Old Testament sacrifice which points to the nature of Christ's purpose on the cross is the Passover Lamb. The central celebration of Christ's resurrection is called "Pascha" which is the transliteration of the Greek word for "Passover." It was this sacrifice, the central sacrifice by which the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt, that illustrates how Christ with His sacrifice redeems us from the bondage of Satan and death. Death passes over those who have eaten Him and as St. John Chrysostom so graphically says, smeared His blood on the doorpost of our mouth. Our liturgical material on Pascha speaks frequently of Christ being the "New Pascha," in that we have been brought from death to life.

To that end, all the sacrifices in the OT point even if they were for other purposes. They also all were icons pointing to Christ's sacrifice on the cross, where His body was broken and His blood was poured out that as St. John says in John 6, we might eat His flesh and drink His blood. In His flesh and blood is true life. To eat, He must be sacrificed and Satan is defeated.

3. Satisfaction

The above reality that we have described to this point has been described with several different analogies by the Fathers. Taken together, they can give us a complete picture. The problem has arisen because some have taken one analogy and attempted to make that describe the whole of atonement. However, because it can only point to certain truths about the atonement, any attempt to do this will inevitably result in false conclusions both about God and what needed to be fixed for us to be "saved."

This is essentially what Anselm did, who is known as the father of satisfaction understanding of the atonement. His goal was to be able to explain to the heathen in a logical fashion why Christ had to die for our sins, without using the Bible or the Fathers. Doesn't mean he wasn't trying to stay within them, but because of his methodology he does drift away substantially on some points. It is known as the satisfaction theory because it indicates a need to satisfy a lack that keeps us from salvation.

Essentially, he took the concept of debt that we owe to God and made that into the whole of the atonement. We do see the debt understanding even in the Bible, as the servant who owed his master a lifetime plus of wages. Athanasius speaks of our debt we owe as well, but not as Anselm ended up using it. Because of sin, we owed God a debt due to our violation of His honor. This honor has to be repaid somehow due to the nature of God. Man can't pay it, only God can pay it, so God becomes man to not only pay what His due is to the Father through perfect obedience, but goes beyond that to give what He didn't have to give, His life. Since He didn't need this "merit," we can obtain that merit for paying our debt to God off. The sacraments then become a means of distributing these merits, as well as other good works. This is basically the Roman Catholic understanding.

The two major problems with this understanding are these: 1. God's forgiveness is not dependant upon repaying a debt, and 2. The debt we owe is not to the Father. All we have to do to know that the first is not true is look in the Scriptures. All through the Old Testament, before Christ's sacrifice, God is considered merciful, slow to anger, forgiving all who come to Him. He is ready to cast our sins as far as the east is from the west. The only requirement for forgiveness offered in 2 Chron. 7:14 is "if my people who are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray, and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways." Nothing is mentioned about atoning for a past debt before forgiveness of sins can happen. Rather, God simply says: ". . . then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land." In the New Testament we have the parable mentioned earlier, where the servant who owes his master more money than he could ever hope to repay is forgiven his entire debt without expectation of repaying it. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, likewise the father takes the son back, not asking that he restore the wealth he lost in sinful living.

Concerning the second, we see as we have already noted that death is what is being defeated, Satan is the one who we are in bondage to, not God. By placing God as the one who is unwilling to forgive us our debt, it is He who we are in bondage to death with, not Satan. This is attested to by the Fathers:

But since it was necessary also that the debt owing from all should be paid again: for, as I have already said , it was owing that all should die.

(St. Athanasius, "Incarnation of the Word," Chp. 20)

. . . he means that the devil held possession of it, the bond which God made for Adam, saying, "In the day thou eatest of the tree, thou shalt die." (Genesis 2:17.) This bond then the devil held in his possession. And Christ did not give it to us, but Himself tore it in two, the action of one who remits joyfully.

(St. John Chrysostom, 6th homily on Colossians)

There is a third key change in Anselm's view that makes a major shift from the view of the Early Church, indicated in the previous quote, and that is what is being atoned for. In the first understanding it was the broken relationship with God, the Lack of His life giving energies, lack of a union with. In Anselm's view, it is the debt of broken honor with God that is the problem to solve and fix. The whole goal of Christ's death and resurrection has moved from redeeming us from death and Satan by defeating Him, to paying back God for the honor due Him that we cannot pay ourselves. This was arrived at by deductive logic on Anselm's part by making what should have been analogical the reality.

The Reformers modified this a bit, but used the same principles as Anselm, and thus it has the same problems. Instead of using the debt analogy, a juridical analogy replaced it. Instead of a debt of God's honor, it is breaking God's Law. Instead of owing a debt, we are guilty of Law breaking. Instead of Christ dying to satisfy God's honor, He dies to satisfy God's justice. Instead of salvation being the fulfilling of the debt, it becomes the declaring innocent of the guilty due to Christ taking our punishment.

Still, God is the one with a problem in that He cannot forgive us outright, but He must punish someone to satisfy His justice. Christ is the only one who can take it and not be defeated by it, and so He becomes man in order to take our place. Salvation is still understood in terms of something other than a relational oneness in Christ; a clearing of us from a legal problem. It still contradicts the Bible which shows God the Father as forgiving many without needing to punish someone for it. It is still based on premises about salvation and the Father that are not evident in the Early Church or Scriptures.

Missing from the satisfaction theory are the points we derive from another analogy used by the Fathers and the Scriptures, that of healing. Actually, the Greek word used for salvation is the same word translated as "heal." Context and theology determines the translation choice. It basically is a word that means wholeness or completeness. For Orthodoxy it indicates the fullness of how we were created. We are sick, and need healing because of the corruption we are subject to. In this picture, there is no owing or guilt directly involved, though it is in the background of how we got here. Rather, there is a healing of our souls going on. The analogy of debt and justice totally miss this whole context which is much frequently used in the Fathers. Even the Eucharist is referred to as the "medicine of immortality." That is why to get a complete picture, we need to keep all the analogies before us.

These are given us not only to understand what is salvation and how Christ chose to accomplish that in Orthodox theology, but also to show the basis for the view that many of us had as converts from Protestantism. We can see not only why Protestants understand things the way they do in relation to salvation, buy why Orthodox understanding is different. It is relational with God, not legal or financial in nature. That changes the whole perspective in how we approach salvation. It is not a one time deal, a declaring "not guilty," but a continuing relationship with God. It is not a matter of works or faith, but a obedience to God of love which draws us closer to Him. It is not a matter of paying back something in full to God like a transaction, but a journey with Him into wholeness as we were originally created. It is the journey that saves us as we follow Him, taking His yoke upon us, carrying the cross we have been given. So we with repentance and humility work to become more in union with Him as the Church guides us.

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