Skip to content

Being on the Winning Team: A Reflection on Atonement

Faith Matters series on Faith Forward

Without transformation, there is no salvation. This is a truth that many “rainy-day Christians” fail to realise. And it’s a truth that a lot of dedicated Christians and even evangelists fail to take into consideration. Of course, transformation isn’t something that’s easy to quantify, but it’s still possible to recognise, and most definitely something that all Christians should emphasise when they’re preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. The trouble is, our atonement theology muddies the waters.

Atonement theology in most Western reformed Protestant churches tends to hinge on the idea of substitution. Now, it’s possible that I’ve already lost you at the word “atonement,” but give me the benefit of the doubt and read on because what I’ve got to say is important.

In short, atonement is all about the meaning of the death—the crucifixion—of Jesus, and it’s something that’s been hotly debated for the last two thousand years.

Atonement Theology and Penal Substitution

After the Protestant Reformation, the idea of “penal substitution”—that is that Jesus’ death was an act of taking upon Himself the punishment that all humans—sinners—deserved for our sins and disobedience. The idea came from the legal justice system—whereby justice can only be served if punishment is weighted out upon the offender.

And now, in many Protestant churches, the “penal substitutionary atonement” is written into the doctrinal documents. That doesn’t mean that all Christians share this view or fully understand it, but it’s implicit in sermons and bible studies.

The problem with penal substitutionary atonement is that the formula it sets out for Christians is that:

we are sinners —> Christ died to pay the price of our sins —> if we accept Jesus as our saviour, our debt is paid so that we can be in relationship with God

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that, right? Well, yes and no. What’s missing in this equation is any sense of responsibility or participation on the part of us humans, the recipients of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Atonement is more than what we think it is

We Are Still Responsible For Our Actions

It comes down to an issue of ethics. The penal substitution idea sets us free from our sins, because Jesus bore the punishment and requires nothing more than that we accept Jesus and the sacrifice He made for us. Now, some people would argue that following that salvation experience, Christians change.

That’s true, undoubtedly. But it’s not always the case. There remain a proportion of people who accept the gift of salvation, perhaps go through “the sinner’s prayer,” and then continue to live their lives as they did before, sinfully, on the understanding that God forgave them, Jesus paid the price, and all is well in the world.

And the sad thing is, that’s a logical assumption that has crept in through the penal substitution doorway. It’s no one’s fault, not directly. It’s just a misunderstanding that’s quite prevalent. It’s an ethics issue at heart.

Transformation is Forever

Penal substitution isn’t enough to ensure that people understand that salvation is not just a transaction. Rather, it’s a process of transformation that continues until the day we die.

J. Denny Weaver has put forward a way of understanding Jesus’ death that is actually rooted in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, with a focus on the cross being a moment of victory where the reign of God triumphed over the reign of evil.

If we look at the cross not as Jesus paying a price for our sins but as a battle between good and evil, it’s much more clear that you can’t keep a foot in both camps. That is, you can’t join Team Jesus by accepting Him as your savior and keep on doing the things that you did when you were on Team Satan (which all human beings are, to start off with, because of Genesis 3).

Salvation Means Switching Teams

As Weaver sees it, salvation is a moment of changing loyalty, once and for all, from the rule of Satan/evil to the reign of God. It’s not just a change of status (i.e., punishment paid) but a change in character and allegiance.

Weaver points out that if there is no change in the way that we live our lives if there is no sign that we have changed from Team Satan to Team Jesus in our actions and reactions, then really, salvation hasn’t really happened.

Saying the sinner’s prayer is just words. Transformation happens through breaking ties with the old and embracing the new – something that penal substitution doesn’t account for or even expect.

And that’s where the church is letting the world down. If something isn’t expected or made clear, then the people who aren’t changing aren’t entirely to blame. If they don’t know, they can’t make the choice to change sides completely.

In the New Testament, fruit is symbolic of the results of transformation. We are to be known by our fruit; good trees can only produce good fruit; bad trees can only produce bad fruit. If human beings are trees, then the fruit that we produce should be evidence of which side of the battle between good and evil we’re on.

Ponder on that, and ask yourself whether all the people you’ve ever shared the gospel with have understood the difference. And the next time you share the gospel, don’t talk about Jesus paying the price, tell them about Jesus winning the war, and all the good things that come from being on the winning team.


Weaver, J. Denny (2001) The Nonviolent Atonement, Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

1 thought on “Being on the Winning Team: A Reflection on Atonement”

  1. I so agree. There must be evidence that we are on a different “team”. So sad we have so conformed to this world. I’m not a legalistic Christian, but we haven’t focused on being changed in the image of Christ as we have “fitting in”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.