Asking questions is good for all of us. It helps us to think critically about ideas that can be difficult to understand and it’s one reason why I’ve enjoyed answering questions through the decades.
The incarnation and the atonement are two of historic Christianity’s essential doctrines. The incarnation relates to the identity of Jesus as the God-man while the atonement relates to what Jesus accomplished on the cross in terms of salvation for humankind. Yet I see them as logically interconnected theological truths. In other words, the first doctrine makes the second one possible (more on this later).
A person contacted me on social media recently in response to comments I offered about original sin and salvation. The respondent raised a critical question about my understanding of the incarnation and the atonement. I’ll present the question followed by my response. Hopefully, this brief theological interaction will help you to think more deeply about essential Christian doctrine.
If you believe the atonement is about punishment for the appeasement for wrath, are you basically saying that Jesus was offered as an anathema to God (1 Corinthians 12:3) instead of being God himself in the flesh?
Greetings in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Your question seems to center on a particular view of the atonement and the nature of Christ. First, let’s look at the atonement.
Penal substitutionary atonement (Christ died on the cross as a substitute for sinners) is one of the Bible’s metaphors of what Christ’s work accomplished and possibly its most important. This doctrine is affirmed by both Old Testament (see Isaiah 53:4–5) and New Testament (see Romans 3:25) teaching. The bookkeeping analogy of salvation (2 Corinthians 5:21) in Scripture holds that Jesus Christ took our sin and suffered divine punishment (a debt we owed) on our behalf. He also gives repentant sinners his perfect righteousness (a credit we receive). Some people may not find this idea appealing but it is biblical.1
Regarding Christology, affirming Chalcedonian orthodoxy, I believe that Jesus was a single person with both a divine and human nature. So Jesus’s divine nature is equal to that of the Father and the Spirit. Now relating that to the atonement, the person of the God-man suffered and died on the cross. And because Jesus is both God and man he can reconcile the two through his glorious life, death, and resurrection.
I don’t think we need to consider an either-or reasoning about Jesus Christ’s atoning death and his nature as the God-man (Greek: theanthropos). Jesus is fully God in having a divine nature but he is also fully man in having a human nature. So I don’t think one must accept either the incarnation (God in the flesh) or a penal substitutionary atonement, but I think the first makes the second possible.
How so? When suffering and dying on the cross, not only was the Father’s justice satisfied by the atoning work of the Son, but in bearing our sins the Lamb of God removed our sins completely. He accomplished it by being cursed on our behalf. As the apostle Paul explicitly states: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole’” (Galatians 3:13).
As theologian R. C. Sproul explains: “He who is the incarnation of the glory of God became the very incarnation of the divine curse.”2
With regard to 1 Corinthians 12:3, it reads: “Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
In context, the apostle Paul addresses believers in the Corinthian church who are speaking in tongues. Paul is simply saying that genuine believers who are motivated to speak by the Holy Spirit will not blaspheme and reject Jesus (a form of cursing him) but instead offer the ultimate praise (“Jesus is Lord,” meaning Jesus is Yahweh). Paul uses the word “cursed” in this context in a different way and his words don’t invalidate a penal substitutionary atonement where Jesus is cursed in the atonement on our behalf.
I hope this helps and thank you for the question.
The incarnation and the atonement are logically interconnected theological truths. In other words, Jesus could do what he did salvifically (in terms of atonement) because he was who he was ontologically (in terms of being: the God-man).3
Reflections: Your Turn
How do you connect the incarnation and the atonement?
- Kenneth Richard Samples, 7 Truths That Changed the World, see chapter 3: “Religious Pluralism and God in the Flesh,” and chapter 10: “God to the Rescue.”
- For more of what I’ve written on this topic, see “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?” in chapter 11 of my book Without a Doubt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004).
- See R. C. Sproul, Jesus Became a Curse for Us, Ligonier.org, April 2, 2021.
- See “How Can Jesus Be Both God and Man?” (chapter 9) in Without a Doubt.