Theories of the Atonement – Intro

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My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;  and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

Even the most casual reader of the Bible will come away with the conviction that the issue of sin is a major focus of the Scriptures.  Sin is a huge problem. It is responsible for all the problems in the world.  Sin separates us from our loving and holy Creator and has divided people, races, and nations.

Some have referred to a “scarlet thread” weaved throughout the Scripture. That is, there is an underlying theme of redemption, of atonement, from cover to cover.

Simply stated, “atonement” refers to the solution which the glorious Creator-Redeemer God has provided for sinners to return to Himself, receiving forgiveness, regeneration, adoption, fellowship, and glory.

Every sincere believer should recognize that God is infinite in His being.  Thus every aspect of His glorious character is also infinite in dimension.  Which among other things tells us that we can never fully plumb the depths or scale the heights of the knowledge of His glory.

I believe that the study of the atonement is very much the same.

For in the atonement we have the pinnacle of God’s self-disclosure to us.  It would thus be ridiculous for anyone to think that they have completely and fully understood the atonement!  Certainly there are huge and wonderful aspects of God’s nature and of God’s atonement that are clearly revealed to us in the Scriptures. But serious students soon realize that the study of God’s nature and God’s redemptive activity is not only wonderful…it is also immense…and complex.

I am going to take the next several posts to discuss some major theories of the atonement that have been held throughout the history of the church.  There is not just a little controversy surrounding this subject.  My hope is not to contribute to the controversy or to alienate any fellow believers, but to hopefully bring biblical clarity to the discussion. Ultimately I hope to assist folks in appropriating and benefiting from the great salvation that Jesus has and is providing to those who trust Him.

But before we launch, I want to begin with something even more immediate to the discussion.  And it is this:

The apostles of our Lord were NOT expecting His death on the cross.

No matter how many times Jesus predicted His own death and resurrection, His disciples simply did not “get” it. They were blinded by their own presuppositions and agendas. They were expecting Jesus to immediately restore the kingdom to Israel and defeat the Romans.  They had an immediate, geopolitical view of His mission.

As Jesus died on the cross they were totally confused and disillusioned.

But this all began to change when they encountered Jesus after His resurrection.  The initial reality was clear: Jesus had defeated the power of death and the grave.  If nothing else, Christ’s resurrection proved that He is Master over death.  He had already shown His mastery over disease, devils, and even the laws of nature.  His resurrection left no doubt that He was exactly who He said He was: the Lord of Glory, to whom every person is accountable.

And so the Apostles immediately began proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The Jews and the Romans had rejected His ministry and His authority, claiming that He was a heretic and deceiver. But the resurrection proved that He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  He was God and anyone who wanted to be right with God had better get right with Jesus.

This leads us to another important reality:

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead forced the Apostles to re-examine the meaning of Jesus’ death.

The fact of Jesus death and resurrection were no longer a question.  But what it all meant was.  The disciples went back to the Scriptures to search out the meaning. And as we look at their writings, we learn that there are many wonderful truths that spring forth from the death of Jesus.  Related to this, we have what theologians call, “theories of the atonement.”

Stay tuned as we look into this very important subject.

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