Mar 4, 2013

"In Christ Alone" and Atonement Theology

by John Vlanic

I love a great deal about the worship song, "In Christ Alone." I think that it strikes me as so good in so many ways that for a long time I was able to use my gifting in obliviousness to blot out any real awareness of the phrase, “And on that cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”

There has been a long debate over the meaning of Christ’s death. The names of great Christian thinkers have been attached to one side or the other. One of the crucial issues has been the correct way to translate the “hilasterion” word group.

Some have wanted to understand that word as referring to “propitiation”, the act of gaining or regaining the favor or goodwill of someone, as in the example in one English dictionary: “He made an offering to propitiate the angry gods.” Others have seen it as referring to the removal of the problem between the deity and the person who needed the “hilas-” work.

Thus I John 2:2 gets quite a range of translations:

King James Version And he is the propitiation for our sins Revised Standard Version and he is the expiation for our sins New International Version He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins New Revised Standard Version and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins New Living Translation He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins The Message When he served as a sacrifice for our sins, he solved the sin problem for good

Much needless polarization and unChristlike nastiness resulted in some circles over the years from the dropping of ‘propitiation’ in most modern translations, and, more recently, as some evangelicals are questioning the use of “penal satisfaction” language for the work of Christ.

I have long felt that ‘expiate’ was more true to what the New Testament authors were trying to say, but have been grateful for the “atoning sacrifice” language (which steps around the problem a bit) in the NIV and NRSV.

Interestingly, not long ago I heard a prominent and respected evangelical pastor/teacher say he has real reservations about the song “In Christ Alone” because of the inaccurate view of God and of salvation that it presents through the use of that phrase. It was then that I realized I had suppressed that issue in an otherwise beautiful song.

Then I read the book arising from the debate in among evangelicals in England about this issue, Derek Tidball, David Hilborn & Justin Thacker, eds., The Atonement Debate: Papers from the London Symposium on the Theology of the Atonement (Zondervan, 2008).

More recently I was reading a book of essays by one of the finest New Testament scholars of the past century. I found in that book a short note on this issue, and saw in the footnote that it was occasioned by the words “the wrath of God was satisfied” in the worship song, “In Christ Alone.”

The scholar is C. F. D. Moule. After Moule's death in 2007 a couple of volumes of his notes written since his retirement from Cambridge University have been published. One of them is Christ Alive and At Large: Unpublished Writings of C. F. D. Moule, edited and introduced by Robert Morgan and Patrick Moule (Canterbury Press, 2010). On pp. 113-114, we read his thoughts after hearing “In Christ Alone” sung in his church.

His careful survey of the New Testament evidence seems to me to make the matter clear. I wish we could get the authors of “In Christ Alone” to fix their song by improving on Moule’s own suggestion at the end of this article.

To me, this is not a small technicality. It has to do with the nature of God, and the nature of salvation. If a seeker were present while we were to sing that song, I would not want him or her to get the erroneous notion that we Christ-followers believe that a loving Jesus died to placate the wrath of an angry God. That is NOT what the New Testament teaches, as Moule demonstrates below.

Then I wondered what the Free Methodist Church said about this. It turns out that I think Professor Moule would have been happy to read the words in ¶115 of our Articles of Religion:

¶115 THE NEW LIFE IN CHRIST A new life and a right relationship with God are made possible through the redemptive acts of God in Jesus Christ.

Note that it does not say that Jesus Christ did something to God in the atonement, but rather that God – in Christ – provided the atonement!

Enjoy Moule’s explanation below!
John W. Vlainic
January 2013

P.S. I know that someone will ask if I have read ¶114.

¶114 CHRIST’S SACRIFICE Christ offered once and for all the one perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. No other satisfaction for sin is necessary; none other can atone. I don’t know the history of ¶114, or what in particular is meant by “satisfaction”. It may be a remnant from the “penal” view, but I would comment that if our deity is “satisfied” to have the blockage removed, then it doesn’t need to be “penal”. And I would point out that the next, ¶115, makes it clear that Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins did not do something to God, for God was in Christ, doing the atoning.

P.P.S. Moule also has a section in the book, “Sacrifice and propitiation — do the words belong in the proclaiming of the Christian gospel?” (pp. 182-185).. Table of Contents of the book is attached.


Some Christians speak of Christ as making an alienated God propi¬tious by the offering of himself as a sacrifice on our behalf. This is alien to the startlingly original thought of the New Testament. In the Old Testament the idea of propitiating God by sacrifices and other means is indeed common enough; but in the NT it is almost extinguished.

The root behind Greek words for propitiation (hilas-) shows itself eight times in the NT. The verb (‘make [someone] propitious’ or, with¬out an expressed recipient, ‘make propitiation’) occurs in Luke 18.13, in the penitent tax-collector's prayer to God: ‘be made propitious to me’, and in Hebrews 2.17 in a description of an Old Testament priest’s duty to ‘propitiate sins’ (presumably there meaning ‘to propitiate God regarding sins’). An adjectival form, hileos, comes at Matthew 16.22 (Peter's protesting exclamation ‘[God] have mercy on you!’) and at Heb¬rews 8.12, in a quotation from Jeremiah 31 where God promises that he will be ‘propitious to sins’ (i.e. sinners?).

The neuter noun, hilasterion, is, in the Greek OT, a term for what, in the Authorized Version, comes out as the ‘mercy seat’ — the throne of God overshadowed by the cherubim, on (or as) the lid of the ‘ark’ in the Tabernacle or temple sanctuary. In the NT it occurs at Hebrews 9.5, simply as that item in the Tabernacle, but, importantly, also at Romans 3.25, with reference to Jesus Christ, ‘whom God set forth [or ‘designated beforehand’?] hilasterion’, i.e. ‘as a mercy seat’ (if the word is meant as a noun) or (if it is an adjective) ‘with propitiatory power’ (though, as we shall see, ‘expiatory’ power would be preferable). Finally, hilasmos, a noun meaning 'a propitiation' or 'a propitiatory sacrifice' occurs as a description of Christ at I John 2.2; 4.10. At 4.10 God is specified as (not receiving but) himself sending Christ as hilasmos.

Thus, what, for our purposes, is important is that in the NT God is not spoken of as the recipient of what is referred to, but that, where its initiator is mentioned, he is the subject, not the object: Romans 3.25; I John 4.10. If, then, God is the subject or originator, not the object or recipient, of hilas- procedures, it is manifestly inappropriate to translate them as propitiatory; one is driven to use a word such as ‘expiatory’, which has as its object not propitiating a wrathful God but removing a barrier. It is this which is expressed in the famous words of z Corinthians 5.19: ‘God was, in [or ‘by’?] Christ reconciling the world to himself’. So far from being propitiated, God it is who initiates the necessary ‘expiation’, himself ‘one’ with his Beloved Son. ‘In Christ's name, be reconciled to God’ (2 Cor. 5 .20) is the Christian exhortation, for ‘God made him who knew no sin to be sin [?sin-offering] on our behalf.’ Regularly, God is the initiation of the action, not its recipient. The only exception in the NT is at Ephesians 5.2, where ‘Christ gave himself up on our behalf as an offering and sacrifice to God for a fragrant perfume’ — a virtual quotation from the standard propitiatory language of the OT.

In the Johannine writings a further metaphor is introduced — that of advocacy. John 16 speaks, it seems, of the Holy Spirit as an Advocate, a Paraclete, and I John 2 uses the same language of Christ. By itself, such language might suggest a friend to plead our cause before an alienated Judge; but that is hardly compatible with John 16.26f.: ‘I do not say that I will ask the Father concerning you, for the father himself loves you. . .’.

I submit, then, that NT usage virtually prohibits the translation ‘pro¬pitiate’, ‘propitiation’, and necessitates the use of some word with God as subject and sin as object, e.g. 'expiate', in the sense of paying the price for sin’s annulment. This is not the only instance of what seems like the centrifugal force of the Christian gospel spinning an OT con¬cept to the circumference, if not beyond, in favour of the astonishing conviction at its centre, classically stated at 2 Corinthians 5.19, ‘God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself’.

Every reconciliation costs an untold price — the price of forgiveness, the price of repentance. In Christ, both God and man, that price is paid, absolutely and finally. Nowhere in the NT is it said that the wrath of God was satisfied by the death of Jesus. Rather, it is God himself in Jesus Christ who pays the cost for sin. I haven’t the smallest spark of lyricism in me, but we need something like, but infinitely better than:

Till in the blood of his dear Son
The love of God redemption won.

From: C. F. D. Moule, CHRIST ALIVE AND AT LARGE: UNPUBLISHED WRITINGS OF C. F. D. MOULE, edited and introduced by Robert Morgan and Patrick Moule (Canterbury Press, 2010), pp. 113-114.


  1. Thanks for this post. If you were to revise or revisit this, I would love to see interaction with Morris' book "The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross." Having read this through work, I don't think the issue has really been explored until that work is wrestled with.

  2. David:

    Thanks for your note. We sang "In Christ Alone" last night in our home church, and I still love the song, thought I would prefer Moule's kind of improvement.

    I have not re-read Leon Morris on this recently, but remember feeling that I could not go all the way with him on _hilasterion_ the last time I worked on this carefully.

    I think Morris is likely the finest statement of the propitiation view, but conclude, with Moule and others that he has overstated the case.

    My concern with propitiation language for the hilasterion word is that it limits it to "appeasement of the offended." (Oxford English Dictionary). If that is Paul's intent in Romans 3, then he is saying that Jesus did something to the offended God -- appeased his wrath.

    But I think that Paul is clear that God is doing something about sin. As the second part of Romans 3:25 says that the "object" of the work of Christ was our sins!

    The same is the case in the use of the term in I John 2:2 and I John 4:10. Again in both cases, the thing being "dealt with" is sins.

    Hilasterion can carry the freight of expiation (clearing away our sin), propitiation (doing that which removes the need for a wrathful response) and of the idea of the mercy seat in the tabernacle.

    I am coming to believe that both are involved, and thus do not dislike the NIV translation of “atoning sacrifice." Interestingly, commentators like Dunn, Wright, Barrett, Kruse and others.

    I wonder if using “expiation” alone leaves out dimensions that need to be included.

    For sure, to use “propitiation” alone leaves out the clear concern with dealing with the sin problem – AND implies things about God that tend to move away from the teaching of the N.T.

    To use “propitiation” alone also requires a very clear understanding of the wrath of God as NOT like human wrath – which Morris clarifies well, if I remember correctly.

    So I think “atoning sacrifice” is a stroke of genius.

    The other concern I have with the language of propitiation (even as it is implied in “In Christ Alone”) is that the non-churched culture I find myself in contains many people who have some kind of “memory” about church which includes an angry God, whose first impulse is to punish, not the God who was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

    The anger of God and punishment for sin ARE a part of the story, but NOT its centre, according to the New Testament.

    John Vlainic

  3. John said: I am coming to believe that both are involved, and thus do not dislike the NIV translation of “atoning sacrifice." Interestingly, commentators like Dunn, Wright, Barrett, Kruse and others see both elements involved.

  4. As with all music, books, etc. the best course of action is to eat the meat and spit out the bones and not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

    In our case, we have been continuing to sing this powerful song while editing the line in question which now reads, "And on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified" which is a truth statement we can all agree upon and endorse! (1 John 3:16)