Incarnation and Atonement

A Surprising God reader recently commented that this blog's emphasis on the Incarnation of Christ undermines the centrality of the Cross as that which accomplishes our Atonement with God. I appreciate the reader's concern that the importance of Jesus' substitutionary death not be diminished. Indeed, the Cross stands at the center of the biblical doctrine of the Atonement. However, I think the reader's concern is based on a a common misunderstanding.

Unfortunately, it is common to think about the Atonement in ways that separate Jesus' act (dying on the Cross) from his being (as fully God and fully human). It appears that more and more theologians and Bible teachers from all sorts of denominations are recognizing that this line of thinking is biblically unsound and are working to correct it. Such corrections typically spring from a renewed interest in the historic doctrine of the Trinity, which focuses attention on Christ's dual nature (Christology), leading to a deeper appreciation of the importance of the doctrine of the Incarnation. This has been GCI's faith journey.

Studying the Trinity and Christology (including the Incarnation), takes one back to the roots of Christian doctrine and theology set forth in the testimony of the Apostles (the New Testament) and the testimony of the early church fathers (the early Christian creeds). What is clear in these writings is that Jesus, in his being and act, is himself our Atonement with God. The Atonement not only is what Jesus has done (as important as that is), but also who Jesus is (and remains forever).

And who is Jesus, our Atonement? The aforementioned writings (rightly understood) agree that he is the incarnate Son of God--one person/two natures--fully God and fully human. And thus the orthodox Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement are presented as fundamentally and inextricably linked. To separate, isolate, or in any way diminish either of these doctrines is to lose the fullness of the truth of the salvation that we have in the person and work of Christ as our substitute and representative.

I have written before on this important topic: click here for insights gleaned from Scripture and Patristic writings by T.F. Torrance, and here for similar insights from C.S. Lewis. Also, click here for a recent article on this topic in Christianity Today, entitled "Vicarious Humanity: By His Birth We Are Healed." These articles reference Holy Scripture, commentary on Scripture by the early church fathers, commentary from the Protestant reformers (such as Calvin) and commentary from theologians over the last 100 years. This testimony speaks with one voice concerning the essential linkage of the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement as revealing both the act and the being of our Savior, Jesus Christ. To him be the glory!

Comments

  1. Hi Ted,
    Thanks for this post. I can also understand the desire believers have in wanting to uphold the centrality of the Cross. For Paul this appears absolutely central to his teaching (1 Cor 2:2). However, one scripture that brings the incarnation and pinnacle achievements of Christ (his death and resurrection) together as a total incarnational reality is Heb 10:5 "Wherefore when he comes into the world, he says, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me".
    I take this to be our emphasis.
    Regards,
    Richard.

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  2. Well said Richard. Thanks for your commment.

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  3. By the incarnation, we are "inextricably and fundamentally linked" to Jesus Christ - yes, we are "in Christ," the One in whom "we live and move and have our being." Ontologically speaking, one could say that rather than detract from the importance of the cross in our Atonement, the Incarnation magnifies it.

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  4. Jerome, I certainly agree. The Atonement is not merely a "transaction" that Jesus paid for in one moment of time on the cross, and then moved on. Rather, the Atonement is the enduring union of God and man in the person of Jesus, who, forever, is the incarnate Son of God who holds us close and thus safe. In that sense, the Atonement began with the the Incarnation, and came to a great climax at the Cross and empty tomb, and continues in the ongoing life of the ascended God-man, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

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