Prevailing Views of the Atonement of Christ

This is one of those articles this writer has put together in order to have a clear and logical understanding of the two principal views of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of men. Such an endeavor helps me to maintain a consistent understanding of the topic at hand, not only in my own mind, but it also helps me greatly in communicating what I believe to others. As Christians, being able to articulate why we believe what we believe is spiritually enriching, while at the same time extremely helpful when discussing biblical topics with other believers and unbelievers alike. On to the topic at hand – the two prevailing views of the Atonement!

There is very little doubt among Christians that, In his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ became the atonement, or sacrifice for the sins of mortal men. The Bible tells us that there is no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood, in both the Old and New Testaments (Leviticus 16 & Hebrews 9). In the OT, atonement for sin was accomplished by the Jewish High Priests through the periodic sacrificing of ceremonially clean animals. In the New Testament, we are presented with the once for all atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the pure Lamb of God who lived a perfect life on behalf of all who repent of sin and believe the gospel.

Having established that belief in Christ’s sacrifice for the salvation of men, we can ask the crucial question: Did Christ die to merely make the salvation possible for those who repent and believe, or to actually guarantee their salvation? To try and answer that question, let us turn to what has been referred to as The Golden Chain of Salvation recorded in Romans 8:29-30:

29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”

If you are asking “How do those two verses answer our question?”, you are asking the right question! Those two verses didn’t come to be called The Golden Chain of Salvation on a whim or by accident. The actually present to us the logical flow of the process of salvation, or how God saves men. We are told that those who are saved are those God first of all “foreknew”, followed by their “predestination”, calling”, justification”, and glorification.”

The key to answering our question concerning the prevailing views of the Atonement lies in the definition of the phrase “those whom he (God) foreknew”. It goes without saying that those who are “foreknown” by God are ultimately “glorified” in their salvation. It is also significant that everything that God does in these passages is expressed in the past tense – just something for you to ponder. What does it mean that God “foreknew”? There are two distinct possibilities, and possibly only two.

By itself, the term “foreknew” means literally “knew beforehand”. In our context, that seems to indicate that God either knew personally those who would be saved, or he knew something that would do at some point in time.

By far, the prevailing view in modern evangelicalism is that God, who knows the beginning from the end, knows all of the future actions of all men, and decided to save those who he knew would, at some point in time, hear the gospel message and come to believe in Christ as Savior of their own natural free will.

The other, less popular view, is that God knew beforehand those He would save in a personal way, not because they were somehow ‘better’ than others, or because he knew what they would do at some future point in time. We see a beautiful example of this view in God’s choosing of Israel for deliverance from bondage in Egypt:

“It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)

God didn’t choose Israel because of how great a nation it was or anything they might accomplish in the future. He had made a covenant with Abraham to eventually become a great nation out of which would come His Messiah that would impact all the nations of the world. In like manner, God, also in eternity past, set his love upon and chose all those he would deliver from the bondage of sin through His Messiah.

The last question we can ask is “What exactly does Romans passage actually say?” The text says “for those whom he (God) foreknew”, a personal pronoun. God knew specific individuals he would bring to salvation. The term “knew” used in the text is the same word God used when he called the Prophet Jeremiah:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

As a final check, I examined over 15 different translations. All but three used the same phrase “I knew you. Two used the phrase “I chose you” and one used the phrase “I selected you”. As a matter of curiosity, I also checked the The Message (MSG) Bible, which claims to be a translation but is, at best, an ‘interesting’ paraphrase. The MSG used the phrase “I knew all about you”, which could support the most popular view of the Atonement, described earlier in this article.

To summarize, there are two main views of the Atonement of Christ. The most popular of the two is that God knew the future decisions of all men and chose for salvation those he knew would choose him of their own free will. The less popular view is that God knew personally, and set his love upon those he would save, and as a matter of sovereign grace, determined to bring them to salvation.

So what?

First of all, both views cannot be correct. Which is most faithful to the text of Scripture? Which do you believe and why? Does one’s view of the Atonement affect how we evangelize – how we share the gospel? Should it?

I won’t share my answers to those questions. After all, my intention in trying to make sense of it all was not to convince anyone of my opinion of the matter. Perhaps another article will address how views of the Atonement impact our evangelistic efforts.

Feel free to comment and let me know if you think I did what I set out to do – properly present the two main views of Christ’s Atonement.