The rich texture of atonement (Matthew 18:23–35)

There’s more than one model of atonement in the pages of the New Testament.

I’ve never liked the oboe. Clarinets are agile and joyful. Saxophones are versatile and soulful. An oboe sound mournful, a bruised reed, a blanket of grief. Yet even an oboe can contribute its mellow hues to an orchestral arrangement. Who can forget the haunting tones of Gabriel’s Oboe?

Atonement is as rich and polyphonic as a symphony. At its heart, to atone is to make at-one. God reconciles the world to himself, and that ultimately makes us at-one with each other.

But when we press in to how atonement works, we cannot reduce it to a single instrument. Like light reflected from a multifaceted diamond, atonement has many angles in the New Testament.

For example:

  • Christus Victor: Christ overcame the powers of evil and death in his cross and resurrection, liberating us from the dominion of evil, restoring us into God’s reign.
  • Penal substitution: Christ carried the penalty for sin in his own body on the cross, suffering and dying in our place.
  • Moral influence: Christ demonstrated his love by giving his life rather than responding to evil with evil, and he calls us to take up our crosses and follow in his footsteps.

You’d have to be myopic to believe yours is the only way and reject others who hold other views. Dividing over at-one-ment is on oxymoron.

Some conservatives are so wed to Penal Substitution that they treat Moral Influence as a totally inadequate liberal view. And some liberals dislike Penal Substitution as a terrible picture of God punishing his son like some kind of cosmic child abuser. Others like Gustaf Aulén argue that the early church fathers taught Christus Victor, so this view is “the genuine, authentic Christian faith” (Christus Victor, originally published in 1930).

Your preferred view of the atonement probably depends on what you’re looking for:

  • If you see the problem as the social injustice, you’ll be attracted to the Moral Influence theory where following Christ is what brings the world together.
  • If you see an individual’s sins as the problem, you’ll be attracted to the Penal Substitution model where Christ takes the penalty I deserved, dying in my place to make me right with God.
  • If you see problem as the dominion of evil over the people of the earth, you’ll be attracted to the Christus Victor model where God’s anointed is raised and enthroned, the good news of heaven’s reign reunifying the peoples of the earth in him.

None of these models tell the whole story, and any of them can be used to misrepresent God. For example, Moral Influence can underemphasize the authority of God and the deadly grasp of sin over the world. Conversely, Penal Substitution can make God sound like a moral monster demanding that someone has to die, importing pagan views of sacrifice.

So let’s see if we can put them together.

All of the above

We’ve been considering the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:23-35). Jesus introduces it as a story about heaven’s reign over the earth (the kingdom of heaven). The main character is a king whose actions determine whether his people are free or enslaved. We have a Christus Victor framework from the outset.

The story focuses on a servant who owes his lord an unpayable debt. We are talking about sin, the servant’s failure to give God the honour due to his name. The king bears the loss himself, instead of the penalty falling on the failed servant and his family. Do you recognize elements of Penal Substitution in this parable of grace and forgiveness? If not, read to the end where you will hear about penalties (18:34).

The main problem in the story arises when the servant will not forgive his fellow servant in the same way the king has forgiven him. The king’s example is definitive for the kingdom. He asks, Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you? (18:33). Moral influence is no minor part of the story: it’s how the king expects the kingdom to function.


Scripture is the revelation of God, and the soundscape I’ve heard so far is only part of what it means to know him. You may have your favourite instruments, but there’s a whole symphony orchestra to hear.

Open Matthew 18:23-35.

What others are saying

Here’s a couple more angles to expand your thinking about the atonement.

I. Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster, 2008), 145–146, 154:

There is a strong case that the concept of reconciliation (including peace and forgiveness) is pretty comprehensive, that the motif is widespread, and that the rationale underlies both Pauline thought in particular, and New Testament thought generally. The positive elements in the concept of reconciliation seem to me to outweigh the elements that may be thought to be lacking, and I do not think that a better case can be made for any of the other models. …

Reconciliation is a model that expresses clearly the basic pattern of human need, God’s action, and the resultant new situation that shapes all the biblical imagery of salvation, and that it does so in a way that is particularly comprehensive and is especially relevant in a world where the need for new relationships between human beings is so clamant.

Michael J. Gorman, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 236–237:

The new-covenant model is above all integrative, joining various significant realities that are often inappropriately separated. Atonement in this model is about the creation of a liberated, forgiven, Spirit-infused, and transformed people, the people of the new covenant. …

In the new-covenant model the atonement produces not merely beneficiaries but participants: participants in the cross and therefore also participants in the life-giving self-giving of God. This participation is made possible by God’s prior participation in our situation, that is, by Christ’s incarnation, life, and death among us and for us. The polyvalent cross is not only the source, but also the shape, of salvation; it is the means of, and the pattern for, becoming most fully human, most fully Christlike, most fully Godlike. The cross is remembered, celebrated, and performed as the work of Christ but also, ultimately, as the work of God and now, by the power of the Spirit, the ongoing work of the church.

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