Why We Need a New Model for the Atonement

An excerpt from my soon-to-be-discussed paper in Chicago…

The Need for a New, More Comprehensive Model of the Atonement

There are at least four major problems with the traditional models of the atonement as a group. The first is their isolationist, or sectarian, character. Each one is constructed as a kind of stand-alone theory that supposedly tells the whole story and requires the exclusion of other versions of the story. Only rarely, as in the case of Colin Gunton (The Actuality of the Atonement), does a theologian try to appropriate and integrate various traditional models.

The second problem derives from the first: the atomistic, or non-integrative, character of the traditional models. They do not naturally pull other aspects of theology into their orbit. “Atonement,” however interpreted, often stands apart, separated from ethics, spirituality, ecclesiology, pneumatology, and missiology. In some cases, atonement becomes a narrow branch of theology that is almost irrelevant to the actual life of Christian individuals and communities.

The third problem is individualism. The traditional models have a nearly exclusive focus on the individual, rather than both the individual and the community, as the beneficiary of the atonement. Scot McKnight (in A Community Called Atonement) and others have, of course, also recognized and begun addressing this problem.

The fourth problem we might call “under-achievement.” That is, the models do not do enough. We may summarize a model of the atonement in terms of its understanding of the fundamental effect of the cross on a person (or on humanity). In the satisfaction-substitution-penal model(s) the effect is propitiation, expiation, and/or forgiveness; in the Christus Victor model the effect is victory and liberation; and in the “moral influence” model the effect is inspiration. In the new covenant model I will propose, the effect is all of the above and more, but that effect is best expressed, not in the rather narrow terms of the traditional models, but in more comprehensive and integrative terms like transformation, participation, and re-creation.

8 Responses to “Why We Need a New Model for the Atonement”

  1. [...] – Michael J. Gorman explains why we need a “new model of the atonement”. [...]

  2. Michael,

    You said: “the new covenant model I will propose, the effect is all of the above and more”…

    Does this NC model include “propitiation”? Not in the sense that the Father is lashing out on the son but that in a very real sense the death of Jesus turns away the righteous anger of God.

  3. Maybe I should clarify. By propitiation I mean that Jesus actually came under the wrath of God in our place.

  4. MJG says:


    The benefit of the new covenant model is that it does not focus on mechanics, so if propitiation is in the NT, then it can be incorporated. But that’s a big if, in my view.

  5. Brian MacArevey says:

    Is there any way that someone could get a copy of this after it is released?

  6. MJG says:


    I will probably post it at some point this fall, but it will also be published in the journal Ex Auditu, which comes out every spring and is available from WipfandStock.com. (You can buy just one issue.) The theme of that issue is in fact atonement.

  7. Brian MacArevey says:

    Thank you :)

  8. John Andrew Kossey says:

    Hello, Mike,

    *Ex Auditu* 2010 arrived on Friday. I greatly appreciated your insights on how the Messiah’s death effected the new covenant. Your new covenant model of atonement definition on page 58 merits wider distribution, such as in a revised *Dictionary of Paul and His Letters*. You might see fit to reproduce at least this summary definition here on your blog, too.

    (Troy Martin’s response to your essay was the only letdown for me in the entire issue. His extended comments over deficient conscience would have been more fitting if that concept had been even slightly your purpose.)

    My pastor, whom I have known for over 41 years, attended a ministerial conference this weekend. He had asked me to handle today’s sermon. I spoke on how believers commence life in Christ, focusing on the imagery of justification as our personal initiation and participation into the new covenant that Jesus established at his death and resurrection.

    Last January, you helped me realize that “state” does not capture the dynamic, transformational qualities of believers’ being in Christ. “Transforming transfer” may be more apt in describing God’s moving those whose faith is kindled from pre-justification “no longer” to post-justification “now” and even into “not yet” shared glory.

    Here is my current definition of justification, or being “righteoused”:

    Mediated through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, crucified and now risen, justification is God’s unconditioned, gracious gift of *transforming transfer*—saving deliverance—from the dominion of sin and death into Spirit-actualized, resurrection life of the Messiah’s reconciled, new-covenant people.

    Justification includes ultimate vindication for the righteousness of God the Father, “who surely did not spare even his own son but delivered him up for us all” and “with him graciously give us the universe” (Rom 8:32 Jewett).

    Thanks again, Mike, for writing a truly inspiring paper that connects new covenant and atonement.


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