The Atonement: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Study of the Cross of Christ

The Atonement: A Biblical, Theological, and Historical Study of the Cross of Christ

by David L. Allen


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The atonement of Christ is the heart of Christianity. Christians are not only a people of the Book, but a people of the cross.

In this accessible resource, author David L. Allen carefully summarizes the doctrine of the atonement, with definitions of key terms, discussion of key Old and New Testament texts, and a survey of the historical theories of the atonement. Addressing topics like the atonement’s necessity, nature, intent, extent, and application, The Atonement answers questions such as, “is the atonement actual or potential?” and “is the blood of Christ wasted on those who are eternally lost?” This book will be a go-to resource for all those who wish to understand what Christ accomplished on the cross by his death.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781462767410
Publisher: B&H Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/01/2019
Series: A Treasury of Baptist Theology Series
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 3 Months to 18 Years

About the Author

David L. Allen is the dean of the School of Preaching, distinguished professor of preaching, director of the Southwestern Center for Expository Preaching, and George W. Truett Chair of Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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Atonement: Terminology and Concepts

Many different words are used in Scripture to refer to some aspect of the work of Christ on the cross. Theologians also employ a number of theological terms in discussions of the atonement. These terms must be spelled out early and clearly. This chapter will introduce these key terms and concepts, which will be developed in greater detail in successive chapters.


The English word "atonement," first used in 1526 by William Tyndale in his English translation of the NT, renders the Greek word katallage ("reconciliation") in Rom 5:11. However, the word "atonement" itself does not correspond etymologically to any Hebrew or Greek word. This English word expresses the concept of "at-one-ment" (i.e., reconciliation) when the benefit of the work of Christ is applied to one who believes.

In the NKJV translation, the word "atonement" appears ninety-seven times, exclusively in the OT. In the CSB and ESV translations, the word is used eighty times in the OT and twice in the NT. Acts 27:9 refers to the "Day of Atonement." In Heb 2:17, "atonement" is used to translate the Greek word hilasmos, which connotes both propitiation and expiation of sin by the work of Christ on the cross. The word indicates objective reconciliation with all humanity in the sense that the removal of all legal barriers between sinful humanity and God renders humanity to be "savable."

What is meant by the phrase "removal of legal barriers" (as used by theologians of the past, both Calvinist and non-Calvinist, and as I am using it now)? Removal of legal barriers in the atonement of Christ is not tantamount to justification, such that there is no legal basis for condemnation of a person due to his sin. Atonement and justification are two distinct things. God cannot save people simply by an act of His will (voluntarism). The righteous requirement of the law must be satisfied in order for God to approach humanity with offers of mercy. In the cross God has taken away that legal necessity, thereby providing a righteous path for forgiveness. He has removed all things on His part that stood in the way of His being able to offer forgiveness in a just way (Rom 3:21–26). The great theologian James Denney understood the concept well:

The work of reconciliation, in the sense of the New Testament, is a work which is finished ... before the gospel is preached. ... It is a work outside of us, in which God so deals in Christ with the sin of the world that it shall no longer be a barrier between Himself and man. ... Reconciliation is not something which is doing; it is something which is done.

Likewise, James Pendleton argues,

So far as the claims of law and justice are concerned, the atonement has obviated every difficulty in the way of any sinner's salvation. In supplying a basis for the exercise of mercy in one instance it supplies a basis for the exercise of mercy in innumerable instances. It places the world, to use the language of Robert Hall, "in a salvable state." ... There is no natural impossibility in the way of their salvation.

We shall have opportunity to develop this in more detail below when we discuss the extent of the atonement.


Atonement conveys the notion of both propitiation and expiation. Propitiation, giving prominence to the secondary meaning of the Hebrew verb kaphar ("cover") and the primary meaning of the Greek hilasmos, is an act prompted by God's love, mercy, and grace, whereby His holiness and justice are demonstrated via substitutionary sacrifice for sin. Endemic to the meaning of the word "propitiation" is the turning away of God's wrath against sinners (Rom 1:18). God's love and wrath are compatible aspects of His nature, and the concept of propitiation in Scripture always includes both. The word "propitiation" encompasses two aspects of the atonement: (1) God's justice is satisfied, and His wrath against sin and sinners is removed. (2) Sin is objectively atoned for and guilt is removed.

Where there is sin, there is always guilt — objective guilt before God since sin is a violation of God's law and subjective guilt in the human heart due to our personal responsibility for our sin. We are obligated to keep God's law, but because of our sin we are powerless to do so. We deserve condemnation for our sin. Moreover, sin brings separation between God and humanity — i.e., broken fellowship. Sin incurs God's condemnation of those who are guilty. Guilt demands punishment, hence the cross. Forgiveness is extended based on the cross, which grounds God's forgiveness of sin.

Note that Christ's advocacy with the Father is connected to the fact that He is the propitiation "for our sins" (1 John 2:1–2). His death on the cross has satisfied the justice of God and averted the wrath of God (see also Rom 3:25).


The term expiation includes the primary meaning of kaphar (Hb., " cover") and the secondary meaning of hilasmos (Gk., "removal of sin and cancelation of punishment based on substitutionary sacrifice"). The focus of expiation has to do with the effect of atonement on sin itself.

In modern usage, atonement, therefore, is something accomplished by God through Christ on the cross. Atonement is also an act of Christ that is, in some sense, offered to God (Heb 9:14). The ultimate goal of the atonement is the reconciliation of sinners with God (2 Cor 5:14–21). Objectively considered, reconciliation focuses on God's attitude toward sinners — i.e., He is willing to delay sin's punishment of the sinner; subjectively, God is willing to be reconciled to all sinners who meet His condition of faith in Christ.

Christ's atonement is fundamentally an act of reconciliation between sinful humanity and God. Sherman describes the atonement this way: "In its most basic sense, it answers the human problem. It is the activity of God the Father in the Son through the Spirit that overcomes the bondage or desire or pride or dislocation or estrangement or alienation or evil or limitation that separates humanity from God, and thus enables the restoration of the true and proper relation between them."

Salvation as Redemption and Reconciliation

Redemption and salvation are terms that indicate what is bestowed on individuals on the ground of the atonement of Christ. Atonement is the ground of redemption applied and of salvation; redemption in the sense of the actual forgiveness of sins is the result of atonement applied by the Holy Spirit. By design, the atonement exhibits God's love for sinners and satisfies God's justice in dealing with sin; by design, redemption and salvation are the benefits of atonement given to those who meet God's condition of salvation — repentance of sin and faith in Christ. Atonement was a finished act on the cross; redemption occurs at the moment a person is granted the benefits of the atonement via regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes theologians use "atonement" to refer to the fact of reconciliation as a completed act in the sense of finally having been accomplished at regeneration (i.e., it is complete on God's part and the individual's part). In this sense, atonement includes the prior work of Christ on the cross coupled with the person's response of exercising faith in Christ, which results in salvation. I will not be using the term in this sense unless otherwise noted.

Theologically, "atonement" connotes the work of God and Christ on the cross on behalf of sinful humanity whereby a satisfaction for sin is made to effect reconciliation of humanity with God. It is what God did through Christ's death on the cross to remove sin, which stands as an obstacle and barrier between God and humanity. In modern usage, atonement refers to the expiation, propitiation, and objective reconciliation that Christ achieved on the cross; satisfaction for sin was accomplished, and thus all barriers have been removed, except the animosity that still resides in the human heart through unbelief. This is the meaning of the term "atonement" as I use it in this work.

Soteriology is the theological term that defines and describes the work of Christ with respect to how He saves, as distinguished from Christology, which addresses the person and nature of Christ. "In the person of Christ there is the revelation of God, and in the death of Christ there is the redemption of man." Christology and soteriology are intricately intertwined. The deity and humanity of Christ expressed in the incarnation are foundational to the work of atonement accomplished on the cross. Anselm rightly said that only man should make the sacrifice for his sins because he is the offender, but only God could make the sacrifice for sins since He has demanded it. Jesus, as God and man, is the only Savior in whom the "should" and the "could" are united.

We must locate the atonement within the broader sphere of salvation. How are the two words "salvation" and "atonement" related, and how do they differ? "Salvation" covers the broad spectrum of biblical concepts used to explain the problem and solution of human sin. "In theological discourse, the 'doctrine of salvation' refers to the breadth of divine actions in renewing, redeeming, and reconciling a fallen humanity." The atonement specifically addresses the means of salvation; salvation covers the actual results of atonement applied to the believer: justification, reconciliation, redemption, etc. Within soteriology, "salvation" is the broader term and refers to the entire plan and process whereby God reconciles people to Himself by dealing with the sin problem through the means of the atonement of Christ.

Salvation is what happens to people, and includes such biblical concepts as repentance, faith, regeneration, justification, reconciliation, adoption, union with Christ, sanctification, and glorification. Scripture speaks of salvation in broad terms that include three distinct but related stages: (1) Salvation from the penalty of sin is described as justification and is a past act as far as the believer is concerned. (2) Sanctification is an ongoing activity whereby believers are in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ as the power of sin is being broken in their lives. (3) Glorification is the point in the future, in heaven, when believers will be saved from the very presence of sin in their lives.

Salvation includes atonement. Atonement does not include all that is covered in salvation.

Salvation is grounded in atonement. Atonement is the basis for salvation. The noun "salvation" connotes the act of saving someone from sin and the resultant state of being saved. Theologically speaking, salvation denotes deliverance from divine wrath, sin, and spiritual death, along with the bestowal of eternal life on the sinner who believes in Jesus, including all spiritual blessings temporal and eternal. The noun "atonement" refers specifically to what Christ accomplished on the cross with respect to God, man, sin, Satan, and the universe. Although the terms are interrelated, "atonement" should be distinguished from terms such as "salvation," "reconciliation," and "redemption."

The connection between salvation and atonement is important to understand. Salvation is inseparable from the sacrifice and satisfaction rendered to God by Christ on the cross. In order to forgive sin (provide salvation), Jesus must bear sin (make atonement). "In the Bible," as James Denney states, "to bear sin is not an unambiguous expression. It means to underlie its responsibility and to receive its consequences: to say that Christ bore our sins is precisely the same thing as to say that He died for our sins; it needs no other interpretation, and admits of no other."

In the atonement, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Cor 5:19). We can have no true theology that does not have the cross at its center. We can have no true salvation apart from atonement. Only at the cross do we learn who God is; only at the cross do we learn who Jesus is; only at the cross do we learn the sinners we are; and only at the cross do we learn what redemption and salvation are all about.

Most discussions of the atonement seldom address other theological aspects that focus on the internal change that occurs when the atonement is applied to the believer. This change is grounded in the cross but does not occur at the cross. All aspects of salvation are acts that should be distinguished from the act of atonement. Scripture uses many different terms and phrases to describe what the atonement of Christ and its application accomplished for believers. These include:

• salvation (Luke 2:30; Acts 4:12)

• redemption (Eph 1:7; 1 Pet 1:18; Rev 5:9)

• regeneration (Titus 3:5)

• justification (Rom 5:9)

• sanctification (Heb 2:11; 10:10, 14; 13:12)

• glorification (Rom 8:30)

• adoption (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:5)

• eternal life (John 3:16)

• acceptance before God (Eph 2:13)

• access to God (Heb 10:19)

• peace with God (Col 1:20)

• cleansing from sin (Heb 9:14)

• victory (Rev 12:11)

Sacrificial Language

The sacrificial nature of the atonement begins with the OT. A variety of sacrifices are prescribed in the OT: burnt offering, grain offering, fellowship offering, sin offering, guilt offering. The Day of Atonement was the most important annual sacrificial offering made by the high priest. One question is whether the OT sacrifices secured God's grace and forgiveness or merely declared such to be the case. According to those who hold the latter view, sacrifices were made not so much to attain God's forgiveness as to retain it. The majority, however, have interpreted the OT sacrifices as God's method of removing the sin barrier and restoring covenant relationship with the people.

The NT commonly uses sacrificial language to describe the atonement. For example, John the Baptist's exclamation, "Behold! The Lamb of God" (John 1:29) refers to Jesus as the Passover lamb. John's Gospel very clearly coincides the death of Jesus with the slaughtering of the Passover lambs (19:14). Paul likewise presents the death of Christ in sacrificial language (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23; Gal 3:13; 4:5). Such language predominates in Hebrews with its focus on the Day of Atonement (Hebrews 9–10) and the new covenant as a covenant sacrifice (Heb 7:22; 8:6; 9:15).

The NT authors make clear that the death of Christ was a sacrifice for sins. This is clearly evidenced in the Gospel accounts of the Lord's Supper. Paul also attests to the sacrificial nature of the death of Christ via his many references to Christ's death as a "sacrifice" and to the "blood" of Christ. We find the same usage in the General Epistles as well.

Redemption Language

The atonement is also referenced in relation to "redemption." New Testament authors employ four different Greek terms for "redemption."

1. Agorazo is a commercial term that originally denoted the act of making a purchase in the marketplace. This word occurs in 1 Cor 6:20; 7:23; 2 Pet 2:1; Rev 5:9; 14:3–4.

2. Exagorazo — This word's prepositional prefix ("ex-") indicates purchase with a price that liberates. This word is used in Gal 3:13; 4:5.

3. Lutroo connotes the act of liberating by means of the payment of a ransom price. The word occurs in Luke 24:21; Titus 2:14; 1 Pet 1:18. The noun form lutron occurs in two key Gospel texts — Matt 20:28 and Mark 10:45. The nominal form lutrosis occurs three times — in Luke 1:68; 2:38; and Heb 9:12.

4. Apolutrosis, which is akin to lutroo, means to effect release by payment of a ransom. This term occurs in Luke 21:28; Rom 3:24; 8:23; 1 Cor 1:30; Eph 1:7, 14; 4:30; Col 1:14; and Heb 9:15.

Often in Scripture, redemption language is used "in general terms to indicate the liberation (here from the Law) achieved by Jesus, but without pressing the analogy of secular redemption any further to think in terms of specific ransom prices." Redemption in the NT connotes a state of deliverance by means of payment of a ransom price. The question immediately arises as to whom was the ransom paid? Some among the early church fathers suggested that the ransom was paid to Satan, but such a view was rightly abandoned. Others have suggested that the ransom was paid to God. Forde is correct when he asserts: "The New Testament shows no interest whatever in the question of to whom his sacrifice might have been made."

In Protestant theology, sometimes "atonement" and "redemption" are used as synonyms. The Westminster Confession, for example, speaks of the elect who have "fallen in Adam" as being "redeemed by Christ" where the context makes clear that the reference is to the atonement.


Reconciliation (Gk. apokatallasso) is a crucial NT term that expresses God's ultimate purpose for humanity in the atonement. The noun (Gk. katalagge) denotes a reestablishment of an interrupted or broken relationship. The verb forms (Gk. katallasso and apokatallasso) denote "to reconcile; to exchange hostility for a friendly relationship." Paul uses the noun in two crucial atonement passages: Rom 5:10–11 and 2 Cor 5:18–20. He employs the verb forms six times, five in atonement passages (katallasso in Rom 5:10–11 and 2 Cor 5:18–20; apokatallasso in Eph 2:16 and Col 1:20–22). God Himself is the subject of the act of reconciliation in 2 Cor 5:18–19. Having pointed out that God first has "reconciled us to Himself" (2 Cor 5:18), Paul then exhorts his readers to "be reconciled to God" (v. 20). God acts unilaterally in the atonement such that reconciliation is His gift (v. 18).


Excerpted from "The Atonement"
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Copyright © 2019 David L. Allen.
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Table of Contents


  1. Atonement: Terminology and Concepts
  2. Atonement in the Old Testament
  3. Atonement in the New Testament
  4. The Necessity of the Atonement
  5. Atonement and Christology
  6. The Intent, Extent, and Application of the Atonement
  7. The Nature of the Atonement
  8. Special Issues Concerning the Atonement
  9. Historical Theories of the Atonement

Select Bibliography
Name Index
Subject Index
Scripture Index


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