Concepts and Models
of the Atonement

The work of Christ is explained in Scripture by utilizing numerous figurative concepts, which have then been formed into various theological models.

©1998 by James A. Fowler. All rights reserved.

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Note: This article is identical to that entitled "The Restoration of Man" in the "Man as God Intended" series.

   The work of Jesus Christ is based upon the person of Jesus Christ. His sinless spiritual condition and behavioral expression made His sacrifice sufficient for mankind. He could be "perfect in benefit" because He was "perfect in being" and "perfect in behavior."

   Theological considerations must avoid positing Christ's work only in terms of "benefits," however. To do so creates an overly objectified disjuncture of the work of Jesus Christ from the living person of Jesus Christ. He work must not be divorced from His person, and reduced into static commodities or "benefits" to mankind. The effects or benefits of the work of Jesus Christ are encompassed in His Being. The ontological dynamic of the work of Christ must be recognized. He did what He did, and does what He does, because He is who He is. All of His acts are inherent in His Being.

   The work of Jesus Christ is usually referred to in theological terminology as the "atonement." The first known usage of this word in the English vocabulary of theology dates back to the sixteenth century, when it was used as a hyphenated conjunction of the two words "at-onement." William Tyndale used the word within his English translation of 1526. The Authorized Version, also known as the King James Version, published in 1611, made repeated usage of the word "atonement" to translate the Hebrew word kapar (covering), translating Yom Kippur (Day of Coverings) as "Day of Atonement." The Greek word katallage in Rom. 5:11 was also translated as "atonement" in the Authorized Version, whereas other usages of the same word were translated as "reconciliation."

   The divine action of God in His Son Jesus Christ was initiated out of His own character of love and grace. Mankind was incapable of taking any action that could remedy his helpless and hopeless predicament of sin and death. "God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son" (John 3:16). "He loved us and sent His Son" (I John 4:9), "demonstrating His love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). The "gift of grace" came through Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:12,15). "We are justified as a gift, by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:24).

   The action of God in His Son, Jesus Christ, is such a unique, one-of-a-kind, Divine reality, that it is beyond human explanation. Attempts to explain it in human language must employ inadequate human images and concepts which serve as anthropocentric representations and analogies of what God has done. Even the human language used in the Bible must utilize such terminology for explanation. Analogical images such as blood, ransom and legal offense, for example, convey certain concepts or ideas to the human mind in order to assist our understanding of the work of Christ.

   The whole complement of the images and concepts that are employed within the inspired Scriptures to explain what Christ came to do must be held together in a collective composite if we are to maintain a theological understanding that is as full and accurate as man is capable of grasping. The whole picture must be kept in perspective, avoiding the myopic misunderstanding that results from considering only a piece or two of the puzzle. This has been one of the theological pitfalls throughout the history of Christian theology. There has been a tendency to focus on a particular image or concept of Christ's work, to the exclusion, diminishing or neglect of other analogies, which results in an unbalanced theological view of atonement with varying misemphases. Another pitfall has been the careless mixing and merging of metaphors which creates mystical misunderstandings and confusions.

   In an attempt to consider the primary images and analogies that the Bible uses to explain the work of Jesus, we will note the concepts that are introduced by those images and consequent models that utilize some of those concepts.


   The images portrayed by the Scriptures introduce us to certain concepts through which we might understand God's action in His Son, Jesus Christ. The concepts are further amplified by the vocabulary of various Biblical and theological terms. The concepts which are objective to man will be enumerated first, to be followed by the subjective concepts which are effected within man.

   The Liberational Concept. The fall of mankind into sin and death necessarily allowed dependent and contingent mankind to be held by another spiritual authority other than God, i.e. the Satanic slave-master. To resolve man's enslavement, the work of God in Christ would need to deliver, rescue and liberate man from his spiritual bondage and slavery.

   Having fallen under "the dominion of Satan" (Acts 26:18) in "the domain of darkness" (Col. 1:13), mankind was in "the bondage of iniquity" (Acts 8:23) and "the elemental things of the world" (Gal. 4:3), "bound" under the Law (Rom. 7:6). Enslaved to "sin" (Rom. 6:6,17), to "impurity and lawlessness" (Rom. 6:19), to "fear and death" (Rom. 8:15; Heb. 2:15), mankind was a "host of captives" (Luke 4:18; Eph. 4:8), "held captive by the devil to do his will" (II Tim. 2:26).

   Jesus Christ was the Liberator who would "release the captives" (Luke 4:18) "from the Law" (Rom. 7:2,6) and "from their sins" (Rev. 1:5). He came to "deliver men from the domain of darkness" (Col. 1:13), "from this present evil age" (Gal. 1:4), from "the slavery brought on by the fear of death" (Heb. 2:15), and "from every evil deed" (II Tim. 4:18). As man's Deliverer, He came to "set free those who are downtrodden" (Luke 4:18), to set them "free from the Law" (Rom. 7:3) and "from the law of sin and death" (Rom. 8:2). "If the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed" (John 8:36), in "the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21). "It was for freedom that Christ set us free" (Gal. 5:1), and Christians must "act as free men" (I Peter 2:16). "Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty" (II Cor. 3:17), and Christians are to live by the "perfect law of liberty" (James 1:25; 2:12).

   Several Biblical terms convey the meaning of release, deliverance and setting free. The Greek word lutroo, which is often translated "redemption" throughout the New Testament, means "to loose, to set free, to deliver." Christians are "redeemed from their transgressions" (Heb. 9:15) and "from every lawless deed" (Titus 2:14). The Greek word aphiemi is often translated as "forgiveness" in the New Testament, and means "to dismiss" or "to release" from sins (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14). The word which is translated "salvation," from the Greek word soteria, can also mean "to make safe" by delivering from evil.

   The Legal and Penal Concept. Since God is pictured as "the Judge of all" (Heb. 12:23) who "will judge His people" (Heb. 10:30), "the living and the dead" (I Pet. 4:5), the legal or penal concept wherein God reacts to man's sin in a judicial context is evident through many Biblical images.

   The "offense of Adam" (Rom. 5:14) was a "transgression" (Rom. 5:15-19) of God's intent for man, which affected the entire human race in spiritual solidarity with Adam. All men were "dead in their transgressions" (Eph. 2:5; Col. 2:13), "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1). "Condemnation came upon all men" (Rom. 5:16,18), and all were made liable to "the penalty of eternal destruction" (II Thess. 1:9), the "eternal punishment" (Matt. 25:46) of "fire" (Jude 7) at "the day of judgment" (II Peter 2:9). God "has fixed a day when He shall judge the world in righteousness, through a Man" (Acts 17:31), His Son, Jesus Christ. There will be "retribution to those who do not know God and obey the gospel of Jesus Christ" (II Thess. 1:8). There is no doubt that the Bible uses legal and penal imagery to describe the relation of God to fallen mankind.

   Jesus Christ is represented as willing to take the "death penalty" on behalf of the human race, effecting the "forgiveness of sins" (Acts 10:43; 26:18; Col. 1:14), "the forgiveness of our trespasses" (Eph. 1:7). He "put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself" (Heb. 9:26). Many times throughout the New Testament, the Greek words dikaioo and dikaioma are translated as "to justify" and "justification." God in Christ "justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5), for they are "justified in His blood" (Rom. 5:9) resulting in "justification of life to all men" (Rom. 5:16). The Greek term was indeed used as a legal term, but not exclusively (as will be noted later). When so used it often referred to the idea of acquittal, whereby a verdict of "not guilty" or "right-standing" before the judge or the law was issued, a declaration of rightness. The legal and penal consequences of sin were resolved by Jesus Christ.

   The Purificational Concept. Before the purity of God's character of absolute holiness, man's sin is an impurity and uncleanness. The work of Jesus Christ serves to purify the condition of fallen mankind.

   The prophets indicate that the sins of fallen mankind are "red like crimson" (Isa. 1:18), serving as "the stain of iniquity" (Jere. 2:22). Ontologically deriving their character from the Evil One, "God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity" (Rom. 1:24), and they became "slaves to impurity" (Rom. 6:19). "No impure person has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God" (Eph. 5:5).

   Christ's atoning work allows fallen mankind to "wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. 7:11). Christians are those who are "washed and sanctified" (I Cor. 6:11), having "washed away their sins" (Acts 22:16) in the "washing of regeneration" (Titus 3:5). The "blood of Christ cleanses our conscience from dead works" (Heb. 9:14); our hearts are "cleansed by faith" (Acts 15:9), and we can continue to be "cleansed from all unrighteousness" (I John 1:9). Jesus has effected "purification of sins" (Heb. 1:3; II Pet. 1:9), having "purified for Himself a people for His own possession" (Titus 2:14) as they "in obedience to the truth purify their souls" (I Pet. 1:22).

   The Necrological Concept. From the very commencement of man's function as a choosing creature, God explained that the consequence of sin would involve death. "In the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). "The wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). "Death spread to all men" (Rom. 5:12) by their spiritual solidarity with Adam and his choice of sin. "In Adam all die" (I Cor. 15:22), and are "excluded from the life of God" (Eph. 4:18). The death consequences that came upon fallen mankind began with the absence of God's life in the spirit, but must be understood as an ontological connection with "the one having the power of death, that is the devil" (Heb. 2:14). Spiritual death involves the presence of the personal resource of death, i.e. Satan, whose activity generates the prevailing ramifications of behavioral death and physical death, which if unabated will lead to the perpetual representation of everlasting death. (See chapter on The Fall of Man.)

   The consequence of death as a result of man's sin is not just a penal consequence of the "death penalty." Life is an inherent feature of the character of God. "The Father has life in Himself" (John 5:26). As all sin is contrary to His character, the incongruity demands a separation and privation of His presence which is immediately filled with the diabolic source of death.

   Jesus Christ came to incur the death consequences that had occurred in Adam. As God, He could not die, but as man he could assume those death consequences. As a derivative and contingent man, He submitted voluntarily and vicariously to death, which included physical, spiritual and everlasting expressions thereof. "Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8), the "ungodly" (Rom. 5:6). "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (I Cor. 15:3), "once and for all" (Rom. 6:10; I Pet. 3:18).

   The image of "blood" is often used within the New Testament to refer to the death of Christ. His blood has no magical or mystical efficacy in itself, so all references to His "shed blood" should be interpreted as indicating the necrological concept of death. "Redemption through His blood" (Eph. 1:7), "justification by His blood" (Rom. 5:9), "propitiation in His blood" (Rom. 3:25), "forgiveness by His blood" (Heb. 9:22), and the "cleansing of sin by His blood" (I John 1:7) should all be understood as the consequences of His taking death for mankind.

   Likewise, the "cross" should not be construed as an object that conveys spiritual benefits. The cross was a death instrument. References to the "cross of Christ" (I Cor. 1:17; Col. 1:20) and His crucifixion direct our attention to the necrological concept of His death on our behalf. We "boast in the cross" (Gal. 6:14) and "preach Christ crucified" (I Cor. 1:23) because Jesus took our death consequences.

   There is a subjective aspect to the necrological concept of death, for when Jesus died He effected a spiritual solidarity with all who would receive Him and His death on their behalf. The old spiritual identity of the unregenerate is regarded as having been put to death in identification with the death of Christ. When He died, we died. He died for us and as us. "The One died for all, therefore all died" (II Cor. 5:14). "Our old self was crucified with Him" (Rom. 5:6). "We have died with Christ" (Rom. 6:8; Col. 2:20). "I have been crucified with Christ..." (Gal. 2:20)

   The Sacrificial Concept. Immediately after the sin of Adam, God instituted a sacrificial system whereby man could view the consequences of his sin. Cain and Abel, the first sons of Adam and Eve, "brought offerings" (Gen. 4:3,4), but "Abel offered a better sacrifice than Cain" (Heb. 11:4). The sacrifices were a pictorial pre-figuring of what would be required to deal with man's sin. Inherent in the concept of sacrifice is the idea of (1) cost, the forfeiture and relinquishment of something of value, a price to be paid, and (2) the idea of substitution, the vicarious replacement of the one having to die, a transference of liability from the offerer to the living object being sacrificed.

   "Christ gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5:2). He became the "Passover sacrifice" (I Cor. 5:7), who "offered one sacrifice for sins for all time" (Heb. 10:12) and "put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself" (Heb. 9:26). He is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29), and we are "sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus" (Heb. 10:10) and by His "sprinkled blood" (Heb. 12:24).

   The substitutional element of His sacrifice is evident in that "the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him" (Isa. 53:6). "While we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8) and "became a curse for us" (Gal. 3:13). "He bore our sins in His body on the tree" (I Pet. 2:24), and "died, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God" (I Pet. 3:18). The sacrificial concept of Christ's work was pre-figured in the old covenant and fulfilled in the enactment of the new covenant.

   The Covenantal Concept. The agreement between God and man always necessitated the activity of God being received by man's faith. Fallen mankind had "broken the covenant" (Isa. 33:8), as had the specific people (Jere. 11:10) God had selected for the pre-figuring of His intent in His Son, Jesus Christ. This necessitated a "new covenant" (Jere. 31:31) between God and man.

   The work of Jesus Christ effects that "new covenant" (Heb. 9:15). He is "the mediator of a new covenant" (Heb. 12:24), the "guarantee of a better covenant" (Heb. 7:22). As covenants between men were usually sealed with a blood sacrifice to represent the consequences of breaking the covenant, the death of Jesus served as the "blood of the covenant" (Heb. 10:29; 13:20), whereby He established a "new covenant in His blood" (Matt. 26:28; I Cor. 11:25). The sacrificial concept and the covenantal concept are thus inexorably interconnected.

   The Economical Concept. The sin of mankind is represented as creating a situation of indebtedness before God which requires compensation and reparation. There is a price to be paid, a "certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us" (Col. 2:14). Some of the early Christian writers (ex. Origin, Gregory of Nyssa) engaged in wild speculation that the devil had kidnapped the human race, holding them as hostages, and God was paying off the devil by deceptively trading Jesus as a "ransom" for mankind. Far be it from the character of God to engage in such deceit, or to be indebted to the devil.

   The image of "ransom" carries with it the idea of release from bondage in exchange for a payment. Mankind was indeed in bondage to sin, needing to be released (liberational concept). "The Son of Man came to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45), and "gave Himself as a ransom for all" (I Tim. 2:6). We were "bought with a price" (I Cor. 6:19,20; 7:23), "purchased with His blood" (Acts 20:28).

   The terminology of "redemption" expresses this economical, commercial or financial concept, for the Greek word exagorazo means "to buy out of the market place," and the word apolutrosis can mean "to release upon payment of a ransom." Both of these words are translated "redeem" in the New Testament; note Gal. 3:13 and Eph. 1:7 respectively.

   The Transactional Concept. Man's sin required that a transaction take place which would satisfy God. The image of Divine satisfaction has led to several different interpretations. Some have understood that God demanded satisfaction of His legal demands or satisfaction of His justice (legal or penal concept), or the satisfaction of a compensatory payment (economical concept). Others have explained that God's wrath toward sin must be satisfied. God is indeed "jealous" of His character (Exod. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 4:24; Josh. 24:19; Nahum 1:2). "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (Rom. 1:18), and "comes upon the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 5:6) who "do not obey the Son" (John 3:36). We must, however, beware of pushing this image into crude ideas of God's capricious and arbitrary anger, whereby He is cast as an offended deity who suffered a personal affront because of the offense against His honor or dignity, and needs to be placated, pacified, mollified or soothed by the smoothing of His ruffled feathers.

   The satisfaction that God requires is consistency with His character. That would require the severing of the ontological connection of mankind with evil in order to provide ontological union between God and man again. In His death Jesus Christ vicariously lived out that ontological break, exclaiming, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34), and through His resurrection restored "the provision of the Spirit" (Phil. 1:19) so that the character of God might be operative in man.

   God is satisfied with what Christ has accomplished (John 4:34; 5:36; 17:4; 19:28) to alleviate the contrariety of his character through ontological derivation from the Evil One, and to bring Him pleasure by the faithful ontological receptivity of His character (Heb. 11:6). "Justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:9).

   The theological terms employed to express this Divine satisfaction in the work of Jesus Christ are the words "propitiation" and "expiation." Much argumentation has transpired as to which of these words best expresses the Greek word hilaskomai. "God sent His Son to be the propitiation/expiation for our sins" (I John 4:10; 2:1,2; Heb. 2:17), and "displayed Him publicly as a propitiation/ expiation in His blood" (Rom. 3:25).

   The Triumphal Concept. Throughout the Scriptures there is the image of a cosmic conflict between God and Satan, between good and evil. This is never portrayed as a dualism of equal powers, however, since God is omnipotent. "There was war in heaven" (Rev. 12:7) that caused "enmity between the serpent and the seed of woman" (Gen. 3:15), requiring that "the ruler of this world be cast out" (John 12:31).

   The work of Christ accomplished victory over Satan. "He disarmed the rulers and authorities, having triumphed over them" (Col. 2:15). He is "victorious over the beast" (Rev. 15:2). "The Son of God appeared that He might destroy the works of the devil" (I John 3:8),and "through death He rendered powerless the one having the power of death, that is the devil" (Heb. 2:14). The Lion (Rev. 5:5) who is the Lamb (Rev. 17:14) has "overcome the world" (John 16:33) and the "Evil One" (I John 2:14). "He leads justice to victory" (Matt. 12:20). "Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 15:57).

   In addition to the objective concepts of the work of Jesus Christ, we must consider the subjective concepts of His work. These are the features of His work that take place within the person who receives Him by faith.

   The Vital Concept. Within the discussion of the necrological concept it was noted that death was a consequence of man's sin before God. As man, Christ took those death consequences on behalf of all mankind. Accepting that substitutional death of Jesus Christ, the Christian identifies with such as the death of the old man identity (Rom. 6:6), allowing him to be "dead to sin" (Rom. 6:2,11), to the world (Col. 2:20), to Law (Rom. 7:3,4; Gal. 2:19) and to the flesh (Gal. 5:24). We referred to this as the subjective aspect of the necrological concept.

   The Christian "passes out of death and into life" (John 5:24; I John 3:14), so we must proceed to consider the ontological reality of Christ's indwelling life in the Christian, which is just as surely the work of Christ as was the historical and objective work accomplished in His death. "Christ Jesus abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (II Tim. 1:10), "granting us everything pertaining to life and godliness" (II Pet. 1:3).

   Jesus is "the life" (John 14:6). "He that has the Son has life; he that does not have the Son of God does not have life" (I John 5:12). Jesus explained that He "came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). The "eternal life" (John 5:24) that activates us is His life. "Christ is our life" (Col. 3:4). "The life of Jesus is manifested in our mortal bodies" (II Cor. 4:10,11). We are "saved by His life" (Rom. 5:10) and "reign in life through Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:17).

   The theological term that is used to explain the vital concept of Christ's work is the word "regeneration." The word is used in the translation of Titus 3:5 referring to "the washing of regeneration and the renewal of the Holy Spirit." Regeneration implies being re-lifed, in conjunction with which the Bible uses the image of being "born again, born from above, or born of the Spirit" as Jesus explained to Nicodemus (John 3:1-6). Peter explains that we are "born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (I Peter 1:3), for it was in the resurrection of Jesus Christ that His life came forth out of death. Christians identify spiritually with the resurrection of Jesus, being raised "to newness of life" (Rom. 6:4).

   The Spiritual Concept. In discussing the subjective concepts of Christ's work, it is extremely important to differentiate between subjective psychological effects within the Christian and the internal spiritual realities that Christ enacts by His own ontological presence. "If any man does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His" (Rom. 8:9). The unregenerate person is spiritually dead, and can only be made spiritually alive by the presence of the Spirit of Christ for "it is the Spirit who gives life" (John 6:63; II Cor. 3:6). "That which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6).

   A spiritual exchange takes place in our spirit when Christ begins to work within us. Instead of "the spirit of slavery," we have the "spirit of adoption" (Rom. 8:15). We no longer have "the spirit from the world," but we have the "Spirit of God" (I Cor. 2:12). The "spirit of error" is exchanged for the "spirit of truth" (I John 4:6). The "spirit that works in the sons of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2) is replaced by the "Spirit of Christ" (Rom. 8:9; Phil. 1:19), the "Spirit of God" (I Cor. 3:16), "the Holy Spirit who dwells in us" (II Tim. 1:14). We are no longer "by nature children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3), but we become "partakers of the divine nature" (II Peter 1:4).

   "Joined to the Lord, we are one spirit with Him" (I Cor. 6:17), for the "Spirit of holiness is Jesus Christ our Lord" (Rom. 1:4), "the Lord is the Spirit" (II Cor. 3:17). "We have become partakers of Christ" (Heb. 3:14). Christ lives in us (Gal. 2:20), the "hope of glory" (Col. 1:27), "dwelling in our hearts through faith" (Eph. 3:17). "Do you not recognize that Jesus Christ is in you?" (II Cor. 13:5).

   The Functional Concept. The internal work of Jesus Christ in the Christian is for the purpose of expressing a functional humanity wherein "the life of Jesus is manifested in our mortal bodies" (II Cor. 4:10,11). In like manner as Jesus indicated that "the Father abiding in Me does His works (John 14:10), the Christian is to function by allowing the indwelling Christ to work through him. "Apart from Me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5), Jesus said. Paul explained that he did "not presume to speak of anything, except what Christ had accomplished through him" (Rom. 15:18).

   Several theological terms have been traditionally defined by objectified reference to the historical work of Jesus Christ. As such they become static concepts which fail to do justice to the functional work of Jesus Christ in the Christian. "Salvation," for example is not just the "threshold factor" of the Christian life whereby one is "made safe from going to hell." Rather, salvation must be viewed as the dynamic ontological function of the Savior, wherein we are being "saved by His life" (Rom. 5:10). The Christian is "made safe" from dysfunctional humanity, the misuse and abuse of Satan, in order to function as God intended by the indwelling presence and activity of the risen Lord Jesus in our behavior. Likewise, "sanctification" is the functional expression of God's character of holiness in the behavior of man.

   The Relational Concept. Due to sin, man's relationship with God was disconnected. Man was "without God in the world" (Eph. 2:12), and "excluded from the life of God" (Eph. 4:18). There was an "enmity" (Eph. 2:15,16) between God and man, to the extent that man was viewed as an "enemy" of God (Rom. 5:10). Fallen man was "alienated" (Col. 1:21), and "hostile toward God" (Rom. 8:7).

   The work of Jesus Christ effects a "reconciliation" between God and man that can be viewed both objectively and subjectively. "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself" (II Cor. 5:19,20). "He reconciled all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross" (Col. 1:20). "We were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, and having been reconciled we are now saved by His life" (Rom. 5:10).

   The Christian has a personal relationship with God. The reconciled relationship that we now have with God through Jesus Christ is such that we can view it as the social and familial relationship of being "adopted as sons through Jesus Christ" (Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5), and can cry out in the familiarity of the child's cry of "Abba, Father" (Rom. 8:15).

   The Ontological Concept. The work of Jesus Christ is always ontological. He does what He does, because He is who He is! All that is made available to us in Jesus Christ is ontologically connected with His Being. He did not come to bestow various spiritual "benefits" upon mankind, but He came that His very Being might become functionally operative in mankind.

   The saving activity of Jesus Christ is only operative when the Being of the Savior is at work in the Christian. Salvation cannot be ontologically divorced from the Savior. The process of sanctification is taking place only when the ontological expression of the Being of God's holy character is being manifested in man's behavior.

   Perhaps the greatest perversion of Christian terminology has been to restrict the meaning of "justification" to an objectified declaration of pardon, acquittal, forgiveness and "right standing" with God. "Justification" is the word for righteousness. Righteousness is not merely a legal term, but explains the ontological character of God. God is righteous! (Ps. 116:5; Isa. 45:21; Dan. 9:14; Rom. 11:7). Jesus is referred to as "the Righteous One" (Acts 3:4; 7:42; 22:14), and "Jesus Christ, the Righteous" (I John 2:1). "God made Him who knew no sin, to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (II Cor. 5:21). By the indwelling presence of Jesus Christ, He has "become to us righteousness" (I Cor. 1:30), "a righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith" (Phil. 3:9). We have "the gift of righteousness in order to reign in life through Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:17). The work of Christ continues as He ontologically expresses His character of righteousness in Christian behavior.

   In addition to the objective and subjective concepts of Christ's work noted above, all of which have solid Biblical notation, there are some other concepts which have been suggested which seem to be invalid because they lack Biblical support. Most of these concepts of the work of Christ posit humanistic concepts of human potential whereby man's performance and "works" affect the relationship between God and man. They fail to understand that man is spiritually derivative and contingent, designed to function by the ontological dynamic of the Being of God generating His character in man's behavior.

   Hugo Grotius, a lawyer, (1583-1645) suggested a sub-concept of the legal and penal concept, which might be called the governmental, rectal or political concept. Based on somewhat dualistic premises, Grotius suggested that God had to keep his authoritative government intact, so the punitive consequences were to "preserve God's authority."

   Much of Western theology has had a tendency to view the work of Christ in almost total objectivity, causing it to be limited to a belief-system. Christ's work is regarded as historical or theological data that Christians must assent to the veracity of, thus becoming but a doctrinal, theological or epistemological concept.

   On the opposite end of the spectrum is the mythical concept suggested by Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976). Historicity is regarded as irrelevant, and the work of Christ becomes totally subjective as the experiential impact it has on a person's life. The veracity of historical "myths" and "stories," even the death of Jesus Christ, might be questioned without affecting the subjective work of Christ.

   The mystical or symbolical concepts of the work of Christ are also quite subjective. Images such as the "blood of Christ" and the "cross of Christ" are envisioned as entities in and of themselves which effect the work of Christ within the believer. Jesus Christ is regarded as working in the Christian when he is "appropriating the cross" or "applying the blood."

   Socinius (1539-1604) suggested the illustrational or imitational concept of the work of Christ. He, along with others, emphasized that Jesus was an example of love, righteousness, obedience, dedication, commitment and sacrifice. Scripture does indicate that "Jesus suffered for us, leaving us an example to follow in His steps" (I Peter 2:21). Jesus did say, "If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me...willing to lose his life for My sake" (Luke 9:22-24). We are to "walk in the same manner as he walked" (I John 2:6), but the purpose of Christ's life and death is more than an example of self-denial and self-sacrifice of time, energy and reputation, even unto martyrdom. Such a concept fails to understand the ontological derivativeness of mankind.

   Likewise, to project the work of Christ primarily as the ultimate teacher in an instructional or educational concept, fails to grasp man's spiritual contingency. Jesus was a teacher (Matt. 19:16; John 3:2), and did indicate that He came "to bear witness to the truth" (John 18:37), but He also explained that He was the Truth (John 14:6), ontologically embodied. Jesus did not come just to instruct us how to live and die, but He came to be the Truth of God lived out through man.

   The influential concept of Christ's work was emphasized by Peter Abelard and later by Horace Bushnell. With an aversion to considering the wrath of God, the love of God was promoted as God's primary objective in what Christ did. "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (John 3:16). "God demonstrated His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). God's love is said to be for the purpose of influencing or motivating man to love in like manner. "We love, because He first loved us" (I John 4:19). When we respond to this Divine influence, we are allegedly "saved" from the erroneous thinking of fear and shame, and the sickness of our sin is healed. In conjunction with the foregoing concepts, this concept fails to understand that man functions only by derivation, and that "the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Rom. 5:5), expressed only as a "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:22).

   A most pervasive misconception of the work of Christ is the ethical or moral concept. Christ took upon Himself the "curse" of the Law (Gal. 3:13), and forgave our sinful violations of the Law, but now Christians are expected to continue to keep the Law in order to exhibit Christian behavior. Christian behavior is externalized into conformity with particular standards of what is "good" or "right." The work of Jesus is regarded as inciting the Christian to ethical and moral behavior, in order to be pleasing to God and to live the Christian life.

   The concepts which have Biblical support are both objective and subjective. If the objective concepts are over-emphasized to the neglect of the subjective concepts, the objectification fails to do justice to the ontological dynamic of the life of the risen Lord Jesus. The work of Christ is cast into historical and theological categories which focus on the remedial action of Christ upon the cross, whereupon He took the death consequences for our sins. If the subjective concepts are over-emphasized to the neglect of the objective concepts, then the objective foundation of Jesus Christ is "mythified" or "mystified," leaving Christ's work to float in the breeze of subjective human thought. A balanced combination of objective and subjective concepts must be maintained. The remedial action of Christ's work on the cross must be understood in conjunction with the restorational action of Christ in the resurrection, ascension, Pentecostal outpouring, and continued intercessional work.

   All of the concepts must be taken into account as we attempt to comprehend the work of Christ. The concepts, which are suggested by various images and identified with various terminology, still remain inadequate human representations of what Jesus Christ has done and is doing. Individually, or even collectively, they cannot encompass the whole of God's action on man's behalf. A balanced view of these concepts, with the recognition that all is effected only by ontological connection with, and derivation from, Jesus Christ, can lead us to as complete an understanding as is possible by the finite apprehension of man.


   Throughout the history of Christian thought the foregoing concepts have been developed into various models in order to systematize theological thought. Particular perspectives have been formed into logical mind-sets to create a paradigm of conceptualization. The composite mental construction with its unique postulates, data and inferences becomes a lens through which the work of Jesus Christ is viewed, and a pattern by which theology is promulgated.

   Three particular models will be considered in this study, though these are not by any means exhaustive of all Christian thought through the ages. These modular mental constructs do not come complete with labels, so we will take the liberty to entitled them (1) the legal/penal model, (2) the personal/relational model, and (3) the spiritual/ontological model, the latter being proposed as an alternative to the other two which seem to have predominated throughout the history of Christian theological thought. All of these models can claim a Biblical base, employing Biblical documentable images which align with certain Biblical concepts. Our objective is to discover a model which provides the most comprehensive explanation of the totality of Christ's work.

   The Legal/Penal Model obviously constructs its thinking primarily from the legal and penal concept of Christ's work, though several of the other concepts are integrated into such. This creates a model that is judicial and forensic in outlook.

   God is viewed as the ultimate authority who issues decrees of His intent and expectations for man. There are precepts and standards, rules and requirements which explain what He expects. The Divine Lawgiver has codified His expectations in the Law, and His justice demands that He act as Judge to ensure that His authority is respected and His expectations enacted.

   There is an underlying presupposition in the legal/penal model that seems to accept the invalid ethical or moral concept. It seems to convey the idea that God intends for man to perform in accordance with the Law, to keep the Law by human "works."

   Man's response to God's intent is a choice either to accept the sense of obligation and responsibility to do what God expects and keep the Law, or to choose to disobey and disregard what God desires, violating His Law.

   The historical offense against God in Adam's sin is regarded as primarily a legal offense, a violation of the just demands and requirements of God's Law. The images of transgression, trespass, and a crime deserving of punishment are emphasized. Sin is defined as "missing the mark" of God's Law and His righteous expectations for man. "Sin is lawlessness" (I John 3:4). "All unrighteousness is sin" (I John 5:17). The sins of mankind are regarded as violations of God's standards.

   Consequences are demanded by God for the violation of His Law. Punishment must be imposed and man must face judgment. Man is regarded as condemned and under a curse. Violation demands retribution, even the death penalty.

   The required remedy for God's violated law is that the death penalty must be taken. There must be reparation, restitution, compensation. Only thereby can amends be made for violated Law. As man, Jesus could serve as the substitute who would take the penalty of death for sin and satisfy the just demands of the Law, allowing for pardon and commutation for the human race. The action of Jesus Christ on the cross allowed for "salvation," being made safe from the penalty of sin; "forgiveness," acquittal, pardon and dismissed charges; and "justification" whereby righteousness is credited to our account and we are "declared righteous." Redemption is effected as the "certificate of debt" (Col. 2:17,18) was taken to the cross by Jesus. The "ransom" has been paid.

   The legal/penal model emphasizes the remedial aspects of Christ's work, and seems to be weak in its explanation of the restorational work of Christ. Man is free from the penalty of sin in everlasting death; free from going to hell, and free to go to heaven. The Christian is placed once again into an obligation of obedience which necessitates the keeping of the Law and the responsibility for moral and ethical behavior in accord with God's standards. Failure to do so allows the ascended Jesus to intercede for the Christian as a legal advocate (I John 2:1) before God, the Judge.

   This model tends to be heavily weighted toward the objective concepts of Christ's work, and in particular focuses on the legal and penal concept to the neglect of others. It has probably been the predominant model throughout the whole of Christian history. Several of the early Christian writers and theologians were lawyers and couched their theological thinking in concepts of Roman law. The Protestant Reformation continued the legal/penal model by their emphasis on legal "justification."

   The Personal/Relational Model has been presented in various forms throughout the history of Christian theology. It has often surfaced as a response against the legal/penal model, attempting to construct a model that is based on God as relational Person, rather than Judge.

   God is viewed in social and psychological terms. The wrath of God and the love of God are emphasized. God loves man and has a plan for each person's life, desiring that each individual know and do His will. The intent of God was for man to remain in a relationship of personal fellowship, wherein man would submit to God's personal direction in his life.

   The choice that man had before God was either to obey by maintaining the intended personal, social relationship of harmony and oneness with God, respecting God's personal authority as Lord and living in accord with His plan and His will, or man could disobey by failing to meet God's preferences and personally offend Him.

   The offense of man against God is viewed primarily as a personal offense that causes a break in the relationship. Man has rebelled against a loving Lord. Sin is regarded as "missing the mark" of God's personal expectations, plans and pleasures. Behavioral sins are personal failures which personally wrong, slight and affront God.

   God is personally upset by the broken relationship of unfulfilled expectations. He has been dishonored. His dignity has been offended. The wrath of God is emphasized as consequence of man's failure.

   Man is alienated and separated from personal relationship with God. He is estranged from God, to the point of enmity and hostility that would cause him to be an enemy of God. God, on the other hand, demands to be satisfied, demanding payment, even death.

   The only way that God can be appeased and pacified is for man to suffer His wrath in death. Jesus is the substitute on which God vents and expresses His personal wrath against man's sin of broken relationship. God is pleased and content with what Jesus does on man's behalf. His wrath is placated and mollified.

   Based on the remedial action of Jesus Christ, God is willing to personally forgive man for his sin of rebellion. Man can experience "salvation," safe from estrangement with God. A "personal relationship" is established with God through Jesus Christ, as man is "reconciled" with God. "Justification" is a right relationship that respects the rightful authority of God.

   The personal/relational model is also primarily a remedial model, weak in its restorational emphasis. Man is free from estrangement and reconciled to God in personal fellowship, but is responsible for obedience which necessitates his being in a submitted relationship to God, living in accord with His plan and His will. The inevitable failures are resolved as the living Christ makes personal intercessory pleas on our behalf before God.

   This model tends to be quite subjective as it emphasizes the relational and social concept of Christ's work. Anselm (1033-1109) and Peter Abelard (1079-1142) championed this model of atonement, and may have done so because the idea of "offended lords" fit better with the social milieu of feudalism that was the context in which they lived. Many others have suggested variations of this model since that time, especially in modern times with the increased emphasis on psychological and social relationships.

   The Spiritual/Ontological Model is an attempt to explain the work of Christ in a way that gives adequate import to all of the Biblical concepts.

   This model commences with a view of God that focuses on His character. The God who is Spirit (John 4:24) is absolutely perfect, holy, righteous, good and loving. God does what He does because He is who He is. All of His doing is derived from His Being. He created man as a dependent, contingent and derivative creature, that he might be receptive in faith to actively express the Divine character in human behavior.

   The choice of mankind was either to obey by "listening under God" to determine His direction and to derive His character expression, or to disobey by choosing not to depend on God in order to derive and receive from God.

   The offense of man against God is viewed as a spiritual offense. The original disobedience and sin of man was a repudiation of the spiritual condition and behavioral expression that God intended. It was a rejection of the ontological indwelling of God in man, and therefore a rejection of the spiritual life, identity and nature of God. Man was in essence indicating that he did not want to be connected to the Being of God, dependent, contingent and receptive from God, for he was duped by the Deceiver with the lie that he could be autonomous, independent and self-generative.

   Sin is defined as "missing the mark" of God's character, contradicting His character by failing to act out of the ontological energizing of Divine generation of character. Sinful behavior is the expression of the character of the Evil One, also ontologically derived from his spiritual being.

   God has a passion for the preservation of His absolutely perfect character expression. Even the Law was given for the purpose of explaining His character. Contrariety of His character brings forth the wrath of God that is directed not so much against man, but against the satanic source of sin.

   The consequences that came upon man because of sin were inherent within and demanded by the character of God. God is singularly absolute perfection. The unified perfection of His character cannot be contaminated, defiled, corrupted, adulterated, severed, broken or dissected. The Perfect cannot tolerate the imperfect. There can be no integration, merging or communion with that which is unholy. "God cannot deny Himself" (II Tim. 2:13), and cannot overlook that which is contrary to His character within His creation. Contrariety, inconsistency, incongruity, incompatibility with the character of God logically demands separation, disconnection and detachment. So when man sinned against God the consequence was not just the absence or deprivation of God's ontological presence in man, "devoid of the Spirit" (Jude 19), but the consequence necessitated the ontological alternative of spiritual derivation from the contrary satanic character.

   Sinful mankind is viewed as dysfunctional humanity, misused and abused by the spiritual source of sin in Satan (I John 3:8). Energized by the diabolic spirit (Eph. 2:2), man derives his spiritual condition and behavioral expression from the character of the Evil One.

   The death consequence is not so much a penalty that God vindictively imposes upon man because of sin, but is ontological identification with the "one having the power of death, that is the devil" (Heb. 2:14). The consequence of man's destruction is not to be viewed necessarily as the punitive imposition of God, as ontological connection with the Destroyer. The spiritual consequence of man's fall into sin is the spiritual and ontological connection with the spirit of Satan. Fallen man is caught in "the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will" (II Tim. 2:26).

   To counteract and sever the ontological connection and spiritual identification of mankind with the spirit of the Evil One (I John 5:19), God would have to act in order to triumph over Satan and liberate mankind. Only the sovereign omnipotence of God could conquer the satanic source of sin and death, but He could only do so in a man who could and would assume the death consequences of sin. God's Son, Jesus Christ, was the God-man who would fulfill the necessary conditions of carrying out the divine requirements which would satisfy all consistency with God's character.

   Jesus Christ was "made to be sin" (II Cor. 5:21) in like manner as the human race was "made sinners" (Rom. 5:19), taking upon Himself as a man the ontological connection with Satan in spiritual death. From the cross He exclaimed, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matt. 27:46). The One who is life (John 14:6) became our substitutional representative in taking all the categories of death consequences, including physical death, spiritual death and everlasting death. In assuming such He healed such, just as the early Christian theologians noted that "the unassumed is the unhealed." In experiencing the imputation of sin and death the sinless One severed the ontological identification of humanity with the satanic source of sin and death. He "abolished death" (II Tim. 1:10), and destroyed the works of the source of sin (I John 3:8). He was "the first-born from the dead" (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5), bringing life out of death, that "He might be the first-born among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29) who in ontological identification with Himself could experience His resurrection-life. When the ontological connection of mankind with Satan in sin and death is cut off, then the ontological communion of life in Jesus Christ is made available to mankind.

   Hence we begin to understand what Jesus meant when He exclaimed from the cross, "It is finished!" (John 19:30), a declaration that is inclusive of all the conceptual factors of His work noted earlier. Jesus was proclaiming that "The mission is accomplished. The usurpation of mankind by Satan is brought to an end; the captives are set free (liberation). The just consequences have been served (legal); the penalty has been fulfilled (penal). The indebtedness has been paid in full (economical). The sacrifice has been made (sacrificial). Death has been abolished (necrological). The stain of sin is cleansed (purificational). This is the new covenant in My blood (covenantal). It's done; God has won (triumphal). God is satisfied that all has been done in accord with His character (transactional)."

   Also inherent in the "finished work" of Jesus Christ is the realization that the restoration of man has been inexorably set in motion. The remedial work of Christ on the cross was not the termination of God's working in Christ. God never ceases to function in accord with His character, and there must be the continued outworking of the "finished work" of Jesus Christ. When death is taken, then the alternative ontological connection of life will of necessity be evidenced (vital). The spiritual exchange of ontological dependency can take place (spiritual). Man can once again function in a reconciled relationship of communion with God that derives from His Being. God's activity of grace continues in the on-going action of the risen Lord Jesus, by the dynamic of His life, restoring the ontological spiritual union of God and man.

   The spiritual/ontological model gives due emphasis to the restorative work of Jesus Christ. Going beyond the emphasis on the remedial work of Christ, the results of which are often cast in terms of benefits bestowed by Christ's work, this model recognizes the divine objective of the ontological Being of God in Christ restored to function in man.

   Regeneration is understood to be the ontological indwelling of the life of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Christian has experienced a spiritual exchange "from Satan to God" (Acts 26:18), and the risen Lord Jesus Christ lives in the Christian (Col. 1:27; Gal. 2:20; II Cor. 13:5). We are free to be man as God intended man to be, free to allow God's character to be expressed in our behavior to the glory of God. Justification is recognized as the Christian's being "made righteous" (II Cor. 5:21) by the spiritual/ontological indwelling of the "Righteous One" (I John 2:1), in order to manifest His character of righteousness in our behavior. Sanctification is conjoined with justification, allowing man to function as intended by the manifestation of the Holy character of God in man. Salvation is the comprehensive term that indicates that we have been "made safe" from the dysfunctional misuse and abuse of Satan, in order to function as God intended, deity functioning within humanity, Christ within the Christian.

   Our obedience is the continuous "listening under" God in order to discern and derive the expression of His character. The "finished work" of Jesus Christ implies that we continue to live by the activity of God's grace received through faith. It includes the complete work of Jesus Christ, for us, as us, in us, and through us. Worship becomes the continuous expression of the "worth-ship" of His character in our behavior.

   The spiritual/ontological model attempts to maintain a balance of the objective and subjective concepts of Christ's work, with a recognition of both the remedial and restorative work of Jesus Christ. It is based upon the fact that man is a derivative and contingent creature who functions only and always in spiritual and ontological dependency, receiving from one spiritual source or the other, from God or Satan.

   Early in the history of Christian theology the features of this model were evident, in the writing of Irenaeus (c. 130-200), for example. He emphasized the victory of Christ, the liberation of man from Satan's control, and the restoration of man to God's intent. But through the centuries there has been a recurring tendency to cast the work of Christ into a legal/penal model or a personal/relational model, both of which are easier to understand and can more readily accommodate the humanistic premises of man's alleged autonomy and human potential. The spiritual/ontological model requires the acceptance of man's ontological and spiritual derivativeness as a human creature.

   The spiritual/ontological model appears to best represent the Biblical explanation of the essential character of God, and the interaction of God and man. The legal/penal model and the Biblical images employed therein can and should be used as an explanatory analogy, but not as the primary model. The strengths of the legal/penal model are the recognition of the authority, justice and judgment of God; the guilt and condemnation of man's sin; the payment of the penalty by Jesus Christ; and the acquittal and pardon of man's sin through Jesus Christ. Likewise, the personal/relational model and the images employed therein can and should be used as explanatory analogy, but not as the primary model. The strengths of the personal/relational model are the recognition of God's love, wrath and inter-relational Personhood; the estrangement and alienation of man from God because of sin; Christ's taking God's wrath for man; and the reconciliation of God and man in personal relationship. Both the legal/penal and personal/relational models are weak in the presentation of the restorative work of Jesus Christ, failing to emphasize the living dynamic of the risen Lord Jesus and His on-going work in the Christian today. They both tend to divorce the Christian life from the spiritual life and ontological presence of Jesus Christ, which explains the necessary importance of the spiritual/ontological model.

   May we always remember that the Divine work of God in Jesus Christ is such a unique spiritual reality that the images and concepts and models that we employ to explain such will always fall short of full understanding. Christians are obliged to seek to understand the work of Christ as best they can, but they must learn to live with their finite limitations of understanding, and praise God for His "unfathomable ways" (Rom. 11:33).

Atonement Models Diagram - pdf