Christ’s Atonement, what is it?                                                                            By Jack Kettler


The Scriptures:


“For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.” (Romans 5:10-11)


“And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)


Reformed theology’s doctrine of the atonement emphasizes certain aspects of Christ’s work on the cross and its implications for salvation, in which humanity is viewed as fallen and sinful, deserving of God’s judgment, and unable to save itself.


Christ’s atonement centers on the idea of penal substitutionary atonement, and teaches that:


1.      God’s Justice: God’s justice demands that sin be punished. In the Reformed view, Christ’s sacrificial death satisfies this demand for justice, allowing God to forgive sinners without compromising His righteousness.

2.      Penal Atonement: Jesus Christ, through His death on the cross, bore the penalty of sin on behalf of believers. This penalty includes both the punishment due to sin (the divine wrath and justice) and the moral guilt associated with sin.

3.      Substitutionary Atonement: Christ acted as a substitute for sinners, taking their place and bearing the consequences of sin so that believers might be reconciled to God.

4.      Propitiatory Sacrifice: To propitiate means to “appease” or to “placate.” Jesus gave his life as a propitiatory sacrifice, thus, appeasing or satisfying God's wrath.

5.      Redemption and Justification: Through Christ’s atoning work, believers are redeemed from sin and its consequences. They are justified before God, declared righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness imputed to them.


Other inadequate or false views of the atonement:


1.      The Moral Influence Theory of Christ's atonement posits that the primary purpose and result of Christ's death was to influence mankind toward moral improvement. This view emphasizes the love of God as demonstrated by Christ's life and sacrifice, rather than focusing on the satisfaction of divine justice or the payment of a debt owed to God or the Devil. Proponents of this theory believe that Christ's death serves as an ultimate example of love, inspiring and teaching people to live a life of faith and obedience.                         

2.      The Christus Victor theory of Christ's atonement, is a perspective on the Christian understanding of salvation. It emphasizes Christ's victory over the powers of darkness, sin, and death, as opposed to a focus on the legal or transactional aspects of atonement that other theories might stress. His death is not seen as a payment to God or the Devil, but as a strategic move to defeat the forces of darkness and to demonstrate God's love and power. Christ's resurrection is then the ultimate victory, demonstrating that death and sin have been conquered once and for all.

3.      The Governmental Theory of Christ's atonement, also known as the rectoral theory or the moral government theory, is a doctrine in Christian theology that proposes Christ's suffering and death served as a demonstration of God's justice and mercy, rather than a direct substitution for the punishment of individual sinners. It emphasizes the role of Christ's sacrifice in upholding God's moral order and governance of the world. According to this theory, Christ's death was not a literal payment for the penalty of sin, but rather a symbolic act that showed the seriousness of sin and God's commitment to justice. It was a way for God to demonstrate his moral standards and maintain his moral government of the universe without having to punish every sinner directly.

4.      The Recapitulation Theory of Christ's atonement, emphasizes the idea that Christ's life and work reversed the disobedience and sin initiated by Adam, thus restoring humanity to obedience. This theory suggests that Christ recapitulated, or relived, the stages of human life, from infancy to adulthood, and in doing so, corrected the course of humanity from disobedience to obedience. In essence, the Recapitulation Theory views Christ's life and death as a comprehensive restoration of humanity, undoing the effects of Adam's original sin. It is rooted in the understanding of Christ as the “new Adam,” who, through his obedience, counteracts the disobedience of the first Adam.


While having elements of truth, these other speculative theories highlight the unique importance and theological standpoints of Reformed theology’s doctrine of atonement, particularly its focus on penal substitutionary atonement as the central mechanism for dealing with sin and reconciling humanity to God.


To receive the benefits of Christ's atonement, one must follow the teachings laid out in the New Testament:


1.      Repent and Come unto Christ: This involves recognizing one's sins and committing to turn away from them. It requires faith in Jesus Christ and a desire to follow his teachings and example.

2.      Accept Christ as Your Savior: By accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and Redeemer, you acknowledge that it is through his grace and mercy, made possible by the atonement, that you can be forgiven of your sins and reconciled to God.


The atonement is a gift from God.


In Conclusion, the Westminster Confession of Faith explains atonement this way:


“iii. Christ, by his obedience and death, did fully discharge the debt of all those that are thus justified, and did make a proper, real, and full satisfaction to his Father's justice in their behalf.  Yet, inasmuch as he was given by the Father for them; and his obedience and satisfaction accepted in their stead; and both, freely, not for anything in them; their justification is only of free grace; that both the exact justice and rich grace might be glorified in the justification of sinners.”

“V. The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him.” (WCF 11.3, 5)


The Confession teaches that Christ alone is a sufficient Savior, and to suggest that something more is required beyond Him would be blasphemous. It highlights the principle that the life of a creature is in the blood, and it is through the shedding of Christ's blood that atonement is made for one's life. This theological framework emphasizes the centrality of Christ's sacrifice in achieving salvation and reconciliation with God


“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

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Mr. Kettler, a respected author and theologian, has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife, Marea, are active members of the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler's extensive work includes 18 books defending the Reformed Faith, which are available for order online at Amazon.