Scot McKnight (A Community Called Atonement) sums up the atonement as “identification for incorporation” (107). Jesus identifies with us even to death so that He may incorporate us “in his destruction of death and the devil,” and into the perichoretic fellowship of the Triune God.

That formulation enables McKnight to recognize the truth of various traditional theories of the atonement, while acknowledging their limits and accepting some of the criticisms offered in contemporary theology. On satisfaction, he writes, “Jesus’ identification with us is an identification with our sinful, guilty, God-dishonoring condition . . . and this, so we must argue if we want to be biblical and theological, is in some sense a satisfaction of what God needs for God to be given his proper glory” (111).

Substitution is inherent in the atonement: Jesus “did something instead of us,” and His identification only leads to incorporation if “Jesus does something . . . for us that we could not do for ourselves” (111). 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that Jesus “was made something he was not to be what we are” and this for the sake of making us something that we are not (112). 

McKnight is aware of the criticisms penal substitution, and the dangers of some formulations of that theory (39-43), but he defends this position against its detractors, and offers this: “Jesus identified with us so far ‘all the way down’ that he died our death, so that we, being incorporated into him, might partake in his glorious, life-giving resurrection to new life. He died instead of us (substitution); he died a death that was the consequence of sin (penal).” Penal substitution doesn’t express everything there is to say about atonement, but McKnight offers a sturdy defense of the conclusion that it cannot be eliminated (113).

More on: atonement

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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