Preaching the Atonement

First of all, I should state that my main interest in this subject is the atonement in evangelistic preaching. By that, I mean preaching whose intended audience is those outside the Christian faith; I mean preaching whose primary intention is to teach, intrigue, draw and challenge the hearers to open their minds and hearts to Christ for the first time. Evangelistic preaching in my book does not necessarily mean large crusades: it may be as simple as a priest’ s Sunday homily when she is sensitive to the fact that visitors may be present who have no prior knowledge of the faith. 

The cross and atonement in Acts

There is, in fact, a long-standing connection between the atonement and evangelistic preaching, going back to the apostle Paul, who, recalling his first visit to Corinth, reminded his readers that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Writing about evangelistic preaching has long taken up this theme. John Stott, for example, wrote back in 1967:

Our evangelistic duty is . . . clear. We are to “preach Christ crucified.” And so vivid is our proclamation to be, that we must portray Christ crucified before people’s eyes, as if placarding him on a public billboard.  We are also to make it plain that Christ’s cross is the only ground on which God can accept sinners. 

The problem with this close association of evangelistic proclamation and the atonement, however, is that the apostles themselves do not necessarily preach the atonement in their evangelism. Sir William Ramsey, for example, writing in 1896, observed that Paul did not mention the cross in his sermon at Athens in Acts 17, and that he got very little positive response from his hearers. Ramsey concluded that the reason Paul spoke of preaching “Christ and him crucified” at Corinth (in Acts 18) was precisely because after that experience he returned to preaching the cross, which should have been the heart of his message all along.  In fact, Ramsey revised this harsh judgment of Paul at Athens some years later (1913), and no commentator since has classed the “cross-less” sermon at Athens as a failure.  John Stott has argued that Paul must have preached about the crucifixion at Athens, since “how could he proclaim the resurrection without mentioning the death which preceded it?”  But the argument from silence is not very strong, specially in the light of the preaching of the cross earlier in the Book of Acts.

In Peter’s sermons, for example, it is true that the cross is frequently mentioned, but his example is not one that a contemporary preacher could or should emulate. His message on the day of Pentecost is typical:
This man . . . you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death.
The cross is part of Peter’s argument because (a) it demonstrates the worst that human sin can accomplish (b) it is the sin for which his hearers most grievously need forgiveness and (c) amazingly enough, God is willing to forgive even this sin and (d) it prompted that demonstration of divine power called the resurrection. However, the constant emphasis on “you” (“you killed”, “you crucified”, “you had killed”) means that his argument is localized. It is not one that would have any applicability outside Jerusalem, and indeed the emphasis changes as soon as he preaches elsewhere.  In spite of the recurrent theme of the cross, then, Peter never says anything like “Christ died for our sins”  until much later, when he writes his first epistle.

The fact is that, in spite of Paul’s strong statement in Corinthians, and although the cross is certainly mentioned in the evangelistic preaching in the Book of Acts, there is no real doctrine of the atonement to be found in Acts. Leon Morris, writing about The Cross in the New Testament, agrees. Though he argues plausibly that the death of Christ “underlies everything in Acts”, nevertheless:
Luke does not give us a carefully thought-out system of theology, more particularly with respect to the atonement. 

What Peter has done, therefore, is to preach an understanding of the cross which is contextually appropriate. In fact, his language is so culturally relevant that it has a powerful and emotional effect on the hearers: three thousand are converted! The New Testament offers many such interpretations of the cross of Christ, and specifically of the atonement, which are more or less appropriate to different cultural settings. 

Different metaphors, common meaning

The Apostle Paul, in particular, seems to be able to move without hesitation from one to another in a passage like 2 Corinthians 5. In verse 14, for example, he employs a metaphor of resurrection:
Christ died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
Christ died and rose again: now, by being identified with him, we die to our old self-centered way of life and are resurrected to new life in his service.

In verse 19, he switches to a different metaphor, this time from the world of relationships.
God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting people\’s sins against them.
The language of alienation and reconciliation is relational language. God is a lover whose beloved has gone off with someone else, and he is hurt and angry. Paul says that in the death of Jesus, God is seeking to get back together with us, to be reconciled with us.

Then, in verse 21, Paul uses a religious language, the language of sin and righteousness and sacrifice:
For our sake God made him who knew no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God
It may even be that Paul means the word “sin” here to stand for “sin-offering,” as it does in Leviticus 4:24 and 5:12 (LXX), though that would be the only time the New Testament uses the word in that way.   Certainly here Paul is emphasizing the death of Christ for our sin, in the way that a sacrifice was offered for the sin of the worshipper, and arguing that, as a result, we are restored to right standing with God.

As Paul moves from one to the other, however, there is a common idea at the heart of each: the idea of exchange. In each of the three cases, Christ gives us something and we give Christ something. What is different each time is what is exchanged. In the first example (14), it is an exchange of life for death: we give Jesus our death, he gives us his resurrection life. In the second (19), the exchange is of reconciliation for enmity (19): we give him our alienation from God, and he gives us his relationship with God. In the third (21), the exchange is of righteousness for sin: we give him our sin, and he gives us his righteousness. Barth echoes this language of exchange and substitution:

It is the Judge who in this passion takes the place of those who ought to be judged, who in this passion allows Himself to be judged in their place. . . . To fulfil this judgement He took the place of all men, He took their place as sinners.

I would suggest that, whatever metaphors we may believe to be culturally appropriate, the common element of exchange and substitution must lie behind them. As John Stott says:

Substitution is not a further theory or image to be set alongside the others, but rather the foundation of them all, without which each lacks cogency. 

Thinking like cross-cultural missionaries

Lesslie Newbigin has encouraged western Christians to see their own society as a mission field, as alien from traditional Christian faith as a foreign mission field. In some ways, all of his work is a response to the concern he states in Foolishness to the Greeks:

There is no higher priority . . . than to ask the question of what would be involved in a genuinely missionary encounter between the gospel and this modern Western culture.

One response to this concern is to consider what the church in the west can learn from the experience of overseas missionaries. Part of that experience is the need for translation. Lamin Sanneh, who teaches at the Yale School of Mission, has actually argued that it is of the essence of Christianity to be translatable.   Sanneh’s thesis is that “translatability” is characteristic of Christianity in a way that would not be true, for instance, of Islam. Northrop Frye agrees:

Christianity as a religion has been from the beginning dependent on translation . . .. From the first Pentecost . . . the emphasis on translation has been consistent. 

This is what is happening in 2 Corinthians 5. It is Paul’s experience as a cross-cultural missionary which enables him to move effortlessly from the language of resurrection to relational language to the language of sacrifice. He is accustomed to translating basic theological concepts into different languages, making use of different metaphors of redemption in his hearers’ worlds.

A more contemporary example of translating the atonement for evangelistic purposes comes from the work of Don Richardson, a Canadian missionary in Irian Jaya in the 1960s. Richardson found that among the Sawi people to whom he and his wife had been sent, “treachery was idealized as a virtue, a goal of life.”  Thus when he told them the story of Jesus, they were struck, not with the heroism of Jesus, but with the ingenuity of Judas, betraying his supposed master with a kiss, and with the apparent gullibility of Jesus. Richardson was unable to reverse this understanding until he discovered the ritual of the peace child, by which the Sawi established peace with former enemies. At an elaborate ceremony, the two villages exchanged newborn babies, and the gift of the children was the guarantee of peace between the two communities. As each left its home village, every member of the village laid a hand on the baby in order to indicate their acceptance of the agreement. Then, as long as the peace child lived, peace was assured. After that, the worst that could happen was that the peace child would die, or that someone would kill the peace child.

Having understood this symbol, Richardson was then able to use it as a metaphor for teaching the Gospel. Human beings have been at war with God, he explained, but God has given us his only son as a guarantee of his desire for peace with us–as the ultimate peace child. However, when the child came, our response was to kill him. In spite of this, God brought him back from death, and he can never die again, thus guaranteeing God’s willingness to be at peace with us. But we have (metaphorically speaking) to lay our hand on God’s peace child to indicate our acceptance of the conditions of peace. Now the Sawi understood. Now Judas was understood in the Sawis’ own terms as the villain, because he had betrayed the peace child. Appropriately enough, the first convert was the man whose child had been given to the other tribe.

The parallels with the New Testament story are patently many and fruitful. There is the image of enmity between us and the Creator, which Paul uses some half-dozen times.  There is the innocence of the peace child, fully one of the people yet not himself responsible for the warfare. There is certainly the element of substitution and exchange—an innocent life given to atone for the hostility. There is the response of faith, symbolized by the laying on of hands.

From this experience, Richardson developed a theory of “redemptive analogies”, suggesting that in every culture the Holy Spirit is at work, shaping people’s imagination to receive the Gospel.  The task of the evangelist is to find those redemptive analogies and to announce to the hearers how the Gospel of Christ fulfils those analogies. In terms of preaching the atonement in contemporary western culture, then, the challenge is to find such redemptive analogies and to use them wisely.

What then are the redemptive analogies which will cause unchurched people of the twenty-first century to say, as did the Sawi of the twentieth century, “I see. So that is what the death of Christ means.”

Let me begin with imagery I suspect has less heuristic value than it did fifty years ago. The most common atonement imagery I heard as a student in an evangelical community thirty years ago was the language of the lawcourt–of judges and laws, of penalties and sentences, of guilt and innocence, of condemnation and acquittal—in a word, forensic imagery. At the time, I found it powerful and moving and convincing, but I doubt that it is equally helpful today. For example, statistics indicate that public confidence in the legal system (as in all institutions) has dropped considerably in recent years.  It seems unlikely that an institution which inspires so little confidence will provide a helpful analogy for atonement, among young people or adults, even though it may have done so thirty years ago. The culture has changed.  

Where else might we look? Clark Pinnock and Robert Brow, in their 1994 book, Unbounded Love,  point us in a different direction. Unfortunately they overstate their case by caricaturing older views such as the forensic:

A big problem in western theology has been its preference for an abstract legal theory of how the cross saves us . . .. The theory sees sin as a violation of justice and the cross as an infinite propitiation and appeasement of God. On this view God easily becomes . . . an implacable judge and avenger.

At the same time, however, they do us a service by exploring a view which I believe is helpful and which they refer to as a relational model:

Suffering love is the way of salvation for sinners. Jesus takes the pain of divine love on himself in solidarity with all of us. . . . God elects to defeat his enemies by turning the other cheek. . . . On the cross God absorbs all the hurt our sins have caused. . . . Not lashing out, not retaliating, not holding out for satisfaction, God simply loves. The pain of the cross is the cost to God of restoring the broken relationship.

A relational model of atonement

If this image sounds abstract and even verging on the sentimental, Kenneth Bailey helps to earth it.  During his time living and teaching in the Middle East, Bailey did extensive research into the sociological background of many New Testament stories. What is relevant here is his commentary on the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. He comments on the paradox of this story: if, on the one hand, this story is Jesus’ summary of his message–that God welcomes us back whatever we have done–and if on the other hand the cross is supposed to be central to Christianity–why is there no cross in this story? Bailey comments:

Islam claims that in this story the boy is saved without a saviour. The prodigal returns. The father forgives him. There is no cross, no suffering, no savior. . . .But not so. The cross and incarnation are implicitly yet dramatically present in the story. More than this, the going out of the father and his visible demonstration of suffering are the climax of the parable. . . . The suffering of the cross was not primarily the physical torture but rather the agony of rejected love. In this parable the father endures this agony all through the estrangement. . . . Any man hurt by evil has two alternatives. He can suffer, and through suffering forgive, or he can seek revenge. Revenge avoids suffering. 

This is relational language. “The agony of rejected love . . . estrangement . . . suffering.” I believe that Brow and Pinnock are right to this extent, that it is imagery drawn from the world of relationships, not least fractured relationships, rather than from the world of the lawcourt, which will best help to explain the atonement to people in contemporary western culture.  

We are going to watch a clip from a wonderful and strange movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape which illustrates atonement through just such a relational metaphor. The story is of a dysfunctional family consisting of a mother, two sons and two daughters. The mother (played by Darlene Cates) has not moved from the couch in front of the TV for years (literally) with the inevitable effects. The younger son, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a mentally challenged 12-year old whose main pleasure in life is climbing the water tower in the little country town where they live, so that the fire department has to come and get him down every time. In the clip we are about to watch, the police department decide that it is time to teach him a lesson. The older brother, whom you will see first, is played by Johnny Depp.


It would actually be possible to read this story in traditional forensic terms. Arnie breaks the law and suffers the due punishment. His mother, innocent of any offence, chooses voluntarily to endure suffering herself on his behalf, in order that Arnie can be acquitted of the charges against him. The picture could be improved only if she were imprisoned in his cell instead of him.

But there is also a way to read the story relationally. Arnie and his mother love one another. Yet Arnie’s actions have hurt his mother. Like the father in Luke 15, she has a choice. She could say, let him suffer, he has brought it on himself, it will teach him a lesson. He has hurt me—he deserves to be hurt. She could in that way bounce the hurt back onto him. Instead, she is willing to bear the shame and humiliation it costs in order to get him back. The hug with which she greets him seems to be something like the hug the father gave the prodigal son!

Bailey says, “Any man hurt by evil has two alternatives. He can suffer, and through suffering forgive, or he can seek revenge. Revenge avoids suffering.”
If we can speak anthropomorphically, God was faced with a similar choice. We have done wrong—to God, to ourselves and to God’s world. God could have allowed us to feel the full effects of his righteous judgement. Like Arnie, we would have had no grounds for complaint. That would only have been justice. 

But, like Bonnie, God decided to take the other alternative: “to suffer, and through suffering forgive”–to allow the hurt to stay with him—not to bounce it back onto us, but to substitute himself for us. And in the cross of Jesus we see the effect that our sin has on God. Why is there no cross in the story of the runaway son? As Bailey hints, there is a cross, but it is not a visible one. The cross is the suffering in the heart of the Father who allows himself to be hurt, even to be killed, rather than visiting that pain on the child whom he loves.

A Catholic friend once said to me, You evangelicals are so obsessed with the cross, you forget that it is only a means to an end—the end of restoring our relationship with God. For years, I decided he was right and felt suitably chastened. But then I realized: no, there is no clear separation between the cross and our relationship with God. The cross is not a door that we walk through and leave behind as we enter the place where God is enthroned. “God was in Christ” reconciling the world to himself at the cross. The cross is the place where God is enthroned. Our God is a crucified God, and we can never progress beyond that.

Does the relational model have the same theological value as the forensic model? I believe it does. Yet any model is no more than a starting point. A maturing Christian will learn more and more about the meaning of the cross, and some of that learning will come through other models, other metaphors– including some which might well have seemed culturally alien when they started their journey!

So the atonement is central to Christian faith. The words “Christ died for our sins” are precious to any believer. We long for the whole world to know it. But to the outside world, that simple sentence, “Christ died for our sins,” is one of the most unintelligible sentences in the world. People may know something of who Jesus was. They certainly know what it is to die: they probably know that Jesus died by crucifixion. Maybe they even have a vague sense that “sin” is something to do with wrongdoing. So what is it that is so difficult about this sentence? What makes it difficult, surprisingly enough, is the little word “for,” the word that connects two historical realities (Christ’s death and our sins) in such a way as to spell atonement. Novelist A.S.Byatt explains why she rejected Christian faith in precisely these terms:

I rejected the atonement on the grounds that I did not need it, or want it, and as far as I could see it had not happened. God had sent his only begotten son into the world to die “for” us but the story did not make it at all clear what “for” meant.

We would say the story does make clear what “for” means. But the story needs to be told in a way that is appropriate for each culture. And to do that, we need all the gifts of the missionary—the flair for translation, the love of different cultures, the ear for metaphor, the eye to spot redemptive analogies, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

SEAD Conference
Wycliffe College
September 29, 2000


  1.   1 Corinthians 2:2
  2.   A paraphrase of Galatians 3:1.
  3.   John R. W. Stott Our Guilty Silence (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), 35.
  4.   Ramsey points out that the phrase used in Acts to describe Paul’s passion at Corinth is unique. lit. Paul was pressed in the Spirit (Acts 18:5)
  5.    See E.M.Blaiklock, Acts: an Introduction and Commentary (London: Tyndale Press, 1959), 142-143. 
  6.   John R. W. Stott The Spirit, the Church and the World: The Message of Acts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 1990), 289.
  7.   Acts 2:23-24 Peter repeats the emphasis on “you killed him” in Acts 3:15, 4:10, and 5:30.
  8.   With Cornelius in Caesarea, Peter switches to the third person: “They put him to death.” Acts 10:39-40 Paul too focuses on the responsibility of the inhabitants of Jerusalem when he preaches at Antioch: “Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed.” Acts 13:28-30
  9.   1 Corinthians 15:3
  10.   “Christ also suffered for sins once for all.” (1 Peter 3:18)
  11.   Leon Morris The Cross in the New Testament (Exeter UK: Paternoster Press 1965), 108.
  12.   John Stott lists some of them:  “As for the imagery, “propitiation” introduces us to rituals at a shrine, “redemption” to transactions in a marketplace, “justification” to proceedings in a lawcourt, and “reconciliation” to experiences in a home or family.” John R. W. Stott The Cross of Christ  (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 168.
  13.   Colin Kruse Tyndale New Testament Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Grad Rapids: Eerdmans 1987), 129.
  14.   Karl Barth Church Dogmatics: A Selection ed. Helmut Gollwitzer (New York: Harper & Row 1961), 119. My italics. (The original reference is to CD IV, I, 246-248.)
  15.   Ibid., 168. Martin Luther responded to the idea of exchange thus:
    “Learn to know Christ and him crucified. Learn to sing to him and say:
    Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin;
    you are my life, I am your death.
    You accepted suffering you did not earn,
    that I might receive joy I did not deserve.
    You became what you were not,
    so that I might become what I was not.”
    Martin Luther, Letters of Spiritual Counsel, quoted in a slightly different form in Stott 200.
  16.   Lesslie Newbigin Foolishness to the Greeks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 3.
  17.   Lamin Sanneh Translating the Message: the Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll NY: Orbis Books, 1992).
  18.   Northrop Frye The Great Code: the Bible and Literature (Toronto: Academic Press, 1982), 3-4.  Frye adds, “The Koran . . . is so interwoven with the special characteristics of the Arabic language that in practice Arabic has had to go everywhere the Islamic religion has gone.” 
  19.   Don Richardson Peace Child (Ventura CA: Regal Books, 3rd edition 1976), 177.
  20.   Romans 5:10, 8:7, 11:28, 1 Corinthians 15:25, Ephesians 2:15-16, Philippians 3:18, Colossians 1:21.
  21.   “Redemptive analogies, God’s keys to man’s cultures, are the New Testament-approved approach to cross-cultural evangelism. And only in the New Testament do we find the pattern for discerning and appropriating them, a pattern we must learn to use.”  Peace Child 288. Richardson writes more about this in a second book, Eternity in their Hearts (Ventura CA: Regal Books 1982), where he gives numerous examples of such redemptive analogies from around the world.
  22.   A survey of teenagers in 1992 asked them, “How much confidence do you have in the people in charge of the lawcourts?” In 1984, 67% had replied “a great deal” or “quite a bit.” In 1992, however, only 59% shared that confidence. The same survey revealed that, in 1985, only 48% of adults trusted the court system, and by 1990 that figure had dropped to 43%. Reginald Bibby and Donald Posterski  Teen Trends: A Nation in Motion (Toronto: Stoddart, 1992), 174.
  23.   By the same token, images of Christian commitment drawn from the marriage relationship are less convincing than they were fifty years ago.
  24.   Clark H. Pinnock and Robert C. Brow Unbounded Love: A Good News Theology for the 21st Century (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press1994), 100.
  25.   Ibid., 103.
  26.   N.T.Wright testifies that “the work of Bailey . . . has been eyes to the blind.” He also comments that “Bailey’s work is not well known, and not easily accessible.” Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 129n., 133n.
  27.   Kenneth E. Bailey The Cross and the Prodigal (St. Louis: Concordia, 1971), 56-57.
  28.   Reginald Bibby notes that while 83% of Canadians value friendship as very important, success and freedom come in lower, at 76% and 75% respectively and a good education at 63%. As young people look to the future, 82% say a good marriage and family life are very important; 75% affirm strong friendships; while only 16% see social justice as very important and only 6% consider being a leader in the community important. Reginald W. Bibby Mosaic Madness: the Poverty and Potential of Life in Canada (Toronto: Stoddart , 1990),  109, 97.
  29.   A.S.Byatt, in The God I Want, ed. James Mitchell (London: Hodder and Stoughton 1967), 73. This is why C. S. Lewis’ faux naivety about the atonement will not do: “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. . . . I will tell you what it is like. All sensible people know that if you are tired and hungry a meal will do you good. But the modern theory of nourishment—all about the vitamins and proteins—is a different thing.” C.S.Lewis Mere Christianity (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952; Fontana Books 1955), 54-55. We are not “sensible people” where the cross is concerned, and if we do not know something of “the theory” of the cross, we do not know what God is like.