The New Testament never says that Christ lived for us, thirsted for us, was tempted for us, or became weary for us, true as all this is. What it says, and says repeatedly, is that he died for us. More precisely, it says that he died for our sins, bearing them as his own, assuming responsibility for them, and suffering the full wrath of God in consequence. In view of the clarity and insistence of this apostolic witness, the fact that it is so commonly misunderstood is remarkable.

In 1894 R. W. Dale wrote in Christian Doctrine that there were two types of belief about the Atonement, and his division still holds. According to the one conception, “Christ achieves our redemption by revealing God’s love to us,” and according to the other, “he reveals God’s love to us by achieving our redemption.” In both views, Christ’s life shows human life in its perfection and his work divine love at its height. But to the question, “Does Christ redeem us by revealing God, or does he reveal God by redeeming us?,” they give differing answers.

That Dale’s delineation is still strikingly accurate suggests that despite the more biblical insights injected into Protestant theology during the Barthian era, matters now stand more or less where they did during the age of classical Protestant liberalism; indeed, theologians today are not infrequently pleased to speak of themselves as “chastened liberals.”

Protestant liberals like Ritschl and especially Harnack expressed an optimism that grew out of their evolutionary understanding of life. They announced the coming Kingdom that would consist of the realization of God’s universal fatherhood and man’s corresponding brotherhood; Jesus was the historic pioneer of this message, they said, and his pioneering, in revealing God’s love, is redemptive. This conception evoked the scathing response from Niebuhr that it offered a God without wrath who had brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a real cross. The shallow optimism that underlay it was shattered by the First World War in Europe and the Depression of the 1930s in America.

Although the same optimism has not reappeared, there is nevertheless a widespread understanding of Christ’s death that is still classically liberal. For instance, the 1973 Bangkok assembly of the World Council of Churches defined salvation as freedom from societal sins. Working back from the effects of sins, it then deduced from these the nature of the Atonement.

Sin was here conceived in a purely horizontal manner: what we need to be saved from is racial oppression, economic injustice, sexual prejudice, class distinctions, and psychological inhibitions. Jesus is important because he exhibited freedom from, and opposition to, these evils. Indeed, his example, by which the love of God was revealed, has provided our redemption. The Church’s mission is to call men to a full humanity through Jesus, whose “salvation” brings liberty, unity, justice, and peace.

Article continues below

During the last ten years, the same model of understanding the work of Christ has been used in the so-called political theology that has refined the horizontal understanding of salvation in relation to the political order. Salvation means freedom from economic injustice, political corruption, and class oppression. Towards this end a Christian-Marxist dialogue has been established, and the cost of discipleship has been described in terms of revolution by Jürgen Moltmann, or at least active resistance by Daniel Berrigan. Similarly, James Cone has made black racial identity the basis for his assertion that “Black Power” demands are gospel correlates. Different as these conceptions may be in details, they agree that sin is a disruption of just horizontal relationships in society, that salvation is the rectification of these, and that insofar as Jesus is important it is because he pioneered this movement as a revolutionary, or at least a dissenter.

Sin undeniably has horizontal ramifications, though this is hardly the discovery of the World Council of Churches. While government exists to curb lawlessness, it is sometimes the vehicle of it; minorities are oppressed in spite of the law and sometimes because of it. Given man’s inherent greed, it is a foregone conclusion that the American economic system, even if it is preferable to the alternatives, will never deliver equitable treatment to all who are embraced by it. And sin, even if it is at root a religious concept, issues in psychological disruptions and even personality derangements.

The basic divergence in interpreting Christ’s death, then, does not arise because some think of sin societally (horizontally) and others think of it only religiously (vertically). New Testament faith acknowledges the horizontal dimension, but the new liberalism denies the vertical aspect.

Is sin most to be feared because it breeds distrust, foments greed, causes personality to disintegrate, fuels cruelty, and leads to institutional corruption? Not according to the New Testament. It is most to be feared because it draws down the anger of God. What makes man’s predicament hopeless, on the one hand, and what necessitates a Gospel, on the other, is not man’s inhumanity to man, ghastly as that sometimes is, but the fact that the world lies under God’s condemnation. The Atonement, therefore, cannot be understood merely as the genesis of societal reform; it must be seen, centrally and primarily, as God’s provision for averting his own anger.

Article continues below

This vertical dimension to the Atonement gives God’s love its real sanctity, but for several reasons it has not been as prominent in evangelical thought and preaching as I believe it is in the New Testament.

It is obvious that the notion of God’s wrath is subject to serious misunderstanding, for it could be equated with human anger. Human anger is invariably tainted with and becomes the servant of evil; with anger comes malice, hatred, revenge, jealousy, distrust, and uncontrolled passion. Clearly, God’s anger is free of these defilements. What, then, is divine wrath? According to Frederick Godet, it is:

… moral indignation in all its purity, the holy antipathy of the Good Being for that which is evil, without the slightest alloy of personal irritation, or of selfish resentment. It is the dissatisfaction which is excited in a pure being by the sight of impurity; it signifies the outward manifestations which testify to this deep dissatisfaction, and the sufferings which result from it to him who has provoked it. The wrath of God, so understood, is a necessary consequence of the profound difference which separates good from evil. To deny this would oblige us to consider evil not as the opposite, but simply an imperfect form, of good [Godet’s Biblical Studies: Studies on the New Testament, ed. by W. H. Lyttleton, London, 1895, p. 152].

What God’s wrath achieves primarily, says P. T. Forsyth, is the practical recognition that his holiness is still unchanged and unabated. “Without that God cannot remain God; He would be Father, but a partial not Sovereign Father,” as Samuel Mikolaski puts it in The Creative Theology of P. T. Forsyth). Brunner, who speaks of wrath as “the negative aspect of holiness,” goes on to say that it is necessarily an “objective reality” that stands between God and man. The price of affirming all this may be the appearance of “foolishness,” as Paul said, a lack of sophistication; but it is that kind of “foolishness” in which God excels.

And is it really so unsophisticated? What the divine judgment tells us is that good and evil are not equally ultimate, they are not on the two ends of a cosmic seesaw tilting up and down eternally. The days when error can be on the throne and when truth can be condemned to the scaffold are numbered. The time is coming when God’s zeal will “burst into flames.” What opposes his will, on earth and in heaven, will be destroyed.

Article continues below

This fact alone gives us both a mandate and a rationale for interpreting life in moral terms. This is what provides a major incentive to be moral, and this is why the New Testament, which is so intensely ethical, so insistent upon our choosing good, is so often eschatological. To speak of God without acknowledging his wrath is to postulate his ethical indifference; more than that, it is to require man’s ethical indifference, too. What at first sight may appear to be rather cross, and has no doubt been treated crassly in innumerable “fire and brimstone” sermons, is actually of the essence of the nature of God and the whole moral order. Inevitably, then, it is of the essence of the Atonement, too.

We should be grieved that eschatology has been so trivialized by the recent rash of popular books on the subject. Some of these books amount to nothing more than Christian horror stories; they pander to the same morbid interest that leads people to read cheap scandal sheets. Eschatology, instead of dealing with the deep and profound issues of good and evil, has been reduced to a calendar of events, a fair number of which, I dare say, Jesus himself would have been amazed to learn. This is not the level on which we are invited to think about good and evil in Scripture; if we insist on doing so, our grasp of the Atonement will be correspondingly shallow.

The work of Christ is a complex mystery, and the New Testament writers ransack their vocabulary to find language to express it. Their chief words are: redemption, by which Christ delivers sin’s captives from their bondage at the ransomed price of his life; sacrifice, by which our guilt, both as subjective shame (its psychological dimension) and as objective blame (its metaphysical dimension), is dealt with; propitiation, the way in which God’s wrath is averted; and reconciliation, the restoration of fellowship between God and man.

Although each of these words focuses on a different aspect of this mysterious exchange, whereby our sin is imputed to Christ and his righteousness to us, the theme of reconciliation probably takes in as much of the work of Christ as any. Reconciliation presupposes a prior hostility between two parties. At first sight it may appear that man is hostile toward God but that God is not hostile toward man, for in Romans 5:10 and Second Corinthians 5:20 only man’s reconciliation is mentioned, and in Second Corinthians 5:18; Ephesians 2:16; Colossians 1:20 God is spoken of as reconciling us to himself. If this were the case, then Christ’s work would be directed only toward changing our distrust of God and not toward changing his disapproval of man.

Article continues below

In the other instances of reconciliation in the New Testament (Matt. 5:23, 24; 1 Cor. 7:10, 11), however, the focus actually falls, not on the enmity of the offending party, but on the need to assuage the anger of the person against whom the offense was committed. This pattern is duplicated precisely with respect to the Atonement. In Romans 5:8–11, for example, what is underlined is not primarily that Christ has changed our feeling about God but rather that he changed God’s feelings about us. The enmity to which Paul refers (v. 18, “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled …”) is clearly God’s, not ours; otherwise he would have said: “If, when we felt enmity toward God, we were able to lay it aside through Christ’s death …” On the contrary, what he affirms is that in reconciliation, no less than in justification, we are helplessly passive: we must be reconciled and we must “receive,” rather than effect, our reconciliation (v. 11). Man is therefore separated from God by sin and God is separated from man by wrath. For reconciliation to be effective, God must be able to look on man without displeasure and man must be able to look on God without fear. And what was required has been done, as the words of that well-known hymn affirm:

Bearing shame and scoffing rude, In my place condemned he stood; Sealed my pardon with his blood. Hallelujah.…

In the reconciliation of Christ, sin is expiated, wrath is propitiated, and our alienation from God is overcome.

Our redemption is not achieved by Christ’s revealing God’s love to us; rather, Christ reveals God’s love to us by achieving our redemption. Indeed, the apostle John goes so far as to say that we would not even know the real nature of love (1 John 3:16) unless God had undertaken to shoulder our guilt and make common cause with us in our sin. Divine love, therefore, is not even understood outside the context of this Cross. It is with the Cross that we must begin and it is with the Cross that we will end (Rev. 5:9, 10). The simplest message of the evangelist and the profoundest message of the theologian are the same: Christ bore our sins, mediating between the estranged parties. There was no other Gospel known in the early Church; there should be no other Gospel known in ours.

Article continues below


Not quite furry, not quite bald,

The ablest and most awkward of the primates,

Always is something or other inordinately—

Bare on a beach, obscene; robed, absurd,

As on his hind legs neighing

Of his dignity.

(His rochets and rockets, thrones and symphonies,

Wall-to-wall carpeting, power steering,

Virtues, touchdowns, sexual attainments.)

Queens have caries.

Boxers, musclebound, grow weak.

Prelates defecate and even prelates

Are undignified on toilet seats.

Sculptors are not made of marble

And they too have warts.

The saints sin, and have bellybuttons.

The ablest and most awkward of the primates,

Not quite furry, not quite bald,

Faces wars and want and looking-glasses,

Making systems, singing, building, carving, striving,

Moon-going, loving—

Is flayed for goodness, unresisting,

Looks on circles and sees alternately

Zero and Eternity,

And says another, an immanent Breath,

Includes his own.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.