Thursday in Holy Week

Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before He suffered, instituted the Sacrament of His Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, Thursday in Holy Week, 221)
Some have suggested that Episcopalians have no doctrine.1 This statement is, of course, inaccurate (and the footnote defends the inaccuracy of the claim). One might suggest that Episcopalians have doctrine -- they are simply not obsessed with doctrine, thinking they have to defend tooth and nail every doctrine maintained by The Episcopal Church, seeking others to agree with their accepted traditions. The Episcopal Church doctrine of the atonement is a multi-faceted summation of atonement theories because the atonement is, itself, a multi-faceted Christ event.

Regarding the atonement of Christ, many believers throughout the ages have placed their respective distinctions as a primary focus, and defended their position. The atonement, lit. a covering for or a washing away of the guilt of sin, is a significant doctrine, as it relates directly to our salvation, but also evinces a characteristic of God. We learn from St John that we can all understand the very nature of love in this manner: Christ laid down His life for us (1 John 3:16). Love, then, is selfless, self-denying, and self-sacrificial: this is the experience of the triune God.

We learn from the most famous verse in all the New Testament that God, noted as the Father, demonstrates His own love for a world of fallen sinners thusly: He gave us the life of His one and only Son in order that everyone who is believing/trusting/faithing in Him will not perish but possess everlasting life (John 3:16). This atonement of Jesus Christ is contextualized universally: "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). But the multifaceted nature of the atonement is evident elsewhere: "The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8). Advocates of the Christus Victor model of the atonement highlight Christ's atoning work in this vein. But this is only one facet of the atonement.

There are other aspects of the atonement to consider: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). St Paul notes that Christ "gave himself a ransom for all" (1 Tim. 2:6). Highlighting these two passages, some develop a Ransom Theory of the atonement. To whom is this ransom paid? Theories abound. There is also the notion that Jesus turns back the disobedience of Adam in the Garden (the Recapitulation Theory). Others believe that the atonement is intended to influence fallen mortals toward moral improvement (Moral Influence Theory). Still others that God renders Christ an example of His displeasure at sin even though He will not exact strict justice by means of an eternal wrath (Moral Government Theory). But is not Christ a substitute in our place as well?

St Paul also notes that Christ died for us (fallen sinners), in our place, and acted as a substitute (Rom. 5:6, 8; 1 Cor. 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15). So yet another aspect of the atonement is revealed -- that of substitution. From here all sorts of philosophical questions arise. If Jesus died as a substitute for each person ever to be born then will not all be saved? The answer is no: the atonement is not applied automatically to all. A person must, by the proactive grace of God, trust (have faith, believe) in Jesus Christ in order to be cleansed from one's sins. We must not confuse no conflate provision with application. What do Episcopalians believe regarding the atonement?

In the Catechism of the Episcopal Church we read the following: "Q. What is the great importance of Jesus' suffering and death? A. By his obedience, even to suffering and death, Jesus made the offering which we could not make; in him we are freed from the power of sin and reconciled to God." In this brief statement we see elements of Christus Victor, Recapitulation, and Penal Substitution theories of the atonement.

Referring to Christ's obedience to the Father, Jesus recapitulates to the disobedience of Adam, and thus reverses the curse. Referring to His suffering and death and providing an offering to God that we could not make, inference is rendered toward a penal substitution, thus offering salvation to the believer. Referring to being freed from the power of sin, we denote a Christus Victor model, as He provides victory to and for the one who will by grace continue to trust in His work.

Sin must be atoned for by Christ or salvation cannot be experienced. Sin taints, ruins, and destroys the creation of God. Samuel Wells notes that sin is living as if
there were no God, no grace of God, no creation to remember or kingdom to hope for, no forgiveness to redeem the past or eternal life to focus the future, no faith, no hope, no love. It is living outside the narrative of God -- without regard to the creation, the covenant with Israel, the revelation in Christ, the existence of the church, the consummation on the last day -- and making one's own narrative instead.2
If God were to ignore sin, He could not be reconciled back to sinful human beings, and thus He could not dwell with the creatures He created in His own image as He initially desired. Sin, according to Wells, is "utterly perverse and inexplicable: it is turning from glory to sordidness, joy to meanness, beauty to tawdriness, grace to misery."3 But the atonement of Christ must also provide the believer with a transformation.

We cannot remain within the context (or practical-living experience) of sin and still experience present and future salvation. Again, Samuel Wells explains that the transformation that takes place in Christ is due in part to the Incarnation, whereby Jesus is declared and demonstrated to be God, "fully present to humanity, and [in turn, in Christ] humanity, fully present to God."4 But the passion (suffering) and vicarious and atoning death of Christ properly grounds the transformation experience:
Jesus' vicarious suffering as a sacrifice ... is hinted at in the gospels (the term "ransom" in Mark 10:45, for example) and made much more explicit in Paul's letters that Jesus died for the sake of sinners -- whether Israel, or all whom God has chosen [to receive by grace through faith], or all people, or all creation. Here lies the significance of Jesus' death coinciding with Passover, since the blood of the lamb signaled the angel of the Lord to pass over the houses of the Israelites in Exodus, and accordingly the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God, causes God to pass over the people's sins.5
Though Jesus does not need to endure the cross for His own sins, since He has committed no sins (2 Cor. 5:21), the cross "was nonetheless almost inevitable, since, on a spiritual level, humanity seems incapable of tolerating profound goodness for very long."6 The Incarnation provides a means to a proffering of Jesus' flesh and blood for the (eternal) life of the world (John 6:51). Dr. Ian S. Markham notes that Jesus, "by virtue of his unique status," becomes "the definitive and perfect sacrifice [for sins] because Jesus is both the recipient of the sacrifice and the giver of the sacrifice."7 Dr. Markham underscores St Augustine's notion that Jesus, as God, "receives the sacrifice," yet "also gives the sacrifice. Gone forever is the idea that God requires a sacrifice of animals. Instead the symbol has been replaced with God, and Godself provides the definitive model."8 What shall we conclude regarding the atonement, then?

The Cross event and the atonement procured for believers through Christ alone is, ultimately, a "response to the problem of evil."9 God desires to reconcile fallen humanity back to Himself, in and through the Work and the Person of His one and only Son Jesus Christ, in order to redeem, atone, and transform the lives of those who, by grace, trust in Christ. (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17, 18, 19, 20, 21) "The promise of the atonement is that we can be forgiven. We can be forgiven for the hurt we have inflicted -- often thoughtlessly, sometimes deliberately. We can be empowered to live a life reflecting the love of God to others."10 In Christ, by grace through faith in Christ, we have been "transformed to live holy lives -- to be reconcilers of people to God"11 as Ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5:17-21). The atonement is not some heady doctrine up for debate among theologians in classrooms or studies; the atonement is a transformative reality that can be actualized by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.


1 Samuel Wells, What Episcopalians Believe: An Introduction (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2011), xii. Wells writes: "It is often said that Episcopalians have no doctrine. That is not, of course, true. Such a statement is intended either to indicate that we base our understanding of God on those theological commitments established in the early, undivided era of the first five centuries of the church, and have seen no need to add to the doctrines inherited from such times; or to acknowledge that, unlike other Reformation traditions, such as Lutherans or Calvinists, we have not tended to identify ourselves with definitive doctrinal statements, but instead with the historic Apostles' and Nicene Creeds and with particular patterns of common prayer."

2 Ibid., 22.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid., 2.

5 Ibid., 5.

6 Ibid.

7 Ian S. Markham, Understanding Christian Doctrine (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 136.

8 Ibid., 136-37.

9 Ibid., 147.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.