A Covenantal View of Atonement

views on atonement

This article was originally part of The Paul Page, a site dedicated to academic study of the apostle, with special focus on the work of N.T. Wright.

Embedded in the text of Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and other New Testament writings is an amazing concept of divine justice that has not found its way into the mainstream Christian theology of atonement. Yet it does more to explain the question: “Why did Jesus have to die?” than any of the traditional atonement theories. Theologians offer several theories or models to explain the importance of Jesus’ death. The most prominent are the theories that his death satisfied man’s debt to God or that it provided a moral inspiration for the believer. But the key to understanding the atonement language in the Bible can be found not in divine “satisfaction” and “moral influence” theories but in the ancient Hebrew concept of covenant familiar to all Jewish believers at the time of Christ. In this view Jesus’ primary role was not as a substitute or example, but as mediator of a new covenant. If there is a unique theology of atonement that supports an Anabaptist perspective of peace and justice, then this is it.

A Quick Guide to the Theories of Atonement

Before launching into an explanation of the covenant’s relationship to atonement, here is a brief summary of the options theologians have so far provided for why Jesus died. Theodore Jennings Jr. of the Chicago Theological Seminary told Time magazine recently that the New Testament “writers are all persuaded that something really drastic, fundamental, and dramatic has happened, and they’re pulling together all kinds of ways to understand that.”1

The book of Hebrews, for example, uses the Jewish sacrificial metaphor depicting Jesus as both priest and sacrifice, spilling, “not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”2 The Gospel of Mark favors Roman legal language for the freeing of slaves: “the Son of Man came…to give his life as a ransom for many.”3 The First Epistle of Peter sees Jesus’ suffering as something to be imitated, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”4 And Paul’s letter to the Colossians employs a triumphal image of the risen Christ parading demonic enemies in chains: “He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them triumphing over them in him.”5

The Classical Theory

Theologians have attempted for centuries to weave these concepts into a comprehensive explanation of the atonement. The verses from Colossians were used to define the earliest theory of atonement. This “classic” doctrine, taught for the first 1000 years of Christian history described Christ’s work as a victory over Satan and a liberation of all human kind. Specifically, so the theory goes, Christ was paid as a ransom to the devil to free people’s souls. This was a clever ruse on God’s part, however, for unknown to the Devil, Jesus was actually God in person. Unable to constrain Jesus’ divine soul, the devil was defeated and Christ emerged victorious. This view was taught consistently by nearly all of the Church fathers including Augustine.

Satisfaction or Penal Substitution Theory

In the eleventh century Anselm of Canterbury developed a theory of atonement to explain why Jesus had to die. He said that the debt of sin was so great that humanity could not possibly pay it. Only God, in the person of Christ, could do so by undergoing the agony of the crucifixion. So Jesus became our substitute and satisfied God’s requirements under the law.

Moral Influence or Exemplary Theory

In reaction to Anselm, another early theory of atonement was put forth by the medieval theologian Peter Abelard. This theory, known as the “moral influence” theory, said that God exhibited love at the cross in such a way that contemplation of the cross would move us to repentance and faith. The actual act of salvation occurs in the believer’s subjective response to the cross.

Christus Victor Model

After Anselm and Abelard, the idea of atonement as a ransom to, or defeat of, the devil was more or less abandoned by theologians of subsequent eras. Bishop Gustaf Aulén, a historical theologian from Sweden, whose work was first translated into English in 1931, began a movement to breathe new life into the abandoned classic theory, and his title (Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement) popularized the name for it. He argued that the classic” doctrine was not a crude, pictorial expression from a long-gone era, but rather a fully theological explication of Christ’s saving work.6 The Christus Victor perspective is that God, in Christ, intervened in the world to stand up to Satan and the forces of idolatry, materialism, violence and domination. Jesus came to free all creation from the warping power of sin, showing with his life and teaching what it means to be fully human in the will of God.7

Is Modern Anabaptist Theology Substitutionary, Exemplary or Christus Victor?

One difficulty with identifying an Anabaptist perspective is that until well into the nineteenth century, Anabaptist history was mainly written by their detractors and little is found to describe their views on atonement. Francis Hiebert, in her treatise on atonement in Anabaptist theology, writes that because of persecution, Anabaptist theological writing was not always possible nor a priority in their unsettled and often short lives. Furthermore, there was great diversity in their views and in some regards they may not have differed much from the Magisterial Reformers on such issues as atonement.

When sixteenth century Anabaptists did write, they did not explicitly discuss these models so the question remains as to how their view of the atonement fits any or all of them. Anabaptist writers used the language of all three models. The emphasis on the teaching and example of Christ, insistence that following Christ in obedience and suffering in this life is essential to salvation, and the focus on the work of Christ as the demonstration of God’s love which should move humanity to respond to God, fits the moral influence theory. Menno Simons’ emphasis on the “celestial flesh” of Christ (because corrupt flesh could not have “paid” the price of sin), and his belief that Christ’s work was imputed to infants, to previous sins of believers, and to the continued sinfulness of their corrupt human flesh, was based on substitutionary concepts of payment and acquittal.8

Mennonite theologians and writers tend to voice support for the Christus Victor (Christ is victor) point of view and suggest that it could be what most closely described the early Anabaptist theology. Anabaptists had a sharp sense of conflict with the world, the flesh, the devil and the religious-political structures of their time. Jesus came to destroy the powers of evil and had risen again victorious giving the believer access to the transformed life.

J. Denny Weaver, a Mennonite who teaches religion at Bluffton College in Ohio, expands on and contemporizes the Christus Victor theme in his book The Nonviolent Atonement. He refines the classic Christus Victor view by focusing not only on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, but on his entire ministry as a nonviolent force against the power of sin and death. Weaver’s premise begins with the assumption that violence must be rejected in the atonement. He seeks to demonstrate that a nonviolent atonement poses a fundamental challenge to and ultimately a rejection of the “satisfaction” theory.9 Weaver rightly points out that the satisfaction atonement assumes that God’s justice requires compensatory punishment for evil and fits with a Western understanding of retributive justice.10 But he does not pursue an alternative view of God’s justice that might provide a more powerful explanation for Christ’s passion.

The Covenant Connection

There is another way to explain the concept of atonement that more closely fits the Pauline explanation of Jesus’ death and resurrection and yet supports the Anabaptist view of redemption and the transformed life. The Gospels, read through the lens of a covenantal relationship between God and God’s people, suggests that Jesus’ passion was neither substitutionary nor exemplary, but mediatorial. Jesus was the great mediator of a promissory covenant that had existed for all time between humankind and God. This covenant was not fulfilled by the law, but by the gracious fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham before the law was given.
“The promise was given to Abraham and his seed…The law introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise. But God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.”11

This covenant gave Jew and Gentile alike the right to become children of Abraham and inheritors of all that God had promised through Christ. Jesus was the promised mediator of this covenant and God fulfilled it as promised to Abraham.12 When Paul and the New Testament writers laid out their carefully worded explanations for Jesus’ death and resurrection for the new church, they used covenantal language that would have been familiar to all the Jewish listeners. (Terms like “substitutionary,” “satisfaction,” never show up in the New Testament texts.) The key to understanding these Christ events, they said, was the covenant between God and all people and Jesus’ role as the covenant mediator.

“For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.”13

God is faithful to God’s covenant promises, Paul explained. God’s covenant is not a conditional contract bilaterally concluded by two parties. It is a unilateral commitment or promise on God’s part to act toward God’s chosen covenant partner with overwhelming kindness and generosity. God made a commitment to fulfill this gracious purpose at any cost. Thus when God exercises saving mercy toward sinful people, God is simply fulfilling the covenant promise. Jesus is God faithfully carrying out just what divine love had pledged to do. Paul’s argument to the Jewish and Gentile believers was this: by dying, Jesus bore all the curses due to the transgressions under the first covenant. In the resurrection, God fulfilled the covenant promises to restore all people to a right relationship with God and each other. With this simple argument, Paul bridged the scriptural gulf between the Jew and the Gentile, vindicating the rights of the Gentiles under the concept of justification apart from the Law.

Paul assured the new church that the new covenant not only promises the believer forgiveness of sins and acceptance into God’s favor, but it guaranteed salvation apart from the law or keeping of the law as the religious Jews were expected to do.14 Recent scholarship supports the view that Paul’s understanding of justification had less to do with individual righteousness through keeping the law and more to do with becoming part of a community of faith.15 For Paul, the new covenant was the context for all people to be accepted into this community.

Robert Brinsmead, an Australian theologian, explains this concept in terms of God’s justice. God’s justice,” he writes, “ is based on God being true to what he promised in his gracious covenant. If God is to be just, then he must be true to his commitment to help and to save wretched, undeserving people. This biblical idea of justice, first presented in the Old Testament, is beautiful and powerful in its simplicity. Nevertheless, Western theology insists that justice must somehow be related to what a person deserves. In order to preserve this supposed justice of God, Western theology has had to resort to legal manipulation in an act of atonement in which God is forced to respect the principle of distributive justice.”16

Justice which is distributive (i.e. giving to everyone what is due) and which is the opposite of mercy, inevitably becomes equated with God’s act of punishing people for their sins. If forgiveness is extended to them, it is only because other punishment fell on Jesus as the substitutionary victim. What fell on Christ is called “justice” (according to the traditional interpretation of Romans 3:25,26), while the pardon granted the believer is called “mercy.” This is the classical Latin theory of the atonement. It reinforces the idea that God’s justice is primarily punitive.

When Paul writes about the good news of a justice which bypasses the law altogether, a justice which is grounded in a promise given before the law, 17 he is faithful to the teaching of Jesus. When Jesus preached about the good news of the kingdom, Jesus spoke about a divine justice that refuses to conform to the canons of legal justice. His parables teach us that love and grace do the surprising, “foolish” and daring things—such as the employer who rewards latecomers with a full day’s pay18 and the father who welcomes the prodigal as if he were a hero.19

A Justice Based on Grace not Law

The justice revealed in the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the primitive church leaders are in a stark contrast to the Western notion of justice developed during the Reformation. Even today, it seems that the vast majority of Christian believers do not grasp the difference between justice based on law and the justice based on grace. Articulating this difference should be one of the priorities for the modern Anabaptist community because it is integral to how we understand Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and how we understand the atonement.

Here is a quick summary of the distinction between law-based and grace-based justice:

Law-Based (Latin or Western) Justice

  • Conforms to a norm (i.e. based on law)
  • Distributive: gives what is deserved
  • Opposed to or in tension with mercy
  • Primarily punitive (retributive)

Grace-Based (New Testament/Gospel) Justice

  • Faithfulness to a relationship
  • Non-distributive: carries out what was promised
  • Mercy for all the oppressed
  • Primarily a liberating or saving action

The idea of a justice based on grace illuminated the New Testament theology and set it apart from the teachings of the Jewish rabbis. The early Christian believers were particularly interested in this concept because they found themselves engaged in a new and uncertain relationship with the masses of humanity outside the Jewish community who never had been bound by Mosaic Law or understood the nuances of its demands on the pious believer. Jesus’ ministry had thrown them a curve ball. The church was to be opened to whosoever would come, Jewish or not. The law stood directly in the way of this liberal notion of acceptance.

Covenantal View of Atonement

A view of atonement that reflects the principles of the New Covenant and emphasizes a grace-based justice (or righteousness) rather than law-based punitive justice can be summarized as follows:

  • The meaning of the atonement is that God has executed the promised liberating justice for everyone (especially those who are forsaken, destitute, and excluded). God has done so by being faithful to God’s ancient covenant in raising up Jesus as the mediator of a new covenant apart from the law.
  • Jesus’ death on the cross symbolized an ancient covenantal transaction familiar to all Hebrew people. As mediator of the covenant, his death put the covenant or will into effect.20
  • The resurrection is the Christian metaphor for the triumph of divine justice over sin, alienation, and death. Jesus completed the covenantal transaction that began with Abraham and culminated in the resurrection. It opened the door to a new covenant relationship with all people based not on law but on a promise.
  • We also become mediators of this justice when we extend God’s covenant promise of grace to all the downtrodden and outcast of society, for they too have full standing under the New Covenant as God’s people. We become mediators of this justice when we extend compassion, forgiveness, and understanding in all our relationships and when we advocate for human rights and dignity.

An Anabaptist Vision of Atonement

The gospel narratives assured the early Hebrew believers that the requirements of their ingrained religious system were reconciled with a new vision of a universal community of believers where no one was excluded, and where Mosaic Law was no longer the basis for acceptance by the community or by God.21 It set the stage for a universal faith that welcomed the downtrodden and outcasts based on God’s faithfulness to God’s everlasting promise.

This view of the atonement should resonate with Anabaptist theology. Atonement is not adequately explained by the “satisfaction” of divine wrath, by the power of divine example, or by the Christus victor motif. Rather, the meaning of atonement is found in the covenant actions of God—where all the conditions of God’s promissory covenant to all people of the earth are fulfilled. Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant where justice (or righteousness)22 apart from the law has been revealed. It means that we also become mediators of this justice for all the downtrodden and outcast of society, for they too have full standing under the New Covenant as God’s people. Yet the majority of Christians still cling to the belief that justice requires blood and fire instead of mercy and compassion. The Anabaptist tradition recognizes one very important principle. Hostility and vengeance do not bring peace and justice. Compassion, understanding, and grace do. A covenantal view of atonement supports this theology in a very unique and powerful way.

  1. Van Biema, David, “Why did Jesus Have to Die?” Time, April 12, 2004.
  2. Hebrews 9:12.
  3. Mark 10:25.
  4. I Peter 2:21.
  5. Colossians 2:15.
  6. Hiebert, Frances F., “The Atonement in Anabaptist Theology,” Footnote 5, Direction Journal, (Winapeg MB).Fall 2001,Vol. 30, No.2.
  7. Kraybill, J. Nelson, “Four Spiritual Truths of a Peacemaking God,” The Mennonite, November 4, 2003.
  8. Hiebert, Frances F., p. 135.
  9. Weaver, J.Denny, The Nonviolent Atonement, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eedmans Pub. Co.) 2001, p 7.
  10. Weaver, J. Denny, p.3.
  11. Galatians 3:16-18.
  12. Genesis 12:3.
  13. Hebrews 9:15.
  14. Romans 3:21.
  15. Mattison, Mark M., A Summary of the New Perspective on Paul.
  16. Brinsmead, Robert D., “The Scandal of God’s Justice-Part 1,” The Christian Verdict, Essay 3,1983, p.8.
  17. Galatians 3:16-19.
  18. Matthew 20:1-16.
  19. Luke 15:1-31.
  20. Hebrew 9:16-18.
  21. Galations 3:25.
  22. The word for righteousness, sadaq, is used interchangeably for justification or justice in the Bible.
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