Project Canterbury


What We Believe and Why

No. 10

The Atonement




Published by
Trinity Parish

New York


Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

The Atonement


Atonement means nothing in a world where sin has no meaning, and sin means nothing apart from belief in human freedom to obey or disobey the will of God. So the background of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement must be a view of the universe according to which these things are realities. Such a view can be held in the twentieth century when we remember that what we claim to be doing in our religion is holding personal relationships with the God who is the source of all discoveries of truth, goodness, and beauty. He is the source of that pulsing stream of energy, forever moving onward from past to future, which appears to our senses in various forms as the physical world. At the subhuman level this energy expresses itself through creatures which function willy-nilly in conformity with its requirements; [1/2] but the whole process is expressive of the Divine purpose. In man there appears on the part of each an individualised awareness of what he is doing. Man, through God's self-revelation, learns in all his glimpses of goodness and truth and beauty to discover the goal toward which the Divine purpose is working, and receives the opportunity to enter into voluntary cooperation with that purpose. We can recognize three stages in human development:

i. The Individual bodily organism functions willy-nilly in accordance with the natural laws embodying the Divine purpose.

ii. The bodily organism becomes the body of an individual consciousness, aware of a distinction between what is and what is not worth thinking about and doing.

iii. This individual consciousness becomes aware that he can enter into personal relationships with One who is the source of all that he has discovered to be worthy of contemplation and pursuit.

[3] It is not possible to put one's finger on the spot where one stage ends and the next begins. This is so in all processes of growth: a youth, for example, is no less capable of driving an automobile a week or so before his seventeenth birthday than a week or so after. Nevertheless, changes do occur, and when sufficient have accumulated, it is possible to notice well marked differences in stages of development. A normally developed man is a creature capable of choosing whether he will cooperate in that upward striving after the "heavenly vision" which is God's will for creation, or will attempt to make himself as comfortable as he can at the level of life at which he started. The choice lies between self-devotion and devotion to self; and the latter of these is sin.


What is the effect of sin? This must be considered in two directions.

1. A man is not merely the directing intelligence of his own body, he is a unit in human society. [3/4] What he is made of is provided by his bodily experiences, but those experiences are what they are because of his relations through his body to human society. He is, as it were, a focal point through which the life of his family, his school, his church, his nation, etc., flows forth into activity. But as he is no longer the sub-human creature functioning willy-nilly according to the working through him of the herd's life-energy, but a self-conscious, intelligent, cooperative agent, he has his say in the matter of how that social life shall be expressed. He has a responsibility for the right exercise of that share in the social energy which is entrusted to him. In his various activities he represents the various communities to which he belongs, so that his acts are their acts by which they are judged. An Englishman living in New York was asked what he thought of a certain fellow-countryman of his. "He is the kind of Englishman," he replied, "that makes one ashamed of being British."

[5] So when a man misbehaves himself, he misdirects that share of the society's life which it is his to exercise as the society's representative. What then must the society do? One thing it cannot do, and that is remain unaffected by the event. Either it accepts the act as truly representative of its character and will, or it disapproves it as being what it is, traitorous misdirection of powers entrusted to an individual representative. If it takes the former line, the corporate character of the society is changed for the worse; if it adopts the latter, there is a breach in the relations between the individual misdoer and the society to which he belongs. Unless and until he acknowledges his error and disowns his own act, he will find himself disowned and repudiated. But this is for his own good; for it means that when he does repent and return he will find a niche for himself in a society which in spite of his defection has remained worth returning to. An athletic team, for example, must either suspend a [5/6] player convicted of foul play, or be tarred with the brush of having low moral standards of its own.

So a man's sin, considered in relation to the source whence he draws his life and powers of action, does not affect himself alone. It is an attack upon the character of that source—the society whose life he shares—from which it can only escape if it takes steps to dissociate itself from concurrence in the act.

2. There is also to be considered the effect of a sin upon those who are injured by it. If one man assaults, defrauds, slanders, or in some other way sins against another, that other man is forced to undergo suffering caused by the sinful act. Now pain, be it physical or mental, does not automatically either improve a man's character or worsen it; all depends upon the way in which it is taken. I may let the pain which I suffer embitter my outlook and breed revenge and cynicism in my mind, or I may take it so as to neutralise its power to breed further evil, [6/7] and wrest it into being the occasion of putting forth righteousness and love. This is the essence of forgiveness—to take the pain which is the child of sin and make it the parent not of further evil but of good—and it can only be effected by the self-sacrifice of the injured man. When once the injury has been done, the sinner has lost control over the course of events he has set in motion. Whether his act shall be the ancestor of an evil brood spreading in ever-widening ramifications down its family tree, or whether it shall be transformed into the progenitor of fair and noble deeds, it is not for him but for others to decide.

We do not have to look beyond the limits of human society to see that a man is a fool if he is too proud to acknowledge his need of charity and forgiveness at the hands of his fellow men. He may boast about being "the captain of his soul," but that soul cannot grow except through its social contacts. Every wrong act of his puts a strain upon the goodness of the society from which he draws his life, [7/8] and to the quality of whose corporate life every act of his makes its contribution. What chance has he of recovery after a lapse, unless the society both repudiate his act, and at the same time absorb its power to create further evil? Here, after all, lies the practical problem of penal reform: to make the treatment of criminals express an inflexible denunciation of the crime coupled with an over-flowing love for the criminal. The chief obstacle in the way is corporate selfishness, the unwillingness of society to make the sacrifice of time, trouble, thought and money which is necessary to take the effects of crime and treat them as raw material for the creation of goodness. Here on earth it is only through self-sacrifice that forgiveness can be offered. And until it is offered it cannot be received.


A Christian believes that his environment does not consist only of the visible world. His responsibilities are not limited to those [8/9] arising out of his relationship to human societies. These societies, through which his life comes to him and on which his acts take effect, are like himself God's creation. They and he are embodiments through which the Divine energy finds its self-expression in this universe of space and time. So, as he delves down deeper in his thinking, he finds that he must consider his sinful acts not merely in relation to these nearer sources and objects of his activity, but to their ultimate source and their ultimate object. It is from God, "in whom we live and move and have our being," "whose offspring we are," that we draw both our power to act and our freedom to determine the direction in which that power shall be used. It is to God, whose "fellow-workers" we are called to be, that every act returns, either to rejoice or to wound His love.

It is faith in the goodness of God that makes life worth living, faith that in spite of all that goes on around us "underneath are the everlasting arms" of One who is both [9/10] Righteousness and Love. But every sin is an attack upon the righteousness and love of God. It attacks His righteousness by using His energy in such a way as to represent Him as the author of evil; it attacks His love by provoking Him to retaliate with unloving vengeance. Absolutely everything that makes life worth living, everything to justify us in holding an optimistic view of the universe, depends on our being able to believe that these attacks fail, that God does not connive at the evil act done in His name, nor love the sinner less because of the injury He has received from him.

The Christian doctrine of the Atonement is the assertion of this belief. It is the declaration to the sinner that his sin has neither dragged God down to his level, nor destroyed the possibility of his return to the life of righteousness and love. To respect human freedom while maintaining unimpaired His righteousness and His love requires that in the life of God Himself [10/11] there should be that self-sacrifice through which forgiveness and reconciliation can be offered to the sinner without compromise of goodness. Christianity asserts that this is so, that in virtue of His own self-sacrifice God is able to meet the penitent sinner with the words "All shall be well."


On what grounds does Christianity assert this to be the truth about God? On the basis of an act of faith which recognises in Jesus Christ God made man "for us men and for our salvation." It is this act of faith which puts the note of assurance into the priest's voice as he says to the penitent sinner, "Go in peace, the Lord hath put away thy sin." "How can I be sure," the sinner asks, "that God absorbs and neutralises the power of my sin to corrupt the universe?" "Look at the Cross," is the answer, "see in God's suffering His refusal to connive at your sin, and see in the way in which He took it the overcoming of its power to blunt His love." [11/12] But for the Incarnation man might still be wondering and longing, hoping against hope that the universe does ultimately "mean good." The Christian Church has come down the ages proclaiming its gospel: "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you that your joy may be full."


But how can the death of Christ which took place two thousand or so years ago, have anything to do with my sins of yesterday or tomorrow? To consider this question adequately would require an excursion into the depths of that fundamental problem of philosophy, the relation between time and eternity. All that can be said here is this: If it be reasonable to regard the history of creation not merely as "appearance" or "illusion," [12/13] but as a process with a reality of its own communicated to it by God for the working out of His purpose, and if it be reasonable to regard it as a unique process moving along in a one-way direction from past to future, then it is surely reasonable to think of an event as having produced an effect which shall never be undone, as having left the created universe forever afterwards different from what it was before. It is in this world's history, here and not elsewhere, that the power of sin to corrupt the Divine nature has to be met and overcome. But if God is to do this within history, it must be done at some time and in some place. When He has done it, and done it perfectly, nothing will be added to the doing of it by doing it again. To put the matter in a phrase, in very inadequate human language, once for all He has "won the right" to forgive us our sins.

Atonement in general has no meaning except in a world where sin is a reality. The Christian doctrine of the Atonement, in [13/14] particular, has no meaning except in a world in which God is working out His purpose in time, in which He has Himself entered upon the experience of life under human conditions, in which He has lived and died as man, and risen again. The truth of the doctrine of the Atonement is thus indissolubly linked up with that interpretation of the Gospels which finds them to contain the record of the human life of One who was "Very God of very God, of one substance with the Father." The Christian welcomes all reasonable literary and historical criticism of the Gospels, confident that in the end it will serve to establish more firmly his interpretation as the most reasonable account that can be given of their existence among the historical documents of the world. Moreover, it is reasonable to believe that the roots of the doctrine of the Atonement are to be found in the teaching of our Lord Himself. He thought of Himself as the expected Messiah, come to set free the people of God and [14/15] to establish the Kingdom of God. He accepted, as the Father's will, the vocation to suffer and die, and accepted it as a call to offer Himself "a ransom for many." Reflecting on this claim of her Lord to be the Messiah of the Jews, the Christian Church found that He could not have been that without having been more. Either the whole messiah-idea was a bit of fanciful Jewish mythology, and Jesus Christ the victim of a delusion, or He must have been God incarnate—not merely a semi-divine redeemer of the Chosen People but the Divine Saviour of mankind. Once for all, in the central moment of the world's history, God himself had entered within its pages, and in His human life had "won the right" freely to forgive the sins of all men, past, present and future. In this faith the Christian Church daily commemorates the act of Him "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."

[16] But more. The Incarnation marked not merely God's act of redemption, stamped with the finality of its own perfection. That very act, itself perfect and unnecessary to repeat, was the beginning of a new stage in God's creative process, a stage wherein men and women, cleansed by the acceptance of His forgiveness, may form a body through which He can continue within the history of this world to carry on His work of absorbing and neutralising its sin. This is the true calling of the Church and its members: corporately and individually to give themselves to the work of taking the pain which is the child of human sin and making it, by their own self-sacrifice, the parent not of further evil but of good. For this the risen Lord binds them to Himself with His Spirit, and recalls them to the memory of their vocation in the Eucharist, wherein they are never allowed to forget that it is the crucified Lord who communicates to them His strength in order that they may carry on His work. It is not primarily for our own salvation [16/17] that He calls us to membership in His Church. That is, as it were, a byproduct. It is that we may live as members of His body the body of Him who is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world—that He has called us. He has shown us the only way in which this can be done; and now, wherever poverty, injustice, ignorance or any other form of human suffering is to be found, there also should be found the members of the Christian Church, eagerly claiming the privilege of bearing whatever pain or shame or loss is necessary to repair the wrong—claiming it because they, by the grace of their indwelling Lord and Master, can bear it in such a way as to make it the raw material for the creation not of further evil but of love. Here supremely Christ challenges our natural way of life, challenges all that in us which leads us almost instinctively to seek some way of disclaiming responsibility for the evils that occur. "That's not our fault" is, for the Christian Church, no [17/18] ground for acquiescence in any evil; nor is the action called for that of working for the discovery and punishment of the guilty ones in order that Christ's followers may go scot free. No. "Never mind whose fault it is; let it be ours to bear the cost of putting the matter right"—that is the attitude to which we are pledged by our membership in the Church which is the body of Christ. If we will think this out in detail, meditating on what it will mean in our home life, our social life, our business life, and our attitude to industrial, political and international affairs, we shall find that the doctrine of the Atonement is no mere arid statement of some abstract theological speculation. We shall find that it is the very heart of that guiding inspiration which reveals to us the Christian way of life, an insight into the nature of that Divine life which we are called to share. "If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine."

Project Canterbury