Incarnation and Atonement

1.  Introduction

The realities of Incarnation and atonement stand close to the center of Christian theology.  Without the Incarnation, there could be no mediating Savior.  With no mediating Savior, there can be no redemption.  The purpose of this post is to demonstrate that the work of Christ in redemption generally, and atonement specifically, is only possible because of the personhood of Christ, the Incarnate God-man.  The person of Christ is the foundation from which the work of Christ flows.

2.  Incarnation and Atonement

Incarnation means that God the Son assumed human flesh, uniting a divine and a human nature into one person: Jesus Christ.  John says, “the Word became flesh” (1:14).  Michael Horton summarizes the Incarnation by saying, “he assumed our human nature.  Furthermore, the Logos did not assume an individual person but generic humanity.  Through the most inconceivably intimate personal union of the Logos with our humanity, the particular Jewish male, Jesus of Nazareth, was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the virgin’s womb.”[1]  Incarnation refers to the person of Christ (i.e., Christ is Incarnate) over against his work (i.e., the Incarnate One’s act of atonement) to redeem humanity.

Atonement is the redemptive work of Christ’s sacrificial and substitutionary death upon the cross, propitiating the wrath of God against sin, and reconciling God’s people to himself.  Millard Erickson affirms, “Jesus bore our sins—they were laid on him or transferred from us to him.”[2]  This is what is meant by “atonement.”  Thomas Oden’s summation of atonement is pertinent here: “Atonement is viewed in Christianity not as a conceptual problem for human speculation, but an actual event in the history of divine-human covenant.  The Christian teaching of atonement is not just about the general idea of dying for others, but about an actual, terrible, sacrificial death.  It happened to a man from Nazareth on a particular hill on a particular day.”[3]

John Owen, the greatest of the Puritans, provides a bit of historical context for our discussion.  In this way, we will see that the wheel need not always be reinvented.  As a kind of preface of his work into the nature of the person of Christ, Owen argues, “It is of great importance unto our souls that we have right conceptions concerning him; not only in general, [but also] in opposition unto the pernicious heresies of them by whom his divine person or either or his natures is denied.”[18]  Following the orthodox understanding of the Incarnation, Owen divides his explanation of the doctrine into four distinct parts: “I. The assumption of our nature into personal subsistence with the Son of God.  II. The union of the two natures in that single person which is consequential thereon.  III. The mutual communication of those distinct natures, the divine and human, by virtue of that union.  IV. The enunciations or predications concerning the person of Christ, which follow on that union and communion.”[19]  In another work, Owen describes the Incarnation in relation to the atonement: “thereby assuming not any singular person, but our human nature, into personal union with himself.  For ‘forasmuch as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil,’ Heb. ii. 14.”[20]

3.  Strengths and Weaknesses of Each Position

Apparent Inconsistencies

While there is widespread agreement about these issues, there are inconsistencies that seem to come along with certain interpretations of the doctrines.  One of the major points of contention, at least insofar as this paper is concerned, is the relationship between the real, historical person of Jesus of Nazareth and the quasi-mythical iterations of Jesus that have been rendered by some modern theologians.  That is to say, if Jesus Christ did not exist as a historical person, if the Second Person of the Trinity did not assume human nature, atonement could never have been made.  Bird makes this plain when he says, “Paul’s soteriology depends on the notion that Jesus was a historic human being when he writes: ‘For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!’ (Rom 5:15).  The grace of God can only come to humanity through a real human being.”[21]  Thus, it is odd that neo-orthodox theologians like Karl Barth claim that the historical details of Jesus’ life are of little significance to the Christian faith.  To be sure, Barth is not claiming that Jesus did not actually exist; rather, he is simply employing a method of historical inquiry used by his contemporaries.  Yet, it seems that Christians should place a high value on the historical person of Jesus, primarily because it is this historical person who accomplished the historical work of redemption by atoning for his people on the cross.

Another important point of contention between several schools of thought stems from the universalist tendency of neo-orthodox theology.  That is, Jesus Christ assumed humanity generally and as a representative of every human being.  It logically follows then, that his substitutionary atonement is on behalf of every single human being, leading one to conclude that universalism (the idea that every human is redemptively reconciled to God) is true.  Yet Reformed theology makes a distinction between the Incarnation representing humanity generally, and the work of atonement as specifically made for the people of God.  A brief overview will demonstrate this clearly.  J.I. Packer argues, “redemption [is] Christ’s actual substitutionary endurance of the penalty of sin in the place of certain specified sinners, through which God was reconciled to them, their liability to punishment was forever destroyed, and a title to eternal life was secured for them.”[22]  From this we can gather that Christ’s death actually achieved what it set out to accomplish: namely, the redemption of his people.  Moreover, John Murray asserts, “Protestants rightly contend that the satisfaction of Christ is the only satisfaction for sin and is so perfect and final that it leaves no penal liability for any sin of the believer.”[23]  This plainly demonstrates that Christ’s work of atonement needs nothing to be added.

Yet, what of the people in hell, currently undergoing eternal punishment for their sin?  It seems to me that one runs into a logical inconsistency to assert that Jesus Christ stood as the substitute for every human being in his death upon the cross, enduring the penalty of their sin, only to then claim that the penalty for those same sins is at present being issued out in hell upon sinners for whom Christ allegedly gave his life.  It seems best, then, to argue that Christ, in the Incarnation, takes upon himself human nature generally, and in the atonement, represents the people of God.  Another work makes this abundantly clear: “There can be no one for whom Christ died who will not also receive his or her inheritance—this is Paul’s very argument (referring to Romans 8:32).  Christ died only for those who will be saved.”[24]  The way forward, it appears, is to maintain a distinction between the person of Christ (in the Incarnation) and the work of Christ (in the atonement).  Making this proper distinction between his person and work, one can avoid the obvious logical pitfall of universalism.

Questions to Be Addressed

One of the most important questions for our discussion is, How does the particularity of the Incarnation relate to the particularity of the atonement?  That is, Jesus Christ does not become Incarnate again, nor does his redemptive work take place again.  Thus, both the Incarnation and the act of atonement are particular in their own right.  We have discussed how the Incarnation and atonement should be viewed according to the categories of person and work of Christ, respectively.  Now, we can go even further into the discussion by considering how exactly the person of Christ carried out the work of redemption for the people of God.

In order for atonement to be effectual, the person making it had to be both fully divine and fully human.  On the divine side, only God can rescue sinners from his own wrath.  Yet on the human side, only a genuine human being could ever take the qualitative punishment due sin.  While this seems like an unsolvable obstacle to the human mind, the Triune plan to save sinners involved sending the Second Person, the Logos, to assume the human nature and stand in the place of sinners.  The conclusion to be garnered from this is that the work of atonement is related to the Incarnation in such a way that genuine atonement would not be possible without the Incarnation.  Put another way, the Incarnation is ultimately for the work of redemption, the climax of which is the death of Jesus Christ upon the cross.  This means that while there should be a distinction between the person and work of Christ, both categories inevitably go together.  That is to say, the person of Christ does the work of Christ.  Thus, the Incarnate One assumed human flesh in order to make atonement for the sins of his people.

Finally, it should be noted that there is disagreement as to whether Jesus Christ took upon himself a sin nature.  As we have seen, Barth (among others) argues that Jesus did, in fact, take the sin nature upon himself at the Incarnation.[25]  Yet, as Horton points out, “This assumption of our complete humanity need not include sin, of course, because sinfulness is accidental rather than essential to our nature.”[26]  Moreover, “Like the humanity of Adam before the fall, Christ’s humanity was not yet confirmed in righteousness and glory, but it was unfallen.”[27]  Interestingly, Horton points out that Barth and some of his followers, including Torrance, “teach that the humanity Christ assumed was fallen, although he did not personally commit any sin.”[28]  So, what are we to make of this?  Basically, Horton’s point is that Christ did not assume the sinful nature precisely because the sin nature is not essentially part of human being.  What it means to be fully and authentically human does not include or entail the sin nature, even though the likes of Barth and Torrance (and the Cappadocians) might argue otherwise. Thus, Jesus, in becoming fully and authentically human, need not have taken upon himself the sinful nature that we inherit from the first Adam; rather, as the second Adam, he took upon himself the unfallen nature in order to restore fallen humans to their original state.

4.  Integration of Pneumatology

There are at least two ways in which the Christological conclusions reached above are shaped by Pneumatology.  First, the life of Christ as recorded in the four Gospels is replete with references to the Holy Spirit.  For example, the virgin conception by the Spirit becomes of utmost importance for the Logos to have taken on human flesh.  As we have seen, there can be no redemption apart from the Incarnation; therefore, the Incarnation is an indispensable reality to the Christian faith.  This means that the Second Person of the Trinity had to have been born as a genuine human being.  And the Scriptures are clear that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  This means that the Spirit was at work to ensure that the Son was successful in assuming genuine human nature.  Furthermore, “the Gospels routinely refer Christ’s miracles to the Father and the Spirit, accomplishing their work in and through Jesus Christ.  Jesus was…filled with the Spirit, grew in wisdom and understanding by the Spirit, was led by the Spirit into the desert for his temptation and was there upheld by the Spirit.”[29]  From this, it is clear that references to the life of the Incarnate One, without eventually also making reference to the work of the Spirit in and through him, simply fall short of the biblical portrayal.

Now we can move to the more subjective work of the Spirit.  The first point of integration between Christology and Pneumatology in our particular study dealt primarily with the relationship between Christ and the Spirit.  The second point of integration will focus upon the application of Christ’s work to Christ’s people by the Holy Spirit.  As we have seen, Jesus Christ, the Incarnate One, made atonement for the sin of his people by dying on the cross as their substitute.  How, then, are the benefits of his death to be received by those for whom he died?  The answer, biblically, is that the Holy Spirit works to apply the redemptive benefits of Christ’s death to the people of God.  One of the works of the Spirit in this area is regeneration.  In Ephesians 2:5, Paul argues that God “made us alive together with Christ.”  The obvious implication is that we were once dead (this is confirmed in Ephesians 2:1).  And borrowing language from John 6:63, we can state emphatically that “it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”  From this, we can see that the Spirit is integral in the application of the redemptive benefits accomplished by the death of Christ.

5.  Implications for My Own Thought

One of the primary implications that comes to mind for life, faith, and ministry is the absolute necessity of a clear and coherent understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Without this foundation upon which to stand, the Christian life will be replete with contradiction at best and utterly incoherent at worst.  A failure to understand the genuine humanity of Christ assumed at the Incarnation will lead to a variety of errors.  For example, one cannot claim that Christ is sympathetic to our weaknesses if he was never genuinely human.  Further, it cannot be asserted that Christ actually enters into the brokenness of our world in order to redeem and restore.  These truths are pillars for the Christian life.  Without them, the whole structure is bound to collapse in on itself.

Another implication is the importance of faithful proclamation of these truths.  If it is true that Jesus Christ really has propitiated the wrath of God toward sin, then we must exhort people to turn to him in faith and repentance.  The Christian message must be heralded and proclaimed, not merely scrutinized or discussed.  Faithful preaching of the Word will necessarily entail such doctrines as the Incarnation and the atonement, as well as their relationship in the saving economy of the Triune God.  Though not every sermon should be about these wonderful truths, to neglect them would be foolish.

Finally, a word on personal ministry to those who may be struggling.  If one really stops to consider these wonderful truths, surely the grace and mercy of God will flood their heart and mind by the power of the Spirit.  That the Word took on flesh, entering into the brokenness of our lives in order to redeem us from the penalty, power, and presence of sin is the epitome of the Christian message.  Yet, so many fail to understand this in all its beauty.  Thus, in our ministry, whether it is formal or not, we must be sure to help people understand the reality that God has not left us to ourselves.  He has come in the person of Jesus Christ, plunging himself into this mess in order to redeem us by his life, death, and resurrection.


[1] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 468.

[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013), 741.

[3] Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1992), 401.

[4] Veli-Matti Karkkainen, Christology: A Global Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 176.

[5] Ibid., 177.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 113-114.

[8] Ibid., 114-115.

[9] Ibid., 116.

[10] Ibid., 116-117.

[11] Ibid., 114.

[12] Ibid., 167.

[13] Ibid., 169.

[14] Ibid., 167.

[15] Ibid., 157.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] John Owen, “A Declaration of the Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ,” in The Glory of Christ, ed. William H. Goold (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2013), 223.

[19] Ibid., 225.

[20] John Owen, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ,” in The Death of Christ, ed. William H. Goold (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009), 174-175.

[21] Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 476.

[22] J.I. Packer and Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 119-120.

[23] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 49.

[24] Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 272.

[25] See footnote 11.

[26] Horton, The Christian Faith, 468.

[27] Ibid., 469.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 469.

Recommended Reading

Jeffrey, Steve, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007.

Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015.

Owen, John. “A Declaration of the Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ.” In The Glory of Christ, edited by William H. Goold, Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2013.

—–. The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002.

Packer, James I. and Mark E. Dever. In My Place Condemned He Stood: Celebrating the Glory of the Atonement. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007.

Stott, John R.W. The Cross of Christ. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006.

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