The Correct View of Atonement

Taken from: The Moody Handbook of Theology

Although there are some points of merit in the previously discussed views concerning the death of Christ, the views are incomplete or deficient in their evaluation of His death. The foundational meaning of the death of Christ is its substitutionary character. He died in place of sinners that He might purchase their freedom, reconcile them to God, and thereby satisfy the righteous demands of a holy God. The following terms explain the meaning of Christ’s death.


The death of Christ was substitutionary—He died in the stead of sinners and in their place. This is also described as vicarious from the Latin word vicarius meaning "one in place of another." The death of Christ "is vicarious in the sense that Christ is the Substitute who bears the punishment rightly due sinners, their guilt being imputed to Him in such a way that He representatively bore their punishment."24-2 There are many passages that emphasize Christ’s substitutionary atonement in the place of mankind. Christ was a substitute in being made sin for others (2 Cor. 5:21); He bore the sins of others in His body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24); He suffered once to bear the sins of others (Heb. 9:28); He experienced horrible suffering, scourging, and death in place of sinners (Isa. 53:4-6).

There are two Greek prepositions that emphasize the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death. The preposition anti, translated "for," means Christ died "instead of" sinners (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). The preposition huper, also translated "for," means Christ died "in behalf of" or "in place of" sinners (Gal. 3:13; 1 Tim. 2:6; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:18). Philemon 13 shows that huper must mean "in place of."

The doctrine of substitution is important in that through Christ’s death the righteous demands of God have been met; it was a legal transaction in which Christ dealt with the sin problem for the human race. He became the substitute for humanity’s sin.


The word redemption comes from the Greek word agorazo and means "to purchase in the marketplace." Frequently it had to do with the sale of slaves in the marketplace. The word is used to describe the believer being purchased out of the slavemarket of sin and set free from sin’s bondage. The purchase price for the believer’s freedom and release from sin was the death of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23; Rev. 5:9; 14:3, 4).

Because the believer has been bought by Christ, he belongs to Christ and is Christ’s slave. "The redeemed are paradoxically slaves, the slaves of God, for they were bought with a price. . . . Believers are not brought by Christ into a liberty of selfish ease. Rather, since they have been bought by God at terrible cost, they have become God’s slaves, to do His will."24-3 A second word related to the believer’s redemption is exagorazo, which teaches that Christ redeemed believers from the curse and bondage of the law that only condemned and could not save. Believers have been purchased in the slave market (-agorazo) and removed from (ex-) the slave market altogether. Christ set believers free from bondage to the law and from its condemnation (Gal. 3:13; 4:5). "A curse rests on everyone who does not fulfill the law; Christ died in such a way as to bear or be a curse; we who should have been accursed now go free . . . (moreover, this is) a legally based freedom."24-4

A third term that is used to explain redemption is lutroo which means "to obtain release by the payment of a price."24-5 The idea of being set free by payment of a ransom is prevalent in this word (Luke 24:21). Believers have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1:18) to be a special possession for God (Titus 2:14).

Redemption is viewed sinward; mankind was in bondage to sin and in need of release from bondage and slavery to sin.


The emphasis of reconciliation is that of making peace with God. Man who was estranged from God is brought into communion with God. Sin had created a barrier between man and God and rendered man hostile toward God (Isa. 59:1-2; Col. 1:21, 22; Ja. 4:4). Through Christ that enmity and the wrath of God was removed (Rom. 5:10). Reconciliation may thus be defined as "God removing the barrier of sin, producing peace and enabling man to be saved." There are two parts to reconciliation. The objective aspect of reconciliation is that in which man is reconciled to God prior to faith and man is rendered savable (2 Cor. 5:18a, 19a). This is provisional reconciliation. The subjective aspect of reconciliation is that in which man is reconciled to God when he believes (2 Cor. 5:18b, 19b). This is experimental reconciliation.

The word reconciliation comes from the Greek word katalasso, which means "to effect a change, to reconcile."24-6 God is the one who initiated this change or reconciliation; He moved to reconcile sinful man to Himself (2 Cor. 5:18, 19). On the other hand, man is the object of reconciliation. It was man who had moved out of fellowship with God; therefore, man needed to be restored. This reconciliation has been provided for the whole world, but it is effective only when it is received by personal faith.24-7

Reconciliation is manward: man was the one that had moved out of fellowship because of sin, and man needed to be reconciled to renew the fellowship.


Propitiation means that the death of Christ fully satisfied all the righteous demands of God toward the sinner. Because God is holy and righteous He cannot overlook sin; through the work of Jesus Christ God is fully satisfied that His righteous standard has been met. Through union with Christ the believer can now be accepted by God and be spared from the wrath of God.

The Old Testament word kaphar means "to cover"; it involved a ritual covering for sin (Lev. 4:35; 10:17). The Greek verb hilaskomai, meaning "to propitiate," occurs twice in the New Testament. In Luke 18:13 the repentant tax collector prayed for God to be propitiated, or that God would provide a covering for sin. In Hebrews 2:17 it declares that Christ has made propitiation for sin. The word also occurs three times in the noun form (hilasmos—1 John 2:2; 4:10; and hilasterion—Rom. 3:25).

Propitiation is related to several concepts. (1) The wrath of God. Because God is holy, His wrath is directed toward sin and must be assuaged to spare man from eternal destruction. (2) God provides the remedy. God provides the solution to sin by sending Christ as a satisfaction for sin. (3) Christ’s death assuages the wrath of God. The gift of Christ satisfied the holiness of God and averted His wrath.

Propitiation is Godward; God is propitiated—His holiness is vindicated and satisfied by the death of Christ.


Forgiveness is the legal act of God whereby He removes the charges that were held against the sinner because proper satisfaction or atonement for those sins has been made. There are several Greek words used to describe forgiveness. One is charizomai, which is related to the word grace and means "to forgive out of grace."24-8 It is used of cancellation of a debt (Col. 2:13). The context emphasizes that our debts were nailed to the cross, with Christ’s atonement freely forgiving the sins that were charged against us.

The most common word for forgiveness is aphiemi, which means "to let go, release" or "send away." The noun form is used in Ephesians 1:7 where it stresses the believer’s sins have been forgiven or sent away because of the riches of God’s grace as revealed in the death of Christ. Forgiveness forever solves the problem of sin in the believer’s life—all sins past, present, and future (Col. 2:13). This is distinct from the daily cleansing from sin that is necessary to maintain fellowship with God (1 John 1:9).

Forgiveness is manward; man had sinned and needed to have his sins dealt with and removed.


Whereas forgiveness is the negative side of salvation, justification is the positive side. To justify is to declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus Christ. It is a forensic (legal) act of God whereby He declares the believing sinner righteous on the basis of the blood of Christ. The major emphasis of justification is positive and involves two main aspects. It involves the pardon and removal of all sins and the end of separation from God (Acts 13:39; Rom. 4:6-7; 5:9-11; 2 Cor. 5:19). It also involves the bestowal of righteousness upon the believing person and "a title to all the blessings promised to the just."24-9

Justification is a gift given through the grace of God (Rom. 3:24) and takes place the moment the individual has faith in Christ (Rom. 4:2; 5:1). The ground of justification is the death of Christ (Rom. 5:9), apart from any works (Rom. 4:5). The means of justification is faith (Rom. 5:1). Through justification God maintains His integrity and His standard, yet is able to enter into fellowship with sinners because they have the very righteousness of Christ imputed to them.

Justification is manward; man had sinned and broken God’s standard. Man was in need of receiving the righteousness of God to enter into fellowship with Him.

The Moody Handbook of Theology
Copyright 1989 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America.
Electronic Edition STEP Files Copyright 1997, Parsons Technology, Inc.