Sermon Details
Home Sermons Faithfully – Atonement

Faithfully – Atonement

Date: 03/09/2023/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Faithfully: Atonement

Philippians 2:1-11

3 September 2023

As Miak mentioned previously, in this sermon series, we wanted to tackle some “doctrines” of Christianity so that we have a deeper understanding of how they came about, and explore where we go from there.

“Theology is faith seeking understanding of God.”

We believe theology has as much to do with knowledge about God as it is with our relationship with God.

In some ways through this series, we are hoping to present you with the kind of knowledge that you might encounter in seminary but in a more condensed and approachable way. Our hope is not just to challenge your mind but to encourage an expansion of your faith, and ultimately our prayer is that you may grow deeper in your relationship with God.     

This Sunday, we will be exploring the theology of atonement together. Atonement is at the center of Christianity and one of the most important ideas in the Christian faith. So how we understand atonement directly impacts how we understand who God is and our relationship with God.

Question 1 (Open)

What does atonement mean to you?

Atonement is at the center of our Christian faith. Historically, it is also one of the most broadly defined. The only shared, agreed-upon, consistent aspect of atonement the Church has ever held to is this: that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are made at-one with God. That is what atonement actually means. And importantly, that is all that atonement means:


How we are made at one with God through the cross is one of the main debates and exchanges of ideas in theology. Christian faith is all about how we are made at one with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is important to get right because it forms the foundation of our faith.

Before we proceed, I want begin by sharing this quote with you:

“Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about humanity. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God—and about ourselves—and about where goodness and evil really lie.” – Richard Rohr

I just want you to keep this in mind as we go along and explore some of the atonement theories across the ages.

I say “theories of atonement” because there was no one doctrine around atonement that lasted throughout church history. In fact, theologians were constantly debating and coming up with theories about how we are made at-one with God through Jesus Christ.

7 Atonement Theories from Church History

Peter Watts

I am drawing some of the information from this site because I think Peter Watts explains the background and theories quite clearly and simply. But don’t worry, I won’t be going through all 7 because I want to keep things succinct. So I’ll be covering a few and focusing primarily on the one most familiar to all of us.

For the last two thousand years, Christians have agreed that Jesus Christ died on a cross for sin. What Christians have not always agreed on are the details of how this works out spiritually, practically and theologically. In particular, they have argued and debated over how Jesus’ death has atoned sin.

  1. Ransom theory

One view that was popular quite early on in church history was the ransom theory. In the ransom theory, adherents believed that a debt was owed to Satan due to humankind’s sin. It was implied that because Adam and Eve sinned when they ate the forbidden fruit, they had sold themselves to Satan. So God had to use Jesus as a bargaining chip to get us back. This theory didn’t last long historically because does God really need to negotiate with the devil? And using Jesus as a bargaining chip?

  1. Christus Victor Theory

In the Christus Victor (Christ the Victor) theory of atonement, Jesus’ death was a confrontation with and victory over three big powers: the power of sin, the power of death and the power of the devil. It was not, as with the traditional understanding of the ransom theory—a payment to the devil—but rather a confrontation with and victory over the devil.

And because Jesus was raised from the dead, the benefits of Jesus’ victory and accomplishment over the powers resulted in every human having access to freedom from the power of the devil, sin and death.

  1. Satisfaction theory

In an attempt to offer a critique to the traditional ransom theory and improve upon it, church theologian, Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD/CE) created the satisfaction theory of atonement.

Anselm’s biggest critique against the commonly held ransom view was that he saw problems with any suggestion that humankind owed some of kind of debt to Satan. For Anselm, rather than a debt owed to Satan, he believed we owed God something. The debt we owed, he believed, was honor to God.

Understanding his historical context may prove helpful. Anselm lived in the time of Medieval European feudalism, where honor to one’s earthly master or lord was part of the fabric of the economic hierarchy of classes. From this vantage point, Anselm’s atonement theory emerged.

Humanity owed God honor. When human beings dishonored God, they sinned against God. Their sin robbed or took away from the honor due to God. Due to God’s holiness, God can’t ignore human sin. But since only God could truly satisfy his own honor, only God could fix the problem and restore that honor to God’s self. However, for God’s action to apply to human beings, God had to become human. The death of Jesus (the God-human) on a cross, then, restored honor back to God. Not only this, but Jesus’ death brought God the Father infinite satisfaction, over and above what anyone could ever do.

  1. Moral Example Theory

In the moral example (or moral influence) theory, the goal of Jesus’ death was to “influence humankind toward “moral improvement.” Instead of satisfying God’s justice or honor, Jesus’ death “was designed to greatly impress humankind with a sense of God’s love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance.”

Peter Abelard developed this view as a response to Anselm’s satisfaction theory. In contrast to Anselm who believed the critical issue at hand with the atonement was God’s honor, Abelard focused instead on God’s love—in particular, that God had demonstrated God’s love for humanity through the death of Jesus to influence us toward a better way of living.

  1. Penal-Substitution Theory

Four hundred years later after Anselm’s theory of satisfaction was developed, the Protestant Reformers, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, developed the idea of the penal-substitution theory of atonement. The idea is that Jesus, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished in the place of humans, thus satisfying the “demands of justice” so that God could forgive our sins.

Unlike the satisfaction theory, God’s honor was not the critical issue in the penal-substitution theory; the primary concern was God’s justice and holiness being upheld. Because of humanity’s sin, both the wrath of God (due to the breaking of God’s law) and the righteousness of God (due to our moral impurity that resulted from breaking God’s law) had to be satisfied.

And the only thing that could satisfy God’s wrath and righteousness, in this view, was the death of the perfect, holy God-human Jesus Christ. This is where the legal aspect comes into play. In contrast to the satisfaction view, Jesus’ death was not “repaying God for lost honor but paying the penalty of death.”

This penalty of death, the Protestant Reformers believed, included his actual physical death (satisfying the justice of God) but further meant “the bearing of human’s sins” on the cross. Both of which “set the believer free from the penal demands of the law.”

Considering the long span of church history, this viewpoint is relatively recent and draws heavily from the lens of a courtroom because the system of the judicial courts was introduced around the same time. But this was the theory that became the most popular and mainstream, at least today. And though this theory of atonement is the most well-known and accepted among Christians today, there are some serious issues with this theory.

Before I continue, I must admit that when I chose to preach on this subject today, I am doing so with hope but also fear and trepidation. I know that substitutionary atonement is central to many Christians’ faith. It was for me too. So I do understand because in my own church experience, that was the main concept that was presented around the cross. And that was all I knew until I went to seminary.

Even so, it took me some time to wrap my mind around the fact that substitutionary atonement is just one of the many theories regarding Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Because throughout my church life, it was always presented as THE main doctrine around what the cross means.

I share this with you because I want you to know that I have struggled and grappled with this as well. So please know that my objective is not to shake your faith just for the sake of it. I am sharing the different theories of atonement with you and presenting some of the pitfalls, simply because atonement is so central to our Christian faith.

How we understand atonement directly impacts how we understand God’s character and our relationship with God. So even though I took up this subject with a little trepidation, I am doing so with hope as well because I know how important this topic is to our spiritual lives and I want us to have the opportunity to ponder over it. You don’t have to change your minds. All I ask is for you to keep an open mind and allow the Spirit of God to guide you.

Remember atonement means at-one-ment.

Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are made at-one with God. That is the big picture.

Problems with the Penal-Substitution Theory:

Misrepresents God’s character and desires.

Firstly, this theory is saying that God cannot forgive unless there is a sacrifice. The problem is when we say “God cannot” it doesn’t matter what comes after that. We have now created a larger more powerful God that sits above God and gives God rules that God has to follow.

More importantly, God never even liked blood sacrifices! 

As David recognized in the book of Psalms:

“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.” Psalm 51:17

Here we see that, regardless of the sacrificial system prescribed by the Law of Moses, God took no delight or pleasure in sacrifices. God didn’t want them. 

“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6

The Penal Substitution metaphor of the atonement necessitates a blood sacrifice be offered to God– but only a sinless one would do, thus Jesus. However, when we look at Scripture, we see that God didn’t even like sacrifices to begin with– God took no pleasure in the system! To compound that, God also detested human sacrifice.

Furthermore, in the book of Matthew, we see Jesus confront the religious leaders and he tells them: “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13)

Thus, Jesus also affirmed that sacrifice was not something God desired.

Based on a medieval retributive notion of justice.

When we say God’s wrath cannot be appeased unless there is a blood sacrifice, we are actually implying that God the Father was petty, offended in the way that humans are, and unfree to love and forgive of God’s own volition. This is a very untrustworthy image of God.

“The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed…Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement: ‘God is love.’ If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetuated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil.” -Steve Chalke and Alan Mann

Salvation became a one-time transactional affair between Jesus and God, instead of an ongoing transformational lesson for the human soul and for all of history.

Richard Rohr says, “I believe Jesus’ death on the cross is a revelation of the infinite and participatory love of God, not some bloody payment required by God’s offended justice to rectify the problem of sin. Such a storyline is way too small and problem-oriented.”

Salvation is meant to be an ongoing transformational lesson for us, not a one-time transactional affair.

After grappling with the many theories of atonement, theologians realized:

Whatever was happening on the cross cannot be about changing God’s attitude towards us.

God is love always. The cross must be about changing something in us.

We need an alternative story of atonement that is aligned with the character of an all-loving, non-violent God who operates on the basis of love and a restorative notion of justice.

Scapegoat Theory/Mechanism – René Girard 

God has always been able to forgive. That was never the issue. God is God. But God has gifted humanity with certain rituals and practices so that we might know we are forgiven. Practices that hopefully, we would eventually be able to leave behind. As we saw earlier in Psalms, Hosea and Matthew, God does not desire sacrifice but mercy and acknowledgement of God.

Th problem is we– not God– have a tendency to need a scapegoat to bear the blame for our own sinfulness.

We are the ones who need to see the shedding of blood, not God.

Maybe God wanted to put an end to the entire system of law that demanded such a thing, and knew it would take a drastic scapegoat (in other words, the Lamb of God) for us to see how broken and unnecessary such a system was.

We humans tend to blame or scapegoat others rather than acknowledge our own weaknesses, imperfections and negativity. On the cross, we finally see our scapegoating for what it is. And we have nowhere to turn to justify this.

The cross didn’t change God’s mind about us. It opened our eyes to finally see God revealed in the self-giving love of Jesus. And it shows us all the ways we have mistreated, scapegoated, used our violence on others.

Theologian Jennifer Garcia Bashaw said:

“The Jesus who saved women from society’s shaming was himself publicly shamed, stripped naked, and despised. The Jesus who healed sick and disabled bodies became disabled himself, flesh pierced and torn, weakened and held captive by nails and his failing body. The Jesus who identified with the poor and taught his followers sacrifice suffers like the poor and oppressed as he dies the death reserved for the lowliest of criminals. The Jesus who changed outsiders into insiders was pushed to the very edges of humanity, ridiculed by strangers, dehumanized….

-Jennifer Garcia Bashaw, Scapegoats: The Gospel Through the Eyes of Victims

Jesus becomes the scapegoat to end all scapegoats, exposing the truth that could end human blame and violence once and for all. Because of Jesus, we no longer need to blame anyone.

Atonement is not just an idea but it helps shape us into people who live, look and act like Jesus. Does our trust in the at-one-ment make us more like the Jesus we follow? If your understanding of the cross doesn’t draw you to become more Jesus-like, then it’s time to think a little deeper about what you believe and why you believe that.

I want to go back to that quote I shared with you at the beginning:

“Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about humanity. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God—and about ourselves—and about where goodness and evil really lie.” – Richard Rohr

“What is revealed is our human inclination to kill others, in any multitude of ways, instead of dying to ourselves – to our own illusions, pretenses, narcissism, and self-defeating behaviors. Jesus dies “for” us not in the sense of “a substitute for us” but “in solidarity with” the suffering of all humanity since the beginning of time! The first is merely a heavenly transaction of sorts; the second is a transformation of our very soul and the trajectory of history.” -Richard Rohr

Philippians 2:1-11 (NRSVue)

If then there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

5 Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he existed in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    assuming human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a human,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God exalted him even more highly
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,

10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

This is the Jesus we love and follow. This is the Jesus who died on the cross for us.

“We Christ-followers, who claim that the life and teaching of Jesus lay at the center of our faith, have often aligned ourselves with the powers who scapegoat instead of the ones who champion and liberate society’s victims. This grievous betrayal is what truly makes us sinners in need of salvation. Jesus’ work on the cross, then, does not save us from God’s wrath or Satan’s control; it saves us from ourselves, freeing us from our enslavement to scapegoating powers. This salvation, this freedom, demands our participation….We confess our complicity in the kind of scapegoating that made Jesus a victim, acknowledging that our thelogy and practices continue to create scapegoats even today. The goal of our redemption and sanctification is to move from identification with those who crucified Jesus to inclusion of those to whom Jesus ministered.”

-Jennifer Garcia Bashaw, Scapegoats: The Gospel Through the Eyes of Victims

Question 2 (Open)

What did you learn about atonement today that moved your mind or heart?

In Christian theology, atonement is all about the reconciling, the reuniting, the uniting of God and humankind through Jesus Christ. At-one-ment.

May we grow to understand the depth and beauty of this at-oneing that God has initiated on our behalf. May our understanding of atonement expand our faith and deepen our lived experience that God is love both now and always. Amen.