Andrew Purves, in his work, Exploring Christology and Atonement, says something very enlightening about the work of Christ: “Atonement is not so much a work of Christ apart from who he is, but rather Christ himself as work” (p 35).
What does this statement mean? He means to say that much of the western construals of the saving work of Christ are abstracted from who he is as incarnate God. Or to put another way, too many atonement theories disconnect Christ’s work from his identity. John McLoed Campbell says about the atonement: “The faith of the atonement presupposes the faith of the incarnation” (p 35). In other words, the theology of God’s incarnation cannot be detached from God’s work for us in his death and resurrection. The incarnation must inform what we believe about the work of the cross.
However, this is often not the case. Many theories of the atonement could and in fact do do away with the incarnation and still remain intact. The incarnation is an add on, an accidental necessity, not inherently necessary. Purves notes that many understand the atoning work of Christ as something “external to his person” (p 37). He quotes TF Torrance who calls this an “instrumental” view of the work of Christ. Christ took on human flesh, not because it was absolutely necessary, but to use as an instrument. He took our flesh in order to make payment, or to satisfy justice. However, he could have atoned in some other way.
Such a view [of the atonement] need not but will likely tend toward a perspective on the atonement in which God needs to be propitiated in order to be gracious toward us. In such a view the love and forgiveness of God may be seen as the effects of the atonement. Further, an instrumental perspective on the atonement as an external work of Christ, as something that he does rather than having its ground in who he is, implies a corresponding view of our relation to Christ that is developed in terms of an external arrangement. In the scholastic Protestant tradition this is conventionally developed in terms of an imputed righteousness, in which, while we are and remain sinner, God, for Christ’s sake, regards otherwise… (p 37)
Put another way, Christ became man to give something externalized to God: Christ becomes man and gives God an externalized obedience, and God receives that on behalf of the sinner who, despite God’s forgiveness, remains a sinner. This type of atonement theory does not really need the incarnation. Christ became man so that as a man he could offer a receipt of obedience and payment; but he could have made atonement as the divine Son without his humanity.
Purves is right in noting that this view becomes very common in the scholastic Protestant tradition. For instance, in the Heidelberg catechism, it is asked, why did God become man? The answer:
He must be a true manbecause the justice of God requiresthat the same human nature which has sinnedshould pay for sin.He must be a righteous manbecause one who himself is a sinnercannot pay for others (Q 16)
But now, if we are to connect the incarnation to the atonement, as Purves says, what new theological situation do we find ourselves in?
On the other hand, it is precisely the union of the incarnation and the atonement that excludes the view of the atonement is reducible to a forensic transaction as fulfilling of a legal contract, or to Christ propitiatingly bearing the cost construed as divinely meted punishment… [Rather], an ontological rather than an instrumental connection must be made between the Christ who makes atonement and the atonement that he makes. Or, in a different set of images, we look for an organic and personal rather than a mechanical and legal connection between Christ and his atonement and ourselves (p 37-38)
If the incarnation is an ontological, metaphysical reality, then the atonement itself must be posited from within the humanity of Christ, rather than legally outside of Christ. It must be seen organically, rather than extrinsically.
Purves explains the atonement in terms of a “magnificent exchange”. This is a term that began with the early fathers, but was also received and used both by Calvin and Luther. The magnificent exchange grounds the atonement in God’s work of the incarnation. A key text used by all the fathers was 2 Corinthians 6:9:
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
Purves explains how the fathers and early reformers understood this verse:
Christ exchanged his place with our place in an atoning reversal of our status, making an atoning exchange. Christ puts himself in our place so that in him we might be put in his place. This is the meaning of reconciliation, which is an act effected on the basis of exchange (p 104)
In other words, the incarnation relates to atonement by way of an exchange of places. This isn’t a legal exchange: it’s an actual exchange. Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is. Purves continues:
The magnificent exchange must be set in the context of the whole movement of Christ in his descent and ascent… From this we see that the magnificent exchange is not at its core something that Christ does; rather, it is the working out of who he is in his history in our flesh. Christ is the magnificent exchange as God’s gracious saving movement toward us. In himself Christ is the word/act of God to us, and he is the responding and acceptable filial human movement toward God (106)
This is a great passage. Purves rightly says that in himself Christ is God condescended to us in our fallenness and sin, and in our humanity Christ is the perfect filial response of man to God. Thus there is atonement in his own person. God and man are united in this one divine Person.
Thus we can see: the incarnation is itself atonement. God the Son unites himself to us, and in a downward/upward movement makes God and man at one. As Purves says: Christ does who he is!