What the Early Christians Believed About the “Atonement”*

by Donald McKay

Notes on the church’s paradigm shift, from 3 messages on CD by David Bercot:

1] “What the Early Christians Believed About the Atonement”

2] “What the Early Christians Believed About Imputed Righteousness”

3] [answers to] “Questions About the Atonement”

In nearly all his talks, Bercot:

– summarizes the early [“Ante-Nicene”]+ Christians’ position given in their writings

– quotes them through those centuries to demonstrate their consistency

– quotes Scriptures to show their beliefs’ foundation to be the whole Bible, not proof-texts

– details when the church’s interpretation of Scripture changed, and why




                                                              St. Anselm’s “Satisfaction” Model,

Early Christians’ “Classic” Model           especially as modified by

                                                                         Protestant Reformers

                                                                into the “Penal” or “Legal” Model

(church universal–first 1100 years,           (majority of Western church–last 900

     especially first 300 years)                               years, especially last 500 years)

1] God always has and still does freely     1] God forgives sins only upon debt-

forgive sins upon true repentance; it        payment.

can be retracted, and is provisional.

2] Jesus ransomed us from the power     2] Jesus ransomed us from His angry

of death and of the devil.                                Father.

3] Jesus died as our heroic sacrifice.        3] Jesus died as a ritualistic,

appeasement sacrifice.

4] Jesus won the victory over Satan         4] Jesus’ death was a vicarious punish-

and released us by His resurrection.      ment; His resurrection is unrelated

to freeing us.

5] Jesus’ blood changes our heart:            5] Jesus’ blood changes God’s heart /

view of us:

– cleanses us from sin itself.                     – pays God’s exacted penalty for sins

– reconciles us to God.                                – reconciles God to us; it has

 no effective power in us,

 it only covers us.

– We are new creations in Christ.            – We are still in our sins,

 but now have a new legal standing

 before God.

6] Death is sin’s consequence;                   6] Death is sin’s penalty; incarnation was

Jesus is the 2nd Adam –                                 necessary because a descendant of

we’re related to Him by the new birth.    the 1st Adam had to die to pay it.

7] Knowledge of Jesus’ teachings and     7] Jesus was born and died;

life example (God’s ways) are                     nothing further is needed.

essential; they need to be followed           (Our obedience, our personal

or sin’s bondage returns.                                holiness & righteousness–even our

   repentance–all are optional).**

8] Righteousness is imputed to us         8] Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us

only if we abide in Him and obey          by legal transaction in the heavenly

Him, only if we “walk in the light.”       ledger when Christ died for us.

9] Jesus is our “propitiation” – that is,        9] Jesus is our “propitiation” – that is,

“rendered us favorable” to the Father,    has “appeased” the Father for us,

& enabled us to regain His goodwill.         placating His wrath over sin.

10] The OT sacrifices were a “tutor”    10] The OT sacrifices showed the need for

leading us to Christ:                                          shed blood to placate God’s wrath;

   they foreshadowed the coming

   Lamb of God whose blood alone

a] They pointed to the requirement of               could ultimately satisfy and pay

an innocent victim’s death in order           God’s just penalty.

to free us from bondage to Satan, sin,

& death, and to reconcile us to God.

b] They were a reminder of the need

to be cleansed from sin;

they pointed to the blood’s healing &

sanctifying power we were to receive.

Alternative Conclusions–Which is Scriptural?

IF Christ’s blood was a payoff to the Father, then it’s over.  The price is paid.  God will now look the other way when we sin because heaven’s ledger book has us credited as being righteous.

IF Christ’s blood was shed in death as He willingly sacrificed Himself to ransom us from the power of Satan and death, then we are no longer Satan’s slaves; we have been redeemed and are now by right our Redeemer’s slaves.


* The English word “atonement” has a new meaning from when it was first used to translate from the OT Hebrew and NT Greek.  It originally meant “at-one-ment,” that is, the making of two diverse entities “at one,” or “reconciliation,” as versions now translate it.

+ For the reasons why the speaker chose to limit his resources to this time-frame, see his book, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, Scroll Publishing.  CDs are available from http://www.earlychurch.com.

** my own deduction

4 responses to “What the Early Christians Believed About the “Atonement”*

  1. Paula

    Hello Ron,
    I am reading the papers you dropped off last summer.
    I am interested in them and would like to talk to you.
    Would you say that the seed of the martyrs is their suffering
    unjustly in love and forgiveness, while in a state of Christian grace at the hands of others as Christ did for each of us? And how does this
    connect with the premial atonement?

    • Paula,
      Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding! Yes, we must get together for a conversation. Tertullian famously declared, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” That would suggest that the same dynamic at work in the wrongful shedding of Christ’s blood is at work with martyrs for Christ. Rabbis before the time of Christ had developed whole theologies of “atonement” by the unjust sufferings of the martyrs. The Maccabean revolt (see the Apocrypha) furnished key examples for their consideration. But what Christ accomplished as the sinless Son of God went far beyond their theorizing. Even so, we can learn much from pondering their attempts. For one thing, none of them would have imagined that the Jewish martyrs under the wicked Antiochus Epiphanes, et al, were suffering the wrath of God to “pay” for their own sins of the sins of the nation. Unfortunately that wayward notion did enter Christian theorizing about the Atonement especially with Anselm. We have been burdened by that domineering idea ever since. The premial atonement has more kinship with the understanding of those Jewish martyrs than with Anselm, Luther, or Calvin! However, what the apostle Paul says in Colossians 1 about the fruit of his own afflictions is quite in line with the rest of the premial approach he and the other New Testament writers articulate. I Peter is an especially clear presentation of the premial approach, although theologians have missed many of the clues he gives there. Read it over for yourself with that in mind and see whether you would agree with me. Enjoy!

  2. This is an excellent summary. Is there any way to improve the way it appears in a browser? I’ve tried both Mozilla Firefox and Internet Explorer, neither of which renders the comparison chart very well. Thanks again for this great comparison of early church atonement vs. later views!

    • Please accept my apologies for this late reply, John. Thanks for your kind tribute to Donald McKay’s summary of David Bercot’s material. Alas, I have inexpertly tried to tweak the appearance several times, but I’m an amateur at this. I’ve been thinking of adding links for all the documents at the head of the site to make them available in standard form for printing off. That’s even more necessary for “charts” like my friend created. Until then, feel free to copy and paste it in Word format and tweak accordingly, if you know how. Success!

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