Classic Protestant Liberalism and the Atonement: A Plea for Reconsideration

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Part of JesusWalk -- Behold the Lamb of God


Salvador Dali, "Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus)" (1954), Oil on canvas, 194.5 x 124 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As I've studied what the Bible says about Christ's atonement for our sins, I've become increasingly aware of Classic Protestant Liberalism's intolerance of any view of Jesus' death being a blood sacrifice for the atonement of our sins. Why is that? I wonder.

Characteristics of Classic Protestant Liberalism

Let's examine some characteristics of Liberal Christianity that came out of the Enlightenment. (Note: I'm not using the term "liberal" in the careless way that Rush Limbaugh might, but as a technical term to describe a certain approach to Christianity.)[1]

  1. Exalts life and action over "constricting dogma," doctrine, and thought.

  2. Tends to focus on human experience and reason (anthropocentric) rather than divine revelation (theocentric).

  3. Sees God's presence to be immanent in the world, working through human experience.

  4. Holds Jesus to be a model to pattern one's life after, rather than the one through whom God acted to save mankind -- "The religion of Jesus rather than the religion about Jesus."

  5. Looks at salvation as this worldly and social rather than eschatological.

  6. Views the Bible as a record of humanity's search for and experience of God, rather than a vehicle for the transcendent word of God.

Some of these approaches to Christianity may be fruitful. For example, the stress on justice for the oppressed must be recovered for our churches to be balanced.

A Liberal Approach to the Atonement


A great 5-week Bible study for the Lent or Easter season, Lamb of God, available as a paperback, e-book, and/or DVD for small group teaching and discussion.

Here is the route many Classic Protestant Liberals take with the doctrine of the Atonement. I'm over-simplifying a bit, but not very much:

  1. The New Testament is rich with explanations of Jesus' death on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins.

  2. The background of sacrifice is the Old Testament system of animal sacrifices to atone for sin.

  3. But animal sacrifice is a primitive concept found in most ancient religions to appease the wrath of an angry god. From a comparative religions standpoint, some scholars presume that animal sacrifices in Israel are no different.

  4. Such a view of a substitutionary atonement depicts a violent, angry, bloodthirsty god that seems antithetical to the God of whom Jesus speaks, who is loving and forgiving.

  5. Therefore, the Old Testament view of appeasing an angry God is unacceptable to Christians. Therefore, we reject it and any view of substitutionary atonement.

  6. Moreover, punishing one person for the sins of others offends our sense of fairness.

  7. Rather than think about Jesus' crucifixion as an event that changes God's relationship to us by atoning for sin (objective theory of the atonement), it is viewed an event that helps us see Jesus' love and commitment toward us that melts our hearts and changes us into loving people, too (subjective theory of the atonement).[2]

Many people with this view are sincere, moral people who are trying to deal with a discrepancy that they see in Scripture. They stress a progressive revelation with the New Testament at the apex and Love being the key to it all.

A Dishonest and Demeaning Caricature

However, the God revealed in the Old Testament is the same as the God that Jesus told us about. Consider the classic self-revelation of God to Moses:

"The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished...." (Exodus 34:6-7)

To describe the God of the Old Testament as an angry, bloodthirsty god is a demeaning caricature, a flimsy straw man, and reflects a dishonest handling of Scripture. Yes, the biblical God shows anger against sin -- both in the Old Testament and the New. So do moral people everywhere.

The Downside of Classic Liberalism

Classic Liberalism, for all its positive aspects, contains seeds that can seriously distort Christianity. In some of its forms, at least:

  1. Classic Protestant Liberalism can make human reason the authority rather than Biblical revelation. Where reason and the teaching of Scripture conflict, the Scripture tends to be rejected. When we give the human mind a greater authority than the Bible, we are no longer open to being corrected by any teaching we disagree with. This reduces what we can learn from God to what we can wrap our minds around -- and thus severely reduces the size of the God we can accept. How big is your God? As big as the God Jesus and the Apostles believed in?

  2. Classic Protestant Liberalism can render Bible interpretation dependent upon theological fads. Classic Protestant Liberals sometimes justify their position by scholarly questioning of the authority or authenticity of Bible passages they find theologically distasteful. But theological and biblical scholarship is notoriously faddish. Yesterday's theory is reduced within a decade or two to a footnote obituary in the Next Great Theology. Rather than rely on transient scholarly trends, wise Christians base their faith on the Scripture passages that speak clearly, and interpret the obscure passages in light of the clear ones,  

  3. Classic Protestant Liberalism can reduce preaching to parroting the wisdom of popular writers, parenting gurus, and pop-psychology, with the veneer of a scripture text as a jumping off place. Instead of seeking to understand what the Bible actually says and teaching that to the congregation, some preachers find it easier to provide their own wisdom and answers to life's questions.

  4. Classic Protestant Liberalism can produce congregations of biblically illiterate members who have acquired an immunity to any serious teaching from the Bible.

The Jesus Seminar Fallacy

Let me give you an example. As I have been working on the "Behold, the Lamb of God" Bible Study (www.jesuswalk.com/lamb) I spoke to a Classic Protestant Liberal professor who had taught New Testament at the college level. I asked, "The Words of Institution in Matthew, 'This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,' certainly sound like the language of sacrifice that Jesus uses as an explanation for his death. How do you understand it?'"

"Well," he responded kindly, "we don't really know if Jesus uttered those actual words." Then he went on to tell me about a non-violent theory of the atonement that doesn't rely on the idea of blood sacrifice.

The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth, by Ben Witherington III This approach reminds me of reductionism of the Jesus Seminar variety that questions 80% of Jesus' sayings as inauthentic. What some scholars don't like theologically, they can excuse as possibly inauthentic. Convenient. When you examine the sort of form and source critical scholarship that decisions of the Jesus Seminar were based on, you can see how seriously speculation and theory have undermined the authority of Jesus himself. (For more on this see Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Second Edition, InterVarsity Press, 1997), chapter 2.)

Revulsion at Animal Sacrifice

My dear friends, when we study about animal sacrifice in the Old Testament we ought to be revolted by the concept.

  • Not just because we are squeamish about slaughter since we are a generation or two removed from butchering animals on the farm -- something our forebears have done for hundreds of years.

  • Not because we are PETA adherents who believe that an animal has a soul every bit as valuable as a human's.[3]

But because animal sacrifice reveals how offensive and repugnant our sins are to a holy God. Animal sacrifice taught the Old Testament believers that they could not come into the presence of this holy God without their sins being cleansed. The people of the Old Testament were originally herdsmen and for them animals functioned as currency. Animal sacrifice taught them that the cost of atonement is very, very high. How astronomically high, they didn't have a clue!

A Plea for Reconsideration

This is my plea to pastors and teachers in denominations where Classic Protestant Liberalism has a strong hold. If you reject the concept of Jesus' death as a sacrifice for sin, that's your right as a free person, but I plead with you to maintain intellectual and moral integrity with the text of Scripture. You flock needs you to tell them what the Scripture actually teaches, not your theological reservations and doubts. Please don't, for the sake of keeping your job, nurture private redefinitions of biblical words so that you can pretend you believe the Bible. My dear friend, much is at stake here, for it is indisputable that:

  • The New Testament teaches Jesus' sacrifice for our sins as the Lamb of God. This is not just one theory of the atonement from which to pick and choose. The New Testament very obviously teaches this. I'll document this for several scripture texts in the Lamb of God Bible Study.

  • The Words of Institution in Matthew clearly state: "This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." This is the language of sacrifice. It is only fair to acknowledge that the Church, from the very earliest times down to our own, has commemorated in the Eucharist the sacrificial death of Jesus for our sins.

  • The very basic credo of the early church specifically affirms "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture" (1 Corinthians 15:3).

The concept of the substitutionary atonement is not some far right fundamentalist doctrine. It is at the core of a New Testament faith and has been taught by the respected Fathers and Reformers of the Church century after century.

I'm not trying to pretend that I understand all the nuances of a perfect theory of the atonement as presented in the Bible. I have some unanswered questions, some points I'd like clarified further. But I do know this. The New Testament clearly teaches some form of a substitutionary atonement.

Yes, you can reject a substitutionary atonement by Jesus. And there'll be many colleagues who'll support you. You won't be alone in your opinion. But I'm just naive enough to appeal to you to rethink your position in light of the New Testament's teaching.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles that has come down to us in Scripture is worthy of our belief and allegiance, even if we can't comprehend it fully. We can come again to the plain text of Scripture itself, uncolored by what unbelievers and skeptics of this age might say, and find afresh what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. Let us allow God speak to us through the Scriptures that we might be renewed in the spirit of our minds.


  1. As outlined in M. Eugene Boring, Disciples and the Bible (Chalice Press, 1997), pp. 215-216.
  2. The subjective theory of the atonement contains a profound truth, but is inadequate by itself to explain the teaching of the New Testament which requires some kind of a substitutionary atonement.
  3. PETA stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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