What does “atonement” mean? How can my definition be improved?

Chris —  February 6, 2014

Suppose someone encountered the Easter story for the first time. Imagine how overwhelmed he or she would be with all the details. This year for Easter I am working on a primer that will summarize:

  • Places – Where did the events of the Holy Week take place.
  • People – Who was who in the Easter story.
  • Chronology – What happened up to and during Holy Week.
  • Terms – what theology terms do I need to know to understand the Easter story.

This morning I worked on the theological term “atonement.” Below is my attempt to give a simple explanation. How can this definition be improved staying simple and concise?

Atonement refers to the reconciling of God and humanity through the work of God’s only unique Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5:21).  The central aspect of Christ’s atoning work is that that he paid the penalty for his people on the Cross. Theologians refer to this truth as penal substitutionary atonement. Michael Horton summarizes this aspect of the atonement, “Christ died in our place, bearing God’s wrath, satisfying his justice, and reconciling us to the Father.”

Another key aspect of the atonement is that of Christus Victor meaning Jesus won the victory over the powers of sin and death.

In his book, A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology, Scot McKnight motivates us to study the atonement when he explains that the atonements explains how the gospel works:

Christians believe that God really did atone for our sins in Jesus Christ and that God really did redemptively create restored relationships with God, with self, with others, and with the world. Christians believe that this all took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and (the silent part of the story) in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The atonement, in other words, is the good news of Christianity—it is our gospel. It explains how that gospel works.

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6 responses to What does “atonement” mean? How can my definition be improved?

  1. Great word, Chris. I think the atonement is much more deep and broad than most of us have realized.

  2. Agreed! There are some great resources out there including the 2 I linked to above.

    To be honest, I think there are a lot of folks in our churches (and Huddles!) who struggle with even a basic understanding because we pastors haven’t given them accessible help.

  3. I agree. I use Scot McKnight’s framework from “The King Jesus Gospel:” Jesus a.) Jesus died for us; b.) Jesus died with us, c.) Jesus died instead of us. I flesh that out with whomever when talking about atonement.

  4. In terms of the word itself, William Tyndale made up (‘coined’) the English word because he couldn’t find an existing English word to get the essence. He thought that “At One” was a decent depiction, but it does focus more on the end result than on the work and process of achieving the end.

  5. Isn’t the simple definition of the word (in whatever context) the act of one paying a debt for another? Or, a non-debtor paying the debt of the debtor.

  6. Scott, I don’t think the general definition necessitates someone else paying the debt. Of course, in this context I am referring to it in a technical, soteriological sense.