In presenting the gospel it is wise not to focus on the death of Christ. It is true that the great evangelists of our time have focused on the cross such the gospel message is often in terms of sin, punishment, Christ's atonement for sin resulting in forgiveness. Although this is true and an essential doctrine for the Christian life, it is not the focus of evangelistic presentations in the New Testament. The empty tomb resulting in life for the believer, is the center of gospel preaching. We will do better arguing for the resurrection of Christ than trying to explain the atonement to a person who has little understanding of the Old Testament. We will only leave them totally confused. Best to just say "Jesus was done in by wicked men - good people often are. But of course, you can't keep a good man down."
None-the-less, as the crucifixion of Christ is part of the gospel story we may well be asked to explain "why did Jesus have to die if he was good and he was God?"
The theology of the atonement sets out to explain the function of the death of Jesus. Why was it necessary for Jesus to die? What purpose did it achieve? How did Jesus' death achieve our salvation?
There are four traditional explanations for the death of Jesus:
i] An example of godly living. His self-giving love does indeed serve as an example for cross-bearing discipleship, but that is not the prime function of the cross.
ii] An act of love. By this act of love we are driven to respond to God's free offer of salvation and so are saved. The cross does not work this way.
iii] A victory over evil. The powers of darkness are defeated and so we are free to seek salvation from God. The cross is indeed a victory over evil, but that does not explain how our guilt before God is covered, freeing us to enter into fellowship with God.
iv] A redemptive act. Christ's death is a substitutionary sacrifice by which means a believer's guilt, and thus their punishment of eternal death, is transferred to Jesus who bears that punishment on their behalf. This understanding of Christ's death lies at the center of the Christian faith.
The atoning work of Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system which serves as a "type" of Christ's sacrifice. Christ, as the pure atoning sacrifice, the "lamb of God", serves to atone for the sin of the people and thus achieve their salvation. Christ's sacrificial death serves to "reconcile" the sinner to God, "ransom" the lost from the bondage of sin and death, "redeem" those in slavery to sin, "propitiate" the wrath of God (ie. turn it aside from the sinner onto Christ), mediate "the new covenant" in his blood, and "justify" the lost.
This theology is fully developed in the epistles of Paul who serves as the expositor of Christ. When it comes to the gospels, it is only hinted at. That doesn't mean that the gospel writers didn't understand the theology of the atonement, just that it was not in their brief to develop it. The "good news" of Christ rests on the theology of the atonement, but is not an integral part of the proclamation of the kingdom message. Note Paul's gospel message in Acts 17:22-32.
There are therefore few references to the atonement, either directly or indirectly, in the gospels. This fact should make us wary of gospel presentations that seek to develop the theology of the atonement. None-the-less, the few references that do exist are substantial in nature.
A word study
Consider the following word study from the gospels:
i] Reconciliation. Not found in the gospels.
ii] Redemption , ransom - [lutron]. Luke 24:1, The disciples expected Jesus to be the one who would redeem Israel, although that expectation was not necessarily linked to his death. The messiah would redeem Israel, but by what means is not explained, cf Luke 2:38. Redemption is often conceived in eschatological terms, Luke 21:28, rather than sacrificial terms. The most substantial statement comes in Matt.20:28 and Mk.10:45 where Christ's death is clearly defined as "a ransom for many". By his death he buys-out those in the bondage of their sin. A clearer statement of the purpose of the death of Jesus cannot be found in the scriptures.
iii] Propitiation. Not found in the gospels.
iv] Lamb of God. When John presents the idea of "the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world", 1:29, 36, he is most likely using the imagery of the Paschal victim of Ex.12:46, Isa.53:7. John further develops this idea in chapter 19. Both Luke and Mark hint at this imagery, Mk.14:12, Lk.22:7. This idea is also contained in the phrase "God gave his one and only son" for the salvation of the lost, John 1:18, 3:16. Most other such references relate more to the "suffering servant" who brings in the kingdom through struggle and pain, Mk.1:11.
v] The new covenant in Christ's blood. Although again not developed, the idea of a new covenant between God and man, established through the sacrificial offering of the blood of Christ, is recorded in the words at the Last Supper, Lk.22:20, Mk.14:24. John 6 may develop this idea, although John defines "eating/drinking" Christ as "coming to" and "believing in" Christ.
vi] Justification. The righteousness that is ours as a gift of grace through repentance and faith in Christ is central to the gospels, but they do not explain how it is that a person may go "home right with God", that is, how God may freely show mercy to the sinner while maintaining justice. The mechanism of justification is not explained, nor does it need to be.
Although the very ground of the gospels rests on the doctrine of the atonement, only now and then is the doctrine inferred, and only rarely is it stated. It is Paul the apostle who develops the doctrine fully. Like the gospel writers, we are best to avoid getting into the "why" of Christ's death and focus on the resurrection.
Index of studies. Resource file.
Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources
Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons