Reinventing the Atonement Concept

By Wayne Jackson

The title of the article was: “Savior or martyr? Christians struggle with the meaning of the cross.”

The essay, penned by Susan Hogan-Albach of the Dallas Morning News, and picked up by newspapers around the country, seeks to give a new twist to the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ — and “twist” is the appropriate term (see “wrest” – 2 Peter 3:16). The opening paragraph, which discusses the views of Philip Lyndon Reynolds (a Methodist professor of theology in Atlanta) and others, begins as follows:

“His students are studying to be ministers and theologians. They’ve committed their lives to following Jesus’ teachings.

“But more and more, some reject the usual Christian talk about Jesus’ death.

“They don’t consider Jesus a ransom for sin. They shudder at hymns glorifying the ‘power of the blood.’ . . . .

“They say a God who requires human sacrifice sounds mean and vindictive. It doesn’t mesh with their idea of a God who loves and forgives.”

The revealing phrase in this quote is “their idea.” That’s the problem. One of man’s fundamental weaknesses is that he wants a God made in his own image. Finite and sinful humans reason in this fashion:

“If there is a God, this is the way he ought to be. Therefore, regardless of what any Book says, this will be my perception of God.”

We have never quite mastered the concept that His ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8-9).

The paragraph cited above warrants some analysis.

First, if the New Testament record is given any credibility at all, it is an indisputable fact that Jesus Christ personally and emphatically taught that his death would be efficacious as a “ransom for sin.”

As Christ’s earthly ministry drew toward its conclusion, the Savior made his way to the city of Jerusalem (see Mt. 20:17ff). Privately, he revealed to his disciples the disturbing reality of his impending death. At some point he was approached by the mother of James and John, who petitioned for a special place on behalf of her sons in the Lord’s coming kingdom. Jesus suggested that she did not understand the responsibility connected with the role being sought.

The Master noted that the type of “authority” they desired would not prevail in his regime. He indicated that true “greatness” would result from “serving,” not by the bestowal of autocratic power.

Jesus then directed attention to himself as the model of self-sacrificing servitude. Listen to him:

“. . . the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28; cf. Mk. 10:45).

There are several important facts to be observed here.

  1. The inspired text unequivocally states that Jesus’ death was to be a “ransom for many.” The Greek term for “ranson” is lutron, from the root luo, which means “to loose.” The word came to signify the “price” required for the release of a captive. The idea suggested is this: Jesus’ death was designed to provide the way by which rebellious man, bound as a slave to sin (cf. Jn. 8:34; Rom. 6:17), might find release.

    Note the preposition employed. Christ would be the “ransom for [anti] sin.” This preposition is employed in a variety of senses in biblical literature, but a prominent usage suggests the idea of “in the place of.” When Herod the Great died, his son reigned “in the place of” (anti) the king (Mt. 2:22). When a context suggests such, the word can take on the sense of “in behalf of.” In the Old Testament, Judah (one of Jacob’s sons) petitioned Joseph (when the young man was ruling in Egypt) to let him remain behind in the land “instead of” (antiLXX), i.e., “on behalf of,” his younger brother, Benjamin (Gen. 44:33).
  2. In one of his letters, Paul declared that Christ “gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5). In this passage, the preposition “for” is huper, literally meaning “on behalf of,” which compliments precisely what has been noted in the previous paragraph (see also: Jn. 10:11,15; 11:50-51; 15:13;18:14; 1 Cor. 15:3; 1 Jn. 3:16, etc.). There is literary variation in presenting this important redemptive truth.
  3. This concept of the death of Christ as a “ransom” for sin is, therefore, an unmistakeable New Testament teaching — both from the mouth of Jesus himself, and from his inspired penmen. It is hardly a consistent or honest position, therefore, to contend (as per the quote above) that certain students have “committed their lives” to “Jesus’ teachings,” when the fact is, they reject what the Lord himself said regarding the purpose of his mission to this earth.
  4. The death of Christ was not a “mean and vindictive” act implemented by God. It was a necessary action in the heavenly scheme of things, in order that divine justice might be satisfied (Isa. 53:11; Rom. 3:26). As a perfectly holy Being, God cannot overlook human sin (Hab. 1:13). His just nature requires that wickedness be punished (Psa. 89:14).

    But, being rich in mercy (Eph. 2:4), he longs for the salvation of every person (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Potentially, this was achieved by the offering of Christ — not as a vindictive act, but as a gesture of supreme love (Jn. 3:16). How crass it is to twist divine benevolence into something that is precisely the opposite.
  5. Jesus himself was not critical of this means of redemption for humankind. The very texts cited above (Mt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45) have the Lord saying that he came “to give himself as a ransom” for sin. See similar passages which affirm that Christ “emptied himself,” “humbled himself,” and “gave himself” on our behalf (Phil. 2:7-8; Gal. 1:4; see Isaiah’s prophecies in 53:4-6).

How sad it is that the Savior must be the brunt of attack by modern critics (for whom he also died), as they arrogantly take upon themselves the ambitious task of “re-inventing” the reason for his death.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.