An atonement typology

This post grew out of a brief handout I drew up quickly for a class I was teaching on the atonement, which I then shared on Twitter. I thought I would expand it here with some initial definition and reflections.

Let me note two things at the outset. First, I took initial inspiration from Ben Myers' lovely patristic-flavored post on atonement theories from a few years back. Second, it seems to me that atonement is a particularly resonant English word that is very nearly interchangeable with salvation. To ask what atonement consists in, it seems to me, is to ask how Jesus saves. Or at least so I have assumed in what follows. Third, atonement is not one of my pet doctrines; I haven't read widely and deeply in it the way some of my friends and colleagues have. I'm sure that, somewhere below, I have left something out or inexpertly explained this or that theory. Pardons in advance.

Without further ado, my sixfold (really, 6 x 5) typology of the atonement.


I. Royal Conquest

1. Ransom

Through the death of Jesus, the Messiah, God "ransoms" or buys back his elect people from their slavery to sin and death; this is the new and final Exodus, in which the Lord once and for all delivers his people from the Pharaoh-like Satan.

2. Christus victor

Jesus submits to death, the wages of sinful humanity, and in doing so puts death to death and triumphs over it in his resurrection from the dead, now eternally free from death in the life of God, never to die again.

3. Harrowing of hell

Jesus the King descends to the realm of the dead and claims what is his own: all the saints of old, awaiting the proclamation of good news to those who died in hope of his coming. The gates of hell tremble at the sound of his feet, and crack open as he takes his own with him into everlasting life: he, the Living One, in whose hands are now the keys to Death and Hades (Rev 1:18).

4. Exaltation

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead: and not only risen, but raised to glory eternal, the glory he had with the Father before the ages. Only now, it is in and as the human nature he assumed in Mary's womb that he is raised, glorified, ascended, enthroned at the right hand of the Father in the power of the Spirit, whence he rules and judges the affairs of earth until he returns again.

5. Citizenship

Having inaugurated his reign over creation, Christ extends the gift of heavenly citizenship to all who accept his rule. To live subject to the wise, just, and merciful kingship of Christ in between his two advents means to anticipate, even now, the glories of the kingdom of heaven that will be made manifest at his appearing, though they remain hidden as the church sojourns in the world.

II. Holy Justice

1. Suffering

This one little word, "suffered," serves in the New Testament as a euphemism or prĂ©cis for the whole work of Christ. Why is that? "Christ also suffered for sins once for all" (1 Pet 3:18); "Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood" (Heb 13:12): we could multiply examples. There is a mystery here. First, Jesus shares in the human condition, under the weight of sin, evil, and death. His solidarity is complete. "For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted" (Heb 2:18). Moreover, his suffering is salvific: the victim bleeds, the substitute is scourged, the one pronounced guilty is mocked and spat upon. We see, we feel, we intuit the depths of the mystery here—even if we cannot finds words adequate to it—that the eternal and impassible One has willed to undergo this passion simply because "he loved me" (Gal 2:20). It was necessary that the Lord's servant suffer rejection at the hands of both those under and those outside the Law: this very thing happened in our midst, for us and for our salvation.

2. Sacrifice

God is holy, and wills that his people be holy likewise. In old Israel, God graciously provided for the people to be cleansed of their sins through the shedding of blood, that is, through ritual sacrifices that sanctified them, in love, so that they might worship the Lord in his presence with a pure body and a clean conscience. Jesus Christ is the final sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, that to which all prior sacrifices pointed and in which they participated (and, mutatis mutandis, so ever since, whether in praise, in illness, in martyrdom, or in the Eucharist). Jesus, the spotless victim, without blemish, offered himself upon the cross, a perfect and pleasing sacrifice to the God of Israel, thus cleansing, purifying, and sanctifying his beloved people, and effecting, once and for all, the forgiveness of sins.

3. Justification

God is righteous and just, the only good and wise Judge. Human righteousness consists in obedience to his commands, which is to live in accordance with the divine will. Humans, though, individually and collectively, are law-breakers, transgressors, guilty before the court of divine justice. We deserve condemnation, and indeed, guilty of sin and subject to death, we stand condemned, dead in our trespasses. But God in his mercy justifies the ungodly, offering pardon in the name of Christ to all who cast themselves in faith on him, the Crucified. He, the righteous one, stands in the dock, and our sentence becomes his—do not Pilate and the people sentence Jesus to a death reserved for the guilty?—while his status—do not Pilate and the Centurion recognize Jesus's just innocence?—becomes ours. Barabbas figures the believer who, through no merit of his own, is released, while Jesus does not resist taking his place. In short, the triune God delivers the final verdict, and though we have broken God's law, we are absolved, pardoned, pronounced innocent for the sake of Christ. Now therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1).

4. Substitution

Jesus Christ, the one true and fully human man, takes our place. He lives and dies for us, on our behalf, for our sake. He is utterly and without reservation pro nobis, and he stands in our stead, so that we might stand in his. What was due us, comes to him; what is due him, comes to us. What is ours becomes his, and what is his becomes ours. All that he does, he does with us in mind, for our benefit. Whatever justice demands, he, the God-man, both exacts and accepts it. In him, we see our fate overturned, not by a miscarriage of justice, but by the mercy of the Just One offering himself in our place.

5. Satisfaction

What does humanity owe God our creator? Everything, as it turns out. It is a debt we owe simply in virtue of being the creatures we are, made from nothing and sustained in existence for no good reason other than the divine good pleasure. But we do not give God what is his due. We do not render obedience. We do not love him with our whole hearts; we do not love our neighbor as ourselves (as he commands). We do not live in constant, grateful dependence upon him. If we are to be restored to fellowship with the God who alone is just, good, and right, how are we to rectify the relationship we have broken (from our side)? Not by our own efforts, themselves already corrupt and corrupting. Only the offering of a fully human life perfect from start to finish could be thus acceptable. Thus does Jesus, the God-man, offer his own life to make satisfaction for all humanity, to "pay the debt we could not pay." By his death, he gives infinitely beyond what we ever could, and in rising from the dead and pouring out his Spirit, he gives with abandon what he does not need and what was always already his by nature, not only making restitution but gratuitously sharing gifts both beyond nature and beyond measure.

III. Israel's Fulfillment

1. Abraham's seed

The promise of the Lord to Abraham was that his seed would be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, and that in his seed all the nations would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3; 22:17). Thus the New Testament begins by telling us that Jesus is the son of Abraham (Matt 1:1), and Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that the seed (singular, not plural) of which the Lord spoke was Christ himself (3:16)—through him the nations have come to the Lord for blessing, by the selfsame faith with which Abraham believed the Lord's promise (Rom 4:23-25).

2. Torah's telos

The Law of Moses was a gracious provision for God's people Israel, to set them apart from the nations, to sanctify them as his treasured possession, to render them fit to be his servant, the light to the nations. It was, in this sense, a means to an end. And as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, "Christ is the end of the law" (10:4), which is to say, the telos of the Torah is the Messiah. Moses had a target, an aim, a goal, and it is fulfilled in the man Jesus of Nazareth. Both the work he accomplishes—sanctifying Israel, effecting forgiveness of sins, bringing near the reign of God—and the perfect obedience he offers—obedience to the Torah's literal commands but also to its heart, which is the revealed heart of the Lord God—bring to glorious fulfillment the purpose and meaning of Moses's Law: the law of love, the law of Christ.

3. Shekinah embodied

Jesus is Immanuel, God with us—but the Lord's presence in, with, among, and to Israel is not a novelty. Israel's scriptures are nothing but one long story of the Lord's passionate will to be present to and for his people: wrestling with Jacob, the fire by night and cloud by day, the tabernacle, the ark, the temple. The God of Israel is an indwelling God, a particular God (not deity in general) of a particular land and people (Abraham's children) who can be found, in Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod's memorable phrase, at One Temple Avenue, Jerusalem. But these are the foretaste and promise, not the reality or fulfillment. That came in the person of Mary's son, who took on flesh in her womb and was born and lived a man, that is, a fully human life lived by YHWH. He, Yeshua bar-Yehosef, is the Shekinah enfleshed, the fullness of the Godhead dwelling bodily amidst his people. And so he will dwell, forever, when heaven comes to earth on the last day.

4. Priesthood

The work of the priest is to stand between God and the people, mediating in both directions: representing God to the people, and representing the people to God. In love, the Lord established the priesthood in Israel through Aaron's line and the tribe of Levi. The principal work of the priest was to offer sacrifices before the Lord. Jesus was not a Levite, but he was a priest (according to the book of Hebrews) in the order of Melchizedek. Not only a priest, he is "a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God" (2:17), who offered once and for all his own life as a sacrifice for all the people—a perfect offering, because he, a priest without sin, offered not for himself but for others what they, not he, needed. And so this eternal priest makes offering in the heavenly sanctuary not made with human hands, Jesus the mediator between God and man, interceding for us before God the Father, an advocate and aid to all who seek the help of heaven.

5. Ingrafting

The seed of Abraham is the chosen people of God, and as Paul writes, the root of the tree of Israel is irreducibly and immutably Jewish (Rom 11:16-18). But the miraculous and unexpected work of the Messiah is so to accomplish salvation "apart from law"—"although the law and the prophets bear witness to it" (3:21)—that it applies not only to Jews, branches of Israel's tree by nature, but also to gentiles, a wild olive shoot ("contrary to nature" [11:24]). So that, through baptism and faith in the Messiah, both the natural and the wild branches belong to one and the same tree, the latter grafted in through the gracious hands of the Lord, who is God not only of the Jews but also of the gentiles (3:29).

IV. Natural Restoration

1. Knowledge

Humanity was created to know God, and in disobeying the command of God by seeking after forbidden knowledge, humanity fell away from the knowledge of God. Through Christ, however, the knowledge of God is restored, both in his own person, as a fully human being, and in those united to him by faith through baptism. As Colossians 3:9-10 states, believers have put off the old, fallen nature and been clothed in the new, regenerate nature—redeemed and remade in Christ—"which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator." Moreover, Christ came teaching, and in the Spirit and through Scripture, he remains our teacher, drawing us into true and saving knowledge of the Father.

2. Image

Humanity was and is created in the image of God, but through the Fall that image is tarnished, damaged, neither whole nor expressive, as it ought to be, of who human beings are and what they were made to be within the wider created order. Christ, though, as God from God and Light from Light, is neither made nor "in" the image of God: he is the image itself, from everlasting to everlasting. And so, in becoming human, he restores the imago Dei in human nature; all those in him share in that restored image, which will be theirs in full upon his return in glory—at which point they will finally take up their calling as image-bearing creatures among and for the sake of all other creatures.

3. Second Adam

Adam, the first man, fell; and in him all humanity fell, too. That is to say, all human beings share in the condition of our first parents: we are all "in Adam." But Jesus Christ is the new man, the Second Adam, and to be "in" Christ is to be incorporated into the life and body of this sinless one triumphant over death. Our sin died with him on the cross, and in his resurrection, he lives to God the super-abundant life of the Spirit, whom, in pouring him out on the church, he makes available to all those who draw near to him in faith. And in the End, when God is all in all, this Adam will not, can never fall; and the same is true of those he brings with him.

4. Healing

Fallenness means sickness, sickness of the soul and of the body. Christ is our healer, the great physician. He came healing, and those who asked him to be made whole had their petitions granted: "If you will... I will" (Mark 1:40-41). He also sent his disciples out with the same charge, and they healed in his name both before and after his crucifixion and resurrection. Never has a generation passed since then when some number of those who have asked him or his servants for healing have not borne witness to the Lord's healing in their mortal bodies. But no healing lasts in this life; the final healing will come with his second coming, when no disease or sickness will outlast his cleansing presence.

5. Life-giver

To be a creature is to be given existence, and to be created human is to be given the unsurpassably beautiful gift of life: the breath of life in our lungs, breathed in us by God himself (Gen 2:7). Death is the final enemy to be defeated (1 Cor 15:26), and as the wages of sin, death is bound up with opposition to God's good will for living creatures. By contrast, Christ is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6); indeed, he is "the resurrection and the life" (11:25). He comes to bring us death-bound creatures life abundant (10:10), and from his heart rivers of life spring forth to nourish us (7:38). Even now, through his Spirit, we have a taste of "the eternal life which was with the Father" (1 John 1:2), the fullness of which will arrive at his appearing.

V. Perfected Relationship

1. Slavery

The Lord Jesus is the great deliverer, liberating his people from the chains of slavery: first from Egypt and the power of Pharaoh, finally from sin, death, and the power of Satan. Thus he assumed our nature that "through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage" (Heb 2:14-15). But as both Exodus and Romans testify, those once enslaved are not set free "for" anything at all; they are set free to be servants and worshipers of God. There is, in this sense, a transfer of masters, not a denial of life under lordship: though, in this case, a transfer not in degree but in kind—from the cruelty of unjust fellow creatures to the blessing of the only just and sovereign Master. And so, in this sense, what Jesus accomplishes in his life, death, and resurrection is the liberation of all peoples from servitude and subjection to any and all worldly masters, making us instead "slaves of righteousness" (Rom 6:8), that is to say, "slaves of Christ" (1 Cor 7:22).

2. Friendship

Having said that, we turn to 1 John: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love" (4:18). Indeed, as Jesus says in his final words to the disciples in the Gospel of John, "No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You are my friends if you do what I command you" (15:15, 14). Thus, although it is proper to say that we are slaves of Christ, at least here below, this claim is subordinate and secondary to the theologically primary claim, that in the incarnation God befriends us, elevating us to friendship with himself. The work of Christ, simply put, is to make us his friends. And so he has, because his word and his life are true and efficacious. Nothing is so beautiful to imagine as beatitude experienced as everlasting friendship with the Holy Trinity.

3. Covenant Membership

There is no relationship with the God of Israel outside of covenant; YHWH is the God of covenant. Covenant is the gracious means by which the Lord establishes relations—saving, loving, lasting—with human women and men. It is, furthermore, the means by which he establishes them as more than isolated individuals or tribal clans or nations at odds, but as a community, a single people defined by relationship with God, the creator of all. Thus, Jesus saves not individuals but a people, the covenant people of God. But in doing so he fulfills the old covenant by creating a new covenant in his blood, sealed on the cross. To be redeemed, to be touched by the atoning love of Christ, is nothing other than to be included in this covenant, to be made a member of God's covenant family. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus: indeed, for outside the church there is no covenant, and to belong to the covenant is to belong to Christ himself, our savior, redeemer, and friend.

4. Feast

God saves by feeding; his salvation is a feast. The Passover meal, the manna and quail in the wilderness, the feasts and festivals at the temple: bread and meat to eat and wine and water to drink are the telltale signs of the Lord at work to deliver from bondage and atone for sin. So in the ministry of Jesus, whose first sign changes water to wine at a wedding feast (John 2:1-11) and whose reputation for partying was so renowned that he was slandered as a glutton and a drunkard (Matt 11:19)! No surprise, then, that the central practice of the church instituted by Jesus himself is a meal of bread and wine—elements that signify and mediate the bodily presence of the risen and ascended Lord himself—which meal itself figures the final marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:7-10). The heavenly banquet is prepared, and Christ invites us now, even as he did on earth, to partake of this saving food and drink, that is, his own body and blood (John 6:53-58).

5. Marriage

As Israel is the bride of YHWH, so the church is the bride of the Messiah. "'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church" (Eph 5:31-21). This is true at the communal as well as the individual level, since Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that, just as a united to a woman become one flesh with her, so a person "united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him" (6:16-17). In the end, when God creates new heavens and new earth, the marriage of the Lord and his covenant people will be consummated, and God and Abraham's children will be eternally one, for God is one, and he will be all in all (15:28).

VI. Supernatural Elevation

1. Forerunner

Christ not only takes our place and lives a truly human life on our behalf. He blazes the trail of salvation, in whose wake we have but to follow. He charts the path to God, a path from conception and birth through growth and life to death, descent, resurrection, and ascension. Our lives are but imitations of his, the journey of the One who went before, the forerunner, the archegos (Heb 12:2). Where our nature has gone with him, so we will and may go—including into heaven (Eph 2:5-6), before the presence of God almighty. And along the way, all of Christ's action is our instruction (an axiom of St. Thomas Aquinas). We are followers in the Way and learners in his school, until we see him face to face.

2. Adoption

Jesus Christ is the eternal, unique, only-begotten Son of God, incarnate in and as a human being. But precisely in his becoming flesh and blood, existing in every way like us apart from sin, he extends his Sonship to us through baptism in his Spirit, the Spirit of Sonship, which is to say, the Spirit of adoption (Rom 8:15, 23). We thus become the sisters and brothers of Christ, and therefore, one and all, the children of God by adoption. Just as gentiles are adopted through Abraham's seed to be, by faith, the children of Abraham, so both Jews and gentiles are adopted through God's only Son to be, through the gift of the Spirit in baptism, the sons and daughters of God.

3. Spirit-sender

The external operations of the Holy Trinity are indivisible, both in creation and in salvation. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are alike and equally Creator and Savior. Thus the Spirit is present and active at every moment of the incarnation and career and saving work of the Son. Jesus is conceived by the Spirit, filled with the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, drawn by the Spirit, nourished by the Spirit, raised in the power of the Spirit—and when he ascends to heaven, Jesus pours our the Spirit he bore in his earthly life upon the apostles and, through them, all the baptized henceforth and forevermore. In sending the Spirit he sent the church, not alone, but filled by his presence, that is, the Spirit who makes him present in power, love, and peace. The Spirit gives life, and Jesus breathes the Spirit on us with unstinting grace (John 20:22).

4. Great exchange

Jesus not only substitutes himself as a man in our place; in his very being, in the hypostatic union that constitutes the eternal Son to be a man—perfect in divinity, perfect in humanity—he enacts the great, the beautiful, the happy exchange: he takes on our nature that he might gives us his. He assumes finitude, creatureliness, mortality; we receive the fullness of what it means to be the Spirit-filled Son of God the Father. The realities and shortcomings of humanity are his; the benefits and blessings of divinity are ours. The exchange happens in his own person, in the communication of properties between his two natures; and what happens there, in that one man, redounds to all women and men who share his human nature.

5. Theosis

Truly, in Christ, we "become partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). In the words of St. Athanasius, he became human that we might become divine. Or in C. S. Lewis's phrasing, the final end of the work of Christ is to make little Christs of all of us. And if Christ is God, then we are gods. Not, that is, that our nature is changed from human to divine. We remain human, as Christ remains human. Rather, our humanity is divinized, saturated with the divine glory and presence and consequently elevated to fellowship in the eternal communion of love that is the inexhaustible life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Spirit inserts us through the human nature of the glorified Son, Jesus, into this perfect circle of giving, sharing, and endless, enraptured happiness. We will see God, in the last, and to see God is to be conformed to himself, that is, to his image. And so we are, and so we will be. Soli Deo gloria.


  1. That is really excellent; you fit quiet a lot into a fairly concise rubric. I think the thing that seems like the biggest lacuna to me is Davidic king. I recently read John's gospel and I was struck by the paradoxical way in which Jesus' crucifixion is his coronation. (Of course, the specifically Davidic nature of Jesus' kingship is highlighted more in Matthew and Luke than in John.) Anyhow, I don't know exactly where it would fit in the rubric but, as John notes, there is always more to say about Jesus.

  2. Also, I wonder if, under sacrifice, you could specifically mention Jesus as our Passover lamb (because John and whatnot). The Reformed part of me would also love to see sanctification worked in next to justification (e.g., Heb. 10:10), and prophet to fill out the trifecta with priest and king.

    1. Yeah I should include mention of the PL. As for prophet, I considered that; but is Jesus's identity as prophet a matter or function of his atoning or saving work? Directly, I mean? What would a summary description of that look like?

    2. I don't really have a worked out understanding of how Jesus' office as prophet functions in his work of atonement, but Jesus does seem to think of his death as related to the martyrdom of earlier prophets, e.g., Matthew 23:37. Like I said, I don't really know how to incorporate that aspect but it is there.

      (Also, sorry for the reply being months late: I can only plead that med school is really busy.)


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

On Episode IX

Against pop culture