The contentious issue in the current atonement debate among conservative evangelical Christians centers around various doctrinal distinctions that have been important for several centuries. Most conservative preaching has spoken of Christ’s death as meeting God’s just requirement for the punishment of sin, a death that satisfies God’s wrath against mankind’s rebellion. A central text employed by this argument can be seen in Paul’s argument about the ministry of reconciliation in Second Corinthians.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:16-21, NRSV).
The point that is central here seems to be that Christ, who never sinned, was “made . . . to be sin” in order to “reconcile” us to God. The argument is that Christ was the perfect and spotless sacrifice who was fully God and fully man thus he alone could offer up a final and perfect sacrifice that God would accept on behalf of the sins of the “world” (verse 19).
Jesus was like mankind in all ways “yet without sinning” (Hebrews 4:14) bore the sins of mankind (cf. Isaiah 53:4-12). He offered himself up on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for all those sins (cf. 1 Peter 2:22-25), thereby reconciling men to God. Through his sacrifice we become the righteousness of God, that is, we are justified, or made right in God’s sight (Romans 1:17; 3:24-26, etc.). God the Father, through the death and resurrection of Jesus his son, has reconciled the world to himself. Our Lord entrusted this ministry of reconciliation (vs. 18) and “message of reconciliation” (vs. 19) to pass it on to all men everywhere.
Verse 21 is the key text in the contemporary debate. “He made him to be sin” says St. Paul. The word “sin” here corresponds to the Hebrew word (asam) which refers to the actual sacrifice being offered, thus “he was made a victim for sin” would be a good translation. Isaiah 53 is clearly echoed here as well. The servant of Yahweh is offered up as a sacrifice. By his sufferings we are “healed.”
So far no orthodox Christian –Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox – disagrees with anything I have said. But the problem comes in emphasis, especially when legal concepts are brought into the discussion and pressed very passionately. Let me explain.
The Orthodox Study Bible (Thomas Nelson, 2008) has the following note on this text:
How was Christ made to be sin for us? He, the incarnate Son of God, voluntarily assumed the consequences of our sin–corruption and death–without sinning Himself. And he submitted to unjust suffering because of the sinful passions of men and angels. This means salvation is far more than forgiveness of sins. It is new life: our reconciliation to God (verses 18-20) and our becoming new creatures (verse 17), participants in the very righteousness of God (verse 21).. This means our salvation is not just juridical (the static, legal pronouncement of a judge), but personal and relational (the dynamic, sacrificial love of a father for his child).
If the point of this text is forced into the concept of an angry Father and the legal category of absolute justice being satisfied the emphasis on the sacrifice is very often seen as appeasing God’s anger or hostility toward wicked people.
Bob Terry, editor of the Alabama Baptist wrote, in his now controversial editorial, that Jesus’ death paid the price for our sins but he believed the lyrics of the song – “the wrath of God was satisfied” – went too far. His point was to stress that the concept of an angry God, whose wrath overflows in white hot heat against sin and sinners, until the innocent atoning sacrifice of Jesus is offered to appease his wrath through justice and payment, is not a balanced and whole biblical view of the matter.
The reaction to Terry’s editorial was swift. A statement issued by the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions said: “As Alabama Baptists seek to be true to Scripture, we affirm the essential and historic Christian doctrine of substitutionary atonement.”
Dr. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville agreed with this analysis of the controversy. Mohler said that there is no contradiction between God’s love and God’s wrath. Both are needed to deal with human sin. And, adds Bob Smietana: “That is why he [Mohler] believes penal substitutionary atonement is essential. Critics who want to change ‘In Christ Alone’ to remove the line about God’s wrath have bad theology” (Quoted in USA Today/Religion News Service). Mohler added, “It reveals deeper problems with what they believe about atonement.”