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Sarah Lindsay

I, a Sinner: Atonement, Sin and Community

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion
Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938 | via The Art Institute of Chicago

How should we understand salvation? For centuries, theologians have considered this question, proposing various soteriological models and analogies that help us grasp what Christ did on the cross and how he did it. Any model has strengths and weaknesses and more or less relevance in specific cultural contexts, but each analogy can help us to gain new insight into how Christ accomplished our salvation.

Among American evangelicals, the prominent — and sometimes the only — model of salvation is penal substitutionary atonement. In this model, God is a divine judge who has sentenced humans to eternal death and damnation because of their sins. However, Jesus steps in and takes that penalty upon himself, paying it so that we humans don’t have to.

This analogy for salvation arose with the Reformation, an era in which the individual became ascendant over the community and in which new legal theories arose. Penal substitutionary atonement reworked the older satisfaction model, developed by the theologian Anselm in the eleventh century. In the satisfaction analogy, God like a feudal ruler has been offended by the sinfulness of humanity, but humans are so far beneath God as to be incapable of offering satisfaction for this offense. Enter Jesus, the God-Man: as a human, he can step forward to offer satisfaction, and as God, he is actually capable of doing so.

Anselm’s satisfaction theory emphasizes Christ’s humanity, which had been less prominent in the previous dominant model, known as Christus Victor theology. In this analogy, Christ is a warrior who comes to rescue humanity from the devil, sin, evil and death. Christus Victor soteriology captures the upside-down logic of the cross, in which the battered and dying man is really the king of the world who can defeat the forces of evil and rescue his creation.

Ruthwell Cross
Ruthwell Cross, c. 8th century CE | image © 2009 Dougism | via Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 3.0

Several other models of salvation exist, although the three described above are perhaps the most prevalent in western Christianity (I can’t speak to the soteriology of the eastern church, unfortunately). Each model finds scriptural grounding, while also reflecting broader cultural values about leadership, laws and individuals.

I’ve spent some time outlining these ideas so that I can talk about one specific article, written by Mark Galli of Christianity Today, that defends penal substitutionary atonement as the primary soteriological model that evangelicals should use. Evangelicals have debated the place of this model for at least a decade, with some expressing reservations and others calling this model inseparable from the gospel itself. Galli holds a moderate position in this debate: while he argues that penal substitutionary atonement should be the primary evangelical model of salvation, he grants the usefulness of other soteriological theories.

Galli does make some flawed arguments. Several are minor, largely reflecting the pervasive evangelical blindspots towards cultural context and history; he tends to universalize and generalize as he suggests that the argument for penal substitutionary atonement rooted in modern western legal theory is actually an intuitively obvious position across time and culture.

But the largest problem with the article comes at the very end. In his concluding paragraph, Galli states:

It [penal substitutionary atonement] is the one atonement model more than the others that reminds us of the personal investment of God in each one of us. Where Christus Victor, for example, is a wonderful model to describe cosmic redemption, substitutionary atonement is about my salvation: Christ died for me. It doesn’t get any more personal than that. And evangelical religion is nothing if not personal.

To paraphrase: penal substitutionary atonement should be central because this model elevates the individual above all.

I want to be clear that I certainly agree that God is a personal God, concerned with us on an individual level, who desires to be in relationship with us.

But when we reduce salvation to the personal we distort the nature of sin.

Sin is significantly bigger than the wrongdoing of any single individual. Sin manifests in broken relationships — between us and God, us and others, us and the natural world. Sin can be personal, as when I angrily snap at a child or harbor envy of a colleague. But sin can also be corporate, as when a church protects abusers at the expense of the abused, or structural, as when societies systematically oppress a group of people.

Sin affects our relationship to the natural world, leading to the exploitations of nature that poison streams and cause animal populations to collapse.

Sin corrupts our relationships with others, prompting colonialism and patriarchy and racism and other problems far larger than any individual.

A focus on personal sin foregrounds individual wrongdoing and pushes the broader scope of redemption into the background. But through Christ, God is redeeming the whole world, making all creation new. Suffering will end, justice will come, and all of the created world (human and inhuman) will be redeemed and renewed. All the broken relationships will be restored.

Giotto Crucifixion
Giotto, Crucifixion, c. 1300 | via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

But in addition to making the scope of salvation smaller, a focus on individual sin allows communities of Christians to ignore other forms of sin. God does redeem our individual sins, but as John Donne noted, no one is an island. Our sins ripple out into our families, our communities, our environment, and God is also redeeming those effects. When churches focus on God’s forgiveness for individuals, they often skip the part where communities, not just individuals, need to be made whole.

Racism is one obvious example of the ways in which a focus on individual sin can make the larger effects of sin invisible. If racism is reduced to individual bigotry, the solution is merely individual: all that is necessary is to stop being prejudiced against a certain group of people — and if we trip up, God has already forgiven us. This approach has not worked particularly well in the church, which remains highly segregated.1 Only a recognition of sin as broader than any single individual, of sin as manifested in structures of power and privilege, can begin to address the problem of racism.

Another example comes from the #metoo and #churchtoo movements in which women are speaking out about the ways they have been sexually assaulted, harassed and abused. While Hollywood is having a moment of reckoning, churches seem to be much less willing to grapple with the consequences of sexual abuse. Witness the standing ovation when pastor Andy Savage apologized for assaulting a teenager; witness the defensive response of Sovereign Grace Ministries to gymnast Rachael Denhollander, who after abuse by Larry Nassar became an advocate for victims of sexual assault in the church.

Viewing sin as purely individual separates sin from the power structures that can enable it, and prevents critical evaluation of those structures. And viewing sin as individual can lead to a greater concern for the sinner than for their victims, as with Andy Savage. Because he apologized, and because of course God forgives him, any lingering pain on the part of the woman he assaulted becomes not a consequence of his sin but a manifestation of her sin, her presumed resentment and lack of forgiveness. This view of sin wants to deny its larger consequences in favor of a simplistic narrative of individual repentance and forgiveness, to the detriment of all of those wounded by the sins of others.

To come back to soteriology: our doctrines of salvation are intimately tied to our ideas about sin. Penal substitutionary atonement certainly emphasizes individual salvation — Jesus took my place, my punishment — and this is true. But Jesus also died for our sins, to reconcile all things to God, and so we must remember that salvation is far bigger than any individual. Making penal substitutionary atonement central reflects the values of our individualistic culture. Any model of salvation will reflect the culture in which it arises; this is not necessarily wrong.

It only becomes wrong when it pushes out understandings of communal salvation and communal sin.


  1. This individualistic understanding of racism probably partially explains why 83% of white evangelicals could vote for Trump despite his overt racism: his bigotry is reduced to an individual flaw, not a dangerous trait for someone with so much power to have.

Tagged: church | theology | sin