The Atonement of Christ


The Atonement of Christ

by Art Sippo

The issue concerning the Catholic and traditional Protestant attitudes to the atonement is a very good one. There is actually a lot of diversity in both the Catholic and Protestant camps on this subject, so I do not want to treat the topic simplistically. However, there are some broad principles of difference which I think will help to show the differences between the Catholic and Protestant views. Catholicism sees the atonement as an act of God’s love for Man. He loved us “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8). Love needs to be understood in the classical sense of “willing the good of the other for the sake of the other.” This is not an emotional response, but a volition one.

I think Ezekiel says it best:

Eze 18:23 Have    I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD,and not rather that he should turn from his way    and live?Eze 33:11 Say to them,    As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure inthe death of the wicked, but that the wicked    turn from his way and live…

Eze 11:19 And    I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit    withinyou; and I will take    the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give theman heart of flesh:Eze 36:26 A new heart also will I give you, and    a new spirit will I putwithin you: and I will    take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and Iwill give you an heart of flesh.

In other words, the love of God for man is not merely an act of God’s omnipotent sovereign will, but, more importantly, an act of His willed generosity, beneficence, unselfishness, and transforming goodness. He wills us to be good and the atonement makes us so. Properly speaking then, by His Incarnation, Jesus comes into solidarity with mankind and does for us what we could not do for ourselves. St. Anselm developed this brilliantly in his book Cur Deus Homo? (“Why God Become Man?). He showed that the offense of human sin against the infinite glory and goodness of God results in an infinite debt of honor that cannot be paid by mere mortal man. Only a divine being could make sufficient amends for such a horrible offense. Merely forgiving humanity would not have been enough because mankind was fallen and mired in the thrall of sinfulness. Men needed to be not only forgiven but regenerated. It was therefore necessary (in St. Anselm’s view) that Man be reconciled to God by the work of a redeemer who was both divine and human. Such a redeemer could merit infinite forgiveness before God on behalf of his fellow human beings. Furthermore, he would also obtain for them a sharing in the divine life of the Trinity such that all men would become Sons of God and partakers of the divine nature. Thus, they would be saved from sin itself, not merely from the consequences of past sins. This was not merely an act of kindness on Jesus’ part over and against the anger of his Father. It was what God himself willed. Remember what St. John wrote:

1Jo 4:8 He who    does not love does not know God; for God is love.1Jo 4:9 In this the love of God was made    manifest among us, that God senthis only Son into the world, so that we might    live through him.1Jo 4:10 In this is    love, not that we loved God but that he loved us andsent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.1Jo 4:14 And we have seen and testify that the    Father has sent his Son as     the Savior    of the world.1Jo 4:15 Whoever    confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him,and he in God.     1Jo 4:16    So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love,    and hewho abides in love    abides in God, and God abides in him.

Jhn 3:16 For    God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that    whoeverbelieves in him should    not perish but have eternal life.Jhn 3:17 For God sent the Son into the world,    not to condemn the world, butthat the world might be saved through him.

God was not so angry with the world that He had to beat up on someone (i.e., Jesus). Rather, He loved it so much that He sent His Son to save it. This work made forgiveness possible so that he could “remember our sins no more.”  Jesus saved us from the punishments of sin and death not by being punished in our place by acting on our behalf. Jesus did the will of the Father even to the point of immolation by evil and jealous men at the behest of demonic powers. He persevered as a perfectly good man even in the face of temptation, torture, and death without loosing ‘faith’ in God or the resolve to “do the will of the Father.”

I put ‘faith’ in quotations because technically Jesus did not have faith as you and I do. He had direct knowledge of God — the beatific vision — and so did not require “confident assurance of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Jesus saw God directly even in his human mind and had access to all knowledge through his divine nature. This absolutely certain knowledge functioned in Christ just like the virtue of faith does in all other men. Christ was man perfected. When we go to heaven, we too will have this type of knowledge. While on Earth, though we have only partial knowledge of the things of God , which lacks full epistemological certainty. Thus St. Paul says:

1Cor 13:12 For    now we see through a mirror, dimly; but then [we shall see]    face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even    as also I am known.

In Christ Jesus, God himself bore the responsibility for the evil which had come to exist in the world that He had created. God pledged to set things straight “cross My heart and hope to die.” For this reason, we Christians have no philosophical ‘problem of evil.’ It is not just we who suffer for the sake of evil, but God himself. We who gather under the cross do so in the faith that God will settle all accounts, make the crooked path straight, make the rough road smooth, vindicate the good, and punish the wicked. The death of His Son is His pledge to us that it shall be so. When Christ hung on the cross, His suffering was the consequence of all human sinfulness: past, present and future. He bore our sins for us and suffered for them. What he suffered was not the punishment due for our sins. That would have required eternal damnation. Rather, He accepted responsibility for human sins as the God who created our world, the first born of all creation, and the New Adam of a regenerate race. He took our sins upon himself, nailed them to a tree and they died with him:

Col 2:14    Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against    us,which was contrary to    us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to hiscross;

Christ’s resurrection was His literal transformation from death to life. By His perseverance in love both of the Father and of his fellow men, Jesus had gained victory over the wages of sin (i.e., death) and risen to a new ETERNAL life that sin could no longer destroy. St. Paul teaches:

Rom 6:1 What    shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace mayabound?Rom 6:2 By no means!    How can we who died to sin still live in it?Rom 6:3 Do you not know that all of us who have    been baptized into ChristJesus were baptized    into his death?Rom 6:4 We were buried    therefore with him by baptism into death, so that asChrist was raised from the dead by the glory of    the Father, we too mightwalk in newness of    life.Rom 6:5 For if we have    been united with him in a death like his, we shallcertainly be united with him in a resurrection    like his.Rom 6:6 We know that    our old self was crucified with him so that the sinfulbody might be destroyed, and we might no longer    be enslaved to sin.Rom 6:7 For he who has    died is freed from sin.Rom 6:8 But if we have    died with Christ, we believe that we shall also livewith him.Rom 6:9 For we know    that Christ being raised from the dead will never dieagain; death no longer has dominion over him.Rom 6:10 The death he died he died to sin, once    for all, but the life helives he lives to God.Rom 6:11 So you also must consider yourselves    dead to sin and alive to Godin Christ Jesus.Rom 6:12 Let not sin therefore reign in your    mortal bodies, to make you obeytheir passions.Rom 6:13 Do not yield your members to sin as    instruments of wickedness, butyield yourselves to God as men who have been    brought from death to life, andyour members to God as instruments of    righteousness.Rom 6:14 For sin will    have no dominion over you, since you are not under lawbut under grace.

When we are baptized, we are put into union with Christ and with his new life so that we ARE no longer under the power of sin. By baptism we are regenerated and become “Christ-like” as St. Paul teaches in Galatians: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Since Jesus acted on our behalf, he was our “vicar”, our representative. Hence, His substitution was vicarious. As St. Paul wrote:

2Cr 5:17    Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the    oldhas passed away,    behold, the new has come.2Cr 5:18 All this is    from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himselfand gave us the ministry of reconciliation;2Cr 5:19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling    the world to himself, notcounting their    trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message ofreconciliation.2Cr 5:20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, God    making his appeal through us.We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be    reconciled to God.2Cr 5:21 For our sake    he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in himwe might become the righteousness of God.

In the classical Protestant system (especially that of Calvin), the wrath of God against sin put mankind at total enmity with God.

Read Jonathan Edwards’ classic sermon Sinner in the Hands of an Angry God to see how Protestantism in general and Calvinism in particular depicted Mankind in the eyes of God. Note these references:

“…So    that, thus it is that natural men are held in the hand of    God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit,    and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully    provoked, his anger is as great towards them as to those that    are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of    his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to    appease or abate that anger, neither is God in the least    bound by any promise to hold them up one moment; the devil is    waiting for them, hell is gaping for them, the flames gather    and flash about them, and would fain lay hold on them, and    swallow them up; the fire pent up in their own hearts is    struggling to break out: and they have no interest in any    Mediator, there are no means within reach that can be any    security to them. In short, they have no refuge, nothing to    take hold of, all that preserves them every moment is the    mere arbitrary will, and uncovenanted, unobliged forbearance    of an incensed God…”    

“…The    God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a    spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you,    and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like    fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be    cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have    you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable    in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in    ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a    stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his    hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.    It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to    hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in    this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is    no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into    hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has    held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you    have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house    of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner    of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else    that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very    moment drop down into hell…”

This is an extreme view of human nature as totally depraved and, in light of what Ezekiel said, I would further submit that it is unbiblical. But this is consistent with what Luther and Calvin said.

In this viewpoint, God’s anger and revulsion towards man cannot merely be appeased. He must “spend” his anger by punishing someone. Justice must be done. Someone must be punished for the sins of men. That is where Jesus came in. In a perverted parody of the Anselmian thesis, Jesus did not bear responsibility for our sins and make satisfaction for them. Instead, He was punished BY GOD for the sins of man as a substitution for us. Consequently, sin itself was not destroyed on the Cross. Only the CONSEQUENCE of sin was. Sin still remains in us. That is why the Protestant notion of justification talks about the forensic imputation of an external, alien righteousness. Under the Protestant rubric, justification does not make us righteous.

Jesus’ work consisted in substituting himself for us on the cross: “paying our fine”, “suffering our punishment”, or “serving our sentence.” It was merely a legal technicality by which punishment was meted out to Jesus without any transformation occurring in the guilty human as a result. This was a penal substitution with the penalty for our sins being imposed on Jesus and not upon us. After the Cross, Christ sent the Holy Spirit to assist Men in becoming righteous by a gradual process of sanctification. Conceptually, these are 2 separate and distinct activities. By contrast, Catholicism sees justification and sanctification as integrated together as part of a single process.

The Catholic scheme I gave above is my own. There are other schemes proposed by Catholics, but they are similar to mine in their concern for the love of God as the real motive behind the atonement. For a good general Catholic overview, the best book is What is Redemption? by Philippe De La Trinite. It is out of print but you can get it from on-line used book services (e.g., or by interlibrary loan through the Public Library.

Art Sippo

The Catholic Legate

February 25, 2004

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