Part 1 of a three-part series on the atonement. See Part 2 here

There are few more debated topics in the church today than the person and work of the atoning Saviour, and few topics on which there are such divergent views. For some the cross of Christ is reduced to a revelation of God’s involvement in the world’s suffering.[1] Others turn to the cross as an example to follow, a revelation of God’s love, an invitation and a sign of the futility of human wisdom.

While these affirmations are true, they are not atonement. They don’t express the God-ward offering and work of Christ.

While these affirmations are true, they are not atonement. They don’t express the God-ward offering and work of Christ. And they do not deal with the heart of the problem of sin, that is, that it damages our relationship with God. Sin damages us, and our relationship with others, and with the creation: but the central problem is that it deserves the judgement of God. Our doctrine of the atonement must have this at its centre.

We should use the Biblical images from the Old and New Testaments to form our understanding. Here again, however, there are dangers. Observing the variety of images offered in Scripture, some people are tempted to play favourites. Nevertheless these these biblical images are not meant to be set against each other. They are complementary and mutually enriching.

My approach in the next three blog posts will be to select the three predominant families of images of atonement in the New Testament, and show their Old Testament foundation, their New Testament usage, and how they have been interpreted by theologians.[2] The three are:

i. Sacrifice;
ii. Passover lamb/redemption; and
iii. Righteous sufferer.

This week we will take a look at the idea of sacrifice.


The foundation for the sacrifices of the Old Testament is found in the three sacrifices of Abel, Noah, and Abraham. Respectively, these show sacrifice as costly (Gen. 4:4); propitiatory with regard to wrath and sin (Gen 7:1-7, 8:20-22), and substitutionary (Gen 22:1-14).[3]

These themes are continued in the sacrificial system in Leviticus. Amid the different reasons for sacrifice (such as for thanksgiving and vows), we see “burnt offerings” and “sin offerings” designed to deal with sin and sinfulness (Lev 1:4, 4:20, 9:7). God gave blood for the purpose of “making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement,” (Lev 17:11). As Wenham comments, although “contact between the holy and the unclean results in death. Sacrifice, by cleansing the unclean, makes such contact possible.”[4]

The Day of Atonement

On the Day of Atonement God in his holiness provided a system whereby the sins of the people could be atoned for and he himself might remain among them without destroying them.

The central sacrifices in Leviticus occurred on the annual Day of Atonement, or, as it might be translated, the Day of Propitiation. On the Day of Atonement God in his holiness provided a system whereby the sins of the people could be atoned for and he himself might remain among them without destroying them.[5] The blood sacrifices (Lev 16:6,11,16) functioned both as propitiations – sprinkled before the mercy seat of God – and as expiations – payment for sins. The scape-goat also achieved atonement for the iniquities of the people of Israel (Lev 16:10, 21-22).

Christ – Fulfilling the Sacrificial System

In the New Testament, Christ’s fulfilment of temple, priest and sacrifice is first introduced in the narrative of his cleansing of the temple.[6] The theme of the atoning sacrifice of Christ is also found in references such as:

  • “Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (Rom 3:24,25);
  • “the death he died, he died to sin, once for all” (Rom 6:10);
  • “sending his own Son…as a sin offering” (Rom 8:3);
  • “he is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2);
  • “he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21);
  • “God…loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10);
  • “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb 2:17).

Hebrews offers the most extended treatment of Christ as priest and sacrifice. It shows Jesus as “mediator” (Heb 9:22, 12:24) and speaks of his blood as covenant blood (Heb 9:15-28, 13:20). This is a reference to the sacrificial blood sprinkled on the Israelites at Sinai. The blood of the sacrifices was offered to God, and also sprinkled on the people to bind them to God (Exod 24:5-7). This is “the blood of the covenant” (Exod 24:8 c.f. Zech. 9:11) is fulfilled in the sacrifice of Jesus. To turn away from him is to profane his covenant blood (Heb 10:29).[7]

Cross and Covenant-Curse

In his death, Christ experienced the covenant curse of God – the cost of our failing to keep God’s covenant (Deut 27:11-26, 28:15-68). So in Galatians we read:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree…’ (Gal 3:13).[8]

The reference to “tree” comes from Deuteronomy 21:23, and is designed to make it clear that Jesus death involved curse-bearing.[9] N.T. Wright writes that:

Because the Messiah represents Israel, he is able to take on himself Israel’s curse and exhaust it. … The crucifixion of the Messiah is … the quintessence of the curse of exile, and its climactic act.[10]

Although Christ was personally innocent, he identified with our guilt by incarnation and representation and bore our guilt by substitution. As Augustine would have it:

Christ, therefore, did not commit that sin for which he would have been worthy of death, but he took on for us that other sin, that is, the death that sin inflicted upon human nature.[11]

In  Anglican tradition the same idea is reflected faithfully the “Book of Common Prayer,” and the Thirty-nine Articles. The former puts it like this:

Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only begotten Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption, who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world…

* These posts are adapted from Peter Adam’s essay “The Atoning Saviour,” in Michael R. Stead, ed., Christ Died for Our Sins: Essays on the Atonement, Canberra, Barton, 2013, pp. 15-34. See Barton Books, or order a copy here.

[1] Justyn Terry, The Justifying Judgement of God: a Reassessment of the Place of Judgement in the Saving Work of Christ, Milton Keynes, Paternoster, 2007, 14.

[2] These images occur as varied individual words and varied narratives.

[3] GJ Wenham, ‘The Akedah: A Paradigm of Sacrifice’, in David P Wright, David Noel Freedman and Avi Hurvitz, eds, Pomegranites and Golden Bells: Studies in Biblical, Jewish and Near Eastern Riual, Law and Literature in Honor of Jacob Milgrom, Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns, 1995, 93-102.

[4] GJ Wenham, The Book of Leviticus, NICOT, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1979, 26.

[5] See for example Exod. Exod 33:3;. Wenham, Leviticus, 228.

[6] See John 2:13-22, and also Matt. Matt 21:12-17, Mark 11:15-18, Luke 19:45-48.

[7] See my Christ, Priest and Sacrifice, a study of atonement in Hebrews, in this book.

[8] I note that in this quotation from Deuteronomy, Paul did not include the words which indicate that it is God’s curse. However it is clear that the curse in Deuteronomy is God’s curse, as in Deut. Deut 28:15-68. What other origin could there be?

[9] See other references to the “tree” in (Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29, and 1 Pet 2:24), and discussion in; Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, Exeter, Paternoster, 1965, 142,143.

[10] NT Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1991, 151.

[11] Augustine, Answer to Faustus, 14.3, as quoted in Peter W. Martens, ‘Anyone Hung on a Tree is Under God’s Curse [Deuteronomy 21:23]: Jesus’ Crucifixion and Interreligious Exegetical Debate in Late Antiquity’,  Ex Auditu, 26, 2010, 80