Freed to live through the death of another.

The Abandonment of Christian Atonement

Christians never cease to amaze me. In our contemporary ‘conversation’ we find people rejecting the idea of penal substitution, the imputation of righteousness, justification by grace alone, through faith alone, etc., etc., etc.

The thing that really bothers me about this is the arrogance with which such historic Christian doctrines are tossed aside in such a cavalier manner. We are told that these ideas of God being ‘angry’ and desiring to make his Son pay the ‘punishment’ as a ‘substitute’ to give us a ‘forensic’, ‘legal’ righteous standing before God are western, modern, and un-nuanced. We are told that for hundreds of years we’ve been reading the New Testament through the eyes of Luther, rather than first-century Judaism.


Below is an excerpt from the Epistle to Diognetus, written in the second-century AD, one of the earliest extant apologies for the Christian faith outside of the New Testament. In this section the author discusses the nature of the atonement, as taught in the New Testament. What this is an attempt to show is that the abandonement of penal substitutionary atonement which accomplishes justification (including the imputation of righteousness) by grace alone through faith alone is not just an abandonment of modern, western Christianity, but is an abandonment of historic, biblical Christianity at its very core.


But when our iniquity was fulfilled and it had been made fully manifest that its reward of punishment and death was awaited, and the season came which God had appointed to manifest henceforth His own goodness and power (O the exceeding kindness and love of God!), He did not hate us or repel us or remember our misdeeds, but was long-suffering, bore with us, Himself in mercy took on Him our sins, Himself gave up His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for the wicked, the innocent for the guilty, “the just for the unjust”, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for mortals. For what else could cover our sins but his righteousness? In whom was it possible for us, wicked and impious as we were, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O work of God beyond all searching out, O blessings past our expectation, that the wickedness of many should be hidden in one righteous Man and the righteousness of the One should justify many wicked!

— Taken from The Epistle to Diognetus, IX.2-5. The is one of the earliest extant apologies for the Christian faith, written in the second century ad, within decades of the death of the apostle John.


  1. kerux

    This is a great quote JLF – thanks for posting it.

    It would be great if you could offer even more context for it… so many “quote the fathers” and make them say whatever they want (not that you are doing that!).

    Thanks again.

  2. JLF

    Very true…

    The letter itself is written by an unknown writer to a pagan named Diognetus. Diognetus had been making inquiries into the Christian faith: why this new manner of living had come about now, not at some other time; why the Christians were so willing to suffer and die for their faith; why they had such enduring and amazing affection for one another; etc.

    After showing that (a) the pagan religions are inherently flawed, (b) the Jewish religion is superstition at best, and, (c) why Christ came now (therefore, how we could know God, and why this manner of living has come about only now), the author of this letter reflects on the nature of the atonement.

    In a sense it has the same effect out of context, because this section on the atonement doesn’t necessarily directly relate to what immediately preceded it. Rather, it is a doxology of sorts… “O the exceeding kindness and love of God!”

    Thinking on Christ means thinking on him as Saviour, and therefore substitute. This, to the author, is where the wonder of the love, grace, and kindness of God is most perfectly displayed: that God the Son died in my place, taking my guilt and the punishment that I deserved and giving me his righteousness instead so that I could stand before God blameless in that great day.

    That is the gospel. Always has been.

  3. Son of Man

    I am a fan of:

    “that the wickedness of many should be hidden in one righteous Man and the righteousness of the One should justify many wicked!”

  4. JLF

    Sounds like he read Rom 5.18-19 once or twice before, eh, Josh? 🙂

    “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”

  5. Nick Hill

    A beautiful quote that fully shows that penal substitution and the imputation of righteousness has been with the church from the earliest days (even the New Testament). The line of argumentation that would repudiate the above doctrine, I have heard used of inerrancy (the Scriptures being with out error), that it is a modern enlightenment notion. However, look what Augustine says speaking of the Gospels:

    “Freely do I admit to you, my friend, that I have learnt to ascribe to those Books which are of Canonical rank, and only to them, such reverence and honour, that I firmly believe that no single error due to the author is found in any one of them [sounds like inerrancy]. And when I am confronted in these Books with anything that seems to be at variance with truth, I do not hesitate to put it down either to the use of an incorrect text, or to the failure of a commentator rightly to explain the words, or to my own mistaken understanding of the passage” [The Ante-Nicene Fathers (New York: Scribner’s, 1899)].

  6. Luke

    Has Jesus paid the ransom to evil, rather than to him that is good?


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