When I read the USA Today story about conservative Christians debating the use, or non-use, of the phrase “the wrath of God was satisfied” (in a popular modern song) I decided to go back and read views of the atonement that I could find in the early church fathers.
One of the earliest quotations I discovered comes from Clement of Rome (c. 96): “Because of his love for us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave his blood for us by the will of God. He gave his flesh for our flesh, and his soul for our souls.”
The martyr Polycarp (c. 135) said Jesus Christ “bore our sins in his own body on the tree.”
Justin Martyr wrote: “The whole human race will be found to be under a curse. . . . The Father of all wished his Christ, for the whole human family, to take upon him the curses of all, knowing that, after he has been crucified and was dead, he would raise him up . . . . His Father wished him to suffer this, in order that by his stripes the human race might be healed.”
One of the most descriptive and moving accounts of the atonement is offered by Irenaeus (c. 180):
“Christ fought and conquered. That is because he was man, contending for the fathers. Through obedience, he completely did away with disobedience. For he bound the strong man and set free the weak. He endowed his own handiwork with salvation, by destroying sin. For he is a most holy and merciful Lord, and he loves the human race. Therefore, as I have already said, he caused man to cleave to and to become one with God. For unless man had overcome the enemy of man, the enemy would not have been legitimately conquered.”
Irenaeus refers to Abraham offering up his beloved son as a sacrifice to God in order to demonstrate that God would be pleased to offer up his own Son as a “sacrifice for our redemption.” Over and over again Irenaeus refers to Jesus conquering the enemy of mankind through death and sacrifice. This victory was necessary in order to release us from our bondage.
Irenaeus also says that we were ruled over in tyrannical apostasy and alienated from God. However, Christ, the righteous one, overturned this alienation and redeemed us as his own property. For this apostasy he obtained dominion over us and thus snatched us away from the evil one.
Finally, Irenaeus states what seems to be the central idea I discovered in most of these earliest writings in Christian history about the meaning of Christ’s death. He writes:
“In this manner, the Lord has redeemed us through his own blood, giving his soul for our souls, and his flesh for our flesh. He has also poured our the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, actually imparting God to men by means of his Spirit. On the other hand, he has joined man to God by his own incarnation. And he will truly and lastingly bestow immortality upon us at his coming–through communion with God.”
My reason for citing these various early church fathers is not to suggest that everything we need to know about the death of Christ, and the meaning behind it, is to be found in these ancient writers. Yet, and this seems very important, what they did say should carry considerable weight in all subsequent discussion since they lived in closest proximity to the actual events and understood the way early Christians thought about them.
We will return to this point, and elaborate further, in tomorrow’s post.